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Chapter One

Sophie hunched over her steaming café creme, juggling Izzy on her lap, and stared at the rain falling outside her window. She’d made it through one more year competing with the chain stores, and so far her landlord hadn’t sold out to developers. If Christmas sales were good, she told Izzy, she might even treat them to a spa vacation. She hoped she could find one that welcomed four pound chihuahuas.

The front door jingled, and her best friend, Marie, sailed in on a gust of wind. “You should see what’s going on up the street,” Marie exclaimed! “Another sign just went up announcing new apartment block, and tearing down the old structures.” Marie saw Sophie’s face sadden. “They say there’ll be retail on the ground floors,” Marie said.

“Likely more chain stores, coffee shops, upscale restaurants,” Sophie snapped, “and sky high rent. I love the old neighborhood. People know each other. Kind of like a family…but I guess you can’t stop progress, if that’s what it is? I just hope I can adapt and fit in.”

“Sophie, the neighborhood loves you. There’s a meeting next week for residents in the area to ask questions and voice their concerns. Maybe we should go?” encouraged Marie. Sophie looked down her nose and rolled her eyes. “Come on,” said Marie. “You could meet some people, and the neighborhood’s reaction. They’re providing appetizers. You won’t even have to cook dinner!”

Sophie laughed, “Ok, ok, enough! Drop by the shop when I close that day, and we’ll walk over.”

Marie gave her friend a hug and ruffled Izzy’s ears. “I’ll be here this weekend to help you out with the adoption days,” she shouted as she zoomed out the door.

Sophie sat Izzy down. She knew it was just a matter of time before she would have to find another place. “Come on Izzy, let’s go bag the treats for weekend, and pull out the Christmas decorations for the shop. Maybe we can get everyone in the mood to adopt and buy their fur babies presents?”

After closing the shop that evening, Sophie and Izzy, climbed the stairs: Izzy ready for her kibble and a snuggle around Sophie’s neck and a comfortable Catherine, while her maman hunkered down in an old easy chair with the day’s receipts and the shop’s books. Sophie reached behind her head and rubbed Izzy’s back, “You must have been a cat or a bird in your last life, Izzy. You’re my best girl, and no matter what, we’ll find a way, we’ll always be together.”

*

Izzy let out a friendly bark the next day as Andre and Lucas entered the stop with Catherine and Liliane, their long haired dachshunds, and what looked like a bag of laundry. Andre handed the leashes to Lucas, disentangling himself from wagging tails and walked toward Sophie, who was restocking shelves. “Come down and give me a hug, I come bearing gifts.”

Sophie gave Andre a hug, with a questioning look at the bag on the floor. “Lucas and I have collected slightly used clothing and blankets for your adoptees and their new parents this weekend,” said Andre.

“What would I do without friends like you,” Sophie said. “It looks like we’ll have a large group this time, some via kill shelters and some just abandoned or turned in to the rescue groups. I wish I could do more.”

Lucas stepped forward, now that the troops were in the screened off play area, enjoying themselves. Noticing Sophie’s frown, he said reassuringly, “How can we help?”

“Actually guys, things have been going well. If the Christmas season is good, I’ll be in the black, and so far the landlord hasn’t made noises about raising the rent or selling out to a developer...but”

“But…go on,” Lucas and Andre said in unison.

“Marie was in yesterday. There’s a new notice down the street about further development and more small shops will be caught in the cross-hairs. She said there’s a meeting next week at the promotional office to get input from the community, not that it will make any difference,” Sophie said and shook her head. “I told Marie I’d go with her next week to listen, and ask if the developer has further plans for development in the area.”

“We should all get involved,” exclaimed Andre. “We love the neighborhood with its mixture of small shops, restaurants and coffee shops.”

Lucas chimed in, “And the last thing we want is to live among new apartment blocks, where no one knows their neighbors, stays behind their doors, and pretend they’re experiencing the atmosphere of the

“You mean like the ‘quartier’ west of Place Massena,” interjected Andre, “where the big draw is how many designer shopping bags you’re seen with on your arm?”

Sophie laughed, “You guys always make me smile. Do you think more people would be interested in going to the meeting? I can contact the local business owners’ association to put the word out in case they haven’t heard.”

“And we’ll tell our friends, and put up some notices in our favourite shops and cafes,” Lucas said, and turned to Andre, “And you can see if there’s anyone in the big law firm where you work, who knows about this sort of thing, and will attend the meeting.”

“Well, now that I have my marching orders,” Andre groaned and hugged Sophie. “Let us know if you need anything else this weekend.”

Sophie grinned as Andre and Lucas opened the shop’s door, Catherine and Liliane bounding out ahead.

*

On Friday, Sophie finished getting ready for the weekend’s pet adoption event. The week had gone well. She’d contacted the local business owners’ association, who was aware of the developer’s meeting. They had promised to alert their members, and have someone attend from the association. One of Andre’s colleagues, who worked with developers, had volunteered to attend and provide Andre with his thoughts. And Lucas had papered local businesses with colourful notices alerting residents to the meeting and the changes to come.

*

On Saturday morning, Sophie and Izzy woke up early, bundled up, and welcomed the first of the rescue groups, leading them to the small backyard that was fitted with crates of all sizes, water for the animals and blankets courtesy of local donations. There were puppies, adult, and senior dogs. Small, medium and large sizes filled the crates from a variety of mixes, breeds and colors. And, as always, there were a couple of boxes of cute kitten. Each of the rescue groups were given an area where they could put their signs and information, and help people with the adoption process. Sophie kept a few crates in the shop itself for “special pets” which she and Marie managed. Those were the animals who had been in a shelter or foster care for a long time without finding a forever home. Everyone who came, regardless of whether they adopted a pet, was thanked for coming and given a bag of treats, just in case.

Sophie and Marie relaxed upstairs after the last rescue group had gone. Izzy was snuggled in her bed and Marie poured wine while Sophie cooked spaghetti and warmed up meatballs in homemade sauce.

Marie handed Sophie her wine, smiling, “Lots of happy animals and new owners.” They clinked glasses. “I hope the ones who didn’t find homes today will tomorrow.

“It’s so hard for the older dogs, and the ones who have health issues,” Sophie stressed, “but it’s always great to see the new parents come back with their happy friends.”

“You’re always thinking of ways to help,” said Marie. “When are you gonna make some time for yourself?” Marie glared pointedly at Sophie. “When was the last time you were out on a date, got a mani-pedi, bought a new shade of eye shadow or lipstick?”

“Right now my best date is Izzy,” Sophie joked. “How about if I promise to put on some nail polish and wear a dress for the meeting next week?” Marie rolled her eyes and shook her head.

*

The next day’s adoption event ended with only one parent returning a dog, and all but four dogs and three kittens finding homes. Sophie and Marie finished cleaning up the backyard and shop, storing the crates for next month’s event, and putting the leftover treats at the cash register for customers and their fur babies when they came in. Marie was headed out the door, and Sophie called after her, “I can’t thank you enough. Go home and hug Fergie for me. I know you can’t bring her.”

“What, you think my orange and white ball of fur would hide from the barking and yowling? How little you know; but she’s happier on top of her blanket on the radiator looking out the window. You just remember to look like you have another life when I come by for the meeting on Wednesday evening!”

“Mais oui, mon ami, I’ll do my best.”

Chapter Two

Sophie looked in her bathroom mirror trying to decide if mascara and lipstick were enough. Izzy bowed and wagged her tail, asking with her eyes to play. Reaching down, Sophie gave Izzy a hug, “I can’t play now, little love. Marie and I are going out. She’ll be here any minute and I promised I’d be wearing more than my usual slacks and shirt.” Izzy followed Sophie into her bedroom and watched as Sophie pulled a dress over her head. Slipping on heels, Sophie looked in the mirror on the small closet door, and heard the shop bell jingle. “That’s it, Izzy, Marie’s here. You’re kibble is in your dish and I’ll be back to hug you good night before you know it.” Izzy followed Sophie and looked down the stairs as Sophie closed the gate and hurried to meet Marie.

“You clean up well,” Marie exclaimed, kissing Sophie hello. “You should get out more often.”

Sophie, let out a big sigh as she threw on her coat and scarf, locked the shop’s door, and turned to Marie, “Sometimes I wish I could,” sighed Sophie, “Maybe someday?” She slipped her arm through Marie’s and they started down the street toward the address where the meeting was being held.

Sophie and Marie entered the apartment complex. Signs pointed their way to an area where a hostess welcomed them, took their coats, and directed them further into the building. Sophie spotted Andre and Lucas with another man, wine glasses in their hands and sampling appetizers from circulating servers’ trays.

“That must be Andre’s colleague from the law firm,” Sophie speculated.

“There’s people I recognize from some local shops and restaurants,” added Marie.

The women circulated, saying hi to friends and acquaintances and getting a sense of people’s interest in the new development.

People were being encouraged to take their seats, as the meeting was about to begin. Andre and his colleague and Lucas joined Sophie and Marie a couple rows back from the front. Four people took their place at the speakers table, and a young man rose tapping his water glass for attention.

“Thank you all for coming tonight. My name is Jean-Paul Fontaine, and I’m the site manager and your main contact for French Riviera Proprietes, habitat residentiel et commercial, and our new development, La Maison.”

Marie leaned and whispered to Sophie, “Wow! What a hunk. He can manage my site any time.” Sophie rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“The building we are meeting in is one of our properties in the neighborhood,” continued Mr. Fontaine. “I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Dubois, the CEO of FRP.” A middle-aged, balding man stood and smiled, waiving at the crowd then returned to his seat. Mr. Fontaine nodded to the man on his left, “This is Mr. Durand, from Monreau, Durand & Lambert, our architects.” Mr. Durand stood, and looked like he was praying that there weren’t too many questions. “And last, but certainly not least, Mme. Bouchard, our designer, who works with Mr. Durand on the residences, the common areas and retail amenities.” A medium height woman in a sensibly cut pant suit and flat shoes stood, smiled, and sat back down.

The lights lowered and Mr. Fontaine began describing the project as images were projected onto a large screen. Sophie watched, her heart pounding. “Why does it all have to come down to concrete and glass, and how high the building will be,” Sophie said under her breath, “The views will be gone when the next apartment block goes up; the winds whipping around the corners, making it impossible to enjoy sitting with a coffee at a sidewalk café.”

“Shush,” someone said behind her.

