A chocolate lover’s ambrosia. That was what Dakota Parker called the hot chocolate on the Copper Mountain Chocolates’ menu. She loved preparing the beverage for customers as well as herself. Decadent and delicious and dangerous to diets, but worth every calorie. It was also much better for her than falling for the wrong man again.
Hot chocolate—okay, any chocolate—and the rescue animals she helped find forever homes for were all she needed to be happy.
At least for now.
Standing behind the retail counter, Dakota stirred the chocolate, cream, and cinnamon mixture simmering on the stovetop against the wall. The mouthwatering scent tantalized her nose and taste buds. The shop’s owner, Sage Carrigan O’Dell, kept the amount of each ingredient secret, but that didn’t stop others, including Dakota, from trying to replicate the drink recipe at home.
That only kept people coming back.
Today’s chilly autumn weather was bringing in more customers, so many that Dakota and her co-worker Portia Bishop, who had come in early to rotate stock now that November had arrived, could barely keep up with the hot chocolate orders. Sage was in the back making chocolate as she did each day, but she’d had to help out at the counter a few times.
Unexpected for a Tuesday.
Dakota had skipped her morning break and taken only fifteen minutes for lunch because the shop was so busy. It was just enough time to run home to take care of the dogs.
The bell on the door jingled.
She glanced over her shoulder to see three women from Bozeman leaving the shop. Each held a bag containing their purchases. The women visited Marietta monthly to buy chocolate and have lunch. “Have a wonderful afternoon and a safe drive home.”
Elise, a forty-year-old mother of a teenager and a toddler, looked over. “We’ll see you in December.”
Dakota grinned. “We’ll be ready for you.”
That brought laughter.
As Elise followed her friends outside, a man and a woman entered. A gust of cold air followed them inside.
Dakota shivered and set the wooden spoon on the copper-plated rest. “Welcome to Copper Mountain Chocolates.”
The man grinned. “You mean this shop isn’t called chocolate heaven?”
“Heaven, nirvana, Shangri-la. Take your pick,” Dakota said.
His hair was more salt than pepper, and his face was tan, as if he spent the majority of his time outdoors. Given his worn green field jacket, he likely did. He glanced around before letting out a low whistle. “So many choices.”
The woman nodded. She looked to be around the same age as the man, maybe a year or two younger. Her red wool coat complimented her clear complexion and bobbed blond hair. “A good thing we’re in town for the rest of the week, so we can come back.”
The man pointed at something in the window display and then walked up to the counter.
Dakota raised a tray containing chocolates handcrafted by Sage and offered a piece using a silver tong. “We’re sampling champagne truffles today. Please feel free to try one.”
Each took a truffle.
The woman took a bite. “Amazing.”
Portia hurried out of the kitchen, aka the chocolate factory, to clear two of the four small tables where customers could enjoy their hot cocoa and chocolates. Her long ponytail bounced. The sleeves of her shirt were pushed up to her elbows.
The man scanned the menu. “We’d like two hot chocolates, please.”
“Excellent choice,” Dakota said in her happy-to-serve-you voice. Not that doing so took any effort. She loved everything about her job from the swoon-worthy chocolates to the store’s cocoa and vanilla themed décor. She rang up the order, and the man paid.
He studied the photographs hanging on the wall. Each illustrated a step in how cocoa beans were processed and turned into the chocolate the shop sold.
The woman peered at the glass display case. “Does the store always smell this good?”
“Yes.” Dakota grabbed two mugs. Uh-oh. They were running low. “It’s a good thing the aroma has no calories or I’d never fit into my jeans.”
The woman smiled. “Must be tempting being surrounded by so much chocolate.”
One of Dakota’s favorite parts of working here was interacting with customers. “My coworker Rosie allows herself only one thing a day, but I don’t have that kind of willpower. I love chocolate too much. That’s why I take my foster dogs on daily walks no matter what the weather. I need the exercise as much as they do.”
The woman’s smile spread. “That’s great you foster. We adopted a dog and a cat from a local shelter in Denver. Best decision ever. They make our house a home.”
“I’m sure they do.” Dakota wanted all rescue animals to find loving families. Having that dream didn’t mean she was unrealistically optimistic.
I read your Home for the Holidays proposal. It’s simplistic—more of a wish list than a plan to be implemented. This isn’t a fantasyland with pet unicorns and never-ending rainbows. You’re being unrealistically optimistic. You’ll never find homes for all the rescue’s animals by Christmas. If you want me to present your plan to the board of directors to get funding for a specific adoption effort, rewrite your proposal with a reasonable time frame, workable action plan with measurable milestones, and achievable goals.
Lori Donovan, the rescue director, rarely minced words and hadn’t during their meeting yesterday, but what she’d said kept Dakota awake last night. The words still stung today.
Especially having the plan called simplistic.
The word made Dakota feel inadequate. She might not be brilliant like her older brother York, who was a computer genius in the Air Force, or her younger sister Nevada, who was getting a PhD at Columbia, but Dakota wasn’t stupid. She just had to work harder than they did.
And most everyone else.
