Chapter Two - When You Least Expect It…
Sophie returned from her day of sightseeing with what must be a thousand new photos on her phone and what felt like a dozen new blisters on her feet. The city was beautiful; there was absolutely no doubt about that. As she’d wandered the streets of the 11th arrondissement, Sophie had seen more boulangeries and cafes and quaint little shops than she could count. She’d window-shopped along the glass cases of cakes and pastries, chosen a few indulgences for herself to compliment the picnic lunch she’d assembled, and made her way across the river and through the Latin Quarter to sit on a bench in Luxembourg Gardens, watching joggers go by, her face tilted up to the sun.
In that moment, Sophie had felt free, and felt good about that, for the first time in… weeks, at least, maybe more.
Then came the guilt, chasing on the heels of that thought.
It felt wrong, somehow, to feel good about being alone here, even though that was kind of the whole entire point of coming to Paris to begin with. If Greg had wanted her, and wanted to marry her and build a life with her, they’d be together. They wouldn’t be here, but they’d be off on their honeymoon, enjoying each other.
And she wouldn’t be alone.
Sophie had shaken herself out of these thoughts, following the path of a group of chattering twenty-somethings who wandered past her seat, shoes crunching on the gravel, laughter rising in the air like the wind. They had a kind of effortless French elegance about them, which, when Sophie got to her feet, she could not relate to in the slightest. She felt too young to complain about aching joints, but when she checked her phone, the number of steps she’d taken so far told her that perhaps she did have reason to protest.
The sun was low on the horizon when Sophie returned to her flat. She saw the sign for the tea shop on the first floor and it shone like a beacon in the distance. All she wanted was to eat dinner and soak her feet in a bucket of ice water.
As she made her way down the street, the shop came into focus. The wooden facade of it, painted in the familiar deep gray, and the gold lettering of the sign that proclaimed La Chouette made her smile. As she passed by the wide front windows, she saw the rows and rows of shelves inside, the warm wood and the neatly-labeled canisters. The shop smelled lovely; it was tempting to go inside and look around, but her souvenir-hunting could wait.
A couple passed her by as she made her way to her apartment door. They were young, nestled together like a pair of doves in a nest; the taller woman had her arm thrown around the shorter girl’s shoulders, drawing her close. The two of them laughed as they passed Sophie by, clearly oblivious to anything else that was not their beloved.
Sophie fought back a faint sense of disappointment. Here she was in Paris, the city of love, and love was the very last thing she was feeling. Come to think of it, why had she even chosen a city known for romance in the first place?
When she’d been booking the flight, there’d been some wild thought from some long-forgotten self-help motivational book about finding self love. Loving yourself first was the way to open yourself up to loving someone else… Or maybe that was just something she’d heard on Drag Race...
Sophie scoffed. She liked herself just fine. She wasn’t the problem. It was Greg—stupid Greg, and his commitment issues.
Withdrawing the key from her bag, Sophie approached the door to her rented flat. Limping just a little certainly wasn’t in keeping with the whole ‘Chic French Girl’ aesthetic, but her feet demanded nothing less.
The door to her rented apartment was tucked into an alcove just to the left of the tea shop’s front window. Inside, stairs went directly up, and then the apartment spread out across the narrow second floor. She had been jet lagged and slightly less than coherent the first time she’d fumbled with the lock, but this time, Sophie had no excuses for how much she was struggling with it. She cursed softly, under her breath, and took the key out to examine it, rubbing at it with her thumb, before trying again.
It didn’t budge.
Sophie frowned. The key slid all the way in, but she couldn’t get it to move in either direction. As she struggled with it, panic began to well up within her.
She would just try one more time. Maybe she was—
“There’s a trick to it.”
Sophie jumped. The voice—masculine, warm, accented—had come from behind her, just to the side. When she turned to face him, she was glad he hadn’t been standing too close. But still…
The man smiled. “The lock. There’s a trick to it. You have to pull the door in while you turn it, or it catches.”
Sophie stared at him. Despite her aftershocks of surprise, she was struck by how handsome he was: Deep brown eyes, fringed by thick black lashes; a playful mouth that was set in a closed-mouth smile like a man with a saucy secret; dark hair, a bit overlong, a bit wavy…
She recognized him. He was the man with the motorcycle. The one she’d caught looking up at her just yesterday. He had the same tall, lean frame, the same posture. Sophie wasn’t sure how she felt about seeing him again here, or about him speaking to her like this... but everything about his body was restrained, reserved, held back. Like he didn’t want to be seen as any kind of threat.
“Sorry,” he said, looking just a little bit sheepish. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“It’s all right,” Sophie said. “How do you know about the door?”
Was this some kind of scam? Maybe he had been casing the joint, waiting to prey on some unsuspecting tourist, here all alone…
“My boyfriend is coming back soon,” she added, perhaps a bit too hastily. “We’re going to have dinner…”
Her voice trailed off, and her throat went a little dry as her eyes swept him up and down. He was holding his motorcycle helmet loosely in one hand, wearing a black leather jacket over a t-shirt that had some kind of abstract, geometric pattern on it. Black jeans were fitted over his long legs, showing off his thighs. Sophie would bet an entire patisserie’s worth of butter that his butt looked absolutely amazing, too. Her guilty gaze rose again, meeting his honey-brown eyes, and she knew she’d been caught.
Nobody with a boyfriend they loved and adored and waited for looked at another man the way she’d just looked at him.