The presentation came to an end, and Mr. Fontaine smiled at the audience and asked if there were any questions. Several people raised their hands. One couple asked how much the apartments were going to cost, obviously hoping they could afford one. Others in the gathering questioned the size of the amenities: how large was the pool, how many treadmills and weights, how large was the catering kitchen, and on and on. Mme. Bouchard said that brochures would be available in the near future.

One of Sophie’s neighbours stood up and asked about the old buildings that were being torn down, and what was happening to the shops and restaurants. Mr. Durand shrunk lower in his seat. Mr. Fontaine replied that most had found other locations, and FRP was working with the business owners to help in any way it could.

Sophie surprised herself, stood up and blurted out, “Does that mean you’re putting them into the retail spaces you have in the new building? Does that mean that you’re not going to tear the heart out of this community after all?”

Jean-Paul Fontaine looked at the young woman giving him an “if looks could kill” stare. Her voice was cracking and her hand shook. ‘My God,’ he thought, ‘she’s scared.’ “Thank you for asking those questions, Miss….”

“Sophie, Sophie Arneau,” Sophie answered, squaring her shoulders and sanding as tall as her 5’ 5” frame would allow.

Jean-Paul had been leading meetings like this for several years, and put on what he hoped was his most empathetic smile, “I’m sure others here were wondering the same thing, Miss Arneau, but didn’t want to ask. FRP wants to be a welcomed part of this community and to grow with it. There will, of course, be changes, but we are looking forward to working with the city and the local business and apartment associations to ensure there are parks and services that make up an attractive

Sophie sat back down, willing back the tears, knowing it was just a matter of time.

After the meeting ended, Lucas and Andre promised Sophie they would get in touch when Andre had talked with his colleague. Marie and Sophie were pulling on their coats, when a voice asked, “Miss Arneau, may I buy you and your friend coffee?”

Sophie stood up, turned, and looked into the face of Jean-Paul Fontaine, the man whose company, or one like it, would put her out of business.

 

Chapter Three

Sophie shook her head, opened her mouth to refuse, but before she got the words out, her friend, Marie jabbed her in the ribs, smiled and said, “We would love to join you, Mr. Fontaine.”

“Superb! You ladies can show me a good local spot.” Jean-Paul looked at Sophie and added, “I’ll be spending a lot of time in the neighborhood, and I’d like to get to know the people.”

Marie and Jean-Paul continued chatting as the three made their way toward Rue de Rivoli. Local businesses had begun putting up Christmas decorations and the local business association had decorated the lamp posts with garlands, pinecones and twinkle lights. Red bows and mistletoe topped some of the doors, inviting people to join in the holiday cheer. Sophie wondered what her friend was thinking, having coffee with the enemy; although she had to admit, Mr. Fontaine was un beau mec. Jean-Paul stood over six feet tall, broad shoulders and arms that said he didn’t just spend time in offices and meetings negotiating on behalf of his employer.

Marie stopped in front of the Café les Mots. “You can’t beat it for coffee, cocktails and books,” she smiled at Jean-Paul. “It’s open late, and you’ll meet a lot of locals from the

“That’s exactly what I want,” said Jean-Paul, holding the door, “After you, ladies.”

Sophie and Marie grabbed a table, and Jean-Paul went to the counter to place their order. “What’s the idea, Marie?” asked Sophie, raising her eyebrows.

Marie put her hand on Sophie’s arm, “Relax, Sophie. He’s easy on the eyes, we can ask more questions,..and I think he’s interested in you.”

Sophie looked at Jean-Paul as he waited for their order, “He probably wants to know if I’m a crazy, protesting resident after my embarrassing question at the meeting? He’s just doing his job to make sure nothing stands in the way of the development.”

“I don’t know, Sophie, the look I saw, was not about his job. Put a smile on your face, here he comes.”

Jean-Paul handed Marie her tea, Sophie her hot chocolate, and sat down with a glass of red wine. “This looks like a great place, thanks for the introduction,” said Jean-Paul. “I gather from the staff, they used to be over a couple of blocks…”

“Yeah, until they got forced out,” interrupted Sophie.

Marie glared at Sophie and quickly added, “But I think they’re really happy with the move. They have more room for their books and readings, and expanded into a super cafe, bar and restaurant.”

Jean-Paul looked at Sophie, “I can tell you care a lot about the area and the local businesses. Ask me anything.”

Sophie stared at her hot chocolate, “I’m sorry for being so forceful and bursting out at the meeting, but I do care. I care a lot. The people here are like a family to me. The small businesses don’t make a lot of money, and the chains are beginning to move in, not to mention the apartment developers. I’m sure it’s hard for the landlords not to cash out when you guys come calling.” Sophie took a sip of her chocolate and looked up at Jean-Paul.

He reached across the table, “You had foam on your lip.”

Marie turned from Sophie to Jean-Paul and back to Sophie, “I think I’ll be on my way,” she said. Looking pointedly at Sophie, “I’ll stop by the shop on my lunch. Thanks for the tea, Mr. Fontaine,” adjusted her scarf and hat, and headed out the door.

“I should be getting home too,” sighed a tired Sophie.

“Please, not before you tell me more about yourself,” pleaded Jean-Paul. “I gather that you have a business or live in the area,” he said.

“Both. I rent one of the old houses in the neighborhood. My business is on the first floor, and I live on the second with my best friend, Izzy.”

Jean-Paul wondered if her best friend came with benefits. “What kind of business do you have?”

“I own a pet shop. I help rescue animals.”

“Does Izzy help in the business?”

Sophie chuckled and smiled. Jean-Paul noticed how her smile reached her eyes, and her blonde curls danced on her head. “Well, you could say Izzy helps…She’s who I named the pet shop for, and she was my inspiration ever since I rescued her from a shelter.”

“So Izzy is a…” Jean-Paul asked.

“Izzy’s my four-pound chihuahua. The runt of the litter, that no one wanted. I had to put a ferret harness on her until she was about a year old. People used to think she was a rat when they first saw her. The owners left her outside a vet’s office. At least they didn’t abandon her in a park or beside a road.”

Jean-Paul sat back in his chair, “So, it’s just you and Izzy, then?”

“Except for my friends. My mom raised me on her own. I was a latch-key kid. She worked hard to support us. I knew I’d never have siblings, but she let me adopt a stray dog. Roxie was my friend. She waited for me outside the school, and made sure I got safely home. When she died, I vowed I would find a way to help rescue animals; so I worked and saved for years until I could open my shop. I still hang on by a string, but friends and the neighborhood have been good to me. I love what I do, and I would hate to leave. But I’ve talked a lot about myself; who are you, Jean-Paul?”

Leaning forward, Jean-Paul took one of Sophie’s hands. “I had a different start in life. Both my parents are still alive and together, and I have two brothers and a sister, who is both irritating and loveable. I finished university knowing I wanted to be part of the development of Nice. I’ve worked for a couple of developers, and think I’ve found a good fit with FRP. Mr. Dubois’s a good boss, and I meant what I said when I talked about working with the businesses, and the development being part of the neighborhood.”

Sophie didn’t pull her hand away, and thought Jean-Paul seemed like a nice guy, but she knew FRP would do whatever it needed to do to make as much profit as they could from the development. “Unless we offer to help the staff get ready for tomorrow,” Sophie rose from her seat and reached for her scarf and hat, “I really must get home.”

Jean-Paul held her coat and smelled the freshness of her hair, a hint of vanilla bean. “I’ll walk you home.”

Sophie started to refuse, but Jean-Paul cut her off, “No debate. My maman raised me better.”

Jean-Paul offered Sophie his arm as they made their way up the street, past the garbage set out for pickup and through the rain. “What’s the frown for?” Jean-Paul asked.

“Just hoping the rain doesn’t turn into hale and freeze. Clearing ice isn’t my favorite thing,” Sophie answered with a shrug.

“Your landlord doesn’t have the sidewalks cleared?” questioned Jean-Paul, sounding surprised.

“Naw, and if he did, it would cost more than I’d want to pay. Besides,” she chuckled, “I figure it saves me a gym membership.” They walked the next two blocks in silence, Sophie wondering how long it would be before she could have a life outside her pet shop; and Jean-Paul wondering how he could convince Sophie to let him know her better.

“Here we are,” said Sophie, grinning as she looked at Mes Amis’ window filled with toys, sweaters and coats on dog mannequins, colourful leashes and harnesses, beds and cat trees.

Jean-Paul pointed to a notice advertising the next pet adoption weekend. “How often do you do this,” he looked closely, “and where do you find the room?”

“I hold pet adoption weekends once a month, in my back yard. It gets a little hard in the winter. I can’t do anything about the ground being muddy, but we put tarps up in case it rains. The rescue organizations I work with are always here to help. There’s even more need in the winter after the holidays when some families suddenly decide the cute puppy or kitten they got for their kid is more work than they bargained for.” Sophie reached in her bag for her keys, “Thanks for walking me home. It’s really pretty safe around here,” she said. “You can tell your prospective buyers not to worry.”

Jean-Paul put his hand on Sophie’s arm, “Here’s my card. I’d like to get to know you better, Sophie. I won’t bother you, if you’d rather not; but I hope you will call.”

Sophie took the card and watched Jean-Paul turn back the way they’d come. Inside, she tossed the card on her desk and gave Izzy a hug. “Lots of talk, girl, and more changes to come. We’ll just have to hope our landlord doesn’t sell out for a long time. The developer’s site manager seemed like a decent guy…” Izzy barked. “That’s right girl, no matter how nice or handsome he is, we don’t consort with the enemy.”

Chapter Four

Sophie was massaging her shoulders and relaxing with a café creme from Café Noir after clearing the sidewalk for the second time that morning. Marie wandered in on her lunch break, sat her lunch down and looked pointedly at Sophie over her glasses, “So what happened after I left? And don’t leave anything out.”

Sophie rolled her head in a circle, stopped and sighed, “Nothing. We exchanged some information about ourselves…”

“What did you learn?” interrupted Marie.

“Well we had very different upbringings. His two parents are still together, and he has brothers and a sister. He didn’t mention any pets. He likes what he does, and gives lip service to wanting to be part of the community.” Sophie shrugged, “He asked about my adoption weekends from the notice on the window and gave me his card.”

“And, and..” probed Marie.

“Well, he said he wanted to get to know me better, and if I did too, I should call him; but that he would not bother me.”

“Just as I told you,” replied Marie, her hands waving in the air. “He’s interested in you! When are you gonna call him?”

