Emily in Paris meets Friends in author Ava Miles’ new novel about the power of friendship and the bonds of your chosen family, and you can read the whole first chapter right here.
Paris was a city full of what could have beens.
What could have been if ten years ago she’d stayed instead of returning to her hometown of Nowheresville, USA? What could have been if she’d gone for it instead of playing it safe?
There was no way of knowing, but this time Thea Rogers was determined to have it all.
Even if she was a sour mixture of exhaustion, worry, and fear sitting awkwardly alone at her favorite old haunt, Café Fitzy, decked out in wrinkled travel clothes and glaringly white tennis shoes with her outdated blue suitcase jammed next to her tiny corner table.
The August sun was beating down on her, keeping her skin damp with sweat, a constant state since she’d landed at CDG airport and taken the maze-like public transportation nightmare jammed with other grumpy, rumpled passengers. After the plane from Des Moines, Iowa, to Chicago and then on to Paris, she’d had to navigate who-knew-how-many Métro transits to make it to the heart of Saint-Germain.
The hour and a half transit had been a nightmare, and dragging her suitcase while needing to pee had been agony, until she’d broken down and stopped at her old favorite café for a coffee so she could use the bathroom.
If the waiter ever gave her the time of day and took her order. She didn’t see Antoine, the owner, who used to be a friend, and her chest grew tight. She could have used a friendly face right now.
Maybe it was the jet lag, lack of sleep, or the worry coiled up inside of her, but she was so sensitive, she swore everyone was staring at her as she sat there. The chic Parisian women smoking gracefully as they conversed in sultry French had their eyebrows raised her way, as if they were hoping she would leave. She could all hear them thinking that she was taking up space. Totally gauche. A rutabaga in a sea of exotic fruits.
If only they knew she’d once lived in this neighborhood and thought of it as her own. Forget that she’d arrived in a purple jumper with a white shirt boasting a Peter Pan collar. Because she’d thought it was coolest thing she could arrive in Paris wearing.
For that one magical year, she’d stretched her wings, but they’d been made of spun sugar, and she’d let them dissolve after returning home, where she’d slid into a routine that was as regular as it was boring.
Then, two days ago, her best friend and former roommate from Paris had called her. She’d been at the bakery where she worked, putting freshly proofed croissants in the oven.
Brooke hadn’t wasted time with any preliminaries.
“Thea!” she’d cried, her voice charged with emotion. “Nanine was rushed to the hospital after a heart attack.”
The bread pan had slipped from her hand, falling to the floor.
“The doctor called me for her. She wants all of us to come if we can and stay at the house together again. You’re the first of our Paris roommates I’ve called. I’m leaving as soon as I can arrange it with my editor.”
Her roommates’ faces flashed in her mind. Brooke, the go-getter. Dean, the dreamer. Sawyer, the thinker. Madison, the rebel. And Kyle, the golden boy. From the beginning, they’d been the most unlikely of friends, so different from each other in just about every way anyone could be. But their connection was proof friendship could be found in anyone, anywhere.
“I’ll take off from the bakery and leave as soon as I can.”
But it hadn’t been that easy.
Fate had followed through with another kick in the pants—despite her years of service, her boss had refused to grant her any of the vacation she was owed, pushing her to do something she’d never imagined: quitting her job. On the spot.
The very thought of it had her sucking in air and moaning, “Oh God,” making the two Parisian women who would never find themselves in a life crisis from the looks of them give her a haughty glare.
She wasn’t the kind of woman who made abrupt decisions. She dreamed of owning her own bakery someday, and quitting a successful job ran counter to pursuing that dream.
But this was family. Nanine! The mother of her heart.
After quitting, she’d jumped on the first flight to Paris she could find, draining what little savings she had. Her parents had tried to talk her out of it, of course. Thea, but you’ve worked there ever since you got your fancy degree in Paris. The Snyder family has been so good to you. Everyone loves you there. Don’t be rash. You’re not thinking straight.
She’d tried to explain. The bakery hasn’t been the same since Patty died two years ago and Fred took over. He never lets me have time off. All I do is work.
