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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.