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First Two Chapters FREE

The Hope in Hot Chocolate

Chapter 1

The collage of ominous red numbers cluttering the spreadsheet glared accusingly, stating the obvious.

She was in trouble.

Without shifting her gaze from the laptop screen, Sadie Hamilton reached for another hazelnut truffle and popped it into her mouth.

Big trouble.

Of course, she’d been in tough situations before.

Like the time she forgot to place an entire custom order of caramel amaretto bonbons into the cooler before closing the sweet shop… on the hottest day in August. The next morning, she’d arrived to find fifty painstakingly handcrafted chocolates melted into unattractive lumps of goo. Luckily, the customer had been more than happy to substitute his order with the rarer, and much more expensive, almond and apricot liqueur bonbons she only made once a year from locally sourced apricots.

But this time?

She didn’t know how she’d get herself out of this mess.

Her anxiety mounting, she polished off another truffle, but the momentary calm provided by the creamy chocolate and crunch of buttery hazelnuts didn’t last long.

The sweet shop had never been in this much debt before, thanks to the unexpected repairs and new equipment she’d needed to purchase. Even with Valentine’s Day around the corner, and the inevitable uptick in sales, she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d survive.

She grasped for another truffle, but her fingertips met the cool porcelain plate instead.

How many chocolates had she brought into her office that morning? She couldn’t remember. But she’d devoured every single one, as had become her habit on Monday mornings when she went over the previous week’s numbers.

Maybe gobbling up the merchandise wasn’t such a great idea.

Not that selling a few extra truffles would save her now.

Sadie glanced over her shoulder at the photograph hanging on the back wall, the special day it captured still vivid in her mind.

Her grandmother, the indelible Brigitte “Gigi” Durand, grinned at her from behind the thin layer of dust coating the glass. The tiny crumb of a woman barely reached five-foot-two inches, even in her flashy patent-leather boots, but she commanded a room—make that a continent—as if she were over ten feet tall. And it wasn’t only because of her dramatic red hair dye that reminded Sadie of the chili peppers they used in their firecracker bonbons. Or her vibrant and colorful wardrobe of vintage pieces that never matched yet somehow looked chic and fashion-forward.

While both characteristics certainly made her stand out, it was Gigi’s vivacious, fearless personality that won the hearts of everyone she met. Even in her eighties, she could conquer any challenge with grace, style, and genuine benevolence, and she didn’t need a man to hold her hand while doing it.

As Rosie the Riveter inspired millions of working women, even after World War II, Gigi Durand was the cover model for strong, single females.

At least, she was to Sadie.

Ever since her parents passed away when she was nine, and Gigi stepped in to raise her, she’d idolized the older woman. More than that, she owed her everything.

How could she live with herself if she let Gigi down?

As she gazed at the photograph, tears of defeat and discouragement stung the backs of her eyes, blurring their smiling faces and creating a stark contrast to the happiness of that day.

They’d just won an award for Best Local Business, which not only included their small yet quaint hometown of Poppy Creek but all the neighboring provinces clustered in the idyllic foothills of Northern California.

In the slightly yellowed snapshot, they proudly brandished the gold-embossed certificate as they posed in front of their sweet shop. The sweet shop Gigi had named after Sadie and handed down to her, trusting her implicitly. The sweet shop that was now on the verge of failure after nearly three decades of unwavering success.

Rubbing her damp, itchy eyes, she returned her attention to the glowing laptop screen.

The numbers remained unchanged.

Although admittedly irrational, a small part of her had hoped she’d been imagining them; that she’d turn back around, and everything would have sorted itself out.

But life didn’t work like that, did it?

The bell above the front door chimed, signaling that Tracey Peters, the fresh-out-of-high-school apprentice she’d hired part time, had arrived for her morning shift. The girl’s bright, youthful optimism was exactly what she needed to overcome her melancholy mood.

