Candace had never wavered from her love for chocolates since her very first visit to Madame Lisette’s as a homesick girl in a foreign land. The taste was heavenly and under the cook’s tutelage she learned the craft of making exquisitely decorated truffles. Her mentor’s kitchen was the first place that had ever felt like home. Ingredients fresh. Stove the correct temperature. It requires precision and intuition to make the perfect chocolate, comprenez vous? Madame Lisette’s voice remained with her.
Candace recreated that sense of contentment by spending each day surrounded by pots, pans and sweet sugar combined with bitter cocoa. She headed toward the kitchen now, intent on decorating the tray of marzipan on the cooling rack. Swirls and dots of different colored frosting would fill a peaceful afternoon, the concentration required keeping her from dwelling on anything else.
Someone knocked at the door, ignoring or not reading the “Opening Soon” sign in the window. Candace sighed with impatience but put a smile on her face as she went to greet a potential future customer. When she saw the man on the other side of the glass, her excitement evaporated.
The Frenchman from the park stood on her doorstep, his runaway hat in hand. He returned her smile with one as manufactured as her own. She could tell it was false because it never quite reached his grave eyes. She did not believe he was there to buy sweets, but had come for some other purpose—perhaps a nefarious one that entailed trapping a woman alone in her empty store.
She flashed back to that horrible night when Edward Merker’s thugs had drugged and kidnapped her. The sensation of strong hands grabbing her hard enough to leave bruises seemed imprinted on her flesh as well as in her memory. She shivered and folded her arms across her chest.
“May I help you, Monsieur?” she asked through the safety of the glass pane, although he could certainly break through it if he wanted to.
“Oui, Madame.” He held up his case so she might read the script on one side: Moreau Chocolates. “I saw your store advertised in a newspaper and hoped to interest you in my product.”
Immediately Candace’s fears abated for she recognized the Moreau brand as a venerable one in France. Her fears quelled, she unlocked the shop door and opened it. “Do come in.”
The man entered, trailing an aroma of coal smoke and subtle cologne. A few stray leaves scooted inside before Candace closed the door.
“You may set your case on the counter,” she indicated the main display by the cash register. “I am familiar with your chocolates, some of the finest in the world.”
“Yes, they are,” he agreed, before placing the bag where she directed. “May I introduce myself? I am Alain Moreau, son of Gaston Moreau.”
Not a mere salesman but heir to a dynasty of chocolatiers. Royalty had come to call.
Candace had rarely introduced herself to anyone, particularly a strange man. Usually a third party facilitated meetings between a sheltered young lady and any person unfamiliar to her. But she was no longer a budding debutante. A businesswoman must meet people from many walks of life in different circumstances from what Candace had been taught were acceptable.
“I am Miss Candace Sweet, the proprietress of this shop.” She extended her hand to shake.
Moreau bowed over it. Although he did not deliver a kiss, she could imagine the pressure of his lips, and a tingle of delight sparkled through her at his courtly gesture.
“Enchanté, mademoiselle.” He straightened to survey her domain. “What a charming confiserie.”
“Merci.” Candace couldn’t help but glow at his compliment, even though he would probably say that to any confectioner with whom he hoped to do business. But reviewing the brightly-colored jars of penny candy, the muted pastels of petit fours, and the earthy palette of chocolates, she absolutely agreed with Moreau. Her little shop was every bit the enchanting, welcoming place Madame Lisette’s had been. Entering the door, one might find delight and contentment.
“Have you samples to show me, Monsieur Moreau?”
“Indeed. He turned his case toward her, unfastened the latch and opened the lid.
Candace gazed covetously at the glorious treasures inside. She wanted to plunge her hands in and taste one after another of the exotic treats. “Beautiful,” she breathed. “May I?”
“But of course.” He tipped the box in invitation.
She selected as carefully as if the choice would shape her destiny.
“Excellent decision. The ganache contains a blend of cacao and Brazilian Maragnan beans for a distinctive bittersweet one either adores or finds too bold,” he explained.
Very aware of his gaze upon her, she lifted the truffle, inhaled its fragrance then put it to her lips. Biting through the outer shell, she reached the rich velvet inside. As described, a burst of full-bodied coffee flavor awoke her taste buds. She would have closed her eyes to experience the flavor fully, but retained composure in front of this potential supplier.
“Marvelous. A very impressive blend.”
“One my great-grandfather’s personal recipes. You may rely on consistency as each batch of Moreau chocolates contain the highest quality ingredients and are crafted with precise conformity to each recipe.”
“I am familiar with your product and have no concerns about its quality. The issue would be a matter of pricing. I am only just starting out and have limited budget and floor space. Not to mention”—she indicated the truffles in the display case—“I want to promote my own brand. How could my novice treats stand against those of the one of the best chocolateries in Europe?”
Her guest studied the array. “May I sample yours?” Immediately after asking, he flushed and coughed.
Unclear about the cause of his apparent embarrassment, Candace replied eagerly. “Of course! I would be honored and pleased to hear your opinion. Which would you care to try?”
“Only the best, naturellement, and you, the creator will know which that is.”
Nervous as a student facing a final exam, Candace reached into the display case with serving tongues to seize a pepper-infused truffle she had named Fireball. She’d been wondering if the bite of pepper was too strong. In a moment she would have an expert’s opinion.
