Our (Very Own) Travel Novella
TO MEET IN QUEBEC
by Alys Bohn
How long had it been, Janna wondered, since she had believed in Mr. Perfect? How long since she had caught his eye across that magical crowded room? This time it was across a cobbled courtyard in the beguiling French-Canadian city of Quebec. There he was--tall, confident, handsome, sexy. And, without a word being spoken, she knew he was waiting for her. Gazes locked, lips moistened, shoulders back, she headed straight for him...
"You're stuck on a broken-down train while they replace the whole bloody engine? We need you in Quebec, not waiting in--where the #%%*#!--Schenectady!" roared the voice in Janna's cellphone. "How can we put valuable clients on a train to Canada if there's not even a decent engine? Tell me that. Three hours late now, still immigration to clear, and it could happen again. We'll have to fly our group north. There goes your yearly bonus, Ms big-idea girl. And you better be on that Friday morning tour in Quebec, like we arranged--get there on a broomstick if you have to."
"Yes, Mr. Merlino..., of course, Mr. Merlino, I think my battery's going out. I'll call you--goodbye Mr. Mer...." Janna didn't look at the other weary passengers. She'd discovered the phone was on speaker, and her boss' booming voice probably reached everyone around her. Few would care, though; the delay was giving everyone on the train problems of their own. The scenic Adirondack route had been gorgeous, north from New York along the historic Hudson River, Lake George and breathtaking Lake Champlain. But the normally 9- or 10-hour trip could now be 14 or even 15.
As for her bonus, she had been with Sights and Sites Meeting Planners Extraordinaire, a.k.a. SSMPE, for three Christmases already. She knew that, however well the meeting she was now scouting went, the bonus would still be a microscopic check and a coupon for dinner for two at Luigi's Pizza.
Dinner for two. Very funny. That first year on the job she was basically a file clerk, with a brand new divorce after six jolting years married to her "oh, you can't mean Jack; he's so much fun, so exciting, so handsome" husband. The breakup was her fault, of course. He had proclaimed it so charmingly that her own family, friends, even potential employers in their city pretty much believed it. Never mind the truth: Jack was fun, but enjoyed the horizontal kind too much not to share his considerable skills far beyond his too-nice, too-plain, too-faithful and soon--he made clear after her 30th birthday (for which he barely showed)--too-old wife.
And some of the story was too loaded to touch, even now. "I was the famous 'last to know,'" she explained--when absolutely necessary. "He went too far, and I was too stupid."With a 6-year hole in her resume ("I need a 24/7 wife, babe"), no children (ditto) and almost no allies, she had job-hunted for more than a year, at last landing a bottom-rung spot 1,000 miles from what had been home. That Christmas, she invited her landlady to Luigi's. By the second year, her colleague Anne-Marie shared the large pizza. By the third bonus, Anne-Marie had moved back to Montreal and Janna's newer office friends gathered for two extra-large "everythings." But they had begun prodding, even demanding: "You're pretty, simpatico, curvy, but you hide it. Go shopping for hunting gear--like you know, hot tops and short dresses--and find a guy you can trust again. They're out there."
"Been there, done that," she replied. "That's all behind me." She did trust her work, though, and at last had just acquired a new title to prove it: "assistant meeting sites manager." No praise and very little status came with it, but a small raise did. It would allow a much needed trip to the Gap or wherever for separates that fit her hour-glassy figure. And whether she cared about dating or not, with her new responsibilities she'd need to upgrade her loose black-and-beige drawstring pants and tunics wardrobe.
No time for shopping now, though--a memo and file had appeared on her desk-top just last week. A Canada-bound group had quarreled with their planning company and were switching to Sites and Sights. They had chosen Quebec, not the province but the city which was celebrating this year's anniversary of its 1608 founding. But the first company had antagonized the group--a local restaurant association--or maybe just its leaders, so badly they paid a fee and changed dates to next year. True, Quebec's restaurants might be able to give the members more attention then. But how would the 401st year stack up after the town's 400th birthday bash?
Plus, some potential profits had gone to the first company. More could disappear as prices rose everywhere. So Sites and Sights decided to cut its costs: appoint Janna, the lowest-paid assistant manager by far.
"We have notes on the whole history, so she can work by web and phone from here," her boss began when the subject came up at the staff meeting she was now entitled to join. Blank faces around the table nodded or froze. But didn't "entitled" mean more than silently accepting orders you didn't agree with?
"Well," ventured Janna, emboldened with her new promotion, however modest. "I'd suggest a bolder strategy. This year will be a very tough act to follow."
The faces looked up from their notes. Or their fingernails. Or her friend Ashley's short skirt. "Quebec may be North America's oldest continuing city, with everyone coming to its birthday this year," she began. "Our group was going to have festivals, fireworks, food and wine and cakes with 400 candles. But now they've changed years we'll have to sell them on different things, like visiting another country while avoiding the jetlag and expensive Euro. We should try to make the meeting bigger, investigate what's there once the big party's over."
"Are you suggesting traveling north--with our tight budget?" asked Mr. Merlino, whose own budget was rarely tight.
"Wait," hisboss intervened. "Why not? Get a cheap Amtrak ticket--say, Thursday. See what you can find out--rooms; attractions; check out the train--coach, of course; restaurants; whatever. Put res onto Janna's trip, Merlino. She can be back at her desk Monday morning."
"Right, no husband or kids to plan for," gloated Mr. M, agreeing instantly. Both of them, actually, acted as if she wasn't even there.
And soon enough, she wasn't. Instead, she was arriving five hours late, nearly midnight in Montreal. This train ride was too unpredictable for the restaurateurs' group. They'd have to book flights or, if that was too expensive, hard-driving buses. But on the bright side, this was her first on-site assignment. And here she was in a foreign country--also her first since one long ago and best forgotten.
With no train to Quebec until morning, reservations had booked her a comfortable room in the classic Hotel Queen Elizabeth perched atop the underground rail station. A soak in the big tub and five hours' sleep later, she was in a roomy solo seat, entering notes on the morning's VIA Rail train to Quebec. With her shapeless travel clothes, clean but untamed hair and face almost bare of makeup, she felt strange in the first-class car in which she was surprised to find herself. But a good breakfast was courteously served seat-side, the ride was fast and smooth--and soon she was saying "Chateau Frontenac" to a taxi driver.
Morning in Quebec City. At the very first sniff of northern air and glimpse of a colorful crowd in a busy tourist-packed square, a surprisingly foreign feel surrounded her. Fun was in the air; she could almost touch it. Reminding herself she was not on vacation, though, she scanned the scene for her tour guide. There he was, carrying the distinctive green flag she had been told of. Late and apologetic, Janna caught up with him and the mostly-jeans-clad members of his "Best of Quebec-Full Day-Walk and Ride" tour.
And right before her was an amazing sight. How long had it been, she wondered, since she had believed in Mr. Perfect? How long since she caught his eye across a crowded room, or in this case an Old Quebec courtyard, and knew without a word being spoken that he was waiting for her? Almost 10 years, she thought wryly. And with eyes that--though smart sunglasses disguised them--she knew were only for her. Gazes locked, lips moistened, head held high and shoulders-back, she headed straight for him.
"And last time," she muttered almost out loud as she approached, "I had the hopelessly bad luck to marry the guy."
Like numero uno, this heart-stopper was tall, confident, cool and sexy. After nine years on a rollercoaster--first as infatuated Miss, then happy-transiting-to-miserable Mrs., and now far wiser Ms.--she should know. She avoided this new Mr. P. vision like anthrax as she navigated the cobbled pedestrian square, swept past and zoomed on the green pennant-carrying guide. Uh-oh, he radiated badly-disguised hostility.
"You must be--Jean-Jacques?" said Janna hopefully, remembering the notes on her itinerary. "Thank you for stopping back at Place-um--D'Armes so I could join your tour. Sorry--and I'm going to shut my mouth this minute so you can continue..."
Silence--from him and the rest of group too. Even Mr. Perfect had abandoned his eye contact. She really couldn't blame them. They probably had retraced their route back to Start to pick up an unfashionable, hour-late 30-something. It had to be a drag. The guide barely grunted as he handed her an identifying baseball cap like those he and everyone in the group wore.
"It was no big deal, we did a church and double cathedrals--Notre Dame for the Catholics and Holy Trinity for the Anglicans," spoke up a mild male voice from Mr. P's left. Turning toward it gratefully, Janna saw eyes--crinkled at the corners and so dark the color was almost indiscernible--shielded by the green cap. It topped a nice, firm-jawed but no-way handsome face right next to--though maybe six inches below---Mr. P's younger, flawless one.