Sophie laughed, “Probably never. He’s the enemy, Marie! He’s good looking, and under different circumstances I could be attracted to him, but I can’t bring myself to go out with someone who works for people who may put me out of business.”

“You could always go out with him, and get the inside track on what he knows?”

“I’m no good at lying and pretending,” said Sophie. “Do I look like spy material to you?”

Marie threw her finished paper bagged lunch in the trash, and pulled on her coat and scarf for the walk back to her office. “I gotta get back, but I think you’d make a perfect spy. No one would believe you were just trying to get information out of them. Are we meeting this week with the rescue groups to go over the last event and plan the next?”

“Yes, Friday evening, after the shop closes,” said Sophie.

“I’ll see you then,” called Marie as she bounced out the door, letting in a whoosh of cold air.

Sophie squeezed Izzy, “Do not worry, little love. I am not calling Mr. Fontaine, no matter what Marie says.”

*

The week picked up with people beginning to get into the Christmas spirit. Sophie was looking at whether to put in a quick order for more cat toys and seasonal dog sweaters when Andre and Lucas came in, Catherine and Liliane trailing in their wake.

“You are so good, Sophie,” exclaimed Andre. “You always have your sidewalk cleared. You can’t imagine the trauma for our babies so close to the ground!” Lucas was removing booties and coats and putting Catherine and Liliane in the play area with Izzy.

“We thought we should stop by early,” said Lucas, “and look for Christmas presents for the guys before everything gets picked over.”

Sophie kissed Andre and Lucas, “What do you have in mind? I was just thinking about placing a quick order, so if there’s anything you see that’s not in the right size, let me know.”

“It’s so difficult,” Andre sighed, looking at Catherine and Liliane, “They’re so spoiled.”

“My favourite kind of pets,” replied Sophie. “Are their boots still good? Let’s look at the seasonal sweaters as I’m sure you’ll be entertaining. You bought special stockings for them last year, but they can always use another toy, and you can get treats closer to Christmas.”

Lucas rolled his eyes, “Yes, we bought the treats too early last year and had to hide them in the locker after watching the guys try to jump up weeks ahead to get at their stockings.”

Lucas was looking at new dog beds in red with white bones and green trees. “No!” said Andre, and Sophie laughed.

“I was only looking,” harrumphed Lucas.

Lucas and Andre started putting things into a basket, finally agreeing on what would go under the tree.

“You’ve made my day,” smiled Sophie as she totalled up their purchases. “If you want, just leave them, and I’ll wrap them for you.”

Lucas put up his hand, “No need, we have paper at home that goes with this year’s decorations.” Andre rolled his eyes and shrugged, but Sophie knew he loved every minute of entertaining around the holidays and followed Lucas’s lead in creating a warm atmosphere for their friends and family.

“I haven’t seen you guys since the meeting the other night. Did your colleague say anything that I should know about?” Sophie questioned.

Andre frowned, “Not really. FRP has the permits and financing for the project. I can send you an email with the particulars. They’re doing nothing close to you, or at least haven’t purchased anything yet. My colleague is trying to find out what other developers are up to and when I know, I’ll be in touch. Maybe the Fontaine guy really meant it when he said they want to be part of the community? They didn’t need to do the meeting, and spend the time and money since they already have everything in place.”

“Mr. Fontaine asked Marie and me for coffee after the meeting, and Marie insisted we go. We went to Café les Mots as it was open late, Marie left, and Mr. Fontaine insisted on walking me home.”

Andre and Lucas exchanged looks. “Come on guys, not you too! Marie says Mr. Fontaine is interested in me, and if nothing else, I should go out with him to get the inside scoop on what’s happening.”

“Now that we know FRP has all the permits and financing they need,” said Andre, “I think you should just go out with Mr. Fontaine and have a good time.”

“Yes, why not?” added Lucas.

“I promise to think about it,” said Sophie. Another customer entered the shop and Lucas went to bundle up Liliane and Catherine.

“Do more than think about it,” Andre said squeezing Sophie’s arm. “You deserve to have some fun.”

Sophie thought about what Andre and Marie had said after closing the shop for the evening. “Maybe we should expand our horizons, Izzy,” Sophie wondered out loud as she and Izzy climbed the stairs to her apartment. “But tonight, we’re gonna heat up leftovers, make a bowl of popcorn and finish sending off those orders for more inventory.” Sophie loaded Beverly Hills Chihuahua for Izzy and tried to concentrate on her work. Her mind kept wandering back to Jean-Paul Fontaine, how he wanted to see her, but hadn’t pushed her. She wondered what it would be like to go out with Jean-Paul, what his interests were outside his work, and what it would be like to have a friend with benefits? The movie ended, Izzy barking for more, “It’s time for sleep, girl,” said Sophie, hugging Izzy and tucking her in her bed. Sophie fell into a restless sleep, dreaming of developers forcing her to move her shop.

The alarm rang. Sophie reached for the Catherine button and Izzy attempted unsuccessfully as usual to jump up on the bed. “Okay, girl. Let’s get your food and my coffee and see what cleaning up outside we’re dealing with this morning!”

*

The week continued with new inventory arriving, and more customers coming in to buy Christmas presents for their furry friends. On Friday, Sophie was setting up folding chairs and putting on a fresh pot of coffee for the rescue associations and shelters. A few people had arrived, and she wondered where Marie was, who had promised to bring homemade cookies. Tonight’s meeting was to go over the plan for the December pet adoption weekend, and to discuss ideas on whether anything could be done differently during the winter months. As the last of the members began to arrive, Sophie’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. There was Marie with her box of homemade cookies, and Jean-Paul Fontaine behind her!

“I saw Marie at the coffee shop and asked her about your pet adoption weekends,” Jean-Paul explained. “She told me there was a meeting tonight; so I asked to come along. Think of it as part of getting to know the neighborhood.”

Marie shrugged and mouthed ‘I told you so’ behind him.

Sophie turned to the group, “Please find a chair. Marie just arrived with her homemade cookies, and we’ll pass them around. Let’s get started.” Maybe if I just ignore him, he’ll go away, thought Sophie.

After some time, the group came up with old suggestions for more tarps, and to borrow a commercial outdoor heater from one of the neighborhood restaurants for the winter adoption weekends.

Jean-Paul cleared his throat, “May I make a suggestion?”

Sophie sighed expecting nothing, but said, “Of course, all suggestions are welcome.”

“First, thank you for letting me be here tonight.” He looked at the rescue organizations’ attendees, “I applaud your work in the community, and I would like to help if I can.” All eyes lit up hopefully, and Marie looked at Sophie and gave a thumbs up. Jean-Paul continued, “I think your idea of a commercial heater or two to warm the space outside is a good one. If you are unable to borrow sufficient heaters for the back yard from local restaurants, FRP will provide heaters for the next three months. In addition, rather than just thinking of using more tarps, if it’s okay Sophie, I will have someone on the FRP crew come over a look into what might be put in place that could be easily stored after winter.”

The rescue attendees began to clap, and someone asked, “How come you and this FRP are interested in helping Sophie and us?”

Jean-Paul looked at Sophie, smiled and addressed the group, “FRP is a developer in this community. My name is Jean-Paul Fontaine and I am their site manager. We are building an apartment complex near here with retail space at the ground floor. The company is interested in being a welcomed part of the community. Sophie came to one of our meetings with Marie. When I learned what Sophie’s business was and saw a notice for the rescue adoption weekends, I decided I wanted to help.”

Sophie looked at the smiling faces in the group and then at Jean-Paul, “Maybe I am wrong,” she thought. “We’ve never found an answer to the winter issues, and if it costs us nothing, I should at least see if this will help.”

“Thank you, Mr. Fontaine,” said Sophie, smiling at Jean-Paul, “Your offer is appreciated and welcome.” Then addressing the group, “I’ll let you all know of any changes by email, but we’ll go ahead for the December adoption weekend as we always have, even if it just means bundling up more, and more tarps! Thank you all for coming and we’ll talk soon.”

The group got ready to leave, talking among themselves about the possibility of heaters as they ambled through the shop’s door. Sophie and Marie began folding up the plastic Ikea chairs to store in the basement and clearing up the leftover coffee and cookies. Jean-Paul hung back wanting to talk with Sophie after Marie left.

“See you later,” winked Marie, tying her scarf and pulling on her hat before walking out the door.

Sophie and Jean-Paul stared at each other, wondering who would break the silence.

“Thank you, Jean-Paul,” said Sophie. “Your offer and help means a lot to me and to the group.”

Jean-Paul noticed she hadn’t called him Mr. Fontaine, grinned, and said, “I do want to help, Sophie, if you will let me. Maybe you’ll discover I’m not your enemy, and let me be a friend? I’ll talk to some of the site people at FRP and stop by next week to see what we can come up with for December and the rest of the winter.”

“Izzy and I’ll be here. Thanks again,” Sophie said holding out her hand.

Jean-Paul took Sophie’s hand, holding it a little longer than necessary. “I’ll see you soon Sophie,” and left.

Sophie picked Izzy up out of the play area and watched Jean-Paul cross the street. “We may have to rethink Jean-Paul, Izzy.” Izzy nuzzled Sophie, who ruffled her ears. “Who knows, maybe Santa will be good to both of us?”

Chapter Five

The following week Sophie kept busy restocking her shelves, and getting ready for last minute shoppers she hoped to attract with her specials advertised on her website. She had almost forgotten about Jean-Paul, when the shop’s door jingled and Jean-Paul came in with two men, FRP’s logo on their hats.

“I hope the time is okay? This is Bernard, one of FRP’s foremen,” who touched his hat, “and Philippe, one of FRP’s engineers. If we could see the backyard, and also where you store things, we’ll make some notes and be out of your way in no time.”

Sophie stepped down from the ladder, smiled and extended her hand to Bernard and Philippe. “Thanks for stopping by,” she gestured to the back door and smiled at Jean-Paul. “That will take you to the backyard. We usually set up for four rescue organizations. We stack the cages that the rescue groups bring, and in the winter, put tarps up tying them to the tree, the house and the fence. The storage room is down those stairs,” said Sophie pointing, “where I keep my inventory and some seasonal items.”

Some time later, Jean-Paul and the guys came up from the storage area, Bernard and Philippe leaving, saying they would see Jean-Paul at the site.

“I’ll have some ideas back to you in a couple of days, Sophie. Were you able to get the loan of any commercial heaters from the local businesses?”