Within seconds of entering the main room of the sweet shop, the comforting aroma of rich chocolate and tantalizing vanilla bean lifted some of the tension from her neck and shoulders. Ever since she was a little girl, this place had been her haven, with its polished cherrywood countertops and glittering glass cases filled with tempting truffles and bonbons and old-fashioned taffy and caramels. They even had more unconventional offerings, like crystallized sugar crafted to resemble colorful quartz and geodes, which were especially popular among tourists and their children thanks to the town’s historic mining roots.

Every single customer who walked through the front door left with a smile on their face, something sweet to savor, and a sense of joy and contentment they hadn’t possessed when they’d entered.

How could she let this place close?

“Morning, boss!” Tracey chirped, looping an apron over her messy bun of cotton candy-colored hair.

“Good morning.” Sadie smiled, taking in the girl’s unusual—though surprisingly flattering—hairstyle choice.

It seemed like every week Tracey showed up with a new shade. Lemon drop yellow. Licorice red. Even candy cane stripes at Christmastime.

Sadie ran a hand over her own caramel-colored strands, subconsciously smoothing back the flyaways.

Between Tracy’s kaleidoscope of hues and Gigi’s flamboyant ensembles, Sadie’s everyday attire of jeans, a simple sweater, and an ever-so-practical ponytail looked downright drab in comparison. Not that she had the time or inclination for anything more adventurous.

“Want me to start by arranging the bonbons in the display cases this morning?” Tracy asked, slipping on a pair of protective gloves.

“That would be great. And I experimented with a new recipe yesterday. I’d love your opinion.” While Sadie thought the almond butter and chocolate ganache had a pleasant enough flavor, they were missing the wow factor she’d been hoping for. If she were honest, all of her recent attempts lacked her usual artistic flair, and deep down, she feared she’d lost her touch.

“You know me, always happy to lend my tastebuds,” Tracey said with a laugh.

As she headed toward the kitchen, which also housed the coolers that kept the chocolates chilled overnight, a loud thwack thudded against the back wall, startling them both.

“Not again,” Sadie groaned.

“When are they going to be done?” Tracey asked with equal exasperation.

Sadie gritted her teeth as more hammering and pounding shook the wall separating their shop from the one next door, rattling the antique jars filled with an assortment of sweet and sour suckers.

The new owner had assured her that they’d barely notice the construction. Ha! She should’ve known better than to trust someone who didn’t like candy, even if he had the kind of magnetic charm and good looks that could melt a bar of chocolate.

Not that they would work on her.

While Sadie tried to be patient, the constant chaos and commotion needed to stop. And not just for her own sanity. It disturbed the cozy and peaceful atmosphere she worked hard to cultivate for her customers.

How could someone select the perfect, buttery peanut brittle or smooth, delicate swirl of caramel and pralines when they feared any moment the roof might collapse on their head?

The clamor of breaking glass yanked Sadie from her agitated thoughts.

“What was that?” She frantically scanned the shelf of vintage candy dishes, some of which Gigi had brought back from her world travels and were irreplaceable.

“It sounded like it came from your office.” Tracey stared wide-eyed at the open doorway, as though afraid of what they might find on the other side.

Her pulse matching the riotous rhythm of the unrelenting hammer and drill, Sadie hastened to access the damage. A dismayed gasp escaped her lips when she spotted the framed photograph laying facedown on the aged hardwood floor.

Crouching beside it, she tentatively tipped it upright.

A long, jagged crack spliced through the unsuspecting smile of her younger self as she stood beside Gigi holding one edge of their Best Local Business award.

Even worse—the one-of-a-kind, hand-carved frame Gigi brought back from Indonesia had splintered up the side.

Was it an omen?

Don’t be ridiculous, she scolded herself, shifting the blame to the one person who’d become the bane of her existence, business rival, and all-around nuisance ever since he moved into town a few months ago.

And it was time to give him a piece of her mind.

* * *

Landon Morris leaned in, trying to hear the foreman over the cacophony of power tools.

At six foot one, he had at least five inches on the guy, but what the foreman lacked in height and build, he more than made up for with skill and proficiency. While his crew didn’t come cheap, they were the best, and Landon wouldn’t settle for anything less.

Especially not on this project.

So far, the renovations were on track to meet his deadline.

Until today.

“Backorder?” Landon groaned. “For how long?”

