With an endless supply of magical gifts and recipes from the hot chocolate café Penelope Dalton runs alongside her mother, she is able to give her daughter almost everything she wants. The one sticking point is Ella’s latest request: get a dad. And not just any dad. Ella has her sights set on Noah Gregory, her biological father who’s back in town for a few months – and as charming as ever.
Noah broke Penelope’s heart years ago, but now part of her wonders if she made the right decision to keep the truth of their daughter from him. The other, more practical part, is determined to protect Ella from the same heartbreak. Now Penelope must give in to her fate or face a future of regrets.
Dreaming in Chocolate by Susan Bishop Crispell is a heartwarming story of love, hot chocolate, and one little girl’s wish for her mother.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
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If there was one thing Penelope Dalton knew for certain, it was that every day offered up at least one magical moment. A taste of sheer happiness that was sweeter than her favorite dark chocolate caramels. Too many moments had slipped through her fingers before she'd known to look for them, but over the past month, she'd made it her mission not to miss any more.
This was today's — knees-down in the snow, shivering from the cold and wet that soaked her cotton leggings and the hem of her dress, building a snowman while her daughter chatted nonstop about her day at school.
Penelope had thrown on just enough outer layers as she left work to keep her comfortable on the ten-minute walk to and from Malarkey Elementary. But when she and Ella had approached the park in the middle of downtown, all white and winter-wonderlandy, she could practically hear it begging for them to be the first to leave their mark.
And since memories didn't make themselves, they'd walked hand in hand into the fresh snow, inadequate attire be damned.
"What was the best thing that happened at school today?" Penelope asked. She shoveled an armful of snow into a pile and began molding it around the ball Ella had formed.
"Besides the snow?"
Snow wasn't unusual in the northwest corner of North Carolina, but this early in the season they rarely got more than a smattering of flakes at a time. The couple inches that had fallen since lunch were a delightful surprise.
"Yes, besides that."
"At recess I got to play tag with the other kids," Ella said, her gap-toothed smile taking over her face. She skimmed her fingers over the cat ears sewn into the top of her knit hat, then continued. "At first Mrs. Shutters said she wasn't sure if I should play because she didn't want me to get hurt, but then one of the other teachers said it was just tag and running around would probably do me some good after being sick. So Mrs. Shutters said okay. And then, guess what happened? I got to be It, Mama!"
Penelope locked her eyes on her daughter, her smile freezing into place and breath catching in her throat, a vain attempt to hold on to the moment. But not even Ella's excitement about playing the position in the game no one ever wanted could keep reality from rushing back in at the word "sick."
Exhaling, Penelope relaxed her face. Ella had gotten to play at recess like a normal third grader. That in itself was a reason to be happy. For now, she would make it be enough. "That's great, sweetie. Did you get to tag someone?"
"Yep. This girl in my class. Her name is River. She's really good at tag. She almost never gets caught," Ella said. She scooped her mittened hands into the snow then dumped it right back out. "Hey, wait! We can't make our snow family without Grams. Let's go get her so she can help."
"It's going to be a little tough for her to make snowmen while she's working."
"She can take a break. She'll be sad if we make them without her."
"You know she can't take a break without closing the shop. Somebody has to help customers when they come in, and since I'm here with you, Grams is there by herself."
Ella set a hand on Penelope's to stop her from packing another handful of snow onto the lopsided sphere sitting on the ground between them. "I know. But can't she just come for an hour? Please? I'll make a note for the front door so anyone who wants some hot chocolate will know when to come back."
Penelope hesitated. She had never been one of those moms to give in to her kid's every demand. But lately the word "no" had abandoned her, and she couldn't bring herself to go looking for it. Making Ella smile, hearing her laugh with delight — that's what mattered now. Guilt from all of the no's over the years — and all of the experiences Ella never had because of Penelope's decisions — burned at the back of her throat. Giving in to it, she said, "You're right. Grams wouldn't want to miss this."
"Yes! Okay, let's go." In her haste to get a move on, Ella chucked the handfuls of snow she had collected into the air, showering Penelope's face with a flurry of snow as she stood.
Startled by the shock of cold on her cheeks, Penelope lost her balance and went sprawling backward in the snow.
"It's okay," she said, still staring up at the gray-blue sky. Maybe, she thought, on days when you really need it, you can steal a second perfect moment. Then she crooked a gloved finger at Ella. "Come here, kid."
When Ella leaned over her, Penelope wrapped her arms around her daughter's too-skinny waist and pulled Ella down on top of her. A chorus of giggles burst out of Ella at the sudden shift from standing to being draped across her mom's torso. Penelope kissed Ella's temple, where a wisp of light- brown hair had escaped the hat. She twisted to the side, careful to cradle Ella's head with one of her hands, then laid her daughter next to her.
"Since we're both down here, we might as well have a little fun," she said.
