Upon cresting the rise, the vista opened up again, oaks, maples and sweet chestnuts parting like velvet theatre curtains to present an extravaganza of rose, orange sherbet and lavender. Niki placed one foot on the fine gravel verge by the narrow country road and sat back on the saddle to catch her breath. After weeks of cycling, she felt at one with her bike, and at ease in the French countryside.
When her boss, Chief Brian, had suggested, or rather insisted, she take an overdue break from her search and rescue work, she was really pissed off. She didn’t need a break. She loved her work. She lived for the riding and climbing in the pristine Coastal Mountains. The daily quest of their ground and chopper searches, dropping on a line when they finally had located their target, invariably some inexperienced hiker or skier who’d lost the trail and fallen, the technical challenge of extraction, was hardly work to her. Every day at work brought surprises and thrills, and made her feel incredibly useful.
But, she had to admit, she was somewhat grateful now that Chief had forced her to take this vacation. He’d been right, of course. She’d been long overdue for a change of pace, and after her weeks of adventure and relaxation, she felt wonderful and alive. Despite her fear of excruciating boredom, she’d managed to find enough to entertain herself traversing the south of France.
First of all, she’d been able to connect with some of the best parcour traceurs in the region, and had some incredible runs. Urban environments in Europe, with their stone lintels, balustrades, arches and classical details provided an exciting and very different world for her to explore, and it was all the better for having met some awesome practitioners in the country that had invented her sport. Between parcour, the challenging long distance cycling itself, and occasional detours, such as galloping on horseback on the Camargue beach, and her side trip to Pamplona to run with the bulls in mid-July– that had been a blast– it wasn’t turning out to be such a bad holiday after all. And now she could add zip-lining to her list of satisfying ventures. Now she had to decide how to fill her final two weeks.
The light had changed again. There were times, cycling along, that the soft, buoyant quality of the light in the South of France made it seem as though she were floating, carried by an invisible force that rendered the peddling effortless—no, more than that, infused her and her bicycle with extra energy, a part of something larger than herself and infinite—the unnamed something that had inspired both writers and painters through the ages. Sometimes the air seemed to be made of lucid shimmering greens and blues, sometimes hazy almost-grey lilacs.
Now, as she rested at the apex of a small rise, she gazed down across a broad green and gold valley. Across cornrows strongly shadowed in the fading light, the maritime pines, willows, oaks and fruit trees were now swallowed into the dark throat of the gently rolling landscape, bowing out, stepping back to make way for the spectacle in the sky. A sky in which the benign cumulus clouds of afternoon bunched, cracked and rolled into violent brushstrokes of vivid cobalt blue and violet shadows. She let her eyes rove over the colours.
Underlit by the sinking sun, they reflected jarring pink, oriental orange and painful, glowing gold that made her think there was a God after all. She drew a deep lungful of cooling afternoon air, and felt her face crack open in a broad smile of delight, and rubbed her moist hot hands across the cool dry skin of her face, smelling sweat and earth and the ripe peach she ate a while ago, chafing and massaging her skin back to warmth and life.
Music snaked upward, carried on a gentle breeze beyond the valley where a small, typical French hamlet perched on a gentle knoll, shadows gathering in the low light, gold glinting off of glass windows facing the setting sun. The music, however, came from dreams and memories, not modern or expected, but ancient Medieval music, pipes and lute strings, and the lyrical voices of balladiers.
Intrigued, she pushed onward. It would be good to rest a bit. A festival sounded mildly entertaining. If this were a nice town, maybe she’d even stay a couple of days and catch up on her beauty sleep.
The village on the mound turned out to have a steep approach, so by the time Niki pedalled partway up, to the outside edge of the ancient town walls of Petite Bergeron, she was breathing hard.
Now she understood what Paul had been saying as she left. It was like arriving in the midst of a circus or passing through a time portal. Or both. A bigger production than she’d expected, makeshift stone piers and a wooden gate and portcullis had been built from plywood and expertly painted, creating a sense of arriving in a Medieval town. Beyond the fake gate though, and the knight in full shiny tin armour being photographed with throngs of tourists, the town was real enough, and Medieval enough, that no further enhancements were needed. Colourful banners with coats of arms hung from the golden limestone buildings, and yellow and blue pennants flew, competing with the riot of red geraniums that tumbled from window boxes. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people hiked up the steep cobbled avenue beyond the gate. A sense of building anticipation filled the air. She’d seen many French cities and towns so far this summer, but this was by far the prettiest.
She pushed on up the ramp that wrapped the village, following the music. Even as she’d approached the walls, she began to pass people in costumes. Now that she was entering the town, there were more people dressed in Medieval clothing than modern.
Soon, smells joined the sounds, drawing her onward and upward. Winding up a long cobbled street that bent around the walls, between the curving facades of two and three story stone houses and a wide limestone baluster overlooking the countryside below, were rows of small white tents and market stalls. She pumped her bicycle over the cobbles, past farm produce, averting her eyes from a pile of oranges gleaming in the sunlight, to admire small smelly cheeses and withered saucisson sec, as well as displays of clothing, toys, leatherwork and armour. To her left, narrow twisting cobbled streets lead uphill. A ghost image of the oranges lingered in her mind, but she pushed it away. There was no point in wishing that Sam were here, sharing this adventure with her. But he surely would have loved this Medieval fair. He always was fascinated by history, and circusses, and this felt like a marriage of the two.
