Read an Excerpt
As Pepper Merriweather entered the shop, a sudden, strong gust of December wind blew in, rocking the sign that was adorned with garland and red Christmas ornaments and hung above the shop's door. It read Maya's Chocolates ~ Happily Ever After Starts Here. The wind ballooned the lace curtains on the window and made the bells on the door dance with extra life. Pepper tightened her grip on the brass handle so the glass door wouldn't slam back against the building's ancient stone facade.
The momentary struggle felt like she was arm-wrestling with Mother Nature. When the biting wind finally let up, it felt good to prevail, as if fate were finally cutting her a break.
Silly thought, she mused, as she stepped inside and eased the door shut. The last thing she wanted to do these days was draw attention to herself. Sheepishly, she glanced around the shop. To her relief, the cluttered sales floor proved to be as empty as the cobblestone street behind her.
Despite the principality being dressed in all its Christmas finery and like something from a medieval holiday fairy tale, December was the off-season in St. Michel. Mostly the locals were the lucky ones to enjoy the twinkle lights strung from building to building, the giant, decorated Christmas tree that stood as the centerpiece in the center of town, and the shop windows all decorated for Christmas. The decorations always went up on December first, rain or shine.
During the cold months, foot traffic was lighter in the quaint little village. That's why it had been such a great escape for Pepper, and also why Maya was usually the only one tending the store. That was probably why Pepper didn't see anyone standing behind the counter or out on the floor of the small shop.
"Bonjour?" she called. As if answering, the wind outside gusted another chanson. The shop sign creaked in harmony with the blustery phrases.
"Bonjour!" a muffled voice answered, trailing from the back room. "I'll be right with you."
Pepper stepped away from the door, and a quiet calm settled over the shop. She glanced around at the baker's racks, rough-hewn wooden tables and glass and wrought-iron fixtures that held red-and-green cellophane-wrapped boxes and baskets filled with Maya's handmade delicacies. The Christmas packages were in addition to the a la carte candies displayed behind the glassed-in counter. There, chocolate lovers could create their own magical mix of cordials, truffles or pieces of pure, rich chocolate. Souvenir candy shopping was exactly what Pepper had come to do before returning home to Texas. Well, she'd come to do a little Christmas shopping and to say goodbye.
Stopping to admire a towering display of holiday fudge, Pepper was overcome by doubtwas she really ready to leave St. Michel to return to Texas?
Pepper's mother, who had fled to St. Michel with her daughter, planned to stay in Europe indefinitelyat least until the furor over the scandal died down. But Pepper had grown restless. It was time to go home. Time to reclaim her life. Or at least that was what she'd told herself when she'd started out on foot that morning.
The producers of the reality television show Catering to Dallas, of which she was a cast member, had been wonderful about granting her a short leave as she tried to make sense of the turn of events that had landed her father in jail and sent her mother into hiding. The press had been hounding Pepper, too, and at first, St. Michel seemed like the perfect place to seek sanctuary. But as her father sat in prisondenied bail because the judge deemed him a flight riskit hadn't taken long for the press to catch up with Pepper and her mother.
The turning point had come when her father's lawyer had relayed a message to Pepper on behalf of her father: the longer she hid away, the worse the collapse of the family's Texas Star empire made them look. In other words, the family looked guilty by sequestering themselves. Of course, that was ridiculous because neither she nor her mother had anything to do with Texas Star Energy. It was merely guilt by association. The media and the masses couldn't get to Pepper's father, Harris Mer-riweather. The next best thing was to flog the family members.
His attorney, Ethan Webster, had provided money for a return ticket home. Pepper had made a deal with him. She would go back to Texas, but her mother, Marjory, would remain in St. Michel. Her father was right. There was no reason she should remain in hiding.
Besides, the news of Texas Star's demise alleged internal corruption and spawned fears that thousands would suffer financial devastation from the collapse that had sent shock waves around the world.
Pepper had begun to go stir-crazy. Here, she had taken to leaving at odd hours in an attempt to dodge the paparazzi. Some morningslike this oneit worked. Many times it didn't. She might as well hide in the comfort of her own home and try to work out a way that she could return to her place on Catering to Dallas. If that was possible. And if it wasn't..
The future uncertainty felt a little overwhelming, but this morning the coziness of Maya's quaint little chocolate shop felt.. safe.
Still, she couldn't hide out forever. The faster she got home and resumed her normal life, the faster this nightmare would come to an end. Her father's lawyers would help him prove his innocence, and the Merriweathers' lives would return to normalwell, as normal as they'd ever been.
Since her mother insisted on remaining in St. Michel, it was Pepper's duty to set the public tone, and that began with going home.
First order of business would be to go see her father and strategize. She'd asked his main attorney, Ethan Webster, to arrange for a visit as soon as she got home. She needed to know how she could best help her father, and the best way to do that was to ask the man himself.
Even though they were in the midst of a family crisis, Pepper couldn't help feeling hopefulthat perhaps this was her opportunity to finally forge a relationship with her father.
At thirty-three years old, this might be her opportunity to set the past twenty-seven rocky years right.
Actually, the more she thought about it, rocky wasn't really a good description of their father-daughter relationship.
Neutral was more like it.
Detached. Disengaged. Disconnected.
Maybe now things could change.
Pepper took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet scent of cocoa and cinnamon and something floral? Was that a hint of rose she detected? Before she could tell, the delicious notes melded into a melange of scrumptiousness that made Pepper's mouth water and her heart ache in peculiar, unfamiliar longing. Her hand fluttered to her chest.