They hadn’t listened, of course. Her people were farmers and had married early. They’d never traveled out of the Midwest—never wanted to, especially not to a faraway place like Paris. They hadn’t understood why she’d worked every job she could find to save money to train as a baker instead of living and working on the family farm, and now they didn’t understand why her long-time job wasn’t enough.
Feeling a little faint from heat and dehydration, she signaled to the waiter as he swept in to refill the wineglasses of the two chic women two tables over. He didn’t spare her a glance, and she wanted to slide under the table in shame. She’d bet F. Scott Fitzgerald had never had a problem getting a drink here when he was reportedly writing The Great Gatsby in the right corner table beside the mahogany bar.
She supposed she could leave, but that would also be gauche since she’d already used the bathroom. Rule number one of Paris: when you had to use the bathroom, you got a beverage to pay for the privilege.
He was making her wait because he didn’t think she belonged, and that wasn’t right. This was her old stomping ground, and Antoine’s place. Old Thea might have slunk away with her tail between her legs, but the new Thea she wanted to be would stand her ground.
She dug into her carry-on for her old recipe journal. If she kept herself occupied, she might feel less awkward. The sight of the dancing breads made her run her fingers over the front cover. When she’d packed, she’d spontaneously rifled through her hope chest for the perfume Nanine had given her as a gift years before, and she’d found her old spiral-bound journal under it. She’d brought it with her to Paris ten years ago, thinking to fill it with recipes, but instead, she’d filled it with her dreams after realizing it was too corny for Le Cordon Bleu.
As she’d lifted it out of the chest, a scrap of paper had fallen out. The glue she’d used to adhere it to the page must have given out. Much like she had on some of her dreams. The fortune cookie slip was from one of her last meals in Paris with her roommates and its message still gave her goosebumps.
The friendships you make will last a lifetime.
She hadn’t known then how true that was, but she and her roommates had stayed in touch and seen each other when they could. Of course, certain people were closer with each other, like she and Brooke, and everyone had stayed in touch with Nanine. She was the rock, the anchor, the woman who had given each of them something special.
Returning to Paris and bringing her old journal was like coming full circle. The whole book was chock-full of her dreams of running her own bakery and becoming more confident, along with memories of her roommates and their time together with Nanine. She still remembered the moment she’d tucked it and her perfume away. Her mother had called her fancy for wearing perfume to Sunday dinner. She’d cried when she’d gotten back to her apartment, missing Paris and her roommates and Nanine.
Well, that half-life she’d been living was over. She was back and she could resurrect her dreams like she had her old journal. She turned to the first page and read what she’d written on the note card ten years ago.
Recipe for: A Delicious Life
Date: August 24
Prep time: One Year
Ingredients: Studying & working hard, Patience, Confidence, Openness, Friendship, Humor
Hard-to-find ingredients: see Confidence above, Mastering the French language, New look
Notes: This is your chance. When you work hard, good things happen. This year is your ticket to better things. Getting a degree at Le Cordon Bleu will help you own your own bakery someday. Listen to your teachers. Try and put yourself out there more. Don’t be weird. Maybe learn a few tips on how to dress better.
Every successful recipe starts with finding the best ingredients and following the directions.
She stared at the last part. She hadn’t followed all the directions once she’d gotten home. She’d settled back into her old life, one where every day tasted like oatmeal. Sure, she’d gotten a great job as a baker at a renowned family-owned bakery. Sure, she’d kept her friendships with Nanine and her roommates alive. But she hadn’t kept up the whole put yourself out there part. She still didn’t fit in where she’d been born and raised, and she’d gone back to hiding in plain sight.
The truth was, the prospect of turning thirty in October had made her take out a magnifying glass to examine the state of her life. As Nanine liked to say, milestones had a way of making one examine one’s journey so far. She turned to the first entry she’d written on the plane—the one she couldn’t even bring herself to put in the first person because that would make it too real.
Recipe for: PATHETIC
Notes: Thea Rogers works like a dog.
She rarely dates.
If she has a day off, she’s either at her parents’ farm helping out or curled up alone on her couch bingeing shows about other
people having lives.
Nothing in her life is exceptional except for being a baker.
Life is passing Thea Rogers by.
And if she continues on this track, she’s going to end up alone, with nothing but bread and croissants to keep her company, which will probably make her fat.
Conclusion: Thea Rogers is sick of herself and her life.
