“It’s so beautiful,” I practically cooed at the plain clay bowl sitting just inches from my face behind the glass. My fingers were itching to hold it.
“My niece could do better.” My assistant manager Kona laughed at me as she scooted by with a silver, multitiered tray of appetizers to place on a small table.
My eyes moved to the detailed figurine of a Maya ball player wearing an ornate headdress and what looked like a sumo wrestling belt around his waist. Sports equipment sure had come a long way in the past few centuries. A large plate beside it showed a colorfully dressed member of royalty reading a book. Like from a thousand years ago. With the rest of the Central American antiquities artistically placed on dark red velvet, the display seemed to be made just for our store.
We were about to open our doors for Chocolates and Chapters’ reception celebrating the recent donation of Maya art by the River family to the Baltimore Museum of Man. Since founding West Riverdale, Maryland, in 1860, the Rivers had been pillars of local society, and no one was surprised by their generous gift.
Our store looked fabulous. It was well over a year ago that Erica Russell and I had removed the wall between our businesses to create the best combination ever—my gourmet chocolate shop and her family bookstore.
Tonight, we’d rearranged a few bookshelves and pushed our comfy, mismatched couches and tables against the walls to open up our dining area for the guests who were soon to arrive. Colorful flower arrangements of varying sizes and strategically placed tea lights had transformed our normally homey shop into an elegant party area. We’d pulled up the blinds and our place glowed from every window. Erica had taken a lot of photos for the website, hoping that tonight’s party would lead to more customers paying to hold their events here.
We’d closed early for a Saturday night, giving plenty of notice to our regulars, especially May Jensen, owner of next door’s Enchanted Forest Flower Shop, and the supplier of tonight’s arrangements. May and her best friend, Nara Prashad, stay-at-home mom turned bed-and-breakfast manager, had decided that my chocolate was their good luck charm in meeting men.
They looked as different as could be—May liked to say she was fifty pounds away from being a plus-sized model, and Nara was originally from India and as tiny as May was big. They’d become best friends while attending a perimenopausal support group and went out manhunting every Saturday night.
I suspected that they enjoyed the looking more than the having because they were in our store getting giggly over Champagne Milks and Spicy Passion Darks week after week.
I’d assumed this evening would be just another opportunity to spread the word about my fabulous chocolates and Erica’s amazing books, but then I’d learned that the small brown bowl had trace elements of theo-something-or-other, which translated chemically into chocolate. This bowl held chocolate over eight hundred years ago.
Mine, my soul said. The security guard hired for the event eyed me a little suspiciously while he adjusted his belt and then crossed his arms over his potbelly. Drooling on the glass would be unacceptable.
I sighed and went back to arranging my chocolates. Besides my always-popular Mayan Warriors with their spicy cayenne pepper kick, I’d designed several new flavor combos that were sure to delight our guests: tangy Aztec Pineapple Milks, Rain Forest Bananas Foster with a hint of rum, and my favorite, the pyramid-shaped End of the World Caramels. Erica had told me how historically inaccurate my names were, but the great majority of our guests would care about that as much as I did. Which wasn’t much at all.
She’d already given me the lecture about how the correct term was Maya; Mayan referred only to their language. It hadn’t helped me to point out how Mayan was used all over the place and that changing my packaging to correct it to “Maya” would take time.
Erica was prepping her table display of Secrets Revealed in Maya Art, a beautiful coffee-table book of pottery much more colorful than “my” bowl. The book was causing some kind of uproar in the world of anthropology, but I’d tuned out as soon as Erica started talking about pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican something or other.
Erica’s sister, Colleen, came running in from the back, tugging her black dress into place and smoothing her hair. “Sorry!” she said. “Mark was late picking up the kids.”
She was in the middle of a divorce that was remarkably amicable given that Mark had cheated on her. I’d have strung him up. Or at least taken him for everything I could.
She hurried over to the bookstore cashier counter to handle sales of the Maya and other books. “This place looks amazing!”
“Thanks.” I did a quick review of the whole store. “Do you need anything over here?”
“Nope,” she said cheerfully. “Unless you can sneak over some of that yummy food I’m smelling from the kitchen.”
I scowled. While I was glad the Rivers had hired a catering company to handle the appetizers, and really grateful I was being paid for the truffles we’d made for the event, it drove me crazy to have someone else using my kitchen.
