by Rachel Astor
Dulcie Carter has been running her family’s homemade sweet shop, Candy Land Confections, on her own since her mom passed away. But business is slow and rent is high, so Dulcie knows if she wants to keep her mom’s dream alive, she’ll need a miracle. Winning the annual Assembly of Chocolatiers competition will change everything, if only she can overcome her fears and bring herself to create something new for the first time in a long time.
Then she meets Nick, a molten-hot guy with a sexy smirk and chocolate brown eyes. The attraction is stronger than any sugar rush—until she discovers he’s set to inherit his family’s big-box candy shop in town, which is her strongest competitor for first prize. Nick’s got his own reasons for needing the win, but then being around Dulcie is proving addictive.
As the competition heats up, so do the sparks between them. Can they keep their sights on winning, when love might be the sweetest prize of all?
© 2012 Rachel Astor
Dulcie Carter checked the time on her phone yet again. She’d already been to work and back and it was only eight thirty. “Crap,” she said aloud, much to the dismay of her neighbor, Helen, who always seemed to be grabbing her paper as Dulcie left.
She was pretty sure Helen timed it on purpose.
“You tell your grandmother all that Salsa dancing into the wee hours of the morning is keeping everyone awake,” she said, shaking her finger as always.
Helen was one of those crotchety grandma types. Grumpy, with nothing better to do than ruin people’s Salsa plans.
“Sure thing, Mrs. Kreinke,” Dulcie said, trying not to chuckle out loud.
The last name was supposed to be pronounced like Kren-key, but Dulcie could never seem to stop it from coming out “cranky.” She wondered if Helen realized Dulcie had no intention of delivering the message to Grams.
Ah, well. Life was too short to stress about things like the Crankster. Nothing would change the fact she was perpetually ticked at Dulcie—or at her grams, for that matter—so she just wouldn’t worry about it.
Dulcie took the stairs two at a time and burst out of her apartment building, leaving a few random people scattered in her wake. It didn’t slow her down. She was already five minutes late to meet Lila, who was someone she definitely didn’t want ticked at her.
“Are you trying to give me an aneurysm?” her best friend asked, as Dulcie ran up to the campus coffee place. She handed Dulcie a cup and a little paper bag with a bagel inside.
“Yes, I am trying to give you an aneurysm,” Dulcie said. “I thought it would be funny to not even hurry at all.”
Of course, her panting told the real story.
“Thanks,” Dulcie said, raising the bagel bag and taking her first sip of coffee.
“So, what about him?” Lila asked as they made their way down the hall.
It was the same thing every morning. Lila would obsess over finding Dulcie a guy, which, as Dulcie had told her friend again and again, she didn’t have the time to deal with.
A sigh escaped her.
Lila stopped walking and turned to her. “Seriously, if you don’t start dating again soon, you’re going to go crazy. I don’t know how you do it.”
Dulcie looked to the sky. “My life is already crazy. That’s why I don’t have time for dating.”
Lila serial dated. She’d gone through more guys on campus—not to mention the three other colleges in the area—faster than Dulcie could whip up a batch of coconut fudge. And with the efficiency of hundreds of batches behind her, it wasn’t a long process.
“Work, work, work, that’s all I ever hear about,” Lila said. “I mean, even Grams wouldn’t want to stop you from having a little fun.”
“Grams would jump for joy if I had a date. Actually, she’d probably click behind us in her little heels, snapping photos as we walked down the street.”
“I love your grams.” Lila sighed.
Dulcie smiled. Grams was pretty great.
“Okay, so what about him?” Lila pointed to a guy dressed all in black. He glared back at them like they had disturbed his ritual chant to the dark lord or something.
They walked a little more quickly. “Yeah, he’s totally my type.”
Lila made a yikes face. “Sorry, I thought maybe you were into the brooding ones. I didn’t realize brooding also equals serial killer.” They walked a few more steps. “So then…him?”
Dulcie didn’t even bother looking where her friend was pointing this time. “Cripes, Lila, you know I’m too busy. Please. Drop it already.”
Lila stopped and put her hand on her hip. “So you won’t even go out on one date?”
“That’s it exactly. I can’t waste my time on someone who’s just going to be one date. I’ve got to know a guy is worth it before I go out with him.”
“Oh, so you do still like guys. I was starting to wonder.” Lila grinned.
Dulcie just walked, shaking her head.
“Operation Find Dulcie a Man is on,” Lila said with conviction.