Sophie swallowed, throat suddenly dry.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” the man said. His voice was as soft as a promise.
“I never said you were,” Sophie replied. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips. It felt strange—miles and miles beyond strange, passing into uncanny—to feel this pull towards him. It was like she was a satellite and he was some kind of heavenly body, and the gravity of the situation, such as it was, felt heady and inescapable. The way he made her feel was much more distracting than the pain in her feet, or the weight of her bag on her shoulder, or the residual weariness and grief from the non-wedding she was supposed to be mourning.
“My aunt runs the shop,” the man said, with a nod in the direction of the tea shop. “Hélène Marchand, yes?”
Sophie nodded. “That’s right.”
He smiled. “And I used to live in this flat, for a time. When I was a student. So I remember, the door sticks.”
Sophie felt a wash of relief sweep over her. “Well that definitely sounds like the kind of thing a serial killer who plans to follow me upstairs and kill me with an axe would say.”
The man burst out laughing. His teeth were white against his tan face and stubble, and just a little charmingly crooked. He shook his head. “An axe? No. Too messy.”
Sophie smiled, and nodded. “That makes total sense.”
They stood there for just a moment, caught up in the soft golden glow of early evening. The light sent the features of his face in sharp relief: His high cheekbones, the cut of his jawline, and those long lashes, which no man had a right to have naturally. In the light, his eyes looked almost amber.
And something in her belly, something fluttery and new, settled.
“Can I—?” he asked, gesturing to the door. “Or do you want to check me for axes?”
Sophie chuckled, and shook her head. “No, that would be great, thank you.”
The man took the key from Sophie’s hand and leaned forward. She could see the way he held the door handle in his left hand, and when he gave it a tug and a twist, the lock opened.
All at once, he stepped back. And it was then, Sophie decided, that she trusted him.
“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate the help. I’ll remember that next time…”
“And tell your boyfriend, too,” he said, with a twinkle of mirth in his eye, a tilt on his mouth as if he was sharing a private joke with her.
Sophie let out a sigh. “I don’t have a boyfriend. I just…”
She let the words trail off. It seemed rude, now that he’d helped her out, to admit that she’d been wary of being alone here, a stranger in a strange land.
The man’s eyes crinkled just a little at the corners as he smiled at her. Sophie felt shy all of a sudden, and she looked away, tucking a stray strand of hair back behind her ear.
“What brings you to Paris?” he asked.
Sophie smiled. “Oh, me? I’m just a tourist.”
The man’s dark eyes met and held hers. And she had the distinct feeling that he was looking through her, not just at her. As if he was seeing some hidden part of her, something quiet and small, a little spark of truth beneath the flippant, carefree answer she had given.
Slowly, he shook his head. “I think there’s something more than that. I think you are looking for something.”
“What could I be looking for?” Sophie laughed. “Except maybe some advice from a local—the best little secret spots to see the real Paris.”
“I could show you,” he said, shifting the helmet from one hand to the other, body relaxed, posture open. Eyes dark and sweet, and looking right at her.
Maybe she was being presumptuous, but… Sophie had a good sense of what he was really asking. He was hitting on her.
“What would you show me?” Was she asking him about Paris, or about himself? Even she wasn’t entirely sure.
“Maybe a ride would be easier on your feet at the end of the day,” he said, with a nod towards his motorcycle and a knowing glance down at her aching feet. “But I’ll leave it up to you. I will give you my number; you text me, if you want to see the city.”
“Okay.” Sophie watched herself take her phone from her bag and hand it to him. He entered his number as a new contact one-handed, saved it, and then gave it back to her.
When she looked down, she could, at last, read his name.
“Nice to meet you, Tristan,” she said, pocketing her phone, smiling up at him from the open doorway. “Maybe I will give you a call tomorrow.”
“I hope so.” Tristan smiled. “Nice to meet you as well.”
And the look in her eyes made her feel like she was floating upstairs, not walking.
Upstairs, in her flat, Sophie kicked off her shoes with a groan of relief and padded to the bathroom. She sat on the edge of the tub as it filled with cold water, relishing the relief she felt at last. Scrolling through her phone, Sophie selected her favorite shots from her walk today, posting them to social media. It did not escape her awareness that Greg was likely to see them; maybe he’d feel guilty that he couldn’t be there with her. Maybe he’d feel something like remorse for what he had done, abandoning her like that, dropping her like a hot potato.
As she scrolled through her feed, Sophie’s eyes lit up with delight. Her brother Ian had just posted a photo, and it showed him with his boyfriend, Adam, showing off matching bands on their left hands. The caption read: ‘Finally popped the question - #HeSaidYes!’
Sophie let out a little cheer as she liked the photo immediately, tapping out her own reply in the comments. It was late back home; she’d call in the morning, but finally, her brother had proposed! Their mother was going to be over the moon.
At least then, she’d have a real wedding to plan. One that was definitely going to happen, unlike her own.
What am I even doing here? She leaned over and turned the faucet off, swishing her tired feet in the cool water. How could she feel so happy for her brother, and for Adam, and yet so sorry for herself in the same moment. Pity-party, table for one, she thought.
At that, the memory of Tristan’s kind eyes popped into her mind.
What did he mean? Sophie wondered. What does he think I’m looking for?
She switched over to her contacts, thumb hovering over the message button. Maybe, just maybe, it was worth cutting loose just a bit. Maybe it was worth seeing what was on the other side of loneliness.
Maybe it was time to have an adventure.