Whether it’s to satisfy a craving for chocolate or pick up the hottest new bestseller, the locals in charming West Riverdale, Maryland, are heading to Chocolates and Chapters, where everything sold is to die for…
Best friends Michelle Serrano and Erica Russell are celebrating the sweet rewards of their combined bookstore and chocolate shop by hosting the Great Fudge Cook-off during the town’s Memorial Day weekend Arts Festival. But success turns bittersweet when Main Street’s portrait photographer is found dead in their store, poisoned by Michelle’s signature truffles.
As suspicion mounts against Michelle, her sales begin to crumble and her career seems whipped. With Erica by her side, Michelle must pick through an assortment of suspects before the future of their dream store melts away…
FIRST IN A NEW SERIES
Includes Scrumptious Chocolate-Making Recipes!
About the Author
Kathy Aarons is the author of Death is Like a Box of Chocolates.
Read an Excerpt
“I don’t do cupcakes,” I told Erica, who obviously hadn’t been listening to me in the two years we’d been best friends.
“I know, I know.” She waved her hand around as if dissipating my nonsense and reached over the counter to grab a Fleur de Sel Caramel from one of the trays I was about to parade around in front of the store. While I’d enjoyed a huge rush in the week leading up to Mother’s Day, maybe I could entice a few more customers into buying chocolate for their moms before the special day was over.
“Have you ever seen me bake even one cupcake?” I asked her. Erica and I shared a store on Main Street in the town of West Riverdale, Maryland. She and her sister, Colleen, managed the family-owned bookstore in one half of our space while I ran my chocolate shop in the other half. I should have known she wanted something when she crossed over to my side during such a busy Sunday afternoon.
“I get it,” Erica said, nibbling the caramel. “You’re a chocolate snob, I mean chocolatier, and you don’t bake. Oh wait. What did that DC reporter call you? ‘Michelle Serrano, Chocolate Artisan.’”
“Glad we got that straight,” I said. “I suggest Summer Berry Milks. Grown-ups love them, yet they have that element of whimsy that even rug rats appreciate.” I dumped newly ground coffee into the machine and turned it on. The fragrance of the coffee mixing with the ever-present chocolate scent made my mouth water even though I’d been experiencing it all day. Owning Chocolates and Chapters never got old.
Erica rolled her eyes. “Someday your distaste for anyone under the age of eighteen is going to bite you on the butt.” She pushed her librarian glasses up on her nose and gave me The Look. The one that somehow combined puppylike begging with steely-eyed command, and inevitably made everyone do her bidding. Maybe that’s why she’d won the Future Leader award so long ago at our high school graduation. “Cupcakes decorated with softball icing are even more whimsical than chocolates.”
I crossed my arms.
“It’s for the good of the Boys and Girls Club!” she said.
“I’m not baking cupcakes,” I said.
Erica seemed astounded at my stubbornness. “Really? Remember that beautiful field where you showed Sammy Duncan that girls are better hitters than boys?” She threw her hand out as if pointing to it. “You know, the field that needs to be reseeded every single year?”
She was pulling out the big guns. Before she could remind me that playing sports at the Boys and Girls Club was the main reason for my annual success in the West Riverdale Softball Tournament, I gave in. “Fine. But I’m not making them. I’ll ask Kona.”
“Awesome!” Erica was enough of a master manipulator not to show anything except gratitude, but I was sure she’d gloat later.
“‘Awesome’? Is that an official Fulbright scholar expression?” I said to pay her back.
Erica had come home two years before, just as I was opening my shop. My whole life, I’d heard of Erica Russell, girl genius, who went to Stanford on a full scholarship, got a master’s in writing, and then became a Fulbright scholar. I still wasn’t clear what that was.
I totally expected her to stick her nose up at me, the community college dropout, but we’d become best friends, and now business partners and housemates.
She made a note on her spreadsheet. “My next victim, I mean prospective donor, is Denise.”
“Do not harass the committee,” I said. “We’re lucky they haven’t run for the hills with the way this thing has exploded.”
Back in February, when Erica had suggested a Great Fudge Cook-off to celebrate the one-year anniversary of our renovation, I’d jumped at it. Our normally mild Maryland winter had been brutal, and after what seemed like the thirtieth nasty ice storm of the season, anything that made me think of spring was welcome.
I’d imagined a group of fifty or so neighbors gathered in our store, tasting all the entries, and buying real chocolate from me to wipe the taste of fudge from their palates. Erica would send out photos and a press release to the local papers, and the resulting articles would remind everyone that they needed more candy and books in their lives.
But taking the suggestion from the mayor to schedule our contest during West Riverdale’s Memorial Day weekend celebrations had been a big mistake. Somehow our little fudge contest had mushroomed into the opening event of the first ever West Riverdale Arts Festival in the park. And our book signing the Sunday night before Memorial Day now included a silent auction fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club. We counted our blessings that the actual parade on Monday hadn’t been added to our plate. The parade committee was an exclusive group of old-timers who wouldn’t think of letting anyone under the age of sixty interfere.
I delivered steaming cups of coffee and a small plate of assorted chocolates to the table of grandmothers showing off photos of grandchildren on their phones, and discreetly left the bill on the table.
Erica continued when I returned to the counter. “I’m donating the I So Don’t Do Mysteries series and some Michael Connelly first editions for the silent auction.” Erica also ran a thriving used and rare book business out of the storage room in the back. “And you’ll be really happy about the big surprise I have for today’s meeting.”