“Six weeks, at least,” the foreman shouted over the offbeat percussion of dueling hammers. “There was some mix-up with the manufacturer.”

No, no, no….

Landon suppressed his growing frustration, knowing it wasn’t the foreman’s fault. Things happened. But six weeks was unacceptable. He needed to open his doors to the public before that.

“There’s a knockoff brand we could get right away, but they don’t meet all your requirements.”

Landon wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t easy to find ethically and sustainably sourced building material, and they’d spent weeks locating the right company. There was no second choice. “Give me the phone number of the guy you’ve been talking to, and I’ll see what I can work out.”

He didn’t add the last part of his thought: because money talks.

As a general rule, he didn’t like flaunting his wealth and influence, but there were a few occasions when he needed to play the billionaire card.

This was one of those times.

Landon swept his gaze around the current war zone that encompassed his latest pet project. He’d known it would take a lot of work to transform the ancient and outdated shoe repair shop into the sleek, innovative space he’d imagined, but he’d assumed it would be fairly straightforward—nothing he couldn’t handle. After all, before the age of thirty, he’d turned a single product—a biodegradable straw that didn’t turn soggy in a glass of soda—into a billion-dollar sustainable packaging company based in Silicon Valley. Not to mention the countless nonprofits he ran on the side.

How hard could it be to open one measly shop in a sleepy little blip on the map like Poppy Creek?

Apparently, harder than he thought.

Especially if he wanted to meet his goal of opening before all the tourists converged in town for the Sips & Sweets Festival at the end of February.

This close to the wire, setbacks weren’t an option.

Neither were distractions.

As if on cue, the walking distraction herself barged through the front door, her sharp, hazel eyes locking onto him like a riflescope.

From the first moment he met Sadie Hamilton at his friend Grant’s wedding last year, she’d gotten under his skin with her bewitching blend of feisty, take-no-nonsense moxie and innate sweetness that lent a surprising—and irritatingly irresistible—softness to her blunt edges.

She reminded him of why he fell in love with chemistry at a young age—you could take two opposing compounds that shouldn’t go together and create something even more spectacular than the sum of its parts.

The only problem?

Her life’s work represented everything he stood against.

There wasn’t a single profession he loathed more than sugar peddlers. As far as he was concerned, they were just as bad as tobacco companies. Maybe even worse, since cigarettes came with warning labels while sugar not only boldly touted a nostalgic innocence, it lurked in unusual places like whole wheat pasta and organic tomato sauce, tricking unsuspecting shoppers into consuming dangerous amounts.

A fact that hit too close to home.

“Excuse me? Did you hear what I said?”

Shoot. She’d been talking, and he hadn’t heard a word.

What had he just said about distractions? Oh yeah, he didn’t have time for them. Or the ability to concentrate, either.

“Sorry, it’s a little loud in here.” He offered the feeble excuse, determined to pay closer attention. She may be Enemy Number One, but he still wanted to be a good neighbor.

“That’s my point,” Sadie repeated. “It’s too loud. And all the hammering and drilling is rattling the wall between our shops.” She brandished a photograph with a crack in the glass and a damaged frame. “See. This fell a few minutes ago.”

He winced, genuinely remorseful. “Sorry about that. I’ll get it fixed.” He plucked the frame from her hand, their fingers grazing in the process. Ignoring the unexpected twinge of electricity, he added, “And I’ll ask the guys to be more careful.”

She blinked, as though she hadn’t expected him to be so cooperative. “Thank you. And quieter? I understand you have work to do, but the constant noise is adversely affecting the ambiance of my shop. When people buy candy, they want to be happy and relaxed, not stressed and on edge.”

His cynical expression must have given him away because both of her eyebrows arched.

“Is there something you’d like to say?” An icy chill crept into her tone, matching the frigid, wintery air outside.

Leave it alone, man. Don’t poke the bear.

Unfortunately, he ignored his own sage advice. “Just that I’d find it hard to relax knowing sugar can spike insulin and lead to an unpleasant crash a few hours after consumption. But I can ask the crew to keep it down as much as possible without impeding their work.”