“Please don’t make me an operation.”
“But I love projects,” she said, pouting.
“Um, please don’t call me a project, either.”
Lila gasped. “You could be my project if you wanted to,” she said, tucking stray hairs behind Dulcie’s ears. She scrunched her face. “When was the last time you showered? ’Cause you have some sticky shit in your hair.”
Dulcie groaned. “I showered before bed. I must have splashed some caramel or something this morning.”
Lila raised an eyebrow. “Well, at least you always smell good. Seriously, some days I just want to sniff you.” She leaned in and took a deep whiff.
Dulcie gave her a whack on the shoulder.
Lila grinned back, but only for a second, because her brain was apparently otherwise occupied. “So what about that guy?”
Dulcie pretended not to hear.
Dulcie rushed toward the store after her last class. It had been her mom’s dying wish—and inheritance stipulation—that Dulcie finish school. She’d gotten her undergraduate degree, but since her mom had worked so hard to save, there was money left over, and Dulcie couldn’t bear to let her down. Her mom would have been so proud if she got her Masters in Business Administration. It was what she’d dreamed for Dulcie—for her to have a better life. And graduate school wasn’t that bad, she tried to tell herself. Running the shop made the classes a lot more relatable, at least. She just wished she had a little more spare time.
As she zipped through the park, the ice-cream stand caught her attention, and her mind immediately began creating ice-cream flavors morphed into candy. Rocky Road Truffles, Neapolitan Fudge, Vanilla Bean Taffy…for every flavor the ice-cream place had listed, Dulcie could dream up a new confection almost instantaneously.
Then she slowed in front of her favorite place in the world.
Candy Land Confections.
As a kid, Dulcie had been asked by her mother what they should call their new candy store and, being six, of course she’d spit out one of her favorite games of all time: Candy Land. Her mom had marveled at her ingenuity, but honestly, she just loved to play the board game. Her mother added on the Confections part and it hadn’t changed in more than fifteen years.
She paused to check the sign outside, making sure all the lights were on and nothing needed cleaning. Then she walked in and took a deep breath. She spent so much more time at Candy Land Confections than at the apartment; the sugary-sweetness was like coming home.
Constance must have made a batch of Cinnamon Swirls (cinnamon and caramel toffee swirled into a soft, chewy bit of heaven) before she left—they were Dulcie’s favorite. A few customers sat at the tiny bistro tables at the front of the store sipping coffee and munching sugar while Ava, the part-time employee who had started after Dulcie’s mother passed, wiped the counter. She worked the one-to-five shift, which fit in perfectly with Ava’s night classes.
“Hey, Dulcie, how’s it going?”
“Good,” she said. “Busy?”
Ava shrugged. “Not too bad, actually. Even got a little homework done.”
Dulcie smiled, trying not to let her worry show. There were always customers—her mother’s recipes were amazing—but chocolate wasn’t exactly high-priced for the work it required. As it was, Dulcie could use another pair of hands at the shop, but if things didn’t pick up business-wise, she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d even be able to keep Ava on.
Ava packed up her things and for the next two hours, Dulcie mixed and served and cleaned. She ordered in a quick dinner and then snuck back to the kitchen to get started on tomorrow’s wedding orders. Saturdays were always a madhouse. As she opened a fresh container of Brazilian cocoa, she thought about how smart her mom had been when she started going to the local bridal trade shows. It became the new big thing to get a candy display done instead of a fancy wedding cake. Pure genius. Of course, that meant a lot more work for Dulcie, but also more business, and with the cost of running the shop, she could always use more business.
She finished off a chocolate-dipped candied fruit display for one of the weddings and finally sat down for the first time since Ava had left, taking a minute to tackle the mail.
Bills, bills, bills. They never seemed to get anything else these days. Some medical stuff from her mom’s illness was still outstanding, and then the cost of supplies and salaries to run the shop, plus the monumental rent for a high-foot-traffic location were going to be the end of her. She was living month to month, and if she couldn’t figure out a way to get ahead soon, things were not looking all that sugary for Candy Land Confections.
Dulcie kept hoping something she learned in marketing class would spark a kind of magical idea, but she remained uninspired.
A fancy letter caught her eye as she sorted, and she got excited that, for once, she had something other than a bill. She ripped open the foil-lined envelope and pulled out the thick cardstock paper.
The Assembly of Chocolatiers, East Chapter presents:
The Forty-seventh Annual Taste of the Year Competition.
