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Once Upon a Grind (Coffeehouse Mystery Series #14)
     

Once Upon a Grind (Coffeehouse Mystery Series #14)

4.5 17
by Cleo Coyle
 

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From the New York Times bestselling author of Billionaire Blenda mystery with a sleeping beauty that is “so much fun to read.”*

It’s Fairy Tale Week in New York City, and Clare Cosi has given her coffee truck a “Jack and the Beanstalk” makeover for the Central Park festival. Her ex-husband has contributed

Overview

From the New York Times bestselling author of Billionaire Blenda mystery with a sleeping beauty that is “so much fun to read.”*

It’s Fairy Tale Week in New York City, and Clare Cosi has given her coffee truck a “Jack and the Beanstalk” makeover for the Central Park festival. Her ex-husband has contributed a bag of African coffee beans with alleged magical properties, and his octogenarian mother is giving out readings of the grinds. But Clare remains skeptical—until she receives a vision that helps her find a young model’s body in the park’s woods.

The police dismiss “sleeping beauty” as the victim of a drug overdose. But when Clare uncovers evidence that points to murder, she winds up with a dangerous predator on her heels and an investigation that leads right back to her own NYPD detective boyfriend. If she doesn’t solve this mystery fast, those magic beans predict an unhappy ending.

*Once Upon a Romance

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[An] amusing combination of caffeine and chaos.”—Publishers Weekly

“This series continues to mix clever and intricate plots with a regular cast of characters who become more enjoyable with every episode.”—Booklist

Publishers Weekly
11/24/2014
There's magic in the Ethiopian coffee beans that Matt Allegro, Clare Cosi's ex-husband, brings to her New York coffeehouse at the start of Coyle's 14th amusing combination of caffeine and chaos (after 2013's Billionaire Blend). The inaugural Storybook Kingdom, a festival in Central Park celebrating fairy tales, draws plenty of participants, many dressed as princesses and knights. When the two children of Clare's boyfriend, Mike Quinn, go missing, Clare joins the search, and winds up finding the body of the Pink Princess, Anya Kravchenko. After Matt, who's costumed as one of the knights, becomes a prime suspect, Clare must again play detective. Disturbing visions from drinking the special coffee help guide her, as does the mysterious necklace charm key worn by Anya and other women that leads to the exclusive Prince Charming Club and its sometimes surprising members. An extensive list of mouth-watering recipes rounds out the volume. Agent: John Talbot, Talbot Fortune Agency. (Dec.)
Library Journal
12/01/2014
In her 14th adventure (after Billionaire Blend), Clare Cosi, coffeehouse manager-turned-amateur sleuth, is getting ready to participate in a Fairy Tale Festival in Central Park when she has a vision that helps her find a young model's body in the park woods. Can she catch the killer and prevent another unhappy ending? Includes wicked good recipes.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780425270868
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/01/2015
Series:
Coffeehouse Mystery Series , #14
Pages:
464
Sales rank:
72,017
Product dimensions:
4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

—Cleo Coyle,
New York City

PROLOGUE

Turn back, turn back, young maiden fair.

Linger not in the murderers’ lair . . .

—THE BROTHERS GRIMM, THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM

IN the fading light of the dying day, the Princess glided along the tree-lined path, gossamer gown sparkling as if sprinkled with fairy dust. When she reached the Oak Bridge, she stopped.

“This way . . .” the Predator called.

The Princess studied the shadows. Little white teeth gnawed at pink fingernails. Finally, she stepped off the path, onto uncertain ground.

She had agreed to this meeting in the Ramble, the oldest section of Central Park. There were towering trees here and menacing boulders; cloudy streams and historic bridges. Most of all, there were thirty-eight acres of landscape magic—rustic paths that made an entire city disappear.

“Did you . . . did you make decision?” the Princess asked, her sweet voice betraying her Russian accent.

Forcing a smile, the Predator began a practiced speech, telling the girl everything she hoped to hear.

“Thank you,” the Princess replied, eyes filling with grateful tears. With a hard yank, she broke the valuable chain around her neck. A golden key dangled at the end of it. She held it out to the Predator.

“Now that deal is off, please take back.”

The Predator frowned. “I can’t take your key, Anya.”

“But you said I was free.”

“From me,” the Predator lied. “The rest is not my business.”

Anya hesitated. Then she nodded and turned to go, content in the belief that at least the deal between them was dead.

Not exactly, the Predator thought. “Anya, stop! Don’t move.”

The Princess froze. “What is problem?”

“Your gown is caught on a branch. Another step will ruin it.”

“Gown is special,” the Princess wailed. “I was told to take care!”

“Don’t worry. I’ll free it.”

Squatting in the dirt, the Predator pretended to fuss with the expensive fabric. “Princess Pink” is what they called it—more like bubble-headed bubble gum, the Predator thought, for it wasn’t the dress that was caught, but the girl who wore it.

“You are so kind to help,” the Princess said.

“Almost done,” the Predator promised, getting the needle ready. Leaning closer, the Predator whiffed the girl’s scent. She even smelled like all the others, the cloying perfume of eager sheep . . .

“Ouch!”

“Did I prick you? I’m sorry . . .”

“Is okay,” Anya said. “I am free now, yes?”

The Predator didn’t answer, simply watched the sparkling shroud drift away, through the trees and whispering leaves. In mere minutes, shadows would lengthen; the late afternoon breeze would take on a corpselike chill. That’s when the drug would do its work, and this beauty—like the troublesome little pet she was—would be put to sleep.

The Predator smiled at a job well done, barely hearing the tinny speakers of the Delacorte Theater, quieting brats with an ancient phrase.

“Once upon a time . . .”

ONE

Control your own destiny or someone else will.

—JACK WELCH

Once upon that morning . . .

“WHAT’S the matter with you, Clare? Don’t you want a little magic in your life?”

My ex-husband thrummed his fingers on our coffee truck’s countertop.

I refilled the napkin holders, ignoring him.

“Come on,” he pressed, “nearly every member of our staff has visited our resident gypsy, everyone but you.”

“I’ve told you, Matt. I’ve sworn off fortune telling.”

“But today is special—”

“What will it take to get through to you? Maybe I should text you? Adopt our daughter’s favorite way of indicating emphasis by using periods after every word: I. Am. Not. Reading. Coffee. Grinds. Today.

“And I’m not asking you to. I simply want Madame Tesla to read yours.”

I took a breath for patience. This morning had started out so perfectly. The brisk October dawn had painted the sky with a golden light, making Central Park’s dewy grass glisten like a fairy glen. Even the chill in the air was ideal for enjoying my freshly roasted coffee.

New York’s favorite waking potion was something I usually brewed downtown, among the picturesque lanes of the historic West Village. But today I’d joined a few of my baristas on our coffee truck. By 8 AM, we were stocked up and parked in our assigned spot with the other food vendors near Central Park’s Turtle Pond, a stone’s throw from the Delacorte Theater, home of Shakespeare in the Park.

The only real challenge facing me at this early hour was Matteo Allegro—my former partner in marriage and current partner in business.

“Look, Matt, I realize you’re trying to get some buzz going for these so-called ‘magic beans’ you’ve sourced from Ethiopia, but you’re the one handling the Seer’s tent. Why do I have to be involved?”

“Our gypsy knows you learned tasseography from your grandmother. If you don’t let her show off for you, she’ll be insulted, and—”

“Tell me the truth.”

“I did. That’s the reason!” One look at my expression and he threw up his hands. “Look, even if it isn’t, what harm is there in humoring a nice old lady?” Matt’s big, brown bedroom eyes were now blinking at me. This was his “hurt little boy” look, the one designed to make me feel guilty.

Unfortunately, it did. But like a lot of things that preyed upon me lately, I ignored it.

“I’m too busy,” I said.

“You are not—” Matt tapped his watch. “The Kingdom doesn’t open for another hour . . .”

“The Kingdom” was New York’s inaugural Storybook Kingdom, a weekend festival celebrating the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, and classic literary characters beloved by children of all ages. In sixty minutes, families would be streaming into this Central Park compound for arts and crafts, costume contests, even a Fairy Tale Village with jugglers, puppeteers, and knights in shining armor. The whole production was dreamed up by the mayor’s office. And since Matt’s mother—our esteemed octogenarian employer—happened to sit on the Fairy Tale Fall events committee, we were roped into service.

“You’re done setting up, aren’t you?” Matt pressed.

“Yes, but the festival staff has kept us hopping since we parked. Here comes another wave . . .”

Matt stepped back as Esther and I filled coffee drink orders for two knights, a court jester, and a half-dressed dragon. When I looked up again, I saw that Matt’s focus on fortune telling had finally shifted—to a slinky princess in scarlet.