Cure: Thea Rogers needs a life makeover. Bad.
She wanted to cover the words with her hands to make them less overwhelming, but maybe she needed the reminder. Her boring but reliable life was gone. It felt freeing but terrifying, and now that she was here in Paris, she had no idea what she was going to do with herself beyond offering some comfort to Nanine. Nausea steamrolled her, so she sucked in several slow breaths of Parisian air. The faint scent of freshly baked bread helped her straighten her spine.
Being back here with no return ticket was a curveball, no doubt. But it could also be a gift—a chance to reinvent herself and her life. In Paris, where everything had changed for her once before. It could happen again.
She grabbed a pen as a phrase came to mind and wrote it on the next blank page in her journal.
Recipe for: Living Life to the Fullest
That would be her new recipe, she decided, especially since Nanine’s heart attack had shown her just how short life could be. She was going to use her time here to become the person she really wanted to be, the one she’d originally written about. Not the boring play-it-safe nice girl from Nowheresville she’d returned to being.
Because here was a truth that both terrified and thrilled her: she planned on staying. She had a terrific résumé, didn’t she? And she’d brought her essential tools of the trade so she could give a potential employer a demo of her abilities: her sourdough starter named Doughreen (God, she was such a geek), her broken-in pastry cloth, and her well-washed pink apron with a croissant and heart on its lapel.
Once Nanine was back on her feet, Thea would find a job. Yep, absolutely, she thought, nodding to a pigeon who stopped in front of her, hoping for food. He looked a little starved like she was, so she nudged a bread crumb on the ground his way. Bread has a way of making you feel better, she wanted to tell him.
Thea heard her phone trill in her purse, prompting the pigeon to fly off. She cringed as the two Parisian women glared at her for her faux pas. She jumped up immediately, almost knocking the table over, and darted across the pedestrian street to take the call. Digging through her remaining snacks in her purse, she pulled out her phone. Brooke!
“Hi there! I’m at Café Fitzy’s trying to get a coffee. Where are you?”
“Hey, sweetie! I’m running a little late. I had an interview with one of the hottest new fashion designers in Paris when I arrived. I set it up at the last minute because I got here before everyone else and couldn’t bear the thought of sitting alone in Nanine’s. I’m so glad you stopped at Fitzy’s.”
Thea caught a dagger-eyed look from a waiter when he came out and gestured pointedly to her luggage. “I had to pee, but I might never get a coffee. I reek of tourist.”
“Typical, but you can turn that around. Look the waiter in the eye and say, ‘Excuse me, sir. Is Antoine here today?’”
Then Brooke repeated it in perfect French. Thea couldn’t imagine pulling that off. Her French sounded like a dying tractor engine coated in rust. “Maybe I should just leave money for a coffee on the table.”
“You just arrived in Paris for the first time in eight years. Follow my directions! You’ll get your coffee.”
Her journal’s helpful hint about following directions came to mind, and for the first time since before she’d heard the news about Nanine, she felt her mouth twitch. Brooke loved to boss people around, and Thea sometimes liked it. It felt like her friend was the rudder in her boat. She’d need Brooke’s help now more than ever to become the Thea she wanted to be.
“Okay, Brooke. I’ll try.”
“And pump Antoine for information about Nanine. The doctor said she refuses to talk to anyone until we’re all here and together. I’m scared, Thea.”
Suddenly she could use that comforting bread crumb on the ground herself. “We all are.”
“Yeah.” Silence hung over the line for a moment before she pressed, “How are you really? You must be going out of your mind about quitting your job.”
Her stomach quivered, but she decided to give a spunky comeback. Spunky comebacks were for girls trying to turn their lives around, weren’t they? “This is the best thing that could have happened to me. Not that I wanted Nanine to ever—”
“Oh, Thea, I know that. But are you seriously telling me you haven’t cried? I know you. Not once?”
She worried her lip. “Well, I did run through a pack of tissues on the plane, but then I started watching all my feel-good Paris movies. Worked like a charm.” Mostly.
“How many movies are we talking?” Brooke asked suspiciously.
“I started with French Kiss, then went on to Julie & Julia before ending with the movie that kicked off my love for everything France.”