“What is it?”
“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise.” She gave me a mysterious smile and headed back to her side.
I picked up my tray and opened the front door as Erica’s sister, Colleen, struggled through with one blond-haired two-year-old boy on her hip and the other twin rebelliously dragging behind her.
“Erica,” Colleen called after her sister with a rush of relief. “Can I leave the twins in the play section while I take Prudence to her dance recital?”
The two sisters worked well together, but lately Colleen had been busier than usual with kid duty, and Erica had taken up the slack. I sometimes wondered if Colleen would even be working in the bookstore if she hadn’t become pregnant with her first child during her freshman year of college. She didn’t have Erica’s love of books, though she enjoyed the business side of the store. But back when she was eighteen and pregnant, working in her parents’ bookstore was a good option while her husband, Mark, finished up his business degree.
While Colleen made an effort to appear somewhat professional when she worked in the store, today she had on a stretched-out orange cardigan that had seen better days, and her hair was falling out of her wilted scrunchie.
“Sure, but where’s Mark?” Erica seemed confused as the twins ran toward the wall of brightly colored bricks that separated the small play area—what I called the first circle of hell—from the rest of the store.
Colleen scowled. “He says he has the flu. He just got back from yet another trip and he’s too sick to do anything. And the nanny is out of town.” She sounded mad at both of them.
If I had twins like Gabe and Graham, I’d have the flu pretty often too, I thought, as they expertly opened the childproof gate and double-teamed a boy twice their size, wrenching a firefighter’s hat away from him.
“I guess,” Erica said. She ran to comfort the howling victim as Colleen gave a helpless flutter of her hands and escaped. Through the front window, I could see her daughter, Prudence, wearing a lime-colored leotard and fancy headpiece and waiting in their ancient Volvo station wagon. That girl had the patience of a saint, or even better, the patience of an older sibling of twin boys.
I took a step to help Erica, but instantly the wailing stopped and the twins were soon sitting in Erica’s lap waving around the latest cardboard books. I watched for a moment and, sure enough, one of them whacked Erica in the jaw with a book before settling down.
The Pampered Pet Store across the street was holding their monthly adoption event and when I went outside with the sample-sized caramels, the local animal lovers emptied my tray in a few minutes. Kona called these petite caramels my “gateway drug.” Once people ate this perfect bite of caramel wrapped in creamy chocolate, with the tiniest sprinkle of sea salt on top, they always came back for more.
After serving the burst of customers who’d followed me back into the store, I did a spot-check of our dining area, which was perfect. It had been Erica’s idea to remove the wall between the two stores to increase our usable space. We’d all survived the renovation, but Colleen and I had grumbled a lot more than Erica, maybe because she could visualize what it would look like today.
A homey, welcoming room with books lining the walls, tempting customers to pick one up and read in an overstuffed chair, and the smell of chocolate enticing them to choose from my selection of sinful sweets. Chocolates and Chapters had become an unofficial community center for our little town. Our smattering of mismatched couches and coffee tables now hosted various committee meetings, knitting circles, book clubs and, my least favorite, birthday parties.
I straightened a painting from a local artist who was new to our rotation wall. Erica had told me ahead of time that he interpreted famous paintings using the opposite on the color wheel, so the paintings appeared familiar and strange at the same time.
My assistant and right hand, Kona, walked in from the back kitchen with a tray of assorted tortes, her specialty. I was lucky to have her. Although I still didn’t understand why, sometimes customers wanted pastries instead of chocolates. And while I could whip up a thousand truffles in a few hours, I couldn’t bake to save my life.
“I just volunteered you for a couple dozen softball-decorated cupcakes for the book launch,” I told her.
“No problem,” she said, her almond eyes laughing at me. She knew how I felt about cupcakes. “By the way, I opened the latest shipment from the supply company.” She paused. “Did you order a lot of the new jeweled cocoa butter? They charged us extra to rush it.”
“Oh, yeah.” I tried to appear nonchalant. “That’s okay.”
“What are you going to use it for?” she asked.
I avoided answering her. “Just thinking about a few new ideas.”
“Want me to cover the front so you can try it out?” Kona knew how much I loved to play with anything new, but I had plans for that gold cocoa butter that no one could know about. “I put it in the kitchen.”
“Um,” I said. “I’m going to try it out at home, but I want to look at it for a minute.”
She started placing the tortes in the one measly glass display case I allowed for pastries. “No problem. I’ll handle the counter.”
“Thanks.” I headed to the back kitchen to see if my new gold cocoa butter would do the trick. We had a small kitchen out front where customers watched us dip fruit in chocolate or put finishing touches on the truffles, but we did most of our work in the larger back kitchen.
I didn’t want our customers to see the messy part of my magic, like when we mixed ganache by hand to achieve the ideal consistency; or smelled the caramel to ensure the ultimate balance of smoky, almost-burnt sugar; or scraped off the untidy “feet” of my truffles so they were perfect.
I picked up the bottle of gold cocoa butter. It looked a little like gold paint now, but once I melted it down and airbrushed it across my chocolates, it would look amazing.
• • • • • • • • •
We scheduled the weekly cook-off meeting for right after our regular early Sunday closing. I was setting up when Erica lugged her ever-increasing Great Fudge Cook-off file box to the largest table in the store. Located in the back corner, it was where high school students crammed for tests, or pretended to, retirees met to plan their day trips, and an endless supply of PTA moms coordinated school events.
