Was it a case of literal corporate backstabbing? Is there some connection to the Paris film crew that’s invaded the victim’s chateau to shoot a music video? It could take forever to find out, considering the relaxed pace of the rural police. But with the unexpected arrival of her financial advisor, Travis, Hayden is determined to investigate, with only occasional breaks for salted butter caramels and Breton buckwheat galettes. It’s time to unwrap a killer—and get to the deep, dark center of a bitter crime . . .
“Chocoholics and food cozy fans rejoice! With prose as smooth and delicious as its theme, this quality debut cozy introduces a smart protagonist with an unusual and tasty profession.” —Library Journal (starred) on Criminal Confections
About the Author
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Have you ever tasted a dry, disappointing brownie? A flat, greasy chocolate-chip cookie? A chocolate cream pie that was neither creamy nor chocolaty? Me, too! The difference is, when I encounter less-than-stellar baked goods, candies, drinks, or treats, I have to fix them. And I always do. Because that's my job.
I'm a "chocolate whisperer" (the world's first!). That means that I specialize in Theobroma cacao — and everything that's made from it. My clients come to me (sometimes secretly) whenever they need to turn subpar chocolate goodies into culinary superstars.
Never heard of me? That's exactly the way my clients (and I) like it. See, I mostly work on a referral basis, troubleshooting chocolates on the QT for a carefully selected group of consultees. Sometimes that means developing new product lines for multinational corporations. Sometimes it means creating chocolate ice creams, cheesecakes, or elaborately plated desserts for restaurateurs. Sometimes it means getting my hands dirty in the back-of-house at a local mom-and-pop bakery, helping it compete with a rival pâtisserie or encroaching fast-food chain.
I don't take jobs because they're lucrative. I take them because they're challenging. Or interesting. Or because someone really needs my help. I'm a soft touch that way.
I just can't say no. Especially not when it comes to sweet, heart-poundingly luscious chocolate, in all of its myriad forms.
The bottom line is, if you have a favorite candy bar, donut, or "house-crafted" chocolate dessert, there's a good chance that I, Hayden Mundy Moore, worked behind the scenes to improve it.
No matter what my assignment du jour happens to be, I always succeed, too. That's (partly) because I never quit. In the pursuit of chocolate excellence, I'm indefatigable — if sometimes a teensy bit late delivering a consultation report. In my business, persistence is a plus. Because, sometimes, coaxing out the best from my favorite fermented fruit pod (aka the cocoa bean) means multiple rounds of taste-testing. Sound good? Sure, it does — the first twelve times. After that, it's a job. Trust me.
Not that I'm complaining. I'm definitely not! I love my clients. I love my work. And I love chocolate. Melted, chopped, whipped into mousse or frozen into gelato ... it's all delicious. You think so, too? Then hang tight, because I'm bound to have a few tips of the trade to share with you — once we get to know one another better, that is. Because while I might be tireless when it comes to truffles, I'm slightly less trusting than I used to be these days. There's a good reason for that, too.
See, my last few chocolate-whispering consultations just happened to involve ... murder. I know, it sounds unbelievable. It did to me, too. Things got pretty crazy there for a while. But I'm hoping those days are behind me now.
In fact, I've put them behind me. Miles behind me. I'm nothing if not proactive when it comes to avoiding danger — at least most of the time. I'm not saying I literally ran from the last consultation-turned-deadly that I stumbled on in London, but once everything was sorted out, I was pretty happy to hop on a Eurostar train and head to France to visit my parents.
They're both experimental archaeologists, currently at work on a castle-rebuilding project in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region. Because of my mom, my dad, and my own sense of self-preservation, I happened to be in France during one of the best times to visit the Continent: early autumn.
I guess all the cool, crisp days and colorful changing leaves got to me, though. Because before I knew it, I had a case of back-to-school fever. At thirty, I'm well past the age of strapping on a backpack and boarding a school bus, but I had that expectant, clean-slate feeling, all the same. I was supposed to be lining up a new chocolate-whispering gig, but I was procrastinating. (If you knew me, you wouldn't be surprised by that.) I didn't want to risk running into trouble again.
That's why, when I received a message that my onetime chocolate-making mentor, Philippe Vetault, was retiring from his Brittany-based chocolaterie, I jumped at the chance to attend his au revoir party. I said good-bye to my mom and dad, grabbed my trusty crossbody bag, wheelie suitcase, and duffel, then boarded a TGV train to western France. Monsieur lived and worked in Saint-Malo, a walled seaside town full of quaint stone buildings, friendly people, and a genuine pirate's castle — all of which made being there about a million times better than sifting through the digital dossiers of potential chocolate-whispering clients.
Not that I could just disappear via high-speed train, of course. As a woman traveling the world solo, I have a system — one that involves regular check-ins with my "keeper," Travis Turner.
Officially, Travis is my financial advisor. He holds the purse strings to my inherited trust fund and makes sure I meet its (unusual) stipulations. He manages my travel arrangements and vets my consulting jobs, too. Aside from me, Travis is the one who decides whose chocolates will turn up next on my to-do list.
