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Authors: Sheila Roberts

Better Than Chocolate

BOOK: Better Than Chocolate
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How Sweet It Isn’t!

Sweet Dreams Chocolate Company has been in the Sterling
family for generations, ever since Great-Grandma Rose literally dreamed up her
first fabulous recipe. But now it looks like they’re about to lose Sweet Dreams
to the bank—and that would be a disaster, not only for the family but for the
town of Icicle Falls, Washington. Can Samantha, the oldest daughter and new head
of the company, come up with a way to save it?

After some brainstorming with her mother and sisters,
inspiration strikes. They’ll have a chocolate festival! Time’s running out, but
the Sterling women are determined and the town’s behind them, so everything’s
bound to go smoothly….

Or not. Events seem to be conspiring against Samantha, and
her mother’s attempts to help aren’t helping. To make matters worse, the fate of
her company is in the hands of her archenemy, Blake Preston, the bank manager
with the football-hero good looks. It’s enough to drive her to chocolate. But
Blake’s also enough to convince her that (believe it or not) there’s something
than chocolate.

Praise for Sheila Roberts

“Within minutes of cracking open the book, my mood was
lifted…The warm, glowing feeling it gave me lasted for days.”

First for Women
The Snow

“Will doubtless warm more than a few hearts.”

Publishers Weekly

“Most fiction lovers will enjoy this feel-good approach to
today’s uncertainties.”

Small Change

“Realistic characters populate the pages of this captivating
story, which is a great escape from the holiday hustle and bustle.”

RT Book Reviews
On Strike for

“An uplifting, charming, feel-good story from the author of
Bikini Season

Angel Lane

“Roberts’s book of small-town life is as sweet as ginger
cookies and as homey as raisin pie (recipes included). Readers will laugh and
cry with the women lovingly portrayed in this heartwarming story that explores
the joys of friendship and the power of good deeds.”

RT Book Reviews
Angel Lane

“Homing in on issues many readers can identify with, Roberts’s
women search for practical solutions to a common challenge with humor and

Publishers Weekly
Small Change

“A congenial cast of subsidiary characters…meet Hope at a
community garden plot and share their stories there. Roberts effectively knits
these troubled but kindly characters together in a story line that throws the
reader a few unexpected twists.”

The Seattle
Love in Bloom

Love in Bloom
is a wonderful story
with characters so real and defined I feel like I am personally acquainted with
them…There is humor and emotion in large quantities in this fantastic book that
is next to impossible to put down. Kudos and a large bouquet of flowers to
Sheila Roberts for giving us one of the best books of the year.”

Fresh Fiction

For Lilly-Anne, Pat and the gang at A Book for All Seasons in
Leavenworth, Washington


Sometimes when we think of an author writing a novel we
envision the poor thing hunched over a keyboard for hours on end, staring at a
computer screen, all by herself, consuming vast quantities of chocolate, growing
fat on her hips. Oh, my gosh, that’s me!

Except writing isn’t always a solitary pursuit. After all, a
girl has to do research. And this is the part of the book where I get to thank
the people who helped me with that research. I owe a big thank-you to my
long-suffering husband for sharing his banking expertise and doing copious
research to help me try to get my business details correct. Also, a huge
thank-you to Laura at Bainbridge Island City Hall for explaining all the work
that goes into putting on a community event. When it comes to community events,
Bainbridge knows how to do it. Big thanks to Brett at Theo Chocolate in Seattle
for being so willing to answer all my questions about what goes into running a
chocolate company. They do it right over there. Thanks to my Facebook friends
and fans who sent me recipes—wish there was room in this book for every one of
them. To the brain trust: Susan Wiggs, Anjali Banerjee, Kate Breslin and Elsa
Watson—you girls rock. And finally, huge thanks to the gang at the Chamber of
Commerce in Leavenworth, Washington, for making their resources available to me;
the history of how your town built itself into a charming alpine village and
successful tourist destination is truly inspiring. Icicle Falls is the closest I
can come to a tribute.

Hi, one and all!

I’m so glad you’ve decided to stop by Icicle
Falls for a visit. In addition to breathtaking scenery and quaint shops and even
a chocolate factory (yum!) this little mountain town has the kind of people I
think we all like to hang out with—people who dream big, work hard, and stick
together when the going gets tough. I hope you’ll enjoy meeting Samantha
Sterling and her family and their friends.