Even the always-put-together Erica looked a little drained from balancing the twin terrors and customers.
Without comment, I handed her a Balsamic Dream, her favorite truffle—dark chocolate ganache with a rush of balsamic vinegar. “How did the recital go?”
“Colleen said it was delightful,” Erica said, enjoying her treat.
“Did Mark make it?”
“Yes,” she said. “He had a miraculous recovery just in time to see it.”
Denise Coburn walked through the open back door of the shop, tiny magenta shorts emphasizing her incredibly long legs that always made me feel like a hippo. A pygmy hippo. And she was the giraffe undulating across the African plains.
Undulating? I was hanging out with brainy Erica too much. “Hi, Denise,” I said as she slouched into a chair across from Erica.
“Hi,” she said as part of a long-winded sigh. She’d pulled her thick auburn hair into a huge bun that magically stayed in place on the top of her head with only one clip, and once again I cursed my own wispy strawberry blond hair that behaved only as long as it took me to leave the salon.
Denise’s photography studio, next door to our shop, catered to families and smaller businesses in our town. She’d recently landed the contract for the local high school’s senior portraits, but everyone knew she dreamed of selling her artsy work to galleries in Washington, where people had more money to spend on that stuff. Personally, I thought her creative photos were out of focus and just a bit odd. Who wanted a blurry photo of a shiny penny in a gutter hanging on their wall?
“Tough day in the photography trenches?” Erica pulled out more files and a color-coded spreadsheet.
“I guess,” she said, picking up a truffle. “Another delay by that gallery owner I told you about.” She bit off one tiny corner and put the rest down. How do people do that? Of course, she couldn’t resist my Amaretto Palle Darks, the only candy I’d ever seen her eat in one bite, but I’d sold out of those earlier in the day.
“The gallery in DC?” I popped a whole Mayan Warrior in my mouth and let the chocolate melt on my tongue, the spicy cayenne tickling the back of my throat just like it was supposed to. “What happened?” I asked as I sat down.
Denise shrugged. “He left a message telling me he had a family emergency and had to reschedule our meeting tomorrow. And I’d cancelled all my sessions for the trip up there.”
“I’m sorry,” Erica said. “Why not email them? Once he sees your photographs, he’s going to just adore your work.”
The eternal optimist.
Denise sighed dramatically again. “He said he has to meet me first. He believes my montage of work is an inward expression of my outward view of the world.”
What a load of BS. I was about to warn her that this dude might just have a casting couch when the final two members of our committee walked in.
Steve and Jolene Roxbury arrived in their usual geek chic: Steve, the high school science teacher, wore an ancient T-shirt of the periodic table, and Jolene, the math and drama teacher, wore a shirt that read, “Half playwright. Half ninja.”
“Love the shirt,” I told her.
“Thanks!” Jolene said. She gave a little “Hi-yah!” along with a karate chop. “Gift from Steve-o when I got my black belt in tae kwon do.” She and her husband both put a few Bacon-and-Smoked-Salt Truffles on their plates and sat down while I retrieved the coffee.
Jolene tasted her chocolate and moaned. “Oh, Michelle. I love this new concoction.”
“The only perk of being on this committee,” Steve agreed. He pulled out his smartphone. “Look!” he said, showing us photos of Jolene in her karate gi, the white fabric vibrant against her dark skin. Her proud grin as she held her black belt made us all smile.
Ever-efficient Erica started to hand out notes just as some teens loitering upstairs noticed the Roxburys. “Yo, Mr. and Mrs. R!” they yelled, hanging dangerously over the wooden balcony. Erica obviously hadn’t kicked out her comic-book-section regulars.
When Erica had found out that teens drove all the way to Frederick to buy their comic books, she’d started stocking them. And since she loved comic books as much as any of them, she’d started a book club named the Super Hero Geek Team.
“Yo,” Steve yelled back. “Stay away from my issue of Justice League International.”
One of the inmates of West Riverdale High waved a comic book back and forth and taunted in a singsong voice, “Got it right he-re.”
“You bent it!” Steve barked. “I don’t want that one.”
One of them noticed the time on the huge clock at the front of the store and yelled, “Dinner!” as if an emergency was happening, and then they all ran out the front door.
I let out a little “Whew,” and Erica smirked at me.
“Just go over your notes.” I got up to lock the front door. “And give us our marching orders.”
“Yay!” she said. “I love obedient minions.” She passed out copies of the action items list. “We have a lot to do in less than two weeks, but everything seems to be coming together.”
She opened up a tri-fold display board and pointed to a color-coded, minutely detailed project plan that looked like it could win the high school science fair. “First the book launch and Boys and Girls Club fundraiser. Michelle has graciously volunteered cupcakes for that evening,” Erica said without a hint of sarcasm. “I made a list of some of the Boys and Girls Club volunteers for other food items.”
“I can make my world-famous guacamole,” Jolene offered.
Erica said, “That’d be great, but we need to focus our resources on our top priorities. The most pressing issues right now are more donations of silent auction items and getting the word out to ensure high attendance at both of our events.”
I whispered to Jolene, “You’re a ‘resource.’”