As a member, you’re invited to enter your best and most unique new flavor for the $50,000 annual Taste of the Year endowment.
Please find the entry form enclosed.
We look forward to your submission.
Preliminary judging to take place October 1, with the Finals to follow two weeks later on October 15.
Dulcie snorted. Yeah, right.
There was no way she was going to put herself through that again. God, every time she thought about it, the same shame and gut-seizing horror came flooding back. Sweat sprang to her forehead just thinking about it.
All the other years had been so fantastic, standing proudly in the giant hall beside her mother, Grams watching from the crowd, cheering them on. The moment just before the announcement was always the most exciting part, waiting…just waiting for the host to say the winner’s name. Back then it was so easy to ignore the stares and judgment of the competitors, mostly because the looks were filled with jealousy, which was only enhanced when the winner was announced.
Candy Land Confections, three years in a row.
The store was in its prime.
And then her mom got sick.
After her mom was gone, Dulcie hadn’t wanted to enter the competition…not by herself, anyway. But Grams thought it would be good for her. Dulcie swore it was her shrink who had put the idea in Grams’s head: give Dulcie something to keep her busy, get her mind off things.
It could not have been a bigger disaster.
Dulcie had worked for hours on the recipe, testing dozens of them until she found the perfect one. Well, the one she’d thought was perfect. She’d tweaked an old recipe of her mother’s, changing her Velvet Strawberry Milk Chocolate Truffle into Dulcie’s version: the Velvet Watermelon Dark Chocolate Truffle.
She’d stood, completely on her own, the looks from the competitors full of pity this time, everyone staring; she was sweating, the lights feeling so much brighter than she remembered from the year before.
She’d just wanted to be different—to create something the judges had never tasted before. To do something completely original. But as she watched the judges take bites of her work, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that she’d gone too far. She knew, of course, that the flavors were a bit out there, that the overly strong artificial watermelon mixed with the dark chocolate to create an almost earthy taste (you know, somewhat dirt-like), but she’d somehow convinced herself an experienced palate would appreciate its uniqueness. As judge number three literally flinched and scrunched her nose, Dulcie realized her error.
She’d wanted to prove herself so badly, she’d gone against her heart—and her own taste buds, for that matter.
Candy Land Confections did not make it past the preliminary round. She wasn’t even sure her creation made it through the digestive systems of the judges.
Of course, no one laughed right then and there, but she knew they all shook their heads later, marveling at what a disaster she’d turned her mom’s legacy into.
Dulcie vowed to never mess with her mom’s recipes again.
And to make matters worse, their biggest competitor, How Sweet It Is, won that year, making their ever-so-smugness even smuggier.
What Dulcie wouldn’t give for her mom to come back and wipe the smug right off their faces. They’d certainly never had a chance of winning when she’d been around.
Needless to say, Candy Land Confections had not entered the past two years.
She flipped the invitation over and over, taking a deep breath, trying to force the soul-crushing thoughts of failure out of her system.
They’d already used all of her mom’s best recipes in competitions past, so there wasn’t any point in entering anymore.
She tossed the invitation to the far side of the desk.
Nick rolled out of his king-size bed, remembering the days when he didn’t have trouble getting up. Of course, that was back before his father sent him to college, when the store was actually a fun place to be.
As a kid, he used to relish going in, tasting new flavors. But ever since his father had automated every process possible, providing gourmet treats at a fraction of the cost, it wasn’t the same.
The whole thing had sort of snuck up on Nick. Sure, he’d known things had begun to automate before he left for school—no way would his father have afforded Harvard if they hadn’t—but as a teen, Nick hadn’t paid much attention to the store. Everything else seemed so much more important: girls, sports, his band.
Staying away from anything that reminded him of his mom.
When he had gotten back, it had been a bit of a culture shock. He’d come home to visit his father now and then, sure, but never really thought to go check out the store. After so many years, he wasn’t sure why he’d thought it would still be the same old place—especially once his father told him how things were going so well because of the new automation and everything—but nothing could have prepared him for walking into How Sweet It Is that first day back.
What used to be a small, quaint storefront was now a gleaming metal and glass extravaganza of shelves lining every wall right up to the ceiling. And the candy…he couldn’t believe it. They used to put out a dozen or so of each product, lovingly wrapped in plastic and hand-tied with a bow, but now the candy was stacked by the hundreds, wrapped in plastics and foils meant more for longer storage than treats that would be enjoyed the same day.