Icicle Falls was inspired by Leavenworth, Washington. Once a
struggling town, it rebuilt itself into a charming alpine village and is now a
popular destination spot for people from all over the country. Including me.
Like the residents of Leavenworth, the people living in Icicle Falls have fought
hard to make their town a wonderful to place to visit. If you’d like to see how
it all started, you can learn more about some of my favorite town characters in
my first digital novella, Welcome to Icicle Falls, which is featured in Summer
in a Small Town.

And, of course, I hope you’ll want to come back for another
visit this Christmas to see what happens to some of our friends when their exes
turn the holidays upside down in Merry Ex-mas.

It’s never dull in a small town and I hope you’ll enjoy your
visit here. And do be sure to visit with me on Facebook and Twitter and stop by
my website
. Just like in Icicle Falls, there’s
always something happening there. Happy reading!


Chapter One

Manage your relationships well and your business will go well.
Because what, after all, is business but a relationship with some dollar signs

—Muriel Sterling,
Mixing Business with
Pleasure: How to Successfully Balance Business and Love

amantha Sterling sat next to her mother in
the first pew of Icicle Falls Community Church and fought back the urge to jump
up, run to the front of the sanctuary, grab her stepfather, Waldo, by the neck
and throttle him. She didn’t, for two reasons. One, a girl didn’t do things like
that in church. Still, she could have overcome her reservations if not for the
second reason—God had already taken Waldo out. Waldo was as dead as roadkill on
Highway 2. In addition to a daughter from his first marriage, he’d left behind
his grieving wife, Muriel, his three stepdaughters, Samantha, Cecily and Bailey,
and the family business, which was nearly as dead as Waldo.

Sweet Dreams Chocolates had been healthy when Samantha’s father
was alive. The company had been started by her great-grandmother Rose and had
slowly but steadily grown under his leadership—one big, happy family to mirror
the happy family who were living off its profits. All three sisters had spent
their summers working at Sweet Dreams. All three had it drummed into them from
an early age that this business was the source of both the family’s income and
honor (not to mention chocolate). But it was Samantha who had fallen in love
with it. Of the three girls, she was the one who’d stayed and she was the heir

But then her father had died and everything came to a halt.
Samantha lost the man she and her sisters idolized, and her mother lost her way.
Muriel left it to Samantha and the bookkeeper, Lizzy, to keep the company
running on autopilot while first she mourned and then later searched for a new

Enter Waldo Wittman, a tall, gray-haired widower recently
retired, encouraged to do so by his company, which was downsizing. (Now, looking
back, Samantha suspected there were other reasons Waldo had been turned loose.)
He’d wanted to get away from the rat race, or so he’d said. With its mountain
views, its proximity to eastern Washington wine country, its small-town
friendliness and its attractive widow, Waldo decided Icicle Falls would fit the
bill. And Muriel decided the same about Waldo. So, after a year and a half of
widowhood, she got a new man.

And now there he was, at the front of the church, stretched out
in his favorite—expensive!—gray suit. Sweet, beloved Waldo…the money-eater.
Oh, Waldo, how could everything have gone so wrong so

It was early January, the beginning of a new year. And what a
nightmare year it was promising to be, all because Mom had made her new husband
president of their family-owned business. She’d left Samantha as VP in charge of
marketing; much good that had done. Now Samantha was VP in charge of disaster
and she could hardly sit still thinking of the mess waiting for her back at the

“You’re fidgeting,” whispered her sister Cecily, who was
sitting next to her.

Fidgeting at a funeral probably wasn’t polite but it was an
improvement over standing up, pulling out her hair and shrieking like a

Why, oh, why hadn’t Mom and Dad done what needed to be done to
make sure that if something happened to Dad the business passed into competent
hands? Then Mom could have skipped happily off into newlywed bliss, no harm no

None of them had expected her to remain alone forever. She was
only in her fifties when Dad died and she didn’t function well alone.

When Waldo arrived on the scene she came back to life, and
Samantha had been happy for her. He was fun and charming, and she and her
sisters gave him a hearty thumbs-up. Why not? He’d brought back Mom’s smile. At
first everyone got along well. Like Samantha, he’d been a shutterbug and they’d
enjoyed talking photography. Her favorite joke when she’d stop by the house to
talk business with Mom (or try, anyway) was to ask, “Where’s Waldo?”