The young woman’s gown had a full, filmy skirt that sparkled in the morning sun. Its stunning red color was repeated in the bright streaks streaming through her soot black, chin-length hair.

“Has Pink Princess come by for coffee?” she asked Matt, her low voice hinting at a Russian accent.

“I don’t know. What does the Pink Princess look like?”

The Red Princess laughed. “If you saw her, you would not be asking! My friend is gorgeous. Long blond hair, nearly to waist, and she is very much taller than I.”

“Sorry, I haven’t seen her,” Matt replied.

“If you do, tell her to call Red.”

Matt smiled. “You have a phone in that getup?”

“Is strapped to my thigh,” the girl informed him with a playful wink. “And is set on vibrate. Want to see?”

I shook my head, hardly surprised by the flirtation. Well into his forties, my ex was old enough to be the young woman’s father, yet his muscular good looks and world-traveler ease made him the most attractive man in sight.

When we were married, Matt’s standard uniform was paint-stained jeans and a flannel shirt. Now that he’d hitched himself to a fashion-forward spouse, Matt was slicker than a GQ cover model.

Today’s ensemble featured a jacket of stag brown suede tailored to his broad shoulders. His dark hair looked rakish against his bronzed complexion, burnished from a recent sourcing trip to East Africa. His toothy smile dazzled and his dark eyes smoldered. The true trick to Matt’s appeal, however, was his appetite. When Matt liked a woman, he let her know it. And he pretty much liked them all.

Of course, none of these things enchanted me. When you’ve lived behind a magician’s curtain long enough, tricks lose their thrill.

What did surprise me was my ex-husband’s rejection of Red’s less than subtle invitation to watch her phone vibrate.

“Ah, no, that’s okay . . .” He told her, rubbing the back of his neck. He actually looked a little embarrassed. “But I’ll keep an eye out for your friend.”

Red didn’t appear bothered in the least by Matt’s response.

“You are a prince!” she declared, and in a gesture that would prove astoundingly prophetic, she raised her fairy wand and tapped Matt’s forehead before gliding away.

TWO

“WHO was that young woman?”

“The Red Princess,” Matt replied with a shrug. “She’s looking for her friend, the Pink Princess. How many princesses are in this Kingdom anyway?”

“I don’t know, but do me a favor and keep your pants on. This is a fall fantasy, not a male fantasy.”

“Give me a little credit, will you? That girl is our daughter’s age. Now where’s Dante?”

Dante Silva was my artista barista—fine arts painter by day, java jockey by night.

“Why do you need Dante?”

“I want him to relieve you so you can visit the fortune-telling tent.”

I resisted the urge to scream. “He’s busy inflating the balloon Giant out back.”

“Balloon Giant?”

“It’s part of our Jack and the Beanstalk theme.” I used my finger to draw a giant air circle. “Are you blind?”

“Oh, is that what these dangling vinyl vines on the truck are for? And the fake cow by the picnic tables?”

“Perceptive, aren’t we?”

“Not entirely.” Matt smirked. “For instance, I have no idea why you’re dressed like a Tyrolean peasant. Unless your boyfriend has a secret Alpine fetish.”

“Leave Mike Quinn out of this.”

“I don’t know . . .” Matt made a show of looking over my ruffled white blouse, laced bodice, and Oktoberfest-worthy dirndl skirt. “It’s kind of sexy.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Not entirely. Who wouldn’t go for the shapely wench at the rustic tavern? Your flatfoot certainly would—if you grabbed a beer stein, showed a little more cleavage, and lost the babushka.”

“I think it’s time you got lost.”

“Touchy this morning, aren’t you?” Matt regarded my outfit again. “Who are you supposed to be playing anyway, Eva Braun?”

“I’m Jack’s mother.”

“Fine, Mrs. Beanstalk, then answer me this: Why does Esther have a musical instrument in her beehive?” He pointed to the large and lovely barista pulling shots at our espresso machine.

“Hey, I heard that!” Esther Best pushed up her black, rectangular glasses and pointed right back at Matt. “No harping on my headgear, Signor Boss-o!”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Esther is playing the part of the Magic Harp,” I explained. “Given her fondness for reciting urban epics, we all thought it was apropos—and so did her rapper boyfriend.”

“Thanks to Boris, my harp actually plays!” With a tilt of her high-haired head, she plucked out a tinny version of “On Top of Old Smokey.”

Matt gawked. “I don’t recall a harp in Jack and the Beanstalk.”

“You would if you’d read it to our daughter repeatedly for the better part of her fifth year,” I reminded him. “The year you practically lived in Hawaii.”

“That was business!” The hurt look was back on the man’s face, but this time it was genuine. “Those were boom times for Kona, Clare, and I was setting up trade with Japan.”

“Now who’s touchy?”

Okay, I confess chastising the man about his failures as a father was low. Matt had worked hard in recent years to make things up to me and Joy—and, honestly, with my daughter’s ongoing culinary career in Paris, he now saw her more than I did. I was about to apologize when a high-pitched scream rang out.

We all froze—until we saw Nancy Kelly, our youngest barista, barreling out of Madame Tesla’s colorful little tent. She ran right for me, wheat braids flying, arms flapping.

“Boss, boss! You have to visit Madame Tesla. She’s so amazingly authentic!”

Matt arched an eyebrow. “I told you.”

“She gave me a great reading!” Nancy said. “And she told me to tell you she’s waiting for you!”

Matt raised his arm and (not unlike the Grim Reaper) pointed at the tent.

“I can’t! I’m too busy!” As I frantically resumed swabbing the counter, Nancy climbed back into the truck.

“Ms. Boss, you look white as a ghost. What’s your problem?”

“Only one,” Matt said. “She’s crazy.”

“Tell me.” Nancy touched my shoulder. “Why are you so afraid of reading coffee grinds?”

I met the girl’s gaze. “Because I can see bad things.”

“What kind of bad things?”

“Death. I can see it coming.”

THREE

MATT shook his head. “Stop being melodramatic.”

“It’s true,” I said. “Have you forgotten? I saw your death.”

“But I didn’t die!”

“You almost did!”

“But I didn’t.”

For several seconds, we glared in silence at each other. Then he tilted his head at Esther and Nancy, who’d gone wide-eyed over our nonmarital spat.

“Let’s not do this in front of the children.”

He was right. I could see our employees wanted details. Esther began to ask, and Matt changed the subject—to Nancy’s head.

“Speaking of death,” he said. “Why is Nancy wearing a dead bird?”

Nancy touched her elaborate headpiece. “That’s not a dead bird! It’s the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg.”

“And your face is painted gold because—”

“I’m the Golden Egg, silly!”

“You’re dressed as an egg with a goose as a hat, and I’m silly?”

“She wanted to play the Golden Goose,” Esther noted, “but her costume couldn’t fit behind the counter.”

“So I compromised,” Nancy explained.

“Because Nancy is a good egg,” I said simply.

Matt folded his arms. “Well, I hope you don’t expect me to play Jack because I have no intention of putting on some ridiculous—”

“Dante is playing Jack,” I said, “even though you have more in common with the role.”

“Excuse me?”

“She’s right,” Esther said. “You were sent into the world at a tender age by your widowed mother—”

“And you forged your own destiny by obtaining ‘magic beans’ from faraway places,” Nancy added.

There was a third parallel I could have made, but I kept it to myself.

Like Fairy Tale Jack, Matteo Allegro had developed a dangerous addiction. For Jack, it was the giant’s wife. For Matt, the addiction was cocaine, which led to that near-fatal overdose, the one I’d predicted in a reading of his coffee grinds.

It was a miracle Matt had survived, and after months of rehab, he was finally able to chop down his need to get high. He’d remained clean for over a decade—and I continually prayed, along with his mother and daughter, that his feet would stay firmly on the ground.

“I don’t care how much I have in common with Bean Boy,” Matt groused. “I am not putting on a costume today—”

“Well, you can rest easy,” I said. “Dante is happy to play Jack.”

“And I’m happy to report our cow hasn’t run dry,” Esther declared, sliding a steaming cup across the counter. “Enjoy our ‘Milky White’ Latte.”

“You named a drink after Jack’s cow?”

“That’s nothing!” Nancy bragged. “We’ve also got a Snow White Chocolate Mocha, Cinderella Pumpkin Cake Squares, and—”

“We Storybook-ified the menu,” I finished for her.

Matt glanced around. “What menu?”

“Isn’t it out there?” I sighed. “Give me a minute . . .”

As I located the stand-up chalkboard in the back of the truck, I felt my cell phone vibrate. (No, not against my thigh à la Red Princess—but in my peasant skirt pocket.) Hands full, I ignored the call, and instead wrestled the large sign out our truck’s narrow door.

