Only half past noon, and there went the last pound of brandied rose creams. I must make more for the evening rush, thought Marcel, watching the satisfied customer walk out the door, gift-wrapped box under his arm. Do I still have all the necessary ingredients in the kitchen, or must I--
Then the next customer in line bore down on him and his train of thought shattered like a sugar sculpture dropped onto a hard floor. “What do you mean, you sold the last rose creams?” the man demanded, his loud, aggressive voice carrying over the noise of the small crowd that filled Doux-Amer. “I came here specifically to buy them.”
Zut alors, monsieur, Quelle tragidie. Quicktackle that last customer before he reaches Bleecker Street. Marcel bit his tongue. Why did men of this ilk—self-important, business-suited types—never think to call ahead and reserve what they wanted? He stole a look around the shop, hoping to foist this particular pest off on one of his subordinates. Both George and Amanda quickly busied themselves with other customers. They’d heard that bellow and knew the aggravation it portended.
I’ll give them hell later, Marcel promised himself. “If you return this evening, I will have made fresh ones,” he told the seething businessman. “Perhaps you could reserve—”
“Return?” The businessman swelled up. Even his striped power tie looked belligerent. “I took a train to get here. This is coming out of my lunch hour, you know.”
Marcel rubbed his brow. In an aisle to his right, two customers squabbled over a box of mixed creams. A little girl threw herself onto the floor, transforming into a screaming bundle of arms and legs over her mother’s refusal to buy her cocoa. The checkout line began shifting like an angry centipede as those waiting grew impatient at the delay. Three hundred matters pressed for his attention, and this man acted like taking a subway from Wall Street to Greenwich Village was comparable to traversing the Sahara. Try being a chocolatier on Valentine’s Day, monsieur.
“You have more in the back, don’t you?” the businessman accused.
“I assure you we do not.”
“I’ll pay extra.”
“There won’t be more until this evening.”
The businessman drummed an angry staccato on the countertop. “Let me speak to the manager.”
Marcel wrenched his attention from a woman who wandered the shelves near the window, picking up boxes of chocolate and turning them over in her hands before setting them down again. Her cap’s brilliant crimson-red color had drawn his attention when she’d first entered the shop, at least half an hour ago. “Pardon?” he asked.
“I want,” said the businessman with insulting distinction, “to speak to the manager.”
“I am the owner, monsieur, and I tell you I cannot magic brandied rose creams into existence. Come back this evening.” Or keep hassling me and discover what I can magic into existence, he added silently.
The businessman gaped. You, the owner? read the almost-visible thought balloon hanging over his head. Barely old enough to shave and not even American?
Twenty-two is old enough to shave, merci beaucoup. Blonde beards just grow more slowly. And what did you expect from a shop called Doux-Amer, a Texan?
Taking advantage of the man’s no-doubt temporary silence, Marcel signaled to George to ring up the next customer. The constipated line finally moved, much to the relief of his patrons.
The businessman recovered. “Tell you what,” he said, checking his watch; a gesture meant to convey both urgency and importance. “I’ll give you my address and you can send the chocolates when they’re finished. I need them by six-thirty.”
The wandering woman picked up a bag of chocolate-covered raspberries. Her thumbs caressed the foil as she held it, longer than anything else she’d selected. Her eyes squeezed shut a moment, then she put it back on the shelf.
Marcel shook his head. “Sorry, but we don’t do deliveries.”
The businessman’s face tightened. “I can always go elsewhere, you know.”
Marcel turned quickly away, feigning a cough. It was either that or let the derisive laugh escape. Take your business elsewhere? Thank you monsieur, I could use a break. He couldn’t see the checkerboard floor for all the bodies obscuring it. More people kept piling in; the bell over the door hadn’t stopped ringing since eleven o’clock. His neck burned and his legs ached all the way up to his hips. Better to be a sled dog in the Arctic than a chocolatier on Valentine’s Day. At least after being run off your feet, you’d know you’d gotten somewhere.
“That is your choice, of course,” he said, once he trusted himself to speak, “but no other chocolatier makes brandied rose creams. They are one of my signature chocolates.”
A customer left with his purchase tucked in a gold foil bag. Three more promptly surged in, tracking fresh snow over the floor. The smell of hot bodies wrapped in heavy coats, some of them wool, nearly overpowered the aromas of chocolate, butter and sugar. Still the businessman refused to concede.
“I know you have more in the back,” he said. “Sell them to me. You can make fresh ones for the other guy.”
Marcel rubbed his temples. Oh, what a beaut of a headache was blossoming there! The worst part was this idiot was right; he did have another half-pound tucked away in back. Maybe he should concede, sell them to this businessman just to be rid of him.
But no; Dan Lucas was a reliable customer who’d had the foresight to place his order the week before. It wouldn’t be fair. Besides—Marcel touched the gilded theobroma blossom tucked beneath his shirt…he had another option available, one not open to the average chocolatier.
