Chapter Three - A Little Bit of Sunshine
By the next morning, Sophie was feeling much better. As she lay in bed enjoying the pure indulgence of sleeping in, with no plans hanging overhead and no obligations to get up and be perky and productive, she almost forgot to be sorry for herself, and sad that she wasn’t sharing a bed with Greg here in Paris.
That was progress, right?
Sophie managed a smile. Her arms and legs were all stretched out across the white linen sheets, taking up space, as much as she deserved. It was nice to have it all to herself.
After a truly soul-nourishing stretch, she rolled over to her side and checked her phone.
The good vibes faded just a bit as Sophie deleted the ever-present string of spam emails, one after the other. And when she came to the email from her former Maid of Honor, Ava, Sophie let out a weary sigh. It really wasn’t Ava’s fault, but the mere presence of Ava’s email address was beginning to feel like nails on a chalkboard, and it was solely because news from Ava meant news about the cancelled wedding. Today, it was an email about the catering deposit, how the vendors were trying to say there was a detail in the contract she and Greg had both signed…
Well, if Greg had walked away, then he ought to deal with the contracts and the caterers. Sophie typed out a reply to that net effect, and then set her phone down on the bed beside her, closing her eyes, letting out a slow, cleansing breath.
Was this ever going to not suck?
Her phone buzzed again, and inwardly, Sophie groaned. What was it this time?
But when she picked her phone back up, a sudden blush warmed her cheeks. It wasn’t an email from Ava.
It was a text from Tristan.
“It’s a beautiful morning for a ride through the city. Will you say yes?”
Sophie held the phone in her hands and grinned like a teenager with a crush, before catching herself, cautioning herself. She wasn’t a teenager anymore. She was a grown woman, and here she was, perilously close to buying in to whatever obvious nonsense this was. Pure flattery, designed to prey on a lonely woman. A guy who, no matter how beautiful his eyes were, was clearly interested in something she wasn’t ready to give.
She wasn’t in Paris to look for a rebound.
But then again, a part of her mind whispered, why the hell not?
Sophie shook it off, and pulled the blankets off of her body, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed and standing up with a stretch and a yawn. No. Absolutely not. There was no way she’d fall prey to something as obvious as that.
The phone on the bed pinged again.
Sophie picked it up.
Tristan had followed his message up with a simple photo of the sunrise over the rooftops. Despite herself, Sophie felt the faint stirrings of a swoon coming on. She’d played the good girl for so long—read her lines and gone through the motions like her life had been choreographed to be perfection—but now, the open road of possibility felt heady, and alluring, and maybe a little bit dangerous. If she wasn’t that good girl anymore, then who was she?
Maybe instead of being everyone else’s good girl, she could simply be… herself.
Whoever the hell that was.
Sophie scoffed, and shook her head. She was being ridiculous. This was too much deep thinking before breakfast.
She went to take a shower, intent on washing all of the thoughts of romance and expectation down the drain where they belonged.
Dressed and ready for the day, Sophie went down to La Chouette. The bell on the tea shop’s door jingled as she stepped inside, and the air, perfumed with spices and scents, seemed to embrace her.
Sophie had made her booking via email, and when she’d arrived—jet-lagged and beyond exhausted, and hardly up for conversation—she’d spoken to the owner, Hélène Marchand, only briefly.
But now, she was feeling much more like herself. She could appreciate the gentle beauty of the shop, all of her senses awakening. Of course there was the scent of the store: tea and spice, warm clove and sharp pepper and sweet candied orange and lemon peel all tumbling around in a way that was inviting, not overwhelming. But there was the look of it as well: the way the rows and rows of labeled canisters were tucked neatly into their wooden alcoves along one wall; the way the well-worn brass of the drawer pulls beneath the shelves bore decades’ worth of touches; the simple chandelier which hung overhead, its chain set in the center of an ornate medallion, touched with gilt. And behind the counter in the back stood Hélène.
“Bonjour,” Sophie replied, as the shop owner stood up from behind the back counter.
The dark-haired woman was dressed in a deep plum dress that was fitted over her ample chest, nipped in at the waist, and flowed out over her hips in a spill of crepe. The dress buttoned down the front with little pearl buttons, and with her lush, curly hair pulled back into soft bun, and the wash of faint color on her lips and cheeks, Hélène Marchand looked timeless, chic, and utterly Parisian.
“How are you finding everything?” Hélène asked with a smile. “How is your stay so far?”
