Paris is cold and grey and so bloody romantic. Gare du Nord is busy with travellers heading in and out of the city, students heading home for the holidays and American tourists with their fanny packs and Moses sandals despite the cold. It brings back such happy memories for Ava when she, Oliver and AJ, would take an adventure to some obscure village on the train in the summers.
A chauffeur is waiting to meet them on arrival.
‘Monsieur Huxley, welcome back to Paris.’
‘Bonjour Phillippe. Ça va.’
‘Bien Merci. Bienvenue.’
‘This is Ava Sinclair, she works with me, Ava this is Phillippe my trusted chauffeur of too many years.’ River laughs a little, sharing an inside joke with Phillippe.
‘Enchantée Madame’ Phillippe offers Ava a warm smile followed by a firm handshake.
‘This way please.’ He takes over wheeling the suitcases, expertly guiding them through the crowd and out the station to the waiting town car; a tinted Mercedes Benz.
Paris whizzes by in a joyful blur, Phillippe takes them through the sites to their hotel, whilst he and River catch up on past times. It is obvious they also share a friendship. If Oliver were with them he would have marvelled at the Christmas lights, and decorations; they spent all their Christmases in the city when they lived here. Ava’s mum and dad would visit on boxing day and they’d all go to London for the New Year.
‘Oliver okay about you leaving?’ River asks, interrupting her thoughts.
‘Yes. He is staying with his dad until we return and I pick him up.’
‘You could’ve brought him with you.’
‘He would’ve been a distraction; Paris is his favourite city.’
‘It’s pure magic especially in the spring.’ He spent many happy times here with his family before the divorce and the children. His last trip to Paris was the one where he returned and found his wife and brother together.
‘It is. I spent many weekends with Oliver getting lost in the city, museums, cafés, restaurants, parks… he knows every single corner of this city. He loves the eighteenth, every other weekend he’d make us walk to the Sacre Coeur to see the Gargoyles, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at his favourite restaurant there, buy old cars from his favourite shop, before heading home.’
‘Where was home?’
‘We had an apartment on Ile Saint Louis
River smiles, ‘I have an apartment there too.’
‘Why aren’t you staying there?’
‘My house keepers is on holiday and it would have been a bother to open it up with new staff. Besides, I’m here with you.’
Phillippe pulls up outside Le Meurice and immediately a door man springs to action holding the door open to the guests arriving this stellar hotel. Ava and Oliver had stayed there on occasion, when they lived in Paris she would sometimes check them into the hotel for the weekend, especially when AJ was busy with work during the peak season. They would take a suite for the weekend and make a thing of it.
‘Bonjour Madame. Monsieur.’ The a bell hop helps Phillippe with the luggage whilst Ava and River are shown through the front door already held open.
River is a regular here, and she wonders how often he comes to Paris. Besides shopping with his daughter on the weekends she wonders what else he does for fun. They are seen to almost immediately, the staff refer to River familiarly but with deference because he is one of the VIPs. They are checked into their Park view suites and both agree to meet in the lobby at noon to head to the Hub.
Once in her suite, Ava facetimes Oliver.
‘Hello my darling how are you?’
‘We are having pancakes. Daddy made a lot with syrup and strawberries. Daddy can we save some for mummy.’
‘Of course we can. I’ll make her some when she comes to get you on Sunday.’
‘Mummy you hear that? Daddy will make you pancakes.’
‘Can’t wait.’ Children and their innocence sometimes. ‘Are you being good.’
‘Uh huh.’ Oliver takes a forkful of pancakes into his small mouth.
‘Easy mate.’ AJ grabs a napkin to clean the dusting of powder on his chest.
‘How is Mr River?’ Ollie asks.
‘He’s fine, he says hello to you too.’
‘Is he there? Can I talk to him?’
‘No, he’s in his room. We’ll try and call you later when we are together okay.’
‘Okay mummy. I miss Paris.’
‘It misses you too. It is not the same without you so next time I am here, we’ll come together.’
‘Can daddy come?’
Oy vey! Children! Talk about no loyalties from one man to the next.
‘We’ll see. I have to go now honey, I have a meeting to get to. I love you so much. Be good.’
