A small opening was left unzipped on her purse so Remy could breathe. “Remy quit fidgeting,” Ella hissed. “They’ll kick us out if they discover you.”
Thankfully, at this time of the day, the restaurant was nearly empty. The only other person in the dining room was a handsome, well-groomed man sitting alone at the corner table behind her.
Ella’s server came with her soup, French onion. It smelled divine. As Ella dipped her spoon into the melty cheese, the man from the corner table cleared his throat behind her.
“Excuse me, mademoiselle.” He had a French accent and deep voice. “I don’t want to alarm you….”
Ella paused, mid-bite. She was alarmed. Whenever someone said, “Don’t be alarmed, don’t get angry, or don’t be afraid,” there was usually a good reason to be alarmed, angry, or afraid.
He bent down and whispered, “… but there’s something alive in your purse.” He smelled like cedar, lime, and trouble.
She faced him. “No, there’s not.” The upward lilt at the end of her assertion made it sound like a question.
The gentleman arched an eyebrow. He was even more handsome up close. “Without checking, you’re quite certain?” His tone mocked her. He knew.
“Yes. My purse is zipped. Nothing could get into it.”
Or out of it.
“I saw a nose and whiskers.” He smiled like a fox who knew how to get into the hen-house. “Like those of a rat or perhaps a ferret?”
“That’s ridiculous. A nose? Whiskers?” She waved her hand. “I’d like to enjoy my meal in peace.”
He stood firm.
She was four foot eleven and accustomed to bluffing big. She glared. “Leave my table. Or I will ask management to escort you away.”
“Fine.” He opened his arms wide. “You brought a rodent into this establishment. Management should know.” With a crisp hand flick, he summoned Ella’s server. Ella’s heart galloped.
The server dipped her head. “Yes, Mr. Beaumont, did you need something?”
“Please prepare my usual lunch on a tray. Two of everything except dessert.”
“Yes, Sir.” She left.
He smiled as he shifted his tie. “I’m Henri Beaumont. This is my restaurant.” He arched his eyebrow again. “You had a complaint?”
“Well, no… but this,” she pointed with her spoon, “is the best French onion soup I’ve ever had!”
He nodded toward her bowl. “You haven’t tasted it yet.”
“I’ve had it before. What’s the secret to making it taste so much better than any other soup in the city?”
Maybe flattery would distract him.
“There are many secrets. None of which I’m telling.” He cocked his head to one side. “What sort of animal do you have with you?”
“You caught me. He’s a service animal.” She cleared her throat. “A rat.”
“A service rat?” He chuckled.
Ella nodded. “Yes… I’m very allergic to… ah… cilantro. He can smell it. He’ll squeak, letting me know if there is cilantro in a dish I’m about to eat. Amazing, right?”
“Cilantro isn’t in any dish served in this restaurant.”
“Then I’m safe.” Ella returned her attention to her soup.
“I cannot allow a rat to remain in my restaurant. You must finish your meal outside. The patio is covered. It is a nice day.”
She pouted. “If he were a dog, you’d allow it.”
“Mademoiselle, dogs in public places, are acceptable. Rats are not. Regulations don’t allow rats to be service animals—they can only be emotional support animals.”
Henri sounded well-acquainted with his facts.
“He is an emotional support animal.”
Grinning, Henri shook his finger at her. “Your story keeps changing.” He pointed toward the patio. “Your rat must leave the dining room. I’ll bring you a complimentary fresh bowl of soup.”
On the patio, Henri held Ella’s chair for her as she sat. A gentle breeze carried the fragrance of the rosemary, sage, and blooming lavender planted in raised beds around the patio. He left to get her soup. He returned with a serving tray carrying two bowls of soup, two salad plates, warm crusty rolls, a bowl with butter shaped into little balls, and one dish of chocolate mousse with two dessert spoons.
He turned the sign on the door, closing the patio to public use. “We’ll not be interrupted.” He sat, unfolding a napkin onto his lap. “Why did you bring a rat into my restaurant? Emotional support?”
Ella sighed. “No. My townhouse is being fumigated. I couldn’t leave him. I was hungry.”
“Ah.” Henri nodded. “May I see him? What’s his name?”
“His name is Remy.” She hesitated. “He gets nervous around people who are afraid of him. He’s very sensitive.”
Henri snorted. “I am not afraid of rats.”
That may’ve been the sexiest thing any man ever said to her. Maybe it was his deep voice. Henri could probably make shower mold sound sexy.
“Please, mademoiselle.” He dipped his head and glanced up. He had long, dark lashes. “I promise I’ll not harm your Remy.”
Ella unzipped her purse. Henri held his hand to Remy. Remy sniffed. Satisfied that all was well, Remy climbed into Henri’s hand and scrambled up his arm, perching on Henri’s shoulder.
There was a draft in Ella’s dropped open mouth.
Henri shrugged. “I know many people who are dog-people. I know some people who are cat-people, but very few people I know are rat-people. Dogs know dog-people. Rats know rat-people.” He handed a piece of bread to Remy. Remy took it and nibbled politely. “He’s a very well-mannered rat. And beautiful.” Henri gazed at her. “Just like his owner.”
Heat flooded her cheeks. “Thank you.”
“I have a rat named Colette. Perhaps Remy would like to meet her. You could bring him to my home this evening.” He took Ella’s hand in his and kissed the backs of her fingers. “I’ll cook dinner for all of us, and perhaps Remy and Colette will fall in love.”
“What time would you like us to be there?”
Bonnie is a retired homeschool mom of four. She lives in Maryland with her husband, two college-attending children, and two black German Shepherds. She recently went back to school to earn a certificate in American Sign Language. Her favorite way to relax is with a cup of tea, a good book, and if the weather calls for it, an oversized sweater.
You can find her online at her website, and on Facebook and Twitter.