"Thanks," she mouthed to the reassuringly ordinary man. O-man, she dubbed him. Faithful to his nice, nothing-extraordinary wife and ordinary 2.3 children. No late nights at work and sudden out of town weekends for him. No expensive affairs abroad, with airport chocolates as a Monday peace offering for her. They were never even dark chocolate but the pale milk kind, which she had never liked and he obviously had never noticed. "And," she heard herself for the 50th time lamenting, "like a stupid fool, I ate them all."
"Janna," she snapped, "your voice sounds just like your mother's. You must be falling asleep on your feet." Jerking back to attention, she turned with everyone else to the guide Jean-Jacques.
They were still in the cobbled square before the castle-style hotel, officially Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, pictured in almost every tourist photo of Quebec. She was excited that res had booked a room for her here, where royalty and celebrities had stayed since King George VI and Ronald Reagan. Probably before that, too. Now she, plain Janna James was joining the list, though for now she had barely had time to dump her bags with the bell captain in the lobby.
The chateaux's handsome assortment of copper-roofed towers was a storybook backdrop for the cobbled square and the clusters of enthusiastic tourists--a few of them in improbably quaint horse-drawn carriages. Caught up in the scene, Janna surrendered to the city's charm within two minutes flat.
To her surprise, Mr. P walked alongside, her with O-man at his other side. They seemed
to be traveling together, an unlikely pair though not, she could easily tell, a couple. But why on earth was the hot one hitting on her? Maybe he liked to give plain girls an unaccustomed thrill. But though he was, well, perfect, she felt not a tremor or murmur or flick.. And hadn't for--how many years now?
Circling the turreted landmark, the group paused at a fabulous overlook. Everyone exclaimed at the sweeping view of the river below.
"Almost 400 years ago, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed up the wide St. Lawrence river and founded a fur trading settlement that grew into Quebec, the first--as we define it--permanent city in North America," the guide was intoning. His voice was fading; had she missed something?
"Stay awake," stage-whispered Mr. P. "I hope you enjoyed oversleeping?"
"Not!" She attracted some stares with her loud retort. Still, after her endless train ride and restless night, Janna was fighting fatigue. If they had Starbucks in Canada, where was one now! She hadn't seen a Tim Hortons yet, either, though Canadians she knew called it their favorite caffeine stop. She was glad the tour was on foot at the moment. A comfortable bus seat would have seen her asleep within seconds.
"Hey, they fly the American flag here, too," observed O-man from his friend's, or maybe co-worker's--side as they moved along the boardwalk.
"This is Dufferrin Terrace and that's the U.S. Consulate flying your flag," said the guide. "If you Americans have a problem with your passport or want to start a business here, or whatever, you'll find help there. But, back to Champlain's arrival, he had discovered one of the best and deepest harbors on the new continent--right below us. The word spread; settlers followed the explorers, building houses with wood from the thick, surrounding forests.
And the ships came, some from England, some from France and beyond. They brought goods to trade for the region's rich furs and timber. If they lacked enough goods to fill their holds on the westbound journey, they loaded bricks from Scotland on board as ballast to keep the ships steady. That worked, and also--unfortunately--proved smart. Can you guess why?"
Jean-Jacques zoomed on Janna like a teacher who knew she hadn't done her homework. He was right, she hadn't a clue. Only Mr. P. spoke up. "Fire."
"Bravo," said the guide. "You are...? Ah, Brent. Well, as Brent has figured out, the town gradually became a thriving city filled with wooden shops and houses--too close together. If one burned down from the wood fires that kept them warm, the survivors and their neighbors simply rebuilt. But after a huge fire destroyed most of the city, the bricks were used along with stone to build the solid houses--some of which we still see."
Mr. P. had been so obviously chatting her up as they walked along the guided route that she saw others in the group noticing. He had long since attracted impressed glances from all the surrounding women; now she was drawing curious ones. People must be wondering, why her?
Why indeed? She still had the thick, latte-colored hair and wide, hazel-green eyes that could make her more than pretty. But her solid, top-heavy body, barely medium height and casual attitude toward fashion had banned her from "in" status. Now the stress of the Jack years and money-crunched divorce period had added pounds and zapped the glow she had radiated. Subtract makeup and add beige drawstring pants with a chunky black top.
So why was Mr. P in hit-mode--so intent that his friend had moved off to the opposite side of the listening group? Diverted by the need to absorb Jean-Jacques' running commentary on their surroundings, and amused by Brent's apparent belief that--poor, plain girl--she was thrilled by his attentions, she let him run on. And on.
He seemed content with her automatic smile at appropriate--she guessed--pauses in his chatter. But soon she was so diverted by their surroundings that she ignored whatever he was saying. They were now arriving at National Battlefields Park, so-named 100 years ago but more famous far and near for its Plains of Abraham.
"The park is named for Champlain's friend and the French king's boat pilot, Abraham Martin, who used to graze his cows here," announced Jean-Jacques. "We will learn of the events, great and small, for which it is famous--including the soldiers' barracks, Martello Towers, gardens and of course the site of the great, decisive battle."
As they moved toward the multimedia show that would dramatize with hi-tech flair the British-French duel for the identity of Canada and its future, Janna noticed Brent take a look around, then step up the pace of his long-legged stride and deliberately move in on a California-gold-tressed Gossip Girls duo.
"He looked too closely at me," she told herself. "Lucky I don't mind." She was well vaccinated against any signals the likes of Brent could be sending out. Why had he even bothered to linger? Assessing herself with his practiced eyes, she could see a kind of defeated look. Her so-ex husband had loved to comment on it as their relationship sputtered and eventually died. Certainly this morning's 30-second stab at makeup disguised her face very little. And after two days plus a night in the same clothes, her body echoed the message "I don't care."
And she didn't. She was even feeling more than a tad satisfied. She was here in Canada, had work to do, the day was turning beautiful, and O-man had dropped back to talk with her. Volunteering his name as Rob, he seemed almost to apologize for Mr. P's abrupt switch. And he commented--not easily, Janna could tell--about travel and trivia as they waited for the history presentation to begin.
"Brent--we work closely together on several projects--likes lots of, well, new people around him," he said reassuringly at one point. "He's getting together a crowd to check out Quebec's nightlife tonight--I know he'll want you to come."
Does he think I like Mr. P--or even less likely, that Mr. P likes me," Janna wondered? O-man--Rob, she corrected herself, was much nicer, but clearly didn't know it. Maybe his lack of height sabotaged his confidence. He was just about as tall as she was in her faithful flats. If she were wearing stilettos--that was a laugh--he'd be looking straight across at the V-neck under her now unbuttoned jacket. For the first time in, how long, she was actually feeling, what? "Don't go there," she chided herself. "He's sorry for you, and so are you! And remember, you're here to work."
Besides he had that nice wife. Or did he? Unable to resist, she flicked her eyes to his ring finger and saw neither a wedding band nor a telltale pale circle. His hands were well shaped, with long firm-looking fingers suggesting.... "Cool it," she spat at herself. "What kind of a trip are you imagining!"
Still, when Rob surprised her by asking the classic "are you here on your own" question, she in turn surprised herself. She didn't put him off as she had been doing with the whole male species since the Big Split. "Yes," she volunteered instead. "I'm working--it's a long story."
"I like stories; I'll buy you lunch," he said. She grinned; even now, as the slightly weary group approached the battle scene, the guide again reminded them that "lunch is included."
"Here we are at the Plains of Abraham," announced Jean-Jacques, "where the dramatic, decisive battle that determined so much of the history of Canada was fought." The story really came alive as they stood, fascinated, high above the flowing St. Lawrence. By the time it was finished, Janna felt she had personally been through the momentous 1759 battle--the tensely waiting defenders, the skilled British troops silently scaling the cliffs, the confusion of sound and smoke, the poignancy of the fallen generals, Montcalm for the French and Wolfe for the English. The first had been killed in the fierce combat, the other suffered a fatal wound and died three days later. So long ago, but there on the spot it seemed like barely yesterday.
And today? "Well, the British won," said O-man quietly. "Yes," said Janna. "And from what I can tell, the city is wall-to-wall French."
Falling--In or Out
No one was sorry to see a wide-windowed bus waiting for the next part of the tour. "Afterwards we have a rare treat," Jean-Jacques announced at the door. "Just lean back in your seats, note the charming English Garden as we depart the park, then enjoy the incomparable St. Lawrence River out your window as we roll along the highway."
"Yo, Rob," called Brent as they boarded. "Dolores here is saving you a seat across from me and her gorgeous daughter Judi." "I'm with Ja--," Rob started to protest, but three loud voices drowned him out. Anyway, there were no rows left with two vacant seats. So Janna climbed over a lanky teen too clueless to move even his knees, scrunched into the window seat and began planning her group's visit to the park. Too bad, she had discovered, they had missed a tour led by a costumed Abraham himself, complete with cow. Maybe she could arrange a special version of it once enough participants signed up.
The wide river alongside the highway was lovely, busy with boat traffic undreamed of by Sam Champlain. Though she let her eyes close for only a minute, despite the loud rap sounding from the teen's leaky headphones the bus was already pulling into a parking lot and the guide was speaking loudly.