“Unfortunately, no,” shrugged Sophie, disappointed. “Marie and I both tried, but came up empty.”

“Don’t worry,” Jean-Paul replied. “Bernard and I think four commercial heaters will do the trick for the amount of space you have—courtesy of FRP.”

“The heaters will make such a big difference, even if nothing else can be done. Thank you so much,” Sophie replied.

“You can thank me by having dinner with me, Sophie, any night. You choose the time and place,” pleaded Jean-Paul.

“I stay open extra hours during the holiday season,” responded Sophie, looking around the shop. When her eyes rested on Jean-Paul and his hopeful smile. She took in the gorgeous man, who wanted to spend time with her, and quickly added, “But if you don’t mind eating late, Sunday would be good. People don’t shop late that day, early in the season”

Jean-Paul usually had Sunday dinner at his parents’, but answered, “Sunday’s good for me. What time shall I pick you up?” Maybe someday, she’d join him and meet his family.

“Eight should give me enough time to close up, and feed Izzy.” And get out of my work clothes, Sophie thought. “We could go to The Fish Market on Cours Saleya, they’re open late, even on Sundays.”

“I’ll pick you up Sunday at eight,” said Jean-Paul smiling. “Good luck with the beginning of the Christmas rush,” Jean-Paul waved starting out the door.

Sophie shook her head and laughed. Marie would be proud of her, and she could use a relaxing dinner after what she hoped would be an exhausting and profitable weekend.

*

Friday’s sales so far were better than last year. Marie stopped in to help Sophie on the weekend.

“I’m so thankful for your help, Marie,” said Sophie over her shoulder as she cashed out another customer in the weekend crowd, “But wouldn’t you rather be shopping?”

“Done. Did it all in the neighborhood,” answered Marie, as she helped a family pick out cat presents for the pet they hoped to find Christmas morning. The woman pulled Marie aside asking about the December adopt-a-pet weekend, hoping that there would be cats needing homes. Marie assured her there would be kittens and adult cats.

When the last customers left on Saturday, and the shop was cleaned and restocked, Sophie asked Marie if she’d like to share leftovers before going home.

“I think I’ll pass for a soak in my tub, but we could do something tomorrow after you close?” suggested Marie.

Sophie kept her eyes on Izzy, and said, “I sort of promised Jean-Paul to have dinner with him after the shop closed Sunday.”

“And you were gonna tell me about this when?” exclaimed Marie.

“It’s no big deal,” replied Sophie. “Jean-Paul and a couple of FRP guys came by to check out my backyard and storage. He’s promised me four rented commercial heaters for the winter adoption weekends, and said I could thank him by going to dinner.”

“Wow! I didn’t think you’d do it, after your declaration about not consorting with the enemy.”

“Well, he has gotten us heaters, and I thought dinner after an exhausting weekend would be nice—even with the enemy.” Sophie squinted her eyes at Marie, and raised her chin in defiance.

“Whatever, you say, Sophie,” Marie said laughing, “I’ll see you tomorrow before the shop opens.”

*

Sunday was another busy day, Andre and Lucas stopping by with lattes and wraps in a brown bag lunch.

“We decided better to leave Catherine and Liliane home, just pop in and bring you ladies lunch,” said Andre, handing the bags and lattes to Sophie at the cash. Lucas was scanning the aisles to see if there could possibly be anything they had yet to buy for their pets.

Sophie leaned into Andre and whispered, “Tell Lucas not to worry, you can have anything at sale prices next week without the crowds.”

Andre shook his head, and replied “I’ll tell Lucas, but you know how he loves to shop. No doubt we’re now getting things for friends’ and neighbors’ pets!” Sophie laughed. “But that’s part of why I love him,” chuckled Andre, and turned to smile at his partner.

Marie came up, taking her latte, and a large bite out of her wrap. “Thanks, Andre, for thinking of us. Did Sophie tell you she’s having dinner with the guy from FRP tonight?”

Sophie shrugged, still helping customers.

“I’m happy you’re getting out, Sophie,” Andre said. “Lucas and I met during the holidays,” giving Sophie a wink. “Enjoy yourself, and now I really must take Lucas away so your customers can find what they want without Lucas hogging the aisles!”

Sophie locked the shop after pushing Marie out the door, and rushed up the stairs with Izzy for a quick shower. Before she knew it, it was ten to eight and she went downstairs, leaving Izzy shaking her head at the locked gate. Sophie saw Jean-Paul crossing the street, pulled on her hat and gloves and let herself out.

“Perfect timing,” Jean-Paul said, offering Sophie his arm as they started down the street. The evening was brisk, but no rain, and they made good time to the restaurant. The Fish Market was in the Old Town of Nice on a street that during the day was home to an outdoor market and hundreds of tourists. Neither made a comment as they made their way past new apartment developments, and notices on buildings that would be going under the demolition ball. The restaurant wasn’t overly busy on a Sunday night and the waiter led them to a corner table. The banquette seating was upholstered in a soft fabric that Sophie sank into, leaning her head back, enjoying the calm after a long day. Jean-Paul motioned the waiter away after he’d poured water and left menus on the table.

“I hate to disturb that peaceful look, but I don’t know you well enough yet to order drinks and dinner for both of us.”

Sophie’s head shot up from the banquette, “I guess I didn’t realize how tired I am, and this is such a treat relaxing and not having to cook. I promise not to fall asleep,” she said laughing.

“And I promise not to talk about the plans the men have come up with for your winter backyard. I’ll drop the suggestions by next week. Why don’t you decide what you’d like for dinner, and I’ll order us a bottle of wine depending on your choice.”

Dinner continued, Sophie and Jean-Paul enjoying each others company. Sophie covered a big yawn half way through her dessert, and Jean-Paul reached for her hand and motion the waiter for the bill.

“Time to get you home, Cinderella,” Jean-Paul said.

They walked in silence to Sophie’s shop, Jean-Paul’s arm draped protectively around Sophie. At her shop, Sophie turned around after unlocking the door, to thank him for dinner. Jean-Paul stepped close, held her chin and placed a chaste kiss on her forehead.

“Sweet dreams, Princess, I’ll drop the plans and a latte by this week.”

Sophie entered her shop and wondered what it would be like to get a real kiss from Jean-Paul.

*

Monday flew by, Sophie catching up on paperwork after the weekend crush of customers. Marie stopped by after work, to ask about her date, and Sophie surprised herself by thinking that she had been hoping Jean-Paul would stop by that day.

“So when do you see him again?” asked Marie.

“Nothing definite, but he said he would drop by the rest of the suggestions for the backyard this week. The Christmas sales have been good…”

“Don’t change the subject,” interrupted Marie. I am happy your sales are good, but do you like him?”

“He’s easy to be with, and easy on the eyes,” Sophie blushed and replied. “Right now, I just want to get through the holiday season, and then maybe think about having a fuller life.”

Curiosity satisfied, Mare gave Sophie a quick peck on the cheek, before she dashed out into the evening.

Chapter Six

Tuesday and Wednesday flew by at Mes Amis pet shop. Sales had been good, and Sophie was looking forward to a spa day treat after the holiday rush. Izzy barked when the shop door opened late in the afternoon. Sophie looked up and smiled, seeing Jean-Paul with what looked like plans and a latte.

“Thought I’d give you a chance to catch up a bit,” Jean-Paul said, “before having you take a look at the ideas the guys have come up with.” He handed her a latte, “Pumpkin, if I remember correctly?”

Sophie grinned, realizing she was just as happy to see Jean-Paul as she was to see the plans. “Now is perfect,” she said, shooing Izzy away from sniffing around Jean-Paul’s feet, and eyeing him with curiosity.

Jean-Paul looked at Izzy, “I hope this means she likes me,” reaching down to ruffle Izzy’s ears.

Sophie laughed, “She’s seen you a few times, and not with a pet, so she’s curious. Do you have a pet? Let’s look at what your guys suggest; and thanks for the latte.”

“I had a dog when I grew up at home, but I guess I’ll have to content myself with seeing Izzy.” Jean-Paul gave Sophie a smile that said, ‘I want to see you more.’

Jean-Paul explained his team’s ideas to Sophie as she sipped her latte, alternatively looking at Jean-Paul and trying to concentrate on what he was saying. “What do you think?” asked Jean-Paul.

Sophie turned her thoughts to the plans, and replied “Please thank your guys for the ideas. The rescue organizations are already excited about getting outdoor heaters. I like the second suggestion. It’s really kind of like scaffolding pieces that come apart, and it would anchor the tarps securely. Depending on the number of pieces, it would be the easiest to store.”

“You’re right, the idea did come from scaffolding, and the guys thought it might be the easiest solution for you,” remarked Jean-Paul.

“But wouldn’t scaffolding pieces be expensive?”

“And you’d need commercial tarps,” added Jean-Paul. “FRP rents scaffolding for our projects, but I can have the guys check into it. Hey, maybe we could find a scaffolding business owner, who’s an animal lover, and he’d donate doing this for the winter months?”

“That would be so amazing!” exclaimed Sophie, “But I won’t hold my breath. I’ve got another idea to help the rescue organizations, want to hear it?”

Jean-Paul grinned.“I’m all ears,” he said. He sensed Sophie was warming up to him, and began to imagine her becoming more than just a nice woman he’d met in the neighborhood.

“Well,” began Sophie, her eyes sparkling, “I thought about having a photo-with-your-pet-and-Santa day. Charge a small fee, and donate the proceeds to the rescue organizations.”

“I think that’s a fantastic idea,” answered Jean-Paul, giving Sophie’s shoulder a squeeze and looking at Izzy.

“Yeah, but I need a photographer AND a Santa,” laughed Sophie.

“When were you thinking of doing this?” asked Jean-Paul.

“I suppose I could do it on the adoption weekend; but maybe that’s too much, as people are required to give a donation to the agencies when they adopt a pet. Maybe the weekend after? I just hadn’t thought that far,” said Sophie.

“If it’s on one weekend, I’ll find a Santa suit and volunteer to be your Santa; please tell me the animals won’t bite,” chuckled Jean-Paul. “But I can’t help you with the photographer.”

Sophie resisted the impulse to kiss Jean-Paul, and gave him a smile that lit up her face. “That would be so amazing, thank you. And don’t worry, the pets won’t bite because Marie will stand by with appropriate treats!”