But this wasn’t the time or place to throw herself a pity party. Dakota focused on her customers. “Would you like anything else?”
The man’s gaze went from the photographs to her. “Could we have extra whipped cream on our drinks and lots of chocolate on top?”
“Of course.” She motioned to the four small tables surrounded by chairs on the other side of the shop. All were clean thanks to Portia. “If you’d like to take a seat, I’ll bring over the hot chocolates when they’re ready.”
“Thank you,” the woman said, and the couple headed to a table.
Portia, twenty-two with a pretty face and a flair for style, carried a plastic bin with mugs and dessert-sized plates that had held chocolates. Sage was not only their boss and resident chocolatier, but she was also Portia’s aunt.
“Not sure how long the tables will stay clean with so many customers coming in.”
She wore the same indigo blue shirt and dark jeans as Dakota. Portia had recommended the clothing to offset the copper-colored aprons that left Dakota feeling washed out with her light brown hair and fair skin tone. Their coworker Rosie was much happier with the new work uniform, too.
“I’m so glad you’re feeling better this week. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come in early today.” Using a ladle, Dakota filled the first mug with the thick, creamy mixture. “Even with Sage here, too, I haven’t had time to do anything but ring up sales and serve hot chocolate.”
“I’m happy to be here. I want to work as many hours as I can. I’ll wash another load of mugs so we don’t run out.”
“Good idea. We only have three left.” Dakota filled the second mug. “With the temperature dropping, things might not slow down for a while.”
That was okay. She enjoyed chatting with regular customers and meeting new ones. Offering a free chocolate sample not only brightened someone’s day, but it also worked as an ideal icebreaker, especially with the quieter folks.
By focusing on others, she could push aside her own troubles. Perfect for a day like today when she didn’t want to think about having to rewrite the rescue proposal. The thought of doing so intimidated her. The first version had taken weeks to put together.
“I’ll take care of the mugs and be right back.” Portia adjusted her hands on the bin. “Yell if you need help.”
Dakota added a spiral tower of whipped cream on each mug, and then she sprinkled a double batch of chocolate shavings over the top.
She carried the cups to the couple who sat with their gazes locked on each other. Their entwined hands rested on top of the table.
A lump formed in her throat.
Maybe Dakota would find a man to hold hands and make goo-goo eyes with over hot chocolate. Someone nice and respectful, who thought dogs and cats were wonderful, not nuisances, had to be out there. She just didn’t know where.
Face it. She’d been falling for all the wrong guys—workaholics, players, cheaters, and self-centered ones.
Her heart had healed after her fiancé, Craig Wilkins, broke up with her minutes before their wedding ceremony was supposed to begin. He’d blamed her long hours with the animal rescue and not wanting to spend the rest of his life covered in dog and cat hair. But that had only been his excuse at the time. She later discovered he’d met someone else.
Having to announce to the guests in the pews that a wedding wouldn’t be taking place because Craig had bolted from the church, and then having to return gifts because she didn’t trust him to do it with a polite note attached, would make anyone wary of relationships—both casual and serious ones. Was it any wonder she preferred the company of animals to men? Until she had faith in her ability to choose a decent guy—he didn’t have to be perfect—she wanted to hold off on dating.
“Here you go.” Dakota set the mugs on the table. Not a drop spilled, but after working at the shop for three years, she was an expert hot chocolate server. She removed napkins from her apron pocket and placed them on the table. “Enjoy.”
“We will,” the man said. “I have a feeling this place will be our hangout while we’re in town.”
“I hope so.” She worked at the shop on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. The other days, she spent volunteering at the rescue shelter. “Tomorrow, we’ll be sampling the to-die-for 72% Criollo single-origin bar.”
The woman raised her hot chocolate. The large diamond ring and matching wedding band on her left hand sparkled beneath the overhead lighting.
Dakota’s left hand, especially her ring finger, felt barer than usual. A woman from nearby Livingston now wore the engagement ring Craig had asked Dakota to give back to him. According to her best friend Kelly Hamilton, Dakota had been too nice in returning the ring. She should have taken it to a pawnshop and donated the money to the animal rescue instead.
“Tomorrow is our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.” The woman sighed. “Having to-die-for chocolate sounds like the perfect way to celebrate.”
“Congratulations,” Dakota said.
The man lifted his wife’s hand and brushed his lips across her knuckles. “Can’t wait for the next thirty-five.”
The woman gazed into her husband’s eyes. “Me, either.”
Awww. The two reminded Dakota of her parents. They had celebrated thirty-three years of marriage in March. Her mom claimed love conquered all. Dakota wasn’t convinced, but she hoped her mom was right.
Time would tell.
Neither of her two siblings had married, so at least she hadn’t disappointed her mom over not being in a committed relationship. If only Dakota could say that about the rest of her life here in Marietta. She loved her family, but none had understood the decisions she’d made. Her mother still wanted her to apply to law school.
Back behind the counter, she gave the pot of hot chocolate another stir. No one was outside the front window or by the door. She picked up a pen.
She would use the free time to finally mark down prices on the molded Halloween-themed chocolates. The chocolate was as delicious to eat as it was yesterday, but the pumpkin, bat, and ghost shapes were no longer in season now that November had arrived.
