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       The Chocolate Lovers' Christmas, p.1

           Carole Matthews
 
The Chocolate Lovers' Christmas


  The Chocolate

  Lovers’ Christmas

  Carole Matthews

  First published in Great Britain in 2015 by Sphere

  Copyright © Carole Matthews 2015

  This edition published by Carole Matthews INK Ltd 2015

  The moral right of the author has been asserted.

  All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  To Karen Phillips – my lovely friend and honorary Entertainments Executive. You are funny, feisty, caring and kind beyond measure. I love my outings with you even when they involve near-death experiences. What’s the worst that could happen?

  CONTENTS

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  Chapter Thirty-Eight

  Chapter Thirty-Nine

  Chapter Forty

  Chapter Forty-One

  Chapter Forty-Two

  Chapter Forty-Three

  Chapter Forty-Four

  Chapter Forty-Five

  Chapter Forty-Six

  Chapter Forty-Seven

  Chapter Forty-Eight

  Chapter Forty-Nine

  Chapter Fifty

  Chapter Fifty-One

  Chapter Fifty-Two

  Chapter Fifty-Three

  Chapter Fifty-Four

  Chapter Fifty-Five

  Chapter Fifty-Six

  Chapter Fifty-Seven

  Chapter Fifty-Eight

  Chapter Fifty-Nine

  Chapter Sixty

  Chapter Sixty-One

  Chapter Sixty-Two

  Chapter Sixty-Three

  Chapter Sixty-Four

  Chapter Sixty-Five

  Chapter Sixty-Six

  Chapter Sixty-Seven

  Chapter Sixty-Eight

  Chapter Sixty-Nine

  Chapter Seventy

  Chapter Seventy-One

  Chapter Seventy-Two

  Chapter Seventy-Three

  Chapter Seventy-Four

  Chapter Seventy-Five

  Chapter Seventy-Six

  Chapter Seventy-Seven

  Chapter Seventy-Eight

  Chapter Seventy-Nine

  Chapter Eighty

  Chapter Eighty-One

  Chapter Eighty-Two

  Chapter Eighty-Three

  Chapter Eighty-Four

  Chapter Eighty-Five

  Chapter Eighty-Six

  Chapter Eighty-Seven

  Chapter Eighty-Eight

  Chapter Eighty-Nine

  Chapter Ninety

  Chapter Ninety-One

  Chapter Ninety-Two

  Chapter Ninety-Three

  Acknowledgements

  Chapter One

  It’s a well-known fact that if you break chocolate outwards, all the calories fall out. Fabulous. I put this theory to the test and snap a piece off a chunky bar of 70 per cent Madagascar chocolate to set myself up for the day. Hmm. Certainly looks lower in calories to me already. Popping it into my mouth I enjoy the intense, dark sensation of paradise on my tongue. I, Lucy Lombard, manager of Chocolate Heaven and self-confessed chocolate addict, sigh happily into the ether.

  It’s coming up to Christmas and, due to an unfeasibly early morning start on my part, Chocolate Heaven is now decorated in its finest festive garb. Designed by me and sourced entirely from the bargain basement of eBay, I’ve tried to aim for tasteful instead of Santa’s grotto. I think I may have nailed it. Now the busy café and emporium of all things chocolatey is dressed in a most restrained theme of silver, white, chocolate brown and Dairy Milk purple. Perfect.

  Groups of baubles in co-ordinating colours dangle attractively from the wall lights and there are pretty, blinking fairy lights across the wall behind the counter. I’ve changed the usual brown velvet cushions on our leather sofas for white felt ones adorned with a sprinkling of glittery, sequined snowflakes. Classy. Flanking the front door there are two beautiful, tall Christmas trees, also dressed in what I’m calling my ‘signature’ festive theme. There’s a wreath on the door made of baubles too – bought rather than fashioned by my own fair hand. It’s possibly more restrained in colour palette than in sheer volume of decorations which, I think, is straying towards the outer reaches of excessive.