“It’s settled then, just let me know when, so I have time to get my suit and practice my ho, ho, ho,” said Jean-Paul. “I’ll take off and let the guys know what you decided about their suggestions.” He started out of the shop and turned, “Could I tempt you for dinner this weekend?”

Sophie picked up Izzy and gave her a hug, “I’d like that. Either night is good.”

“You open later on Sunday, so let’s do Saturday,” Jean-Paul winked, “and stay out late.”

Sophie felt a blush creep up her face, “I’ll be ready an hour after the store closes.”

“See you then,” beamed Jean-Paul, walking out the door.

“Well girl,” Sophie said to Izzy, “Who would’ve thought?”

*

Thursday flew by, with Sophie asking friends if they knew a photographer, who would donate their time for the photo-with-Santa day, and working on advertisements to post on her website, and in local shops and restaurants.

Andre and Lucas dropped by just before closing. Andre saying he had taken off work early in order to temper, if possible, the list of gifts for friends’ and neighbours’ pets.

“We have lots of friends and neighbours,” Lucas exclaimed. “We should be grateful for that; and, it’s the season for giving.”

Andre rolled his eyes, “Give us the total, Sophie, and we’ll see how generous and grateful I’m going to be.”

Sophie laughed as she went through the list. “Remember, guys, I promised you sale prices.”

“See, Andre,” pronounced Lucas, “there is no issue.”

“I need to get an order out tonight,” Sophie said, as she handed Andre and Lucas the total of their purchase. “So, I’m glad you came in today.”

Andre closed his eyes and sighed, and Lucas gave him a hug. “Aren’t you happy knowing how much our friends and their pets will enjoy these gifts,” gushed Lucas.

“I’m overcome with joy,” said Andre handing back the list to Sophie, and pulling out his credit card.

Sophie pushed back Andre’s hand, “Let’s see if all of the things that need to be ordered can be shipped in time. I’ll let you know when that’s confirmed, and you can pay me then.”

“You know you’re welcome at our place for Christmas, Sophie, or do you have other plans?” asked Lucas.

“Thanks, Lucas. No plans. I haven’t been able to think beyond getting through the holiday season. I’m planning a photo-with-pet-and-Santa day after the rescue adoption weekend,” and smiled, “You’ll never guess who volunteered to be Santa!”

“Well I can’t quite picture Marie…” Lucas replied.

Sophie laughed, “No, it’s Jean-Paul from FRP,” and quickly added, “but I still need a photographer.”

Andre leaned in, “Is there something you want to tell us?”

“Naw, not really. He seems like a nice guy, and maybe we’ll end up friends?” Sophie smiled.

Lucas raised an eyebrow, “Anyone who’s willing to dress up as Santa, and smile for two days with pets and their owners, has more on his mind than helping you as a friend.”

“Maybe,” Sophie blushed. “What I need now is a friend who knows a photographer,” she said, worried.

“We’ll talk,” said Andre looking at Lucas. “I’m sure we must know someone, who knows someone, in our ‘large group of friends with pets.’”

Lucas grinned. “Would it help if I put mistletoe on the door?”

“Go on, both of you,” Sophie playfully swatted Lucas, “I’ll let you know how much your order is in a few days.”

*

Sophie was busy with customers when Marie popped in on Friday, grabbing the mail as she bounded in the door.

“So what’s this I hear about Jean-Paul playing Santa?” Marie smirked, handing Sophie a latte and the mail.

Sophie gave Marie a look that said, ‘wait until I’ve finished with my customers.’ When the last one left, as Marie was eating the last of her lunch, Sophie picked up her latte.

“It just kind of happened when we were discussing plans for the winter rescue adoption weekends; and I blurted out that I had a new idea. No big deal,” said Sophie avoiding Marie’s eyes.

“Hum, let’s see, coffee, dinner, electric heaters, and now Santa Claus; seems like a big deal to someone?’ Marie responded, raising both her eyebrows.

“Ok, I’ll admit I am attracted to him, and we’re having dinner Saturday night to go over the plans his guys came up with for structures that could be stored after winter.” Sophie glared at Marie, daring her to make something of it. Before Marie could respond, Sophie’s eyes dropped to the stack of mail, resting on an envelope that had her landlord’s return address. Her heart stopped and her body tensed.

“What’s the matter?” asked Marie.

“It’s a letter from my landlord. I wonder what he wants? It’s not time for the annual rent increase?” Sophie held up the letter, looking as if it would bite.

“Maybe it’s nothing,” said Marie, hoping that it wasn’t, “but you won’t know until you open it!”

No one but Marie was in the shop, as Sophie debated whether to open it now, or wait until the shop closed. Finally, she took a deep breath, deciding it was better to know sooner rather than later; and maybe Marie was right, it didn’t have to be something bad.

Marie came around the counter and put her arm on Sophie’s shoulders, silently conveying she was there for her friend no matter what. Sophie reached for her letter opener, hand shaking, and opened the letter. Her face went white and tears formed in her eyes as she read its contents; then turned and collapsed in Marie’s arms.

“He’s sold the building,” sobbed Sophie. “What will I do? Where will I go?”

 

Chapter Seven

Marie held onto Sophie, until her crying finally stopped. “I’m going upstairs to get a cold washcloth, and call my boss and tell him I won’t be back today. Sit down and we’ll figure this out.” Marie went upstairs, and Sophie sat staring ahead, her arms folded around her chest. Izzy pawed at Sophie’s leg knowing something must be wrong. Marie returned with a cold cloth and Tylenol.

“Put this on your forehead and swallow this,” ordered Marie. “You should call Andre and get his colleague to read the letter and give you some advice.”

The cold cloth felt good and Sophie put it on the back of her neck, hoping it and the Tylenol would head off the headache she could feel beginning. “I don’t have Andre’s work number, but that’s a good idea, and I do have their number at home. I’ll call and leave a message.”

“Good. Do that and I’ll take care of any customers who come in,” said Marie. “Is there anything else that you needed to have done today?

“If there is, I can’t think of it,” Sophie shrugged and tried to smile. “I’ll go upstairs, make the call to Andre and Lucas, and be back after I put myself together.”

Sophie made her way back downstairs, shaken, but more in control. “I lucked out and got Lucas on the phone. He’s calling Andre. Lucas said they would come by the shop before it opens tomorrow, and hopefully bring Andre’s colleague with them.”

Marie put an arm around her friend, “That’s good news, then. Andre and his colleague will be able to tell you what your options are, and then you can decide what to do.”

“It’s raining pretty hard,” said Sophie looking out the shop’s window. “How about staying for dinner; I’ll spring for Sushi delivery?”

“You’re on,” said Marie, “If you promise Salmon and California rolls and miso soup!”

“Only the best,” Sophie smiled at her friend; grateful for Marie, Andre and Lucas. She would get through this, some way, some how.

*

The next day Andre and Lucas arrived early with Andre’s colleague, Michel. Marie followed them in with muffins and lattes. After introductions, the group waited while Michel read the letter from Sophie’s landlord.

“From what I read,” began Michel, “there’s good news and bad.”

The group leaned in and Sophie said, “Let’s hear it. I‘m ready.”

“For starters, you can see that the closing of the sale is not for 60 days, and that your landlord has not promised to deliver this property vacant; meaning, you will be dealing primarily with the new owner.”

“Is that good?” asked Sophie. “Do you know the owner?”

“It’s a numbered corporation and I’ll have to check the records to know who’s behind it,” replied Michel. “I’ll let you know when I’ve found out, and then, we should talk again. In the meantime, I would begin searching for another location for you and your business.”

Sophie’s heart sank, “Thank you, Michel. I’ll begin looking. I hope I can find something in the neighborhood. I would hate to leave.”

“We’ll all help you,” chorused Marie, Andre and Lucas. “We’ll talk to the agents we know.”

“Thanks, guys,” and now I’d better open the shop and put on a smile for my customers.”

The day wore on, Sophie trying unsuccessfully to keep her spirits up, and her mind off her landlord’s letter. After closing the shop, she started upstairs with Izzy. “All I want is a warm shower, some soup and cuddle in front of the tv with you, girl.” Just then, her phone dinged reminding her of her date with Jean-Paul. “Oh, no girl, I’m not sure I’m up to seeing Jean-Paul. Maybe, he’ll be ok with a quick pizza, and an early night?”

Later, when the doorbell rang, Sophie went downstairs and opened the door to a smiling Jean-Paul, holding a bouquet of flowers and a bag of treats for Izzy.

Jean-Paul took one look at Sophie, in her jeans and a sweatshirt, eyes red, and asked, “What’s happened? How can I help?”

Sophie’s jaw trembled and she could feel fresh tears pooling in her eyes. “I’m not very good company tonight, Jean-Paul. If you’d rather just cancel…”

Jean-Paul closed the door, and pulled Sophie into his arms. “What would you like? We can stay in and order pizza? Tell me what has happened, so I can help you.”

Sophie closed her eyes thinking it felt good being held by Jean-Paul, and pizza was what she had wanted to do. “I’d like you to stay, and we’ll order pizza.”

Jean-Paul followed Sophie upstairs, Izzy sniffing the bag of treats. Jean-Paul ordered pizza, while Sophie put his flowers in a vase on the table. She wondered whether to set the table or just eat pizza out of the box on the sofa as she would have done with Izzy.

“Why don’t we sit down,” Jean-Paul patted the sofa, “and you can relax. Tell me what has happened. Would you like something to drink?”

Sophie realized she’d been so distracted that she’d hadn’t offered Jean-Paul anything. “I’m going to get a glass of water, but I have beer and wine. What would you like?”

“Beer with the pizza sounds good,” replied Jean-Paul, as Sophie reached into the fridge and pulled out a bottle and a glass.

They sat down on the sofa, and Sophie took a big gulp of her water. “I got a letter from my landlord yesterday,” she began. “It seems he’s sold my building. Ironic isn’t it, after all these years, and at the holidays.” Sophie let out a nervous chuckle. “I’ve cried all I can, but that won’t help me…I did call my friends. One of them is a lawyer, and they came over before the shop opened this morning; so I guess with their help, I’ll crawl out of my shock and depression and begin to deal with it.”

Jean-Paul waited to see if Sophie had finished talking. He had felt a stab that she hadn’t thought to call him, and had not included him in the friends she had gathered for help. “Please tell me what the lawyer said, and what you have decided to do.”

