Make Me Fall, page 12
“The first rule of chocolate tasting is that white chocolate is not chocolate,” Lorenzo said solemnly.
“Tell that to half the clients booking weddings at the Holy Grale lately,” Julia said with a laugh. “Everyone wants white chocolate wedding cakes this year.”
Lorenzo scoffed. “That’s because I happen to make the greatest white chocolate ganache on the West Coast. Delicious, creamy, and perfectly smooth, but not chocolate. I’ve prepared a selection of different chocolates for you to try today. The second rule of chocolate tasting is to have fun and relax. Chocolate is purely about pleasure and indulgence. We like what we like, and there’s no point in being snobby or insecure about it.”
Nora raised her eyebrows, and Lorenzo laughed. “Okay, fine. A little snobbiness about white chocolate is allowed.”
He ran them through the series of chocolates from different parts of the worlds, explaining the variations in flavors of the cocoa bean and effects on the final product. At Lorenzo’s urging, they each picked up a piece of buttery smooth Tanzanian dark chocolate and sniffed.
“Now rub a little bit between your thumb and forefinger to release the aroma,” Lorenzo said.
Nora looked around, stomach lurching at the idea of getting a mess of chocolate on her fingers. Clem had already managed to get it all over hand and even a dab on her nose.
Relax, it’s just chocolate, she told herself, but the prickling feeling she always got when uncomfortable rose up her neck and cheeks, no doubt leaving a splotch of red in its wake.
“Hey,” Lorenzo said over her shoulder. She clenched her stomach, steeling herself for his reproach at her rudeness. “Remember how I said this is about having fun? Don’t worry about following instructions if you don’t want to.”
Relief loosened her stomach. She relaxed and sniffed the chocolate without making a mess on her fingertips. She wasn’t quite sure she could discern the hints of vanilla and orange Lorenzo described, but her mouth was already watering.
“Next, let the chocolate melt on your tongue to awaken the flavor. No chewing.”
Nora and everyone else did as told. This time the full effect of the flavor hit her tongue in an explosion of taste.
“Oh my God,” Clem said between her moans—a sound that struck Nora as almost sexual because of the woman’s husky voice—then snuck another taste from the remnants on the plate. “I don’t care if I choke on this stuff. It would be a worthwhile death.”
“Agreed,” Lisa said.
“Actually, it would be terrible if any of you died before you sampled the stuff from Papua New Guinea,” Lorenzo said, handing them each a warm, wet towel to clean their hands.
They sampled each of the chocolates in turn, using the lemon water and apple slices in between as a palate cleanser. It turned out Nora and Clem were both partial to the Tanzanian, whereas Lisa liked the Ecuadorian stuff and Julia was the lone vote for the smoky, spicy Papua New Guinean chocolate.
“Is this the part where we get to buy a whole bunch of chocolate now that we are properly educated on how to eat it?” Lisa asked. “Because I’m ready to stuff my face with slightly bitter Ecuadorian chocolate with notes of coffee and molasses, thank you very much.”
Lorenzo crossed his beefy arms with a soft chuckle. “Not yet. We’ve still got the best part to get to.”
“There’s something better than eating chocolate?” Clem asked before sneaking another piece from the tray in front of her.
Lorenzo grinned. “Making it. I’ll be back in few minutes with the supplies.”
Nora looked to Julia as soon as Lorenzo left. “Are all your girls’ nights out this amazing?”
Julia shrugged, but Clem answered for her. “Yep. Whether it’s a wedding, book club, or night out, Julia is the best event planner in town.”
“How’d you end up in that line of work? I’ve never heard of an event planner working at a brewpub,” Nora said.
Lisa laughed. “I’ve never heard of a brewpub in a church, either.”
“You can blame Eli and Jake for the Holy Grale. As for me, I thought about wedding planning, but it’s a tough market with a lot of competition in L.A. After Eli and Jake bought this place, I figured it was as good an opportunity as any to get my foot in the business.”
“It’s a long way to go for a job,” Nora said.
“After Mom died, there wasn’t much keeping me in L.A. Eli’s the only family I have left, so it made sense to come here,” Julia said
“How about you?” Clem asked, looking at Nora. “What brought you to Shadow Creek? Do you have family out here?”
She shook her head, suddenly wondering if her dad had managed to get a decent meal for himself tonight, or if her mom was remembering to get enough sleep. “No family. Just a job opportunity at the college here.”
Before anyone could ask any more questions, Lorenzo came out with more supplies, including—Nora noticed gratefully—clear plastic gloves. He poured liquid chocolate directly onto the counter and demonstrated how to temper it with his huge, square metal spatula, swirling the chocolate with a gentleness that was utterly captivating.
He’d obviously been making it look easy, though, because a few minutes in, the white marble countertop looked like a battlefield with sticky brown chocolate smeared everywhere.
“There, you’re getting the hang of it,” Lorenzo said to Lisa as he leaned over her shoulder and demonstrated the technique once more.
“Sure, and if you keep doing this for me, it’ll be perfect,” she answered with a bright laugh.