“Sabrina.” Brooke sighed heavily. “Oh, Thea. I don’t want you to worry, okay? You won’t have rent, staying at Nanine’s. What did you do about your apartment?”
Oh, that. Her nausea rolled back like a freight train. “I told Mrs. Randall everything. She’s too nice to hold me to my lease. I only have to pay rent until she finds a new tenant. I worked like a dog to pack up my personal belongings before I left. I didn’t have much since I was never home. My parents agreed to store my stuff at the farm.” That had gone over like a lead balloon, along with them agreeing to keep her car until she could arrange to sell it.
She’d even dropped some boxes off at the Salvation Army on her way to the airport, things she never wanted to wear again, things her mother had given her. Black old lady shoes in her giant size of eleven and ugly print dresses that made her like look she could star in Little House on the Prairie. Her mother had always had a fondness for the show and hoped Thea could turn out like Half-Pint. Her school photos wearing floral print flannel dresses with her hair in braids would haunt her for the rest of her life.
“Out with the old and in with the new!” Brooke’s enthusiasm was a soothing balm. “Thea, I’ll cover anything you need. That asshole you worked for didn’t appreciate you, and I’m glad you quit. I’m so proud of you.”
She couldn’t blame jet lag for her tears this time. It was those words— she’d rarely heard them from her parents. “You’re the best. Did you know that?”
“Tell that to my ex. Ugh. Did I tell you he’s dating this hot new Brazilian model named Plumonia? My editor asked if I was going to be able to still report on what she wears during fashion week.”
Brooke was a style editor for TRENDS, which meant it really would be part of her job. Sighing, she added, “I had to bite my tongue so I wouldn’t ask, but seriously, what kind of name is Plumonia?”
“Sounds like pneumonia to me.”
“She’s nineteen, by the way. Nineteen!”
Which meant their age difference was eighteen years. Now it was Thea’s turn to cheerlead. “I never liked Adam. You’re better off without him.”
“That’s what I’ve told myself every day for the past four months since I changed my ringtone to Beyoncé’s ‘Best Thing I Never Had’ to help me remember. Hey! You need a new ringtone.”
She’d ignore the fact that she wouldn’t be using her U.S. phone in Paris because the fees were too expensive. Going back to using an international calling card had its advantages. One of them being that she wouldn’t have to call her parents for a while. When she’d first come to Paris, they’d gone six to eight weeks at a time without talking, and since they still didn’t have a computer, email was out of the question. “I’ll think about it.”
“All right, Thea,” her friend said. “I’ll see you in forty. Don’t get into trouble. You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.”
She groaned. “Dorothea is my name, and jokes about me being from Kansas aren’t funny. Iowa is an entirely different state.”
Brooke’s snort had her smiling again. “Sorry, you know I love you, but we New Yorkers don’t care about the middle states. I’ll see you soon. The others will start rolling in shortly. Dean could beat me, in fact, but that depends on traffic. The Second is a nightmare. I’ve never seen so many tourists around the Louvre in August.”
“Wait!” Thea cried out as a new thought struck her. “You didn’t tell everyone else about me quitting, did you? Nanine should be our focus right now.”
“My car is here, sweetie. Gotta go.”
The call ended. Thea worried her lip. She didn’t want her other roommates to know about her issues just yet. They’d always considered her a little sister, the nice small-town girl who needed looking after. Okay, some of that had been true when she’d arrived fresh-faced with only two years of high school French to carry her along.
She’d been so unprepared then, and maybe she wasn’t much better off now. But she didn’t want her roommates’ pity, and she sure as heck didn’t want anyone to think her problems were on par with Nanine’s heart attack.
Thea dropped her phone back into her purse, her spirits better after talking to Brooke. Her friend had more confidence in her little finger than Thea had in her entire body. Such confidence could be catching. That was an ingredient she desperately needed for herself.
She headed back to her table, already looking forward to her café. Brooke was right. She had to have it. A coffee in Paris was not a regular event. Sawyer used to say a single cup was filled with existential meaning, decadent pleasure, and toe-curling comfort. But that was Sawyer for you, always thinking deeper than the rest of them.
