Paula's back was to the door of the tea shop, but there was a sudden quiet as it opened and shut again. She turned and looked.
Her heart stopped. Noah Sheridan was standing there, not moving, looking at her. He crossed the room in a single stride. He took her elbow and shepherded her to an empty table.
"We need to talk," he said. There was something grim in him that brooked no argument. She sank into a chair.
"How did you find me?"
"Isabella. I like your daughter a lot, by the way."
He knew she had a daughter and he was still here?
"You used my phone on our picnic."
Paula got over the shock of seeing him. "You mean the picnic you took me on where you forgot to tell me you had a famous, gorgeous girlfriend?"
"We seem to have neglected to tell each other a few things. I do not have a girlfriend. I saw Manda maybe half a dozen times. The night of the concert, she dumped me completely. It was a relief. It was not, at any point, what I would have called a relationship."
"Oh," Paula said, weakly.
"I don't think you didn't come to Paris because you believed all the trash in the tabloids. I think you didn't come because you're afraid of your own happiness."
"That's—" True? Paula looked down at her uniform. "You can "I can," he agreed. "I'm not sure you can. Tell me how you happened to sit beside me in the VIP section."
"It was an accident. I didn't belong there." She filled in the details: everyone except her heading for the concert, and then suddenly the old woman, hurt, the lost dog, the three young women who came to her rescue.
"They found her dog. He was a little sausage dog, in a sailor suit. The atmosphere around them was so joyous. I have to say I was jealous as their names floated up to me—Jessica, Daisy, Aubrey—jealous of their youth and their hope and their energy and laughter.
"The older lady—Viv—had injured her ankle. One of them, Aubrey, went off to get transport for her, and Viv gave me her ticket. And then the other two girls gave me their tickets, too.
"Viv told me nothing was impossible, and when I was escorted to the VIP section and saw you there, I felt that for the first time in a long, long time, as if magic could happen, even to someone like me."
She was crying, and she couldn't look at him. But then his hands covered hers.
"Somebody like you?" he prodded.
"I didn't even own that outfit I was wearing. Not even the shoes. I told myself I could be Cinderella—that I could pretend—just for one night."
"You have no idea," Noah said to her softly, "I can see who you really are, Paula, I could always see it. Strong, sensitive, funny. Sexy."
"You think I'm who I pretended to be," she protested. Sexy? Her eyes skittered to his lips, and the most terrible hunger she had ever felt rose up within her.
"I think you just let a different side of yourself out. It's no less true."
"I'm divorced! A waitress! A single mom!"
"You have single-handedly raised good people," he said quietly. "That tells me you're brave and resilient and more fearless than you know."
Noah's willingness to believe in her made her feel the most painful of hopes. He lifted her chin and gazed into her eyes.
"Paula, I want to laugh with you and play with you and take long walks in the woods, and sit in front of the fire reading Hamlet to you."
As Noah spoke, it felt as if her heart would beat out of her chest and the breath was leaving her body.
"Please?" he said. Noah was looking at her sweetly and beseechingly, as if she held his life in her hands.
Paula could not resist him. She let the hope within, so long quashed, take wing. When she looked in Noah's eyes and saw what was there, it was as if her fairy godmother had waved a magic wand that night, and made it so that, indeed, nothing was impossible.
Somehow Viv was the central element. If this tiny encounter with that mysterious woman had transformed Paula into a real-life Cinderella, what magic was in store for Jessica, Daisy, Aubrey? A shiver went up and down Paula's spine as she recognized all of them had been joined that night, not by coincidence, but by the shimmering power of pure enchantment.
Noah rose, and Paula rose with him. She went into his arms with a sense of homecoming. His lips claimed hers, and everything faded as dazzling light encompassed her. From a long way away, she could hear clapping, as people recognized they were in the presence of the happy ending every single person longs for.
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