An inheritance sounds pretty chichi, but honestly, it's not. My trust fund has some serious strings attached. As much as I appreciated, and miss, my eccentric uncle Ross, who left me the means to travel and consult — and as much as I love my on-the-go life — it's missing some fairly standard amenities. Like a home of my own. A nearby group of friends. A routine, a future, a golden retriever. I'm happy traveling right now. But someday? We'll see.
Anyway, whenever I have a change of plans, Travis needs to be in the loop. That way, at least one other person knows whether I'm happily gridskipping to my next chocolate-whispering job or being mugged in a Milanese alleyway. Seated in a French train car as startlingly yellow fields of canola flowers flashed by my window, I dug out my cell phone and did what I had to do. What I (secretly) loved to do. Check in with Travis.
He answered on the second ring. "Hayden. It's about time."
His voice, deep and authoritative and undeniably sexy, never failed to thrill me. I'd never met Travis — not yet — but I'd spent plenty of time imagining what he was like in person. Buttoned-up and suit-wearing was my best guess. Tall. Organized. Supersmart.
Afraid of flying. More's the pity. Until I found an excuse to show up in Seattle, where Travis was based, we'd never meet.
"You used your credit card at Montparnasse train station an hour ago," my financial advisor went on in a pointed tone. "I was wondering when you'd call in to tell me where you were headed."
After leaving my parents' rural work site, I'd changed trains in Paris. "I missed talking to you, too, Travis."
"We agreed that you'd send me your itineraries before you embarked on them." A pause. "Is the enforcer with you, at least?"
He meant Danny. Danny Jamieson, my oldest friend and closest confidant. He and Travis had a long-standing rivalry, sparked by the usual machismo (I guessed). "The enforcer" was what Travis called Danny, who evened out the playing field with "Harvard."
You can guess which fancy-pants school where my keeper is an alumnus. You might also suppose that Danny — who grew up in a gritty, wrong-side-of-the-tracks neighborhood in L.A., where he still lives and works — didn't go to college at all. But you'd be wrong. Despite his criminal past, Danny has two university degrees to accompany his bad attitude and love of spicy food.
"No, Danny didn't come this time. This trip is personal, not business." For once, I wouldn't need my buddy-turned-bodyguard. "I'm just going to a retirement party," I assured Travis. "Don't worry. Unless kouign-amann is deadly, I'll be perfectly safe."
He humphed, not at all distracted by my wisecrack about the famously buttery Breton pastry that was popular in Monsieur's neighborhood. Although its name literally means "cake-butter" in Breizh, the local dialect, it's similar to a caramelized pastry.
"Safe?" Travis sounded skeptical. But then, he often did. He preferred facts to assumptions. "I'll see about that. Details?"
I offered the usual — where I'd be staying, who would be there, when I'd be back. Then, "Monsieur Vetault is the reason I got into chocolate," I explained, watching a picturesque French village whoosh past the train window. "Without him, I never would have discovered my knack for working with cacao. Monsieur saw something in me — something special. I want to be there for him."
I was already feeling wistful about reuniting with my mentor. I'd been surprised — and a little sad — to learn Philippe was retiring. I'd spent a lot of time with him at his Saint-Malo shop, La Maison des Petits Bonheurs. My mentor was special. Kind, patient, and generous to a fault. Also, brilliant with chocolate.
I realized there was silence on the line. "Travis?"
I'd gone all soppy on him while reminiscing about Monsieur Vetault and my chocolate-whisperer origin story. Maybe my financial advisor wasn't the sentimental type. I wasn't sure.
I was sure that Travis knew about my chocolate-trainee past in Saint-Malo. He knew everything about everyone. Or he made sure he found out. Lately, I'd been relying on him for that ability.
"I'm here." He sounded distracted. Because he'd been thinking about how he'd helped me compile background on suspects while sleuthing? I'd never know. Predictably, Travis refocused immediately. "When you're finished there, you have a possible consultation in Las Vegas. Feeling like returning stateside?"
When he asked in that husky voice of his? You bet.
"Feeling like having me there?" I'd been abroad for a while now. "Maybe you can set up something in Seattle. There must be a chocolatier in Pike Place Market who needs my help."
"I'll let you know if anything turns up." If he was tempted to bring me to his 'hood, he didn't let on. Travis, I suspected, would make an excellent poker player. "Anything else for me?"
I couldn't help smiling. "Just a question." I cradled the phone and lowered my voice, as though the two of us were sharing an intimate, saucy phone call. "Tell me, Trav," I coaxed in my sultriest, most teasing tone. "What are you wearing right now?"
It was my habitual question to him. I could never resist trying to loosen up my famously straitlaced financial advisor.
His deep laughter was my reward, traveling the thousands of miles separating us. "Never change, Hayden. Have fun."
Then he ended our call and left me stymied. Again.
I still didn't know what my notoriously private financial advisor was like in person. Maybe I never would. But I'd be darned if I'd quit trying to find out — or if I'd start playing it straight on the phone with him. Teasing Travis was too much fun.