“It’s wonderful,” Sophie said, returning the smile. “Lovely. I walked so much yesterday, I was glad to see the inside of the flat when I got back home last night.”
Hélène laughed, and wiped her hands on the linen towel she was holding. “You went out to see the city? Where did you go yesterday? Here, let me bring you something, and you can sit and tell me everything.”
“I—” Sophie began, but her surprise faded to delight when Hélène ducked into the back room and returned, moments later, with a plate containing some kind of pastry, and a cup of tea.
“Thank you.” Sophie sat down on one of the stools that ran along the counter, and Hélène set down the plate and cup. Steam curled up from the teacup, warm and spicy-sweet. “This smells amazing.”
“Pumpkin chai,” Hélène said, leaning on the counter. “A new blend I am trying. You will tell me what you think of it… and pain aux raisins, from the patisserie down the way. My favorite…”
Hélène’s smile was that of a child who had just confessed to stealing sugar cubes from the pantry. Sophie couldn’t help but smile, too.
“Thank you,” Sophie picked up the cup and breathed in the scent of clove and cinnamon.
Hélène nodded, and gave Sophie an elegant shrug. “So, you walked the whole city yesterday?”
Sophie chuckled, and shook her head. “No. Just up to Luxembourg Gardens. And I wandered around on the way there, of course.”
It seemed like a rather lame explanation, but Hélène nodded like it made perfect sense. “I have seen many visitors since I started renting out the flat… And everyone comes to Paris for their own reasons, of course. I was curious when you booked it what yours were. Everyone has a story.”
Sophie sighed. Yes, she had a story. She picked up the pastry and took a bite of it, considering how best to answer this. It wasn’t that her hostess was prying… not exactly, anyway. Who wouldn’t be curious about a single woman looking for last-minute, open-ended accommodations?
“But, your reasons are your own,” Hélène said, standing up.
Sophie looked up at her, still chewing. The pain aux raisins was delicious, flaky and sweet.
“I don’t mean to pry,” Hélène said with a smile. “Only… if there is something you wanted to see while you were here, I can give you advice.”
“You’re the second person to offer me that,” Sophie said with a smile. “Last night, a young man who claimed to be your nephew told me he could—”
“Tristan?” Hélène exclaimed, her brows raising up in surprise. “That’s interesting.”
“So he really is your nephew,” Sophie said, lifting her tea to take a sip; it tasted every bit as good as it smelled. “I was hoping he was telling the truth.”
“Yes, he is my nephew,” Hélène said. She didn’t seem upset by his offer, just surprised and curious. She picked up the linen cloth again and folded it neatly in half, and then in half, and then half again, until it was a tidy square on the dark wood countertop. Sophie put down the tea and pulled out her phone.
“So is this what he does?” Sophie asked with a laugh, showing Hélène the messages her nephew had sent. “Waits for unsuspecting tourists? Lures them in with the promise of seeing the city?”
Sophie had expected Hélène to laugh along with her, shake her head, confirm her suspicions… but instead, the woman’s brown eyes darted from the phone to Sophie, and back again.
“Non,” she said, reaching up to straighten one of the canisters on the wall, lifting and swiping beneath it with her neatly-folded cleaning cloth. “Tristan, he is a romantic, but he is not a… he does not play games, like young men do. Or at least, what they did in my day. Looking for one thing, you know?”
Hélène glanced back at Sophie with a wink.
“Oh,” Sophie said. She looked down at the photo, and the text. “So he’s… he really wants to show me Paris?”
“And I think you should go,” Hélène replied. “If you want my advice, which you have not asked for. But, there it is. Tristan is kind.”
Sophie considered this as the tea perfumed the air with spice.
There were many ways people had described Sophie throughout her life. Driven, dedicated, intense… successful, high-achieving, perfect.
Impulsive was not one of those words.
It was a word that, quite frankly, terrified her.
Impulsive desires could be dangerous. They could pull you off course, distract you from what you were supposed to be doing. But what was she supposed to be doing here, if not seeing the city?
Why the hell not? Her mind repeated. Damn it, the shower hadn’t washed those thoughts away at all.
She was driven. She was dedicated. She had achieved everything she wanted, planned and strategized and been goal-oriented, and look where it had gotten her. Dumped. Still just Sophie Flores, not Mrs. Greg Mercer.
Damn it, she thought, pulling up the texts from Tristan. What have I got to lose?