Ever since I’d scraped together the money to open my chocolate shop, the only people who’d cooked there were me and my assistants. The thought of other people in there made my skin crawl.
Especially Juan Aviles, owner of El Diablo Restaurant. Not only had he sniffed at the size of my kitchen and said, “I guess this is sufficient for cooking your little chocolates,” he was constantly berating his staff. I guess he’d decided to follow in the footsteps of Gordon Ramsay. Or he was just a jerk.
Vivian River had promised me they’d bring their own pots and utensils, but my assistant Kayla had caught them digging through a drawer for a melon baller and given them the evil eye.
“I’ll work on the food,” I told Colleen. “How are the kids?”
“Good.” She shrugged. “They’re hanging out with ‘Dad’s friend’ tonight.”
“Oh,” I said. And then I realized who the “friend” was. “Oooh. Sorry.”
She shook her head. “It’s good that they like her. It’s just . . .”
“I know,” I said. “It’s hard.” I didn’t really know. Who could?
Luckily, Erica saved me by calling from the dining area. “Ready, Michelle?” Her smile was totally stressed out.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked her.
“I’m fine,” she said, her smile stretching so tight I thought her lips would crack.
“Because ever since you told me about this whole thing, you’ve been weird.” After two years of working together and being housemates, I knew Erica better than almost anyone, and I’d never seen her this edgy.
Like every other time I’d asked her, she shrugged it off. “I’m fine.”
At least the reception would be over soon and Erica would go back to her normal, happy self.
This was our first big event since Colleen had handed over management of the bookstore side of our space to Erica and gone back to school full-time. Maybe Erica’s tension was due to the added responsibility of keeping the family business going all by herself.
Just as I was asking Kona to make sure some of the appetizers made it over to Colleen, Dr. Smug came in the back door, wearing a tux. Okay, his name was Dr. Addison Moody, which also said a lot about his personality and the reality of self-fulfilling prophecy. He was the hero of the evening, a university professor turned museum curator who had put together the arrangement between the River family and the museum. It was win-win-win for them all: The Rivers got to be the gracious, richer-than-anyone-else-in-town family who had so much money they could donate a bunch of centuries-old art without blinking. The museum got not only the art but also a chunk of money to create a permanent display for them. And Dr. Moody probably got a big bonus for bringing in such a huge deal. He was also planning to research all of the pieces and publish papers about his findings.
Something about this guy made me feel anxious and I wasn’t sure why. He looked the part, like every professor on TV—tall, with thick, curly brown hair a little too long and graying at the temples in a dignified way. He had big brown eyes, and an enthusiasm for everything, which was contagious to everyone except me. It just made me nervous, like he was sucking his energy from everyone around him. One of those people who swept you along in his enthusiasm because it appeared so genuine. Childlike, which might seem somewhat gross for someone in his forties, but was more like Willy Wonka than Hugh Hefner.
At the moment, Dr. Moody looked very elegant in his tux as he gazed around the store, beaming.
Erica smiled even brighter, if possible, and asked him, “What do you think?”
“It looks wonderful,” he said and walked over to the display case. “Look at my beauties.” He stood staring as if he couldn’t believe it.
I felt drawn to the art as well and joined him in silent admiration.
He leaned over to peer closely at a tall vase in the center of the display, a tiny spotlight emphasizing the rich colors of the detailed artwork depicting a seated man wearing a blue headdress. Erica had told me the man was a Maya lord gazing in a mirror being held by a servant. A few small pointed tubes were strategically placed around the base.
“Just think what wonders they’ve seen,” he said reverently. “Used by the royal families for their religious ceremonies, and even their humble meals.”
He pointed to a battered diary that looked like it had traveled in Indiana Jones’s pocket. “It seems rather embarrassed, don’t you think? Surrounded by so much glory.”
The late Bertrand River had recorded his travels in that diary. He’d been the black sheep of the industrious River family, taking off for years at a time to explore ruins in Central America. There’d recently been whispers about the legality of bringing these pieces back. Maybe silencing the rumors was one of the reasons for the donation.
Our reverie was interrupted by Dr. Moody’s assistant, who walked in from the back hallway with her perpetual frown.
There was no nice way to say it. Lavender Rawlings looked like a frog. And her oversized glasses and blunt pageboy haircut only enhanced the impression. She was the opposite of the professor’s vitality. A true buzzkill. It probably had something to do with her peevish expression and her sniff of disapproval at everything.