Erica ignored me, moving on to talking about chair rentals and hosting duties that night. She looked right at me. “Let’s talk about the fudge contest,” she said, smiling with excitement. “I have an announcement.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Hillary Punkin is judging!”
“What?” I gasped.
“Hillary Punkin, star chef of the TV show Life by Chocolate, has agreed to be a celebrity judge for the West Riverdale Great Fudge Cook-off!”
Oh. My. God.
Hillary Punkin at the West Riverdale Great Fudge Cook-off?
Hillary was the Grand Chef Network’s premiere pastry chef who traveled the country “discovering” local chocolatiers. Panic welled up in my chest. Hillary either loved or hated the chocolate and her opinion never made sense. In one show, she adored lavender essence in her truffle. In the next, it made her gag on-screen. She seemed to have no clue of her own irrationality. But she had a huge audience and could make or break a business.
“Is she doing a show here?” My lips felt numb.
“No,” Erica said, oblivious to my dismay. She barely watched TV, let alone cooking shows, and had no idea what she might have set in motion. Just like the beginning of any horror movie.
“She heard about your chocolates winning that blind taste test,” Erica said, sounding proud. “She’ll be in DC for a show, so she has time only for the contest. But ever since she hinted at it on Twitter, our website hits have gone through the roof!”
“Cool!” Steve said. “That should help attendance for the whole weekend.”
I pasted a weak smile on my face, and Erica’s eyebrows drew together as she figured out I was less than ecstatic. She continued with her action items, which included everything from confirming the balloon arch orders for the festival to getting more volunteers to help set up chairs for the book signing.
Yes, my chocolates had won the prestigious Washington Food Scene magazine’s third annual blind chocolate taste test, and now Erica insisted on putting “award-winning” in front of any mention of my products. But Hillary might just be contrary enough to want to prove them wrong.
Even if Hillary wasn’t doing a show here, she always had a “Yay or Nay” segment at the end, and it was particularly brutal—just a shop’s name and location with a happy yellow “Yay” or nasty red “Nay” after it and no explanation as to why.
Maybe it wasn’t too late to call off Hillary, I thought as panic fluttered in my chest. I’d built a nice business making chocolates for a ritzy hotel in Georgetown, bed-and-breakfasts in Virginia, and gift basket companies that sent my chocolates to clients all over the East Coast. Much of my sales were due to word of mouth, and if Hillary Punkin slammed my chocolates, I would be in trouble.
On the other hand, if she loved my chocolates and gave them a “Yay,” who knows how much my business would grow? It was a dilemma.
A knock sounded on the front door and I tensed when Gwen Ficks waved at us through the window. I stood up to let her in, the usually cheerful bells on the front door now sounding like a warning. Gwen had been West Riverdale’s mayor for five years, winning her second term easily even though the town’s economy had taken a hit along with the rest of the country’s. She’d lost a ton of money when the bad economy had completely stopped sales of the new housing development she’d invested in, and she was working hard to try to turn the town’s fortunes around.
She was the one who’d convinced us to hold our Great Fudge Cook-off during Memorial Day weekend. And somehow the whole thing had snowballed into the beginning of her “Save Main Street” effort, the result of four struggling shops closing up in the last year.
West Riverdale was probably the one town in the country not named after an actual river. Founded by the River family centuries ago, we were close enough to Antietam National Battlefield to pick up a few lost tourists rambling their way back east. The only building of any historical value we had was the Rivers Mill, which had been used to store artillery during the Civil War and was now an artists’ cooperative. The River family had settled what was then known as Riverdale back in colonial times, but other than some Main Street buildings that were considered “historical” just because they were old, people in search of history had a heck of a lot of other towns to visit instead of ours.
West Riverdale’s Memorial Day parade used to be a big event for our town, as people came from all over to experience historic small-town life. Like a vacation in the 1950s before they returned to their high-tech lives. But parade attendance had declined in recent years and Gwen was determined to do something about it.
As a Main Street shop owner, I supported anything to increase business, but every time the mayor stopped by our meeting, she added to our workload. Her single-minded attention to the town’s revenues during this weekend made me think that maybe our town was worse off than she maintained in her speeches. Especially since she’d railroaded a sales tax through town council that went into effect for Memorial Day weekend only. It was an accounting nightmare for any business in town.
“I wanted to stop by and personally give you the good news,” Gwen said as she buzzed over to stand beside Erica’s chair, her light citrusy perfume drifting by in her wake. She wore her trademark suit jacket and Ralph Lauren scarf over jeans, straddling those “I’m-so-professional” and “I’m-just-like-you-folk” impressions that politicians have to do.
“The Best Western by the highway is at full capacity for the entire Memorial Day weekend!” Gwen said.
“Whoo boy!” Steve pumped his fist in the air.
Gwen went on. “I knew that new slogan would do the trick. We may have to change our name to Mayberry.”
Gwen “Fixit” Ficks believed any problem could be solved by throwing a slogan at it. Erica had used West Riverdale: The Mayberry of Maryland, in her latest press release, touting our extremely low crime rate in a time when the rest of the country seemed to be going crazy.
“This is due to all the hard work of you gals—and guy.” Gwen winked at Steve. “I’m so excited I can barely contain myself! This weekend is going to be a huge success.”
While Gwen was saying all the right things, she seemed a little subdued. For her, anyway.
“That’s great news,” Erica said, with a little wrinkle in her forehead that indicated her mind was already thinking of all the ways the news affected our plans.
