The House of Hope & Chocolate by Ava Miles

Chapter 1

Hope wasn’t simply Alice Bailey’s goal. It was her mission.

And she intended to coat it in chocolate, like one of the new mocha indulgence truffles she and her business partner had created for their new store, the House of Hope & Chocolate.

Alice gazed down at the newly framed photo of her, Warren, and Sarah standing behind their neighborhood chocolate stand the summer they went into business together. Warren’s grin showed his missing front teeth, and Alice had her arm around Sarah. Their handwritten sign was on butcher paper Alice’s mother had found, and she and Sarah had drawn it in crayon because even then Warren’s penmanship had been illegible.

God, she could still feel their excitement that day. That chocolate stand had brought their entire neighborhood together in ways no one could have imagined. They’d run it for ten years, starting with simple offerings and adding more to the menu as the years went on.

Alice found a nail and hung the frame on the robin’s egg blue wall behind the counter of their shop. She wanted it front and center—a reminder of the power of hope and determination. Sometimes she needed one. This summer, when her career of working for an international financial consultant for the Fortune 500 had come to an end—hello, pandemic—she’d come up with a brilliant idea: resurrect the chocolate stand, only make it a full-blown store. While Warren had his own finance career outside of Chicago, where they’d all grown up, and wasn’t interested in leaving it for a chocolate shop, Sarah had quit her accounting job to go into business with Alice and their third partner, Clifton Hargreaves, who’d just retired from his long-time profession as a butler. Wasn’t this the moment to follow a long-cherished dream? Heck yeah, it was.

Sarah had suggested they launch the shop in Orion, New York, the town she’d called home. Since neither Alice nor Clifton had a real home base—he’d made his home with his boss, Clara Merriam Hale, and she’d followed her boss, Francesca Maroun, around the world—they’d been happy to oblige. It didn’t hurt that Orion was nestled on the Hudson River and bursting with small-town charm. Some of Alice’s favorite memories were of visiting Sarah here before everything had changed. They’d pushed forward with their plans, all of them full of anticipation and hope, and then the unimaginable had happened. Sarah had contracted Covid three months ago, and after a quick fight for life at the hospital, she’d died.

Clifton and Alice had only just moved to Orion, both in temporary housing, when Sarah first came down with symptoms. They had both tested negative, likely a testament to their agreed-upon safety protocols for working together.

Putting up this photo of Sarah made it feel she was still a part of the shop, and Alice wanted her friend’s presence to always be around them…even if it was sometimes painful. Their shop was about making a stand for hope, even when it seemed elusive. Especially then. Sarah had given them her blessing—she’d even left Alice her beloved home—and Sarah’s parents had offered their encouragement too.

“Sarah might not be here in person, Clifton, but I know she’ll always be watching out for us,” Alice said, blowing her friend a kiss before turning around. Her chest tight, she took a deep breath to ease it, focusing on the crisp October air floating in through the open door. She smelled chimney smoke, reminiscent of the smoky Earl Grey tea perfuming their shop, along with an undercurrent of fresh paint. Comforting smells. Ones she could sink her teeth into.

Clifton stood behind their empty glass display case. “Her memory and energy will always greet our customers. We will tell them her story. As you like to say, people will be drawn in because of the brightly wrapped products on the white bookshelves and the scores of chocolates in our cases, but it’s our connection with each other, and the relationships we’ll form with our customers, that will keep them coming back. Much like the three of you did when you were children at your chocolate stand.”

“You get it, Clifton,” she said, her heart a total mush factory right now. She’d heard from others she and Clifton were an unlikely pair. She was only twenty-nine, born and raised outside of Chicago, and he was a distinguished British gentleman of eighty-one. But they had clicked immediately and become family in every way that mattered. “Few acts convey hope like having a piece of chocolate. To me, it’s like you’re saying yes to life every time you eat it.”

“The French talk about enjoying the sweetness of life for a reason. It’s no wonder they are so famed for their chocolate. I am honored to join their ranks as a chocolatier.”