He chewed his lip. Using magic on a customer? Surely the Theobromancer’s Guild—the secret organization of chocolate wizards—would object. But this is an emergency. He forced his hand to unclench. “Might I suggest an alternative?”
“Are you offering a discount?” asked the businessman, almost before he finished speaking.
Marcel quickly reviewed his vocabulary. True, English was not his first language, but when did “alternative” become synonymous with “discount”? “I’m offering something exclusive,” he said with the care of an angler casting into a deep pool.
Ah, he did know his English well. “Exclusive” was the right hook. A covetous expression stole over the man’s face. “Something not available to the general public, you mean?”
“Exactement, monsieur, something very special.”
“How do I know it’s any good?”
Fish landed; Marcel fought back a smile. “Taste for yourself.” Reaching under the counter, he took from the display case a crystal dish containing six chocolates, as exquisitely arranged as rare gems. He hesitated a moment, sorely tempted to offer the white chocolate with the sugar-crystal dome. But no; the Guild would be within their rights to discipline him if he put a customer to sleep for the next month. “Try this one,” he said, indicating a shiny dark chocolate embellished with a creamy whorl instead.
The waiting customers watched enviously as the businessman took the proffered chocolate off the dish. He lifted it to eye height, studying it as if he expected to find the words “made in China” printed in small letters across the base, then finally, grudgingly, took a small bite. The soft crack as his teeth broke through the chocolate shell shouldn’t have been audible over the general babble that filled Doux-Amer, but it was.
The tight lines bracketing his mouth softened. His cheekbones stopped straining against his skin, as if about to burst through. He took another bite of the chocolate and the hard squint around his eyes vanished.
Marcel set the dish back inside the display. The filling now melting on the businessman’s tongue was as light as a snowflake settling on the tip of one’s nose. It tasted—subtle, more hinting at flavors than actually declaring itself. A suggestion of burnt caramel gave way to the perfumey lushness of sugared violets only to be replaced by vanilla’s bourbon-sweet bitterness.
But the taste mattered less than the effect. These were Zephyr Creams, his own invention. One bite and the eater surrendered to the most blissful inner tranquility. Again Marcel touched the gilded theobroma. I’ve done no harm, he assured himself. Indeed, knots of tension in the man’s neck and shoulders were melting like the trickles of dirty snow tracked across the shop’s tiles. He’d probably sleep better tonight than he had in weeks, and whoever he intended to buy the rose creams for would find him pleasantly agreeable at their dinner this evening.
Marcel’s conscience quieted, not without a few final grumbles. He released the theobroma. “The fresh rose creams should be ready by six o’clock,” he said. “Surely you can leave work a little early on Valentine’s Day.”
“Of course,” the businessman nodded, smiling at nothing. “Those files can wait.”
“Absolument.” Marcel took up a notepad and pen. “Now, would you prefer dark or milk chocolate?”
He jotted down the information, a process that took far less time and stress than the prior confrontation. As the businessman wandered dreamily out of the shop, Marcel stretched the ache out of his lower back. With the passing of the lunch hour, the crowd thinned. There’d be a lull until late afternoon. I’d love to sleep in tomorrow, he thought wistfully. But no, tomorrow customers would come, hoping he’d be offering his chocolates at half price, like some cheap chain--
A flash of red caught the corner of his eye. The woman was at the counter now, peering through the glass at the dark chocolate crème brulees.
He glanced quickly off to the side. Amanda was wrapping up an order while George rang up a purchase. Ah, well. “May I help you?” he asked.
The woman’s head shot up, her eyes widening under the red cap. Perhaps she’d only just realized how long she’d been wandering the shop without making a purchase. “Um,” she began, then faltered and stared down at her hands. Her pale, cold-looking fingertips poked out of her fingerless gloves. Chewed nails. A pleasant enough face, but tired, shadowed under the eyes.
“Sorry,” she said. Her lips curled upwards without achieving a smile. “My—someone bought me chocolates from here last year. I was trying to remember what kind they were.”
She forgot what his chocolate tasted like? Marcel quashed a surge of indignation. “What did they look like?”
Her gaze wandered to the ceiling. “Um. Round. Red at the top with little gold beads sprinkled on them.”
“Those would be the strawberry champagne truffles.” He never forgot a chocolate he invented. “Unfortunately, we’re not offering them this year.” After last Valentine’s Day, he’d decided he wasn’t satisfied with their texture and retired them, vowing to perfect them later. A vow he’d forgotten until now.
“Oh,” she said. She studied her hands again. “I really liked them.”
Why did I forget? Picking up a cloth, he polished a spotless section of the counter. “Perhaps I could interest you in something else?” he suggested, flicking his gaze at her.
“No, thank you. I probably wouldn’t have bought them even if—” She folded her hands into balls. “Sorry. I don’t even know why I came in.” Lifting her head, she bent her mouth into another of those terrible not-smiles. This time Marcel noticed the redness in her shadowed eyes, the rawness of her nose. And he remembered. Remembered who Valentine’s Day was hardest on, after all. Not the chocolatiers.