“And I thought of one more little push we could do,” Gwen said.
Inside I groaned. That was why she wasn’t as cheerleader-bouncy as usual. She knew piling more work onto our committee wasn’t cool.
“I’m sure you’ve heard about the new solar project at West Riverdale High,” she said. “Principal Palladine has been so forward thinking! It will save the school district a ton of money. How do you feel about: ‘West Riverdale: The Greenest Town in Maryland’?” She smiled as if delighted with herself. “See? It’s a play on words. Our lovely rolling green hills and the fact that we’re helping the planet by using our sunshine for clean energy. It’ll appeal to a totally new demographic. The company we’re working with is called Get Me Some Solar. Isn’t that cute?”
Gwen turned her smile wattage up.
Here it comes, I thought. Even gung-ho Erica seemed worried about what Gwen would ask us to do next.
“And it would be great if you could give them an excellent spot at the Arts Festival. You know what they say. ‘Location, location, location!’”
West Riverdale’s first Arts Festival was fast turning into the West Riverdale Flea Market. We’d started off with the best intentions, limiting the booths to only quality artists, but when we’d run out of those, anyone with a check and something to sell could buy a spot. Now one side of the park would have artists selling their work, plus a few booths I’d have to categorize as “crafts,” but on the other side, customers could buy tools from Duncan Hardware, organic cheese from Farmer Henry, and hubcaps of questionable lineage from Frank’s Finds.
I would be one of the food vendors, along with Zelini’s Italian Kitchen, Bubba’s Southern BBQ, and Sweeney’s Weenies.
Of course, the highlight of the day would be the Great Fudge Cook-off right after the grand opening. Kona and I had narrowed down forty entries to the top ten in a blind taste test. These entries would be judged by Mayor Gwen and the chefs of two highly respected restaurants in Frederick, the closest “big” city to West Riverdale. And now Hillary.
“I’ll let you busy bees get back to work. I’m heading up to DC tonight for some meetings tomorrow. Working hard to get funding for more solar projects.” Gwen headed for the door. Just as she opened it, she turned around and the whole group inhaled. “I told Get Me Some Solar that we’d include their flyers in the bags we’re handing out. Thank you all so much. This is going to be amazing!”
After she was sure Gwen was truly gone, Jolene said, “If that woman didn’t work so hard for this town, I could hate her.” She sighed. “It could’ve been worse. At least the math team and drama club volunteered to help stuff the bags.”
“Well, we volunteered them,” Steve corrected. “And they’ll be around all weekend for anything we need.”
“Michelle,” Erica said. “Can you contact the other hotels? If they’re selling out as well, we have to be prepared.”
I nodded, now worrying if I had enough supplies for an influx of tourists. That wasn’t a bad problem to have but I’d still have to deal with it.
“Steve,” Erica said. “That solar project is an amazing opportunity for you and your students to study green energy.”
“You bet,” Steve said. “We already have a weather station, so we’re going to compare how much energy the solar panels produce given different weather patterns.”
“Speaking of weather.” Erica was in total efficiency mode. “What’s the latest prediction?”
“We’re keeping an eye on a tropical depression that could head this way, but so far, so good.” He went on to talk about the latest results of the campus weather station.
Tropical depression? In Maryland, that often led to rainstorms that felt like monsoons. Which would suck. Tourists were notoriously finicky. A prediction of rain could cause a lot of them to change their plans.
Worrying about how to plan for an unknown number of potential customers made me miss Erica’s usual rah-rah speech at the end of the meeting, but given the expressions of happy resolve on the faces of Denise and the Roxburys, it must have been effective.
After the good-byes, I escaped to my storage room to evaluate my supplies. Being surrounded by my chocolate and sugar and spices made me feel like the possibilities were endless.
I counted my bags of Felchlin dark chocolate, smelling their cocoa richness through the sturdy wrapping. Would I use them to make simple but amazing caramels, filled bonbons or elaborate truffles decorated with airbrushed designs? I could decide. I was queen of my little chocolate world. Wizard of the magic I’d create in my kitchen. Some people thought of chocolate as an expression of passion and love, but to me chocolate was food and family and friends. It meant kindness and giving.
I estimated that I could create several thousand truffles from my stock. Should I make that many? We also had to keep up on my hotel and website orders.
Emergency supplies were an option. Already prepared little chocolate cups, ready to be filled. Or gourmet cream centers waiting to be dipped. It was cheating, but they were delicious in their own way, just not a true Michelle chocolate.
I was working out different scenarios when Denise surprised me by opening the door and sliding in, closing it behind her to keep out the humidity even though it wasn’t yet horrible for May. I held up my finger and then completed a calculation.
She waited, a troubled frown on her face.
“What’s up?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Not ready to go home.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. Denise’s mother had moved in with her while she had fought cancer. She had died two months ago. Denise must not want to face her empty apartment.
Too bad Colleen wasn’t here. She was Denise’s best friend and confidant. And I was terrible at making people feel better.
“Good news about our weekend, right?” I tried.
She nodded, still preoccupied. “I found some black-and-white photos my grandpa took of Memorial Day parades from a long time ago. Do you think if I made copies people would buy them?”
“Sure,” I said. “Sounds like you’re having the same problem I am—figuring out how to plan for attendance we can’t predict.”
“I know, right?” She ran a finger along a metal shelf filled with silicone chocolate molds.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, but then bit her lip.