“I’m pretty sure I’m a lost cause, so I’m just going to eat,” Clem said as she snuck another taste off her plastic-covered fingertip. As much as it grossed Nora out, she couldn’t blame Clem. Chocolate covered most of her hands and not an insubstantial amount of her clothing and face, too.
Julia messed around valiantly with her spatula before looking across the table at Nora. “Hey, how come you’ve got the hang of this while the rest of us suck?”
Nora examined her chocolate. It was much neater than anyone else’s, and thickening nicely, though nowhere close to Lorenzo’s expert craftsmanship. “It helps to be an overbearing perfectionist.” She cringed the moment she uttered the self-deprecating words.
“Hey, you say that like it’s a bad thing. Around here, overbearing perfectionist is a compliment,” Julia said with a wink. She looked at Clem. “Same with messy, quiet introverts.”
“How about slightly paranoid, hopeless romantics with a serious case of klutziness?” Lisa asked.
“Obviously,” Julia said. “We welcome everyone in this group, as long as you love chocolate.”
“And books,” Clem added.
They moved on to setting the chocolate into molds, adding bits of nuts and caramel and other confections. The conversation halted for a bit because of the concentration required for this task, but there were a few laughs. They finished up their chocolates by wrapping them in beautiful cellophane packages tied with ribbons. All things considered, Nora was rather proud of her effort.
Clem slid her package across the table to Nora. “I give up. Please help.”
With a small chuckle, she knotted the gold ribbon and curled then ends with a pair of scissors, then added an extra blue ribbon to make it prettier and slid it back to her. “Here you go. Perfect.”
“You know, at first I was worried about Eli taking on the SPCA fundraiser,” Julia said. “But then he told me you were helping and I’m starting to believe he’ll pull it off after all.”
“He’s doing a really good job. I think you’ll be really impressed”
Julia snort-laughed. “Because you’re doing it all for him? I love my brother, but he’s not the most organized person I’ve ever met.”
She crossed her arms, frowning. She really liked Julia, but it was a bit shocking to hear her speak about Eli like that. “Actually, he’s been doing everything on his own and he’s working really hard to prove to you that he can do this
Julia leaned back in her seat, looking a little surprised. “Huh. Maybe I am a little hard on him. Either way, I’m glad you’re his friend.” She added a warm smile that reassured Nora there were no hard feelings.
“And ours, too,” Clem said.
They packed up their chocolates and thanked Lorenzo with words and hugs, and by buying a truckload of his chocolates, too. By the time they left and reached Nora’s door, they’d already made plans for their next outing.
She was so elated from the great evening, she practically skipped to her door, barely aware of her surroundings.
She jumped back with a gasp, grabbing the railing to steady herself. “Eli! I didn’t see you.”
“Oh man, I thought the light from these sconces highlighted my handsome jaw and soulful eyes. I had no idea it actually made me disappear.”
She rolled her eyes, trying really hard to hold back a laugh. “I meant I was distracted in my thoughts.”
“One day you’re going to really notice me, Nora. And when you do…” he said wistfully before using his hands to mime an explosion in front of his face. “Bam! You won’t know what hit you. You’ll be begging for the chance to glance upon this handsomeness.”
This time, she really did laugh. “Trust me, you’re too loud not to notice.” And far too gorgeous. Her body practically buzzed whenever he was near.
“That mean I can come in?”
Her stomach tightened.
“I just want to share some good news.” He flashed her a grin that made it impossible to say no.
“Great, but you might want to let Julia know I’m not the big bad monster here.”
“Oh!” Nora turned quickly and waved to Julia, signaling all was okay. She pulled her keys out of her purse and let Eli in.
She hung up her purse and jacket on the coat rack at the entrance, then headed to the kitchen to put her chocolates on the counter.
“Do I get to try one of those?”
“Of course.” She unwrapped the package and turned it toward him.
He picked up one of the dark little squares and popped it into his mouth, then made a sound that sent a happy shiver down her spine. She loved the way he dove into even the smallest parts of life and held nothing back.
He reached for another, but she slapped his hand lightly. “I said one.”
He laughed. “Evil temptress.”
She handed him one more, then tucked the chocolates safely in her fridge.
He grinned and shoved it into his mouth before she could change her mind. “Does this mean you had a good time tonight?”
“Yeah. It was really lovely.”
He crossed his arms and gave her a look.
“I’m waiting to hear you say it.”
He leaned across the peninsula, meeting her eyes. “I’ll give you a hint. It starts with ‘Dearest handsome Eli’, and ends with ‘you were right.’”
She laughed. “Fine. You were right. I’m very glad you introduced me to your sister and her friends.”
“That’s awesome, because now I get to say it to you.”
Her eyebrows knitted together. “I don’t have a sister.”
He grinned and came around the counter, setting his hands on her upper arms. “I mean you were right.”
“The bylaw office. They’re letting us bring the animals to the fundraiser. It’s going to be awesome.”
“That’s incredible!” She instinctively pulled him into a big hug, pressing her chest to his. He responded instantly, tightening his grip until their entire bodies were flush. God, it felt good to be in his arms.
He tilted his head back slightly to look at her, cupping her cheeks in his hands. “You’re incredible.”