Maybe her lack of energy somehow balanced the professor’s exuberance. Like she grounded him or something.
Tonight she wore what would be a stylish cocktail dress on anyone else. It had beautiful needlework and sequins on the bodice, showing off what wasn’t a bad body if she would stand up straight and not walk like a mole in her black flats.
Erica would tell me I was mixing my animal metaphors.
Not that I’m a fashion plate. I was usually happy to find something to wear that didn’t have chocolate stains, but tonight I could almost pass for chic. Erica had insisted on taking me shopping in Frederick and bullied me into trying on a dress that gathered in a high waist and then draped into a frothy blue and green skirt. It made me feel utterly feminine.
For some reason, Erica had chosen to go totally professional, with her most boxy black pantsuit. But even with her blond hair pulled back into a tight bun and her eyes hiding behind her librarian glasses, she managed to look sophisticated and sexy.
Lavender didn’t bother with a greeting. “There’s a cat out back trying to get in.”
I groaned internally. Coco was a brown tabby who’d arrived in town a few months before and been quasi-adopted by almost every shop on Main Street. At first, she’d refused to go inside any of our stores, but lately it was hard to keep her out.
It didn’t take long to figure out why: she was pregnant. We’d all stupidly trusted Reese Everhard, owner and editor of the town’s newspaper, who had assured everyone that Coco was a neutered male.
I resisted the urge to check on the cat as Erica said, “It’s time,” and made a gesture for me to take off my apron.
I hurriedly threw it to Kayla, who stuffed it behind the counter. Kona opened the door with a flourish just as the River family’s stretch limo pulled up.
Maryland’s early September weather had cooperated nicely with our party, the summer’s brutal heat and humidity having grudgingly left the week before. A cool breeze brought in the smell of star lilies from the flower shop next door. May had decided to have her assistant work in order to show off her wares to the visiting Maryland royalty.
A camera flashed from across the street as Reese took photos, dodging a black SUV to get shots of the River family. I couldn’t resist watching them arrive. The town gossips followed the Rivers as much as the latest Miley Cyrus debacles, and we all knew far too much about the whole family.
Vivian River, grandniece of explorer Bertrand River, was the first one out.
Vivian terrified me. She was one of those graciously wealthy, always totally put-together women who sported the latest designer clothing for the rich and not too fashionable. She was very unlike me: tall and thin with her hair ruthlessly under control.
I’d dared to ask Vivian if she was sure hiring Reese was a good idea, given her penchant for hysterical headlines like: West Riverdale Stars Football Team Is Out of This World!; Keep Banned Books Off Your Kids’ Kindle; and West Riverdale Council Abandons Town, when the members took their annual vacation. Vivian had told me, rather frostily, that Reese’s contract ensured that the Rivers maintained strict control over all of the photos. The warning in her voice made me believe Reese would stay in line.
Luckily, I hadn’t been the target of Reese’s sensationalist style of journalism for a while. Both Erica and I had done a good job of keeping a low profile over the summer after our amateur murder investigation had turned into a fiasco. While we had outed two murderers, both Reese and I had almost been killed in the process.
Even though Reese had moved onto others after I’d practically saved her life, I suspected that getting the most hits on her “news” website wasn’t the only thing she was interested in. For some crazy reason, her sense of high school rivalry went deep and it wouldn’t take much for her to attack me again.
Exiting the limo behind Vivian was Adam River and his younger siblings, Gary and Jennie. At thirty years old, Adam had already taken over the real estate division and manufacturing plants of the River family businesses. Only a few years younger, Gary had none of Adam’s drive. And young Jennie was facing her own demons.
Adam helped out his grandmother, Rose Hudson, and guided her into the wheelchair that had been unloaded by the driver. He waved away the driver’s help and pushed her into the store, with everyone else trailing behind.
They were undoubtedly siblings, all three of them blue-eyed and blond with strands that lightened to white in the summer. The boys retained the distinctive nose, but every River female had the offending bump removed.
Adam had on a beautifully tailored suit with a red tie that flapped around his neck as he came in the store. Gary had thrown a sports jacket over a white button-down shirt and pair of khakis, and must have spent a lot of time on his hair to make it look so fashionably disheveled. Jennie wore a short skirt over colorful green and orange tights. If I tried those, people would think a Muppet had thrown up on me, but with her cropped leather jacket and dreadlocked hair, she looked more funky than I’d ever been in my life.