“I’m in,” she sent back to him, thumbs flying before the rest of her body could protest. “Where should I meet you?”
Sophie hit send, and, for good measure, snapped a photo of herself sipping the tea, and sent that too. The woman in the photo looked calm, and confident, and mischievous. She looked elegant and confident.
She looked happy.
“I’ll come to you,” came his swift reply. “See you soon.”
Sophie had been on a motorcycle twice before in her entire life; both times had been extremely ill-advised, and both times had been sans-helmet, winding through a backcountry lane with her arms clinging to the boy she’d had a crush on in high school. She’d been a girl then, only seventeen and skipping class to impress him, make him see that she could be casual and cool and not care about things besides him. It was, in hindsight, an awful choice. Not the rides, but the guy. Some dropout who had bedazzled her with his effortless casual nonchalance which had very quickly peeled back to reveal itself for what it was: A twenty-two year old jerk, who had no business setting his sights on a high school girl who should’ve stuck around for her Chemistry class.
But on the back of Tristan’s motorcycle, Sophie didn’t feel that way at all. Even though it brought those memories back to the surface—had seventeen really been the last time she’d done something reckless?—Sophie had a helmet on this time, and it was through city streets, not leaf-dappled roads miles from civilization.
She felt safe with Tristan.
And feeling safe was a novelty she could absolutely get acquainted with again.
Sophie had to admit, however, that the tea and pastry didn’t immediately settle in her stomach when she got on the back of the motorcycle, her legs spread for Tristan to sit between.
Now here she was, her arms around his waist, watching the streets of Paris fly by. The day was warm, but not too hot. Her hair was braided back, but little tendrils of curls whipped out to brush across her face, and as Sophie let go briefly to tuck them behind one ear, she felt a smile on her cheeks, and felt a sense of wild freedom, like something unlocking in her heart, a door that had been closed, locked, and rusted shut for centuries, it felt like.
They climbed up and up, slowing down as they came past the funicular entrance and avoiding a group of tourists. Sophie could see the great Basilica rising up overhead, and then it was lost behind buildings as he wound his way past it. At last, he parked on Rue des Saules, and they dismounted.
Sophie’s whole body felt like it was buzzing, and it wasn’t entirely due to the motorcycle.
“I hope you don’t mind a short walk,” Tristan said. “Stretch your legs a bit?”
“No, I don’t mind,” Sophie replied.
They walked for a little, and when at last they came around the corner and the whole of the basilica was revealed to them, Sophie couldn’t stop herself from staring up at it in awe like the tourist she absolutely was.
“It’s beautiful,” Tristan said, from beside her. “Isn’t it.”
Sophie nodded. “Yes. Can we go inside, do you think?”
Tristan gave her an almost impish look, a look that beckoned to adventure.
So they went inside, past the massive wooden doors and into the gilded silence. There were only a few others inside with them, and their soft footfalls echoed like contemplative ghosts as they wandered through, looking at this and that. At the front, the altarpiece and the great majesty of the art overhead—the simplicity of the red and white candles beneath it—the statuary, and the stained glass windows… it was overwhelming.
And were it not so quiet, Sophie might have asked him if he was religious. She wasn’t, not particularly; there were traditions she had learned in her youth, from a sometimes-devout grandmother, that she did not keep up with anymore. In places like this it was hard not to be at least a little bit reverent and awestruck.
Afterwards, they sat outside on the ledge and looked out over the city. A thoughtful sort of silence had formed between them, the kind of quiet enjoyment Sophie rarely felt with someone unless she really knew them.
Which was strange. She didn’t know Tristan at all. And yet somehow, it was as if a part of her did. Maybe there was such a thing as past lives; maybe she had known him before. Or maybe he just had that kind of presence that put her at ease, despite all her trepidations, her real-world concerns.
She hadn’t even thought about her wedding-that-wasn’t at all today. That was a relief.
Tristan sat down beside her—not so close that she was worried he was getting into her space, but close enough that she kind of hoped he might.
What was she thinking?
This wasn’t what this was.
But maybe it could be…
Side by side they sat there above the city. Her skin was tingling with his nearness. She wondered… was this moment a prelude to something else, something more?
Would she be opposed to that? There was that impulsivity again—running off, kissing boys halfway around the world. But why not? she thought.
Sophie sat there, the wind in her hair, the sun on her face.
And she waited for Tristan to make a move.