  It’s nearly opening time now and so I stop fiddling with the decorations and take my station. Checking the counter in front of me, I make minor adjustments to the trays of hand-baked brownies, chunky chocolate-chip cookies, and rows of colourful melt-in-the-mouth macaroons sandwiched together with a rich chocolate ganache. I’m proud to say that I’ve introduced several new ranges since I took over – more cake-based than the straightforward chocolate selection that the owners, Clive and Tristan, favoured – and they’re all flying out of the door. Cake is the new sex, isn’t it? And chocolate cake is, of course, the best of all. I don’t think it’s bragging to say that the dark chocolate and pistachio rocky road has already become a legend throughout the land. Well, north London. I fuss with my devil’s food cake, turning it so that it’s showing its best side to the world. With a last proprietorial glance at my goodies, I go to the door of the café, flick the sign to ‘open’ and wait for the day to begin.

  I’m coming to the end of my ninth month of running Chocolate Heaven and it’s fair to say that I’m totally exhausted. Despite the excitement of putting up the Christmas decorations, today my eyes are gritty from lack of sleep as – in addition to my early start – I was also burning the midnight oil last night trying to keep up with the paperwork. Who knew there’d be so much? It’s endless – logging the sales, making sure the orders are being fulfilled, ordering the ingredients, doing tax returns. I am a woman who is more intimate with the art of the spreadsheet than I ever thought I would be. My previous experience with chocolate has been entirely based on consumption rather than the administration thereof. When I was a mere customer of Chocolate Heaven – albeit one of the most fervent ones – I never knew how much work went into simply putting wonderful chocolate yummies on the counter. It’s a lot, I can tell you. A lot.

  My vision of running this – my ideal business – involved me standing languidly savouring my chocolate products in the smugly pouting style of Nigella Lawson, overseeing my newfound empire with a loving eye while retaining a comely size twelve/fourteen figure through the power of positive thinking rather than anything as tawdry or time-consuming as exercise. Fat chance.

  Reality check. I’m run off my feet from morning until night and my waistband is getting ever tight
er. And I know I’m not pregnant because, frankly, I couldn’t tell you the last time Mr Aiden ‘Crush’ Holby – the love of my life – and I had carnal knowledge of each other. This is due to the fact that I fall into bed every night absolutely knackered and am snoring within about three seconds. He might well have sex with me, but if he does, I don’t actually notice.

  Nor am I languidly savouring my chocolates in the manner of my fantasy. No, I’m stuffing them in morning, noon and night because I don’t have the time or inclination to make myself any other food. Some might say, no change there then.

  Perhaps I’ve got an underactive thyroid. It happens. I’m over thirty now and heading towards That Age. It’s a well-known fact that women’s bodies start to have minds of their own once we hit middle age. We lay down fat on our hips, tums and bums in case we ever find ourselves in danger of starvation or something. Clearly, I have started already. I could live off my hips alone for weeks. I have another chocolate as now I’ve depressed myself and chocolate is a most excellent cure for depression. True fact.

  Still, I’m not complaining. Not at all. This is my dream gig. All those years of wandering disastrously through the world of temporary office work are behind me now. I’ve arrived. This is what I was predestined to do. It’s my calling. Like becoming a nun or something. Chocolate is my vocation and, for the good of others, I have entered into this life selflessly. I eat another chocolate to celebrate. Yum. Pay’s not great, but the perks are unrivalled.

  I should point out that it’s in my contract that I’m allowed to eat all the chocolate that I want. Oh yes. I think Clive and Tristan thought that after being let loose – literally – in a sweet shop, I’d eventually run out of steam and my consumption would soon wane to the seemly side of moderation. Not a hope. No let up yet. I still can’t wait to get here every morning and inhale that heady vanilla scent. Ah, bliss.

  Chapter Two

  I’m sticking just a few more strategically placed stars and snowflakes on the glass display for good measure when the bell above the shop door dings the arrival of a customer. The first member of my four-strong chocoholic gang – the Chocolate Lovers’ Club – lumbers in, puffing heavily.

