Better Than Chocolate by Pat Amsden

Chapter 1


Tall, thin, with an ethereal quality, Elena Tighe stood in front of an easel in the middle of the room. The painting showed light filtering through trees opening up onto a clearing, where a mother and her children enjoyed a picnic together. It was signed Elena Tighe, as were the other paintings on either side of her.

She turned to her assistant, an expression of delight on her face. But her assistant was nowhere in sight. In her place stood a man. A man who made her eyes widen and her heart beat erratically even as she told herself she was being ridiculous.

“Can I help you?” she asked politely, taking in all six feet of him. Dark haired with chocolate coloured eyes, he was the type of man woman drooled over. And he probably knew it too, she thought defiantly.

“Brad. Brad Phillips,” he said, holding out his hand as if expecting her to know who he was.

“So are you here for coffee,” she said, puzzled. “Or are you interested in the art work?”

“Coffee sounds good,” he said neutrally. “I don’t think I can afford the artwork… Yet.”

She went off into the café area – if it could be called that – emerging a minute later with a hot cup of coffee.

“Didn’t your dad say anything?”

“No,” she said, clearly puzzled, even as she felt a tightening in her throat.

“Oh.” He grinned. “I guess I should stick a bow in my hair. I’m your present.”

“Excuse me?” she said shocked, sputtering. “You’re a present? And you’re OK with this? Really! This time he’s gone too far.”

Brad held up a hand grinning. “I’m not doing a good job of this. I’m here to help you make your business a success.” He grinned disarmingly. “Sort of like a modern day genie.”

“You’re what? I don’t believe this. I told him to stay out of this. This is MY business! MINE!”

He frowned. This was different than he expected, given what Greg had told him. After all Greg Tighe had asked him personally, as a favour.

“My daughter’s opening an art gallery/coffee shop,” he’d said. He’d glanced at the piece of paper in front of him. In Chemainus. I thought for her birthday I’d send you in to help her.”

“But,” Brad had said. “Why can’t you?” It was an obvious question.

Greg Tighe was a multi-millionaire business man/developer in the Vancouver area. When he touched something it invariably turned to gold. And he was her father.

“I’ve agreed to keep out of it,” Greg had explained. And then he’d grinned. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t give her a present.” Apparently he hadn’t felt the need to share this piece of information with his daughter.

“I’m a business development expert,” Brad explained to her now, pulling a card from his pocket and handing it to her.

“I really can’t believe this. He thinks he can send you over to do his dirty work,” Elena said, furious.

“Dirty work!” Brad said shocked. “He just wants to help you succeed.”

“Oh sure. That’s what he wants you to think. Don’t you believe it!” She stood in front of him, fuming. “He wants control. That’s what he’s always wanted. And he’s using you,” she said, stabbing her finger into his chest, “to get it.”

“Uh-huh,” Brad said, grinning at her, as if clearly believing her deranged. “I don’t report to him on this. He’s not putting any money in. You just get to pick my brains for a bit.”

“Oh no you don’t,” she said turning and wheeling away from him. “I’m not taking advice from anyone.”

“Then you’ll be out of business in six months.”

“WHAT?”

“Just giving you my professional opinion Princess.”

“And you’re such an expert.”

“Your father thinks so.”

“Really. Then why can’t you afford one of my pictures?”

“I…” There were a thousand retorts he could’ve come up with. Retorts about spoiled brats who had more money than brains and people who had to work for what they had. Retorts about having everything handed to you on a silver platter and not even appreciating it.

Instead he grinned at her. “OK, so I’m choosing not to. But – I am very good at what I do so if you’re smart you’ll at least pick my brains for a few days.”

She stood in front of him glaring and he had the strongest impulse to wrap his arms around her and hold her close. Maybe it was the perfume she was wearing.

Cinnamon and spice with hints of exotic flowers, it made an impression without being over-powering. Maybe it was how she stood there looking so angry and outraged with just a hint of vulnerability. Like an angry wood elf he thought – who’d thrown a spell of enchantment over him.