But even that had not prepared Nick for what awaited him at the back of the building, which used to house several businesses run by other people. Each had apparently been bought out by his father to create a monumental food warehouse. Machines and conveyors and mechanical noises sat in place of the small kitchen his mother used to run, the cooks always happy and joking. There were still people here, but Nick had never seen such solemn faces. He supposed that was the difference between creating candy and simply ushering product from one machine to the next.
The only thing familiar about the whole operation was the way it smelled. If he ignored the noises and just concentrated on the chocolately vanilla sweetness of it all, it almost felt like the old days.
The changes certainly weren’t all bad, he thought, shaking off the memories as he strolled through his apartment with its gorgeous views of the entire town. And it wasn’t just any town. Upper-class tourists flocked to Port Leyton from all the major cities on the East Coast to spend their summers and holidays there, enjoying the more relaxed atmosphere of part-time life in such a serene setting.
Nick inserted a pod into his eight-hundred-dollar coffee machine and waited the thirty seconds for it to brew. As he took a long sip, he wondered how on earth people ever survived without automated coffee at their fingertips.
Maybe his father was on to something after all.
The coffee jolted his memory awake. The envelope he’d found yesterday. Finally, one thing Nick was looking forward to since he started work at his father’s store—one thing that could let out his creative side for once.
He rushed to get ready and was in the shop twenty minutes later, the whir of machines droning in the background.
The envelope still sat on his desk. The Assembly of Chocolatiers competition. His father had lost interest in it, but when Nick saw the invitation, it was the first time he felt excited in a long time.
He headed to his dad’s office.
“Hey,” Nick said, knocking on the door frame. His dad looked extra short behind the enormous desk and Nick couldn’t help but wonder if it was some sort of compensation. His moustache, too, for that matter, which was more than large enough to make up for the amount of hair he lacked on his head.
It amazed him that his father could leave the door open with so much noise all the time.
“I wanted to talk to you about this,” Nick said, waving the invitation.
His father squinted. “Oh, the Chocolatiers thing?” He waved his hand dismissively. “I was thinking we wouldn’t enter this year. It’s a lot of work.”
“I’d like to try.”
His father looked up from his desk. “Why?”
Nick thought about explaining how he needed a creative outlet; if there was one thing his mother had taught him, it was that creating was fuel for the soul. But his dad would never understand that. Nick also couldn’t just blurt out that he was terrified his father would hand over the reins of How Sweet It Is to Jack Miller, the guy who’d been his right-hand man for over ten years. Nick’s father was getting ready to retire soon and needed someone to take over—it was what Harvard had been all about, but his father had also made it known that Nick wouldn’t just be handed the position if he didn’t impress. And he had to impress. Taking over How Sweet It Is had been his primary goal for years, was the only thing he’d ever cared about working toward. It was a family business—his family’s business—he couldn’t just let it get handed over to some…outsider.
And Nick certainly had no interest in starting all over again on the bottom rung of someone else’s corporate ladder—or the much lower salary that would provide—and he knew this could be his only chance at a grand gesture to prove he was up to the task. He had to show some initiative, make his father believe he was the guy to move the company forward.
“It could be good exposure,” he said. “A new flavor could boost sales, get people interested again.”
His father made a face. “Have you seen the customers out there? I’d say there’s plenty of interest.”
“Sure, but we could always use more, right? A little boost to the bottom line?” Nick raised his eyebrows.
His father thought for a moment. Nick passed the invitation from hand to hand.
“I suppose it would give you something to do,” his father said.
Oh, sure, never mind that I’ve taken on most of the administrative work around here, Nick thought, but he didn’t say anything.
“You’d better come up with something damned good,” his father said. “Food critics love to make a huge deal out of new flavors. I’m putting a lot of faith in you here. A couple years back, that awful store across town had a hell of an entry. Some dark chocolate covered watermelon jelly thing.” He laughed hard for a moment, breaking off into a cough. “It was the same year we won with the Raspberry Truffle, I think. Man, sales soared afterward, but I’m pretty sure the food people had a heyday with that watermelon disaster. Actually, I think the tourist association lowered their star rating due to the poor showing.” He shook his head, still chuckling. “Whatever you do, just don’t embarrass me like that.”
“Of course,” Nick said, allowing himself to be excited only on the inside. “You won’t be sorry.”
His father sort of grunted, which Nick took as his cue to escape back to his office.