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From worlds apart, togetherness

I never meant to fall in love. My boss, the head of the English service in a busy Paris reporting office, called me over to his desk.

"You're off to Africa," he said. "You'll need to be careful. You leave on Friday." It was Wednesday. He turned back to his computer screen.

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I ran down the office stairs and out to a glass public telephone box on the Rue Montmartre.

"Mum!" I shouted, my voice shrill with excitement, "Mum! They're sending me to Africa!"

My mother was less than pleased. A daughter living across the English Channel was bad enough: Now she was off on long-haul flights halfway around the world and who knew when she'd be coming back?

"Why," my long-suffering mother has been known to complain, "oh why can't I have normal daughters?" But she says it with pride.

For me, it was my first big overseas assignment and I was ecstatic. And terrified.

The next two days passed in a blur. I bought water-purification tablets (Mum's orders), new T-shirts, walking boots, and a foldable straw hat for the sun.

Suddenly, somehow, I was on a plane hurtling toward Africa.

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There was this man at a desk when I walked into the office. Curly brown hair, beige sports jacket, quiet. He had a gentleman's manners.

I was tired and dirty and longing for a shower after an overnight flight, a missed connection, and a missing suitcase, but I noticed him all right.

Later, he'd tell me, a colleague had suggested he pick me up from the airport. "Why don't you go collect Kate? She's quite nice."

But he'd declined. Too busy, he said. Now I know he was just shy.

Thanks to him, I caught a taxi and pretended I was quite used to landing in unknown countries and giving directions to places about which I hadn't the foggiest idea. I might have ended up in Timbuktu. But I didn't.

In my six-week stay, he and I argued - terribly politely - over the way to word a report on a bishops' conference. We went out for snatched dinners late at night, with everyone else from the office.

Once, he asked me to a dinner party with some old university friends of his. "He's just taking pity on a girl on her own far from home," I thought. We were, after all, about the same age. But I did call my sister in England from my hotel room, just to let her know. And lamented that I hadn't brought any nice clothes with me.

Then he asked - in a formal, old-fashioned way - if I'd like to meet his parents. The meeting would involve a three-hour drive on his day off. I dared hope.

I went back to Paris. I had a job and a career, remember, and 20-something women don't easily give up things like that these days. Especially not after just one foreign assignment.

Three months later, he caught a flight out to Paris.

Readers, I married him. Six months after we had met, we were wed in a tiny wooden church on stilts. Afterward, we ate chocolate cake in a room full of pink and white roses.

Fairy tales still happen. They just have a modern twist.