Elena was less than impressed with his attempt to charm her. If she was smart she’d send him packing. He’d probably be on his phone to daddy dearest before he made it around the corner. Who cared if he was absolutely gorgeous? And smart. She knew that if her dad had hired him. Who cared if he was looking at her with those gorgeous chocolate brown eyes that were making her melt on the spot?

“So let me get this right? You show up back in Vancouver tonight and say I said thanks, but no thanks, it’s going to be a blot on your career?”

“I can handle it,” he said with a good deal more confidence than he felt.

“But helping me make my business a success would be a huge feather in your cap?”

“It wouldn’t hurt,” he said grinning.

“If I find out you’ve spent one minute communicating with my dad you’re history. Got it. And I’m not necessarily going to take any of your advice.”

“Deal,” he said, a smile washing across his face.

It was a good smile, she thought, feeling her breath catch slightly. A warm and friendly smile, she thought, hoping his effect on her didn’t show.

“So how does this usually work?”

“Depends,” he said, pulling out a chair and taking a seat. “What I’d like to do is get a list of things you want to accomplish. Spend a few days going over your books, finding out your competitive advantage and then work with you to make this a success.”

“You mean find ways to shoot me down,” she said angrily.

He sighed. “Pointing out flaws is part of what I do. If I don’t I’m not much good.”

She could feel her lips quivering, feel tears threatening to spill out. Some businesswoman she was going to make. “I can take constructive criticism,” she said defensively. “I just need something positive as well.”

“Like making your business a success,” Brad said lightly and saw a slight flush spread across her face.

Way too sensitive he thought. For two cents he’d walk away. And at the same time he couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to see her eyes light up and a smile light up her face. “Know of any good hotels in the area?” he said.

“I hear the Sea Sides nice,” she said. “I’d offer you a room, but I’m staying in the loft upstairs.”

He glanced up in surprise, noticing the curtained off area upstairs. “Is that allowed?”

“I haven’t heard any complaints,” she said lightly.

He cursed lightly, under his breath.

Her father was a multi-millionaire and she’d just inherited $75,000 from her grandmother, which was supposed to be fuelling this venture. She could afford a decent apartment or house while the business was going. Something he planned on pointing out to her when he got himself settled. Maybe he could just book her a suite in the hotel while he booked himself in. A quick look at his face told him this wouldn’t be a good idea.

He gave her a slight smile. “I’ll be back this afternoon.” He reached out, flicking a speck of imaginary dust from her cheeks and saw her eyes widen, felt her indrawn breath. “Now’s a good time to sit down and figure out exactly what you want. When I get back we’ll start working on making those dreams a reality.”

She watched him leave. She felt a little like a Cinderella about to be rescued by her Prince. Which was clearly ridiculous. She didn’t need anyone to make her dreams come true. She was a modern woman.

What did he mean by she’d be lucky to last six months? It was her worst nightmare. Ever since she could remember she was the dreamy one, the artist of the family. And that was just fine she thought defiantly.

But a woman had to be able to stand on her own two feet as well. Her grandmother had understood. That’s why she’d left her the inheritance. Seventy-five thousand dollars and more importantly in her mind, a letter telling her to follow her heart, to trust herself.

Her father had wanted her to buy a condo. “I can get you a great deal in theFalse Creek area,” he’d said. “You can have a studio in your condo.”

She could almost hear him saying, “You’ll be safe.”

He’d hated the idea of an art gallery/coffee shop. “Why? You’re an artist. And a damned good one. I spent a fortune on that fine arts education for you.”

“And I appreciate it dad, I really do,” she’d said. “But I want something of my own.”

He’d given her every reason under the sun why it couldn’t work. “You don’t know what you’re doing, you’re too young, you need experience.” And then he’d tried to take over. “I’ve got gallery space opening up in the West End. It would be perfect for what you want.”

Instead she’d taken a day trip to Chemainus and fallen in love with the little town that could. A town that thrived on a mix of artists and tourists, she’d been drawn in immediately. She been charmed by the murals depicting the towns’ logging history and giving a history of how the town had re-invented itself.