She offered the truffle decorated with a tiny adornment of leaves, and shifted nervously as Moreau studied the piece with intent gaze. He darted out his tongue to taste the exterior and a sensation of powerful excitement leaped to life inside her. Before she could consider this unexpected feeling, Moreau’s lips parted and strong white teeth bit into her creation.
He paused, allowing the chocolate to melt, considering and savoring each element of flavor before swallowing.
A potent blend of anxious anticipation and earthy attraction infused her veins and raced through her body as her heart beat fast. Feverish, light-headed and rather short of breath, Candace craved more of this addictive rush like that of too much sugar ingested too quickly.
May I taste yours, the unintended innuendo of his words made Alain cringe. Luckily, his potential buyer did not seem to read any underlying meaning into them as she offered him a truffle. Miss Sweet’s lovely, wide-eyed face reminded him of a young doe which had wandered from the wood, too innocent and trusting for its own good. No matter what the chocolate tasted like, he would sugar-coat his response.
But then he noticed her shadowed eyes and a premature furrow between her brows. Miss Sweet carried some hidden burden, some secret pain. She was not a naïve doe at all, but one which had already been wounded by a careless hunter. He turned his mind away from wondering what had happened to her as he bit into the truffle and focused on examining its flavors.
When he had finished, he offered his true assessment, understanding she would prefer honesty over any prevarication meant to spare her feelings. “The note of pepper is correct, neither too much nor too little. It has a smooth consistency and rich flavor. I would rate it—quite highly.”
She noted his hesitation. “But not top marks. You are the first professional who has sampled my cooking. My friends are too generous with their praise and lack sophisticated palates where chocolate is concerned. As a connoisseur, you must be frank with me.”
“Are you certain?”
“Indeed. I am not afraid of making mistakes so long as I improve from them.”
What refreshing honesty, and how well-spoken. How had a clearly well-bred miss become a shopkeeper and chocolatier? For the first time in weeks curiosity rather than anxiety nabbed his attention.
“You must understand assessing flavor is subjective. Do not assume anyone’s criticism is right or wrong.” A lesson Alain wished he had embraced early in life whenever his father shot down one of his suggested improvements to the business.
Now it was Alain’s to run as he saw fit, and he still doubted every decision he made.
“Please continue,” Miss Sweet said quietly.
“The lack of gloss on the outer shell indicates insufficient tempering, suggesting the cocoa butter has not properly crystallized. But that is a matter of technique which should improve with practice.”
Miss Sweet nodded, a brown curl escaping her coiffure to trail enticingly along the curve of her cheek.
“The texture is smooth and not overly fatty. It melts pleasingly on the tongue,” he added. “But there is a hint of—comment le dire?—musty flavor, which suggests the beans were not stored well and had begun to mold before roasting. What supplier do you use?”
Miss Sweet’s eyes widened. “I’m using moldy cacao beans? I had no idea.”
“May I examine them? I will tell you if that is the problem.”
She paused only a moment before inviting him behind the counter. “Please, come this way.”
Alain followed her to a clean and very modern kitchen. The stove appeared brand new. He wanted to buy several of that brand, only a larger model, for his factory. An icebox dominated one corner of the brightly lit room. Bins and cartons of ingredients or candies awaiting floor space were neatly organized at one end. Everything was ship-shape, fresh and hopeful, like the proprietress herself. It would be wonderful to start life with a clean slate, no family name to live up to or mistakes from the past to haunt one.
“Here is the bin where I store the beans.” She opened the lid. “I had them shipped directly from Mexico. If any moisture infiltrated the beans, it must have happened at the source or on the voyage.”
Alain lifted a handful, smelled them, and allowed them to trickle back into the bin. “There is little sign of the molding since they have already been roasted.”
“Oh dear, I shall have to throw away the lot! It will take weeks to receive another shipment and then how will I know what to expect?” She glared at the offensive cacao beans.
“For a beginner to take on the entire process from bean to finished product is not done. I suggest you purchase quality cocoa powder from a reputable source. Later you might experiment with roasting and grinding a particular blend of beans.” Alain drew out his card and a pencil to write on the back. “I give you the name of a reliable processor our family has used for years. Their cocoa powder is best.”
Her fingers brushed his as she took the card and an electrical charge snapped between them. Alain muttered a curse at the brief, unexpected pain.
Miss Sweet nearly dropped the card. “Dry weather. Too much friction.”
“Indeed.” Alain stepped back and regained his business demeanor. “Might I leave samples for you to consider? I will offer a reasonable starting rate for a small display, and no long term commitment to purchase.”
She studied his card. “I shall consider it very seriously. Thank you, Monsieur Moreau for your honest assessment of my humble efforts. You’ve given me much to think about.”
He dipped his head in acknowledgement and followed the proprietress to the front. He gave her the samples, closed his case and prepared to enter the hat-thieving wind again. “Do not give up on your efforts, Miss Sweet. I believe the shop is only a portion of your true desire. You do not wish to merely sell others’ bonbons, but to create an unforgettable chocolate, no? A vocation and an art, not merely a business.”
She lowered her gaze. “You must think me incredibly silly or pretentious.”
“Indeed not. For it is my calling as well, voyez-vous cela? Such an aspiration is of no less importance than becoming a vintner or a master chef. To create good chocolat is to create pure happiness.” He chuckled. “Happiness for the palate and a respite from the troubles of life, eh?”