He inclined his head. He had a slightly unkempt look that seemed genuine and not deliberate. If it was deliberate, it was extremely effective.
Gus was lovely, of course, and Romy had been mad about him when they’d first got together. But a year in she sometimes wondered if she’d only been attracted to him because he was so different from her previous boyfriend. He’d once admitted to her that his friends were all a bit shocked that he’d chosen such an arty, indie type while at the same time envying him for having such a gorgeous girlfriend. When they first met he had asked her rather anxiously if she had any tattoos. She hadn’t, but his question made her think of getting one, a bat perhaps, on her wrist. This trip to France would be a bit of test – if their relationship survived they were probably meant to be together. She wished she didn’t feel so ambivalent about it all: the Christmas and the relationship.
‘Here,’ said a voice. ‘I thought you could use this. You look cold.’
It was the man in leathers, handing her a mug of spicy hot chocolate.
She took it with a grateful smile. ‘Thank you so much,’ she said. ‘I certainly could use it. I hardly had time for a cup of instant coffee this morning and my boiler has broken.’ She took a heartwarming sip. ‘Please, take a look round the stall and have something free. For your girlfriend, maybe?’
She hated herself for what must look like a blatant bit of digging but it was too late.
‘I have actually got her present,’ said the man. Judging by his expression, he seemed fairly confident that his girlfriend would like it. Romy knew
it was silly to be disappointed – it wasn’t as if she was free herself – but somehow she was.
‘Well, that’s good! Most men don’t even start thinking about it until Christmas Eve so you’re well ahead.’
‘I do need some Christmas decorations though; my house is a bit of a shell at the moment. My girlfriend’s been having an early Christmas with her family in Connecticut. I want the place to look amazing when she comes back. Make her really fall in love with it.’ ‘Well,’ said Romy, having now sipped enough hot chocolate to warm her up. ‘Christmas decs are what I specialise in. All made by me. And there are these, in case you missed them.’ She gestured to a jar on the floor that contained whitepainted branches. On the branches were decorations made to look like hot-air balloons. Every one had a single battery light so from a distance the branches looked as if they were dotted with stars. Close up you could see the individually painted egg-like shapes.
He inclined his head. He had a slightly unkempt look that seemed genuine and not deliberate. If it was deliberate, it was extremely effective. ‘I have to say, I was drawn to them when I first came in.’
‘But you stopped at the coffee stall first?’
‘I saw you stamping up and down and flapping your arms. I guessed you were cold.’ He was very twinkly, and impossible not to respond to.
Romy laughed. ‘Was I that obvious? I am sorry. I think this stall is in a bit of a draught or something. Everyone else seems fine.’ In spite of his ‘bad-boy’ good looks, he had a very kind smile. She experienced a pang of jealousy for the girl who had parents in Connecticut. ‘So!’ she said briskly. ‘What would you like?’
‘I think I’d like all of them,’ he said after some thought.
‘I can – happily – give you one, but not all of them.’
‘And I – happily – will pay for all of them. I’ll have my one free one too, of course. And everything else you have left. I want to make a big impression.’
He grinned. Romy coughed and looked down at her decorations. He was far too attractive for her own good, she decided, but as a customer he was pretty much perfect.
‘Well, the hot-air balloons are five pounds each,’ she said. This had put people off, although the work and effort that had gone into them had been enormous. ‘The bats are four pounds fifty and the jam jars with the tea lights – although they are extremely pretty – are only a pound.’
‘In which case, I won’t have a free balloon. A hot chocolate isn’t worth a fiver.’
‘Have one of these then,’ suggested Romy. She held out a model bat made out of wire and black tights. She’d made several but they hadn’t sold well. Bats were rather niche, she discovered.