The ‘Little Town That Could’ had come about in the early 80’s a product of desperation in a time that mills and logging operations were shutting down and loggers were, themselves, becoming an endangered species, in danger of extinction. The mayor had turned things around by commissioning a series of murals to showcase the past while campaigning to get Chemainus on the map as a must see tourist attraction and actively working to make it possible for the arts and artists to flourish in the small town.

The strategy had succeeded beyond any ones’ wildest dreams and the town now had more artists and artisans per capita than any other area on the island, which was saying something, since Victoria and countless other island towns had always attracted more than their share of artists.

Something not lost on Brad as he walked the main street of Chemainus. She was good, very good, to his untrained eye. There was lightness to her work, freshness. But Chemainus needed another artist about as much as the ocean needed another drop of water.

He could feel his cell phone vibrating and pulled it out. “Brad here.”

“Hi, thought I’d check and see how things are going.” Greg Tighes’ voice came over the phone just a little too casual, just a little too friendly.

“You know I can’t say anything,” Brad said lightly.

“Just a friendly phone call.”

Sure, Brad thought grimly. “I know, but I gave my word. And I keep my word.” There was firmness to his voice that brooked no interference.

“Understood,” Greg Tighe said heavily. “Just as long as you’re successful.”

“It’s what I do,” Brad said, with a good deal more confidence than he felt himself. He turned off the phone decisively and flipped it shut.

Sidney by the Sea turned out to be a charming, turn of the century building which featured spacious rooms, a pool, fitness center and a spa. A restaurant and in-house fax/email service rounded out the package. Not that he planned on spending much time here. For now he’d settle for a shower.

Back at Elena’s, her assistant, Michelle, miraculously reappeared. Newly graduated from the local high school she was a dreamy girl whose mind was usually a million miles away. “So, who was that?” she wanted to know.

“My birthday present,” Elena said, without elaborating.

“WOW! I got tickets to a Hillary Duff concert once.”

Elena laughed, a warm, musical sound. “You don’t understand. He’s a business consultant.” She grinned, “courtesy of dear old dad.”

“Mmm – cute.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Elena said. She sat down at one of the small tables doodling on a small scratch pad.

“I’ve got an audition for Stardust theatre, they’re casting a new play. So is it OK if I take the afternoon and tomorrow off? I need to study my lines, rehearse.”

“Sure,” Elena said. She’d planned on spending the day working on preparing the gallery section but considering the number of people they usually got in it wouldn’t be a problem.

On her pad she doodled a much larger gallery and gift shop with a bakery/slash coffee shop whose display case was filled with a mouth-watering assortment of goodies. It would come, she thought. Even though right now the coffee shop consisted of half a dozen card tables with folding chairs and baked goods consisted of whatever she could talk Mary, one of her regulars, into baking for her. She was, she knew, lucky to have found Mary.

Her clientele consisted of a handful of regulars from the marina she over-looked – and all too rarely – tourists making there way down from the park above. It was a good location she told herself stubbornly. It just took time to build a business. When she did though – she sighed, dreaming, doodling.

She wanted the business to support her art so that she could paint on two or three days a week, take days to photograph the ancient old growth forests and beaches.

Beaches like Parksville’s Rathtrevor that went on forever so that sand merged into ocean somewhere on the far distant horizon and treasures of coloured stones and sand dollars lay scattered on the warm, wet sand. She wanted to walk the West Coast Trail and hang out on Long Beach, maybe try a little surfing. The door opened.

Brad was back wearing blue jeans and a shirt that showed off a trim butt and a nicely muscled torso. His hair was wet from a recent shower and he smelled – earthy – she thought, shutting her eyes and trying to identify the scent, which seemed unique to him.

He looked down at the pad in front of her. “Nice, very nice,” he said approvingly. “It doesn’t look like you’re quite there though.”

She stuck out her chin defiantly. “It takes time to build a business.”

He looked at her empty coffee shop/gallery. “So I see.”

“I’ve got a handful of regulars.”

“Key word being handful,” he said grinning and saw anger flash in her eyes. Anger and – oh shit! – tears! “That’s what I’m here for. To make it work,” he said hastily, handing her a Kleenex.