But once Mom dropped him on the company like a bomb, Samantha
didn’t have to ask. She knew where Waldo was. He was at the office, in over his
head and making her crazy.

She ground her teeth as she mentally tallied how much money
he’d squandered: new business cards with his name on them, new stationery, new
equipment they hadn’t needed, a fancy phone system they couldn’t afford that a
slick-tongued sales rep had talked him into buying. How could a businessman be
so bad at business? Of course he’d convinced both himself and Mom that every
purchase was necessary, and Samantha hadn’t had the veto power to stop him.

That had been just the beginning. Six months ago their profits
sank and they started having trouble paying their suppliers. Waldo cut back on
production, which then affected their ability to fill orders, and Lizzy, their
bookkeeper, began looking as if she’d been invited to dinner with the grim
reaper. “We’re behind on our IRS quarterlies,” she’d informed Samantha. “And
that’s not all.” She showed Samantha expenditures on the company credit card
that made no sense. A gun. Ammunition. Cases and cases of bottled water, enough
to keep the whole town hydrated. Waldo was a financial locust, devouring the

Where’s Waldo? Busy dumping their lives in the toilet.
Flush, flush, flush!
She could have happily stuffed
his head in a toilet and—

“And I believe that if Waldo could speak to us now he’d say,
‘Thank God for a life well-lived,’” Pastor Jim said.

Her mother let out a sob and Samantha felt a pang of guilt. She
should be crying, too. She’d liked Waldo. He’d been a man with a big heart and a
big appetite for life.

“We know he’ll be missed,” Pastor Jim was saying, and Cecily
laid a comforting hand on Mom’s arm. That, of course, gave Mom permission to
start crying in earnest.

“Poor Mom,” whispered Bailey, who was sitting on the other side
of Samantha. “First Dad and now Waldo.”

Losing two husbands—talk about a double whammy. Mom had not
only loved both her husbands, she’d loved being married. She had no head for
business (which probably explained why Grandpa had been perfectly happy to let
Dad run Sweet Dreams), but she had a gift for relationships. She’d even had a
couple of relationship books published with a small publisher and before Waldo
died she’d been about to start on a new book,
Secrets of a
Happy Remarriage.

Samantha hoped that now Mom would turn her attention to
learning how to have a happy life—with
At least, no marriage until they could get the business off the critical-care
list and Samantha was put officially in charge.

The sooner, the better.
Her first
order of business would be to rehire Lizzy, who Waldo had fired in a misbegotten
attempt to economize. She only hoped Lizzy would come back and help her sort
through this mess.

She heaved a sigh. Here her mother was grieving and all she
could think about was saving the family business. What was wrong with her? Did
she have a calculator for a heart?

“Now I’d like to give the rest of you a chance to say something
about Waldo,” Pastor Jim said.

He made me nuts
probably wouldn’t
cut it. Samantha stayed seated.

Lots of other people were happy to oblige, though.

“He was the most generous man I ever met,” said Maria Gomez,
his regular waitress at Zelda’s. “He gave me two hundred dollars to get my car
fixed. Just like that. Said not to worry about paying him back.”

Samantha pressed her lips firmly together and envisioned
hundred-dollar bills with wings flying away, circling ever upward and off toward
Sleeping Lady Mountain.

You do have a calculator for a
People were talking about how nice Waldo had been, and all she
could think about was money. She was a terrible person, a terrible, terrible
person. She hadn’t always been like that, had she? A tear slipped from a corner
of her eye.

Ed York, owner of D’Vine Wines, stood. “I can still remember
sitting with Waldo out on his deck, looking at the mountains, sharing a bottle
of wine, and him saying, ‘You know, Ed, it doesn’t get any better than this.’
That Waldo, he sure knew how to enjoy life.”

While everyone around him was pulling out
their hair.

“He was a dear soul,” old Mrs. Nilsen said. “Last month he
stopped in the freezing cold to change my tire when I had a flat on Highway

On and on went the praise. Good, old, wonderful Waldo. Everyone
here would miss him—except his rotten, ungrateful, Scrooge-in-drag,
calculator-for-a-heart stepdaughter. She was pathetic. Another tear sneaked out
of her eye and trickled down her cheek.

Pastor Jim finally called a halt to the festivities and the
party made its way under cloudy skies to Festival Hall, where everyone could
mingle, sing Waldo’s praises further and devour cold cuts and potato salad.
Inside, the three sisters smiled and commiserated.