Penelope scooted a few feet away and dropped to her back again. Turning her head toward Ella, she matched her daughter's grin with one of her own. On the count of three, they both spread their arms and legs wide and made angels in the snow.
* * *
They sacrificed a half dozen dark chocolate truffles for the snowmen's eyes. The truffles — formed by hand in the chocolate cafe Penelope owned with her mom — made for more convenient eyes than lumps of coal, which would have required a separate stop at the market a few blocks away on the opposite side of the park. Since they only had an hour before they needed to reopen the Chocolate Cottage, Penelope agreed to pilfer snowman supplies from the shop's inventory. In place of carrots, they fashioned noses out of white-chocolate-dipped pretzel sticks as thick as two of Ella's fingers. The pink, red, and green sprinkles set in the chocolate complemented the colorful aprons Penelope's mom, Sabina, draped around the snowmen's rotund waists.
The mouths proved more difficult. Ella had searched the apothecary table tucked into a nook in the back of the kitchen for a serendipitous stash of red licorice or even the whole dried cayenne peppers used to make the spicy hot chocolate she wasn't allowed to drink. She found neither. In the end, Penelope convinced her daughter that chocolate-covered espresso beans were a good substitute. And the three snowmen smiled at the passing cars with unpainted lips.
"Are you finished yet?" Ella asked.
Penelope drained the last of her hot chocolate, grateful for the extra hit of warmth and the sugar rush it provided. Unlike her snow doppelganger, Penelope's lips were stained a deep red and left a ring on the plastic lid. She handed the disposable cup to Ella, who was taking her time with her own drink. "What are you going to do with it?"
Which in Ella-speak meant Penelope might have vetoed the idea if Ella had asked permission.
But Penelope was curious enough to let it slide. "Okay, well, we've got about ten more minutes before we need to get back. So whatever you're planning, better make it quick."
"I will," Ella said. Then she turned away, tossing a smile over her shoulder, and raced off. Her boots kicked up snow behind her with each step.
A handful of other kids, all around Ella's age, had made their way to the park and were building their own snowmen and amassing an arsenal of snowballs. None of them had parents with them. None of them would need immediate supervision with Mrs. Lehman in the antique shop across the street and Old Mr. Harvey sitting out in front of Malarkey Hardware on the corner to keep an eye on them.
"You two can stay, honey," Sabina said, pinching a tangle of flyaway hairs between her fingers and tucking it behind her ear into the mass of dark curls. "Ella's having so much fun. She shouldn't have to stop just because I need to leave."
"Believe me, she's crammed a lot of fun into the day already," Penelope said.
They both shifted to watch Ella. At first Penelope thought Ella was trying to overcome her shyness by talking to the other kids, but Ella bypassed them in favor of the line of trees separating the park from Hawthorne Street. Then she crouched beneath the barren limbs of a magnolia tree. Her hat snagged on one of the branches and twisted so the gray cat ears sat sideways on her head. When she crawled out, her smile rivaled the brightness of the snow blanketing the ground.
Penelope turned back to her mom, trying to remember her reasons for why they should pack it in too. It was easier when Ella's happiness wasn't her only focus. After a moment, she said, "Ella has homework to do and all this running around is going to catch up to her at some point tonight. I'd rather her crash at the shop than in the snow."
Sabina tipped her head in Ella's direction. "Doesn't look like she's slowing down anytime soon."
Ella headed back to them, arms crossed over her chest to keep the long sticks she'd gathered from tangling with her legs and tripping her.
"Not as long as she can help it," Penelope agreed, ignoring the cold ache deep in her chest that had little to do with the chill in the air. They'd had such a good day. She wouldn't ruin it by letting the sadness get a stronger hold.
"I'm almost done," Ella said, bending over to lay the sticks on the ground in front of the snowmen. After a short inspection, she handed two of the sturdier ones to Penelope. "Hold these, please."
And just like that, Penelope's smile returned. It was impossible to feel bad when Ella was happy — her good moods were infectious. "Your ears are crooked." She spun Ella's hat back to straight with her free hand.
"Thanks." Ella picked up the remaining sticks and jabbed them into the middle sections of two of the snowmen, creating arms. One stick pointed up and the other reached for the ground. She stepped back, hands on hips as she looked them over. Nodding, she said, "Okay, Mama, I'm ready for those."
Penelope handed over the sticks. "This one gets special arms, huh?"
"Yep. You'll see why in a minute," Ella said.
Penelope and her mom exchanged amused looks over Ella's head.
Ella placed the sticks in the same position as the others. The forked end overlapped with the arm of the snowman next to it as if they were holding hands. Then Ella picked up Penelope's empty hot chocolate cup and balanced it on the end of the snowman's other arm.
"Ta-da! They're us."
"They certainly are," a voice said behind them.
Penelope turned to find Malarkey's mayor, Henry Jameson, walking toward them. He wasn't quite six feet but was built like a small fridge. At just shy of fifty, he was in better shape than most people half his age thanks to his commitment to reduce his carbon footprint, which resulted in him tarping his car in the garage and walking everywhere he needed to go in town.