That’s when I saw the vision . . . in pink.

Twenty feet away, the flap to Madame Tesla’s colorful gypsy tent opened and a young woman stepped out.

Tall and lithe, she moved with regal steps that made her sparkling layered skirts seem to float through the air. Her gossamer gown was nearly identical to the dress worn by the Red Princess, except for the more innocent shade, which was fitting because this Pink Princess was likewise more refined, her beauty surreal, as if God had created another species.

Her blond hair fell in a curtain of gold down to her waist and her ocean turquoise eyes appeared exotic with their slightly almond shape—Tartar-esque, I realized, like many of the women I’d met who’d emigrated here from Eastern Europe.

Remembering Red’s message for her friend, I was about to call out when I realized she had a cell phone pressed to her ear. She was talking fast and seemed to be upset. Was she crying?

Great, I thought. Another reason I wanted nothing to do with telling fortunes. It was far too emotional . . .

I’d seen similar reactions years ago with my nonna, who’d played fortune-teller therapist in the back of our family’s Italian grocery. Every few days some neighborhood woman would rush in teary-eyed, until Nonna steadied them with that special cup of coffee before drawing them out, helping them see . . .

And that’s when I saw—

A hulking knight, one of the two who’d stopped by our truck earlier, was sipping his brew slowly and staring directly at the Pink Princess.

While a man checking out a woman was as old as time, this was different. He held my take-out cup steady, as if deliberately hiding his lower face from view. With the helmet covering much of his head, only his eyes were visible. And the way the man’s dark gaze tracked the Pink Princess looked downright predatory.

It sent a chill through me.

When my phone vibrated again, I actually started. Pulling the cell out of my skirt pocket, I checked the caller ID and tensed.

Why is Mike Quinn trying to reach me at this hour?

I hit the answer button and put the phone to my ear. When I looked up again, the predator knight was gone.

And so was the Pink Princess.

FOUR

“MIKE? Is anything wrong?”

“Everything’s fine, Clare, except . . . I’m sorry about today. I was looking forward to being with you and my kids.”

“I’m the one who’s sorry—I’m sorry for your loss. In fact . . .” Moving the phone to my other hand, I glanced at my watch. “Shouldn’t you be heading to Virginia by now?”

“I’m on my way to the car . . .”

I pictured Mike Quinn striding across the parking garage of his Washington high-rise. The man would have shaved close this morning, and his light brown hair would be in military trim. Given the somber event ahead of him, he would be wearing his charcoal suit, the worn leather shoulder holster creasing a crisp, white shirt beneath. His blue eyes would stay flinty cold all day, unreadable as a slab of city concrete. But during the funeral service, I knew they’d go glassy with held-back tears—and none of his coworkers would ever know it.

His current coworkers, that is.

As a decorated narcotics cop, Quinn was still the head of his own NYPD task force. In fact, he’d been based in New York for his entire career, until a U.S. Attorney drafted him for the temporary assignment in Washington, DC.

Sadly, that same attorney stepped down a short time later, when he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. He lost the battle a few days ago, which changed our weekend plans.

“You didn’t work with the man long,” I said, “but I know you respected him, unlike your new boss—”

“Let’s not go there. Not now, anyway . . .”

(That was fine with me. Katrina the blond battle-ax had ruined more dinners and weekends than I could count. Why let her ruin this phone call?)

Mike paused. “I need a favor.”

“Shoot—not literally.”

I could hear Mike’s little laugh. Then he took a long breath and let it out. “Leila rang me a few minutes ago—”

“Your ex-wife?” I bristled (couldn’t help it). Leila was far from my favorite person, and I knew she felt the same.

“Leila is at your Storybook Kingdom right now. She’s waiting at the entrance ropes. Is it possible to wave her in early?”

“Why in the world would she need to get into this festival before it opens to the public?”

“If you’d rather not do this, I completely understand—”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll take care of it.”

“Thanks,” Mike said. “I mean it. I’ll owe you—”

“Oh, I like the sound of that.”

“I thought you might.” I could almost hear him smiling over the cellular signal, and that made me smile, until he added: “Can you do me one more favor?”

“I’m listening.”

“Leila should be bringing her mother’s helper along. If not, can you keep an eye on how things go with the kids today?”

“Mike, I love your kids, and I’ll do what I can, but won’t Leila want to look after her own kids?”

“She’s been flaking out lately,” he confessed. “She’s late for things, forgets to pick up the kids when they’re visiting friends, going to the movies. I’m a little worried she’s . . .”

“She’s what?”

“I’ll tell you more when I see you. You’re still coming down tomorrow, aren’t you?”

“Are you kidding? I can’t wait to get on that train.”

“Then help me out today, okay?”

“I’ll go right now to speak with Leila.”

“Clare.”

“Yes?”

He lowered his voice. “I know you, sweetheart. And what you do in the absence of answers. Do not investigate Leila. Whatever she’s up to, let it go.”

“Let what go?”

A familiar beep-beep sounded. Mike had auto-released the lock on his SUV door. “For the moment, you’ll have to let me go.” He paused again. “Remember, no matter how obnoxious Leila is . . . I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“Hold that thought.”

FIVE

I found Leila Carver Quinn Reynolds waiting on the lawn at the rear of the majestic Metropolitan Museum of Art, where velvet ropes marked the entrance to our little park Kingdom.

A crowd had gathered already, but Mike’s ex-wife was easy to spot. A svelte redhead with the complexion of latte milk and exquisite makeup skills, Leila looked uber chic with her chunky platinum jewelry, designer skinny jeans, and forest green cashmere sweater coat to ward off the morning chill.

Molly and Jeremy were at her side, along with their adorable collie, Penny, straining at her leash.

A few weeks back, Molly had mentioned a girl named Annie had become her mother’s new part-time helper, but I had never met Annie and I didn’t see a young woman.

Leila spied me in my peasant dress and snapped her fingers, beckoning me over like a duchess commanding her scullery maid.

I gritted my teeth, indulging in a moment’s fantasy of strangling the woman with her own chunky necklace.

Patience, Clare. Be an adult.

I’d already talked to Samantha Peel, the busy festival director, who approved three guest passes. Now I was trying to keep my focus on Mike’s kids—although it was Penny who ran to greet me first, breaking Jeremy’s hold on her leash.

With a bark and tail wag, the little collie clearly remembered me from our past Sunday together. Mike and I had taken his kids on an apple-picking outing north of the city, and I’m sure Penny also remembered those warm, fresh apple cider doughnuts I’d shared with her.

“Sorry, no doughnuts today, girl.” Petting her copper-patched white fur, I gathered her leash and returned her to the kids.

Eleven-year-old Molly threw her arms around me in a tight hug. She had her mother’s pretty features and flawless complexion, but (thankfully) not the haughty poise of the fashion model her mother used to be.

That unguarded innocence of childhood was still evident through her joyful smile (despite the newly acquired braces). Her shoulder-length hair was like mine, on the chestnut side of auburn. And like me, she’d brushed it back into a neat ponytail, sunny yellow ribbons matching her sweater.

At Molly’s age, my own daughter had leaned toward being a tomboy. Molly preferred girly things—ballet, figure skating, fashion. Even her outfit was feminine with a lemon-and-cream-plaid skirt and matching tights.

Her older brother, Jeremy, in blue jeans and windbreaker, had his father’s strong chin, light brown hair, and striking blue gaze. Since he’d turned thirteen, he’d even started taking on Mike’s reserve.

“Cool outfit, Aunt Clare,” he said, hands in pockets.

“Wait till you see our coffee truck!”

Both kids lit up at my description of the balloon Dante had designed of a giant coming down a beanstalk. I handed the kids a program for the day and pointed out the knights, jousting in all-day tournaments, including NFL stars.

“Awesome!” Jeremy said. “I’m totally up for that!”

“And I want to see the Princesses!” Molly insisted. “Annie told me she’s going to be the Pink Princess!”

“Well, there is a Pink Princess,” I said. “But I’m pretty sure her name is Anya, not Annie.”

Leila sighed with profound impatience. “Molly calls Anya ‘Annie’ as a nickname.”

“You’re telling me that Anya, the Pink Princess, works part-time as your mother’s helper?”

“Wow, Clare, you’re right on top of things, aren’t you?” Leila rolled her eyes. (And yes, I controlled my urge to take a poke at one.)

“Annie said there would be twelve princesses,” Molly continued, “just like her favorite Russian fairy tale, where the beautiful girls secretly dance all night around trees with leaves of silver, gold, and diamonds. Have you heard the story of the Secret Ball?”

