Chapter Six - Reckless Decadence
They lingered at the door to her flat, the rain drizzling all around them, the sky grown moody and gray around them. But under the umbrella Tristan held for her, it felt like a bubble of light.
"I had a wonderful time," Sophie said. "Thank you."
"Did you see everything you wished to see?" Tristan asked her. There was that sparkle in his eye, the radiance and warmth that emanated from him, drawing her closer.
"It would be impossible to see it all, in a place like that," Sophie replied. "It was all so beautiful."
"We could go back again," Tristan said, "tomorrow. Or the day after, I forget, I have..."
His voice trailed off, and a smile grew on Sophie's face. His cheeks reddened just a bit, evidence of his eagerness despite the cool, casual air he tried to project. Sophie couldn't deny that the sight of him like that was charming in its vulnerability. Yet at the same time she felt all wrong-footed before him, drawn in and yet so, so afraid by what she felt, what it meant, where it might lead.
"Or somewhere else," he said. "Anywhere."
Sophie nodded. She almost didn't care if he took her to see a crumbling, decrepit old block of apartments or a sewage treatment plant, just as long as she got to spend one more day with him, riding on the back of his motorcycle, wrapping her arms around his strong, lean frame, walking beside him.
The rain pattered on around them, but Sophie and Tristan were caught up in their own little world. A world that, it seemed, neither one wanted to leave.
It was the sound of the tea shop's door slamming shut in the wind that broke their moment: Sophie turned to see Hélène Marchand, the owner, standing there, her hand on the door handle, sheltered as best she could be against the rain.
"What are you doing, standing in the rain like this?" she called at them, but there was a twinkle in her eye so like her nephew's that Sophie felt her blush deepen. And then, in French, she called out for Tristan to come help her with something. He nodded, turned back to Sophie and brought her hand up to his mouth. Her skin must've been cold and clammy from the rain, but his mouth was hot, and his kiss sent shivers ricocheting down every nerve. He left her holding his umbrella, then darted over in the rain to help his aunt, holding his leather jacket close to his body in a futile attempt to shield himself.
Sophie felt cold as soon as he went away. She folded up the umbrella, one hand still tingling from his kiss, and went upstairs, taking off her shoes and leaving them down on the landing so she didn't track anything upstairs where it was clean and tidy.
The day had been amazing.
Every moment with him had been amazing. Sophie's face, warming up from the chill, was stretched wide in a smile. She caught sight of herself in the mirror and paused. Was that what she really looked like? Hair damp and messy, wind-tousled. Cheeks red, smile wide.
She was shocked to discover that she was happy.
Why was that a shock, she wondered? Was it so unbelievable that she would find something to be happy about at a time like this?
Well... yes, she thought. It was unbelievable. And moreover, it was reckless. This was the sort of thing people had warned her about: A rebound. Here she was, trying to recover from a devastating breakup, the future she'd thought she'd wanted suddenly slipping from her hands and shattering on the pavement like a piece of porcelain. She was meant to be finding herself, not finding someone else.
That wasn't going to fix a damn thing, the reasonable, logical side of her brain chided her. The first man who gives you anything resembling attention and you just give right in, forgetting that this time, when he leaves you, it's just going to hurt all over again.
The harsh truth of it shocked Sophie into stillness. She stood there for a long moment, barefoot before the window, watching the rain turn the city into a soft-focus impressionist painting, the edges gone indistinct. That was the truth of it, wasn't it: Tristan might feel whatever way he felt about her, but all of that had to be predicated on the fact that she was a tourist here, not something long-term. That meant that whatever his kiss had been for, it hadn't been anything more than a momentary feeling, too.
And there must have been a reason why Greg had left her. Something she still needed to fix if she was ever going to find lasting happiness. Hooking up with some hot French guy was fun and all—if it ever got to that, which made Sophie blush to consider—but it wasn't what she truly, deeply wanted. Was it?
Oh goodness, she didn't know anymore.
What she did know, however, was that she'd spent an entirely reasonable amount of money on some decadently frivolous lingerie, and she was going to enjoy it, whether or not anything else turned into... well, she wouldn't think about that now.
