The Chocolate Kiss - By Laura Florand

Chapter 1

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