"I can't tell you how good it is to see the three of you out here together," he said.
"We couldn't resist the fresh snow," Penelope said.
He pointed to the cup in the snowman's hand and chuckled. "That hot chocolate's not gonna bring those snowmen to life like Frosty, is it?"
"No, I used the magic-free hot chocolate," Ella said. She frowned at the cup as if it had let her down. Then she whipped her attention back to the adults, her lips unfurling into a smile again. "The table wouldn't give me anything when I looked. That would be so cool, though. I'll try again when we get back to the shop."
Penelope wrapped her arms over her daughter's shoulders and pulled her in so Ella's back pressed into Penelope's stomach. "I don't think animating snowmen is the best use of magic."
Ella tilted her head back to look at Penelope. "Don't say that, Mama. It would be so much fun."
"Yes," Penelope conceded. "It probably would."
But the recipes and ingredients that mysteriously appeared in the drawers of the antique apothecary table at the Chocolate Cottage came of their own accord. Penelope could ask for a magical fix to a problem, but there was no guarantee it would ever come.
Penelope learned long ago not to trust the chocolate's magic. At least when it came to her own life.
And the recipe for truffles that would mend a broken heart she found in the apothecary table's top right drawer further justified that stance.
She tucked the recipe card into her apron pocket. It was safer there than left in the table for her mother to find. Or worse, Ella. They would both encourage Penelope to use it — her daughter because she would be the cause of the heartbreak it promised to alleviate and her mom because Sabina held fast to the belief that their chocolates were some sort of magical cure-all drug. With one taste of their chocolates, people dreamed of their futures and reveled in temporary bouts of happiness and luck to get them through the rough times.
Though the magic had been utterly useless when it came to curing Ella.
Penelope slid the drawer shut, only the slightest scuffing of wood on wood giving her away. The mother-of-pearl knob warmed beneath her fingers, as if the table wanted her to know it wasn't finished giving unwanted advice.
"Next time, give me something worth having," she whispered.
Then she gave the drawer another little shove for good measure. Bottles of extracts and flavored salts and dried lavender petals in some of the other drawers rattled against each other traitorously. She threw a quick glance over her shoulder and met her mother's curious gaze as Sabina leaned around the doorframe separating the front counter from the kitchen. There was no use pretending nothing had happened. Her mom was attuned to the table's quirks and always knew when it had gifted a new recipe or ingredient.
When they'd first opened the shop, it had been like Christmas every day, both of them giddy with excitement to see what new bite of magic they'd be able to offer their customers next. Now it was a daily disappointment.
Penelope walked out front, opting to get the impending argument out of the way as quickly as possible.
"Did it give you something new?" her mom asked. A fresh wave of hope curved the corners of her mouth up. "Something that might help Ella?"
"Yes, it did. But it's not for Ella."
"Let me see it."
Penelope curled her fingers around the card in her apron pocket. With just a little pressure she could crush it into a tiny knot of pointless words and numbers. "It's not for you either."
"Something new for the shop then?" Sabina asked.
"No, this one's for me. And since I don't plan on using it, there's no need for you to get worked up over it." It didn't do Penelope any good to let it affect her either. The magic of the apothecary table could only do so much. This was just its way of reminding her of its limits. She relaxed her grip, letting the paper fall back out of reach.
Her mother cupped the side of Penelope's face with one hand. "But maybe it's —"
"Mama, you really have to stop hoping that the chocolates will fix everything. If there was a way to save her, the doctors would have found it," Penelope said. She laid her hand over her mom's and squeezed.
"There is still so much life in her," her mother said, the whisper stealing the ends of her words. "I think you stopped too soon. Gave up."
Since Ella's first seizure almost two years ago, Penelope had tried everything to make her daughter well. Neurologists at Duke. Acupuncture. Recipes for healing truffles made with fennel seeds and white chocolate. Writing the future she wanted for Ella on a piece of paper at last year's Festival of Fate and tossing it into the bonfire along with the futures of the rest of Malarkey's residents.
Deciding to stop Ella's treatment was the hardest decision Penelope had ever made. And as a twenty-seven-year-old single mom, she'd had her fair share. But she and Ella agreed it was the best choice out of the crappy ones they'd been given. And she wouldn't let anyone guilt her into questioning it.
"A point you've made abundantly clear over the past week," Penelope said. "But this is what Ella wants."
"She wants a lot of other things too. Her list is proof enough of that. She adds something new every day. And when you both realize she deserves more time to do it all, it will be too late."
Penelope flicked her eyes to her daughter who was tucked into the corner of the sofa at the front of the shop. With her notebook leaning against her propped-up legs, she scratched out a list in pink magic marker of all the things she wanted to do before she died. In her case, the list was necessity, not daydreaming.
Excerpted from "Dreaming in Chocolate"
Copyright © 2018 Susan Bishop Crispell.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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