“The lawyer, Michel, is finding out who the person is behind the numbered company that bought the building, and seeing if he knows anyone there. My friends, Marie, Andre and Lucas are asking around to see if anything’s available for rent in the neighborhood; and I’ll be doing the same. I have to face the facts. I have to find a new place for the shop and for me to live whether or not the move can be postponed.”

“Please, Sophie, let me help you,” implored Jean-Paul, reaching for Sophie’s hand.

The bell rang, and Jean-Paul got up to get the pizza.

What if the numbered company is FRP, thought Sophie, that would be the final blow.

Jean-Paul came upstairs with the pizza, setting it down on the coffee table, and asked, “Plates…”

Sophie got up to get plates and napkins, and another beer for Jean-Paul. They both dove into the pizza, and finally Sophie answered Jean-Paul. “While you went to get the pizza, I wondered what if FRP is the numbered company?”

“I would know if FRP had purchase other properties in the area, Sophie. They have not. I feel badly that you would think we might have, and that I would try to become your friend, without telling you.”

Sophie sank back in the sofa. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t know what to think…I’m really scared.”

Jean-Paul pulled Sophie into his arms and placed a chaste kiss on her forehead. “Give me the name and number of your friend’s colleague, and I’ll call him on Monday. If he doesn’t know anyone in the company who bought your place, maybe I do, or we’ll find someone who does. I’ll make some calls to real estate agents to see if there’s anything now or coming up in the area. Write down what you think you can afford and what you need on a piece of paper with the lawyer’s name and number. Now, would you like to watch a movie and finish the pizza, or would you rather I leave?”

“Please stay. Izzy will want to watch old chihuahua movies, but I bet if we give her a couple of the treats you brought, we can watch something else.”

A few hours later, the pizza gone, and the credits running on the screen, Jean-Paul shifted not wanting to wake Sophie, who had been sleeping in his arms. He looked at Izzy, “I wish I didn’t have to leave, but I don’t think your mistress would like it if she woke up in my arms on the sofa. Maybe someday?” Jean-Paul kissed Sophie’s cheek, watching her smile and snuggle into the blanket. “Sophie, I should leave. I don’t want to, but…and I don’t have a key to let myself out.”

Sophie blinked her eyes as she woke, “Hm, yes, I’ll let you out, another time…” Jean-Paul hoped ‘another time’ mean’t she wanted him to stay.

At the door, Jean-Paul pulled Sophie to him and kissed her. She could feel his desire and brought her hands around his neck and kissed him back.

Jean-Paul broke the kiss and said, “I’ll be here when your shop closes tomorrow. Get some sleep and know I’ll be thinking of you.”

Sophie put the leftovers in the fridge and climbed into bed, falling asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.

 

Chapter Eight

Sunday was busy with customers, keeping Sophie’s mind off her problems. She was happy to see Jean-Paul at the end of the day, agreeing to a quiet dinner in the neighborhood. They talked about their friends and what they liked to do when they had leisure time. Jean-Paul confessed that he had always concentrated first on his career, then his family, and what little time was left, he enjoyed watching the local sports teams. He said he used to ski and cycle, but hadn’t done so for years. Sophie told Jean-Paul she had also put her business first, but had made good friends in the neighborhood and liked spending time with them when she could.

Jean-Paul took Sophie’s hands, and looked longingly into her eyes, “I want to be one of those friends, Sophie; and... I would like to be something more.”

Sophie smiled, “You can definitely count yourself as a friend, Jean-Paul.” Then she squeezed his hands, and bit her lower lip. “Let’s see if it can be more.”

Jean-Paul left Sophie at her door, grinning, and humming a Christmas carol. His feelings for Sophie were different from his past relationships. He wanted to protect her, help her, and to be more than a friend.

*

The week raced by with Sophie preparing for the weekend’s rescue adoption days. Michel had come up with the name of the buyer behind the numbered company, and he and Jean-Paul were discussing the best way to approach the company, and whether either one knew anyone there.

Sophie’s friends were hot on the trail of any leads in the neighborhood for a new commercial space, and several agents had called Sophie, wanting to be the one to help her find a new location. Sophie hoped to find a combined commercial and living space, but knew she might have to settle for a commercial space only, and look for a small apartment in the area.

Michel had advised her not to contact her landlord until she had a better idea of what her options were, saying that she would probably just be referred to the new owner.

Word had spread in the neighborhood that she was losing her lease. Owners of other businesses in the area dropped by to offer their sympathies and any emotional support and help they could give. Customers said she must find a way to stay close by as they could not imagine shopping for their fur babies anywhere else.

On Friday, Sophie, was totalling her daily receipts, when the shop bell jingled. Jean-Paul came in with four of his men carrying the commercial heaters for the adoption weekend.

“Hi,” Jean-Paul said. “The guys will get these set up outside with some commercial tarps so all you have to do is have the organizations set up their crates with the pets and their tables. We’ll collect the heaters on Monday and return them to the company. The tarps are FRP’s so we’ll bring them back with the heaters again in the new year. We also brought some large pieces of plywood to spread on the ground to make it easier to walk and not bring in as much dirt and mud. I didn’t do anything about the scaffolding, given …”

“I know,” said Sophie, “given my current situation.”

Jean-Paul pulled Sophie into his arms, “It will be all right. Michel and I think we’ve found someone to talk with at the new owner’s to find out what permits the owner has, and the project’s schedule.”

“Everyone’s being so helpful,” choked Sophie, against Jean-Paul’s chest, “Marie even said Izzy and I could sleep on her sofa.”

“That won’t happen,” Jean-Paul replied emphatically, thinking if Sophie were going to sleep on anyone’s sofa, or bed, it would be his. “Have you had any luck finding any rentals in the neighborhood?”

Sophie laughed, “No, but I think I’m on everyone’s list! So far, only a few commercial rentals are coming up; they’re close, but outside the neighborhood.”

“Something will turn up,” said Jean-Paul. “Now, let’s get you some dinner, so you’re rested up for the adoption weekend.”

*

Saturday and Sunday passed quickly, giving Sophie little chance to dwell on her problems. The rescue organizations were thrilled with the outdoor heaters and the heavier tarps that insulated them, their animals and potential adopters from the cold and rain. Toward the end of the day, one of the rescue organizations pulled Sophie aside, saying they were all sorry to hear about her building being sold, and offered to help in any way they could. Jean-Paul leaned across the counter and said his guys would be by in the morning to collect the heaters, tarps and the plywood. He watched Marie and Sophie total up the receipts for the agencies and for the shop.

“So, Jean-Paul,” asked Marie, “When are you gonna fall in love with one of the rescue animals and adopt?”

“I’ve already fallen in love,” answered Jean-Paul. Sophie looked up, shocked and held her breath. Jean-Paul winked at Sophie, “I’ve decided Izzy is the one for me…even if I have to share her.”

“Well you certainly bring her enough treats and play with her when you stop by,” responded Sophie, blushing.

Marie looked between Jean-Paul and Sophie, and said “Perhaps, Izzy may someday need a friend to keep her company?”

“Right now, Marie, it’s all I can do to be a good maman to Izzy, but all of you are being great in supporting me through this change. Not to change the subject, but have you gotten your Santa suit for next weekend Jean-Paul? I managed to find a photographer willing to donate her time, and there’ll be signs up in the local businesses, and a notice on my website tomorrow.”

“Yes, and I should practice my ho-ho-ho’s. Maybe Izzy can help me?” Jean-Paul asked hopefully.

“Marie will be here to help get the pets’ attention with squeaker toys and the promise of treats. We’ll take breaks, but I think you’ll find it’s a long time sitting. I’m really grateful that you volunteered,” Sophie said.

“I can’t wait to see you in the suit, Jean-Paul,” laughed Marie. “I will have on an elf costume, just to add to the atmosphere.” She gave Sophie two kisses, “Looks like the rescue organizations will be happy from the receipts and the number of animals adopted.”

“I’m sure they will be,” said Sophie. “They try hard to do extra screening of those adopting at this time of year, to avoid people adopting a Christmas pet, and then deciding in the new year that it wasn’t what they thought it would be. We always talk about whether we should do a weekend in December, but we’ve had so few returns, that we didn’t want to keep any pets from finding their forever homes.”

“You’ve done a great job,” replied Marie. “All your good work will get paid back by an even better location.”

Sophie returned Marie’s kisses, “From your lips to the agents ears.”

“Ok, I’m out of here. I’ll leave you three to bond,” laughed Marie as she floated out the door.

*

Sophie came out of her bedroom after getting ready to go for dinner with Jean-Paul, and found him and Izzy playing on the floor in her living room.

“Ok, Izzy, you guys need to break it up. I sat your dinner out, and I’m looking forward to a relaxing evening with our good friend.” Izzy, barked as if to say, ‘why can’t I go too,’ but padded off to the kitchen to find her food. Jean-Paul held Sophie’s coat for her, and Sophie found herself wishing she could pull his arms around her and sink into his embrace.

Later at a local restaurant, Jean-Paul surprised Sophie by putting their coats, gloves and hats on one side of the booth, and sliding in next to her. She smiled up at Jean-Paul, and he smiled back, thinking he was closer to being more than friends.

Walking back to Sophie’s after dinner, Jean-Paul put his arm around Sophie, and was rewarded as she put her arm around his back and leaned into him. At her door, Sophie blushed and looked up longingly at Jean-Paul, “Would you like to come up?” she blurted, then bit her bottom lip.

“Nothing would make me happier, Sophie,” said Jean-Paul, holding her chin in his hand. He leaned in for a kiss, beginning to explore her lips with his tongue, and diving in when Sophie sighed and opened her mouth. Sophie’s hands circled around Jean-Paul’s neck as he pulled her against him.

“I want you so much, Sophie,” whispered Jean-Paul, breathing fast, “but I want it to be right when it happens; after we’ve solved your move, and you’re sure. So, I will not come up tonight. Give Izzy a hug for me, and I’ll see you this week.” He kissed Sophie on the tip of her nose, turned and left.

Sophie watched him walk up the street. “He’s the kind of guy I never thought I’d meet; and he’s right, I am vulnerable now, and if there’s to be anything between us, it’s best after I get my life sorted out.”

Sophie gave Izzy a big hug before climbing into bed, and for once her dreams were about being with Jean-Paul, and not about the developer forcing her out of her home and business.

