Disclaimer: My story, my characters, no disclaimer needed. A holiday-inspired little tale.

Feedback is, as always, very welcome at rosmari.karlssonfaltin@telia.com

Chocolate

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by Carola "Ryűchan" Eriksson

Sarah looked at the clock above the door while idly wiping the glass counter in front of her. It was now less than half an hour until the shop's official closing time for the holidays, and Sarah wished she could just close up early.

She eyed the last remaining of the festive and deluxe bags of Santas, elves and other Christmas paraphernalia made from the finest chocolate and marzipan, that had fallen over in the bottom of the display cases that had only this morning been packed to the brim with similar goods. Christmas was a good season for the small store she worked in, that specialised in deluxe and hand-made chocolates. Not quite as good as Valentines or Easter, but still ranking among the most profitable, helping the small store to stay in business.

Sarah eyed the remaining seasonal special packs again. It had been a crazy day, even more than the four leading up to it, and until an hour ago she and two of her co-workers who also happened to be the children of the shop's owners, had worked in a frenzy to keep up with all the customers in their 'last shopping for Christmas'-panic.

That had been an hour ago, then the flow of customers abated, and Sarah was left to mind the shop on her own until closing. On an ordinary day, Sarah might have closed early, but as it was Christmas Eve, she could count on at least one straggler to burst through the door before she could make her way home to her own Christmas preparations.

And... she eyed the Christmas bags once more... with a bag or two of Christmas sweets for herself. Yes, she thought she deserved a little splurge for once, it had been a couple of really hectic days lately after all. And all the chocolate in the store at the time of closing up would end up in their New Year's sale later anyway, since the shop would be closed until New Years Eve.

Sarah wiped down the counter again, mentally going through the packaging and storing she would have to do before heading on home, sparing a thankful thought to her co-workers that had prepared things before they left so that she wouldn't have to spend the full extra hour she otherwise would have. Another glance at the clock said she had fifteen minutes before she could lock the door and get to work. It would be so good to get home, put her aching feet up, and just relax with a nice cup of tea... maybe even watch some TV for a while.

She was almost startled when the tiny bell on the door chimed, accompanied by the sound of the door opening and closing, feet stomping slightly to get excess snow off shoes before entering - a polite gesture Sarah appreciated, since she would have to wipe down the floor before leaving as well - and audible breathing from someone that was well and truly feeling the Christmas last-minute panic.

She turned with a smile on her lips towards the customer, already saying well-worn lines that came to her lips so easily now that she sometimes wasn't sure she actually spoke them out loud. What met her eyes made Sarah falter mid-sentence for a brief moment before three years of work in the same store kicked in and took over.

At first she wasn't entirely sure what she was seeing. The figure that was brushing snow off her shoes wore a long black coat of an indeterminate kind, and underneath it, what appeared to be a suit. It was slightly surprising on a woman, but Sarah had seen all kinds during her years, and thought nothing much of it as the woman in front of her brushed some snowflakes from her long black hair... no, it was what she was carrying that made Sarah's eyebrow arch up for a brief moment.

Although one gloved hand held a small bag that apparently contained brightly wrapped Christmas gifts, it wasn't the big and gaudy bags that Sarah was accustomed to see her customers lug around this close to Christmas itself. And more importantly, the long, white-wrapped object cradled carefully in the crook of the other arm, and that sported the golden logo of the popular florist shop down the street, was an unusual sight. Unusual in that it was clearly not a bouquet, and looked to Sarah's Valentine's-trained eye very much like it would contain a single rose, or perhaps a small arrangement of no more than three roses... it was, Sarah thought approvingly, an honest Valentine's classic.

Then the customer turned wide and panicked brown eyes on Sarah, and Sarah was hard-pressed not to laugh. This was one nervous shopper... and Sarah was very intrigued.

With a warm smile and a gentle voice, Sarah asked "Can I help you?", and found to her surprise that for once it wasn't just automation on her part... she wanted to help. But the woman in front of her just looked so lost she couldn't help it, Sarah supposed.

The nervous woman had to clear her throat a few times before asking, somewhat shakily still, if Sarah had any heart-shaped chocolate boxes left.

