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"Michael, all that hip-hop music doesn't bother you?" twenty-nine year old Constance Stanley asked her brother as they finished packing up a box of chocolates shaped like the Easter Bunny. She was going to drop it off to a preschool down the street from her house later that evening.
The school was having its annual Easter celebration on Friday. Stanley Chocolates donated a box to them every year.
"And if that wasn't bad enough, all I ever see coming out of D-Unit is a bunch of thugs," she complained. "Why didn't the owner just open a music store on Crenshaw or in Compton—anywhere but here in Brentwood?"
"Coco, you worry too much," Michael responded. "There's been no trouble since the store opened, and none of the other tenants are complaining. Have you even gone over there to meet the owner?" Her brother managed their family-owned chocolate factory, Stanley Chocolates, which was next door to her shop.
"No. I'm not sure I want to meet him, either," she huffed. He's probably a thug as well, she thought, but didn't say it.
"I think you'd feel better if you do," Michael said as he followed her out to her car. "Instead of making all these snap judgments. C'mon, I'll walk over there with you."
Coco unlocked her door and then shielded her eyes from the bright morning sun. It was a beautiful day in April. Much too pretty to be working inside, but life didn't stop for perfect spring days.
"I don't know…maybe later this afternoon," she told him. "That way I can tell him to turn down his music. We definitely don't need him or her scaring away our customers."
Michael laughed. "The music is not that loud, Coco. You can't even understand the lyrics. As for ruining business, I don't think you have to worry about that. You know the saying, 'chocolate is a girl's best friend.'"
"Speaking of chocolate," Coco began, "I have this idea for a new product for my shop. What do you think of combining cardamom, citrus and organic walnuts with Venezuelan dark chocolate?"
"Sounds delicious," he murmured. "Is this something you want me to experiment with?"
"Actually, I think I'm going to play around with it myself," Coco said with a quick shake of her head. "You have enough to do with that big order that just came in for the Randolph Hotel."
It's not like I have much of a social life these days.
Coco checked her watch. "I need to get out of here. It's almost time for me to open."
Michael gave her a hug. "See you later, sis."
She left the plant and walked next door.
Shortly after Coco opened the doors, her first customer strolled inside.
"Good morning, Stella," she said with a smile.
"Hey, girl," she responded. "Coco, I need half a pound of almond butter crunch."
She quickly packaged the order and handed it to her customer. "It's going to be twenty dollars even."
"Thank you," Stella said. "I just broke up with my boyfriend so I'm curling up tonight when I get home, with a good book and this bag of chocolates. They always make me feel better."
Coco nodded in understanding. There had been many nights when she'd bonded with a bag of chocolate-covered peanuts and a book or a feel-good movie.
Like her brother said, chocolate was a girl's best friend. It was this guilty pleasure that kept her family in business. She had skillfully turned Coco's Chocolate Bar into a very successful venture.
Constance, who preferred to be called by her nickname, Coco, descended from a long line of chocolatiers dating all the way back to the early nineteen hundreds. Her great-great-grandparents had made chocolate and sold it to the local markets. When Coco graduated from college, she'd opted to open a gourmet chocolate shop featuring exotic spices and flavors and make all the chocolate, too, instead of following the family tradition of only making chocolates and distributing them to other stores. Coco had always wanted to open her own specialty shop; it had been a lifelong dream as long as she could remember.
Coco's Chocolate Bar carried exotic chocolates like ones made of sea salt and roasted almonds, pralines and peanuts from Marcona, Spain. Dark chocolates rich with the zip of New Orleans–style chicory coffee and cocoa nibs.
Based in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, Coco's featured a warm and cozy sitting area, adorned with a beautiful marble bar with mint-green leather chairs for customers to gather and enjoy a taste of her unique chocolates, all of which were produced in the huge plant next door. She also carried her family's line of chocolates.
A young woman strolled into the shop, propelling Coco out of her musings. "Hey you," she said. "Elle, what are you doing here?"
The woman smiled. "I was in the area, so I thought I'd come by and pick up some white-chocolate-covered pralines for Mama. You know how much she loves them."
Coco scooped up the treats into a shiny silver bag. "How is Aunt Amanda doing, Elle? I haven't seen her in months." She tied a mint-green ribbon with brown polka dots around the bag, and then handed it over. She and Elle had been friends since they were both toddlers. Their families were close, so Coco considered them an extended part of her own.
"She's fine," Elle responded. "Just needs to take it easy, but you know how she is—she's not listening to anything her children tell her."
"How are my babies doing?" Coco inquired, referring to Elle's twin boys.
"Great," she answered. "They are not babies anymore, though. They're growing up so fast. I can hardly believe that they're almost four years old."
"That's why you have to enjoy them as much as you can," Coco said. "My niece is turning five on Saturday. I don't know where the time has gone. It seems like it was just a few months ago that I was changing Cinnamon's diapers and giving her a bottle."
Elle sat down in one of the chairs at the bar. "We haven't talked in a while. What's going on with you, Coco? Anyone special in your life?"
"Nope," she answered. "There's no one special. Other than working, there's nothing else going on right now. I'm not complaining, though. I need a little break. Valentine's Day was a bit hectic this year and March was a steady pace. So far April has been good. I expect this weekend to get a little crazy, since it's the Easter weekend."
"I picked up my stuff for the boys' baskets," Elle said. "Now I just need to sit down and do them. Some days I'm just so tired, all I want to do is sleep."
"Are you feeling okay?" Coco asked out of concern.
Elle nodded. "I'm fine. I've put on some weight from all of the eating out and lying around. I think I'm going to go to the gym after Easter." She gestured toward the door. "I see there's a new store across the street. D-Unit? Have you been over there yet?"