Chapter Nine

Sophie’s week was filled with preparations for the weekend photoshoot with Santa. So far, 100 people had responded to her website or stopped in to get a time on the calendar to have their pet’s picture taken. At 25 euro for each sitting, Sophie was thrilled that she would be giving over 600 euro to each of the rescue organizations. She also hoped that the final total would be more when people understood that all the proceeds went only the organizations, and not to her shop.

Jean-Paul had stopped by the beginning of the week saying that when she was ready, he and Michel had identified someone to talk with at her new landlord, and that he was practicing for his performance as Santa on the weekend.

Marie took over for Sophie at the shop during her lunch hour, while Sophie looked at a few commercial rentals in the area. None, unfortunately, had an apartment where they could live, but a couple were not that far away from the neighborhood, and had backyards that could be used for her pet adoption weekends.

“What did you think,” Marie asked Sophie as she got back from visiting a commercial rental.

“None of them are perfect, but two or three are close to the neighborhood, and depending on what apartment I can find for Izzy and me, might be within my budget,” Sophie shrugged, pulling off her coat and hat, and stopping to pet Izzy in the pet play area. “All of the places are available toward the end of the time I have to vacate. If I can get an extension, maybe something even better will come up,” said Sophie. “I’m still hoping to find something where I can live too, but I suppose I should begin looking at small apartments.”

“You never know,” winked Marie. “My sofa’s always there, but I’m sure we can find you something. You should keep your options open, and get your business settled first.”

“On that we both agree. Settling the business is the most important. Now that I’ve got a better sense of what’s out there or coming up, I’m gonna ask Michel and Jean-Paul to arrange for me to meet with the new landlord and see what I can negotiate.”

“Maybe you should ask Jean-Paul to go with you,” resplied Marie. “He’s not a lawyer, but he should know what a developer might agree to. You said he and Michel had determined what stage in the process the developer was at.”

“I hadn’t thought of it, but yes, that’s a good idea, and I will ask him. We’ve been seeing more of each other,” murmured Sophie.

“Like I said,” Marie kissed Sophie on her way out the door, “It’s good to keep your options open.”

*

On Thursday evening, Marie and Sophie were putting the finishing touches on the area for the Santa shoot, when Jean-Paul stopped by to say, everything was set for them to meet the developer after her shop closed on Friday.

“So that’s where I’ll be sitting this weekend,” asked Jean-Paul and reached for Izzy in the play area.

“I brought over an old pillow, in case your seat gets numb,” said Marie. “My job’s easier getting the pets to look at the camera—well, I suspect most of the time it will be easier.”

“You’re both so good to help out. Our photographer stopped by earlier to set a sense of the space. The turnout is promising to be very good!” exclaimed an excited Sophie.

“That’s wonderful!” said Jean-Paul. “I’ll stop by to get you when your shop closes tomorrow. The guy we’re meeting has offices in the center of town, and from what Michel and I can find out, he has authority to make decisions, like extending your time here, if that’s what you want.”

Sophie’s forehead creased, and her grin went away. “I’m ready,” she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin.

“You’ll be fine,” said Marie.

“I’ll be right there, Sophie,” said Jean-Paul. “Please tell me what you want, and let me help you get it.”

“Right now,” declared Sophie, “I want it all to go away, but think I’ll push for whatever extension I can get. That will give me time to get the best place I can, and hopefully have the winter behind, so the move will be easier.”

“Don’t worry about the move,” Jean-Paul said, looking between Sophie and Marie. “Your friends are here to help you, and you’ll have the use of FRP’s trucks and people to make everything go smoothly.”

“Well, you couldn’t ask for a better offer than that,” chimed Marie. “I’m outta here. Have a good evening.”

Jean-Paul drew Sophie into his arms for a long kiss. “The sooner we get you settled, the sooner we can…” Sophie interrupted Jean-Paul, and tilted her head up for another kiss. Jean-Paul could feel his resolve breaking, but Izzy barked as if to say, ‘where’s my hug?’ They broke apart laughing, and Jean-Paul picked Izzy up and cuddled her between them.

Jean-Paul gave Sophie a final peck on her nose, saying “I’ll be here when you close tomorrow, and I’ll be thinking of you until then. You ladies enjoy the night, and Sophie, don’t worry about the meeting tomorrow.”

Sophie put Izzy down, gathered her paperwork and started up the stairs. “You’re in luck, Izzy, it’s leftovers, and chihuahua movie night.”

*

Jean-Paul and Sophie headed down to the developer’s office; Jean-Paul confident from the permits the developer needed to obtain, that Sophie would get an extension; and Sophie scared, but determined to brave it out, and thankful Jean-Paul was with her.

Visitor’s passes had been left at the concierge desk in the lobby. They took the elevator, and got out in the well-appointed reception area of Phoenix Enterprises. Jean-Paul had told Sophie that the company was a family business of three generations, but they had recently begun to add outside management. Pierre LaPointe, the man they were meeting, was one of the new hires. The receptionist had gone for the evening, but they were greeted by a young man as they entered the reception area.

“Bonjour, Mlle Arneau and M. Fontaine. I am Pierre LaPointe.” They shook hands and Pierre motioned for them to follow him. “There’s coffee, tea, water and hot chocolate if you’d like.” They followed Pierre into a kitchen area, and then into a small conference room.

Jean-Paul had told Sophie to lead the discussion, and refer to him only if she had questions. After taking a large gulp of water and putting her glass in front of her, she began, “Thank you, M. LaPointe, for agreeing to meet with me about your company’s purchase of the building I lease. I live and work in the building, and 80% of my customers are from the surrounding area.”

“I understand you run a pet shop, and also help some rescue organizations find homes for their animals,” commented Pierre.

He’s done his homework, thought Jean-Paul, and he’s giving nothing away until he hears what she wants.

Sophie again took a sip of her water, giving herself time to put her thoughts together, before she continued. “You are correct, M. LaPointe, my shop is a business, but I’m also dedicated to helping rescue animals find their forever homes. I’ve looked for alternative rentals in the area, but so far, there is nothing that would allow me to both live and work. Because of my customer base, it is necessary that I stay in the neighborhood. I’m wondering if I might be granted a three-month extension on the time I have been given to move out? The winter is not the best time to look for other accommodation, or move a business.”

M. LaPointe steepled his hands, then leaned forward, “Winters are not the best time for moving a business,” he said. “I cannot give you three months, but am willing to let you have two, which will take you into Spring. Demolition can always be done in the winter, but I’ll agree to work around you through March.”

Sophie put out her hand, “Thank you M. LaPointe, and if I can be out before then, I will let you know.”

They stood to leave and Jean-Paul said, “Sophie, you should expect to receive M. LaPointe’s commitment to you in writing.”

“Yes, Mlle Arneau, a letter will go out to you on Monday when the office staff are in. I hope the extra time will allow you to find a suitable location. I’ll walk you to the elevators.”

In the elevators, Sophie let out a shriek, and jumped into Jean-Paul’s arms. “I can’t believe we did it!” Sophie exclaimed, laughing and crying at the same time.

“You did it, Sophie. All you needed was the information and the contact,” chuckled Jean-Paul.

“And knowing you were there to back me up,” said Sophie, pulling Jean-Paul.s head down for a kiss. The elevator doors opened in the lobby and a couple of men waiting gave Jean-Paul a thumbs up. Sophie surprised herself by not being embarrassed, gave Jean-Paul a big smile, and leaned on his shoulder as they walked out.

“I’d suggest celebrating, but Santa needs his beauty rest, so I’ll drop you off and we’ll celebrate Sunday night if the parents, kids and pets haven’t done me in,” suggested Jean-Paul.

“Sounds perfect to me,” replied Sophie, thinking maybe they could have dinner at her apartment, and get closer.

*

The Santa photo weekend was even more chaotic than the adoption weekends. Kids and pets wandered the aisles, while parents tried to help keep order. Marie in her elf outfit and toys vied to keep the attention of the pets, the photographer took shots from several angles, and Santa held his own, smiling and occasionally taking deep breaths. Sales in the store were good, as customers waiting couldn’t resist the special prices on Christmas costumes and themed toys. There was a waiting list of people saying they would come back toward the end of the day to see if there was time to take just one more photo. As Sophie had anticipated, many people gave more than the 25 euros, and she was sure they would surprise the rescue organizations with large donations.

Sunday, Sophie opened her shop earlier than usual to make certain she could accommodate all the customers who wanted photos taken. Andre and Lucas brought over coffee and muffins, saying they wanted to be first in line that day for their photo with Catherine and Liliane. Some of the pet food companies had donated small sample bags of treats and kibble which Marie used to attract the pet’s attention and gave to the owner after the photo was taken. When the last customer had gone, Marie told Sophie to grab Izzy and smile for the camera. Jean-Paul in his Santa suit, held out his arm, and Sophie picked up Izzy and snuggled close, tired, but a smile stretching from ear to ear. After they had cleaned up, Sophie thanked Marie and the photographer and asked if they waned to join her and Jean-Paul for lasagna. Marie pulled the photographer out the door before she could answer, saying, “Naw, too tired, catch you later.”

“I guess that leaves just us,” said Sophie.

“Exactly what I was hoping,” replied Jean-Paul.

 

Chapter Ten

Sophie and Izzy woke up late on Christmas Eve. Her shop was closed today and Christmas, giving her time to relax and enjoy time with friends. She would spend and morning of Christmas Eve with her friend Marie watching Izzy and Marie’s cat, Louie, eye each other from Sophie’s and Marie’s laps. Then she was looking forward to going to Andre and Lucas’ annual Christmas celebration. Izzy loved Catherine and Liliane, and it was always fun to see if other friends showed up with their pets dressed up in their Christmas sweaters and coats. Sophie dressed and put some treats together for the pets she knew would be there. Andre and Lucas’s celebration began at noon and lasted into the night. They and their friends always lifted her spirits, and had her staying late, forming part of the clean-up crew.

The weatherman had delivered a beautiful Christmas. Sophie, Izzy and Marie walked toward Andre and Lucas’s admiring the decorations in the store and restaurant windows.

“We’re gonna miss…” Sophie began, and then stopped herself. “Izzy, we’re gonna be fine. We’ll make it work, whatever ‘it’ turns out to be!” Marie squeezed her friend’s hand, and Izzy padded behind Sophie, her fake fur boots keeping her paws toasty warm, and her tail wagging in anticipation of a fun time.

Sophie rang the buzzer at Andre and Lucas’s apartment, and could hear Catherine and Liliane running toward the door barking as Andre buzzed her in.