"We have arrived at Montmorency Falls, one of the prime natural beauty spots of Eastern Canada. First can visit the restrooms, take photos--maybe go up to the bridge. Then we have been invited to lunch in the waterfall-view manor house where meals are served to groups."
"Hey, Janna." Climbing down from the bus, she saw Rob a few feet ahead. She felt a strange sensation--unrecognizable, really, as his intent forest-dark eyes met her thick-lashed hazel ones. It must be her over-active imagination. His companions--the so-perfect Brent, golden-haired Judi and her lookalike mother, had cameras out and looked ready to head for the waterfall. Rob, though, was coming back for her.
"Are you up for that path up to the falls?"He asked as if he almost expected a "no." She saw that he had shed his jacket as they prepared to climb, and looked lean and fit despite a big, unfashionable shirt. With a voice so inviting, eyes that nice, and a body that--though short of stature--was very well put together, why would he be expecting rejection? Or was it she who was sending the hands-off signals? Certainly her friends had warned her about that.
Whatever. Throwing caution to the improbably blustery wind, she moved up the slope that separated them. "I'm up for it," she said with a shy smile. "Let's see where it leads."
Montmorency Falls. Sam Champlain had named them for the Duke de Montmorency, viceroy of New France in 1620. So said the guidebook she had read on the train. Almost 100 feet taller than Niagara Falls, though a lot narrower, the cascade dropped dramatically over a rocky cliff into the St. Lawrence far below. On specific evenings, she had discovered, the scene was lit by fireworks.
They easily reached the bridge Jean-Jacques had mentioned. Janna had only a cheap cellphone camera for snapping the likes of hotel room layouts, but Rob aimed an impressive digital SLR with what looked like expertise. So did Brent and his companions, who joined them on the bridge.
"Get together and say cheese, you two," said Judi, happy now that everyone had shot her perfect body numerous times from every angle. "No one wants a wild-woman," protested Janna, whose hat had blown away as they started up. "Wild and wide," she almost added but managed not to.
"Don't be so sure," said Rob, closing in and turning her around toward Judi. "Your boss might want proof you were here."
"Then what about yours?" I don't really know anything about him, thought Janna--except that his hands felt good on her shoulders.
"He wonders about me sometimes. But maybe this picture can help."
"I don't even know where you live."
"Chicago, the windy city. I can wear a hat year-round--that's why I live there."
"I think high, intelligent foreheads are...um,' began Janna. To call him sexy, as she had almost done, was way too-much-too-soon.
"Um, we'd better head back--fast, if we want lunch."
"Good enough--for now. Have you seen Niagara Falls?" asked Rob as they descended. "Honeymoon, maybe?"
Even he looked surprised at his own bold question. No matter, thought Janna, who had mainly revealed her marital history only to application forms. I'd better get it over with. "Honeymoon yes, Niagara never," she said.
"You said it was a long story," he said quietly.
"Did I? Well, my ex-husband--very ex--picked Brazil, where he disappeared for hours on Rio de Janeiro's biggest beach dotted with the littlest thongs in the city. That was after the first day, when he forgot the sunscreen. He said. I got so sunburned I had to stay in the shade--alone--at the hotel the rest of the week. But I did see Niagara-the-movie, with Marilyn Monroe on the room TV."
"Bad start for a marriage," said Rob sympathetically. "Though medium-good Marilyn. How long did it take before--I gather--the breakup?
"Six years. I couldn't read all the signals, though they were flying thick and fast. Guess I had the princess bug bad, after growing up with Cinderella as a favorite story. But," continued Janna as he looked at her quizzically, "It's been three years since he drove off with my successor. And I--declare myself so over him...."
Astonishingly, she had told Rob more than anyone. She had just told herself, in fact, what she hadn't been sure of before. But she still knew almost nothing about him. Even, bare ring finger notwithstanding, was he really single?
There was no chance to find out now, though; here they were at the front door of the building. Tourists were on the deck, buying snacks at a stand or digging out their own from knapsacks. But Jean-Jacques was conducting their group inside for lunch, stopping first at a coat rack. When Rob took off his hat as well, his eyes almost dared her to react. The hair beneath was brown and nice but visibly thinning. In a few years he might have little or none. Self image--another clue to his hesitant approach?
Well, he hadn't met her before--a veteran escapee from Jack-be-nimble, the handsomest male with the thickest hair and address entries in town. Quickly swiping a wide-toothed comb through her own wind-blown waves, she looked straight across at his unreadable eyes. "So, shall we go and find your friends for lunch," she said, deliberately handing him her jacket to hang up.
For an answer, he did, then took her hand and they crossed the wide, low-ceilinged room to their chairs. His hand was nice-guy warm and solid. But to her surprise the signal that passed through it to hers and then farther, deeper, was not so nice-girl. It had been a long time, and she was far from home--wherever that was anymore.
Maybe it's time, she told herself. At least, time to turn the tables and ask about him. Or--maybe not: this is your first big assignment and you're already behind with your note taking. Just stick to your job!
Janna dropped Rob's hand abruptly; they were at the table anyway. Brent had, of course, surrounded himself with admirers--vivacious 20-something twins from Florida besides California-gold Judi and Dolores. Janna found herself between Isabel, a savvy manager at the museum on their afternoon schedule, on one side and Rob on the other. They weren't even talking, but the distracting vibes she was feeling from him were hard to ignore. No, she wasn't on vacation, said her brain. But after several years of playing dead, her body might be vacationing from nice.
Luckily, probably, loud nonstop conversation was absorbing everyone at his side of the table. So Janna could ask the smiling, appealingly dressed Isabel a million questions. "It's not just for me," she confided, handing over her new business card. "I need top choices for a group of restaurateurs meeting here next year, which of course will be after your birthday events. So, what might their families or other guests do while the members are attending business meetings."
"Plenty, starting with these falls right outside the window--a must-see," said Isabel. "And
for lunch here, several good caterers would, especially for a restaurant group, go way beyond this standard chicken. We'll put the word out and there'll be a competition."
"Sounds good. And shoppers--what about the town's fashion scene?"
"We've got Canadian and international names like Holt Renfrew, Old Navy and Hugo Boss, but many more local one-of-a-kind boutiques. Plus Quebec has talented immigrants from everywhere now. Their designer outlets come and go--I like Autrefois Saigon, an atelier-boutique with a French-Asian flavor."
"Is that silk-screened top from there?" asked Janna, who was admiring the friendly Canadienne's subtle style. Of course, judging from the impressive emerald-cut diamond on the other girl's ring finger, it was far from her own price range.
"No, but it's from a few doors down Avenue Rene-Levesque," said Isabel. "There's a good mix in Quebec's neighborhoods--worth exploring. And then a stop for coffee or chocolate is necessary--like our tiny Musee du Chocolat for handmade chocolates you can't pass up."
"What should we say about the weak U.S. dollar?" Janna wanted to know.
"Say it's holding OK in Canada--nothing like vis-Ã -vis the Euro. Advise buying good, made-in- or at least designed-in-Canada boots, winter wools, authentic handicrafts or maybe fun fakes. And forget many imports, like books that are cheaper back home. Of course 400th-anniversary T-shirts and caps make good souvenirs now--maybe they'll even be collectibles next year. And oh yes, wait till the stores close; then go window shopping. That's 100% free."
"And what's your favorite?"
"That's easy," said Isabel. "Museum shops. They're wonderful, especially from the best museum of all--ours!" Musee de la Civilisation, read the card she pulled out and handed over. "We have the best shop; you'll see. We're your main afternoon stop. After we finish this cardboard cake--I didn't say that--we're heading back to it. I'm driving my supervisor, otherwise I'd take you."
"I totally understand," laughed Janna when they got to the parking lot. Her new acquaintance introduced her attractive gray-haired boss Michelle before the two squeezed into a black and silver BMW convertible. The so-cool, just-for-two car was instantly recognizable; her last glimpse of her ex, Jack-be-nimble, had been from the back seat of her airport shuttle van. He was driving his stunning incoming girlfriend in an identical two-seater past his stunned outgoing wife.
Wow! The recollection really didn't bother her--well, not in the same devastating way. "Maybe I'm free--almost, at least," she thought, boarding the bus. Not spotting Rob, though, she settled down with her notes next to the headphone-topped teen. This time around he actually grunted at her. Lunch had been fun and when it came to information she had lucked out. With or without a meal or fireworks, she noted, Montmorency Falls would be worth the trip.
Never Too Late?
They were running so late that they skipped one stop, heading straight for the Musee de la Civilisation. "It wins awards every year, and has gone all out with special new exhibits," Jean-Jacques announced. "You'll feel it would be worth all afternoon. And look at its location--just steps from two other museums, the Lower Town, a ferry across the St. Lawrence and new access to a renovated waterfront."
