The Chocolate Kiss
KENSINGTON BOOKS Copyright © 2013 Laura Florand
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-7582-6941-6
It was a good day for princesses. The rain drove them indoors, an amused little rain with long, cool fingers that heralded the winter to come and made people fear the drafts in their castles.
And Magalie Chaudron, stirring chocolate in the tea shop's blue kitchen, felt smug to be tucked into the heart and soul of all this warmth, not wandering the wet streets searching for a home.
Aunt Aja smiled at her in that quiet way of hers, her long black braid swaying hypnotically against the gold-brown silk of her salwar kameez tunic as she prepared a pot of tea. Aunt Geneviève had taken her giant umbrella and gone out for a stride, just to prove that rain couldn't confine her, no matter what it might do to anyone else. That was fortunate, because whenever Aunt Geneviève started feeling confined, the kitchen shrank to the size of a pin, and its other occupants weren't angelic enough to dance around each other atop it.
In the tiny salon de thé on the Île Saint-Louis, their first "princess" of the day, a businesswoman with straight, light brown hair, sat under the conical hats that filled three high, rickety wooden shelves wrapping around the entire room. Above the businesswoman's head sat a jester's cap, a stack of three shiny black and gold paper party crowns from New Year's 2000, and an Eiffel Tower–shaped hat that had shown up in a box in the mail one day with a note from a customer: When I saw this, I could not resist sending it to you. Thank you for your beautiful haven. It brought me more pleasure than you can know.
"Thanks," the brown-haired woman was saying to the business-suited man across from her when Magalie carried a tray out to Madame Fernand, whose poodle was, for a rarity, actually curled up on the elegant old woman's feet and licking up crumbs rather than trying to lunge at everyone else's table. Before going out, Geneviève had sprinkled crumbs generously under that table the moment she'd spotted Madame Fernand approaching the shop. The eighty-year-old grande dame had been bringing a dog everywhere she went for decades, starting back when she could still cling to physical proof of her days as a reigning beauty and train her dogs to behave. "This is perfect," the brown-haired woman said. She had a heavy American accent but was speaking in French. "Exactly what I needed."
"I thought you would like it," the man said with a smile. He was old enough to be her father, with a gold wedding ring so heavy and thick, Magalie was surprised he could stand to wear it. "It makes a nice break from meetings, doesn't it? Although I'm afraid they don't use your chocolate, Cade."
"No one in France uses our chocolate," Cade said ruefully. "That's the problem. But this ..." She sighed and rubbed the back of her neck and then smiled. "If I ever run away to join the circus, this will be the circus I join."
Circus? This utterly stable center of the world? Magalie gave the woman called Cade a cool look as she served Madame Fernand. The wood-and-enamel tray held a generous portion of Aunt Aja's tea in a beautiful cast-iron teapot; a delicate, ancient, flowered cup with a tiny chip in the base; and a slice of rose chess pie, one of Magalie's contributions to the salon de thé's recipes, the chess pie recipe inherited from her father's mother, the rose inspired one day by Madame Fernand's perfume.
"In a manner of speaking," the businesswoman-circus-dreamer said. While they nicknamed most of their female clients princesses, meaning women who indulged themselves with problems they didn't know how to fix, Magalie was kind of surprised at this one. The other woman felt strong. "Can you imagine? Making exquisite chocolate by hand instead of huge machines—all that mystery and magic? You would feel like a sorcerer. No wonder the owners call this shop The Witches' House. It must be wonderful to enchant people all the time."
The businessman across from her was giving her a blank look. The woman—Cade—realized it and straightened, smiling ruefully, and her dream sank right back down inside her, hidden under a professional, assertive calm.
Magalie gave her a disgusted look. What was the use of being assertive if you were asserting yourself over yourself? In the kitchen, she gave her pot of chocolate a firm glare, and—even though she knew she was being silly and that it couldn't really work magic on people, no matter what the aunts liked to pretend—she wished some gumption into the other woman, as she stirred the pot three times with the ladle: May you realize your own freedom.
Then she whisked up a separate cup for the businessman, because the last thing someone wearing that big a wedding band needed was to "realize his own freedom" while sitting across from a woman young enough to be his daughter.
"Give her this, too." Aunt Aja set a pot of tea on the tray as Magalie started to leave the kitchen again with it. The scent from this tea was spicier than Madame Fernand's rose and lavender, more adventurous. "Some nuts are harder to crack than others."
The brown-haired businesswoman's eyes took on a startled brightness as she breathed in the scents of the chocolate and tea slid before her. She reached out and touched the chocolate cup—hers was thick, handle-less, with a black-on-sienna African motif—tracing her finger along the rim.