Our West Riverdale neighbors were the first to arrive. The Rivers had spared no expense, and people who had zero interest in Maya history or hadn’t even left their homes after dark for years had called the babysitter, dressed themselves up, and come down to enjoy the free wine and appetizers of the biggest party of the season.
Then the beautiful people from the neighboring cities and towns began to arrive, the men in designer suits and the women in little black dresses and glittering jewelry. Just one of those necklaces would pay for the industrial chocolate-tempering machine I constantly ogled in my chocolatier magazines.
Aviles came out to take one look at the crowd and rushed back to the kitchen. I didn’t think we could fit this many people into our store. Normally I’d worry about the fire marshal complaining, but he’d just waylaid Kayla and was shoving crab taquitos into his mouth.
Reese was inside now, taking the regular high-society shots of glamorous donors, side by side, smiling perfectly into the camera.
My brother Leo was standing with a group of fellow veterans, his arm around the waist of his girlfriend Star. She was the first woman he’d dated in the years since he’d returned home from Afghanistan after losing his leg. He’d made so much progress in his fight against his depression, and his happiness with her was the icing on the cake. They’d been together all summer, and he’d even fixed up his apartment to make it more homey. I hoped it was in preparation for Star to move in.
“You look amazing,” I told her.
“Thanks!” Star was wearing a shimmering navy dress that fell below her knees, accentuating her athletic build and highlighting her hazel eyes.
I pointed to the diamond necklace in the shape of a star. “Love the necklace.” I’d helped Leo shop for it.
“Isn’t it great?” She turned a blazing smile on Leo.
“Need any help?” he asked.
“No, but thanks,” I said. “Enjoy the party.”
Several people who I assumed were from the museum arrived, and the professor and Vivian greeted them. One man broke off from the group to talk to Erica. He was dressed almost like a toy soldier, with a short, buttoned jacket with brass buttons, and cigarette pants folded up to show an inch of white socks. His brown hair was manicured, and he’d obviously planned his appearance in detail.
I was about to bring out more Blackberry and Goat Cheese Darks when Gary decided to heave himself up and sit on my counter. My counter! Where I served food! Then his sister Jennie joined him and they sat there kicking their feet back and forth and watching the party as if they were little kids in a tree house.
I made a beeline for them. “Get down now.”
Gary raised his eyebrows as if he didn’t know what the problem was.
“Your butts do not belong where people put food,” I insisted. “Off!”
They both reluctantly slid to the ground and then looked around for a new place to park themselves. When Gary eyed a small table without chairs that had been temporarily cleared of food, I told them, “Go sit on the stairs or something.”
They turned for the big wooden staircase that we’d roped off for the party, but stopped as Vivian appeared at my elbow.
“Reginald.” Vivian’s voice was laced with disapproval.
Reginald? If that was my name, I’d use Gary too.
Everyone knew that Vivian was fierce in maintaining the family reputation. “You have host duties.” Her dour tone made it sound as much fun as Saturday morning chores.
Jennie slipped away silently and Vivian let her go with narrowed eyes.
“Sorry,” Gary said with a shrug and joined a group of younger guests gathering around the glass drink dispensers filled with El Diablo’s lethal punch of fruit juices and rum. I thought I saw him shoot a wistful glance at the stairs.
I’d heard all about Gary’s dedication to doing as little work as possible while still holding on to his trust fund. Rumor had it that Adam had bought him the Big Drip Coffee Shop and made him manager as a last-ditch effort to instill some kind of work ethic in Gary.
“He takes after Bertrand in far too many ways,” Vivian said bitterly. Then she changed back into her normal gracious self. “The event is going swimmingly, Michelle. Perhaps it’s time for the professor to make his announcement.”
I nodded, wondering how many people could get away with using the phrase “swimmingly” so easily, and tracked down the professor, who was plopping olives in his mouth while pretending to listen to an older woman. I couldn’t hear her over the noise of the crowd, but the professor looked past her the whole time. As I approached him, he did a double take, obviously recognizing someone off to my right and not liking it. I couldn’t resist following his glare to a gorgeous man strolling into the party. Whoa. This guy could be a model for Bad Boys R Us. He paused to pull on his shirt cuffs, as if he’d just put on his suit jacket, and I could see his diamond cufflinks flash from across the room.
Kona’s hot-man radar was on full blast and she put herself in front of him in a split second, offering a tray of chocolate truffles, with her hip angled to imply another offer. He smiled at her, his teeth blinding against his resort-tanned skin.
