Fifteen minutes later, after being sent to several diferent oices, Chantal and I stand at a counter in a large public room that resembles a registry of motor vehicles in the United States.

“What’s your friend’s name?” Chantal asks after speaking in French to the prim, ifty-something woman behind the counter.

“Ella Johnson,” I ofer quickly, eager for answers.

Chantal speaks to the woman, who then keys information into the computer and shakes her head. My stomach plummets to the loor. “What about the intended husband?” Chantal asks me.

I tell her and then hug myself as I wait for the dreaded next head shake. A few keystrokes later that’s exactly what I get, but the woman goes on to explain something to Chantal.

“She says,” Chantal relays, “that you have to have established residence in France for forty days and post a public notice before the wedding. Most foreigners do that at thirty days, but she sees no notice or application. Has it been at least thirty days?”

My stomach rolls violently. “Yes. She was only planning to be gone two weeks. She had to be back to work and she never showed.”

“Oh no,” Chantal replies, looking appalled. “You didn’t tell me. I had no idea.” She turns to the woman and they exchange a rapid back-and-forth before Chantal casts me a grim look.

“There just isn’t any chance she got married. They’d know.

Maybe she and her iancé were overzealous and didn’t do their research. They could have gone out of the country to get married since two weeks isn’t enough time here.”

Except there’s no record of her leaving, but I don’t say that.

“Thanks, Chantal. I’ll look into other options.” I ight the urge to call Chris and tell him what I’ve discovered. “I need to go to the consulate in the morning. I lost my passport and I want to ask questions about my friend. Could you go with me as part of my lesson?”

“Of course.” She reaches out and squeezes my hand. “Don’t fret. I’m sure she’s ine. In fact, I bet she loved the food so much, she decided to move here and they’ve planned a spectacular wedding event once they’ve settled in.”

My laugh at her joke is instant, and I embrace her suggestion with enthusiasm, hungry to believe Ella is safe and happy.

“Maybe she even likes tartare,” I joke.

She grins her approval. “I know what you’ll like.” She loops her arm in mine. “Let me show you what ‘chocolate’ French style is, and do some shopping. It’ll make you feel better.”

“Chocolate” turns out to be a hot-cocoa-like drink served with whipped cream on top at a little café of the Champs-

Élysées. Absolutely decadent, it’s so incredibly rich that even the chocolate lover in me can’t manage more than one small cup. After our stop in the café, Chantal and I spend an hour shopping at name-brand stores and I struggle with the returned sense of being watched. I’m beginning to think this creepy feeling has more to do with being in a wholly unfamiliar place than anything else.

I’ve just settled in a chair outside a dressing room while Chantal tries on a sexy red dress for a date she has Saturday night, when my phone rings. It’s Chris calling during a short break in meetings.

“How’s shopping going?” he asks.

“No luck yet.”

“Sara.” His voice is illed with part reprimand, part disappointment.

Why is he pushing me so hard on this? “I’m looking, I promise.”

Several seconds tick by. “I’m not your father.”

My lashes lower and I struggle with the history he’s hit me with; with a father who’d tried to hold me captive with his money. With my fear of becoming my mother, who was more my father’s subject than his wife.

“I know, Chris.” My voice is barely audible.

“Do you, baby? Because you aren’t convincing me.”

“Yes.” And I do. Chris is exactly what Chantal had said: special. “There’s no comparison.”

“You aren’t going to get used to having money again and then have me disappear on you. I’m not going anywhere. I made that mistake once. I won’t make it twice.”

“I don’t care about the money. I care about us.”

“Then get what you need and what you want. That’s good for us.”

I hear only sincerity and love in his voice. “This really means a lot to you, doesn’t it?”

“It’s part of us creating a new life, Sara. You have to be able to let go of the past.” He pauses. “And so do I.”

He’s right. And coming here was part of that, for him and me.

Unbidden, Ella slides into my mind. Maybe leaving her job and even me behind was the only way she could embrace her new life?

“I’ll ind something I love,” I promise. “How is it going there?”

We chat a bit more and we’re about to hang up when Chris says teasingly, “Spend money. That’s an order.”

To which I reply, “Or else?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Yes, I do. “Oh, now you’re just tempting me to burn this black AmEx you gave me.”

“Sometimes, Sara,” he says, his voice all sandpaper rough and wickedly suggestive, “the reward is better than the punishment.” He hangs up and I laugh, biting my bottom lip as potential rewards play in my mind.

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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