As she watched for her waiter to reappear, she opened her recipe book to the photo of her and her roommates at Christmastime ten years ago. They were all drinking champagne at Café Fitzy’s after opening presents. Brooke’s short bob still looked stylish even though she’d been blond back then. Dean was making a funny face for the camera. Sawyer had on his very studious-looking glasses and was trying not to laugh. Madison wasn’t smiling, but her golden eyes were bright with happiness. And Kyle was as beautiful as ever, being the golden boy he was, and he had his arm wrapped around Thea. Then there was Nanine, sitting in the middle of the group, her elegant long gray hair trailing down her shoulders.
Thea’s heart warmed. That was still the best Christmas she’d ever had. She touched the photo. Soon she was going to be back with them all.
Coming back here was one of the best decisions of your life, Thea Rogers.
Then Antoine stepped outside and her chest welled with nostalgia. He was here! He held a pack of cigarettes in his weathered hand and walked across the cobbled pedestrian street to where she’d just been standing, lighting one and taking a deep drag. His oblong face had a pronounced chin and an insouciant straight nose that worked with his usual tourist-directed scowl. The sun-kissed lines around his dark eyes were a stark marker of his joys and sorrows while his hair was almost pure white now, making him even more distinguished. She’d known him when it was silver, and while he had a few more age lines, he was very much the same.
“Antoine!” She broke into a smile and waved like an American before she caught her faux pas. The French did not wave.
He took another drag on his cigarette and stared at her with narrowed eyes. Then he blinked, as if coming out of a dream, and darted over after letting an unsteady cyclist ride by. “First Course!” he called enthusiastically in French, leaning over and kissing both her cheeks in greeting as he stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray on the small table.
She winced. “Yes, it’s me, First Course,” she answered in French and wanted to crawl into a hole at how she sounded. “Thea.”
“Thea! You’re here to help our lovely Nanine, yes?” he asked, again in French, as his face grew shadowed. “Everyone in the neighborhood has been so worried.”
“Yes, I hope to.” She switched to English. “You know how she is. My other former roommates are arriving soon as well.”
“All six courses back in Paris,” Antoine said, his dark eyes showing a telltale wetness before pointing to the photo she had out. “You are cataloguing memories, I see. I remember the night. Nanine had given you each a special gift of fragrance, I believe. You could smell the love between all of you in the air.”
Thea fought back her own tears. “It was a beautiful night. Antoine, the news about Nanine was such a shock. She’s always been so healthy.”
“Maybe her heart gave so much, it finally couldn’t give any more,” Antoine muttered. “Always a big heart for everyone, Nanine. Especially lately.”
She made a conversational sound before asking, “What happened lately, Antoine?”
He shook his head. “I would not feel right, talking about Nanine’s business. She is better telling you.”
If there was one thing about the French Thea appreciated, it was that they valued others’ privacy. And yet Brooke would want her to push. “We are all friends, are we not?” she asked badly in French, hoping to be more persuasive. “It would help us—”
“Oui, but you must be thirsty, Thea.” The change to English as much as the shift in subject was as good as a period at the end of a sentence. “Café crème? Croissant?”
She nodded vigorously. Antoine called out in rapid French to the waiter who had stopped his serving and was openly listening to their conversation. He darted inside after Antoine sent him off with a flick of his hand.
Antoine gave a Gallic shrug. “He thought you were a tourist. Welcome home, First Course. Tell Nanine her first café back at Fitzy’s will be on me.”
Clearly she wasn’t cut out to be Sherlock. She hoped Brooke wouldn’t be upset. “I will, Antoine, and thank you.”
His smile was a little watery as he went inside. She dashed at her own tears and told herself to hold it together. The waiter finally arrived with her coffee and croissant with a brief smile. Progress, Thea thought, as she ripped open two brown sugars and poured them into her café, stirring slowly to maintain the light-as-air foam on top. She closed her eyes and took a sip. The sweet blend of roasted coffee and rich milk saturated her senses, and for a moment, there was peace.
Everything seemed possible. Even her own transformation.
Not that she expected her renewed recipe for a delicious life to be a cakewalk. More like making bread. She would need new ingredients to come together for herself, ones she’d have to mix and incorporate until she found the perfect dough. Then she’d have to let it all sit, rise, and take shape. Fire had a way of sealing everything together, and there was fire inside her—her drive, her passion. When she got the right recipe, she knew she’d come out a masterpiece.