Dr. Moody took an involuntary step toward the man, and I remembered my assignment. “Professor?” I said.
He stopped to focus on me.
“Vivian River would like you to make your announcement now?” His furious expression made me end the sentence on a question.
Lavender must have sensed a disturbance in her Professor Force since she was instantly beside him, glowering at me as if his anger was all my fault.
“Vivian said it’s time to make the announcement,” I told Lavender, sounding like a tattletale.
His face smoothed over and jovial Professor Moody was back. “Of course.” He walked toward the display, pulling the microphone from its stand.
“Hello?” he said into the mic and it screeched, getting the attention of everyone in the room. “Thank you all for coming.”
Kona scooted by me, and I whispered, “Who’s the cutie?”
“Dibs!” she said. “He’s got the most delicious accent.” She sent a flirtatious look over her shoulder in his direction, but Gorgeous Man was watching the professor.
Jolene Roxbury, high school math and drama teacher, gave me an arch look. “If I was ten years younger and not happily married, I’d hit that.”
“Jolene!” I said. She and her husband were the happiest married people I’d ever met.
“What?” she said. “I’m in love. Not dead.” She took a champagne glass from her husband, Steve, who returned from the bar, and then she slipped her arm around his waist as the professor began his speech.
“Tonight we’re here to honor the River family, the generous donors of this beautiful and important art to the very fortunate Baltimore Museum of Man.” He gestured toward the display. “These pieces, along with many more antiquities in the collection, will help unravel the mysteries of the ancient Maya.”
He went on. “We are all very lucky that Bertrand River’s adventures took him to Central America at a time when he could discover so many different pieces from so many different eras.”
I noticed that Adam was attempting to push his grandmother’s wheelchair to the front, and I led the way, tapping shoulders to make room. Once she was in place, I moved around the side to the back of the room and saw a man standing by the kitchen door.
It was Bean. Erica’s brother.
My heart started beating faster. He hadn’t seen me yet.
Mine, something inside me whispered again.
I shut down that errant thought. Bean was not mine. He belonged to the world.
What was he doing here? Last I heard, he was on the Canadian and West Coast segments of his worldwide book tour, riding a wave of rave reviews. He’d been in town for a few weeks in May and then taken off with barely a good-bye. Almost patting my head as if I were still the middle school kid he’d been forced to kiss in a spin the bottle game ages ago.
He was wearing a beautiful suit. His publisher probably insisted on it. Then I realized that Erica must have known he was coming. Maybe this was what she’d been so stressed about. Wait. Had she taken me shopping so I could look halfway good for her brother?
It could be that she felt responsible for the sputtering end to what I thought was a pretty hot flirtation. I’d never told her about eavesdropping on their conversation. Soon after I’d been almost killed by West Riverdale’s most notorious murderer in a century, I was sure Bean was about to seal the deal with our relationship. And then Erica had told him to think about what he wanted. That I had “abandonment issues”—like, who didn’t?—and he should realize that he couldn’t just fool around with me and then take off when the next story called to his journalist soul.
I’d almost screamed then and there that he could fool around with me all he wanted! No commitment needed. But after Bean left, I’d realized she was right. If it hurt that much when we weren’t even involved, how much would it hurt if he left in the middle of something that I thought of as special and he thought of as a fling to fill the time between book signings?
Of course, Reese Everhard’s blog highlighted every single photo she could dig up of Bean being hit on by some dazzling woman across the globe, along with some salacious headline. My least favorite was “Too Sexy for Sweden.”
He saw me and all of that evaporated. He looked a little stunned and I realized he’d never seen me in a dress. And then he smiled as if he was really glad to see me. I walked toward him, feeling like I was in a fog. People magically moved out of my way, just like in a really cheesy romantic comedy.
I was almost close enough to say something when I heard a noise. A low sound hidden by the professor’s words. And then a wail rose and he stopped speaking.
The expression on Bean’s face turned to concern and I fell out of my hypnotic state. Together we rushed toward the crying as the crowd pushed away from the source.
Rose Hudson was pointing at the display case, sobbing incoherently. The professor stood holding the microphone, openmouthed with surprise. Adam attempted to calm his grandmother down, but she moaned even louder, “Cursed! Cursed!”