Valentine’s Day? Might as well call it “Shame the Singles Day.” For every happy couple holding hands and looking into one another’s eyes over a candlelight dinner, a lonely soul sat at home or meandered the streets, resigned to their solitude or bitterly envious of their happily mated friends.
But as depressing as the holiday could be for those people, there were others for whom it was nothing less than a paean to pain. He’d bet every last chocolate in Doux-Amer that sometime over the last year, this woman had lost her beloved. Death, divorce, infidelity—in the end, what did the how matter?
He really should get to making more brandied rose creams. The floor needed mopping, and he needed to reorganize some displays and bring more stock out of the back--
“Have a cup of cocoa,” he suggested, coming from behind the counter. Taking her arm, he tried to draw her toward one of the tall tables by the window, where she could perhaps find peace watching the light snowfall trickle down out of the gray sky.
“Oh, no.” She sounded almost alarmed by the prospect. “I couldn’t.”
“Certainly you can. On the house. A Valentine’s Day gift.”
A prodigy. That’s what his teachers called him. He’d spent his adolescence studying chocolate in all its aspects, rarely looking up from his grater and tempering bowl. And he’d risen rapidly through the Theobromancers’ ranks. But perhaps if he’d set aside the cocoa beans just once, he’d have known the right words to say now.
She stiffened under his hand. “A Valentine’s…no. No, thank you.” Her chin dipped into her scarf. A muffled sob escaped her, then she twisted away from him, fumbling blindly for the door. In another breath, she’d be through it, lost to the crowded streets.
“Wait, please!” For the second time in less than an hour, Marcel went behind the counter and took out the crystal dish of magical chocolates. His conscience didn’t emit so much as a peep as he held it out to her. “Have just one,” he pleaded, turning the plate so a crescent-shaped sweet painted with a streak of bright yellow was in the fore.
If she’d only bite into it. The dark chocolate shell would crack and a bright, tart, citrusy cream would ooze over her tongue. She’d swallow, perhaps noticing no more at first than the taste of lemon mellowed with vanilla and cream, and a slight warm tingling in her stomach. That warm sensation would spread through her torso as she bid adieu and went out the door. By the time she’d walked a block, she’d be warm to the tips of her ears. By the time she reached home, she might even be humming a tune. Perhaps she’d make a cup of tea, call a friend, find something to laugh about, and smile a real smile.
Cheering Moon, he called these chocolates. He’d presented them to the Guild on his graduation.
But she turned in the doorway, that awful not-smile trembling on a face that looked ready to crack in half. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t want chocolate this Valentine’s Day.”
She slipped out the door, so smooth and quick the bell suspended over it didn’t so much as chirp. A bitter breeze blew a spray of snow through the gap before it swung silently shut. Through the window, Marcel saw her walking briskly away, her shoulders hunched. Her hand dug into her coat pocket and came up holding a crumpled tissue. She was just pressing it to her nose when a group of three laughing couples passed, blocking her from sight. By the time they cleared the window, she was gone.
Marcel exhaled. He set the crystal dish back in the display then stood with his palms pressed against the counter a while. The familiar smell of chocolate wreathed his head. The walls of his shop encompassed him, warm shades of burgundy, cream, and gold. George fetched a mop and cleaned the checkerboard floor. Amanda straightened shelves. Over the speakers, audible for the first time since the mad rush began, Ella Fitzgerald crooned.
Did you cry a river too? Marcel wondered in some abstract portion of his mind. He should have checked the song list more carefully.
The bell over the door rang. Marcel’s head shot up, his heartbeat accelerating. But whatever his wild, inexplicable hopes, it was Dan Lucas who came strolling in, his amiable features pink with cold and alight with good cheer.
“Came for the rose creams,” he said, stripping off his gloves. He took a seat at a high table by the window. “But I might as well treat myself to some cocoa while I’m here. Brr! That wind’s bitter.”
“Very bitter,” agreed Marcel. Shaking off his melancholy, he fetched Dan’s chocolates plus an extra-large mug of cocoa with whipped cream and sugar sprinkles. He set both on the table and Dan instantly picked up the mug and took a sip.
“Mm, that’s good,” he sighed, wiping his lips. One hand reached out to stroke the red foil wrapper on the box of rose creams. “Lindsey will be so happy,” he said. “Nothing says ‘I love you’ like chocolate. Especially your chocolate, Marcel.”
“Nothing.” Marcel faced the window. Snow was falling heavier now, obscuring the figures of passers-by walking the Village streets. “Yes, that’s important to know. Be sure you say ‘I love you’ to Lindsey.”
Soon he’d have to get started on the brandied rose creams. Snow or not, the customers would come pouring in after work, eager to find that perfect gift for their loved ones. But just for now, he’d watch the street, sparing a moment of thought for those who would come home to an empty room rather than flowers and kisses.
And to spare a moment of pity for himself as well—the prodigy, who, for all his talent, all his magic, couldn’t promise his customers love. Only chocolate.
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