Chapter 2

 

     Antoine picked up the suitcase and followed Collette into the hall. “You didn’t have to call a taxi. I would have taken you.”

     She flashed that grin, so typical of a little sister. “You have plans, and I do not want to interfere with business. Who knew it would be so complicated? How much longer will you stay?”

     “A week, two perhaps. I have more research to do.”

     “Business and research are not what keep you in Texas, Antoine. Do not pretend with me. She is cute, though clumsy.”

     He didn’t bother to pretend. “Staying will give me a chance to get to know her . . . hopefully.”

     “This is a good thing.” She patted his cheek. “It has been a long time.”

     The cab pulled up to the curb, saving him from a longer conversation.

     Collette climbed in but grabbed his arm. “You will be home for the celebration?”

     “It’s a month away.” He offered an eyeroll for her satisfaction.

     “What is the saying? Time flies when you are having . . . fun.”

     “Go plan your party. I’ll be home in a week or so.”

     “Keep me posted.” She wagged a finger at him. “If one more person will be attending, I need to know.”

     “You’ll be late if you don’t hurry. Go on now.” He grinned as the car door swung closed.

     He hurried back to his room, dialing as he went.

     Gemma answered on the third ring. “Hello.”

     “Gemma, it is Antoine. Have I caught you at a good time?” He smiled at the small gasp from the other end of the line.

     “Yes. Absolutely. You have great timing. Yes.”

     “Very well. Tonight, with your permission, I’d like to pick you up from your house.”

     After nearly a full second of silence, he thought perhaps he should have let her meet them at the restaurant.

     “Here it is. Sorry. Yes. You can pick me up.” She inhaled and exhaled before continuing. “I’m really nervous, and I couldn’t remember my address, but I found it on a letter. I live in an apartment.”

     Antoine stifled a laugh. “I have a pen in my hand.”

     “You aren’t writing this on my list, are you?” A giggle bubbled out of her before she read off the address.

     He loved that sound. “I have reservations for six-thirty. I hear traffic can be troublesome. Would five-thirty be okay for you?”

     “I’ll be ready. And, Antoine, seeing you today was a very pleasant surprise.”

     “For both of us.”

     “Bye, I guess. Or see you later.”

     “Au revoir.” He laid back on the bed as she ended the call. He’d never met a woman so full of life, so open.

     It had been nearly seven years since he—he wasn’t ready to let some memories out of their closets. Cherished, those memories stayed tucked away, so he could live life without unending sadness.

     He called the number Austin had handed over when Antoine left the office.

     “Hello.”

     “Bonjour. Austin Graves recommended—no, he insisted I call. I need a limousine for this evening, and he said you were exactly what I needed. I know it is late notice.”

     “Special date?” The limo driver asked the strangest questions.

     “Perhaps. It’s a first date.”

     “My name’s Art, and it must be your lucky day because my other booking for tonight just cancelled. What time do you need me?”

     “I made dinner reservations for six-thirty, and I told my date I’d pick her up at five-thirty.”

     “Send me your address and her address, and I’ll text you to confirm the times.”

     After making the arrangements, Antoine headed to the shower. He’d invited a woman to dinner. It almost didn’t seem real.

     Standing under the shower head, reality pelted him. Why had he been so impulsive? He hadn’t dated in years. And this woman lived in a different country.

     By the time he climbed out of the shower, the urge to cancel overwhelmed him. A week or two wasn’t nearly long enough to begin a relationship, if he could even stay that long. And if they enjoyed each other’s company, what then? He’d be going home, and she’d still be here—in Texas.

     Why was it the first person who made him feel something in forever lived halfway across the continent?

     His phone rang as he stepped out of the bathroom. His hair still dripping, he answered without looking at the number. “Hello.”

     Bubbly sunshine came through the line. “It’s me again. I feel horrible about your shirt. Please let me replace it or at least have it cleaned. It’s just so embarrassing that I ruined it. My ringtone was noisy. I needed to get out and didn’t watch where I was going. And then you were there . . . and . . . I’m sorry I asked you to take off your shirt.”

     Canceling simply was not an option.

     “It was the first time a woman asked me to remove clothing within minutes of meeting me.” He laughed, amused by her rambling.

     “I wasn’t—” She sighed. “I just don’t want you to think . . .”

     “I’m only joking.”

     “Oh, so it happens often?” She bantered back with such ease.

     He had no clever response. “It does not. It has been—” He almost ventured into territory he wasn’t ready to discuss. “I find you delightful.”

     “I’m not usuall—you do?”

     “Very much so.”

     “Oh.” Silence followed.

     He glanced at the phone to be sure the call hadn’t ended. “Gemma?”

     “I’m here. I just didn’t know what to say. Five-thirty, right?”

     “Yes. I’m looking forward to it.”

     “I love your accent. Where are you from?”