Especially with Isabel leading a smaller group for a personal tour around the museum, Janna could have used more than the time they had. And when, later, Rob slid into the empty seat beside her at the presentation about "the challenges of urban life in the future" (which she promptly ignored) she'd have voted to stay all day.
And all night? As he whispered into her ear, so closely that his breath sent its delicate folds into shock, who cared about urban challenges? Was his lip deliberately tickling just inside? That couldn't be his tongue touching the lobe and shooting sensations downward, could it? It was all over in seconds. Never mind spending the day there. If a mere whisper could wreck such havoc--and well beyond her ear--after feeling nothing for so long, all night would be too short.
He had only whispered that he was delayed after lunch by a long phone call. That reminded her, though, that some questions needed answers--and soon. Was the call about work, and what work? Was it from a girlfriend? Children? Or nothing much? Maybe her friends were right: She had let her looks--face, body, the works--go downhill for too long. Probably she had read much more into his interest than he intended. Nonetheless he was interested. Or a very, very good actor.
Anyway, did it matter to two passing ships in the charismatic Quebec night? She could feel--in long-ignored places and no mistake--years' worth of iced feelings beginning to thaw in the palpably warming climate between them. And what if his interest was merely in getting lucky? Suddenly, she could imagine a time, far in the future of course, when she too might want exactly that.
Jean-Jacques said his goodbyes and collected his tips when the formal tour broke up. "Merci, au revoir to all," he said. "I hope while you're still in our beautiful city you'll sign up for one of our Quebec by Night tours. We know the haunts that you might hunt all night for and never find." Maybe she just would, thought Janna--but tonight she'd need sleep.
Though the museum officially closed at 5, its staff wouldn't let the group leave without seeing this year's dazzling "Gold of the Americas" exhibition. As a bonus they were also shown the museum shop. It was small but fascinating because of its merchandise, and frustrating because it was closed to purchases. "In a way that's nice though," lamented Janna to Isabel, peering down at a subtle gold repro pendant. "I couldn't buy this anyway, but now no one else can either."
Outside in the oncoming night everyone paused to see the multimedia presentation of cascading water, enchanting illuminations and other creations with which the designer Dragone had enhanced the museum's amazing roof and limestone exterior. No one wanted to leave, but now appetites were surfacing among the lingering tour members.
Isabel, enthusiastically invited to come with them to dinner, declined. "My fiance's waiting," she confessed to Janna. "My three most boring relatives are in town for just one night, and he has to meet them. But tomorrow is my day off. If you like, I'll come by about 10 and show you an insider's Quebec. That should please your restaurateur clients--and us."
Talk about really being lucky. Savvy Isabel would blend fun with the work, too. Even though Rob had heard and was looking at her quizzically--had he planned to ask her to spend the day with him, she hoped--Janna was thrilled. Maybe she liked him. All right, LIKED him. But a job was a job; you couldn't even eat without one.
With dinner next on the agenda, she wished she had something better to wear. Too late for that. She joined the jetlagged newcomers from many time zones, all unwilling to go back to their hotels and change. And in her case, change to what? Maybe if she drank and talked and flirted enough, her fashion-free clothes wouldn't be noticed. (Did she remember how? Wasn't it like riding a bicycle?)
They were in the lower part of the city, much of it authentically restored from colonial times. It was dotted, she had heard, with gorgeous boutique hotels she hoped to see tomorrow. Now, though, they were headed up toward the Chateau and its neighborhood cafes and restaurants. A few of the group piled into a taxi, but most lined up for the popular funicular ride almost straight up the cliff.
Talk about packing people in: "just two more, s'il vous plait," "just one more." Maybe some riders had complaints, but not Janna. Rob had apparently pushed in right behind her. The twilight view of old Quebec below was enchanting, but she soon could pay it no attention whatever. Despite Rob's lack of height, it was clear that from top to toe everything was muscle. Everything. Tempted to lean back into the melting sensations of the moment, she heard her inner "should" voice saying "move away." But there was nowhere to go; the only result of her token effort was a faint groan from behind her.
Luckily, she supposed, the funicular jolted to a halt. The next thing she knew she was walking along, surrounded by the twins and the three attractive men from Canada's Alberta province. Somewhere behind her she heard Rob and, she thought, Brent. Were they arguing? Each so different from the other, their relationship, or connection, had puzzled her from the start.
Nothing to be discovered now, though. Their group was moving along Grande Allee, past lantern-lit patios and appealing restaurants, trying to choose. No one seemed worried about reservations; many people dined far later here in a French-speaking capital. A block or two along, they settled on the attractive Restaurant Louis Hebert where several small tables were pushed together to form a long one with fine, white tablecloth style. A hovering waiter appeared to take drinks orders; another brought baskets of crispy baguette slices and dishes of multihued olive oil in which to dip them.
As if they were sextuplets, Janna, Judi and Dolores, the twins and a vacationing Australian--half of a couple whom everyone had instantly adopted--all rose in sync to head for the ladies room. "Just look for the 'Dames" sign," someone called after them.
After repairing their own makeup before the mirror, all six seemed to focus on one face, Janna's. With the finesse of a pro, Judi did her eyes in about 12 seconds, a twin substituted "pomegranate kiss" for her nice but colorless Burt's Bees lip balm, and the Aussie mussed her hair to bring out the waves, then sprayed it with instant shine--"Aussie," of course.
Clothes came last, with everyone trying to convert rugged into chic. The twins simply shed their top shirts, revealing skinny tank tops in ice cream colors. Judi and Sarah from Down Under already wore lightweight, flattering sweaters, while Dolores had plunged into the coolish Canadian morning displaying swimsuit-style cleavage. Finally, after insisting she unbutton her shirt to reveal her threadbare black cami underneath, they added a protesting Janna to the "now you're dressed for dinner" list.
Appreciative glances greeted their return to the long table, with a low but unmistakably suggestive whistle from Brent. "Everything" was covered, but her long divorce period nibbling had turned her perfectly fine B/C size into a definitely D. She felt unaccustomedly vulnerable, and Mr. P was suddenly sitting next to her and peering. Down.
She had expected Rob again. But when she looked, he was standing near a window using his iPhone, then found a place across the table and several seats away. Disappointed, she tried to catch his eye, but he was talking with his new neighbors. Avoiding her? Had he been preempted by Brent? It was unlikely, though possible, their argument had been about her. Or had he been turned off when she signed up for the next morning with Isobel? If so, she sure had been mistaken during the funicular ride.
At last their glances linked across the table, it was only for a second. Brent claimed her help in distributing an enormous platter of hors d'oeuvres which he said he "and oh, yes, Rob" had ordered for everyone. The way he spoke cleared up one puzzle, thought Janna. Rob must be his employee in whatever their business was. She'd love to find out more.
Dolores, on Brent's other side, was curious too. And though she spoke in an uncharacteristically low voice, Janna's hearing was acute. "So what's with your buddy?" the Californian asked bluntly. "Why is he way down the table instead of with us usual suspects he's been with all day? Maybe he thinks he was getting too friendly--like disloyal to a wife back home?"
"No wife," said Brent, almost inaudible. "Almost married one, a real beauty. But she jilted him and he's never re...."
The waiter unfurling the menus couldn't have arrived at a worse time. Janna was totally shocked, and burned to know more. But alas, ordering was a big deal with this crowd. Plus for her it was a working dinner. Most people, including herself, asked for separate checks. She also refused with a firm "no, thanks" Brent's whispered offer to treat her. She wanted to concentrate on what she had heard. "Jilted!" What an old and ugly word. How and when? And why? If Rob had been very much in love, breaking up might have been even worse for him than it was for her after a bad marriage.
"We're waiting, Janna, you're last," Judi was reminding her. "We're trying the duck confit--a house specialty--and then shelled Canadian lobster." Imagining her boss's disapproving eye fixed right on her, though, Janna stayed clear of these high-end choices. She chose the cheapest main course, salmon filet, endangered or not. The free hors d'oeuvres would do fine for her starter.
The Alberta trio, who turned out to be engineers from their country's thriving western oil fields, had contributed carafes of red and white wine. Some, surprising and intriguing her, was from the versatile province of Quebec. They kept glasses nicely filled until dessert, for which Janna splurged on crÃ¨me brulee, warm, melt-in-the-mouth delicious and her first since being wined and dined in early days before bleak times descended.
Brent's comment, though, was more than annoying: "You can add all the calories you like, Jan, as long as you wear tops like that to show them off." And he said it during a lull in the conversation so that half the table heard him.
Half the table certainly included the distant Rob. He hadn't looked her way throughout dinner--not when she was looking his, anyway. They had shared a day filled with new reactions and feelings she had thought were dead. Shehad enjoyed--more than enjoyed--it, and fantasized he felt something too. Yet here she was, stuck with Brent, with whom she bonded not at all and who, in a way, reminded her of Mr. P the First.