She paused at the entrance to an even narrower lane that led uphill, past a few shops selling jambon-beure sandwiches and ice cream cones, wondering if the town square were up there somewhere. The path teemed with people, some obviously tourists, others locals who were as much a part of the spectacle as participants in it. She’d need to save enough leg strength to hike up there and see what was happening.
Winded, she nearly stopped to dismount when another cyclist surged past from behind her, shredded, cut legs driving forward, his lean butt raised from his seat, waggling in the air. Except for the padded crotch of his cycling shorts, he held no secrets. Here was a heart-stopping, beautiful specimen of manhood. And she wasn’t about to cack out in view of him, so she pushed up on her own pedals and strove to keep up.
Thankfully, in another dozen strokes he stopped and dismounted just ahead of her, so she followed suit, breathing hard, her heart pounding with the extra effort. He tugged off his helmet to reveal short dark hair mussed and spiked with perspiration, and scratched his scalp roughly with a gloved hand. She knew that feeling, how itchy her head got, after a few hours of cycling, especially in this heat.
She should have pushed her bike past him. She should at least have pretended to ignore him. Instead her eyes raked the man’s lean, ropey cyclist’s body, right down past his lycra-clad hard-as-rocks buttocks to his sinewy calves. This was without a doubt one of the perks of cycling, and her pulse quickened at the thought of tangling between the sheets with someone as hard and fit and energetic as she was herself, liquid heat pooling in her stomach. He was a good match for her, and she was even ripe for a little dalliance after weeks on the road. Not that she got any regular action back home. But this was a holiday, after all.
His head turned in her direction, and their eyes caught. She quickly looked away, but he’d seen her checking him out, and his sexy mouth had quirked in amusement, his bright eyes flicking up and down her body in reply. Her already overheated face flushed hotter. Damn. She turned away, and angled her bike toward the narrow uphill street to escape his knowing stare.
“Are you just arriving in Petit Bergeron?” His voice was as sexy as the rest of him, his caramel-toned tenor wrapping around the French syllables like a magic spell, drawing her in.
She groaned inwardly, stopped and turned. “I’m passaging through.”
He seemed taken aback. “Where’re you from?” He switched to unaccented English, surprising her. There’d been no hint in his French that he wasn’t a native speaker. Not that she was qualified to judge.
“Same. Vancouver.” He opened his fanny pack and pulled out an orange.
So not Quebec. “No shit. Me too. Small world.” She rolled her eyes at the inane cliché, mentally tripping over the orange. Don’t open it. Please don’t open it. But he did. Of course he did, spoiling the moment.
A brilliant white grin split the handsome taut planes of his beard-shadowed face, and his intelligent blue eyes conveyed all kinds of naughty, flirtatious thoughts that made her stumble on the rough cobblestones beneath her feet. His teasing smile told her he could read her thoughts. Though perhaps not all of them.
She swallowed, watching his strong tanned fingers puncture the pitted skin of the orange, breaking the brittle flesh. Frost vaporized into the hot afternoon air and dissipated, carrying the strong scent of citrus to her nose. Her stomach pinched and her head felt light and buzzy.
She recoiled, averting her gaze, suddenly needing to escape. “Uh– can you tell me where the town square is?”
“Straight up there.” A toss of his chin indicated the narrow street while he pocketed the peel from the orange and slipped a section into his mouth. He even chewed sexily.
Her throat worked, unable to swallow again, and she cleared her throat. “Why put the town square on the top of a hill? Kind of inconvenient, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “That was the idea. To make it difficult for the enemy to get to. These small fortified towns were built during the Hundred Years War, close to six hundred years ago.”
“You sound like a teacher.”
He lifted one shoulder. “Maybe I am.” He offered her a chunk of his orange.
“Hmph.” She shook her head, no, and blinked at him. She wanted to enjoy a pleasant to have a conversation in English, after a month of struggling in French, but she fidgeted, needing to move on. “Good for you.”
His bark of laughter surprised her. “Do you want a hand getting your bike up the hill?”
Her smile faltered. “No. Thank you.”
He pointed at her loaded bike. “But… It’s no trouble.”
“I’ve got it.” She put up her hand, palm out, and moved ahead, shouldering her bike, saddle bags and all, and trudging up the steep slope, her quads burning with every step.
“Alright then. See you ‘round.”
She tossed one last glance over her shoulder, shaking her head and smiling at his attempted chivalry. Too bad. Delicious as he was, it was a good thing she was moving on so soon. The last thing she needed was a stupid fling with a guy from home, however tempting. She could run into him somewhere, and wouldn’t that be awkward? She pushed on, feeling his sharp eyes following her progress up the hill, painfully conscious of her own lycra-wrapped butt.
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