     “I am originally from Quebec. But I live—”

     “Sorry. I’m getting a call. Lots of Valentine deliveries today. I’m really sorry, but I gotta run.”

     “See you tonight.”

     “By—.” The call ended in the middle of the word.

***

     Antoine shook hands with the limo driver before climbing into the back of the limousine. “Thank you so much.”

     “It’ll take just a bit. There will be traffic going to her place, coming back into town will be easier.” He pulled away from the curb. “You know Austin?”

     “Yes. We’re old friends. I met his friend quite by accident, and the four of us are going to dinner.”

     “How long will you be in town?” Art navigated traffic, only occasionally glancing in the rearview mirror.

     Antoine had heard that question a lot today. “Not sure. Maybe two weeks.”

     “I hope you have a great stay.”

     Not knowing the town well, Antoine watched out the window, making mental notes of landmarks and road names. Staying downtown seemed convenient for business, but the closer to the suburbs the limo got, the more Antoine toyed with the idea of changing hotels.

     Austin lived out this way, at least that’s how it sounded from his explanation.

     When the limo exited the highway and turned onto a side street, Antoine paid closer attention. They turned into an apartment complex, and he felt his pulse accelerate.

     “That’s building five, so I’ll park here and let you go to the door.” Art pulled up along the curb.

     Antoine checked the apartment number and climbed out, both excited and nervous. He ran up the stairs and found the right apartment. After a deep breath, he knocked, anticipating the bright smile he’d been graced with in Austin’s office.

     Gemma opened the door, curls dangling in front of her face as she tugged on her boot. “Hi.” Once it was on, she smoothed her floral dress and flashed the smile he’d been waiting to see.

     “I’m ready. I hope this is okay.” She looked down at her dress.

     “Perfect. Gemma, you are a vision.”

     “I wasn’t—I didn’t say that so you’d—Thank you.”

     Antoine held out his arm. “Because I wanted us to talk without worrying about traffic—since I’m not from around here—I hired a car.”

     “I could have driven.”

     “Perhaps next time.” He didn’t miss the grin that spread across her face when he mentioned next time. “The limousine is this way.”

     Her fingers curled around his bicep. “Delightful, huh?”

     “Incredibly so.”

     The date was off to a great start.

     Art opened the back door as they approached the car. “Good evening, Gemma.”

     “Art, hi! This is Antoine.” She smiled up at Antoine. “Art sends lots of clients my way.”

     “It is surprising that in such a big city, so many of you know each other.”

     “San Antonio is just a big small town. Here, it feels like everyone’s connected somehow.” Gemma slid into the backseat. Once he buckled in beside her, she restarted the conversation from earlier. “So, you’re from Quebec but you live where now?”

     “Toronto.”

     “I’ve never been to Canada.”

     “Toronto is wonderful but busy, though I would very much like to show you Montreal and Quebec City. In Quebec City, there is an old fort, which had to defend against the Americans who sailed up the Saint Lawrence River.”

     “Well, this is awkward.” She chuckled. “Sorry about the whole sailing over to attack you bit.” She said the most unexpected things.

     “All is forgiven.”

     “I’m glad you feel that way.” She glanced out the window toward downtown. “Where are we headed?”

     “A place at the brewery, a restaurant Austin recommended. So, if you do not like it, we can blame him.”

     “I’m sure it will be great. Austin does almost everything on a grand scale, at least when it comes to Zoe. He hired me right after they got engaged. Instead of having me shop for one thing as an engagement gift, he had me get something different every day. It was a blast.” Gemma’s enthusiasm radiated off her.

     A glimmer of an idea sparked in Antoine’s brain. “You must be very good at what you do.”

     “I am.” She curled a strand of hair around her finger. “It took me a while before I could say that, but I am. So, if you ever need a personal shopper, I’m your girl.” She dropped her hands into her lap.

     “I will remember that. Have you always lived in San Antonio?”

     “I have. How long have you lived in Toronto?”

     “Seven years.”

     Art pulled up along the curb. “Text me when you are ready, and I’ll meet you back here.”

     “Thanks.” Antoine held out his hand to Gemma. “It is only a short walk, I think.”

     She slipped her hand into his. “Lead the way.”

     They strolled through the historic area, and Antoine scanned the buildings for the name. When he spotted it, he pointed. “Over there.”

     Austin waved from inside, and Gemma tensed.

     “Is something wrong?” Antoine pulled her to the side.

     Curls bounced as she shook her head. “Not really. I’m just—I don’t usually have dinner with my clients. I sometimes have lunch with Zoe, but that’s different because—”

     “Because she is a woman?”

     “Maybe. I was going to say because she wasn’t rich. She is now because of Austin.”

     He couldn’t help but laugh, wondering how much Zoe had said about his financial status. “Well, knowing that, I am very glad you said yes.”

     “Me too.” She squeezed his hand. “Really glad.”


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