Poor Rose covered her face with her hands, muffling her sobs. Adam got down on one Brooks Brothers–clad knee beside his grandmother. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped her tears. “It’s okay,” he repeated several times in a gentle voice as he rubbed her shoulder. “Do you want to leave now?”
When she bobbed her head behind her hands, he stood and wheeled her toward the main entrance, nodding at Professor Moody to continue. The limo driver appeared like magic to lift the chair to the sidewalk, ignoring our ramp.
Vivian made an imperious gesture for the professor to speak, her expression livid.
The professor stumbled back into his talk, and I followed Adam out. Rose seemed to have shrunk even smaller in her chair. “Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
Adam frowned as if he couldn’t quite place me. Really? After all we’d done? Then his face cleared. “No, but thank you, Michelle.” He turned to watch the driver lift Rose into the car, and I felt dismissed.
Which totally made me want to stay. “I could put together a little goodie bag for Ms. Hudson,” I offered a little nonsensically, since the driver was already walking around to get into his seat.
He ignored me as he watched the limo go, a worried frown between his eyebrows.
“Does she really think the pottery is cursed?” I asked. No way could that little chocolate bowl hold anything except goodwill and grace.
“Of course not,” he said, turning to go back to the party. “She’s just confused.”
Bean came to the entrance and this time I was more prepared.
“Benjamin Russell!” Adam said heartily. “How are you, you old dog?”
Old dog? Was he thirty or seventy? “He goes by Bean now,” I said with what I hoped was a saucy smile. It may have quivered a little when Bean grinned at our inside joke.
“Benjamin is fine,” he said to Adam and shook his hand.
Adam tried to put his arm around Bean’s shoulder in the timeworn let’s you and I have a little chat gesture, and said, “I’d love to hear about your book,” but Bean executed a slick avoidance move that showed a lot of practice.
“Of course,” Bean said. “I’ll see you inside in a minute.” He stared at me, and my heart started thudding in my chest.
Adam looked between us, clearly surprised, and then left us alone. Or as alone as we could be right outside a huge party.
“Erica didn’t tell me you were coming back to town,” I said.
“I wasn’t sure I could make it.” He took a few steps closer. “You look great.” He winced.
Professional writers must feel like they should come up with better words than “great.”
He tried again. “Like a fairy,” he said. “Whimsical.”
I tilted my head. “Whimsical?”
“Give me a break.” He grabbed my hand. “I missed you.”
“You did?” Pure delight danced through my veins.
“Michelle!” Kayla yelled and then saw who I was talking to. “Never mind!”
But she’d broken the spell. “I should . . .” I pulled my hand away and waved it aimlessly toward the door.
“Sure,” he said. “You’re busy. Would you like to go out to dinner sometime?” It sounded formal, which was totally weird. Was he nervous?
“Are you okay?” I asked. “Not, like, dying of cancer or anything, right?” It was my turn to wince.
He smiled. “Nope. So dinner? Steamed crabs? Tomorrow night?”
“Sure.” Excitement fluttered in my stomach. And not because I loved steamed crabs as much as any Maryland native. Maybe it was the chicken tamales I’d pilfered from El Diablo. “Coming back in?”
He shook his head. “Just stopped by to see you and Erica. I’ve had to deal with too many . . . people lately.”
That reminded me of all the “people” photographs I’d seen on Reese’s blog, and my good mood deflated. “Okay. You staying with us, I mean, Erica?”
“Yep,” he said cheerfully, as if he knew how that drove me crazy. “Right upstairs.”
I made sure not to watch him walk away—okay, maybe a little bit out of the corner of my eye—as I went inside.
The professor had finished his words, and the crowd had seemed to swell even more in the few minutes I’d been outside. The Latin beat of the music had picked up and a few people were dancing in place, almost as if they didn’t realize it.
El Diablo stepped out from the kitchen to see what was needed and frowned at me when he discovered holes in my arrangements. How could I help that my truffles were so popular?
I intercepted the tray Kona was carrying and filled in the open spaces. A breeze blew through the open door, a warning of the rain that would soon start. I had a moment of gratitude that it had held off so long, and then something prickled up the back of my neck.
A new gorgeous man, this one with long hair pulled back into a Johnny Depp ponytail, stood in the doorway. His eyes flickered around the room and I stopped to watch him, feeling like an animal about to cross the plains, knowing a predator waited somewhere. Or like turning left at the Jasmine Road stop sign right outside of town, where cars speed around Devil’s Bend, ignoring the Stop Sign Ahead signs until it was too late.