The silver bell over the door chimed with such loveliness that Magalie gave it a startled glance. Maybe the rain had put it into a good mood. The two women who walked in with the chime had to be mother and daughter, the younger woman lithe, as if she was constantly in motion—dance, maybe? Her gold hair was caught up in a careless clip like that of a dancer between practices. Her mother was much stouter, her makeup too afraid of imperfection, her haircut the professionally maternal one of a woman who has long since decided to live only for her daughter.
"Oh, look at this, honey," she said, in American. "Isn't this the cutest place you ever saw?" Magalie was going to give her a cup of chocolate that taught her a sense of aesthetics. The place was not cute. "Can you believe how much of the world you're seeing?"
Her daughter flexed her hands, massaging between the tendons. "Mmm," she said. She looked tired. But her gaze traveled around the shop, curiosity and a kind of hunger waking slowly in her eyes. It was a look that Magalie, after working in this shop all through university and full-time for the three years since, had seen more times than she could count. "I wouldn't mind seeing more of it, Mom."
"Well, we will. My goodness, honey, you're touring New Zealand and Australia next month. With a stop in Honolulu! Should we take that engagement in Japan? It's good timing for the way back. Would you like that? We haven't been there since you were sixteen, have we?"
"I went with a group from school for a performance while I was at Julliard," her daughter reminded her.
"Oh, that's right. Your father had his operation, and I couldn't come."
The two women slid into seats at one of the tables in the tiny front room, tucked between the old upright piano and the window display: a dark-chocolate house in the middle of a menacing forest of enormous, rough-hewn, dark-chocolate trees, the house so covered with candied violets and candied mint leaves and candied oranges, it was almost impossible not to reach out to break off just a little bite. The daughter gazed at it but folded her hands, still rubbing her fingertips into her tendons.
If a few more princesses had spines, it would do them a world of good, Magalie thought with a huff of irritation, and back in the kitchen she shook her head at her chocolate as she stirred it: May you love your life and seize it with both hands.
Aunt Aja took that tray out, and just as she left the kitchen, the silver bell over the front door rang with a chime so sharp and true that it pierced Magalie straight through the heart. She clapped her hands over her ears to try to stop the sound, the ladle clattering across the counter, splattering chocolate.
But the tone kept vibrating inside her body, until she stamped her boots twice and slapped the counter to force it to stop.
A warm voice, not loud but so rich with life that it filled the entire shop, wrapped itself around Magalie and held her, making her strain with startled indignation against the urge to shiver in delight. "What a wonderful place," the golden voice alive with laughter was saying to Aunt Aja. "La Maison des Sorcières. The Witches' House. Do you ensorcell all your passersby, or do you enchant strictly children?"
Magalie tilted her body back just enough to peek past the edge of the little arched doorway that led into the kitchen. Through the second arch, the one that separated the tiny back room from the equally tiny front part of the shop, she got a glimpse of broad shoulders and tawny hair, a sense of size so great that a sudden dread seized her. If he should shrug his shoulders, the whole shop might burst off them, like staves bursting off a barrel.
But he was in perfect control of that size. Nothing around him was in any danger, not even the chocolate spindle hanging over the display case specifically to be such a danger and poke people in the forehead if they leaned too close.
Now there was someone who didn't need her help. She smiled at the ladle as she picked it up. What could she wish for a man so full of life and power? May all your most wonderful dreams come true.
The silver bell chimed again, dramatically. Aunt Geneviève came back in, taking a moment to shake her umbrella energetically at the street before it could bring in rain. Now two people of enormous character filled the shop, and for a second Magalie felt like a marshmallow that had just been sat on by an elephant.
"No, I'm sorry, nothing for me," the warm voice told the aunts. "I just had to peek in. Next time I'm here"—he laughed, and Magalie broke down at last and shivered extravagantly with pleasure—"I promise I'll stay and let you bewitch me."
The silver bell chimed again, glumly this time.
Magalie left the kitchen, hurrying to the archway into the front room. Through looming chocolate trees, she met vivid blue eyes looking back into the shop. While she looked straight into them, he likely could not see her, hidden as she was by the angle of the light. Raindrops fell on his head, and he shook himself like a lion shaking out its mane, saying something to the man in a business suit beside him. Then he strode on.
Aunt Geneviève raised her eyebrows, caftan sweeping out around her six-foot frame to dominate even more of the space as she turned to look after him with some interest.
Magalie retreated to the kitchen, her whole body relaxing in relief. She didn't know what had almost happened there, but thank God it hadn't. Absently, she picked up the cup of chocolate she'd been preparing for the lion of a man, cradling it in her hands as she drank from it.
Its warmth sank into her. "You know, I should have lent him an umbrella," she murmured vaguely. Some of the umbrellas princesses forgot to take with them when they left were very fine indeed.