“No, honey,” I replied and focused back on Leila. “So let me get this straight. You have no mother’s helper with you today?”

Obviously,” Leila said to her French manicure. “I knew you’d be here.”

Before I could respond, Molly tugged on my peasant sleeve.

“Aunt Clare! Aunt Clare! What is this twisty part on the map?”

“That’s the Ramble,” Jeremy answered. “I’ll take you to see the ducks at Oak Bridge—”

“No,” Leila snapped. “You two stay away from the Ramble. Those woods are confusing, and they’re not part of the festival.”

“Molly can see the ducks at Turtle Pond,” I suggested. “We’re parked right next to it.”

“See?” said Leila. “Now go with Aunt Clare to see the ducks and funny beanstalk coffee truck. I have something to do.”

Molly grasped my hand, swinging it happily, as Jeremy studied the festival program, Penny wagging her tail at his side.

“Leila,” I called as the woman’s stiletto boot heels clicked swiftly away from us, “you do know I have a business to run?”

“Have fun,” Leila sang as she hurried down the tree-lined path and toward the Delacorte Theater.

Now why in the world is she going there? I wondered. The first Mother Goose Storytime show wasn’t due to start for another ninety minutes . . .

Mike’s warning came back to me: “Do not investigate Leila. Whatever she’s up to, let it go . . .”

“Okay,” I whispered to the absent Mike. “I won’t spy on Leila.”

Instead, I led Molly and Jeremy back to my truck, and set them down at a picnic table with mugs of hot cocoa.

Then I sent a casual little text to my assistant manager, Tucker Burton, who was on vacation this week. Tuck also moonlighted as a professional actor and director, and he just happened to be at the Delacorte right now with the rest of his Storytime cast, preparing for a long day of kiddie shows . . .

Mike’s X heading 2 Delacorte.

Keep I on her.

X-tra paid vacation day in it 4U . . .

There you go, Leila. How’s that for being on top of things?

With a satisfied smile, I slipped my smartphone back into my peasant pocket, ready to handle the day. That’s when I saw the next crisis coming at me.

“Clare! Clare Cosi! I need your help!”

SIX

ROCKETING toward our coffee truck was festival director Samantha Peel.

An intense, middle-aged brunette, Sam was the commanding general brand of socialite. Instead of a riding crop, she carried a clipboard and her “war room” was a Bluetooth dangling from one ear, connecting her with a small army of festival workers.

With her designer safari jacket belted tightly around her waist, her long dark hair scraped back into a battle-ready ponytail, and her knee-high riding boots swishing swiftly through the park grass, she was dressed for the day’s challenges. She also wore a strained expression, one I knew well. This poor woman was in desperate need of caffeine!

“What can I get you?” I asked.

“Prince Charming—and fast.”

Over the years, I’d heard nearly every slang term there was in this coffee business from the “Ben Franklin” (black iced coffee) to the “Little Lydia” (small latte). I even knew about the “Osama Bin Latte” (quad cappuccino with raw cane sugar). But a Prince Charming?

“I’m sorry, Sam, but what exactly goes into a Prince Charming?”

“What goes into a—” She burst out laughing. “Oh, no, Clare! I’m not talking about some crazy coffee drink! One of my actors called in sick. I sent out an emergency text, and your employer answered. She said her son—” Sam glanced at the clipboard propped on her leopard print hip. “Matteo? Is that right? She said he would be willing to step in and play the part.”

“Let me get this straight. You want Matt Allegro to be your Prince Charming?”

“Exactly!”

I shook my head. “Take it from a woman who knows, you’re better off with a crazy coffee drink.”

*   *   *

MATT protested, of course, but his mother insisted that he pitch in to help, and with one wave of her bejeweled hand, his fate was sealed.

Off came the tailored jacket and on went the belted silk tunic with the royal crest.

Gold crown (check). Fake sword (check)—he actually liked both of those (no surprise). But he categorically refused to wear the green tights, so the folks from the House of Fen provided black leather pants and knee-high male fashion boots with oddly pointed toes.

After one of his sourcing trips to the godforsaken wilderness, Matt looked less like a son of royalty than a member of Captain Hook’s crew. But I had to admit today he looked the part of a fairy-tale prince, all broad-shouldered and darkly handsome.

Samantha declared him perfect for the role of escort to one of the festival’s twelve Princesses, hired to enchant every little girl in today’s audience. Then she leaned toward me and lowered her voice—

“And I do believe Matt will do the same for the mommies.”

A few minutes later I noticed Matt futzing with his pointy boots. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You look like you’re in pain.”

“Not any pain, Clare. Royal pain.”

*   *   *

MANY hours later, the sun was sinking below Central Park’s trees and my ex-husband was back, thrumming fingers on my truck’s countertop again.

“Got any of those Black Forest Brownies?”

“Not today.”

“How about those Kahlúa thingies?” He adjusted his crown. “They’re like vanilla brownies, and you swirl chocolate and coffee liqueur into them.”

“My Cappuccino Blondies?”

He waved his plastic sword. “That’s right!”

“I don’t have those, either.”

“Haven’t you got anything with alcohol in it?”

“Matt, this place is packed with children. Why would I be serving anything spiked with alcohol?”

“Because after a very long day of touchy dragons, cranky trolls, and screaming kids, we adults could use it.”

“Sorry, Charming, you are cursed with sobriety—at least for another hour.”

“Oh, boss! The natives are getting restless.” Esther pointed at the flash mob forming in front of our truck. “If those are kids, we’re fine. But if they’re cannibal pygmies, we’re dinner!”

I faced Matt. “Are you ready to hand out my gingerbread cookie sticks? They already announced the giveaway over the loudspeakers.”

“I have to wait for my Pink Princess.” He tapped his watch. “She’s late.”

“Since when do medieval princes have Breitlings? Shouldn’t you consult a sundial or hourglass, maybe a magic mirror?”

“You got a magic mirror with white powder, I’m game.”

“Don’t even joke about that.”

“Cough up an Espressotini and I’ll go away.”

“No deal. I really need you to hand out these goodies.”

“We Princes have protocols. I’m not allowed to hand out anything until a Princess does her spiel. It’s some kind of marketing gimmick for their designer gowns. That’s why the House of Fen is one of the sponsors bankrolling this shindig.” Matt rechecked his watch and scanned the crowds. “This isn’t like Anya.”

“Anya?”

“The Pink Princess.”

“I know who the Pink Princess is.” I narrowed my eyes at the man. “I wasn’t aware you and she were on a first-name basis.”

“I was paired with Anya for most of the day, Clare. She’s sweet, and she loves all this fairy-tale stuff.”

“I hope you behaved,” I said, “because she’s also a part-time mommy’s helper for—”

“Look, Sam’s coming.” Matt pointed. “Do you think she reassigned Anya?”

Samantha Peel looked frazzled after ten hours of conjuring up solutions to problems, but when Matt explained the situation, she went right to her magical Bluetooth.

“Bitsy, where the heck is Pink? . . . Well, if she’s not answering her phone, try her friend, Red. Maybe they’re together.”

“Aunt Clare!”

Turning, I found an excited Molly Quinn looking up at me.

“Is Annie here yet?”

“We’re looking for her, honey.”

“I’ve been waiting all day for her to tell the story of the Secret Ball and the dancing princesses. It’s my favorite, and she said she was going to tell it especially for me.”

I brushed Molly’s bangs. “She must like you very much.”

“She likes Jeremy, too. She wants to be a teacher someday. But Annie needs lots and lots of money to pay for her education.”

Lots and lots of money, I thought. That doesn’t sound right. Between CUNY and SUNY plenty of young people with little money were able to earn college degrees. But I let that topic go in favor of another—Jeremy.

“Where is your brother? I don’t see him.”

Molly jerked her thumb toward the crowded ball field. I caught sight of Mike’s son near the edge, giving their little collie, Penny, a chance to tag trees.

“And where’s your mother?”

Molly’s shrug surprised me.

“You don’t know where your mom is?”

“We’re supposed to meet her up at the castle, after we watch the knights joust.”

“The Emerald Princess is on her way!” Samantha announced, looking relieved.

“Good,” Esther said, eyeing the gathering crowd. “A mob is an ugly thing.”

But Molly tugged my sleeve, and as I leaned down, she whispered in my ear.

“I don’t like the Emerald Princess. She tells the same story about the frog prince—and she doesn’t even tell it right.”

“Well, I still need you to stick around,” I insisted. “I don’t want you running around this festival alone—”

“But Annie is so much better! She told four stories today. One about Baba Yaga, a witch with iron teeth who eats children. She lives in the forest, in a hut with chicken legs—that’s probably why she told that one at the chicken nugget stand.” Molly laughed. “And Father Frost—she told that one at the frozen yogurt truck. Do you know that story, Aunt Clare?”

