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Cowgirls Love French Kisses – Chapter 1

Well, paint me yellow and call me a croissant.

As if ever there were any question, Paris is nothing like Sage, Texas. The sky was as clear as a bluebonnet in bloom when I first laid eyes on the Eiffel Tower from the sky above in this tin can that’s brought me thousands of miles from home. What a beauty, a lattice work like my granny’s doily, but woven for a giant.

And an airport that puts even Dallas-Fort Worth to shame.

Now, with my two feet squarely back on solid ground, I’m hugging a suitcase that’s one rough landing away from retirement, a backpack strapped tight enough to choke a bull, and a handbag that’s begging for a break.

Three months in Paris summertime and this is the stuff of dreams. People in the airport bustle past, shooting me glances that are a cocktail of curiosity and disdain. Exactly what I expected.

I’m leaving everything else behind. All those years of feeling as out of place as a donkey at the rodeo, the looks of neighbors, of teachers, sheesh, even of my own family when I said I needed to get out of Dodge and find my feet in France.

Sage may be home, but we never spoke the same language.

Not that I speak much more French than oh-la-la, but hey—a girl has to start somewhere. Paris is where I’m starting, finally standing on my own two feet. If only I could find the taxi stand…

“May I help you?” a man with dreamier eyes than the star-studded sky asks, tilting his head with a look so genuinely concerned it almost breaks through my resolve to stay self-sufficient.

Never mind that accent—though it makes me want to melt on the spot—those muscular arms tell me all I need to know. A half-grin dances on my face because this is what I’ve been waiting for.

“I’m looking for the taxi stand.”

Did I put on lipstick? Please say I put on lipstick during that quick run to the ladies’ room.

“Let me help. You are a long way from home,” he says as he takes my backpack. “And it seems you brought the kitchen sink with you.”

“I’m hoping to stay a while.” Did I just bat my eyes at him? Yes, yes, I did. And I’m not even a little ashamed.

“The taxi stand is just over here.”

He rolls my suitcase, leading me like a little lost lamb among the hustle and bustle of Charles de Gaulle Airport. To think I was worried about how I might find my way around! Not a thing to fear, not with hunky French Adonis here.

“Bonjour,” I smile at the taxi driver, and extra proud that I did those French lessons. “Je veux Paris, s’il vous plaît.”

I must have gotten something wrong there, because the driver rolls his eyes at me. “Où a Paris?”

“Why, the Eiffel Tower, of course!”

More eye rolling.

“There you go,” French Adonis says with a wink and I see my bags cozied into the trunk before he slams it shut. He walks around to the side of the taxi and opens the door for me.

Chivalry is not dead, certainly not in Paris. I lower myself into the car, taking in one last drink of the man who has already made Paris a dream come true.

“Before you go…” his deep, dark eyes implore me and I wait for the question.

My phone number? Where I’m staying? Whether I’d like to spend the rest of my life with him?

He leans forward and plants a soft kiss right on my lips.

“Enjoy Paris, Annie.”

He slams the door shut and with a squeal of the tires, I am off toward the Eiffel Tower.

Heaven help a Texan girl.

I flash one last smile to the taxi driver who grumbles in return as he passes me my change. The city buzzes like a beehive at high noon, suits and silk gliding past in a river of elegance that could make the pages of a high-fashion magazine feel downright homely. Cars honk in a rhythm, and with the window down, I hear a mix of multilingual chatter and the clink-clink of coffee spoons against porcelain in sidewalk cafés.

And standing high in front of me is the belle of the ball herself, the Eiffel Tower.

The air is a potpourri of espresso, pastry delights that tickle my taste buds with just a whiff, and a certain… finesse. It’s a perfume all its own that has nothing to do with manure, hay, and goldenrod.

In Sage, the breeze carries the scent of sweetgrass and sizzling barbecues, and time ambles along like it’s got nowhere to be. Here, it’s a waltz at double time, every step and turn deliberate and sharp. The pigeons strut with a sense of urgency, navigating the sea of tables and fluttering napkins. Gosh, even the pigeons are classy in Paris.

My boots, a bit dusty from the trails, now tread on cobblestones that weave stories beneath my soles. To my right is the glorious tower that makes this city famous, but if I crane my neck to the left, I can soak in the sight of storied buildings that cradle secrets within their stone carvings and iron balconies.

A gentle breeze brushes my face. It carries a hint of lilac from somewhere unseen, and I draw it into my lungs, hoping it’ll tattoo itself on my memory. Nothing like the beginning of May, with the glory of flowers in bloom all over. With a determined stride and a squint against the mild sun, I push onward. Annie Clayton might be the first of her name to step foot in this city, but I’m set on making sure Paris remembers it.

My trusty old watch is stubbornly clinging to Texas time. I squint at it, trying to do the math. That’s when a wave of exhaustion hits me—my brain’s got as much lag as a two-dollar streaming service on game day. My head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton, and my eyes are blinking slow as molasses in January. Jet lag, that invisible trickster, has lassoed my senses.