Her cheeks reddened at his remark, although, to her credit, she kept her cool. “Thank you.”

Without so much as a goodbye, she spun on her heels. But halfway to the door, she swirled around, meeting his gaze. “Just so you know, chocolate is scientifically proven to produce dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, all of which are mood boosters. Some studies show that even thinking about eating a piece of chocolate can increase the body’s production of pleasure chemicals.” Not waiting for a response, she slipped outside.

Landon watched her quick strides through the large picture window, admittedly impressed.

She could hold her own—a trait he admired.

Although, he couldn’t help thinking that if she knew what he did, she might change her position.

For now, they’d have to agree to disagree.

And considering the jumble of conflicting emotions she elicited each time she came around, he’d be better off keeping his distance.

At least, as much as he could avoid someone who worked next door.

Chapter 2

That evening, Sadie flipped the wooden sign to Closed on the shop’s front door before stepping into the frosty night air. A biting breeze nipped at her neck, and she flipped up the collar of her red pea coat, smiling at the festive storefronts facing the town square.

She adored Poppy Creek this time of year. The historic gold rush town came alive as a living, breathing Valentine’s Day card, with the stone, brick, and shiplap buildings draped in red-and-pink garlands and twinkling lights, and the frosted window panes hand-painted with decorative hearts and flowers. She didn’t even mind the cold, blustery weather.

Sure, there were times she daydreamed about traveling the world like Gigi, exploring exciting, glamorous locales like New York and Paris, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to stay away from her hometown for long. Not only did running the sweet shop encompass her entire life, the townspeople had become her surrogate family.

Up ahead, two of her best friends, Cassie Davis and Eliza Parker, who co-owned The Calendar Café, closed up shop and headed toward the town hall, a large, one-room building constructed in the late 1800s that worked overtime as a meeting hall, local theater, and art and dance studio.

Tonight, Mayor Burns planned to announce the final details of the highly anticipated Sips & Sweets Festival.

Every year, bakers, chocolatiers, winemakers, and other artisans from the surrounding areas gathered in the town square on one magical evening, offering a smorgasbord of the most mouthwatering delights imaginable. In addition to the caloric cornucopia, festivalgoers enjoyed live music, raffles, and the crème de la crème—the Tastiest Treat competition, when culinary craftsmen unveiled their unique and tantalizing creations, vying for the honor of first place.

This year, Sadie was even more determined to win the grand prize. Not only would she benefit from the exposure of the featured article in Sweet Destinations, a nationally recognized magazine, the five-thousand-dollar prize would go a long way toward paying down her debts.

She just had one problem.

The judges wanted something new and inventive along with an unforgettable flavor experience.

And so far, she didn’t have a single good idea.

Tucking her self-doubt into the back of her mind, she opened the creaking wooden door and welcomed the rush of warmth that enveloped her. The potbelly stove in the corner, along with the plethora of townspeople packed inside, rendered her heavy coat unnecessary. She draped it over her arm, searching the sea of smiling faces for one in particular.

She noticed Dolores Whittaker near the refreshment table, chatting with the town librarian, Beverly Barrie. Though both women were Gigi’s age, they couldn’t be more different. Beverly, with her graceful frame and silvery hair swept into a simple chignon, embodied timeless elegance à la Grace Kelly, while Dolores’s plump physique, pile of cropped white curls, and Coke-bottle glasses reminded Sadie of a grandmotherly Mrs. Claus.

While she loved both women dearly, she needed to get Dolores alone.

Catching her eye, she waved hello and nodded toward the back corner of the room.

Dolores politely excused herself and shuffled over to meet her, her blue eyes shimmering expectantly. “You remembered?”

“How could I forget?” Sadie dug inside her purse and retrieved a small square box tied with a red satin ribbon with gold filigree. She handed it to Dolores with a smile.

The older woman cradled it against her chest like a precious family heirloom, her gaze distant and glassy, as though she’d momentarily transported to a happier time.

This is what Sadie loved most about her job.

She didn’t just give people a fleeting, flavorful treat. Beloved sweets, like chocolate, had the power to evoke memories and real, tangible feelings associated with a specific time and place.