Despite knowing better, I had a tiny vocal-based crush on the man with the toe-tingling voice. Without knowing it, Travis had sparked my curiosity. That was a dangerous thing for a person with an inquisitive monkey-mind like mine. Even though Danny had done some reconnaissance on his rival, dropping bits and pieces like semi-sweet chocolate morsels, we both knew so little about Travis. He had a dog. He was a swimmer. He once raised guppies. He was a genius at finance, itineraries, and research. That's it.
My "keeper" didn't even have a social-media profile. Not anywhere. Not a photo, not a collection of 140-word observations, not a whisper about him on his company's "About Us" website page.
It was almost as though Travis was hiding something. But what? If I hadn't been so busy sleuthing (and perfecting chocolate) over the past few months, I'd have tried to find out.
My financial advisor was methodical. He was thoughtful. He was good at listening. Unlike me, Travis planned for everything.
Me? I like to leave room for serendipity. That means I try to take life as it comes: one taste at a time.
That's also the way you should eat chocolate. With 100 percent of your attention. If it's really good, quality cacao, it deserves no less. There's no other way to properly savor chocolate's silky texture, its complex flavor ...
My stomach rumbled. My mouth watered, too. Whoops.
My brain had kicked off a chocolate-tasting party, and my taste buds wanted in on the action. Unfortunately, I was still several kilometers from my coastal destination. That meant my only options for a goûter — the traditional kids' afternoon snack in France — were prepackaged goodies from the TGV's dining car.
I'm no snob. I'm happy to enjoy a Reese's peanut butter cup or a prefab Oreo cookie when one is fresh and/or available. But when Monsieur's excellent hand-molded Breton chocolates were waiting at the other end of the line? I decided I'd hold tight.
When I arrived in Saint-Malo, I was glad I'd skipped the dubious temptations of cellophane-packaged train car treats.
The sun was out. The air was crisp. And Philippe had lost none of his expertise when it came to le chocolat. Standing in his personal atelier — his workshop — surrounded by chocolate-making equipment, I tasted dark chocolate tablettes and milk chocolate buttons filled with vanilla cream. I sampled a truffle studded with fresh crushed hazelnuts and a morsel spiked with liqueur.
My eyes widened as its heady, boozy flavor hit my tongue.
"C'est si bon, oui?" Philippe grinned, his face broadening beneath a shock of ever whitening hair. Beneath his chocolate-smudged white apron, his dark trousers and blue collared shirt were pristine. "You have not lost your feel for le chocolat, that is plain to see." My mentor seemed pleased. "Tenez. Try these."
He offered a tray of dazzlingly decorated chocolates. They appeared to be recently molded. I admired their shapes and colors, familiar with the cocoa-butter-based "paints" used to embellish their swirls and contours. I glanced up at Philippe's generous face. His countenance was more wrinkled than when I'd known him, and his posture was slightly less militarily erect. But his eyes were the same vivid blue they'd always been. They regarded me with the intelligence and verve I'd so admired.
"These are works of art, Monsieur. Merci beaucoup."
I tried one. So did Philippe. He was no theorist, happy to devise amazing chocolates without ever indulging in them. Like me, Philippe Vetault loved chocolate — loved its smoothness, its sweetness, its complexity. His craft was a time-honored one, begun at the feet of his father and grandfather — who'd owned La Maison des Petits Bonheurs before him — and honed by further study and practice. Philippe had never been content to rest on his laurels. Even as his chocolaterie became more popular, he still strove to improve. To innovate. To keep up with new trends.
"But if I eat another bite, I'll spoil my dinner." I gave his hand a fond squeeze. His skin felt papery with wrinkles. "You know I would never risk ruining a wonderful French meal."
"Sometimes I think you are française at heart, Hayden." He beamed at me approvingly, proud of his heritage. "Except that your French still has not improved. Your accent? Terrible!"
Monsieur wagged his finger at me with stern disapproval, reminding me of the hours I'd spent at his side, scrubbing spoons and learning to make a couverture without seizing the chocolate. It was true that Philippe had seen something in me — some talent for tasting and developing chocolate that I still couldn't explain. But building that talent had taken work. Lots of it.
I apologized in my poorly accented French. Unlike chocolate, languages aren't something I have a particular affinity for. I understand and can get by in a variety of foreign tongues — French, Italian, Spanish, a smattering of Japanese and Mandarin — but for me, conversing with the locals during my travels usually involves a lot of hand gestures and hope. My method is to pantomime, smile, and offer a compliment whenever possible.
That's what I did then. "Your new atelier is beautiful."
We both gazed around the space, housed in a converted barn on the perfectly manicured grounds of the Vetault family's seventeenth-century château. I'd be sleeping in that château tonight and every night during my stay — something I hadn't done in the past, while working with Philippe. Then I'd been barely out of my teens (sometimes sulkily) globe-trotting with my parents. Now I was old enough to appreciate the atelier's ancient oak beams, pristine plastered walls, and shining open spaces.
Excerpted from "Dead and Ganache"
Copyright © 2017 Lisa Plumley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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