“I can do it on my own.”

“Maybe but it’ll take about ten years.”

“Oh, and you can do it overnight.”

He smiled confidently. “Pretty much.”

“Prove it.”

He sat down. “First off we’ll get some contractors in here – get some quotes.”

She was shaking her head.

“What? Somebody’s got to do the work.”

“Eventually. But this is fine for now.”

“Are you insane?”

“No. This is what I can afford. Now. When the business gets going then I’ll expand.”

“Uh-huh. Come on. We’re going for a walk.”

“Who’s going to look after the shop?”

He looked over the empty space. “I don’t think that’ll be a huge problem. Got a felt pen?”

She handed him one silently and he quickly wrote out a sign saying ‘CLOSED – Back in an Hour’.

She rolled her eyes. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Holding her by the arm he guided her outside. Pausing briefly he surveyed the marina her shop overlooked. “You’ve got the location,” he said approvingly.

“Oh goody. Do I get a gold star?”

“Better,” he said lightly. “You get to stay in business.”

“If I do as you say.”

He shrugged. “Your choice.”

She fought back tears. “But I could be out of business in six months.”

He frowned. “Depends on how much money you want to go through. But the way things are now – yeah.”

“And going for a walk for you is going to change – what?”

“Why don’t we find out?” he said smoothly. Just treat her like any other nervous business owner he told himself. Forget about the gorgeous moss green eyes that registered every emotion instantly. Forget those bow-shaped lips.

Of course most business owners sought him out. They didn’t look at him like he was stealing Christmas whenever he said something constructive. They didn’t make his heart beat faster either. Or make him want to see her happy, see her smile.

*****************

“I thought we’d walk through the park first. Lots of people,” he said approvingly.

“Always,” Elena said, smiling. “It’s one of the things that drew me to that location. I thought people would come to look at the water wheel and learn more about Chemainus, maybe take a ten minute tour on the mini-train and make their way down to the marina.”

“Makes sense,” he said. “If there’s something to draw them there.”

“But there is,” she said. “My shop.”

“It could be,” he agreed. “Let’s continue shall we?”

A crowd of people had gathered to watch a juggler across the street. Main Street was filled with an eclectic variety of shops and galleries. She stopped and talked to several comparing notes.

“You know, I’d love to sell your work in my gallery,” a woman named Tina said.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she replied politely.

But on the street she was furious. “How dare she suggest that when she KNOWS I’ve got my own gallery open just a few blocks from her?”

“I don’t think she was trying to be insulting,” he said mildly.

Which of course, only angered her more. “So you think that’s OK?”

“I didn’t say give her your work. I just said I don’t think she meant anything personal by it.”

She glanced sideways at him. Even as she knew he was right she couldn’t help being irritated by this – this – lack of support for her feelings.

And what was she feeling? Usually she loved walking around Chemainus. Today she was on edge, angry and frightened. Why?…Because this man was making her see things she didn’t want to see. And she knew he knew. Even if he didn’t flat out say –‘ I told you so!’

“OK. So you’ve made your point. They’re all busier than I am,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes.

Oh God. Tears again. He couldn’t take tears. “I think you knew that before. That really wasn’t why I wanted to walk through Chemainus.”

“Then why?” she said, her voice rising. “To show me just how badly my shop is doing? To show me that I really will be out of business in six months?”

“To show you what you’re up against,” he said abruptly. He smiled at her, charming her against her will. “I’ll buy you an ice-cream from Mae-Belles,” he said pointing to the ice-cream store across the street.

He had Chocolate Raspberry and she had Cookies and Cream. “Heaven,” he said closing his eyes and letting the chocolate melt on his tongue.

Elena laughed. “Mae-Belle makes her own ice-cream. I don’t think she’s heard of low-fat. She just believes in getting the best ingredients and then slow-churning it until it tastes like,” she paused, considering. “Heaven,” she agreed.

“Well, come on, let’s find somewhere to sit in the park and enjoy it.”

Wandering down the street they made their way across the street to the park and sat on a rock outcropping crowded by people going down into the marina area, her shop.

