‘Oh, you’re not that ugly,’ she told him airily.
Seizing her hands, he brought them to his lips and kissed them, then pressed them to his heart. She could feel his heartbeat through white cotton. Taken aback, she threw a help me! look at Isabella, but the Argentinian didn’t do anything of the sort. Her expression was delighted, and kind of smug. Cassie tried to glower at her, but couldn’t quite manage it.
‘You’ve made my day.’ Richard’s smile was high-wattage. ‘Let me buy you a coffee and show you a little of Paris. I know this perfect little café in the Marais. Nine o’clock tomorrow?’
‘Don’t we have lessons?’
‘It’s a study morning. Time off to look at the city. Immerse ourselves in its culture. Where shall we meet? Right here? You are my angel, Cassie Bell.’ He blew her a kiss, then disappeared in Katerina’s wake.
Cassie blinked. ‘How the hell did that happen?’
Isabella laughed. ‘He likes you, Cassie!’
‘He’s a charmer, is what he is.’
‘Of course! Why not? His father owns half of your English West Country! You don’t get more magical than that.’ Isabella gave her a nudge and a wink.
‘Well.’ Cassie shook her head ruefully, still reeling from the impact of that smile. ‘It’s only one coffee, right? Where’s the harm in that?’
‘What exactly are we supposed to be studying?’
Cassie tapped her spoon against her coffee cup, well aware she looked nervous. Richard leaned back in his chair.
‘Life, Miss Bell. People. Culture.’ He flung out an arm as if he was presenting her with the entire city. He probably could, she thought dryly.
‘So it’s not just a morning messing around or doing retail therapy?’
‘Now, now. Sir Alric is big on self-motivation, initiative, that kind of guff. That’s why I took you to the Pompidou Centre first, and the museum.’ His face split in a grin. ‘Now we can mess around.’
The sun was warm on the back of her neck, and a light breeze played among the leaves of plane trees and the small zinc tables of the café. Traffic fumes mingled with strong scents of coffee and bread and someone’s pungent French cigarette. Fidgeting, she picked up her cup, and put it down again. Empty.
‘Let me get you another of those.’ With what seemed barely more than a flicker of his eyelid and a twitch of one finger, Richard summoned a white-aproned waiter. ‘Something to eat, Cassie?’
He didn’t wait, but gave his order in clipped French, ending on a dazzling smile that even the surly waiter had to return. Replacing his customary scowl, the man turned and hurried away, as if embarrassed to have shown a spark of humanity.
‘There’s birds in that thar tree,’ said Cassie, nodding at one of the plane trees in the square. ‘Go on, charm them out of it, I dare you.’
Richard laughed in delight. ‘I’d rather concentrate on charming you.’
Cassie searched his face for traces of mockery, but Richard met her stare full-on, smiling.
‘Don’t be so hung up on being a scholarship girl,’ he said. ‘You’re much more interesting than all these spoilt heiresses and daughters of despots. Prettier too.’
‘Oh, get a life.’ Cassie felt herself flush scarlet. ‘Or did you mean I’m prettier than the despots?’
Richard hooted. ‘I like you, Cassie Bell! You’re a proper student, and you’re funny too. Those other girls, they’re comestibles.’
Cassie blinked. ‘You lost me.’
‘I could eat them in one bite.’ He bared his white teeth.
‘In your dreams, mate.’
Mind you, Cassie thought, he probably could take his pick of the girls at school. The combination of looks and charm was dizzying.
‘Really, though, I’m serious. Those girls are gorgeous, sure, in a polished sort of way, but you’re striking. Your eyes could pierce sheet metal, I swear to God. What do you call that colour? Green? They’re so pale they’re nearly yellow.’
Cassie fidgeted with her hair. ‘I dunno. Ordinary?’
‘Oh, anything but. And your bone structure is to die for.’
‘Give over. I’ve got a pointy chin.’
‘Just what I said. Amazing bone structure. You know who you look like? You’re really like—’
But Richard had stopped himself in mid-flow, and was chewing the inside of his cheek.
‘You’re not beautiful,’ he rushed on, giving the word a deprecating emphasis. ‘Not like the despotesses. You’re more natural. Real. Fresh. Anyway,’ he added conspiratorially, ‘some of them don’t even shave their armpits.’
The new coffees arrived at that moment, so Cassie had to put her hands over her mouth to stifle her explosion of laughter. The waiter gave her a filthy look.
‘You are the limit,’ she said when he’d gone. ‘What’s this?’
‘Pain au chocolat. Go on, try it, it’s heavenly.’
Doubtfully she bit into it. It was warm and flaky – like Richard, she thought with an inner grin – and entirely delicious. God, she hadn’t realised how hungry she was. She didn’t know if dunking it in her café au lait was the done thing, but what the hell: she dunked it anyway. As the melted chocolate hit her tongue she sighed blissfully.