Instead, Sophie shucked off her wet clothing and reached for the bag of unmentionables she’d purchased. One by one, she pulled them out of their tissue paper wrappings and laid them out across the white, cloudlike duvet on the bed. She’d avoided any of the bridal white items and gone for color instead: A set in forget-me-not blue satin with soft, delicate lace was the first to go on. Sophie shivered a little as she pulled on the bralette, adjusted the garter belt and clipped in the stockings that rose to mid-thigh. When she stepped in front of the mirror to take in the view, the woman staring back at her looked like a stranger. It wasn't that she didn't recognize herself; those were the same features, the same eyes, the same nose, the same mouth, that she'd always had. But to be like this, dressed up just for her own pleasure, was... strange. Enjoyable, but different. She'd never spent money on things like this before. Greg had always told her she had a natural beauty, and didn't need a stitch to show it off. As flattering as that had been at the time, Sophie had always wanted to indulge in things like this, to see beauty for its own sake. She tentatively caressed her own body, watching herself in the mirror: Hands holding her breasts, lifting them, testing their weight, their shape within the blue satin-and-lace cups; fingers skimming across her collarbones, down her sternum; a journey down to her waist and around her hips, which were a little wider than she'd always wanted them to be, faint stripes of stretch marks like traces of silver embroidery in her skin set off nicely by the lines of the lingerie.
No, this wasn't silly. Just because it wasn't necessary didn't make it worthless.
And maybe, just maybe, Greg's perfunctory efforts in the bedroom had played a part in his disdain around such 'pointless' things. He'd never wanted to take his time and unwrap her, he was a more 'just get to it' type.
Sophie didn't want to feel like a chore anymore. She deserved better, so much better than that.
The next set was blush pink, a little dress made of sheer tulle which was gathered up beneath her breasts and tied in the front with silk ribbons. Sophie smiled when she saw herself in the mirror; she felt like a birthday present, like a gift. It felt wonderful. Tristan might have teased her gently about her wearing some of her purchases to the museum today, but absolutely none of it was practical, and Sophie liked it that way. She imagined his hands pulling at the ribbons, his gaze tracing her form like her hands had done. His eyes, so dark and piercing, taking the time to see her, really see her, and appreciate what he saw.
Damn, she thought. Shouldn't have left him at the door...
Sophie paused. Was it her imagination, or was there still a soft, faint noise of something being moved around downstairs? Was there a chance that Tristan was still there, helping his aunt? Sophie felt a soft smile curl on her face. What would it be like to text him, right now, and ask him to come get his umbrella. She'd show up at the door wearing this and see how he'd look at her.
But as intriguing as that was, Sophie wasn't nearly brave or reckless enough for it.
Instead, she took off the pink set and reached for the third one, her favorite of the bunch. It was a deep, almost black color, a blue-green so rich and saturated it was like the very last bit of twilight on the horizon. The lines of it were simple, and there was no lace, no trim, just the clean lines of the sheer fabric itself and the elegant structure of its construction hugging her form. She'd almost talked herself out of buying this set, but once she'd put it on, Sophie had known she needed to have it. Another pointless expense, but who cared. It was her money; if she couldn't invest in her future then she sure as hell deserved to invest in her present.
As she admired herself in the mirror, her phone in her purse buzzed with some kind of alert. Sophie smiled; had Tristan sent her a text already? Had he come up with a plan for their next excursion? She nearly ran to her bag and dug her phone out, unlocking the screen and seeing—
it was just an alert from Instagram: Ava Corbett has posted a reel... Why that had been worthy of an alert was anyone's guess. Maybe Sophie had kept some setting turned on, or something, to keep notified about...
Sophie's brain faded to white noise as she stared down at the screen in shock.
The video was as giddy as it was incomprehensible; she watched it twice before processing what she was truly seeing. When understanding, at last, washed over her, it was like being hit by an ocean wave. Cold and fierce and deadly, with an undertow of disbelief that drew her down, and down, and down, to the depths.
Ava and Greg. They'd eloped.
No, Sophie thought. No. That wasn't possible. He'd told her he wasn't ready... told her he had needed to... to spend some time finding himself. Apparently he'd spend a handful of days searching and he'd come up with her maid of honor instead. Sophie stared down at the reel as it moved on to the next video, and the next. There was an easy familiarity in the way he held her, a comfort in the way Ava draped her arm across his shoulders.
This wasn't new. This had happened right under her nose, and she... she hadn't seen it.
Sophie tossed her phone down to her bed. In the silence of the room, it hardly made any noise at all as it landed atop the plush bedspread. A sob tore out of her throat, unbidden; it sounded like the cry of some wounded animal, like a creature caught in a trap, going into shock.
How had she not seen this? How had she missed this? And why had Ava done this... why had Greg done this? The likelihood that this had been some impulsive, in-the-moment thing was slim to none. Looking back, Sophie saw with dawning horror how he had been so comfortable around her friends, how Ava had always smiled at him when he was around. Sophie put her hands to her face, her sobs muffled and quiet and contained. Why, then, had he maintained the pretense of wanting to start a life with her when he had been doing whatever it was he had been doing with Ava on the side?
None of it made sense. And Sophie was drowning, in over her head in the ocean of grief.
