It’s been awhile since the last Le Chat Rouge book, and I thought I’d give you just a taste of what’s coming up soon!
The London Game, Chapter 1
The train glided smoothly away from the platform, sailing past graffiti-covered brickwork and out of Paris. If he didn’t think about it, Marc knew he could pretend it was just another business trip, but with Sera at his side, her fingers clutching his, her lips a thin line, and her eyes brimming with tears she didn’t want to admit to, it was impossible. He lifted her hand, pressing a kiss to the back, and she turned to look at him.
“Think of it as an adventure,” he said, his voice low. “Paris is only a train ride away.”
“I know.” Sera’s chin trembled. “It seems so final.”
“Are you regretting this? Us?”
“No, not us.” She managed a smile. “Never us.”
“It will be a new start.”
Sera tried hard to keep her smile, but he saw the edges crumple. He pushed up the armrest that separated their seats and gathered her under his arm. She tucked herself against him the way she always had done, before their earlier break, and though they were heading into something entirely new, he felt content. Her head rested on his shoulder, her dark hair spilling over his arm. He regretted when the attendant came by with their meals, a spiced chicken in couscous with vegetables, and she had to move away. He had wine with his meal, but she politely declined, pouring herself a glass of water.
When she looked away, the attendant, an older man with an almost fatherly air to his poise and careful uniform, passed over a second bottle to Marc, giving her a kindly glance.
“It might give her some joie de vivre,” he said in a low whisper. Marc set the bottle on his tray, hoping that would be so. “Merci.”
The man waved it off with a smile before continuing on to the next passengers. “De rien.”
Sera seemed not to notice the exchange; her gaze had gone to the window again and her food sat untouched, though her glass of water was empty. Marc broke the seal on the wine, unscrewing the lid. It was a Beaujolais, and he poured some into Sera’s glass, then the remainder into his own. She looked down at her tray, then over at him.
“You’ll feel better if you eat something, have a drink,” Marc said. Sera hadn’t eaten since last night and it was nearly two o’clock now. She’d done the same when they had traveled to Marseille to see her mother. “One glass, and some food.”
Sera relented, taking a minute sip of the wine. She held the glass carefully, though the train hardly swayed. She took another, longer sip, and Marc lifted his own glass.
“To new adventures,” he said. She nodded, solemnly, and drank again before setting down her glass. Marc watched her pick up her cutlery, picking at the couscous before tasting a small forkful. Then another. He took a long drink of his wine, almost draining the glass, before he tucked into his own meal. Beside him, Sera ate slowly but steadily, and when the attendant retraced his steps through the cabin, he smiled at Marc.
The attendant collected their trays last, sliding them into their spots in his trolley. Another attendant came behind him with a silver-coloured tray with sugar and a small carafe of milk. In her other hand she held a steel carafe.
“Un café, monsieur, madame?”
Marc gave her his cup and took a packet of sugar while she poured. He removed his full cup.
“Madame?” the attendant asked again. Sera glanced away from the window and set her cup on the attendant’s tray, lifting it when it was full and placing it back onto her own tray. She dressed her coffee with a generous dollop of milk and took a packet of sugar.
The attendant continued on her way and Sera dumped in the entire packet of sugar, slowly stirring her coffee. Marc put a bit of sugar in his own cup. Sera shifted on the seat until she was beside him once more.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“I want this to work,” she said, “but what if I’m not good enough?”
“Once they hear you sing, you’ll be in demand all over London,” he replied. “I’m the one who should be worried—you’ll be famous and put me aside.”
Sera looked up at him in surprise, but he winked at her and saw her realize he’d been teasing.
“Everything will be fine,” he reassured her. “It’ll be our new start.”
Once out in the terminal at St. Pancras with their luggage, Marc took her free hand and Sera let him lead her through the crowd. They emerged onto a side street lined with black cabs and joined the queue. A pair of women ahead of them gossiped and Sera gave up trying to follow their conversation. Her courage slipped, and she wondered again why she’d ever thought leaving France was a good idea.
Marc squeezed her hand and they moved forward to the next free cab. Sera ducked inside and sank back onto the seat.
“Where to, madam?” The cabbie leaned over as Marc lifted in their bags, giving her a friendly grin. She puzzled over what he’d said, trying to decipher the words through his accent. The cabbie tried again. “What is your destination, madam?”