“Are you worried about something?” With Denise, it was better to be direct. While we’d developed a courteous working friendship, she held a lot of herself back. “Thinking about the break-in?”
Two weeks earlier, I’d arrived at the building to find the security alarm turned off and Denise’s studio torn apart. I’d called 911 and then Denise. Stacks of photographs had been tossed around, as if someone had been searching for something. Denise had looked scared to death and then mad as hell. She’d told the police that nothing was missing and that she had no idea who could’ve broken in, but no one believed her.
Erica and I hadn’t figured out how much to push. We all used the same security code for the back hallway Chocolates and Chapters shared with Denise’s studio, but we had different security codes for our store and our storage rooms.
The security company said someone who knew the code for the back hallway and the specific code for Denise’s area entered the building at three in the morning and searched her studio. We had our suspicions. Denise had a tendency to fall for bad-boy looks, and her last boyfriend had the bad-boy habits to go along with them, including a history of burglary and car theft.
“No,” she said. “That was nothing.”
“That’s so weird that nothing was stolen with all of your expensive equipment,” I said.
She turned to face me. “Do you ever just want to get the hell out of West Riverdale?”
“What?” I asked, confused by her abrupt change of subject.
“Out of this town. ‘The Mayberry of Maryland,’” she added with mocking finger quotes.
“Not really.” I’d spent my whole life here and never felt the urge to try a more exciting way of life. “It’s my home. You should talk to Erica. She’s the travel fanatic.”
“I don’t know how she lives with herself, having to come back here.” She scowled. “If I got out of West Riverdale, you’d never see me again.”
This was getting weird. “Did something happen?” I asked her. “You sound really upset.”
She took a deep breath and tried to sound more upbeat. “I just don’t think I can take another winter like we had. If I had the money, I’d move somewhere that was warm all the time.”
“You could take some awesome photos of a tropical beach.” I played along. “Maybe after you sell a bunch of photos in that gallery, you can afford a great vacation.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Like The Eighties at Echo Beach.”
“A photography book,” she said. “Erica knows it.” She opened the door. “Thanks.”
I felt an “I guess” after it, maybe because I knew I hadn’t helped. I should’ve called her back, but I had to finish my projections. I love making chocolates, but planning to make chocolates was not nearly as much fun.
“I’m heading out,” I told Erica in my most innocent voice. No way did I want to let anyone in West Riverdale know about my top-secret project: making X-rated chocolates for my cousin’s bachelorette party. Luckily she lived in Washington, DC—far enough away that no one would find out. Not only would these chocolates alienate the pious folks in town, but I’d never live it down with my friends. And I really didn’t want to be called on to make adult chocolates for every bachelorette party in the area.
I’d hid the risqué molds at home, but for some reason, I felt like a criminal sneaking out my airbrush equipment and going back in for the chocolate and flavorings. These bridesmaids didn’t want to buy the crappy bachelorette chocolate they could order online; they wanted high quality chocolate in a variety of flavors, and they wanted them sprayed with gold. I didn’t even want to know why. What would the rest of that high-end bachelorette party entail? Channing Tatum dancing out of a cake?
I shut down my side of the shop and waved to Erica, who was doing the final walk-through. The weather was cool enough that I could take care of this special order at home, package it up and send it off before anyone knew what I was doing.
I heard a meow as I pulled the back door shut.
A brown-striped cat sat at the edge of the wooden porch behind the store. It stared at me with green eyes that caught the glow of the setting sun.
“Hi, kitty.” I took a step toward it. “Are you lost?” It didn’t have a collar.
I looked around as if I could figure out where it had come from. Had it escaped from the Pampered Pet adoption event? “Hold on,” I said to the cat, and then felt foolish for telling it what to do as if it could understand me. The haughty expression on its face didn’t help.
I put the last of my supplies in the car and called the pet store to see if they were missing a cat. No one answered, so I left a message. Most of the Main Street shops closed early on Sundays until after Memorial Day. The cat waited on the porch. Should I take it home?
I’d never had a pet growing up. My mom always said my brother Leo and I were enough to clean up after. Looking at her fur, a name popped into my head. Maybe I could keep it and name it Coco.
I leaned down to pet it and it pushed back against my hand and purred. But when I tried to pick it up, it squirmed away like a slippery ferret.
Ah, trust issues. A cat after my own heart. “It’s okay.” I sat down on the edge of the porch and it started rubbing against my leg, purring once again. “Coco,” I tried.
It seemed to like that and I melted a little. What a cutie. After petting it for a few minutes, I tried again to pick it up, still not sure what I would do with the poor thing.
“Meow!” This time it swatted at me as it twisted away, as if to teach me a lesson.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “You don’t want to be picked up.” I couldn’t take it inside. The health department would have a fit. “Wait here.”
I opened the door and the warning alarm came on, letting me know that Erica had locked up and activated the security system using the front door panel.
Coco hopped off the porch, and by the time I went in to disarm the security system and came back out, the cat had disappeared.
It probably belonged to someone in the neighborhood, but just in case it actually was a starving stray too scarred by life on the streets to trust me to return, I went into the kitchen and scrounged around for cat-friendly food—a bit of cream poured into a small plastic tub and a chunk of cooked bacon. I reset the alarm and left the treats against the wall on the porch.