The knock on the door pulled her roughly to the surface. Sophie looked up, felt the wetness on her hands and on her face, and shivered in the room. Answering the door right now—dressed like this—was the last thing she wanted to do. As if on auto-pilot, she grabbed for her coat and pulled it on, tying it closed and holding it up to her neck for coverage. She went down the stairs and opened the door just enough to tell whoever it was to shove off.
Tristan was standing there.
"I didn't mean to..." he began, but the light in his eyes shifted almost instantly as he looked her up and down, brows furrowing as he gazed at her tear-stained face. "Are you all right? Are you hurt?"
Sophie shook her head, not even sure what it was she was answering. No, she wasn't hurt. No, she wasn't all right, either.
"What happened? Forgive me, I do not mean to pry, but..." He swallowed thickly, body canting towards her just a bit, like he wanted more than anything to wrap her in a hug. "If there is anything I can do..."
Sophie lost it.
A moment later, she was in his arms, sobbing into his chest, utterly unable to control herself. He half-walked, half-carried her upstairs; she heard the front door shut behind him. For a long time, he just stood there with her, holding her, as she let it all out. And, Goodness, but it felt so good to be able to let it out.
When, at last, she had caught her breath, and when the tears had calmed, Tristan kissed the top of her head gently and murmured some quiet reassurance in French. Words she did not understand, but the feeling was comforting, kind beyond measure. She let out a sigh, and melted against him, finally releasing her hold on her coat and wrapping her arms around his neck. Tristan did not protest, or move away. It wasn’t until she pulled back to wipe at her cheeks that he let her go.
“I… I will make some tea,” he said, voice tinted with faint caution, eyes carefully on her face alone. “Why don’t you sit down.”
Sophie nodded, then realized that having let go of her coat she had given him a full-frontal show of the outfit she’d been modeling. But she could not find it in herself to care, or be ashamed. She just sat down and watched him as he went to the kitchenette, filled the kettle, and put a tea bag in a mug as he waited for the water to boil.
“I’m sorry,” Sophie said. Her voice was husky from crying; she felt like she’d been scraped raw.
Tristan turned around, looking at her with surprise. “For what?”
“For… for this,” she said, gesturing to her face. “You lend a tourist your umbrella and she sobs all over you like a deranged person.”
“You are not deranged,” he said. “At least, I hope you are not? You are not hiding any axes in there to murder me with, no?”
Sophie had to smile at this. She shook her head, a little sheepishly. “No.”
“I’m not sure you’d have any room to, ah, hide them,” Tristan said, before clearing his throat and busying himself with nothing in particular on the counter, waiting for the water.
Sophie’s pain lessened. It was easier to bear, she found, with someone around. But that didn’t mean it still didn’t hurt.
“I found out some terrible news,” she said. “My former fiancee eloped… with my maid of honor.”
Tristan muttered something obscene in French. And then, with his eyes on hers: “What a bastard. I am sorry.”
“I feel like such an idiot.”
“He is the idiot,” Tristan replied, his voice laced with calm vehemence. “Not you.”
“I should’ve seen—”
“No amount of vigilance can turn a coward into an honest man,” he said, and Sophie fell silent as the truth of it washed over her. Slowly, he poured the tea, his back still to her at the kitchenette. “It will need to steep for a moment.”
Sophie laughed softly, but without mirth. “The tea or—?”
Tristan turned around, a mug in hand, his liquid eyes dark and sweet on hers “Both, I expect. Sophie, you cannot blame yourself.”
“Who else is there to blame?”
She sighed, and nodded reluctantly. “I suppose so.”
Tristan handed her the mug, and sat down beside her on the little sofa.
“Him, and her. He is a fool. Let them go off and be fools together. But do not blame yourself.”
His words comforted her, spreading over her like a blanket. The truth of them rang in her ears, despite the pain she felt inside. All of it was jumbled together: Anger at Ava for stepping into the life Sophie had wanted; anger at Greg for leading her along and then ending things the way he’d done, only to turn around and do this; anger at herself for trying so hard, and still failing.
She breathed in the steeping tea. Had she failed, though? After all, she was here, in Paris, sitting beside a man who cared to listen to her, one who hadn’t run when she’d cried. One who, to his immense credit, wasn’t even staring at her nearly-bare breasts, despite what she was still wearing beneath her coat.
Maybe this was the win, actually.
“Thank you,” Sophie said softly.
Tristan might not have been staring at her breasts, but he was staring at her face. Oh crap, she probably had mascara running down her cheeks. She raised her hand to wipe her tears away, but Tristan was there first… his hand, gently cupping the back of her neck; his thumb carefully swiping the crest of her cheekbone. Sophie watched him, until at last she couldn’t resist any longer.
She leaned over, and pressed her mouth to his.