Sera looked at him helplessly, but then Marc swung in and onto the seat next to her, closing the door.
“Claridge’s, please,” he said. The cabbie whistled.
“Yes, sir.” He pulled away from the curb and into the traffic crush of Euston Road.
“A hotel?” Sera asked. She’d known he’d made arrangements, but Claridge’s? How long was he planning for them to stay there?
“Just for a few days until we can look over some apartments,” Marc said. “Let me treat you. You’ll like it, I’m sure.”
Sera couldn’t argue, not when he put it like that. Marc liked his luxuries and she couldn’t deny him. But they couldn’t do this forever. Marc had passed the running of the firm over to his second-in-command, Guillaume Fournier, and his income would be reduced. They’d have to make their own way.
“Have you been to London before?” The cabbie glanced at them in the rearview mirror and Sera looked to Marc. He translated, but replied to the cabbie.
“Many times, but her first.”
Sera let her gaze wander out the window, ignoring the conversation that she couldn’t understand. Marc and the cabbie chatted amiably. Marc nudged her.
“He’s curious to know what you think of London.”
Sera shrugged. She hadn’t seen much of it, only the rail station and now this cab. “Tell him it’s nice so far,” she said finally. Marc said something to the cabbie, but she wasn’t entirely sure that he’d translated what she’d said.
“I elaborated,” Marc explained. “We’re almost there. You can shower, and rest, and then we’ll go for dinner.”
Sera quailed at the thought of having to order her meal in English, or trying to make small talk with the wait staff, but she put on a brave face.
The cab slowed, pulling up in front of an elegant old hotel. Sera peered out the window at its beautiful front doors, at the bevy of uniformed doormen. One stepped forward to meet the cab, opening the door. She took the proffered hand and the doorman helped her out. Marc paid the driver, then followed.
“Monsieur Perron.” A man who appeared to be the head doorman strode over. “Welcome back to Claridge’s.” His French was flawless. He and Marc shook hands while the second doorman handled their luggage. The man turned to her.
“And Madame Durand, it is a pleasure to meet you. I wish you a very pleasant stay at our hotel.”
“Merci beaucoup.” Sera’s nerves quieted. They knew Marc, knew she spoke French—her shoulders relaxed.
“Edwards will assist you to your usual suite,” the doorman said to Marc as he led them inside, tipping his hat. Sera hardly noticed. Light gleamed off the polished columns in the lobby, gave the ceiling a pleasant glow, and made the buffed marble floors shine.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Marc rested his hand on the small of her back and ushered her towards the desk.
“It’s as lovely as the George V,” Sera replied. She noticed a uniformed butler, his waistcoat and shirt carefully starched, waiting off to one side. A young porter waited beside him with their luggage.
“It’s good to see you again, Mr. Perron.” A cheerful young woman greeted Marc at the desk, again in flawless French.
“Sera, may I present Ruby. Ruby, this is Sera Durand.”
“Enchantée, madame.” Ruby flashed Sera a brilliant smile. She passed over the key to Marc. “Enjoy your stay.”
The butler stepped forward. “It’s good to see you again, sir. It’s been awhile since the last time.”
“Business kept me elsewhere,” Marc said easily, in English. He introduced her, switching effortlessly between languages.
“How do you do, madam.” Edwards gave her a kindly smile and a short bow. Sera felt at ease with him immediately, even though he didn’t seem to speak French. He had laugh lines around his eyes and his smile had been genuine. He led them towards the elevator, speaking to Marc all the while. She tuned him out, too busy looking at the hotel as they passed.
Once in the suite, she still found herself gaping. It was cosy and beautifully appointed, and she felt at home in a matter of moments. She knew she’d miss this place once they left.
“Do you want anything to eat?” Marc asked her. Edwards looked expectant and she realized he was waiting for her answer.
“Un thé?” She addressed Edwards, who nodded, and Marc added a request of his own. Edwards withdrew.
“You always stay here?” she asked, moving from Marc’s side. She crossed the small sitting area and leaned against an Art Deco-styled desk in pale wood, looking down into the street.