The lights were on in the Duncan Hardware store across Main Street and I made a quick decision to buy a new air hose for spray-painting with my gold cocoa butter. Almost all of the parking spots were open so I whipped my minivan into one of them and headed for the aisle I knew well. I still hadn’t figured out how to keep my air hoses from clogging regularly.
Principal Peter Palladine was stocking shelves halfway down, wearing the red apron of Duncan Hardware employees.
“Moonlighting?” I asked him. If I’d known he was here, I could’ve brought him some Black Forest Milks. My accountant always complained that I gave away too much of my product, but trying one or two made almost everyone buy more. Except for the cheapskates. And most of the time I liked sharing my yummy chocolate with them too.
He chuckled. “Just helping out Sammy on his new expanded Sunday evening hours,” he said, sounding a little like a commercial. “Plus, with a kid in med school, I could use all the extra pennies I can get.”
I couldn’t help but smile back. Principal Palladine was so proud of his daughter that he fit “kid in med school” into any conversation he could. “How’s she doing?”
“Great!” he said. “Actually loves working with a cadaver.” He shook his head in wonder.
“Following in her mom’s footsteps,” I said. His wife was a physician’s assistant who almost single-handedly ran a free clinic in one of the poorest areas of DC.
“Anything I can help you with?” he asked.
“Just need a new hose for my airbrush machine.” I picked one off the metal hook.
“Let me know if you need some help,” he said. “Those buggers can be tricky to change.”
“Thanks,” I said. I’d been maintaining my equipment for years and wouldn’t have a problem.
“You working on something special?” he asked. “Anything else you need?”
“Nope,” I said quickly. “Just maintenance.”
He gave me a funny look, that principal intuition always working.
“Thanks Mr. Palladine.”
“Peter, dear,” he insisted.
Old habits die hard.
Beatrice Duncan was manning the checkout. She and her husband, Harold, had helped her son, Sammy, buy the hardware store when his boss retired but they hadn’t realized that business acumen didn’t necessarily go along with tool enthusiasm. Sammy was great when you needed to find the right ratchet wrench but wasn’t so good at balancing a bank statement.
“You guys are open late,” I said. “For a Sunday.”
“Don’t I know it.” She pushed her fist into her lower back. Her short gray hair was gelled to stand straight up. “Sammy thought it could bring in some new business.”
“Good idea,” I said, even though I was the only customer in the store.
She shrugged. “It was worth a try. We just need to hang on until Memorial Day weekend,” she added with a hopeful expression that made my stomach sink. “We put coupons in your Fudge Cook-off program and ordered a ton of flags and souvenirs for the tourists.”
“Cool!” I handed over the cash for the hose, resisting the urge to tell her to keep the change.
Worry ate at me all the way home. This wasn’t the first time I’d learned that a lot of people were counting on that weekend. What if we didn’t pull it off?
• • • • • • • • •
It was dusk by the time I pulled up in front of our house, but our next-door neighbor, Henna Bradbury, must have been looking out for me. Henna had gone through some kind of metamorphosis when her husband died a few years before, letting out her inner hippie and changing her name from Carol. She now spent her days painting elaborate neon designs on fabric and wire to create butterflies of all sizes that she sold online.
Henna stomped over, her long gray hair pulled into a side ponytail and her rainbow skirt swirling angrily around her legs. She stopped beside my car as I got out. “Michelle. You have to do something about that Denise.”
“I do?” I asked.
She went on like I hadn’t spoken. “She is the biggest thorn in my side. How dare she tell the Arts Guild that I’m not a real artist!” She was so mad, she was actually shaking.
“Denise wouldn’t say that.” Although I had a recent memory of someone mentioning that Denise liked being president of the guild a bit too much.
“Oh no?” Henna drew herself up to her total height of five feet, two inches. “Are you telling me my best friend Sadie is a liar?”
“Oh, of course not,” I rushed to say. “Is there any chance she misunderstood?”
Excerpted from "Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates"
Copyright © 2014 Kathy Aarons.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“Any lover of chocolate and books will find this story the perfect combination of savory, sweet, and deadly.”—Jenn McKinlay, New York Times bestselling author of Sugar and Iced
“Kathy Aarons's deft blend of delicious chocolate and tasty mystery will delight the reader’s palate.”—Victoria Hamilton, national bestselling author of Muffin but Murder
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Death Is Like A Box Of Chocolates is the first in the A Chocolate Covered Mystery series and a delicious series, too. Michelle and Erica own the Chocolates and Chapters bookstore/chocolates shop in West Riverdale, MD. Next door to their shop is Denise Coburns' photography studio. They and the whole community are looking forward to the Great Fudge Cook-off will be held during the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. Michelle is both excited and nervous as Hillary Punkin is rumored to be one of the judges. Punkin is a pastry chef on Grand Chef Network and has been known to make or break a chef. Denise is also excited, as some of her work has been selected for display in an art gallery in Washington, D.C.. But before she can meet with the gallery owner, Michelle finds her dead in her shop. She had died from poisoning. The poison was found in a small box of Michelle's chocolates that were sitting near Denise's body. With the fudge Cook-off quickly approaching Michelle gets help from Erica and Erica's brother Bean to try and learn the identity of the killer. It appears that Denise had taken some pictures that someone wants to keep secret. This is an interesting series and having lived in Maryland it was particularly fun for me to try figure out what community West Riverdale is model after. The book has many interesting characters and hope to read more about most of them. On the romance side, Erica just might be able to convince Bobby, a policeman, to show more interest in here. And Michelle, who has had an interest in Bean in the past, would like for him to show a little more interest in her. Recipes are included with the book. Looking forward to the next book in the series.