  Our club of chocoholics is formed of my good self – founder member – Nadia Stone, Autumn Fielding and Chantal Hamilton. We’re a disparate bunch of women who all met here many moons ago due to our mutual appreciation of all things chocolatey and it still sustains our relationship to this day. We are the best of friends, a family of chocoholics and Chocolate Heaven is our sanctuary, our headquarters.

  It’s Chantal who’s the first to arrive today, wrestling her über-trendy baby carriage through the doorway in her wake. ‘My word.’ Her mouth drops open. ‘This is all a bit Santa’s grotto, Lucy.’

  ‘Is it? I thought it was quite restrained.’

  Chantal laughs. ‘I assumed you were embracing the concept that more is more when it comes to Christmas decorations – as it is with chocolate.’

  I cast a more critical eye over my efforts. I still don’t think it’s too bad. ‘Do you think I should take some of them down?’

  ‘No.’ Chantal kisses me. ‘It’s perfect. So very you.’

  ‘Let me help you.’ I grab the buggy from her and beam at the baby coddled in its depths.

  ‘It’s freezing out there,’ my friend complains with a shiver. ‘I think it could snow heavily again. There’s a smattering in the air.’

  ‘Hurrah!’

  She shoots me a black look.

  ‘It’s Christmas,’ I say apologetically. ‘Nearly. It should snow.’

  Chantal rolls her eyes at me and shakes a few flakes of snow from her bobbed dark hair. ‘I think slush. I think treacherous pavements. While you’re probably fantasising about building a cheery snowman with your loved one and snowball fights that turn into foreplay.’

  ‘I hadn’t actually thought of that,’ I confess, ‘but what a lovely idea.’ Makes mental note. Snowball fight/foreplay scenario. Excellent.

  Chantal’s death glare intensifies, so I quickly park the buggy for her while she flops into the nearest sofa with a heartfelt ouff. ‘Couldn’t quite make it to the counter,’ she apologises.

  I’m not sure that my friend’s waddle is entirely down to the fact she’s never managed to shift her baby weight – more that she is, in time-honoured tradition, eating enough chocolate for two – or possibly even three. I don’t have the heart to tell her that she should probably stop now that dear baby Lana is about five months old. Once she was all designer chic and sharp angles. Now she’s more mumsy, gently rounded and into elasticated waists. I think it suits her, but I’m not sure that my friend would agree.

  At nearly forty, Chantal is the oldest member of the Chocolate Lovers’ Club and I don’t think she’d ever really planned on being a mum. Lana was what we might call ‘a little surprise’. But now that she has a child, Chantal has taken to the whole motherhood thing like a duck to water.

  ‘The decorations do look lovely.’ Chantal takes them in. ‘You’re right. You can never have enough festive bling. You’ve been very busy.’

  ‘I was in here at six o’clock this morning.’

  ‘Ha,’ Chantal says. ‘I should have joined you then. Madam had me up at four. Again. I long for the days when I could lie in bed until six o’clock.’ Chantal rubs her temples. ‘Baby Lana is still working on the theory that night-time is for kicking your heels up and daytime is for sleeping.’

  Lana is a little cherub and I coo at her in the manner of a woman besotted. We all adore her. This child has more surrogate aunties than you can shake a stick at and we have all vowed to bring her up to embrace the ethos of the Chocolate Lovers’ Club.

  ‘I’m exhausted,’ Chantal admits.

  ‘You do look a bit worn out.’

  ‘I think I need a double choc hit. I went down the chamomile tea and boiled egg route, but it didn’t even touch my tiredness. Be a love.’

  ‘Can I have a quick cuddle with Lana first? I can’t wait.’

  ‘Be my guest.’

  Lovely little Lana is swaddled from head to toe against the cold in an adorable pink suit. I lift her up, grunting slightly as I do. Wow, she’s a weight. ‘Baby Hamilton is getting very big.’