Waldo’s brother and his daughter, Wanda, had flown in from the
East Coast. Taking in the woman’s red eyes as she approached, Samantha managed
to find empathy in the swirl of guilt and resentment and frustration she was

“I’m sorry we’re having to see each other again in such sad
circumstances,” Wanda said.

“So are we,” Cecily told her.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Samantha added. And she was. She
knew how horrible it was to lose a father and she wouldn’t wish that on her
worst enemy.

Wanda dabbed at her eyes with a soggy tissue. “I can’t believe
he’s gone. He was the best father. And he was always so positive, so

So clueless.
“I wish we could turn
back the clock,” Samantha said.

Wanda sniffed and nodded. “You were all so good to him.”

Samantha couldn’t think of anything to say to that. She hardly
wanted to confess that during the past few months she’d been anything but

Cecily stepped into the gap. “He was a nice man.”

True. He was just a bad businessman.

“He sure loved Muriel,” Wanda said. “He was so lonely after
Mother died. Muriel gave him a new lease on life.”

“And I don’t know what her life would’ve been like without
him,” Samantha said.

“I think Muriel would like to hear that, Wanda,” murmured
Waldo’s brother, Walter, as he led their long-distance stepsister away.

“I need a drink,” Samantha said.

“Great idea,” Bailey agreed, and they all drifted over to the
punch bowl.

Samantha really wasn’t much of a drinker, but a good stiff belt
sure seemed to help a lot of movie characters through stressful moments and
right about now she was willing to give it a try. “I wish this was spiked,” she

Bailey looked across the room at their mother. “I feel so bad
for Mom.”

Muriel Sterling-Wittman sat on a folding chair framed by the
weak winter light coming through the window behind her, a beautiful tragic
figure starting the new year alone. Her basic black dress discreetly draped her
Betty Boop curves and her hair was still the same shiny chestnut it had been
when Samantha was a girl, courtesy of the geniuses at Sleeping Lady Salon. The
green eyes Waldo once raved about were bloodshot from crying but still looked
lovely thanks to lashes thick with waterproof mascara. Half the men in the room
were hovering around with tissues in case she found herself in need.

“Well, at least we won’t have to worry about her being lonely,”
Bailey said. She was the spitting image of their mother and the most like her,
as well—sweet, positive and naive.

Cecily gave a cynical snort. “Much good any of those men will
do her. They’re all married.”

“Not Ed,” Bailey pointed out.

“He’s got the hots for Pat over at the bookstore,” Samantha
said, and mentally added,
Thank God.

“Arnie’s not married,” Bailey said. “Neither is Mayor Stone. Or
Waldo’s brother. Wouldn’t it be sweet if—”

Samantha cut her off. “Let’s not even put that thought out in
the universe.” All they needed was another man coming along and convincing Mom
that the third time would be the charm.

“Look at them. Waldo’s barely gone and they’re already circling
around her like some old-guy version of
.” Cecily shook her head. “Men.”

“You know, for a matchmaker you sure have a sucky attitude,”
Bailey observed.

“Where do you think I got it?” Cecily retorted.

“How do you manage to stay in business?” Bailey asked in

“By staying superficial.” Cecily gave them a wicked grin.

Cecily was the only blonde in the family and she was the
prettiest of them all with perfect features and the longest legs. Samantha had
been cute with her red hair and freckles, but it was Cecily the boys drooled
over. Still, in spite of her good looks, Cupid had never been kind to her. So
far she’d gone through two fiancés. Samantha didn’t understand how Cecily could
make money matching up beautiful people in L.A. but couldn’t seem to get it
right when it came to her own love life.

Like you’re doing so well?

she told her snarky

“You’re enough to make a woman give up on love,” Bailey
muttered as she nodded and smiled politely at old Mr. Nilsen, who was ogling her
from the other side of the hall.

“That would be the smart thing to do,” Cecily said.

“Well, I don’t think Mom’s ready to give up on love. Maybe you
could match her up with someone,” Bailey suggested.

“No!” Several people turned to stare and Samantha downed a slug
of punch in an effort to put out the fire in her cheeks. What was wrong with
her? Could a woman suddenly get Tourette’s at thirty?

The wicked in Cecily’s grin kicked up a notch. “I know what you
mean. No one will ever be able to replace Waldo.”

BOOK: Better Than Chocolate
4.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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