Books & chocolate are a good pairing. When a murder is added along with a dash of romance, you have won the trifecta! I enjoyed all of the twists
OK I admit they had me at chocolate and a cat on the cover. The mystery is well done. Why was that person killed and by that method? I like the idea of a combined chocolate and book store. That would be a place I'd like to be. There were a few times when people were a bit stupid. You aren't supposed to go anywhere alone and the first odd message gets you to go out without telling anyone? That is your basic "too stupid to live". But it is a fun read.
I really enjoyed this book, I liked all the characters, to me they were realistic and not over the top. They were people that I would like to associate with. The mystery kept me guessing until the end with plenty of twists that had me changing my mind a few times along the way. You also get the bonus of some recipes that I hope that I can get around to trying because they definitely sound yummy. I eagerly await the next in the series.
Really enjoyed this one and look forward to the next in the series. Sadly, I think there are only 3 but I'll read them all!
Death is Like a Box of Chocolates is the debut in a series. It is an entertaining, puzzling whodunit. two friends: Michelle (a chocolatier) and Erica (a bookworm) decide to go into business together by creating a chocolate shop and bookstore (Chocolate and Chapter), each having a section to there own, Michelle runs the chocolate shop and Erica is in charge of the books. a chocolatier and Food Network star, who is Michelle's idea, decides to come to there sleepy new England town and judge a sweets competition. before she is due to arrive, a local photographer is found dead in their shop. one of Michelle's chocolates in her mouth. the rest the mystery and plot is very entertain for me. the characters are what I expect in a cozy mystery, they are entertaining and interesting. they really stand out and are what imagine people in a small town to act.
A great first book in a series! Somehow the author made me even smell her chocolate shop and I know that is an impossibility! Do not be fooled by the Forest Gump sounding title--this tale is more like a Shakespearean tragedy. The main characters and their supporting characters, the books/chocolate shop, and writing style have sold me on wanting to read more!
Candy and murder, particularly chocolate. Who could possibly resist? A fun story, engaging characters, and recipes. Very satisfying
This is the first in the series, “A Chocolate Covered Mystery”. The setting of this series is Maryland at the “Chocolate and Chapters” shop. Chocolate and rare books, how ideal, until murder threatens to destroy the town’s Memorial weekend festivities. Interesting plot and the flow was believable. An exciting new series to invest time into.
Wonderful new series. Had me from the first page to the last. Loved the recipes.
Dollycas’s Thoughts Note – Make sure you have chocolate handy while reading! This series blend two of my most favorite things – BOOKS! and CHOCOLATE!! Michelle Serrano and Erica Russell have opened Chocolates and Chapters combining a bookstore with a chocolate shoppe. What could be better? West Riverdale, Maryland is the place to be for Memorial Day Weekend. The town is hosting an Arts Festival and a Fudge Cook-off. Michelle and Erica have been basically volunteered by the mayor to run the entire cook-off and they are on the general planning committee for the Arts Festival as well. Their friend Denise, a photographer, is also involved. She is waiting for her big break. She hopes to have a gallery showing of her work in D.C. soon. Her dreams turn to dust when she is found dead, apparently poisoned by Michelle’s chocolate truffles. Michelle is obviously the first suspect but the evidence quickly starts to point to Erica’s brother-in-law. Faced with having their store shutdown until the killer is found Michelle and Erica start their own investigation not just to save their shop but to save the Memorial Day celebration too. Kathy Aarons does a great job introducing us to all the characters for this new series. There are quite a few and fleshing them out enough for the reader to become engaged is not an easy task. There is plenty of room for them to evolve is future installments. She has also whipped up quite a mystery sprinkled with plenty of diversions to keep us readers guessing. I was speechless as I reached the end. I am truly looking forward to getting to know these characters much better. The next book in this series, Truffled to Death, is screaming at me from the shelf so I will be reading it very soon!
Really enjoyed. Could hardly but it down
Delicious Debut Michelle Serrano and Erica Russell are celebrating the first anniversary of their combined bookstore and chocolate shop, Chocolate and Chapters. As part of that celebration, they are hosting a fudge cook off. The mayor of their town has turned it into the kickoff of a Memorial Day event designed to bring tourists into the town and give a boost to the local economy. However, two weeks before the event, Michelle walks into her chocolate part of the store and finds their neighbor, Denise, sitting in a chair dead. Worse yet, she was poisoned with one of Michelle’s chocolate truffles. With the locals looking at Michelle with suspicion, she needs to find out how poison got into one of her chocolates and then into Denise. Meanwhile, the potential tourists are starting to cancel their plans to come to town. Can Michelle find the killer and save her own reputation before the upcoming holiday weekend is ruined? I really wasn’t looking to start a new series, but this one sounded like fun and I couldn’t resist. (That’s just how I am with chocolate, too.) I’m glad I read this because it was a fun debut. It started out a little slowly, but once the story gets going, it really gets good with several good twists to the story. Things slowed down a little again at the end, but it wasn’t too bad. The characters really grew on me, and I really am looking forward to visiting them again soon. Yes, just like chocolate, this series is addictive, and I am already planning my next visit to Michelle and Erica’s store.