Andre opened the door and kissed Sophie, “I’m so glad you’re here. I told Lucas you wouldn’t sink into a dark mood, and stay at home or come late.”

Sophie kissed Andre back, “Not when I have best friends like you.”

“Let’s get your layers off ladies, and the fur babies settled. I have a surprise for you, Sopie,” said Andre. Sophie looked questioningly at Andre. “Don’t worry, only the best for our girl,” Andre asserted. “You know lots of people here from previous Christmases and some, of course, are customers of your shop. Let me get you both some bubbly so you can mingle and have a good time.”

“When do I get my surprise?” Sophie asked with a grin.

“Not too long,” answered Andre, hoping he was right.

Sophie mingled with the guests recognizing some as customers from her shop, and others from previous celebrations, but no surprises. She had just started to fill a plate with finger food, when she felt hands touch her shoulders, and a voice whispered in her ear, “Merry Christmas, Sophie.”

Sophie put her plate down and turned into Jean-Paul’s arms. “I’m glad Andre and Lucas invited me to their celebration,” said Jean-Paul.

Sophie’s eyes twinkled and a smile spread across her face, “You’re my surprise!” exclaimed Sophie.

Jean-Paul leaned down tilting Sophie’s face up for a kiss “And spending Christmas with you is my best present,” answered Jean-Paul.

Across the room, Marie tugged on Andre’s arm and pointed to Sophie and Jean-Paul, “Looks like our friend’s decided Jean-Paul’s no longer an enemy.”

“Lucas and I want everyone to be as happy as we are, and Sophie is special to both of us. By the way, you’re next on my list. I haven’t seen you with anyone recently,” remarked Andre.

“Naw, but I’m in no rush, and something casual is more my style,” replied Marie.

The afternoon’s celebration continued with people coming and going, off to other parties, or their traditional Christmas Eve dinner and opening of presents. Jean-Paul pulled Sophie aside, saying maybe they should make their final rounds of the party, thank Andre and Lucas, collect Izzy and head out.

“I usually stay until the last one leaves and help the guys clean up,” said Sophie.

“I’m sure they won’t mind,” Jean-Paul looked hopefully at Sophie. “My parents’ traditional Christmas Eve dinner with the family is tonight, and they would love to meet you—and Izzy too, of course!” exclaimed Jean-Paul. “Please say, yes.” Gosh, thought Sophie, and wondered what Jean-Paul’s family would be like. Being raised by her Mom with no siblings, a big family gathering was scary and exciting at the same time.

“Yes, I’d like that,” she smiled at Jean-Paul. “Let me round up Izzy, and let Andre and Lucas know there’ll be one less on the clean-up crew.”

*

Light rain was falling as Jean-Paul and Sophie drove North of the city.

“It’s not far,” commented Jean-Paul. “The folks probably don’t need their big house anymore, but maman loves gardening, and entertaining, whether it’s Papa’s card nights, her book club, or when family drops in for the day, or when they need a place to stay before their next move.”

“Your maman sounds like a warm and very welcoming person,” murmured Sophie.

Jean-Paul laughed, “Probably it’s her survival instincts, but I’ll bet it’s from her Italian roots. You know what they say about Italian hospitality, and extended families. Maman’s got it in spades.”

“Oh. How did your parents meet?” asked Sophie.

“Papa did a fellowship in Rome after getting his medical degree in France, and maman was doing volunteer work at the hospital; and she says being pushed at every suitably eligible male her relatives could find. But, when she met Papa, that was it, and the rest is history.”

Jean-Paul turned the car off a main street in Cimiez, into an area of homes that looked to Sophie like a fairyland. The road wound around the hills passing homes with tennis courts and pools. Further on at a fork in he road, the car climbed up again showing large homes nestled into the hills with lights glowing in the windows. Large trees, hedges and entrance ways were decorated with lights and red ribbons, and sometimes red ornaments that resembled the traditional apple decorations of years past. Sophie even spotted an inflatable snowman skiing downhill. Cars lined driveways and the sides of the roads. Sophie imagined the laughter and happy gatherings as they drove deeper into the valley.

“Tell me something about your siblings,” asked Sophie.

“Well, there’s my two older brothers, Louis and Henri. Louis is named for my father and is following in our Papa’s footsteps. I think you’ll like his wife, Gabrielle. They just became parents of a beautiful baby girl, Anne-Marie. Henri is still single and works in a law firm improving his knowledge of real estate law. I’m next, and then then there’s our baby sister, Elisabeth—we call her petit ennui – a small nuisance. She still lives at home and is trying to figure out what she wants to do. Right now yoga classes, having fun and irritating her brothers seem high on her list.”

Jean-Paul pulled the car onto a long drive, at what Sophie thought must be the very back of the valley. All of the houses they passed were a mixture of French and Italian styles, and obviously built to their owner’s ideal of the perfect home. The Fontaine’s house reflected Jean-Paul’s mother’s Italian roots. Large columns stretching across the entire entrance, balconies with wrought-iron railings, and balustrades concealing the roof scape. The columns and large first floor windows were decorated with garlands of pine. Small twinkle lights wound up the columns. A huge pine tree glittered with ornaments and lights blinking stood half-way down the drive, welcoming visitors.

Sophie hugged Izzy as Jean-Paul walked around the car to open her door. “I don’t know girl if we’re dreaming,” Sophie said. “Please behave, and let’s enjoy it, and see how the other half lives.”

Jean-Paul opened Sophie’s door, helping her and Izzy out, putting his arm around them before ringing the bell.

“I know my family may be a little overwhelming, and especially at this time of year. They’re good people. Please try to relax, and let them get to know you.” Before Sophie could answer, the door flung open.

“Were you planning to stay outside all night!” a young woman asked. “You’re late, but I’m sure you’ll catch up. Everyone’s in the salon drinking and eating appetizers and ogling the baby. Hi, I’m Elisabeth, and you must be…”

“I’m Sophie, a friend of Jean-Paul’s…He told me it was okay to bring Izzy,” blurted Sophie, overcome by Jean-Paul’s sister’s energy.

“Come in, before we heat all of Nice,” answered Elisabeth. “Jean-Paul take Sophie’s things, and we’ll get Izzy settled with Beau—that’s our very old and docile Golden Retriever. We’ll meet you in the salon. Say hi to maman on your way, Jean-Paul. She’s making sure everything’s in perfect order in the kitchen. Go…Go…”

“Ok, mon petit ennui. You are in good hands, Sophie. I’ll be in the salon before you get there.”

Sophie hugged Izzy tighter and gave Jean-Paul a look that said, ‘please don’t make me face your family alone.’

After settling Izzy, Elisabeth put her arm through Sophie’s and headed toward the salon. “It’s been a long time since Jean-Paul brought anyone home, and on a holiday; you must be special?”

“The company he works for is building in my neighborhood, and we’ve become friends,” answered Sophie, as they walked into the salon filled with people talking and enjoying each other’s company. Jean-Paul stood by the Christmas tree, now filled with opened presents, with an elegant woman, who Sophie thought must be his maman. Everyone looked as she and Elisabeth entered. Jean-Paul came to stand by her, putting his arm around her waist.

“I’d like you all to meet Sophie Arneau and make her welcome. I am hoping you’ll be seeing more of her…” He gave Sophie’s waist a squeeze, looked at her, and then at his family, “She’s special.”

Jean-Paul’s parents and his family came forward, introducing themselves and making Sophie feel welcome. Jean-Paul’s sister-in-law slipped off hoping to feed and settle the baby before dinner, Jean-Paul chatted with his brothers and his Papa. His maman settled herself and Sophie into comfortable chairs by the fire, asking the questions a mother would ask of someone her son brought home. Sophie talked about her business and meeting Jean-Paul, and how he had become a good friend and was helping her as she looked for a new location for her business. A servant, Sophie supposed, appeared at the salon’s door, and Mrs. Fontaine rose, asked Louis to check on his wife and daughter, and said that Christmas dinner was served.

Roast turkey and chicken, ham and beef lined the long table with sides of potatoes, peas, carrots and beans. Garlic soup sat steaming at each place setting, and Sophie noticed a large platter of ravioli that Jean-Paul said was his maman’s recipe stuffed with rabbit and in a truffle sauce. When everyone had eaten their fill, and the table cleared, a large Yule log cake was offered, together with candies and chocolates. After a delicious meal that could have served many times the people there, the family returned to the salon for after dinner drinks and conversation. Jean-Paul opened his gifts, and his maman gave Sophie a box of chocolates, saying she was happy Jean-Paul had included her in their Christmas celebration. Sophie collected Izzy, and she and Jean-Paul bundled up for the drive back to her home. Jean-Paul’s family thanked her for coming, saying they hoped to see her again, and waved goodbye from the front door.

“They liked you Sophie. I hope you liked them,” said Jean-Paul as they made their way out of Cimiez.

“They’re so different from what I grew up with…but yes, I liked them. They were nice. Your sister has so much energy!”

“Elisabeth’s pushing at everything while she tries to find herself, which can be irritating, but she’s a good kid.”

Jean-Paul looked for a parking place close to Sophie’s shop, ending up only a few blocks away. The street was a mixture of older houses and apartment buildings. As they walked toward Sophie’s place, Jean-Paul hugged Sophie and Izzy close to him, and asked “I hope you enjoyed Christmas, Sophie?”

Sophie leaned closer to Jean-Paul. When they turned onto her street, a new rental sign was posted in front of a commercial space.

“It’s been a wonderful Christmas, Jean-Paul; and it looks like my wish will come true, and I’ll find a place at least for my business in the neighborhood,” replied Sophie.

When they got to Sophie’s shop, Sophie opened the door and pulled Jean-Paul in. “My other wish is that you’d stay. Your car won’t get tagged on Christmas day. I know you said you wanted me to be settled, but…”

Jean-Paul pulled Sophie into his ams and kissed her deeply, exploring her mouth and giving her no doubt about his desire. “Let’s get this fur baby settled, then let me show you how much I want you and you mean to me,” Jean-Paul murmured against Sophie’s neck.

Later Sophie looked over at Jean-Paul sleeping, smiled and pulled the duvet around them. She thought about her maman, and all her friends in the neighborhood. Curling into Jean-Paul she knew being with Jean-Paul was right, comfortable and exciting. That with him, she would find solutions to her challenges, and open a place in her heart for a family. She would never forget her maman, but it was time to build a family of her own.

The End