For May the weather was unseasonably warm, being a good 20 degrees. She could feel herself relaxing as she sat there with Brad eating ice-cream and watching people in the park.

“Is that where you grew up? In a small town?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Only our mayor didn’t have a ‘You Can Do It’ attitude.”

“You worked in the mill?”

“My dad did. It was a good life. Mom stayed home, looked after the house.”

She was regarding him with amazement.

“What?”

“You’re so lucky!” she said

“What?!” He could feel the anger. What did she know? “Yeah,” he said shortly. “Until the mill closed.”

“That must’ve been tough,” she said sympathetically.

“We survived,” he said shortly.

She fell silent. Hew own life had been so different. “It must’ve been nice having your mother there when you got home from school,” she said dreamily.

His eyebrow quirked up. “Somehow I don’t see you as a latchkey kid.”

She laughed, but the sound was hollow. “Oh, there was always someone home. The maid or nanny if no one else. That’s if we didn’t have ballet or soccer or music, gymnastics…”

“Poor you.”

She bit back a retort, aware the average person couldn’t understand what it was like to grow up with everything – and nothing. “Then you should be able to understand why I want to do this on my own without any help from dad.”

“I’m not asking you got to get help from your dad,” he said impatiently.

“Then how am I supposed to do everything you say I need to do? I don’t have the money.”

“You just need more.”

“And how do I do that?”

“Banks, private investors. First we figure out what you need.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“It can be,” he said.

“OK then,” she said. “We can get a couple of contractors in, get an idea of the costs. But that’s it.”

He grinned at her. “Know any good contractors?”

She shook her head.

“I’ll ask around, get some recommendations.”

“I could ask some of my regulars.”

“No need.”

She bit back a retort. “And I want environmentally friendly.”

“What?!”

“It may cost a bit more but it’s important,” she said stubbornly.

“For someone who didn’t want to spend money a minute ago you’ve certainly changed your tune.”

“I don’t think so,” she said stubbornly. “If I can’t afford to do it right I’d rather not do it at all.”

He shook his head in frustration. “It will add 20 – 30 percent to your costs,” he warned.

“I don’t care,” she said.

“At least get estimates of both.”

“Fine.”

He could almost hear her say ‘and then we’ll do it my way.’ Unbelievable. “I’ll get started on that,” he said shortly.

“Good,” she said. She watched him leave. She knew he was upset but honestly, how could he not understand her deep connection to nature. Regardless of the cost she had to do what was right for the environment.

But back at Elena’s she realized she was in limbo. There wasn’t any point in setting up her gallery if she was going to do a major renovation. And she’d need a place to stay if and when she did the renovation.

She poured coffee for Dan, a fisherman, who lived on his boat. Did she want to make the changes Brad wanted?  It made good business sense but if she ended up with another trendy Starbucks style coffee shop was that what she wanted? Something told her Dan or Mary or any of her other regulars didn’t do Starbucks.
She could’ve stayed in Vancouver if that was what she wanted.

She’d wanted small town. She’d wanted quirky. She’d listen to what he had to say, to his ideas. But ultimately this was her business, her dream.

In the meantime she had an afternoon free. She took out a sketch pad and began sketching the harbour. “Have you lived in Chemainus all your life,” she asked as she worked.

“Born and bred,” Dan said proudly.

She’d love to do a portrait of him sometime. His grizzled face had tanned to a deep brown from years spent on the ocean while his beard was salt and pepper. His face creased with years of living, years of laugh lines.

“Were you always a fisherman?”

“Mostly. I did some logging in my younger days.” They lapsed into silence as she concentrated on roughing out the harbour line, drawing in the docks and boats. She needed paints to bring the life out in the harbour, the light and shadow in the water, the riot of colour from the different boats, the people walking along the docks.

She’d started laying on rough patches of colour when Brad reappeared. He watched silently as she deftly laid a patch of blue down and then white, unaware of his existence as she concentrated on her work.

He helped himself to a cup of coffee watching her work in silence, awed by her talent. Stick figures were the best he could do. And frankly he’d seen better stick figures in the local kindergarten class.