I yawn wide enough to swallow the Seine. “Whoa there,” I mutter to myself, grabbing onto a lamppost that suddenly feels like my new best friend.

Dragging my suitcase behind me, the rickety wheels complaining all the way, I navigate through the gleaming streets radiating out from the Eiffel Tower. Somewhere along a side street is the hostel that will be my home for the coming months. I make a left, and the shadow of the Eiffel Tower falls away, replaced by the looming shapes of buildings that have seen better days. A left, a right, another right and… boy, oh boy. Not what I expected.

Paris, I’m learning quick, can turn on a dime—from chic to shabby, glossy to gritty, with just a few turns.

The air changes on this street, trading in sweet aromas for the scent of overripe trash and the tangy bite of something that reminds me of Auntie Lou’s mystery stew, not that I’d ever tell cousin Natalie my true feelings about her mother’s cooking. A sudden scuttling catches my eye—a rat, bold as brass, scoots across the path with a scrap of something in its mouth.

The wafting stench on this back street pinches the back of my throat, and my nose can’t help but wrinkle.

Eau de real life.

The street my hostel’s supposed to be on looks nothing like the picture-perfect postcards stocked in the airport. The stones underfoot are slick and the buildings huddle together like they’re sharing warmth despite the late spring air. It’s a far cry from the sprawling open fields of Sage, where you can see for miles and the horizon’s the only thing that ever crowds you.

I heave my suitcase over a particularly treacherous crack in the sidewalk, an unladylike grunt escaping my lips with the effort. As noise of the main thoroughfares fades into a distant buzz, I’m left with the more intimate sounds of life in this less-polished pocket of Paris—the murmurs of conversation behind shutters, the soft cooing of pigeons roosting for the night, and the occasional rasp of a scooter engine.

Finding the hostel’s faded sign, the door creaks open with a jingle. The dimly lit foyer promises rest, though perhaps not the most serene kind. But it’s a bed, a place to lay my head, and right now, that’s all the Texas girl dragging a dusty piece of Sage behind her could ask for. And the reviews online all said that despite the humble lodgings, the people are what make the place a delight.

The lobby’s dim light does little to warm the reception desk, where a woman sits examining her nails with the kind of focus I usually reserve for choosing pie flavors at the county fair. She looks up as my boots clank on the wooden floors.

Bonjour,” she drawls, the word dripping with ennui. “Can I help you?”

She’s a sure delight indeed.

Judging by the gaze of hers, this is a purely rhetorical question, but I’m not about to let a little thing like that dim my shine.

“Hiya! I’m Annie Clayton, and I hope y’all are as thrilled to see me as I am to see you!”

The corners of her mouth twitch in something that’s almost a smile, but not quite.

“Thrilled,” she repeats, her tone dry enough to rival the desert. She types slowly, almost reluctantly, and then nods. “Ah, yes. Annie Clayton. Here until the end of July?”

“That’s me!” I beam, proud as punch that I’ve actually made a reservation that stuck.

She glances up, the ghost of a smirk on her face. “Passport, s’il vous plaît?”

A simple request, but as I dip my hand into my handbag, an icy wave of panic washes over me.

Where is it?

My heart thumps a wild rhythm as I dump the contents of my bag onto the counter—a colorful cascade of gum wrappers, a phone charger, and a souvenir keychain I bought at DFW Airport, but no passport.

“Oh, sugar,” I mutter, my mind racing faster than a jackrabbit. The receptionist watches with a raised eyebrow, her boredom replaced with mild, detached curiosity.

But then, like the sun breaking through storm clouds, I remember—safety first, Annie. Don’t keep all your documents in one bag.

“My backpack!” I declare with a whoop that’s half relief, half embarrassment. “Silly goose that I am, of course I put it in my backpack to be separate from my wallet.” I scoop up the scattered contents of my handbag, forgetting how bone-tired I am, what with all this hullabaloo.

Seems even in Paris, embarrassing moments are keen to follow me, as loyal as the hound dog back home.

I rummage through my backpack with a frantic energy that’s usually reserved for a Black Friday sale. My fingers search through rolled-up socks, a tangle of charging cables, and the jumbo-sized bottle of hand sanitizer I packed because Mama swore up and down I’d catch the plague if I wasn’t careful.

But my passport—the little blue book that’s supposed to be my golden ticket around the world—is playing an awful good game of hide-and-seek. My heartbeat picks up the pace, a drum of worry thudding in my chest.

“Come on, Annie, think,” I mutter to myself, double-checking the secret pocket I sewed inside just last week.

Then, like a bucket of ice water on a hot Texas afternoon, the realization dawns on me.

That kiss.

The charming fella who was all smiles and helpful hands, offering to carry my bags like a knight in shining armor. He even put them into the cab for me.

“Enjoy Paris, Annie.”

I never told that thieving Adonis my name.

“Oh, no, no, no,” I whisper, the panic turning my insides to jelly. “If that ain’t the cow that got tipped!” I blurt out, attracting an unamused glance from the receptionist. “That doggone fella pilfered my passport!” Is the floor swallowing me up? Feels like it. “He stole my passport.” With each exclamation, my cheeks flush hotter than a hen laying an egg in August.