And more importantly, a specific person.

Today was Dolores’s anniversary, and every year to celebrate, her husband, Arthur, ordered the same box of chocolates—cherry cordials. First from Gigi, then from Sadie when she took over the shop.

And each year since he’d passed away, Sadie continued the tradition on his behalf.

“You don’t have to keep doing this, dear,” Dolores murmured with a slight warble in her voice.

“Of course I do,” Sadie said warmly. “Arthur had a standing order at the shop. And as long as I’m standing, I’ll see that it’s delivered.”

Dolores met her gaze, her grateful tears magnified behind the thick lenses. “Thank you,” she whispered, still clutching the chocolates to her heart.

Sadie leaned in for a gentle hug and whispered, “Happy Anniversary, DeeDee.”

Feeling a slight catch in her throat, Sadie pulled away, thankful when Mayor Burns called the meeting to order from the front of the room before she lost her composure.

With her prized treasure tucked beneath her arm, Dolores rejoined Beverly, and Sadie searched for Cassie and Eliza, spotting them in the back row.

Both women waved, motioning that they’d saved her a seat.

“Aren’t you excited?” Eliza gushed under her breath, her huge, dark eyes bright and sparkling. “I heard there are double the contestants this year.”

Sadie swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. Double the entries? That didn’t bode well for her chances of winning, especially considering her recent lack of inspiration.

Of course, Sadie doubted Eliza was worried about the extra competition. The petite blond baker extraordinaire had a flair for concocting the most unexpected yet delicious desserts on the planet, starting with her famed tiramisu cheesecake.

“Do you know what you’re entering?” Sadie whispered, trying to still the nervous flutter in her stomach.

“I have a few ideas.” Eliza flashed a mischievous smirk.

“And she won’t give me any hints,” Cassie said with a playful pout, adding, “For fun, we’re keeping our entries a secret until the festival, which is easier said than done. Luke has become my primary taste tester, and he’s been bouncing off the walls from all the caffeine.” She laughed softly, her green eyes taking on an affectionate glow when she mentioned her husband.

Although a relative newcomer to town, Cassie had an excellent shot at winning the competition, too. The woman was a veritable magician with an espresso wand, conjuring up elaborate and ingenious lattes that both surprised and pleased the palette.

“What about you?” Cassie asked.

Sadie shifted on the wooden folding chair, too embarrassed to confess her creative slump. “Not yet, but I’m working on it.”

“Whatever you come up with will be fabulous,” Cassie offered kindly. “Luke brought home a box of your marshmallow mint chocolates the other day and I can’t stop eating them.”

Sadie smiled her thanks, grateful for the vote of confidence.

With renewed determination, she resolved to hire Tracey for a couple of extra shifts and lock herself in the kitchen without distractions for the next few days.

Feeling bolstered by her plan, she focused her attention on Mayor Burns, who opened the meeting with another one of his long-winded introductions.

Truthfully, the man had never been her favorite person. He always seemed a little too showy. Too slick. Like he cared more about the position of power than the townspeople. A fact that had never been clearer to Sadie than when he approved Landon’s proposal to open a rival business next door to hers.

Although Landon wanted to keep the exact nature of his new shop under wraps until the grand opening, he’d let one detail slip, and it had already made its rounds through the rumor mill. According to her sources, he planned on selling “something to satisfy your sweet tooth without all the sugar.”

While it sounded like nonsense, Sadie couldn’t rule out the threat he posed to her already struggling business. He had billions of dollars to back whatever ridiculous idea he’d concocted. Plus, it was common knowledge the man had a personal vendetta against sweets. Over a year ago, he’d gone on record in several interviews stating that sugar was an addiction destroying America.

She strongly suspected that if she had to shutter her doors for good, he’d be on the sidewalk applauding.

The thought made her shiver, along with the door opening, letting in a gust of frosty air.

As she glanced over her shoulder, her heart froze.

* * *

Landon hovered by the doorway, noticing a flicker of annoyance distort Mayor Burns’s features at the intrusion. But as quickly as everyone glanced over their shoulders to assess the latecomer, they redirected their focus to the front of the room.