‘I love you too mummy.’ Oliver blows her a kiss before hanging up.
‘Who is Mr River?’ AJ asks his son, he listened to the conversation with his mother, braising. River Huxley and his son have a friendship he didn’t know about.
‘Is he your friend too?’
‘Yes.’ Oliver nods, unaware of his father’s inner turmoil. ‘He’s nice. His children are big.’
‘Uh huh.’ AJ doesn’t know whether to be mad that his wife, ex-wife is in Paris with another man or that his son is fond of this other man so something more is obviously going on there. ‘Eat up and then later we can go to the Park.’
‘Okay daddy. Maybe you can make some pancakes for Mr River too.’
AJ screams internally. ‘I think he can buy his own pancakes. It won’t be as good as mine though.’
‘How is Paris?’ Annabel and Jamilah are on the group facetime with Ava.
‘Beautiful even in winter.’
‘How is River?’
‘Why do you have to say his name like that?’ Ava shakes her head with a little laugh.
Jamilah laughs, ‘why did you hear it like that?’
‘You are the worst.’
‘What are you wearing for your date?’ Annabel asks.
‘Shut up. It is not a date.’ Ava tsks but she is tickled to be spending some time with him in her favourite place. ‘This is what I am wearing and I am not changing.’ She steps back to show off her outfit; skinny leather pants, Louboutin trainers with spikes and a chunky jumper stylishly half-tucked. Her twists are in a ponytail and make up is easy breezy. ‘Do you think it’s too much?’
‘You look perfect. You have the best legs ever and in those pants you are licence to murder them.’
Jamilah and Annabel collapse into laughter.
‘I’m done with you two. Bye.’
‘Love you. Bye.’ They look so mischievous with their grins as Ava hangs up on them.
River is waiting on her in the lobby, he too freshly dressed in grey jeans and black jumper, Jordan’s on his feet and a navy coat. Ava recognises it as Tom Ford, his signature. How does she even know that?
‘Hi.’ River sees Ava the second she steps out of the lift, and the mere sight of her makes him happy. Her legs in those pants go on forever. There are a few things he wants to talk to her about, away from prying ears and Paris can help swing things along. Hopefully.
‘I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long.’
‘You didn’t you’re right on time. The car’s outside.’
A concierge holds the door open for them; heaven forbid they should lift a finger. Nowhere does it quite like Paris, down to the haughtiness which is often misunderstood.
River says something to Phillippe, before entering the back seat alongside Ava.
‘No… please do as your grandmother says Wyn, we can talk about it when I get back.’
Ava can hear Wyn try to put up an argument for whatever course she is trying to fight for.
‘If it’s not going to be chaperoned, I don’t want you going and if you do not want your grandmother to go with you then tough… No… okay I’m being rude to Ms Sinclair, we’ll talk about this when I get home.’
Ava faintly hears Wyn say her name.
‘No, she doesn’t want to talk to you. Bye. Love you.’ River rolls his eyes when he hangs up the phone. ‘Wyn says hello by the way.’
‘How is she?’
‘Growing up too fast and wanting to be in places I don’t particularly find endearing.’
‘A Justin Bieber concert.’
‘I hate to break it to you, but that is a losing battle.’ Ava laughs recalling her teenage years.
‘I take it you were a rebel growing up.’
‘I wanted to be allowed some freedoms from the establishment of parents but grown ups just don’t understand.’
‘Ha! Establishment of freedoms. Is that what it was?’
‘Please don’t tell Wyn that she will run that to the ground.’
‘I’ll remember not to.’
‘Did you manage to get some rest?’
‘No. it’s the holidays, it’s our busiest time of the year. I’m on a call with the team later tonight to talk through the calendar as we ramp up the hub and roll out the indies for last minute gifts and the holiday sales.’
‘I saw the reports this morning, its looking really strong and a few of the press coverage.’
‘We’ve made it into the online glossies consistently, since the launch of the season and the partnerships with Stylist and the Metro have gone really well.’
Marcus pulls a courtyard where the hub is located, Ava had strategically chosen the central location for the hub, one hour from the warehouse where goods are brought to be replenished everyday. The hub is a mammoth operation but has proven to be worth the investment so far.