The fire in his eyes burned so hot, she felt like kindling ready to be ignited. He kissed her so deeply and passionately that she didn’t have time to think before the desire overcame her. She buried her fingers in his hair, parting her lips and urging him on. She could taste the lingering chocolate on his lips before he moved his mouth to her jaw, her chin, her neck. Every inch of her skin was ablaze, begging to be the next spot where his hot tongue made contact. He dropped his hands to her ass, and her knees went weak when she felt his erection press into her.
She wanted this—wanted him—so badly, she could barely breathe. But she couldn’t do this.
She pulled back. He released her mouth instantly, but didn’t let her go. He dropped his forehead to hers, breathing heavy. “Sorry, I got a little carried away.”
“It’s okay. So did I,” she whispered.
She inhaled deeply. “But I can’t do this. I really like you, Eli, but I’m finally feeling like I’m fitting in with a group of women in this town. What if we do this and things don’t work out?”
“What if they do?”
Her heart leapt like he’d sent a jolt of electricity directly to it. She wanted to believe it so badly, but she couldn’t. Not if she wanted to protect her heart. “Your friendship means a lot to me, too.”
He exhaled long and slow and brushed the now messy strands of hair off her face before planting a gentle kiss on her forehead. “Same.”
She wanted to explain more. Tell him about her parents. About her divorce. About how damn hard it was to lose everything when a relationship inevitably went sour. But he let her go, respecting her choice without making her spell it out, and walked to the door.
He set his hand on the knob, then turned around. “We’re still on for season two of The Red Zephyr tomorrow, right?”
She forced a smile, though her heart was trying to escape her chest at that moment. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
“What’s that smell?”
Eli brushed his hands against his jeans and turned to look at Julia, who’d just come into the brewery. He’d barely heard her over the sound of the bar patrons laughing and talking in the background, but he knew what had drawn her here. “Bourbon.”
She frowned, letting the door close behind her and leaning against it. “I’m not sure we’ve talked about expanding our operations to include hard liquor.”
“I’m not making bourbon. I bought a bourbon barrel. And chips. Check it out.” He waved her in, urging her to sniff the aroma from the aged wood.
She inhaled deeply, then looked at him. “Okay, it smells good, but I’m still not following. How is this supposed to be not crazy?”
“I never said it wasn’t crazy. It is, however, going to be delicious. Bourbon barrel-aged stout. I don’t have a good name for it yet.”
She didn’t look displeased, which he considered a win given everything he did lately seemed to fall short of her expectations, but she did look confused. “I thought we decided no more seasonal brews. How are you going to maintain a supply of that for the customers with only one barrel?”
“I’m not planning on serving this at the Holy Grale. It’s for the remembrance ceremony.”
He braced himself, waiting for her reaction. Julia’s shoulders fell slightly as the air left her lungs in a slow, measured exhalation. She looked tired suddenly, like she no longer had the energy to hold up the mask of cheerful perfection she always wore. He hated that he had that effect on his sister. Since they were little kids, they’d always had each other’s backs in a way that was impossible to describe to someone who didn’t have a sibling. But ever since they’d been planning this ceremony, there’s been too many bad memories dug up. Too much unspoken hurt buried for too long.
“Mom hated beer.”
“But she loved bourbon.”
Julia looked to him. Her lips curved ever so slightly upward. “Yeah. She did. And she would have been proud of what we’re doing here.”
He nodded, unsure how to deal with the relief that made his chest feel like it had been filled with helium.
“It won’t be ready for a few weeks, but you’ll be the first to try it when it is.”
She walked all the way into the room, but instead of heading to the barrel, she went directly to Eli and hugged him. “I’m sorry I’ve been hard on you.”
“Nah,” he said, hugging her back. “I probably deserve it.”
She let him go and brushed the non-existent wrinkles out of her sweater. “Nora says you’re doing a good job with the SPCA fundraiser.”
He couldn’t help but grin now. Everything was coming together even better than he could have imagined thanks to Nora’s help. “Yeah. I think you’ll like the surprise I have planned.”
She raised an eyebrow. “She’s a good influence on you. I like her.”
He opened his mouth to say he liked her, too, but stopped himself. It wasn’t Julia’s fault Nora had basically chosen her over him. He understood her reasons, even if he didn’t like them, because he’d rather have her as a friend than not at all. She’d come over again last night to binge watch The Red Zephyr episodes. More than once, he’d found himself reaching for her hand—for just the slightest bit of physical connection—but he’d stopped himself before he came off like a creep. “Thanks for taking her out the other night. She needs good friends here.”
Julia nodded. “Hey, I was thinking…”
It was his turn to raise his eyebrows. “Try not to hurt yourself, sis.”
She smacked him on the chest. “I was thinking we could go to the storage facility where all of Mom’s stuff is and find some things to use at the ceremony. Remember that little round table with the tile mosaic on top?”
He laughed and ran a hand along his jaw. “Hell yeah—how could anyone forget her tile mosaic phase? I think we spent the entire summer driving around to discount home reno stores looking for the perfect tiles for all her projects.” Every light switch, mirror, and flat surface in the house was tiled over thanks to their mom’s newfound obsession with crafting.