"If you hand that man something, it had better be a gift, because if he likes it, he's not going to give it back," Aunt Geneviève said, propping her black umbrella against the kitchen's arch. Even folded, it came up to Magalie's shoulder. Geneviève was Magalie's blood relation in the aunts' couple—her mother's sister—but no one would be able to tell it by their sizes. "Anyway, it does big cats like him good to get wet from time to time," Geneviève muttered.
Magalie was enchanting children with morsels of her dark-chocolate house two weeks later when the bearer of bad news burst in.
In this case, it was the toyseller from the quixotic shop four doors down. "Have you heard who's coming to the island?" Claire-Lucy gasped.
Magalie retained her calm, continuing to break off house pieces to pass around to the children. Even if Superman himself was stopping by to sign autographs, the island in the heart of Paris and Magalie's place in it would stay the same. And that was what mattered.
The aunts claimed a share of the credit for the chocolate house, but Magalie was the one who had designed September's display. It was pure dark chocolate, of course. They didn't really do milk chocolate at La Maison des Sorcières. But Magalie had fitted out the window frames with long strips of candied lime peel, and the roof was thatched with candied orange peel. Up the walls of it, she had twined such delicacies as flowering vines made from crystallized mint leaves and violet petals, both personally candied by Aunt Aja, a delicate, tricky business that involved the brushing of egg whites and sugar onto hundreds and hundreds of mint leaves and fragile violet petals with a tiny paint brush. Over and over. Only Aunt Aja could do it. Geneviève and Magalie soon started throwing things.
Feeding these works of deliciousness to impressionable young children was one of Magalie's favorite moments of each month. Aunt Aja had confessed that the first few times she and Geneviève had concocted elaborate window displays such as this one, they had been young and refused to destroy their work, leaving it to time itself to decay it with the pale brown bloom on the chocolate. At which point, it was no longer even remotely as delicious as it once could have been. The lesson, according to Aunt Aja, was one of recognizing transience. But Magalie hated transience, so she put it into other terms: one must always know when to yield magic into the hands of the children who wanted to eat it up.
So they made their displays fresh every few weeks, and from all over the Île Saint-Louis and the further hinterlands of Paris, children showed up on the first Wednesday of every month—Wednesday was the day children got off school early—dragging parents or nannies by the hand, to eat the witches' candy.
In front of September's witch house, lost in a forest of dark-chocolate tree trunks, a tiny black hen pecked in a little garden. The black hen had been formed in one of Aunt Geneviève's extensive collection of heavy, nineteenth-century molds, gleaned from a lifetime of dedicated flea-marketing. Deep among the chocolate tree trunks was also a chocolate rider on a white-chocolate horse, a prince approaching, perhaps to ride down the black hen and be cursed, perhaps to beg a boon. Magalie and her aunts never told the story; they only started their visitors dreaming.
She gave three-year-old Coco a violet-trimmed bit of vine that the child had begged for and studied their bearer of bad news. La Maison des Sorcères' eat-the-witches'-display-day was Claire-Lucy's biggest-business day of the month.
"You haven't heard who's going in where Olives was?" Claire-Lucy insisted. Her soft mouth was round with horror, her chestnut hair frizzing with its usual touchable fuzz all around her head. "It's Lyonnais!" She stared at the aunts and Magalie, waiting for them to shatter at the reverberation of the name.
Magalie's cozy tea-shop world was not crystalline or fragile, so it didn't exactly shatter on its own. It was more as if a great, Champagne-glossed boot came down and kicked it all open to merciless sunshine.
Magalie had been wrong. So wrong. Perhaps Superman could come through and leave her world untouched. But Lyonnais ...
She looked at her aunts in horror. They looked back at her, eyebrows flexing in puzzlement as they saw her consternation.
"Lyonnais," she said, as if the name had reached out and tried to strangle her heart. She stared at Aunt Geneviève. Aunt Geneviève was strong and rough-voiced and practical in her way. She knew how to fix a constantly running toilet without calling a plumber. She was tough-minded. But she didn't seem to get it, her eyebrows rising as the intensity of Magalie's dismay seemed to build rather than diminish.
"Lyonnais!" Magalie said forcefully, looking at her Aunt Aja.
Aunt Aja was as soft-voiced and supple as a slender shaft of tempered steel. Her dimpled fingers could press the nastiest kink right out of a back. Wrong-mindedness had no quarter around her. Her gentle strength seemed to squeeze it out of existence, not by specifically seeking to crush it but by expanding until foolishness had no room left. Her head was on so straight, the worst malevolence couldn't twist it. But she looked at Magalie now with a steady concern that crinkled the red bindi in the middle of her forehead. Concerned not because Philippe Lyonnais was opening a new shop just down the street but because she didn't understand Magalie's reaction to it.
"Philippe Lyonnais!" Magalie said even more loudly, as if she could force comprehension. "The most famous pastry chef in the world! The one they call le Prince des Pâtissiers!" Was it ringing any bells at all?