The old man winked. “She’s got some kind of talent doesn’t she?” Then he got up and left walking down to the marina.

She put her brush down. “I think he likes you.”

“I think he likes you better.”

She wiped off her brush. “Give me a minute to get my brushes cleaned up and I’ll be all yours.”

Forbidden images of her lips on his, his arms holding her, sprang to his mind. Don’t go there, he warned himself. Mixing business and pleasure was a bad idea. It almost always ended in disaster. Even if she did remind him of a wood elf, he thought, with her long hair, the colour of ebony and creamy white skin. Those long, long legs and arms … She was Greg Tighe’s daughter. Don’t go there, he told himself.

She came over bringing a cup of coffee with her and two squares. “You have to try these,” she said offering him one.

He shook his head. “I’m not hungry. I just wanted to let you know I’ve got a couple of contractors coming in tomorrow to give estimates. I’ll reserve a room for you at the Sea Side while the work gets done.”

“I’ve already made other arrangements,” she said taking a bite of the square. “Mmm – you really have to try this. It’s delish…” She broke off a piece and held it out to him.

He took a bite. He was a dead man. The butter tart was delicious but it could’ve been sawdust. Her eyes were moss green pools with flecks of amber and she smelled of cinnamon and spice, of flowers. He had a job to do he reminded himself.

“You can’t stay in the loft are when the contractors start.”

“I talked to Mary. She’s got extra room”

“Oh.” He should be relieved. It was one less problem to worry about. “Do you need any help moving?”

She smiled at him. “I’ll be fine. Really.”

She wasn’t going to admit her belongings could pretty much fit into a couple of suitcases. Except for her paintings and most of those were still crated up.

“How long do you think the renovations will take?”

“I’m guessing a month or two. You don’t want to lose the summer season.”

“That long?” she said surprised.

“The contractors can give us a better idea of time lines,” Brad said.

“I don’t want the regulars to be inconvenienced.”

“They’ll survive,” he said shortly.

“I’m sure they’ll survive,” she said. “I just don’t like inconveniencing them.”

Privately Brad wasn’t sure it would be much of a loss. He knew better than to suggest that to her however. He switched subjects. “Do you have anyone representing your work?”
“I’ve had a couple of shows, a few agents have shown interest,” she said shrugging. “You know the saying. The only rich artist is a dead artist – and that’s not a sacrifice I’m ready to make for my art.”

He laughed. “The gallery will be good exposure. I’d like to get a friend of mine who’s a computer geek to make a web page for you. You can showcase your art.”

Her smile was radiant. “I love it. I’ve thought of doing that myself but I’m not familiar with web page design.”

“Jan is. She studied computers at BCIT and then went into web design. She’s done pages for everything from small restaurants to large corporations.”

A bolt of jealousy hit Elena by surprise. Where had that come from? Why should she care about a friend of Brads?

But no matter how or why she couldn’t shake the feeling. She did care about Brad. And she’d have felt much happier if the web page master was named Joe or Bill or – she wasn’t ready for this.

She didn’t have time for a man in her life. And even if she did he was all wrong for her. ALL WRONG! He was her Dad all over again, more interested in business and making deals than people. Once he’d finished moulding her business to his idea of what success was he’d be out of here and onto the next client.

“She must have a web page,” she said. “If you give me the name I’ll look at it on Mary’s computer. Along with a couple of artists I went to school with who do web design now. After all it’s always good to look at options, isn’t it?”

“Of course,” he said puzzled. He could feel the cold front that had suddenly descended on them, he just didn’t know why. “We’ll leave it at that for now.”

He walked out and she stood shivering in the middle of the room. No way. Absolutely not. He was all wrong for her. All wrong.


2 thoughts on “Better Than Chocolate by Pat Amsden

  1. Beneficial info and excellent design you got here! I want to thank you for sharing your ideas and putting the time into the stuff you publish! Great work!

  2. With the backdrop of British Columbia, where I live, in sample chapter,”Better Than Chocolate” Ms. Amsden shares her literary gift of abundant “small talk” and rich “gift of the gab” which shall offer each and every one of us countless scenarios for future chapters.

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