If only she knew the story behind Brent's startling revelation to Dolores. And could Rob have been turned off by something as minor as her plans with Isabel in the morning? Or might it be Brent, his boss, deciding to hit on her, so Rob stepped back? He had to eat, too, chemistry or not--and they had spent only one day together.
Not even an evening. No, he backed out once Brent moved in on the "new" Janna brightened by makeup and unintended, in-your-face decolletage. Well, she had tried all through three long courses with wine to respond to the man's acknowledged appeal. He was good, obviously, but not for her. And she had better turn him off fast before he took more of her time.
It looked as if it was already too late to try to reconnect with Rob. They were all paying their bills, the waiters were readying to pull the long table into smaller ones for new arrivals. Inevitably, their big, friendly group was splitting up--some to head back to their hotels and the others to move on to the city's nightlife scene.
The twins looked no-way ready for the evening to end, and the three vacationing engineers were reading from a tourist brochure suggesting clubs and bars to move on to. "Janna, Brent, the night's just beginning." "C'mon, let's go clubbing."
"Sorry, everyone," interrupted Janna, flicking her eyes not to "everyone" but boldly at Rob down and across the table. "Fun's done for me tonight--I've miles of notes to write tonight. But tomorrow, if after-dark is on the menu again, please count me in."
"We don't know your last name?" called Judi as she was pulled away by the departing crowd. "Or your hotel."
"James, Janna James, at the Frontenac," yelled Janna, adding softly for only herself, "I just wish the right people heard me."
24 Little Hours
What a difference, thought Janna the next morning. Just like that old song she had heard in posh jazz clubs, back when she went to them: "What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours...." Today it was 8, eight hours' sleep, which felt eighty times better than five. When she pulled back the curtains of her smallish room, even the corner of one of the chateau's copper roofs formed a charming view. There was time for a quick swim in the glass-walled indoor pool before a meeting she had arranged with the historic hotel's executive chef.
He had just returned from his daily dawn jog through Old Quebec, and took some of his very scarce time to lead her through back halls and stairs out to his small private roof garden. "This oasis is where I get some of my best ideas as well as find peace after a hectic kitchen session," he explained as they strolled minuscule paths amid diminutive plots of herbs and flowers. "The hotel dining rooms' fresh produce comes--as much as possible--from local farms and orchards. But on occasion I cook a dinner for friends with something picked right here where we are strolling. Ah, encore du cafe."
As they sipped the strong French roast blend an assistant had brought, he agreed to help welcome her Sites & Sights' restaurateurs, and compose a dinner menu for them of Restaurant Le Champlain specialties. "Our local produce is delectable, as is wild game from our hunting season," he assured Janna. "Harvest is earlier this far north; our Thanksgiving comes in mid-October." She hoped he'd even reveal his favorite coffee stop on his jogging route in the lower town. Quebec's scenic hillsides always beguiled visitors with their beauty, simultaneously inspiring frequent rest and refreshment stops. .
When Isabel drove up to the hotel's famous entrance in her fiance's spectacular convertible, the day continued at a level beyond Janna's most audacious hopes. Insisting they'd mix business and pleasure, her hostess took the fast track but made each stop invaluable. The capital's generous mix of majority-Catholic and minority-Protestant churches, shrines and two distinctive cathedrals definitely deserved longer visits than they managed. So did a quick circle of the city, which would become a full tour with stops and a Plains of Abraham highlight for next year's group. With such savvy guiding and good text-messaging notes, the visitor felt like a expert--well, almost--by the time they wound up casing a few restaurants.
At that point Isabel decided to skip the "must" fine arts museum, Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec. "But you should schedule it for anyone in your group who enjoys art, and try to go yourself when you have an hour. Maybe with Rob; a cultural experience is a good one to share."
"I probably won't be seeing him again," lamented Janna in such a sad voice that her new friend swerved the car into a barely-there parking space and pronounced "lunch." By the time their croque monsieur--grilled ham and cheese for Janna--and California salad for Isabel were finished, her new friend had extracted a play-by-play of the previous evening.
"So let's get this straight. You think that he thinks his boss Brent likes you, and vice versa, after just two hours of a seating fiasco at dinner, after you had a long and pretty great day together and at last graduated from your ex?"
"Touche, Isabel. It's more than that, though. Brent comes so across as Mr. Perfect--tall and handsome and all the surface stuff--that Rob might imagine I prefer him. Obviously, a lot of women have. Besides, if he really is Rob's boss, then...."
"From my brief encounters with everyone yesterday, I don't rate Rob as so faint hearted he'd back off and stay off," replied Isabel. "If he likes you as much as it looked to me he did. But did you remember to let him know you like him too?"
Janna paused, considering. "Well, maybe not so much, " she admitted. "After getting used to being rejected for so long and not caring for even longer, I didn't want to come on strong--it's really not likely he was interested. Besides, I've been out of 'the scene' for a decade now, but isn't there still a rule that men would rather do the hunting?"
"Well, Jane Austen's Charlotte Lucas advised the opposite back in the 19th century: At least let them know you're interested so they don't lose heart."
"But if Jane had done that from the start, wouldn't Pride and Prejudice have ended much too soon?"
"Well no, not with all the other plot complications. And I don't think there's an ironclad rule," laughed Isabel. "But here's what I rule: it's time to shop."
If their morning sightseeing was on half-time, their tour of the Canadian's favorite shopping stops--some mainstream, some (for this moderately conservative capital) not--got time and a half. Isabel was firm; Janna needed a trio of seasonless dresses--this classic V-necked red, that blue as good for work with a button-in collar as for play without it, and definitely a short black skirt with demure mandarin-style jacket to cover--or not--a shockingly impractical lilac silk bustier.
"Oh, and here's a French lingerie shop I can't stay out of, and your clients shouldn't miss," she said, bringing the BMW to an abrupt stop as a space opened up. "And neither should you."
"Now I'm really in the red," moaned Janna half an hour later, handing the sales associate her credit card along with a pricey mix of lace and not-your-grandmother's cotton. If you only knew how dull my life is you'd wonder why I'm maxing out just to fill my underwear drawer."
"Once you know you're wearing those underneath," replied her new friend smugly, laying her own set of chaste white thong, garter belt and see-everything bra on the check-out counter, nothing will be dull."
After take-out sandwiches in one of the leafy squares that helped give the UNESCO World Heritage city its euro-feel, it was time for a break in the whirlwind tour. "My relatives need a quick sendoff for their tour of Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula--even though they'll be back for my wedding next year," said Isabel, rolling her eyes. "Your appointments are all at your hotel; be sure to wait for me right there afterward. Don't leave."
Delivered to her prestigious front entrance, Janna changed quickly into her new blue "work" dress before heading down to the meeting spot she had reserved. A parade of quick sessions with Canadian reps or executives, kind enough to take part of their Saturday afternoon, followed. Some dealt with arrangements SSMPE had recently made. Others, cancelled by the first meeting company, she managed to revive. Subject to her bosses' approval, she and the Chateau's staff drafted details to make it the official meeting headquarters.
A pilgrimage to the colorful market at the Place du Marche in the beautifully-restored Old Port section would, with tastings at individual stands, be a highlight to remember. There would be tours of the Musee de la Civilization and the nearby Place-Royale interpretation center, steeped in 400 years of Quebec history. The small Aquarium--with good Nordic exhibits, panoramas and polar --could be an option for families. And almost everyone, after succumbing to the city's irresistible charm, would need free time to explore or just sit in a cafe and sip it in. It was a good day's work, and not finished yet.
When Day is Done
Now, wherewas Isabel? The shadows across the hotel's photogenic rooftops were lengthening and Janna was wilting. She had already ordered three rounds of tea and coffee for her visitors who, since she wasn't authorized to order anything stronger, had drifted away as soon as their agreements were firm. Her Canadian friend had said "don't leave," but she still had to see some possible hotels and restaurants. She reached for the outside-line phone.
"You'll only reach voicemail; Isabel had to cancel," said a voice so close Janna jumped. "She sent her regrets--and me."
Janna was shocked, not at the voice but at how glad she was to hear it. And he was looking down at her with an unreadable expression. That hadn't happened before, the thought struck her; when standing, their heights were too similar.
"Isobel needed a substitute."
"Will I do?"
"Will I? We didn't...you weren't...after dinner," she said incoherently.
"I messed up, for sure. I thought you and Brent.... But he said.... Well, bottom line, Isabel straightened me out."
Janna stood up. "We both know you were already straight," she said, deadpan. "And I'm glad you came. I need to wind up my work, though, while there's still some evening left. By the way, what was her excuse?"
"Her fiance wanted his car back, and her with it. She said you'll meet him next year. But, back--to us, is she right? About your not liking Brent? Everyone always does."