So it began.

Sarah brought out a selection of heart-shaped boxes that was popular during Valentine's, suspecting that this particular customer wasn't really looking for hear-shaped boxes with a laughing Santa Claus on them. She had large flat boxes and small dual-layered ones, ranging in colour to from a matted dark blue to a bright metallic gold. The dark-haired woman shifted nervously and looked beseechingly at Sarah with eyes gone slightly glazed from desperation.

Smiling inwardly, Sarah made some gentle suggestions about the boxes, that most people would prefer a smaller box containing some of the shop's more exclusive candy, rather than one of the large boxes of the cheaper brand, and perhaps the person that the box was for would have a favourite colour?

It was with a look of relief that the dark-haired woman picked out a smaller sized dark red box with a golden ribbon, that was made to be filled with a single layer of the larger chocolate treats the store could offer.

Then the brown eyes took in all the chocolate on display, and a frown appeared.

Now this part Sarah was well familiar with, and gently pointed out the section of the finest chocolates available, explaining in great detail what each and every one tasted like, explaining that she was required to taste everything herself every now and then, in order to be better able to help her customers.

As the dark-haired woman settled for a selection of three of the most exclusive kinds that Sarah showed her, where each chocolate confection was a small work of art in itself, Sarah noticed the clock on the wall showing that she was indeed working overtime with this customer. The shop should have been closed twenty minutes ago, but Sarah didn't mind. It felt good to be helping out, and for some reason she just took pity on the frazzled woman.

The same woman who shyly asked Sarah to leave the centre space in the box free because she wanted to put something else there instead. Sarah watched with interest as the other woman reached inside her coat and somewhat clumsily produced a small sandwich box. From inside that box she then pulled a perfectly round object of golden tinfoil, capped with a tiny red heart-shaped sticker.

It could almost have passed for a piece of chocolate, perhaps a Ferrero Rocher, and as Sarah carefully placed it in the centre of the box, she couldn't quite contain her curiosity. She had to know what was inside.

The other woman didn't answer with words, she was far to busy blushing and squirming, not to mention the large and somewhat goofy smile that overtook the previously tense features, but she didn't need to. Sarah looked at her strange customer, then down at the box in her hands. Then at the flowers still cradled carefully in one arm, and back at the box again. She blinked.

Looking at the other woman Sarah said slowly "Is it... an... engagement ring?"

The other woman was still blushing slightly, but suddenly she stopped her nervous fidgeting to answer Sarah with such an earnest expression that Sarah would find herself thinking of the event in days to come.

"Only if she says 'yes'."

Slightly dazed Sarah helped her customer to wrap up the box to protect it from the falling snow, accepted the payment and walked the customer to the door, wishing her a merry Christmas and, somewhat belatedly as the other woman was already walking down the snowy street, good luck with her evening plans. The dark-haired woman turned around and gave Sarah a huge grin and a small wave, despite holding her precious cargo, then walked out of sight.

Sarah locked up, and walked around the store doing all the things she should have done at least half an hour ago, but so deep in thought herself that she barely noticed anything. Not until the shop was dark and all things in place did Sarah snap out of it.

With a slowly dawning little grin Sarah went back into the storage room and got the bag of Christmas chocolates that she had been eyeing all evening. As an afterthought she added one of the same kind of luxurious chocolate confections that her last customer for the holidays had bought, then packed it all carefully into her bag, locked the back door behind her, and walked over to the bus stop.

All the way home Sarah thought about the dark-haired stranger, wishing her good luck in her romantic endeavour, and that the other woman, whoever she was out there, would appreciate it. Sarah also thought somewhat wistfully of herself, wondering if the time would ever come that someone would go through that kind of trouble for her.

Patting the bag of goodies Sarah stepped off the bus and trudged on the last part of the way to her apartment door, wishing that she had the foresight to ask her customer to come back sometime, just so that Sarah would be able to find out how things had gone.

Smiling suddenly as she opened her front door, Sarah decided that she would keep an eye on the engagement ads in the local paper for a while. Pleased with her decision, Sarah closed her door to the cold, put down her bags, and called out to her cat.

"Honey, I'm home."

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