The bell above the door rang.
So much for free time. She set the pen on the counter.
A man walked in. Another burst of cold air came into the shop and brought goose bumps, but he quickly closed the door.
“Welcome to Copper Mountain Chocolates,” she greeted as she always did.
His shoulders were angled toward the opposite side of the shop, so she couldn’t see his face. Not everyone came right to the counter. Sometimes, people entered out of curiosity or to window shop. Others wanted a free sample or to warm up from the cold.
Dakota stirred the pot but found herself watching him.
He brushed a gloved hand through his sandy-blond hair. The short, messy style appealed to her more than the way he dressed.
An expensive-looking leather jacket showed off wide shoulders. A white collar peeked out the top. His khakis were creased. That amused her since she didn’t own an iron. A pair of polished loafers completed his outfit.
His attire screamed big city.
Definitely not from around here.
No tie, but he reminded her more of the men she’d dated who worked inside, often behind desks in offices, and wore ties. She preferred men who worked outdoors.
A man who faced the elements every day, had a strong work ethic, appreciated animals, and knew how to treat a woman appealed to her at a gut level. The boots and jeans they wore were an added bonus. Not that she’d dated a cowboy or wanted to date one now.
She focused on the man, letting her curiosity and imagination run wild.
Maybe he was a tourist from the east eager for a taste of the west.
Maybe he was a CEO taking a break from a high-pressure job by escaping to a small town that moved at a snail’s pace.
Maybe he was a witness in a big case for the FBI and hiding out until it was time to testify at the trial.
Or maybe, and most likely, he was here because he liked chocolate.
“Would you like to try a champagne truffle?” She readied the tongs. “That’s what we’re sampling today.”
Her gaze collided with a pair of killer baby blues that made her breath catch and birds sing. Well, birds would be singing if there were any in the shop. A good thing she hadn’t lifted the tray or the truffles would be all over the counter.
He was, in a word, stunning.
Dakota hoped she wasn’t staring openmouthed or drooling, but she found him as appealing as her favorite Sage creation—dark chocolate with almond and cherry bits.
His slightly crooked nose gave him character, making his handsome face more interesting and rugged. A nice contrast to his smooth skin. Dakota was a fan of the razor-stubble look, but perhaps there was something to be said for clean-shaven.
He stared at Dakota. “What?”
She held the tray and used the silver tongs to offer him a piece. Thankfully, her hands were steady. “Would you like to try a sample?”
Whoops. Where had that come from?
“No, thank you,” he said.
She must be more tired than she realized, but that was what happened after a sleepless night worrying about her proposal and the animals. “The chocolate is processed here by our shop’s owner. The best in Montana.”
His full lips—how had she missed those?—parted. So sexy.
Dakota stared, mesmerized. She would love to see how he ate a piece of chocolate. Would he nibble on one edge, take a bite, or chomp the piece in half?
“Are you sure you wouldn’t want a taste?” she asked.
“I don’t like chocolate.”
Huh? Dakota knew better than to be annoyed by a customer, but that was exactly how she felt. Don’t react. She kept a practiced smile on her face. “Copper Mountain Chocolates are special. Everybody likes them.”
He shrugged. “Guess I’m not everybody. Sell anything else?”
Who was this guy? And why was he here if he didn’t like chocolate? “Hot chocolate.”
“That’s not so bad, but I don’t have time. I have a list of what I’d like to buy.” He thumbed the screen on his phone. “Two fudge truffles, two milk chocolate salted caramels, and a piece of the dark chocolate cherry hazelnut bark.”
He might not be from around here or like chocolate, but his order contained top-selling items. Strange.
Dakota placed the candy in a bag and rang up his order. She told him the amount.
He pulled out a leather billfold that was as fancy and polished as his shoes.
Anticipation built. He could be anyone passing through town, but she would soon know his name from his credit card.
He scanned the shop with a cursory glance, pulled out a twenty, and handed it to her.
So much for finding out who he was.
Strangely disappointed, she gave him the change and his bag of chocolates. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”
“You, too.” He opened the door and looked back at her. “Nice shop.”
With that, he walked out onto Main Street and passed in front of the big window.
She watched him.
Did the guy have a better-than-you attitude or was he merely distracted? Maybe a combination of both?
Either way, Dakota found him interesting. A little…intriguing.
Warning bells sounded.
No. No. No.
Dakota would not allow herself to be intrigued by any man, let alone a stranger. She had no idea who the guy was. For all she knew, he could be the worst possible Mr. Wrong, a combination of those who’d come before and allergic to pet dander. He could be a psycho stalker. Or worse.
Time to phone Kelly and meet for a session of their Chocolate Is Better Than Men Club, aka CIBTMC. Chocolate and a girls’ night at Grey’s Saloon was a wonderful combination. A good time, too, even if she and Kelly were the only club members due to everyone else falling in love. Still, a CIBTMC meeting would get Dakota’s mind where it should be—off men.
Including handsome, nameless strangers buying chocolate they didn’t eat.
End of Excerpt