“Always,” he said, coming up behind her. He lifted her hair off the back of her neck and bent to kiss her nape. She shivered. “And I’ve always wanted to bring you here.” He lowered her voice. “And if Edwards wasn’t coming back in a few minutes, I’d show you just how comfortable the bed is.”
Sera turned in his embrace. “As soon as he’s gone, show me,” she said.
“You needn’t even ask.”
Sera lifted her face towards him and he kissed her hard, just as she liked it. The desire rose in her and she clung to his lapels, her knees weak. She responded ardently to his kiss and they broke apart at a knock on the door.
“Enter!” Marc released her and she steadied herself against the desk, smoothing her hand over her hair, hoping she didn’t look frazzled.
Edwards entered with a cart and he left it in the entryway, lifting a tray with a full tea service. He placed it on the coffee table. She gave him a grateful smile and sat down in the comfy armchair. Edwards returned to the cart and carried a tray with a covered plate and a basket with a folded napkin that she supposed must be bread. He set it on the desk and returned to the cart for the rest of the items. She could hardly believe that he’d managed so much in so little time.
“You’re a miracle worker, Edwards,” Marc said, translating his statement in an aside to Sera.
“At your service. Would you like your bags unpacked, Mr. Perron?”
Marc declined and he followed Edwards out. Sera leaned forward, reaching for the teapot. She poured herself a cup and added sugar and a splash of cream. She lifted the cup and sat back in the chair, letting out a sigh. She was here, in London. For real, no turning back.
Marc came back into the room. “Are you sure you’re not hungry? There’s enough for two, knowing Edwards.” He went to the desk and lifted the silver cover from the plate. Steam rose from roast beef, mashed potatoes, and vegetables. Marc unfolded the napkin and Sera caught the scent of fresh bread. Her stomach growled.
“Maybe I am a bit hungry,” she conceded, taking a sip of her tea. She rose from her chair and came over to the desk. Marc pulled her down onto his lap.
“Eat with me,” he said. She leaned back against him and placed her teacup beside his plate.
“Are you sure it’s food you want?” she asked, taking a bun from the basket, tearing it in two. She picked up the knife and dipped it into the pot of whipped butter, spreading a generous amount on the bread.
“Food, and you.”
“Food first.” The half a bun disappeared quickly and she buttered the next. Marc reached around her for his fork and took the knife from her hand. She shifted to the arm of the chair as he cut into the roast beef.
Marc ate quickly, feeding her bites in between. When the plate was clear, he sat back in the chair, satiated. Sera rose.
“I need a shower,” she said, glancing at him over her shoulder.
“I’ll join you in a moment,” Marc said. She saw him take his phone from his pocket as she turned the corner and headed into the bathroom.
It was more than she’d imagined. The chrome fixtures gleamed, the light glistening on the dark tiles, on the strip of black bisecting the light teal-coloured wainscoting, the white old-fashioned sinks pristine. She stripped off her clothes, leaving them in a pile on the floor and turned on the taps of the bathtub. The edge of the tub was high and she nearly tripped over it, steadying herself on the glass half-screen as she entered. When the water hit her, she closed her eyes and let it stream over her, warming her tired body.
She stood in the shower for a long time, listening to the patter of water on the tub, splattering on the screen.
“Are you trying to use up all the water in the Thames?”
Her eyes snapped open. Marc leaned against one of the sinks, giving her an amused half-smile. Steam misted the air and covered the mirrors. She pushed her hair back and stepped forward.
“Coming in?” she asked. He took a towel from the rack and held it out for her.
“Not yet—you’re too lovely to stay there—I have a bed to show you.”
Sera turned off the water and left the tub, letting Marc wrap her in the towel. He was gentle, almost too gentle, and she wondered at it.
“I won’t break,” she said. She dried her face on a corner of the towel.
“I know.” Marc’s voice was uncharacteristically gruff and she glanced up in surprise. His gaze was troubled, his dark blue eyes intent on her. She cupped his cheek, making sure he paid attention to her next words.
“I’ll make you a wager,” she said. His stance changed subtly, and she stifled her smile, knowing she’d provoked a reaction. “No more treating me like spun glass.”
“And what will be the forfeit?” Marc wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her close, his free hand sliding through the folds of her towel and over her bare skin.
“If you lose, you can sleep on the sofa,” Sera replied.
“But if I win?”
Sera dropped the towel and it puddled at her feet.