  ‘Tell me about it. Lana is taking after her mummy. I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to see my feet again.’

  ‘I thought the weight was supposed to drop off you when you start breastfeeding,’ I offer. ‘All the celebs say that it does.’

  ‘Yeah? The celebs are liars. Bet they all pay personal trainers to torture them every day and live on nothing but lettuce. I’m permanently hungry, as is this little one.’

  Giving Lana a good, squishy cuddle, I goo-goo-gah-gah some more before I reluctantly part with her and head off to make Chantal her drink.

  When I’m behind the counter again, I grab some milk and froth it in my whizzy new coffee machine. It looks like the flight deck of some retro spacecraft and I had to go on a course for a whole day just to learn how to drive it. I am a woman who knows her way round a flat white and a hazelnut latte. My caramel macchiato is a thing of beauty.

  ‘How’s that chocolate coming along?’

  ‘Be right with you.’ There’s no packet hot chocolate here. It’s all made with real chocolate flakes and I stir plenty in until it’s rich and dark just as I know Chantal likes it. Then with a flourish, also learned on my day course, I dust the froth on the top to make a heart in cocoa powder. Et voila! I deliver it to Chantal. ‘To produce something so wonderful takes a while.’

  ‘Sorry, Lucy,’ she sighs. ‘I’m sure that time is moving at half its normal pace. The days are stretching out before me interminably. All I do is look after this little one. I love it, but sometimes I do feel like an indentured servant.’

  ‘I think it stops when they get to twenty-one,’ I say with a grin.

  ‘I’m not so sure these days. Half of my friends still have children at home in their late twenties. Still, I’m nev
er going to let Lana leave home. I’m going to keep her all to myself for ever.’

  With the chocolate, there’s a brownie that’s so fresh it’s still slightly warm from the oven and I’ve put an extra dollop of whipped cream on the side.

  She eyes it longingly. ‘What calories?’

  I shrug. ‘There’ll be time enough for dieting. If you can’t over-indulge yourself when you’re in the initial stages of motherhood, when can you? If you restrict yourself it might even be dangerous.’

  ‘As if I need any encouragement.’ Chantal pats her tummy and bites into the brownie with a grateful sigh. ‘Remember the days when I was a groomed, glossy magazine journalist and as thin as a pin?’

  ‘I certainly do.’

  ‘Good. Because I don’t. I feel like that was a different person. One that I’m never likely to see again.’

  ‘Don’t beat yourself up. It’s early days yet. Lana is your priority now. You can’t do everything.’

  ‘See this?’ Chantal pulls a handful of her short bob. ‘I used to get it cut every four weeks without fail at a high-end salon. I did it last night with the kitchen scissors in front of the bathroom mirror. What’s happened to me?’

  ‘Your hair looks fine.’ Though, if I’m honest, her fringe does look a little bit ragged, now she’s pointed it out. ‘There’s more to life than having the perfect haircut and manicured nails.’

  ‘I’m glad to hear it.’ She looks in dismay at the nibbled, varnish-free nails she holds out to me for inspection.

  ‘You’ll get back on track. There’s no hurry. Just enjoy this little one for now. You’re being a great mum to Lana. That’s the best job in the world. You have a healthy and happy baby. The cut and thrust of glossy magazines can wait a while.’

  ‘Part of me misses work,’ she admits. ‘Being at home all the time does make me kind of crazy, but I do love spending my days with Lana, too.’ Chantal smiles lovingly at her child.

  To me, Chantal still looks amazing, even though – admittedly – she’s a slightly larger version of her previous self. Designer tracksuits – loose fitting – have replaced the tight Joseph trousers and fitted Ghost blouses of pre-baby days. Where once Chantal would never have a hair out of place and her manicure would be perfect in the latest on-trend colour, she definitely now takes a more . . . er . . . casual approach to her appearance. And nothing wrong with that. If she is packing a few extra pounds, so what? Her smile is warm and contented. What more should we ask of ourselves?

 
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