"She's right, I like him but don't Like him," said Janna. "I thought you and I were hitting it off, and then you sat so far away and didn't talk to me...."
"Brent wanted me to trade places for several reasons, and you hadn't acted, well...like you felt the way I did."
"Yikes, Charlotte was right."
"Jane Austen's Charlotte Lucas, but forget her--them. I'm Janna James.''
"So, Janna James, can I take you to dinner?
"You're Rob who?"
"Rob Osbourne, reporting for--dinner."
Janna tried not to laugh, and failed. Mr. O, indeed.
"I'll tell you another time. Maybe. Right now though, I'd love to come, but two conditions."
"One, we have to work before we eat. And two, I need five minutes to change. Well, 10."
"Let's get on with it then. I'll take a look around--I don't suppose you'd like to show me your room?"
"Absolutely not--not, I mean," said Janna, actually blushing, "see you in the lobby." What did she mean, she wondered as she made her way through the hotel's celebrity-haunted halls to her room. Just seeing him again, close-up, made her pretty sure the answer wasn't "no, never."
By stuffing her hair into her Olympics 08 swim cap, she limited her shower to a couple of minutes. Deliberately not thinking about why--after all, hadn't Isabel said no reason was needed to wear them--she found scissors and cut the tags off the champagne bikini panties. Her legs were so pale she reluctantly pulled on sheer tights under the black skirt. She zipped on her minimal makeup before bending over to don the lilac bustier, then buttoned the jacket half way to its mandarin collar. Wallet, borrowed BlackBerry and cosmetics were stuffed into her pedestrian black shoulder bag. If she were ever rich for more than a split-second, she'd buy at least a Coach.
She liked the look in Rob's eyes when he saw her entering the lobby. He had been admiring the portrait on the wall, front and center, of the hotel's appealing long-eared mascot, Santrol. But his gaze switched immediately to her.
"Doubly promising," he pronounced, letting his eyes roam from her black ballet flats up silky legs to the mid-thigh-length suit and from there to her wide, expectant eyes. Only yesterday he had thought her face nice--though perhaps not especially remarkable. But now, with last night's glitches explained by the helpful Isabel, it was a total woman he found nice, and disturbingly more than nice. It had been a long time since that had happened to him. Not with his wish-list, ordinary looks, his history. He'd been evasive; they'd have to talk about that, before they could go much further....
But first, there's her work, he shrugged in resignation.
"Doubly promising?" she was asking. "How so?"
"Point one, you did 10 minutes in only--13. Unheard of. Point two, you're dressed for dinner, which suggests that work won't take too long. So what's our assignment?"
"OK," began Janna. "Take a small restaurant association. Some of its owner-manager members never attend an away-meeting. Some will sign up--if enough customers are going out to meals, of course. And others haven't even joined yet, but they might if we make the meeting good enough. If they do, we already have one big block of rooms at a budget family hotel, another I nailed down at Chateau Frontenac--applause please--and now I'm looking for a few more at one or two of the boutique hotels I've been hearing about. Maybe we could walk around that gorgeous restored Lower Town and peek into some?"
"OK, that's it?"
"Well, not quite. I need to check out a few restaurants for dine-around night."
"All to do tonight?"
"Yes if I go back on a train or bus early tomorrow morning. But--I'm starting to wonder about flying instead. Then some could be postponed."
"I like that. Anything else?"
Janna had been looking at her to-do list as they talked. But now she caught Rob's eye and stopped cold. He had asked her to dinner, not to work. Once their eyes locked, she opened her mouth but nothing came out.
"I think we'll start," he said, taking over. "Let's catch the funicular down, then walk up a healthy appetite, starting with restaurants. The rest will sort itself out. Does that sound good?"
"Better than good," she agreed. She didn't dare think what he meant by "the rest." What if it made her want to skip everything that needed to get done between now and "it"!
His hand felt even better than it had yesterday at the falls, and his body behind her in the still-crowded funicular cab warm, close and--though it seemed impossible--familiar. She was almost praying he couldn't read her mind across the inch, maybe less, that separated their heads. Forget the research, it was saying. Forget dinner. Just turn me around so we're face to face. And kiss me crazy.
Though it had been so long in the arid desert where kisses were few or never, she could almost feel what this one would be like. Slow--very slow--and tender to start, chaste, even; hesitantly testing her reaction, her response. Then tantalizingly progressing to long and lingering before picking up intensity--imperceptible at first and soon unmistakable. And in another minute...Unstoppable?
Of course, no one could turn around when the congenial crowd in the funicular was this sardine-packed. But she was weirdly breathless when they reached the lower landing. Was Rob looking at her strangely? He looked slightly flushed himself, though he had crooked his classy linen jacket over his shoulder rather than wearing it, and his black pique polo was cool in every sense. Something had inspired him to update yesterday's backwoodsy wardrobe to tonight's flawless city chic.
He led the way at a very good clip--thank goodness for flats--as if he had been here before. Had he? "A couple of times," he responded when she asked. "And I'm staying in one of the hotels you'll want to see for your richer restaurateurs. Later. We'll start with dropping by some restaurants.
She wouldn't have called it dropping by so much as race-walking to a clutch of agreeable eateries. Fortunately, two or three would do nicely for the dine-around evening. She especially liked Echaude, a classic (steak-frites and chef's specialite) bistro in the heart of the Old Port area. Its patio bordering a pedestrian mall was filling fast. And she gave Versa, with an intimate interior, a small sidewalk cafe, and specialties like oysters, pesto burgers and "chocolate city" high marks too. They could have enjoyed dinner at either, and she was ready. But Rob said they had reservations elsewhere, then led on. The indoor/outdoor restaurants they passed on street after attractive street made the scene look like the summer-long party that it was.
They even looked in on two boutique hotels so nice she'd have started negotiating rates if she could have--and hadn't asked Rob, "what do you think?"
"Maybe I'd run it by your accountants first," he suggested, "and check out guest reviews on the web."
"I'm impressed," admitted Janna. "But the Hotel Dominion 1912 looks good--lots of black and white, plenty of sophistication, lobby espresso bar. The Hotel Le Priori, traceable to the 18th century, looks promising, too."
"Hang in there," laughed Rob. "Here's another I've discovered--it gets top reviews. And I hope you're as hungry as I am; we're due for dinner in about three minutes."
The Auberge Saint-Antoine's side entrance off the low-key rue Saint-Antoine was marked by a discreet fountain--like a carriage stop of old, perhaps. A passage led into its informal check-in area, where conversation and cocktails flowed in a sunken lobby off the front entrance. Tasteful art was on display, including some of the 4,000 artifacts reclaimed when the hotel was built on its 400-year-old site. Even though it was so busy at this anniversary season dinner hour, and Italian suits outnumbered the well-worn jeans, Janna could have felt happily at home.
Shedding her jacket at the "Dames" en route to the restaurant, she made a face at her image in the mirror. The lilac bustier from today's shopping trip looked like its wearer had, in the timeworn phrase, "only one thing in mind." Maybe she did. Still, to walk into a restaurant where even the ladies' room was this nice, she threw the jacket over her bare shoulders.
Rob in his surprisingly perfect jacket, his polo opened over a throat that tonight looked sexy enough to weaken any woman's knees, made her fantasy not so crazy. Looking at him looking at her, his eyes seemed even darker than usual and his face--what? It seemed more relaxed, she thought, as they settled into their table.
While the sommelier appeared and took Rob's wine order, she looked around. Plush velvet seating, silver cutlery and crystal goblets blended smoothly with polished plank floors and rough beamed ceiling. Besides the main room where they sat, there was easy access to terrace and balcony dining as well, with intimacy and comfort laced with plenty of luxe. Panache was the restaurant's ambience as well as its name. If one couldn't be happy here, thought Janna, where could one?
That question wasn't quite right, though. She'd go to McDonald's or Tim Hortons with the right companion rather than a superb place with the wrong one. Luckily, tonight felt like have-it-all land, as she stole a glance at Rob. Really, she had to ask him--now--about what Brent had been confiding to Dolores. But the wine waiter had arrived and was pouring from a bottle of white Bordeaux. Delicious and probably ridiculously expensive.
"This is perfect," she said, a few sips later. "I hope your boss won't call you into his office over it."
"He won't. You've shared some of your life at work with me; I owe you the same. Our company evaluates the performances and prospects of other organizations, assess their strengths and weaknesses, suggest strategies if that's what they want to pay for."
"That's exciting--endless possibilities," said Janna. "What's your area there?"
"You've pinpointed why I like my work so much; the possibilities are endless. As is my job there; I'm lucky enough to be C..E.O."
Janna gulped. "As in, boss with the office."
"Are you OK with that?"
"We all thought it was Brent. He...acted like it."
"Well, he heads public--and customer--relations. Besides, he's been a very good friend when I've needed him."