He met my eyes, as if sensing my discomfort, and I swear his green eyes glowed for a second. In some ways, he was similar to the delicious man Kona had laid claim to, but just a little darker. Darker hair. Darker tan. The veneer of civilization wafer thin. Someone you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Not that West Riverdale had many of those.
I brushed off the fanciful nonsense and looked away.
Kayla approached him with a tray, shaking her hair to allow her cute blond curls to fall across her face. She must have won the coin toss with Kona.
I watched him take a bite of a Cherry Ambrosia truffle and close his eyes, as if he couldn’t help himself. I could almost taste the kirsch and dried cherries along with him.
“Someone is having a sale on tall, dark and dangerous,” May said, tugging at her Spanx through her sparkling green dress. “Maybe he likes ’em middle-aged and plump.”
I laughed. “He should be so lucky.”
Nara stared at him with wide eyes. “Maybe he likes ’em tiny and exotic.”
I watched him lean closer to Kayla and say something that made her laugh. “Looks like he likes ’em young and adorable.”
“Too bad.” May sighed. “Have you seen Lentil, I mean Coco?”
She waved her hand. “Sorry. That’s what Iris calls her. Says she’s the exact color of the diner’s lentil soup. Plus a few other choice names when Lentil, I mean Coco, threw up on her shoe.”
Served her right for naming my cat after soup. “Someone said Coco was out back.”
May was even more into Coco’s kittens than I was. “I’ll take a peek,” she said, but then she didn’t move.
We turned to look at Tall, Dark and Handsome 2.0 in time to see Kayla point to me. I felt rooted to the spot as he made his way over.
“Ms. Serrano,” he said, his voice soft and low with a Central American accent. He wore some kind of woodsy cologne that made me think of the jungle. “I’m Santiago Diaz. Your Miss Kayla told me that you made these delicious confections. I’m in awe.”
My thank-you ended in a squeak as he took my hand and kissed it! Like in a movie. Right there in the middle of my store. In the middle of West Riverdale, which hadn’t seen a hand kiss like that in probably ever. I think May and Nara squeaked along with me.
“These are my friends, May . . .” I couldn’t remember her last name. “And Nara.”
“Delighted.” He kissed their hands as well, his ponytail low on his neck. “How lucky to have such a talented pâtissier as a friend.”
They both nodded. They would have agreed if he’d said “such a talented serial killer.”
“Oh no,” I said. “I only make chocolates, not baked goods.”
“Hmm,” he said, as if reserving judgment. “Such a sophisticated palate you must have.” His voice was mesmerizing, but then I sensed something underneath the smooth talk. My BS meter was going off big-time.
“Are you friends with the Rivers?” It came out a little more challenging than I intended.
His eyes widened just a tiny bit, as if he was surprised that his flattering words weren’t working. “No. Just curious about the beautiful treasures from my heritage.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said. Over his shoulder, I saw one of the catering staff gesturing wildly to me. “Excuse me. Duty calls.”
“I’ll show you the exhibit.” May grabbed his arm and steered him toward the display.
“Eddie just quit!” The teen girl in the red shirt with the El Diablo logo and black pants was practically wringing her hands.
“Eddie?” I asked.
“The sous chef!” Her voice rose with alarm. “Can you get someone to help me clear dishes so I can take his place?”
“Of course,” I said. “I’ll do it.” It was a miracle Eddie had lasted as long as he had with the abuse Aviles piled on him.
I picked my way through the crowd, piling used plates on my tray to take back to the kitchen, but Vivian and Gary were blocking my way.
“Where’s Jennifer?” Vivian held Gary’s arm by the counter, their faces turned away from the crowd.
I loaded even more plates on my tray, and could almost hear his shrug. “I don’t know. She was just here.”
“You were in charge of watching her,” she insisted.
I glanced over and saw him wince, but I wasn’t sure if it was from Vivian’s words or her tight hold.
“I’m sorry,” he said, with the emphasis on the second word. “I was talking to the new mayor and she just disappeared.” I wasn’t sure if he was worried for his sister or mad for being called out about her leaving under his watch.
I’d finished cleaning up the plates at the edge of the counter and now couldn’t avoid trying to scoot by them. “Excuse me.”
Vivian let him go with a frown.