Meanwhile, the receptionist flicks a glance over her glasses that’s cooler than a cucumber.

“No passport, no room,” she says, like she’s telling me the sky’s blue or the grass is green.

“But ma’am,” I plead, mustering the last of my energy, “I’ve been up longer than a cat on a hot tin roof. I have other ID, please. I’m exhausted.”

She shrugs, unimpressed. “C’est la règle,” she continues, and I reckon ‘la règle’ doesn’t give two hoots about my sleep deprivation or my missing passport.

And that’s how I ended up back on the dingy street with a growl in my stomach to match the rumble of the city. Annie Clayton, fresh from Sage, Texas, wearied in the City of Lights with no place to lay my head.

Even the black cat on top of the dumpster is shaking her head at me.

I march away, feeling the sting of betrayal mixed with the ache of fatigue gnawing at my bones. The nerve of that slick-haired Casanova, swiping my passport with a smile as sweet as pecan pie. I wipe my lips hard with the back of my arm as if that could undo the damage, and I spit on the street, not caring two hoots if that makes me look like a country girl. My heart’s hammering like I’ve just finished the fifty-yard dash, but somehow I’ve got to solve this problem all by myself.

“A fine ‘how do ya do’,” I spit out, the words tasting like vinegar on my tongue. My fists are clenched so tight I could turn coal to diamonds, and a part of me—the fiery Texan part that doesn’t take kindly to being hoodwinked—wants to track him down and give him a piece of my mind, maybe introduce his shins to the pointy end of my cowboy boots.

“Hungry, tired, and passport-less,” I mutter to myself, tapping into that well of Texan grit that’s gotten me through more scrapes than I can count. “Isn’t this just a frosted cupcake?”

A sneaky voice in the back of my mind rises up.

You left Texas and look at the predicament you’re in already. What were you thinking?

“Off to the embassy we go,” I say to the voice, because it doesn’t matter what I was thinking, here I am.

I saunter off, my boots clicking against the cobblestone like a metronome, keeping time with my new resolve. Anything to keep that voice quiet.

The Eiffel Tower shrinks behind me, a metal giant waving goodbye with indifferent grace as I trudge away. Dragging my suitcase behind me like the world’s saddest parade for thirty minutes of urban trekking, the streets of Paris are a mosaic of life. Vendors peddling flowers that smell like spring, cafes spilling over with laughter, and couples strolling arm in arm, lost in a love that seems as foreign to me as the language. I groan out loud at the cute couple rubbing noses at a café.

Handsome French men are not in my good books right now.

With every block, my suitcase feels heavier, like it’s packed with bricks instead of blouses. My shoulders scream, my feet are a duo of despair in my worn-out boots, and my back’s about to wave a white flag. Once I’ve got that precious little book in my hands, that hostel bed will be mine-all-mine.

Finally, the American Embassy comes into view, standing grand and official, a slice of home on foreign soil. I feel a burst of relief so fierce it almost chokes me. But as I get closer, my heart sinks faster than a hot knife through butter. The gates are closed with a padlock and there isn’t a soul in sight.

I march up to the sign posted on the gate, squinting at the neatly printed words that might as well be a punchline of a terrible joke. Closed from noon until two.

A two-hour lunch break? Even cattle don’t take two hours to chew their cud.

I lean against the cool metal, the frustration and fatigue settling like a buzzard on a fence post, when my stomach pipes up with a rumble loud enough to scare it off. Well, if I can’t feed my hopes, at least I can feed my belly.

“Guess it’s time to find out what Parisians do with all this time for lunch,” I mutter to myself, pushing off the gate.

I set off down the street, my hunger leading the way, ready to trade a piece of my dwindling stash of euros for something fried, or baked, or… well, I’d settle for anything that doesn’t come with a side of misfortune.

A typical French brasserie sparkles like a jewel box, all cozy warmth against the creeping Parisian May breeze. As I hustle toward what I hope is a bellyful of comfort food, a shoulder suddenly appears in front of my face, blocking my way.

Excusez-moi,” the shoulder says, turning around.

I’m suddenly toe-to-toe with a walking advertisement for French allure—tall, hunky, and eyes like the summer sky at twilight.

“Great,” I scoff. “Another drop-dead handsome Frenchman. Do you wanna steal my passport too?”

He cocks his head, confusion playing across his features like he’s trying to translate my Texas twang. Then, as smooth as Sunday, he steps aside and swings the door wide open.

Après vous,” he says, and something about his politeness almost sands the edges off my ruffled feathers.

I stomp past him, not trusting myself to keep the sarcasm from my voice or the mist from my eyes. Sliding into a booth, I plop down with all the grace of a sack of potatoes. I press my palms to my eyes, fighting back tears because Annie Clayton does not cry in public, especially not in a charming Parisian eatery. But hot dog, if the burn behind my eyelids isn’t as persistent as a burr in a saddle blanket.

Nothing is happening the way it was supposed to.