A masterpiece, huh? The Paris air is making you delusional, Thea Rogers.
No one could call her a masterpiece right now. She fingered the baggy tan T-shirt over her wrinkled black cotton drawstring pants and eyed her giant tennis shoes. Should she change before seeing Brooke? Her friend would be dripping style like always, all the way down to her fashionable heels. Thea tucked her feet together under the table in shame. Wearing a size eleven was the bane of her existence, especially in Paris where the steps on most stairs ran more to a size seven shoe.
She glanced in the café’s glass windows and caught her reflection. Her brown hair was overdue for a cut and hung in a shaggy mess down her back. Because when did she have time for a haircut? Usually she put it in a ponytail.
Back home, she looked like everyone else. The one-length plain Jane hairstyle wasn’t supposed to stand out. Neither were her boring, neutral clothes.
Her mother said she was a late bloomer. That was stopping now.
She signaled to the waiter for her bill when he appeared. As she was opening her purse for her money, her journal fell to the ground and another slip of paper danced in the air before falling to the ground. She bent down to pick it up and read the phrase she’d cut out of one of Brooke’s old fashion magazines.
Your dreams are just around the corner.
Emotion rolled through her, and her eyes tracked to the end of the pedestrian street as she tucked the paper back into her journal. Her eyes latched onto a man who came around the corner wearing a navy pinstriped suit.
Her heart immediately started pounding.
Suddenly all she could feel was a rumbling throughout her entire body, as if a Métro train were passing underground. She grabbed the table’s edge to steady herself as she watched him come closer.
His hair was thick, curly, and ink black. He had golden skin, which she fantasized came from sunbathing on his yacht in Saint-Tropez. Black designer sunglasses hid his eyes, but his bone structure would rival that of a Greek god.
When he flashed a dashing smile and called out a greeting to her waiter, she pressed her hand to her chest, where her pulse was galloping. He was as a local, and an affable one at that.
As he turned the next corner and disappeared from sight, she slumped in her chair. She was out of breath and trembling. She couldn’t even lift her coffee cup right now. My, oh, my…
Mr. Pinstripes was like no other man she’d ever seen. He certainly bore no resemblance to any of the Joe Schmoes she’d dated back in Nowheresville. She tried to catch her breath as she told herself she was being stupid. She didn’t have a shot with a man like him.
She gulped more oxygen, but her nerves were wired from Mr. Pinstripes. Perhaps his pheromones had some insane effect on the opposite sex. Glancing around, she eyed other women at the café. None of them seemed to have noticed him. If she hadn’t known any better, she would have sworn she was dreaming. Then she thought back to the message that had slipped out of her journal. It had to be a coincidence, right?
She finished her café and allowed her body to settle down. Then she checked her phone again. Nothing more from Brooke, but Dean had texted her. She couldn’t wait to see him. He was like a Ferris wheel, always fun but forever turning in a circle, barely stopping.
She clicked on his text. Hey sweetie! Heading straight to Nanine’s. Probably fifteen minutes out. Can’t wait to see you.
Heartened, she decided to head over to Nanine’s herself. The walk would do her pheromone-crazed body good, right? She would be the first one to welcome Dean, and Brooke would arrive soon as well. She would have loved to have had someone waiting for her. Plus, she could take care of Doughreen. Her starter needed to go into the cooler, stat.
And maybe she’d run into Mr. Pinstripes again. There was no harm in looking, was there?
When the waiter finally appeared, he said, “Antoine says it’s on the house.”
Her eyes grew wet again. “Tell him thank you,” she said as she didn’t see the older man hovering in the doorway.
He gave a little incline of his jaunty chin as she eased out of her chair and grabbed the handle of her suitcase, taking off down the sidewalk as a quartet of tourists on rented bicycles angled by.
The way to Nanine’s was familiar, but her eyes took in the new bar around the corner called Speakeasy with its crisp navy awning. She’d bet Mr. Pinstripes frequented the joint, and her heart rate spiked again at the thought.