‘Madame Sinclair bonjour.’
‘Bonjour Henri. Ca va?’
‘Bien Merci. Bonjour Monsieur Huxley. Viens avec moi, s’il vous plaît.’ Henri, the hub manager, leads them into the warehouse where stalls and stands are busy with customers on iPads, placing order, sales associates dispatching orders, the creche buzzing with children, servers carrying trays of food and drinks to several round tables of customers. Upstairs in the warehouse proper are rows and rows of items and the packers are doing a job of getting orders out with such speed; the entire operation looks like a well oiled machine. River and Ava get stuck in with the team, meeting with staff and helping on the line packing and dispensing orders.
River observes Ava with the team, her warmth and savvy, her ability to see the bigger picture whilst considering the smallest of detail, and that something she possesses. He wants to tell her how he feels about her, maybe not here and now, because nothing about the warehouse screams romance but he’s been out of touch a while. Let himself get out of touch staving off the heartache from Raymond and Bree’s betrayal, but with Ava, simply being with her, those things fade. Wyn noticed when they met at Harvey Nichols, noticed how easy it was for him to be around her, she commented on how much different he seemed, glimpses of his old self.
DING. DONG. DING. DONG. Someone comes through ringing a bell and much excitement ripples through the warehouse.
‘Okay GO time.’ Henri announces, ‘that means its competition time Madame, Monsieur.’ He adds for the benefit of Ava and River. ‘We have ten red orders coming down the pipe line, pick your teams and you have ten minutes to despatch’
‘Oh shit. You are going down.’ Ava says to River, already discarding her coat and rolling up her jumper sleeve.
‘Competitive much?’ River also discards his coats, having selected his team.
‘Un. Deux. Trois…’ WHEEEEEEEEE. Henri blows his whistle and both team roar to action.
‘Carolina Herrera jumper!’
‘Fold. Fold! FOLD IT!!’
‘Packers don’t let the side down!!
‘Come on! Double time.’
‘The thank you note! ADD THE THANK YOU NOTE!’
‘Come on team pick up the slack.’
‘Fendi bag. Where is my Fendi bag!’
Both teams work at fever pitch to pack and despatch the orders following every step under the watchful eye of the others egging them on.
‘WHEEEEEE.’ Henri blows the whistle after ten minutes. ‘The winner is… Madame Ava’s team.’
‘YES!!’ The team engulf each other in a hug, lifting Ava onto their shoulders in celebration.
River laughs, applauding the winning team.
‘Good luck next time Monsieur.’ Henri comforts River with good humour.
Three hours, several orders packed and despatched, a competition won, they bid the team farewell, leaving them to it. The hub is even busier on their departure.
‘Are you hungry?’ River asks just as Phillippe rounds the corner with the car. ‘We ought to celebrate your win.’
‘We do.’ Ava offers a smug smile.
River laughs, ‘I know a place not far from here.’
‘Lead the way.’
‘We’ll see you back at the hotel Phillippe, Merci.’
Ditching the car they walk two blocks, through an arched walkway, and out onto a small courtyard where the only door, a grand wooden door, is slightly ajar. Sounds of food and laughter drift through the small opening, three people stand outside for a smoke. Ava prided herself with knowing most restaurants in the City but she’d never been to this place. La Maison Martin.
‘Bonsoir. Deux persons si’l vous plait.’ River says to the waiter.
‘Bonsoir. Content de vous revoir Monsieur Huxley!’ The maître’d greets him fondly, with a handshake that goes into a hug.
‘Bonsoir Martin. Ça va.’
‘Bien. Bien. Comment sont les enfants.’
‘Grandir trop vite. Ah. Pardon, c’est Ava mon ami.’
‘Ton ami, et mon ami. Bienvenue Madame.’ Martin, the owner, kisses Ava on both cheeks jovially. ‘Viens, viens.’ He leads them to their table, chatting animatedly with River, who turns to smile at Ava with a little shake of the head. ‘Asseyez vous, s’il vous plaît. Pas besons de menu, je servrai plat du jour exceptionnel.’ Martin says with a flourish before disappearing through a door to the kitchen to get on with their food.
Ava cannot help that small smile; River Huxley, a man with many sides.