"Publicly, he's--Mr. Perfect." Janna smiled. "That was my nickname for him. But privately, I prefer..." She stopped. Too much wine, with Pascal, their waiter, only now arriving with the food. Saved by the salad.
She had ordered the light starter rather than the foie gras he dug into, and munched local field greens while her head cleared a bit. They had both picked Quebec lamb shepherd's pie--one of the best regional dishes she had ever tasted. With it, he chose native mushrooms and she, sauteed asparagus. Each stalk, each bite was more succulent than the last. So why was she having such trouble getting through the generous but not gargantuan portions? Why was his classic white plate also still half full? As if to answer, he put his fork down along with his hand, covering hers.
"You were saying, you prefer...imperfections? he asked softly. "Brent is a good man, and good to work with, though anyone who looks like that could have a few--issues. I thought you and he hit it off, and then I thought he wasn't treating you right. But he knew what he was really doing; he usually does. Right now I just want you to prefer someone much, much more ordinary."
"I didn't think it was ever going to happen anymore," Janna said almost inaudibly. "But maybe I was wrong." Across the elegant tabletop between them, the cool linen expanse warmed to incandescent. The heat traveled faster than any law of physics allowed. And had she really called him Mr. O-for-ordinary? The way he was looking at her now, the only thing O about him was his name.
"Do you mean," he said softly, "you're beginning to feel--the way I feel about you?"
"And just how is that?"
"That does it. Let's postpone dessert and get out of here this minute," he said, raising his eyebrow at the properly watchful waiter. Pascal, in turn, then spoke to a colleague, who went scurrying toward what must be the kitchen.
"Uh oh, I forgot," muttered Rob. "I asked if the chef could drop by so you could tell him about your group."
The executive chef who led the team that had made Panache such a success, had a rare weekend off. They sipped a nightcap with an associate while discussing Janna's meeting. They didn't linger; one didn't have to be French to feel the escalating chemistry at the table. Nonetheless they came away with tentative plans for a tastings event that the restaurateurs could elect. They'd pay extra for such a five-star bonus, she was sure. And if they could limit it to first-come-first-served, registration should fill much faster.
"You made that possible," she said happily to Rob. He picked up the check, quickly signed, then firmly steered her into the hall. On her low-cut back the electricity his hand generated could have lit up the full Manhattan skyline.
Somewhere in the hotel, maybe in the bar or someone's private party, "Save the last dance for me" was softly playing. End of evening, end of story? Not if Rob could help it. And as far as Janna was concerned, he could.
They had reached the small elevator, where a mixture of French- and probably Scandinavian-speaking tourists was waiting. "This is a star among Canada's deluxe boutique hotels," Rob commented. "The whole design and each individual room is distinctive, with original art including artifacts like that one in the wall recess.
"Every room is taken right now," he added while the crowd piled in and pushed liftoff. When they had vanished, he continued, "But as it happens I've got a key to one you can inspect."
Once inside, a single switch turned on lights throughout its interior. A small entryway led to a large, serenely appointed room and, just around the corner, an enviably-organized closet and dressing area. Fruit was heaped in a bowl beside a substantial bottle chilling in an ice bucket. Through French doors Janna could see lights brightening a small deck. While she ooh'd and ah'd Rob adjusted a spectacular sound system playing light jazz.
"Is that what you keep the stereo tuned to--it's nice. But I might have taken you for a news person."
"What makes you think this is my room?"
"Oh, this and that. Maybe that stash of papers and magazines, neat but not rigid, and stuff left around but no clutter. Not to mention the green Quebec baseball cap they gave us yesterday. I'm really a private eye disguised as a start-up meeting planner."
Janna wasn't anywhere near as calm as she might sound. The last time she had found herself in a hotel room with a new man it had led, in the end, to Big Trouble. Her judgment had been terrible then--almost a third of a lifetime ago, amazingly--and mistakes could still happen. Would happen. Wasn't that life?
But everyone, now definitely including her, had decided it was time to get on with it anyway. And being here felt good, though not quite yet comfortable.
"So, casing the joint, then, let's inspect the deck," Rob was saying. "It's a great perk with any hotel room."
A mere step up and out, its nighttime view was of dark rooftops and shadowy street below, where sauntering pedestrians looked in no hurry to get home.. With neither fireworks nor moon tonight, the focus was on the deck, furnished with a couple of Adirondack chairs, pretty Provencal cushions, and them.
Maybe they were the view from some windows or balconies she could see above. At least that could explain why he wasn't moving in closer. Hadn't even touched her, in fact. Was he having second thoughts?
"This is nice," she said hesitantly. "But I should..."
"Don't say it, don't think it," he interrupted. "We're out here mainly because you're too distracting inside. I need to answer some of the questions you've started to ask, because I want this--us--to be good. Wait, let me dim this light."
That was better. Without its glare, the darkness beyond no longer disturbed her. But he still didn't move their chairs closer. It seemed he really did want to talk, and she--to be fair--to listen. But not quite yet, apparently. He must have pushed a room service button along with the light switch; either that or the waiter who appeared with two glasses was magic. The champagne they were soon sipping was so good she bet it was capital C.
"Once upon a time," he began, surprisingly, "a small, very humdrum boy grew up in a tall, handsome family. Things came to his older sisters and younger brother effortlessly, but he had to work twice as long and hard--not in class, maybe, but with sports, vacations, early jobs--to get half the rewards. They grew taller than he, filled out their clothes better, partied hard, joined college clubs, paired off early and often. The boy and sometimes a friend or two studied late, competed for admissions and rewards, worked odd jobs for books and spending money, won college honors and geeky prizes. Girls looked down on him--literally, and then almost invariably beyond--until.
"Until one day, when he was already into his '30s, one of them read his profile in the business and finance pages. She saw--a good life ahead, I guess, and said yes to the presents he laid at her feet in love and gratitude.'
"And one was a diamond?" Janna almost whispered.
"Chicago's finest," he said grimly. "The date was set, the church was booked, the honeymoon in Kauai paid for. And, for the same reasons you had, I hope, I feel like telling you about it."
"Don't you dare stop!"
"Don't say those words--not yet, anyway. Where was I? OK, it seems that at one of the pre-wedding parties the girl met someone else. Someone taller, of course; handsomer, ditto; who had lots more hair and, if not more money, enough. And on the appointed day, the groom-to-be and his best-man brother, hand-made Welsh gold ring in pocket, stood at the altar listening to the wedding march from Lohengrin."
Janna, clutching his hand painfully at this point, could barely squeak. "I think Brent said she didn't show?"
"No, she showed all right, gliding down the aisle in Vera Wang satin, they told me, and 5-inch heels, more beautiful than ever."
"Then you did-- "Marry, she was going to say. But nothing came out.
"No," he said flatly. "No I didn't. But she did--to my best-man-worst-man brother, standing right there before God and the minister and, oh yes, me. He was ready and waiting, not to hand me the ring but to put it on her treacherous finger and say "I do." She didn't even look at me, just dropped her father's arm, poor man, slithered around me like the poisonous cobra she was, and stood at the altar."
Janna, crying by now and frozen in shock, managed to sputter, "but your brother...."
"Talcott--that's his name--didn't look at me, either, just muttered 'tough luck, old man' to our polished shoe tips, and turned to the 200 speechless guests, most of whom I didn't even know.
'Sorry, folks, it's me she loves,' he told them. 'We'll see you at the reception.'"
"Oh, Rob, I can't bear it. What did you do? What did your family do?"
"Family, nothing. They sat there, stunned, but in a strange way almost complacent. Why would this gorgeous creature be marrying me in the first place, they seemed to figure. Tal never could do any wrong, anyway. And me? Later, I wished I had said a hundred things, but all I managed to mutter was "I won't kiss the bride." I went back through the minister's study where we had been waiting earlier, left by the side door and never went back. It wasn't my church anyway."
Janna, over her worst initial shock, reached across for his hand and squeezed it hard. He pulled her across to his chair then, where they sat with their arms around each other, as if old friends mourning the unforgivable, unforgettable treachery. She couldn't remember any touch feeling this right, ever before.
"Didn't your mother--your parents leave with you?"
"No," he said grimly. "But some good things did happen--though I couldn't fully enjoy them at the time. My sister Sarah and her husband did follow me out, and we've been closer ever since--more than when we were growing up. And here's something you'll like, I think. Though he has his faults, like all of us, Brent was outta there almost as soon as I was. Plus more office colleagues and some old friends."
"I'm so glad. But what did you do, how did you survive--even minute to minute, much less in the months and, how many years that have followed?"
"Four years, just about like you. In the beginning, being in shock makes you sort of numb. It's the famous stage one: denial. And in this case I was also plain-and-simple crazy. But Brent and some of the others were crazy too, intent--I realized later--on distracting me from some of the pain. It wasn't as if I was loaded with self-esteem even before."