Her luggage wheel caught on the sidewalk as her attention wavered before she dragged it along. La Maison de l’Entrecôte emitted the familiar scent of grilled steak, green pepper from its succulent sauce, and frites in the air as she passed. A new tea salon called Old Hong Kong had her wanting to cross its threshold simply because of the name. Besides loving tea, she’d never been to Hong Kong but had always been curious about it. Heck, she’d never been to anywhere but France and Canada.
More bucket list items, Thea.
Next door, The Little Black Dress Shop ironically displayed a slinky one-shoulder dress in blue. She stopped short. Holy moly, it was gorgeous. Something she’d wear on a date with a man like Mr. Pinstripes in her fantasy world.
She rolled her eyes at herself and kept going. Walking on Paris’ golden streets was like wrapping herself up in bright, shiny wrapping paper tied up with a big red bow. Her excitement spiked as she neared Nanine’s restaurant and her old home. Picking up her pace, she turned the next corner and stopped cold. “Oh, my gosh!”
The burgundy awning was gone, the one that had sported the simple but somehow comforting sign reading Nanine’s. The menu placard on the wall by the double doors was missing, and the curtains were gone. The windows looked grim and dusty, as if the building had been abandoned for years.
Her stomach started to burn. What had happened? Nanine hadn’t mentioned any changes when Thea had spoken to her last month.
She rushed across the street to look inside.
The restaurant was gutted, the tables gone, the walls torn open. And was that exposed wire hanging out? Had there been a fire? Her hand flew to her mouth.
Was this why Nanine had had a heart attack?
She stood breathing harshly. Brooke and Dean were going to freak when they saw this. Everyone was. “Okay,” she assured herself. “We’ll figure it out.”
Unsteady, Thea headed to the alley. She had to get inside. Reaching the back of the restaurant, she tucked her luggage out of sight. Nanine had always kept a spare key taped below an old loose brick under the back steps. Thea found it and tore the tape back, grasping the brass key. She prayed Nanine had fixed the lock. The key was notorious for being difficult, something the older woman had intentionally not fixed as she found it a satisfying battle of wills on occasion—something to get the blood pumping.
She faced the old lock. Here we go. She inserted the key. It stuck like it always had. “Oh, come on,” she pleaded softly. She pressed the key harder and heard the metal scrape. Then it finally turned.
As she walked inside, her knees went weak with relief. The kitchen was exactly as it had been—except covered in dust, she quickly realized as she scanned the stainless steel prep counters and let her eyes wander over to the industrial range and ovens.
Nanine’s famous chandelier gave a faint jangle of its crystal, almost like a weak pulse. Thea’s gaze traveled across the room to where it hung in the small hallway leading to the dining room. Nanine had kept the small chandelier in the kitchen because the former owner had said it had a personality all its own, like many unexplainable things in Paris. The crystals served as a weathervane of sorts for the restaurant’s atmosphere.
She coughed as dust reached her nose, and when she inhaled, she could have sworn she smelled roast chicken. Nanine was known for her roasted chicken laced with butter and herbs de Provence. Just like that, her mind flashed back to sitting at the large wooden farm table in the kitchen with her roommates, all of them laughing and drinking wine while stealing bites of chicken and roasted potatoes as Nanine smiled from ear to ear at the head of the table.
The kitchen was eerily quiet except for the sound of the antique Horloge on the wall. Nanine had hung it there because it had a second hand that new staff could watch for time-sensitive sauces like béarnaise or hollandaise.
She knew she was putting off going to the front of the restaurant. But she couldn’t make her feet move in that direction. Dean and Brooke would both be arriving soon, she assured herself, and they would all face that disaster together. She could distract herself by taking care of Doughreen. She silenced any thoughts about her being a coward as she went back for her luggage and dragged it back to Nanine’s walk-in cooler.
“Doughreen, you’re going to be so happy here,” she told her starter after unzipping her suitcase on the floor. Her airtight plastic container was perspiring in the Ziploc bag, but Thea gave a moment of thanks that Doughreen hadn’t exploded like her bottle of shampoo.
She set it aside with a grimace and then shot to her feet when she heard staccato-like footsteps in the kitchen. Dean! The crystals in Nanine’s famous chandelier gave a sudden clang as she raced toward the back door.
Only to be faced with three men in police uniforms scowling at her with their feet braced, as if ready to take down a dangerous intruder. It took her a second to realize who the intruder was.