“I don’t, sweetie—”

“A girl is nice to Father Frost and he gives her treasure and a fur coat. But when another girl is rude to him, he freezes her!” Molly concluded with great relish.

I noticed the Emerald Princess jogging toward us, green skirt hiked up in a seriously un-Princesslike fashion.

“Molly, honey, after the goodies are handed out, I’ll take you and Jeremy to see the knights, and then we’ll find your mother.”

And I’ll find out what’s more important to her than looking after you kids!

Molly shrugged in such a noncommittal way that I should have been suspicious—but too much was going on. Esther called for help and we swung into action, bringing out trays of cellophane-wrapped treats.

As Molly predicted, a rather lackadaisical story followed from Emerald Girl about a frog prince, then came the handing out of our frosted gingerbread “beanstalk” cookie sticks and bags of “magic beans” (chocolate-covered raisins) by Prince Matt, who was indeed quite the draw for the mommies.

Things went pretty well, after all. Then the excitement was over, the crowd dispersed—

And I couldn’t find Molly or Jeremy.

SEVEN

“HAVE you seen Mike Quinn’s kids?” I asked Matt. “I told them I’d take them to see the knights.”

“The jousting started fifteen minutes ago. They probably took off because they didn’t want to miss anything.”

Before Matt even finished his sentence, I was pulling out my cell phone and tapping Jeremy’s number. He didn’t pick up, so I left a message to call me immediately.

“Clare? What’s wrong?”

“Mike asked me to keep tabs on his kids today. Can you help me find them?”

“Of course. Come on . . .”

*   *   *

THE Fairy Tale Village was a collage of noise, color, and manic activity. While pastel Princesses strolled among their subjects with their Prince Charmings, jugglers entertained the crowd, and families swarmed in and out of rainbow tents with crafts, puppets, and carnival games.

A loud crash startled me, and I turned to find an armored knight on the Great Lawn being swept off his black mare. Atop a white steed, the victor raised his lance to loud applause.

“I didn’t know they’d be jousting with live horses!”

“They’re pros, Clare, from that ‘Meat-dieval’ Tournament and Feast in New Jersey.” He gave me a brochure that grinning jesters were handing out. “Shows six nights a week and a matinee brunch on Saturdays.”

Hundreds of kids crammed the perimeter of the jousting field, cheering for their favorite knight. A half-dozen celebrity pro-football players were here, too, dressed in shining armor and posing for photographs.

We searched through the throng but saw no sign of Molly or Jeremy.

“They probably found their mother and went home,” Matt said.

“I hope so.”

To make sure, I called Leila. She didn’t pick up so I left a voice mail message—nothing alarming, simply a request to call me back.

By the time we returned to our coffee truck, the festival was winding down. The crowd was thinning, and the park lights were flickering on.

I checked and rechecked my cell phone.

Nothing. No messages from Leila or Jeremy.

Hoping to get my worries under control, I climbed inside our truck to find my staff reduced to one—Nancy.

“Where is everybody?”

“Dante took off for his overtime shift at the shop.”

“What about Esther?” I spied her musical harp on the counter.

“She was here a minute ago, until she saw Tucker Burton rushing toward Madame Tesla’s tent. She said she wanted to know the reason Tuck was hurrying to have his fortune told—career or romance.”

As I darted for the truck’s back door, Nancy frowned. “Now where are you going?!”

“To find out!”

But it wasn’t Tuck’s “career or romance” business I was interested in. It was Leila’s.

EIGHT

TUCK had a chance to observe Leila this morning at the theater, where she’d rushed to go (sans kids). Now was my chance to find out why.

But when I got to the gypsy tent, I found Esther half crouched at the door flap, one ear cocked.

“What are you doing?”

“Eavesdropping, of course.”

“You should not be listening to another person’s fortune-telling session. That’s private business.”

“Just think of me as the NSA.”

“Esther—”

“Chill-ax, will you? I’m only trying to find out if Tucker got as lousy a fortune as I did.”

“You had a dark prediction?” Concerned, I stepped closer. “What was it?”

Esther smirked. “Didn’t you just say fortune telling is private business?”

“Yes, but I do happen to care about you.”

“It’s my romantic life.” She grimaced. “There’s a bumpy road ahead.”

“Oh, is that all.”

“Hey, I may not be the kind of female who dots her i’s with little hearts, but I do have one. Boris is my world.”

“Of course he is. What I meant was: When it comes to romance, there’s always a bumpy road ahead. So don’t take your reading too seriously, okay? Now go back to the truck and help Nancy close up. I have business with Tucker.”

(And yes, I conveniently left out the part about my business being even more like the NSA’s than Esther’s, although my surveillance scheme was a tad more serious. I was truly worried about Mike’s kids.)

I drew back the flap, and stepped into the heady aromas of brewed coffee and potent incense.

“Hello!”

Laughing voices abruptly stopped. Then came whispering and silence.

A batik-draped partition divided the tent into a main room and smaller anteroom, which was where I now stood. A greeter was supposed to be here to welcome customers. But at this late hour, she was gone. The only thing here was a doily-covered table and a framed sign that read:

MAGIC COFFEE BEAN READING
$20.00 TICKET DONATION
ALL PROFITS TO THE
CENTRAL PARK CONSERVANCY FUND

“Hello?” I called again.

This time, an ominous voice boomed a reply—

“Enter, you who seek the council of Madame Tesla!”

Well, I thought, she certainly sounds authentic . . .

Quelling my queasiness about the whole fortune-telling thing, I moved around the fabric-covered wall and into the dimly lit tent.

NINE

A single candle glowed on a table covered with white lace. Behind it, the old woman’s violet eyes gleamed with arcane wisdom.

Swathed in multicolor robes and a pirate plunder’s worth of bangles and necklaces, the gypsy’s silver pageboy shined in the flickering light and her long earrings of moons and stars jangled above her narrow shoulders.

“Come, seeker of truth . . .” Madame Tesla beckoned me forward with a bejeweled hand. “The spirits have been accommodating today. Who knows what they may predict for your future?”

“Absolutely nothing,” I assured her. “Because I’m not here for a reading.”

“Oh, too bad, dear, because I’ve been getting raves!”

Slipping out of character, Matt’s mother grinned. Today she was Madame Tesla, but every other day she was Madame Dreyfus Allegro Dubois, octogenarian owner of the Village Blend, and my employer.

There aren’t many women who can say that the best thing about their marriage was their mother-in-law, but for me that was true.

Madame had taken me under her fiercely protective wing when I was a young, naïve, very pregnant small-town girl. By nineteen, I’d read through my school’s entire library. I’d earned a scholarship and traveled to Italy to study art history, yet in far too many ways, I wasn’t very smart.

With wisdom and patience, Madame showed this art school dropout how to survive and thrive in big, bad New York City. Along the way she taught me everything she knew about the coffee trade, shepherding me into a vocation that enriched me in countless ways.

Her own life was an inspiring story of triumph over adversity—from the loss of her family during wartime to the loss of true love in midlife, when Matt’s father died. But with every setback, she rose again.

Knowing adversity had made her the perfect Mother Hen of Greenwich Village—historically a neighborhood of castoffs and outlaws; misfits and miscreants; free spirits and free thinkers.

In the years I’d known her, she’d amazed me with hundreds of tales from her eventful life, and still she managed to surprise me. For instance—

“Can you guess who I chose as the inspiration for my character?”

“No idea.”

“Alma, the wife of a former Turkish ambassador to the UN. She’s the one who taught me the art of tasseography.”

“Really?”

“Alma was wise, in her own way—and she knew how to play the crowd.”

“Whatever your inspiration, I have to agree, your act was a sensation.”

“It was the talk of the festival!” a voice boomed from the shadows.

Tucker Burton burst into the light so suddenly, I nearly jumped out of my Tyrolean peasant shoes.

“And look at Madame Tesla’s giant pickle jar!” He shook the large container. “It’s packed with tickets!”

My assistant manager was still dressed in his last stage costume of the day: the Pied Piper of Hamelin—that or a very tall, floppy-haired Santa’s elf.

“What in the world were you doing lurking in the corner—with a pickle jar?”

“I asked him to step back there,” Madame noted. “You see, when he stopped by to collect my tickets for the festival raffle, we got to talking, and—”

“And when she heard you coming in, she wanted you to see her fortune-telling performance without any distractions,” Tucker added.

I was dying to ask him about Leila, but—given my lecture to Esther—I felt a little self-conscious.

“Um, Tuck . . .” I began carefully, “did you happen to get my text message?”

“I got it, CC, but late in the day. Your message came during our dress rehearsal, and my phone was turned off.”