"Sounds like you had a pretty awful childhood, and then this," said Janna. "And you so deserved a better one. I wish I had an esteem machine. But I'm too curious now; how did this 'made-for-TV movie' end?"
"OK, to make a 4-year story short, we were 30 or 40 of us milling around outside the church (I've got each name on my list forever, you better believe) with a bunch of limo's beginning to arrive to take everyone to the reception and dinner. Someone said, 'we've got to get you drunk,' I don't remember who. Then Sarah's husband Tony said 'I know where there are great free drinks, and here's transportation.'
"Well, they didn't commandeer the bride's and groom's car but we hitched rides in several of the others. And before you could say 'we can't do this' they had delivered us to The Four Seasons, where, admittedly, I had already paid for the best open bar and Champagne in all Chicago. Half the food wasn't ready yet but the other half--the always-great seafood and other perfect little mouthfuls, all the cold stuff--was.
"And here's the best part, or maybe the second best. You decide--it's all weird. Well Sarah, as high as everyone else at this point, was hunting the loo and found herself in a hall instead. She called everyone to come see, and there sat the magnificent, $10,000 or whatever tiered cake with bride and groom on the top and a couple of large silver knives alongside.
"By unanimous consent--even me by default, I suppose--Tony picked up the knife. I stopped him; 'my privilege, I be, blee, believe,' they tell me I said, grabbing it. Someone gasped 'no!' But it wasn't suicide or murder--well, actual murder--I had in mind. Anyhow, I'm not tall but I do work out. And the knife, though silver, was sharp. I reached out, aimed well and split the towering cake in half--here's the prizewinner--right between the bride and groom. Sarah managed to get someone to bring the souvenir cake boxes, all ready. And when Brent suggested that the church party would arrive soon, we left with the boxes full and us as well. Piece of cake.
"By the way," he added as he stood and pulled her to her feet, "we did leave the presents."
Rob had impressed Janna even before the evening began. Now she felt overwhelmed. "That awful, unspeakable thing that happened to you," she said. "It would have marked some men, or women, for life. Yet you've converted it into a funny, fascinating story; and you don't sound bitter, or even--now--sad."
"I was both--devastated, in fact--for a long time. Convinced there was nothing about me to appeal to any woman except another scheming devil, I let the lemons stay front and center. But work and friends saved me, and here in Quebec the lemons seem to be turning to lemonade right before my eyes. I'll tell you a few P.S.'s to the story, later."
"Maybe later is better," she mused, feeling strangely light on her feet as she stood there. "I'm not used to best-ever Champagne--and wine before that... Is--is the funicular still running?
"No worries, as our Aussie friends say. You have to see the original artifact each room has, right over here."
She followed Rob's lead to a small, backlit showcase set into the wall. Broken fragments that had once been a hand-painted cup had been partly pieced together as a surprisingly lovely work of art. He left the room while she looked at the display, riveted. Someone, maybe back in Napoleon's time, had been drinking right here where guests could enjoy their morning coffee in similar cups.
Morning coffee. In this lovely room's bed, inviting with about 40 pillows of every shape and subdued lighting from above and each side. Suddenly it became clear she was too close to the huge bed with its thick, linen-covered duvet neatly turned down for sleep....
Or not sleep. In mere seconds she no longer felt drowsy, longing to rest. Rob was back now, every sense was alerted, and a very different longing threatened to overwhelm her. He was at that place already, just ahead of her and waiting for what they, alone in different deserts, had shunned for so long. Now, each and together, they wanted and were going to claim it.
Was she being too "easy" on the first date? Yes--and no. The world had changed mightily in the decade since she had been first wined and dined, won and lost. Shouldn't they at least remember that geography was against them? Sure, but it was with them right now. Shouldn't she be careful? That was a definite yes. But, thinking fast, she realized he had been there ahead of her, just minutes earlier.
Shouldn't she...stop shoulding? "Yes" had never felt clearer as she felt his arms around her, wrapping her in reassurance and surprising tenderness. Then, as he closed in in earnest, tenderness turned exquisitely sensuous as her long hibernation vanished in response to his sensitive lead. Each step of the deliciously long way back was as seductive as she had ever imagined. This man, each superbly male centimeter of him, clearly knew exactly what and where to do--everything. Then thoughts vanished; the world they had lived in was created anew and its boundaries escalating to indescribable and beyond. And beyond, far beyond, even that.
They slept. And woke, to sleep again. And sometimes to whisper softly. "One more thing," she heard herself murmur at one point. "You were going to tell me how you feel about me."
Without delay and in every way in the light of the now-breaking dawn, he did.
By Tuesday afternoon back at the office, Janna was waiting for a call. Not from Quebec, though those had been coming in steadily from her new contacts there. She was due to brief her colleagues shortly. And though her bosses would get much of the credit if the project succeeded--as it would--she would have some of it, plus a raise. Or move on to better things. That just might happen anyway, she thought happily, anticipating the call from Chicago--a follow-up to several since Sunday night.
This was the first quiet moment since her return. And her thoughts returned to the incredible Canadian morning she had awakened to on Sunday. A shaft of sunlight had been streaming through tall windows onto a blissfully comfortable bed, interrupting a happy dream. A stone atop her head, or had it been lodged in her heart for what seemed like forever, had disappeared, replaced by--what? A glass of cold, just-squeezed orange juice, a glow somewhere inside, and a light, quick kiss.
"Don't wake me," she mumbled. "I like this dream."
"Drink this, then," she heard. "It's morning in Quebec, it's real, and we've got planes to catch--different planes unfortunately--this afternoon. First, though, there's packing, a wonderful big breakfast, and this...."
The stone was really gone, Rob was really here, and "this" took quite a while.
There was still plenty of time before the flights he had booked for her at 4 and himself and Brent at 4:30. They took one more funicular trip--this time with his arms around her as close as she had wished--for her to pack and say au revoir to the city's signature Chateau Frontenac. Not goodbye; she'd be back for next year's meeting and, with luck, before that.
Back at the Auberge St. Antoine, the brunch in Panache's shaded courtyard was a feast of perfect coffee, smiling service, incredible fresh fruit compotes, and croissants as buttery-light, she was sure, as any in Paris. She'd go back anytime just for more pain dore--thick
French toast topped with fruit and nuts--and his warm firm hand on hers across the table.
Four years later and in the glow of this memorable Quebec morning, Rob could finish recapping the wedding fiasco with a wry smile. The Hawaii-bound airline had turned down the unabashed newlyweds for the reservations in Rob's name, but instead flown him, Brent, Sarah and Tony off for a long Maui weekend. Eight months later, when the not-so-happy couple had a 9-pound daughter, he silently thanked his brother for sparing him that bride, and sent his beautiful new niece a generous stash of Tiffany heirloom silver.
"Thank you, for--much more than breakfast," said Janna faintly, as Rob again was signaling the waiter that they were ready to go. "Words don't usually fail me, but they do now."
"Just say yes, then, to whatever I suggest," he said, smiling at her. "We have some great restaurants in Chicago too. Next weekend's good, isn't it?"
"Next weekend!" she exclaimed. "I didn't expect... are you...."
"You're just supposed to say 'yes,' or maybe 'yes, Rob,'" he said. "For now, weekends will have to do; then we'll see."
Brent joined them in the limo to the airport, apologizing--perfectly, of course--to Janna for his Friday night behavior. "I liked you--and most of the other pretty girls in the tour group, I admit," he said. "But soon, I could see Rob had fallen for you almost at first sight. And believe me, none of his friends want him to be hurt again. So that evening I was checking you out."
She must have passed the test, mused Janna as he hugged her at the departure gate before Rob claimed her for a long, hard kiss. Now, at the ring of the pre-programmed smartphone that FedEx had just delivered, she answered "Rob?" instead of "hello."
"No one else knows this number," came his husky laugh. "I'm just checking to be sure you opened the whole package."
"Yes, this fabulous phone and an envelope with a ticket for--let's see, Friday night?"
"Early Friday night," he said, so meaningfully that she almost blushed. "But look further."
Janna probed under the packing pellets then, to pull out a minuscule bikini. "Does--the hotel in Chicago have a pool?" she asked curiously. If he thought she could wear this, he hadn't looked very hard.
"We don't need a hotel when you come to Chicago; my apartment's just fine," he said. "First, though, for this weekend plus a sick-day Monday, I figure we both need to bury our old honeymoons forever--the one you barely had and the one I didn't have--in Hawaii. And this time, no cancellations allowed."
"Hawaii!" Janna's shriek was so loud that half the office came to sympathize or rejoice. In response, she held up the bikini, daring them to laugh. "Rob," she said to the phone, "that's wonderful. Maybe I can get this to fit by something like Christmas."
"I didn't think about size," he confessed sheepishly. "We'll replace it in Hawaii this weekend. But now that you've brought up Christmas, if all goes the way I think we both hope it does, get ready in advance."
"To do what?"
"To meet in Quebec."