Coco shook her head, turning up her nose. "All I ever hear is hip-hop music, so I won't be giving them any of my money. I really wish they had moved to a different location."
She leaned forward, her elbows resting on the bar. "Elle, I moved out here for a reason. See how nice it is? I don't want to be in an area infested with thugs. What do you think that music store is going to bring?" she asked. "Thugs."
"What does Michael think? The factory has been in this location for a while."
"My brother thinks I worry too much. I don't think he worries enough."
Elle chuckled. "Sounds like me and my brothers."
"I saw your hubby yesterday. Did he tell you?"
She nodded. "Brennan's leaving to go to Costa Rica on Saturday. He's going to be gone for a week."
Coco eyed her friend. "Why don't you go with him? You have more than enough people to help with the twins."
"He wants me to, but I don't know."
"Elle, what's up?"
"I just feel that I need to stay home. I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm always tired, it seems, and then Ivy's ex-husband is getting married on Saturday and she's very upset about it, so I think I should stay with her. We're going to take her to a spa that day and then do some retail therapy."
"I remember she was pretty upset over the divorce." Coco shook her head. "I can't believe Charles is getting married again."
Elle nodded. "Ivy kept hoping they would get back together. They had even starting seeing each other last July, and spending time together. Then right after Christmas, Charles announced that he was engaged. Apparently he must have been seeing this girl and Ivy at the same time."
"What a jerk," Coco declared.
Elle agreed, switching her purse from one side to the other. "I'm so disappointed in him."
Coco walked her out to her car. Once outside, she heard music blaring from the center and asked, "Can you hear that craziness?"
"It doesn't sound bad. You just don't care for hip-hop music." Elle listened for a moment. "It's not too loud and you only hear it when the doors open, actually."
"It's a genre of music I wish would just die," Coco uttered. "There's just nothing good about it, in my opinion." She loved classical music, gospel and old school R&B, and truly believed that the world could do without rap music.
"I like some of it," Elle said. "There are a few nice ones out there."
"I really wish the owner had opened at another location. We didn't see all these teenage boys in this area until that store opened. They are over there all the time." Coco's view of teenagers was colored by what she saw and heard on television. So far, she had not met anyone who could refute the images.
Elle embraced her. "It'll work out. Most businesses don't seem to last long over there. That one might be gone before you realize it."
Coco nodded. "You're right about that."
"You should come to Riverside one Sunday for one of the Ransom dinners. We have a great time and I know that Mama would love to see you."
"I'd love to come. Maybe we can do it one Sunday next month."
Elle smiled. "Look at your schedule and let me know which one you can make."
The two women embraced again.
"Have a great rest of the week."
Coco strolled back into her shop.
The telephone rang.
She knew instinctively that it was her mother calling because she always called around this time. "Coco's Chocolate Bar," she said.
"Good morning, sweetie. It's Mom."
Coco smiled. "I knew it was you. How are you, Mama?" She propped her hip against the mini stainless steel fridge behind the bar.
"I'm fine. Just wanted to check in with you. How is your day going so far?"
"Great," she responded. "Elle was just here."
"I'm having lunch with Amanda on Wednesday. I haven't seen her in a couple of months so we figured it was time for a girls' day out."
"I'm glad you're getting out," Coco said. Her mother hadn't been feeling well due to a bad sinus infection.
"Oh, by the way, Gregory Barton called here. He's in town for the next couple of weeks and wanted to get together with you."
Greg was an old boyfriend from her college days. "What did you tell him?" Coco asked.
"That I'd give you his information. There was nothing else to say."
"So you didn't mention anything about him getting someone else pregnant while he was seeing me?"
"I figured I'd let you handle all of the particulars," her mother said. "I know that you don't like me interfering in your relationships."
Coco laughed. "You are never going to let me forget that, are you?"
"No, I don't think I am," she responded with a short laugh.
A customer walked into the shop.
"Mama, I have to go," Coco said quickly. "I'll call you later."
She silently debated whether or not to give Greg a call. He'd e-mailed her a few times, apologizing for hurting her and for being unfaithful. He had told her that she was the one who had gotten away.
She later decided that it was best to leave the past in the past. She would call Greg back, but only to say goodbye.
Ransom Winters bobbed his head to the thumping music as he strolled around the room, making sure the boys were completing their school assignments.
Thirty-two years old and a self-made millionaire, Ransom was the founder of D-Unit, a structured day program for at-risk teens who didn't attend school on a regular basis. The boys had a history of excessive class cutting or suspensions in their regular schools; D-Unit was a reputable, short-term alternative for them to attend, but still keep up their regular school assignments.
He paused at the table by a young man wearing a black-and-white Sean John T-shirt. "What are you working on, Jerome?"
The fifteen-year-old glanced up and said, "I have to do a book report on the Civil War."
"Have you started your research?" Ransom asked.
"Not yet." He glanced around the room before adding, "We don't have a computer at home."
"Do you have encyclopedias?"
The boy shook his head, looking embarrassed.
"You can use the computer over there," Ransom said, pointing toward the one on the far left. "We have a set of encyclopedias, as well. Let me know if you need any help."
Ransom smiled. He truly believed that it took a village to raise children, and having been a youth counselor in the school system, he knew firsthand that most teens weren't misbehaving just because. There was always a reason, usually due to what was going on at home: absent fathers, mothers on drugs, etc. His program allowed teens to come to the center and continue their education. He and his staff worked in a Christian hip-hop environment designed to put the teen boys at ease.
Recent statistics showed that the students in his program returned to school with a change of attitude and grades improved. A couple of the boys had turned in their flags, giving up the gangs to which they once belonged.