“So were you able to do that thing I asked?”

“Oh, yes . . . I saw that person you asked about. She met with someone else at the theater.”

“Someone else?” I prompted.

A long pause followed, but it was more than careful hesitation. Tucker actually looked frightened. “Can we please talk about it later?”

“Talk about what later?” Madame broke in. With a miffed tone, she turned to face me. “What is going on?”

That’s what I wanted to know. Tucker Burton loved gossip. He also trusted me and Madame. So what could Mike’s ex-wife possibly be doing that would put fear into him?

“Hel-lo-oo! Mr. Pied Piper! Are you in there?”

Before any of us could answer, Tuck’s boyfriend burst in, feathers flying (literally). As one of the best drag performers in the city, Punch had been receiving raves for playing the title character of Tucker’s latest cabaret show, Goosed!

His standing-room-only act made him a natural choice for the role of “Mother Goose” in the Fairy Tale Fall week of Storytime kiddie shows, which kicked off today at the Delacorte. The performance involved so many pratfalls, stunts, and belt-em-out ballads that a wiry Hispanic actor in a gray wig, giant petticoat, and feather-covered French mantua was actually better suited for the role than a woman of a certain age.

“They want Madame Tesla’s tickets ASAP for the raffle,” Punch informed his beau. “And a VIP is asking for you.”

“A VIP?”

“I’ll explain on the way. Now come on—or do I have to blow that Pied Piper piccolo of yours to get you to follow me?”

Tuck blushed. “Sorry, CC, I’ve got to go . . .”

Madame pointed a beringed finger to the empty chair across from her.

“Sit down, dear. You look a bit frazzled.”

“I should be going, too—”

“But you haven’t even tasted Matt’s new coffee . . .” Madame poured me a cup. The earthy aroma was irresistible—and it had been a long day. I took the cup, but I didn’t sit.

“Matt did a nice job on the roast,” I admitted as I sipped. “And he was right about these beans. The profile is nothing like the typical bright Ethiopian.”

“What notes do you taste?”

“Bittersweet chocolate, plum wine, cloves . . . and something else.” I sipped again. “Some kind of spice . . .”

As a master roaster, I prided myself on my sharp palate. It was rare for me to taste something I couldn’t decipher—frankly, it bugged me, and I took more hits, trying again and again to nail down the elusive flavor.

“Matteo told me he sampled one cup of these pan-roasted beans under the African moon and bought half the harvest.”

“I know,” I said, still not certain of that strange spice. But when I reached for a second cup, Madame stopped me.

“Are you sure you don’t want a reading?”

“Yes, I’m sure!” I grabbed the pot so fast to refill my cup, dark liquid sloshed onto the snow white lace. “Oh, no, I’m sorry . . .”

“Not at all, dear. I can see you’re upset. Calm yourself. Enjoy your coffee break. I’m going to change,” she said, rising. “My clothes are in the coffee wagon. Please sit down, put your feet up . . .” She pushed two chairs together. “Close your eyes, take a little nap. You’ll feel much better.”

I had no intention of taking a nap, but I did take a load off. As I finished my coffee, I even put up my peasant-soled feet. That’s when I heard the young girl’s voice.

“Aunt Clare? Are you in there?”

Molly?

TEN

“AUNT Clare, we can’t find our mom!”

Mike’s daughter looked frantic. Jeremy looked scared. He’d stepped in after his sister, holding Penny’s leash.

I got to my feet and embraced the children. “Where have you two looked for her?”

“We went to Belvedere Castle, like she told us to,” Jeremy said.

“But she wasn’t there!” Molly cried.

“Okay, calm down. We’ll find her . . .”

I led the children out of the tent. Then they took the lead. Night had fallen fast, but the park seemed especially dark. Mike’s children headed for the castle again.

“Slow down, kids! Wait for me!”

They didn’t. They kept moving. At the crest of the hill, I reached the castle grounds, only to find the kids racing for a set of stone steps on the other side. At the bottom of the steps, they took a dirt path, one of the many entrances leading into—

Oh, no . . .

“Molly! Jeremy! Come back! Don’t go in there!”

The Ramble was confusing in daylight. At night, the thick woods and maze of winding paths were downright stupefying. I did my best to catch up, but Mike’s kids were moving at a preternatural pace.

Freestanding park lamps glowed along the path. They were few and far between. The children would appear in a pool of light and quickly disappear again, as if swallowed up by a black beast. And then—

No!!!

They were gone. I had completely lost them!

I saw a fork in the trail. Both paths branched off into thick woods—one sloped upward, the other down.

Which way do I go?

Both routes seemed right. With tears of frustration, I searched for any sign of which path to take. And then I saw the light—literally.

A flickering glow emanated from far down the descending trail. Was it a flashlight? Someone signaling for help? I hurried along the dirt path only to find an incomprehensible sight.

A traffic sign hung on a huge oak tree, blocking my way, its blinking bulbs spelling out the words Bridge Detour.

“Clare . . .”

Now someone was calling my name. Off the path, I heard leaves crunching, saw branches moving. Then came a flash of sparkling pink.

Between two gnarled trees, a slender woman appeared with her back to me. Against the black trunks and brown leaves, the glistening fabric of her gown seemed to glow with its own illumination.

Then the woman turned.

“Leila!”

At the sound of her name, Mike’s ex-wife took off.

“Stop,” I shouted, following her off the path and into the woods, “your kids are looking for you!”

The brush grew thicker, but I kept going. Then the ground began to give, like quicksand. With tremendous effort, I tried to push forward but couldn’t. That’s when I felt it—

The cold.

Not the icy bite of harsh weather, but the black, empty chill that freezes you from the inside out.

A presence loomed nearby. I didn’t need to see it because I felt it. And whatever it was, I knew it meant harm.

Shaking with fear, I watched a specter begin to materialize. The black shape started out as human then it began to transform, its essence bending and twisting until it became a monstrous animal.

I was about to scream when somebody beat me to it.

“Help! Help me!”

I fell off my chair and onto the floor.

What the—

From my padded derriere, I rubbed my eyes. No longer in the Ramble, I was back in Madame Tesla’s fortune-telling tent. My chair was turned over, my empty coffee cup on the ground beside me.

“Help me! Help me! Please!”

The woods had been an illusion, but these cries weren’t part of a dream. They were real.

I scrambled to my feet and bolted for the lawn.

ELEVEN

THE cry for help had drawn a costumed crowd. A dozen Storybook Kingdom residents converged in front of my coffee truck. I elbowed my way through Jack, Jill, and Little Miss Muffet (sans her Tuffet).

Pushing into the center of the fairy-tale ring, I found Mike Quinn’s ex—in a clinch with mine.

“What happened?!” I cried.

Matt stepped back and Leila faced me, topaz eyes pooling.

“I can’t find Molly or Jeremy. They were supposed to meet me at the castle. When they didn’t show, I searched everywhere, but I couldn’t find them!”

She buried her face into my ex-husband’s princely tunic.

That’s when it hit me like a sucker punch: Lost kids. In an urban park. At nightfall. And they weren’t just any kids. They were Mike’s kids.

“Did you try calling them?”

“What are you talking about, Clare? Molly doesn’t have a phone.”

“But Jeremy does!” I reminded her.

“Not since I took it away.”

“You what?!”

“My son sneaked his phone into school two days ago,” Leila said. “And that’s prohibited!”

“Mike never told me that!”

“That’s because I haven’t had time to tell him.”

I clenched my fists so tightly my nails dug into my palms. “Leila, if Jeremy had his phone now, we could contact him.

“Stop yelling at me. They’re my children. Not yours.”

“And what about their father? Maybe you should have consulted him before you took the phone away.”

Leila shook her scarlet mane, and her tone turned shrill. “What does that matter now? I can’t find my babies. That’s your fault, not mine. I left Molly and Jeremy with you. You agreed to watch them!”

A wall of muscle stepped between us. “That’s enough. Bickering and blame aren’t going to help us find two lost kids.”

Leila’s eyes flashed at Matt. “They also had their collie with them.”

“Okay, and their little dog, too.”

Leila demanded the police be called, and a perpetually grinning Cheshire Cat stepped up, informing us he’d already spoken to 911.

(The cat was actually James Elliot, whose popular portobello mushroom burger prompted his embrace of the Alice in Wonderland theme, complete with inflatable hookah-smoking caterpillar atop his bright orange sandwich truck.)

Within a minute an electric buggy with two park policemen rolled up, while in the background an NYPD sector car approached along the narrow road circling the ball field.

Samantha Peel arrived with her handy Bluetooth—and a bearded man in a navy blue blazer (the festival’s legal advisor).