Everyone, that is, except for Sadie.

From the corner of his eye, he detected a faint glimmer of confusion and disapproval in her glower, as if she expected his arrival to be a mistake and hoped he’d turn around and march back outside any second.

He’d have to disappoint her yet again.

Ever since he moved to town, she’d seemed to take his presence as a personal offense, like he existed to make her life more difficult.

Of course, the truth was far more complicated.

Both regarding his reasons for moving to Poppy Creek and the emotional tug of war he experienced around Sadie Hamilton and her sweet shop.

Lost in his thoughts, Landon leaned against the back wall, barely paying attention to Burns’s never-ending monologue. He perked up when he heard the man say, “Now, for the last item on tonight’s agenda.”

Burns shuffled through some papers on the podium as if biding his time before announcing, “To accommodate the unexpected increase in entrants for the Tastiest Treat competition this year, a few of you will need to share a booth at the festival. We will still judge your entries separately, but we do ask that you make the look and theme of your booth cohesive. You’ll find the names of those being asked to share on the bulletin board in back. All pairings are final. I appreciate your cooperation.”

Landon suppressed a snort, knowing that was code for suck it up and don’t complain.

Out of curiosity, he wandered over to the corkboard as Burns wrapped up the meeting and townspeople shuffled out of their seats.

What poor souls would have to share their coveted space? He had big plans for his booth and had zero interest in compromising his vision to accommodate a partner. Of course, he and Burns had an understanding. He was certain he wouldn’t find his name on the list.

As he scanned the lineup of unlucky entrants, his pulse skidded to a halt.

No, that couldn’t be right….

He stared at the two names printed side by side, focusing all his energy on the letters as if he could rearrange them into a different configuration by sheer willpower.

There had to be some mistake. He couldn’t share a booth with Sadie Hamilton. Not in a million years. It would be like mixing nitric acid and hydrazine—unstable and explosive.

He’d have a talk with Mayor Burns and sort something out. If he acted quickly, maybe he could fix the situation before Sadie saw—

A loud sigh echoed behind him.

He turned to see a frown on Sadie’s face that matched his sentiments exactly.

Although, for some reason, he felt a tiny stab of disappointment at her obvious displeasure.

She recovered quickly, forcing a tight smile. “Looks like we got the short straw.”

“Yeah, it’s not ideal. I’m firmly set on my plans for my booth. If it’s okay with you, I thought I’d talk to Burns about—”

Landon paused when Mayor Burns rapped his gavel against the wooden podium in response to some collective grumbling. “Look, everyone. I realize the change in plans will require some of you to be flexible. But try to make the best of it. As I said, all pairings are final.”

Excited chatter drew Landon’s attention to Cassie and Eliza, who seemed elated to be teamed up. They immediately bent their heads together, already strategizing their joint effort.

Landon observed Sadie watching them with a wistful expression.

Once again, he experienced a tiny tug on his heart that he couldn’t explain.

He cleared his throat, mentally repeating Burns’ directive to make the best of the situation. “Well, that’s that. I guess we should get together sometime soon and decide how we want to tackle this.”

“Uh-huh,” she murmured, slowly coming to grips with the reality of the situation. Then, as if a realization had dawned on her, she brightened. “I suppose if we’re sharing a booth, you’ll have to tell me what kind of business you’re opening.”

Shoot. He hadn’t considered that. “I suppose so,” he said noncommittally.

“Why don’t we meet up tomorrow evening after I close the shop?”

He couldn’t help noting her sudden burst of enthusiasm. “That works. Can you be at my place by six o’clock?” If he was going to let her in on his secret project, he wanted to do it on his own terms.

A flash of hesitation sparked in her eyes, but she shrugged. “Sure. I can do that.”

“Great. I’ll see you then,” he said by way of goodbye.

Halfway to the door, he pulled his cell phone out of his coat pocket to make the necessary arrangements for tomorrow night.

It would be late notice, but he’d make it work.

He could only hope his last-minute plan didn’t backfire.

To be continued...

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