I could understand her worry. Everyone knew about poor Jennie River. She’d taken her father’s death a few years before very hard. At twenty-one, she’d just been through her third attempt at rehab. From the concerned expression on Vivian’s face, perhaps it hadn’t been successful. But what did I know about young rich people and their drug habits?
I smelled it even before I opened the door to my kitchen. The overflowing garbage can assaulted my nose, reminding me of why I was so careful with scents in my workspace. If any of my chocolates absorbed even a whiff of the cooked onions, charred garlic, or whatever else was part of that disgusting smell, they’d be ruined. Another reason to hate El Diablo, who was nowhere to be seen.
Cursing under my breath, I closed up the bag and took it out the back door, catching Gary River in the act of escaping.
“Just pick me up, man,” he said into his phone. “I’m so done with this granny crowd.”
I let the door shut and he turned around, mouthing an I’m sorry when he saw it was me. He’d pushed up the sleeves of his jacket to his elbows and untucked his shirt, looking way cooler than he had minutes before. I hadn’t noticed his small cross dangling from his ear before.
“Okay,” he said with his eyes on me. “Five minutes by the diner.” He closed the phone. “Sorry ’bout that.”
“No problem.” I went down the steps to the Dumpster, the garbage scent trailing behind me.
Coco must have heard my voice and she came out from under the porch. She meowed piteously, like I was keeping her out in the cold, hard world.
“Hey, Coco,” I said, but she took one look at Gary and dove back under.
“Is that your cat?” Gary asked.
“Not really,” I said. “She’s her own cat.”
“She doesn’t seem very friendly,” he said.
I didn’t know why I felt the need to apologize. “She’s shy around new people.”
“What’s in there?” He waved his hand to try to move the smell away from his face. “Body parts?”
I laughed. “I hope not. Although I wouldn’t put anything past El Diablo.”
“Yeah,” he said. “My mom loves his food but he’s nuts.” He checked his phone. “Gotta bail.” He took off in a jog toward the diner.
• • • • • • • • • • • • •
I turned over and slammed off my alarm clock the next morning, still tired. The reception had gone way past what we’d planned, and it was eleven before we’d been able to convince Tonya Ashton, the last of the stragglers, that last call meant last call. Luckily, her patient and totally sober husband had eventually steered her out the door so we could clean up, but not before she’d told me several times rather emphatically that this was the best night out she’d had since her baby was born.
El Diablo had left my kitchen a mess, and it had taken us an hour to get it back in shape. We had to rethink the idea of using my kitchen for events. Although if every out-of-towner who’d told me they loved, loved, loved my chocolate and couldn’t wait to order from my website actually did, it may have been worth it.
Once we got home, all I could think about was Bean. Right above me. Just lying there. Or laying there. Erica would know.
It probably would’ve been bad to do what I wanted during my restless night, which was to bang on the ceiling with a broom and demand that he come downstairs and help me get to sleep. Or not sleep.
Disgusted with myself for pining away for Bean, I jumped out of bed. Sunday was the one day of the week when running was optional for me, and the one day I didn’t make chocolate. Instead I usually had a leisurely morning and opened the store with Erica at eleven.
After making coffee, I went out onto the porch. Maybe I let the screen door close a little too loudly, just in case a certain journalist was awake and wanted to join me. Leftover raindrops twinkled on our grass as the sun rose over the trees. A neighbor was baking, and the scent of cinnamon and sugar made my stomach growl.
After wiping water from the two wooden rocking chairs, I sat down and sure enough heard the creak of stairs and then the clink of the coffee mugs. I schooled my face into nonchalance as the screen door opened. It was Erica.
She must’ve seen my expression change. “Bean’s not here.” She took the wooden chair beside me and stretched out her legs. “He left a note that one of the sources for his new investigation was arrested and he had to go take care of it.”
I tried not to let my disappointment show. “That’s too bad. I know he wanted to visit with you.” And me.
Erica got the hint. “I’m pretty sure he’ll be back soon.” She smiled at me. “Any reason you’re asking?”
“No,” I said, my hurried response showing I was totally lying. In defense, I changed the subject. “Where was Bobby last night? Working?”
Erica and one of our local police, Lieutenant Bobby Simkin, had restarted their high school romance over the summer, but from my point of view it was moving along very slowly.
“Bean’s hoping to make it in time for your dinner,” she said, letting me know I wasn’t fooling her at all. She broke eye contact with me. “And I thought it was better if Bobby didn’t attend.”