The police were serious and professional, but they were not overly alarmed; in other words, no Amber Alert, not yet. They calmed Leila and launched some basic protocols.

A smartphone alert was sent to Sam’s staff, and an announcement was made over the loudspeakers for “Jeremy and Molly to please come to the coffee truck . . .” Meanwhile, Leila was instructed to ring her building’s doorman (no sign of them) and the kids’ friends. (No luck.)

Finally, the police shared their plans for a systematic search of the entire festival area, as well as the museum’s grounds near the festival’s entrance. If the kids didn’t turn up, the hunt would be widened.

The Mad Hatter joined the Cheshire Cat in offering to help search, as did Jack and Jill, Snow White’s Huntsman, and Little Bo Peep (who clearly took her role to heart). But while the police outlined their plan, I felt a cold itch at the back of my skull.

That little dream I’d had in Madame Tesla’s tent had involved Mike’s kids, and they hadn’t led me to any of the places the police were about to search.

It bothered me. But what was I supposed to do about it? Tell the police to base their response on a coffeehouse manager’s naptime musings?

Rationally speaking, I had no idea where Molly and Jeremy were. And I certainly didn’t want to divert official resources on this mother’s “goose chase.”

Yet my dream had seemed so real. I couldn’t let it go . . .

That left me with one solution. But first I had to call Mike Quinn and tell him the truth. There was no getting around it—

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“[An] amusing combination of caffeine and chaos.”—Publishers Weekly

“This series continues to mix clever and intricate plots with a regular cast of characters who become more enjoyable with every episode.”—Booklist

Meet the Author

Cleo Coyle is a pseudonym for Alice Alfonsi, writing in collaboration with her husband, Marc Cerasini. Both are New York Times bestselling authors of The Coffeehouse Mysteries, now celebrating over ten years in print. Alice and Marc are also bestselling media tie-in writers who have penned properties for Lucasfilm, NBC, Fox, Disney, Imagine, and MGM. They live and work in New York City, where they write independently and together, including the national bestselling Haunted Bookshop Mysteries.