What was wrong with her? This wasn't about leaving St. Michel or returning home. Was it?
Dear God, not another anxiety attack.
No, she was okay she breathed in deeply. Sometimes the smell of chocolate worked better than Xanax.
This morning, she'd been drawn to the shop like a bee to a flower Well, more like a chocoholic drawn to the best darn chocolate in the world.
As Maya appeared through the part in the deep cranberry-colored brocade curtains that concealed the back of the shop from the front of the house, she wiped her fingertips on a white linen tea towel.
"Ah! Bonjour, Pepper! I thought that might be you." She set the cloth on the counter, then briskly brushed her hands together, beaming a gigantic smile as radiant as the French summer sun. The simple gesture warmed Pepper from the inside out.
"Good morning!" Pepper swiped at a wisp of blond hair that the earlier gust of wind had blown out of place.
"What brings you out on this cold, blustery day, mon amie?" Maya stepped from behind the counter and greeted her friend with kisses on both cheeks. "Regardless, I am so happy to see you. You don't need a reason to pay me a visit. I will get you some hot chocolate to help warm you up, oui?"
Before Pepper could answer, the redhead had turned and was already heading to the small burner behind the case where she prepared the warm, rich beverages.
"Maya, what is that floral scent I smell in here this morning?"
Maya whipped around to look at Pepper and tilted her head to the side, a curious little grin lifting the edges of her mouth. "You can smell that?"
Pepper nodded. "Yes. It sort of smells like roses."
Maya set down the copper bottom saucepan she was holding. "One moment, I'll be right back."
She disappeared behind the purple curtain, only to return quickly with a rectangular pink-and-black box tied with black ribbonher shop's signature packaging.
Maya's eyes sparkled as she held it out to Pepper. "These are for you, my dear."
It was Pepper's turn to gaze at Maya curiously. "Well, thank you. Actually, I have come to purchase some chocolate. But not for myself. It's for friends. Back home." Pepper took a deep breath as she stared down at the pretty box. Finally, she squared her shoulders. "Maya, I'm leaving. I've actually come to say goodbye."
Maya responded with a resolute nod, but Pepper sensed her stoic mask hid something else. She could see a certain glint in her friend's eyes.
She shrugged it off, however, chalking it up to her own sadness and uncertainty.
"So, that means if I come home without a suitcase full of treasures from your shop, I will be run out of town on a rail." She shrugged again and a little hiccup of a laugh escaped before she could stop it. "Although others may run me out of town anyway, but I'll put up a valiant fight to stay. And possibly bribe them with chocolate."
She grimaced. Perhaps bribe wasn't such a good word choice since her family name was implicated in a financial scandal.
Since Pepper's father had never been to St.
Michel, the small European principality had been a good sanctuary for her and her mother. When they were here, they were surrounded by good people and good friends. They were staying with Pepper's boarding school buddy, Margeaux Broussard Le-jardin, whose sister-in-law just happened to be the queen of St. Michel.
Despite the scandal, Margeaux had welcomed them with open arms, insisting they stay as long as they liked in the small two-bedroom guest cottage on the grounds of the estate where she lived with her husband, Henri.
But it was time to go home. Even Maya seemed to understand that.
"Mon amie, as much as I would love for you to stay in St. Michel permanently, I've said all along that you have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to fear. You should not let narrow-minded people convict you for a crime you did not commit."
Pepper nodded, fighting the protective impulse that was bubbling up inside her, the part of her that wanted to defend her fatherwanted to make sure that Maya wasn't implying that her dad was guilty. He hadn't been to trial yet, and Pepper would maintain that he was innocent until proven otherwise. But Maya had been a dear friend and because of that, Pepper checked the urge to ask the woman to clarify what she meant.
Instead, she said, "That's why it's time for me to go. But first I need chocolate, Maya. No matter how broke a girl is, she should always treat herself to the best chocolate in the world."
Maya's smile returned. "Of course, my lovely. But before we tend to that task, I want you to take a look inside the box I just gave you."
Carefully, Pepper untied the black organza ribbon that adorned the package. As she lifted the lid, revealing a dozen white truffles dusted with dried flowers and gold dust, the unmistakable rose scent she'd smelled earlier wafted out, making her mouth water and her heart beat a little faster.
"Maya, these are beautiful. Thank you."
"You're very welcome. I made them just for you. A going-away present."
Pepper smiled. "But you didn't know I was leaving until just a moment ago."
The glimmer had returned to Maya's eyes again, and for a split second Pepper wondered if somehow her friend had, in fact, known before she'd told her. But that would be impossible. Wouldn't it?
"Yes, but I knew you were leaving sometime, my dear friend. Pepper, you have too much to offer. Keeping yourself locked away from the world is the crime. Let these chocolates be symbolic of everything sweet, rich and passionate that you deserve in your life. When you take the first bite of this chocolate, I want you to hold in your mind a picture of your heart's desire and then go out there and claim it for your own."
Outside, the wind resumed its ominous song, and the shop's sign danced along in perfect time. From where Pepper stood next to the window, she had a clear view of the midnight-blue placard with its crackled paint and golden lettering: Maya's Chocolates ~ Happily Ever After Starts Here.
An odd sensation coursed through her veins and she glanced down at the box in her hands, full of Maya's beautiful handiwork.
Maya nodded. "Try one." Pepper picked up a truffle and made a wish for her very own happily-ever-after.