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Once Upon a Grind 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
StephJones More than 1 year ago
Once Upon a Grind Once Upon A Grind A Wicked Good Read! In the fourteenth book in the Coffeehouse Mystery series, coffeehouse manager, Clare Cosi, and her wonderfully diverse staff of the Village Blend, descend upon New York’s Central Park for a Fairy Tale Week celebration. The coffee truck is decorated, fittingly, (for a roaster and purveyor of fine coffee beans) with a Jack and the Beanstalk theme. Matteo, Clare’s ex-husband and partner, is pulled into duty as Prince Charming. It is a situation ripe for a fairy tale ending. Unfortunately, Clare’s boyfriend Mike Quinn is out of town. Mike asks Clare to assist in getting his children into the festival. His ex-wife, a wonderful wicked witch, dumps her two charming children on Clare, and runs off to who knows where, within the park. Matteo is escorting the Pink Princess (also the children’s nanny) throughout the festivities, and when she turns up missing, and later is found drugged in the depths of the Park, Matteo is arrested. Clare hastens to clear his name, tend to Mike’s children over their concern for Pink Princess Anya, and keep the wicked ex-wife at bay. Stir in some magic coffee beans, Red in the Hood, Cold War intrigue, and marital infidelities, with a well written story, and you have a very compelling read. Cleo Coyle masterfully presents the fourteenth book in this delightful series. While many authors tend to go a little “stale” after several books in a series, Coyle manages to keep the characters fresh and compelling. If anything, the books seem to get better and better. This book would stand alone, apart from the series, very well, but readers of the Coffeehouse Mystery series will be charmed by this latest visit to the Village Blend. My personal test of a great book is JOMC (Just One More Chapter). As a reader, you know what I mean: Just One More Chapter, and I will start the laundry; Just One More Chapter, and I will put the book away and start dinner for the family; Just One More Chapter , and I will turn out the light and go to sleep. I was so entranced by this book, I simply could not put it down until I finished it. I am sure other mystery lovers will feel the same. I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderful recipes that have been included. I suggest you make yourself a cup of the Snow White Chocolate Mocha before curling up in your favorite chair for this wicked good read. To be completely transparent, I was gifted an advance copy of this book. There was no request for review, but simply a kind gift at a low point in my life. This review is my attempt to provide potential purchasers an honest appraisal of the story.
Justpeachy1 More than 1 year ago
The Coffehouse Mystery series continues with the latest installment by Cleo Coyle, Once Upon a Grind. Most fairy-tales start with once upon a time and end with happily-ever-after, but this book is about magic beans and murder. Coyle once again impresses with a knack for good storytelling, intelligent characters and the perfect cup of joe. Get your favorite beverage ready, along with a free evening and a cozy blanket, because once you start this book, you won't be able to put it down til the very end! What I liked: Two of the biggest names in cozy mysteries in one week. I'm on a roll! I love Cleo Coyle's Coffeehouse Mystery series with a passion. I am a coffee drinker myself and loved the initial theme of the series and all of the interesting situations Coyle puts her heroine, Clare Cosi into. Clare, along with everyone at the Village Blend is an intelligent and resourceful character. Coyle's way with characterization is exceptional, but I think it's the overall dynamic between the characters that has kept this series just as popular today as when it first started. In the latest addition to the series, Once Upon a Grind, Coyle uses a fairy-tale theme but imbues it with a bit of murder. Being a fan of magic and fairy-tales started young with me and a book of classic tales my sister and I poured over as children. So, I was excited by the theme of this book and was totally caught up from the first chapter. Who would want to kill a princess? Coyle has the pulse of the cozy community and publishing at large. Fairytales are all the rage, but it takes a unique spin to set any book apart from the masses and Coyle does it with style. Her book may have a magical theme but it's still all about the coffee. Loved every word of it! Clare is once again thrown into a murder investigation when a she participates in a fairy-tale themed festival in Central Park with her coffee truck. I loved the playful spirit of the festival and the reading of the coffee grinds and such. The coffee truck had a Jack and the Beanstalk theme and everything was going great, when one of the princesses is found dead in the woods. I loved the interplay between Clare and Matteo in this installment of the series a lot. Matteo is always getting mixed up in something and this time it's coffee beans with magical properties. They relationship Clare has developed with Matteo, who happens to be her ex-husband throughout the series is one of the best parts. I like them together, but not romantically and it works so well. Coyle gives readers intelligent and likable characters that she has developed throughout 14 books. Simply amazing! The mystery reaches far and wide from Wall Street to the East Side and even into the past. A murder that took place as far back as the Cold War is involved and this one has lots of twists and turns to keep readers off their game. It still amazes me how cut-throat the coffee business can be and it is so intertwined with just about every other kind of business out there. There were some red herrings in this one and it was not predictable at all. Coyle once again delights readers with her latest book and keeps them coming back for more! Bottom Line: There are some big names in cozy mystery genre and Cleo Coyle is one of them. This husband and wife writing team has produced a long lived series that just keeps getting better with every book. Once Upon a Grind is one of my favorites out all fourteen books in the series.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Funny and smart, once of the best of a grand mystery series. Highly recommended.
Bookish78 More than 1 year ago
Terrific read!
ritr3 More than 1 year ago
Step into this well-crafted cozy mystery at any book number and I guarantee you will go back to the first one to find out about this wonderful group of people at the Village Blend. While each book can stand on its own, the character development gently occurs over the course of the series. The writing is clean, smooth, and top-notch, and the characters are interesting, fun, and dimensional. Cleo Coyle introduces a new aspect to the central character and keeps it within the boundaries of believability. Scenes with Boris are a hoot, and the visions are so well done that one would assume the author had a few of those magic beans as well. (Madame must never find out about the hen and the scarf thing.) And who knew a papaya and a hot dog were related. You may want to have your beverage at hand so you do not have to get up during a carefully constructed plot moment. Should you think sleuthing is too easy for the main character, continue reading. There are plenty of “oh no!” moments, plot twists, and re-direction of suspicion to increase your heartbeat. The resolution to the crime is delivered in a surprisingly delightful package. The best part of this book is a tie between the funny yet very mama-wolf protagonist, the sensory-filled descriptions, and the last line “Don’t miss the next Coffeehouse Mystery coming soon.” Each release is just so delicious, from the liquid-brown eyes of Matteo to the smooth brew of the newest Ethiopian blend. With each tasty mention of a recipe in the story, I crossed my fingers hoping it was included in the back of the book. (It was!) I’m pretty sure Cleo Coyle added a dairy free treat in there just for me. Overall, this book was full of a great mix of ingredients, tantalizing aromas and flavors, and feelings of happily ever after.
RonnaL More than 1 year ago
The Village Blend Coffeehouse and many many fairy tales are blended together to make a new mystery for Clare Cozi and her Village Coffee House crew.  Everyone is dressed up for the Fairy Tale Festival when the Sleeping Beauty goes missing in Central Park, and Clare's ex husband, Matt, is the Prince Charming who has lost his princess.  Jack's beans might have grown a beanstalk to the giant, but Max's supposedly magical African beans made coffee that gives visions.  Can these visions actually help Clare solve a mystery of the pink and red princesses?  Will Clare decide weather to move to DC with her NYPD boyfriend?  Will Boris capture his lady love?  This is definitely a fantastical thinking mystery, where you can let your imagination take flight in the creative adventures the coffeehouse in wonderland.  Though I'm not a real fantasy or fairy tale person, I thoroughly enjoyed this story and fitting the puzzle pieces together. As always, the audible of this book added so much to the narrative. 
Dollycas More than 1 year ago
Dollycas’s Thoughts This was an truly enchanting story and so much fun to read! I stayed up until early in the morning reading telling myself “just one more chapter” again and again. It is stories like this one that give readers like me “book hangovers” but they are so worth it. Clare and the Village Blend crew are taking part in the Fairy Tale Fall Event in Central Park. The coffee truck has a Jack and A Beanstalk theme complete with magic coffee beans and coffee grind readings. All is going well until Clare’s ex-husband is pulled in to replace a Prince Charming that failed to show up at the festival. He is paired with a beautiful princess for most of the day and then she goes missing. The search is on until they find the “sleepy beauty” in the dense part of woods in the park. Only she is not sleeping, she is dead and Clare’s ex becomes the prime suspect in her demise. The magic coffee beans and the visions they give Clare not only helped find the missing princess but they may help her to find the real killer. So much happens in this story but it unfolds so naturally it is not overwhelming at all. The clues lead to a secret club and a cold case murder. Clare’s boyfriend, Detective Mike Quinn, is on temporary assignment in Washington D.C. but he is still head of a task force for the New York Police Department so he is up to speed on this case. In fact his ex-wife may even be involved since the princess who died was also working as a mother’s helper for her taking care of his kids. Coyle has woven quite a tangled web in this mystery linking people and events together you would never imagine and Clare is right in the middle of it all. There are also things going on outside the main mystery. The subplots deal with some Village Blend employee drama and decision Clare is wrestling with. Matt and Clare may not be romantically involved anymore but they do work well together. I really admire the way the authors have thought outside of the box and let their characters evolve in many directions. It keeps this series fresh and each book better than the last. This is a must read for cozy lovers. Whether you have read all the books in this series or this is your first Cofffeehouse Mystery I just know you will love this story. Just a little warning – this is not a book you can read a few chapters and set it aside. This writing team uses the same technique as suspense/thriller authors like James Patterson. Short chapters that lead right into the next one and the next one and the next one and before you know you are at the end. So don’t start this book if you have to work the next morning. This is the perfect book for a lazy weekend day snuggled up in front of your fireplace in a comfy chair. 10 Starfish!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful addition to the series. I can't wait to see how the results of this book carry into future books in the series. Those who love coffee will love these mysteries. It's all in the grind of the coffee mystery. Read with a great cup of Mocha!!
dibbylodd More than 1 year ago
I can't get enough of this series! Once again the authors have crafted a clever and very engaging mystery. It's who and why, but with marvelous twists. They should be getting a call from the NYC Mayor's Office to ask to use these great fundraising ideas. Are these magical coffee beans? Is that why Clare is having these strange visions? And are they accurate? How is she to interpret them? As if that weren't enough, there is the question of what to say to her detective about moving. Wrap that all up with underground fantasy clubs, psycho ex wives, and drugs that induce a (possible irreversible) coma. It's quite a ride!
csrsvivr More than 1 year ago
Fairy Tale week in Central Park – what could ruin that? Perhaps a murder of Sleeping Beauty! I can’t get enough of this series. As always I need to finish it as soon I begin. What a magical ride!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have enjoyed all the books in this series until this book. The story never captured my interest and finishing the book started to feel like a chore. Hopefully the next book will be better.
Tiggedy2 More than 1 year ago
I must admit here and now that this is the first book I have read in the Coffeehouse Mystery series. Not for lack of wanting to. I just have a huge TBR (to be read) and I didn’t want to add a series with so many books already in it to catch up on. Oh boy, have I ever been cheating myself out of some wonderful reading time! This book is not as good as my sister has told me the series is, it’s ten times better! By the end of chapter one of ONCE UPON A GRIND, I knew I was hooked worse than one gets on the wonderful caffeine this series is about. I felt an instant affection right away with the story’s characters. Series lead Clare Cosi is someone I would like to know. And while I don’t normally care for cozies set in big cities, NYC is about as big as they get, this book had a very cozy, small town feel and I greatly enjoyed it. The fairy tale theme in the story was very well done. Author Cleo Coyle perfectly blended real life and the fairy tale aspects to create a spectacular mystery that left me breathless. I was on the edge of my seat through the twists and turns of this book. And with its brilliant conclusion, I was finally able to take a deep breath. I am now a mega Cleo Coyle fan. Good thing my sister has the whole series! So, grab a cup of your favorite brew and be prepared to enjoy this awesome book. Make sure to check out the back of the book for tons of tips and recipes!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
With this, the fourteenth Coffeehouse Mystery, I am finally caught up with Clare, Blanche, Matteo and the "family" that invade the Village Blend in this international intrigue long- running story. Clare runs into the Fall Farytale Forest Brigade working with and within Manhattan's elite in a "Once Upon a Time" based tale of drugs, the Cold War, and a hot love life of more than one Prince Charming. It all starts with Matt and his coffee beans..... and ends with the closing of a very old international spy case you have to read to believe. Told in typical Cleo Coyle style, this book is just as wonderful as the other 13, and sets the stage for some changes in the future. A great story, with interesting recipes and Bosnian and Turkish coffee facts that might be very interesting
gaele More than 1 year ago
AudioBook Review: Stars:  Overall: 4 Narration: 5 Story:  4 Before I started reviewing, this series was one of the first cozies I had picked up, and I read as many as I could lay my hands on: it was my gateway into other older cozies with elements that intrigued, and while I don’t review them as often as romance, I do enjoy the variation.  Cleo Coyle continues on with Clare Cosi and her Village Blend coffeehouse in New York.  Clare is hard not to like, and I enjoyed the development of her relationship with Matteo (her ex-husband) for when I last saw them, it was an uneasy friendship, not quite solid.  Clare has agreed to participate in a Faerie-Tale themed festival in Central Park, she’ll bring her coffee truck, decked out in a Jack and the Beanstalk theme, and try to enjoy herself. But, someone decided there was one princess too many, and a body is found. Thus brings in the mystery – finding who killed the princess and why, and Clare’s logical thought processes work nicely to unravel the very  twisty tale.  She’s got a stellar cast of secondary characters: both regular customers and employees are dedicated, determined, loyal  and quite intelligent. And the red-herrings in this story are dropping in equal measure with the viable clues, and lead readers on a merry chase.   Then you can’t ignore the elements of the surprisingly cut-throat coffee business, from plantations to brokers, not to mention coffee  houses themselves.  Matteo is one of those characters that gets into messes crossing the street, and while his instncts are not always  great, he always adds a unique spin to the background of that simple cup of coffee I happen to be drinking right now. This story has Matteo bringing in beans that have magical properties, and that little twist, along with tea leaf reading was unique and well integrated without losing the overriding focus on coffee and the solution of the murder.  From the Village Blend to Central Park, Wall Street to the East Side and a moment of dipping toes into the past, the story unfolds with flair, integrating all of the pieces into the story and keeping readers engaged and wondering right along with the characters. Interactions and relationships are beautifully developed and are a solid hallmark of this series, and this book is no different.  Even after not reading a  few of the books in the middle of the series, the story felt familiar, and was just as enjoyable as I remembered.  Narration in this story is provided by Rebecca Gibel, a new narrator for me. I really enjoyed her voice, she has a clarity of enunciation  and solid tone that suited the read perfectly while managing to make slight variations in pitch and tone that delineated the characters nicely.  There was no great over-reach in her inflections for emotion, and the slight volume changes to delineate the moments  (interior dialogue, tension) are well-placed and appropriate.  I’ve missed this series, and it was a nice change to get back to the series and catch up.  I received an AudioBook copy of the title from the publisher via AudioBook Jukebox for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have enjoyed every one of Colye's coffeehouse books but I found this one to be extremely boring.  For me, the entire storyline was unrealistic and silly. I do like the characters that appear in all the books though.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago