While struggling to find a romantic (and affordable) destination for her upcoming honeymoon, coffeehouse manager Clare Cosi whips up a sweet new drink made from honey-processed coffee. Clare plans to serve her outstanding new Honey-Cinnamon Latte at her spring wedding to her longtime honey, NYPD detective Mike Quinn. The culinary world is also abuzz about the amazing honey that Clare was lucky enough to source for her shop's new latte. Produced by Madame's old friend "Queen" Bea Hastings, the rare, prize-winning nectar from Bea's rooftop hives commands a premium price, and top chefs compete for a chance to use it in their signature seasonal dishes.
One night, a swarm of escaped bees blanket the Village Blend's chimney, and Clare discovers Bea's unconscious body after she seemingly fell from her high-rise rooftop-hive setup. The police want to rule it as a tragic accident or possible attempted suicide, but Clare does not believe either theory. Like Madame, she knows this Queen would never abandon her hive. To sort out this mystery, Clare investigates a world of cutthroat chefs, culinary start-ups, and competitive urban beekeepers. But can she uncover the truth without getting stung?
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"Well, what do we have here?"
Matt Allegro spied the colorful brochures I'd been frowning over. Before I could stop my ex-husband, he snatched the bundle off the café table.
"Honeymoon destinations?" He flipped through the glossy pile. "So, you and the flatfoot have finally agreed on a getaway? It looks like more than the birds and bees will be busy next spring."
"Very funny, Allegro. Now give them back."
Instead, Matt shook his shaggy dark head and grinned, white teeth gleaming behind his bush of a beard, crow's-feet crinkling in his deeply tanned skin-a rugged shade acquired not in a Manhattan tanning booth but under the tropical sun of a Costa Rican finca, where he'd also obtained an outstanding microlot of honey-processed arabica beans. For that alone, I should have forgiven him, but I wasn't in the mood.
With a quick swipe, I tried to reclaim my happy-honeymoon dream, but Matt pulled the pamphlets out of reach and skidded away, ducking behind one of the overstuffed easy chairs in our second-floor lounge.
Straightening my Village Blend apron, I strode across the room, and stuck my hand out.
Matt viewed my open palm with amusement. "What will you trade for them?"
"How about three insults and an elbow to the ribs?"
He tapped his foot. "I'm waiting."
"Hmm . . ." Pretending to think it over, I studied the embossed design in our antique tin ceiling. Then I made my move. With a sudden lunge, I attempted to reach around his hard body, but his annoyingly muscular arm easily blocked me, and he was off again.
Okay, it's on!
As I chased my ex-husband and lunatic business partner around café tables, standing lamps, and intentionally mismatched bohemian living room furniture, my baristas scattered. So much for our after-hours staff meeting.
For a moment, a rush of nostalgia swept me back two decades: Matt and me in our twenties, happily racing our toddler daughter around this same Village Blend lounge.
But Joy was all grown-up now and (allegedly) so was Matt.
I attempted a second grab, my chestnut ponytail bobbing, but once again my slippery ex slipped out of reach. He made a show of flipping through the brochures.
"Aruba, Bermuda, Bahamas. What is this, a Beach Boys song?"
"It's none of your business, that's what it is." Abandoning pursuit, I placed my hands on my hips and produced my sternest stare. I should have known better. Not even Joy fell for that anymore-but apparently my youngest barista did.
"You shouldn't tease her!" Nancy scolded.
A wide-eyed transplant from upstate, Nancy Kelly liked to embrace her inner farm girl with a fondness for wheat-colored braids and blue gingham miniskirts. She also made a habit of crushing too easily on cute guys. Her Matt-crush was inevitable (we all fall for Matt), but I shut that down fast since he was her boss, not to mention twice her age. The crush on her coworker Dante, however, nearly killed him. (But that's another story.)
Hearing the disapproval in Nancy's voice, Matt turned to face her. "Go on, I'm listening," he said with the tone of a patient father. "You have something more to say?"
"Yes, I do! I don't know why you're giving our Boss Lady such a hard time. She's just looking for the perfect getaway after she and Lieutenant Quinn become husband and wife. What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing," Matt replied, sending me a glance. "I just didn't understand why she looked so unhappy. Now I see. She's searching for the perfect getaway. A nice getaway or a fun getaway just won't cut it. For the Boy Scout in blue, it has to be perfect."
"If you ask me, they deserve perfect," Tucker Burton said with a theatrical sigh. Dedicated thespian and darling of the Downtown cabaret scene, my lanky, floppy-haired Tuck was our oldest and most loyal staff member. "If I were planning their honeymoon, I'd send the newlyweds to Paris for a stay at the Hotel Ritz!"
Esther rolled her eyes. "It's a honeymoon, not a money-moon."
A former NYU grad student, Esther Best had the kind of prickly attitude that was challenging to manage but extremely handy in Manhattan retail, where aggressive demands of New York customers (especially those forced to wait more than five seconds for re-caffeination) would typically scare a more timid part-timer off her Crocs.
Our zaftig, raven-haired resident poet was also a proud urban rapper, which was how she met her boyfriend-a Russian-born baker who dreamed of becoming the next Eminem. But Esther's true passion, other than Boris (and coffee), was her dedicated work with poetry slam outreach, a nonprofit program for at-risk kids.
Adjusting her black-framed glasses, she stared Tucker down with her trademark scowl. "The Paris Ritz is for bougies with bank accounts. Two weeks in those perfumed digs cost more than an Elon Musk space launch."
"Esther's right," Matt said, scratching his unruly beard. "On a New York cop's salary, the Motel 6 in New Orleans is about as close to France as these newlyweds will ever get."
Dante Silva folded his tattooed arms. "Why go to Europe, anyway?"
His comment surprised me. Most young artists dreamed of European studies. Then again, Dante had moved to New York from a little town in Rhode Island to paint quirky scenes of urban life-and he'd encountered plenty working behind my counter.
"New England is a great place for a honeymoon," he said. "There's an amazing bed-and-breakfast where I grew up in Quindicott. It's a restored Queen Anne called the Finch Inn-"
"Paaa-leeeeze," Esther scoffed. "Any honeymooners serious about their self-titled mission would want more privacy than the paper-thin walls of an old Victorian B and B. If Boris and I ever go on a honeymoon, we'll either rent a cabin in the woods or make sure our hotel room is soundproof."
"Too much information!" Dante cried, squeezing his eyes shut.
Tucker opened his wide. "Why, Esther, I didn't realize you were such an incurable romantic."
"It's not romance," she said, pushing up her glasses. "It's sex."
Matt snapped his fingers. "Speaking of great se-" (He cleared his throat.) "-romance, why not go to Hawaii, Clare? That's where we had our honeymoon. Remember those starry nights on the beach?"
I could not believe my ex-husband said that with a straight face.
"Matt, some of my wedding plans may still be up in the air, but I can tell you one thing. Whatever they are, they will not be repeating the same pattern."
"Pattern?" Bafflement crossed his bushy face. "What pattern?"
"I'll make it simple-" I raised an index finger. "Number one. This is my second wedding. This time around, I'm a mature, independent woman marrying a man I deeply love, not an infatuated, pregnant teenager with no means of support.
"Number two-" I made a peace sign. "I'm marrying Detective Lieutenant Michael Ryan Francis Quinn in a chapel surrounded by friends and family, not at City Hall in front of a bored clerk.
"Number three-" I waved my old Girl Scout salute. "Mike and I are going to have a lovely reception at a beautiful venue on the river with those same friends and family as our guests.
"And finally, on our honeymoon, Mike and I are going somewhere-anywhere-that does not remind me of my first failed marriage." I stepped up to my ex-husband until we were standing toe-to-toe, if not face-to-face (at my height it was more like my face and his sternum).
Matt looked down and grinned again. "Can't handle the memories of me, huh?"
I suppressed a groan (barely). "I simply want this wedding to be the opposite of my first one in every respect. Get it now?"
"Oh, I get it." Matt handed back the brochures. "You're honeymooning in the Arctic Circle."
"Well, if we do, I'm sure Mike Quinn will find plenty of creative ways to keep us warm."
With a snort, Matt scanned the room. "Speaking of cold fish, where is our friendly neighborhood apple-swiping flatfoot? Shouldn't your precious groom-in-waiting be here to help pick your perfect honeymoon package?"
The lounge suddenly got very quiet. Then everyone turned to stare-at me!
I knew why they were staring. They were waiting for an answer. And from the looks on their faces, they appeared concerned that something was very wrong.
I couldn't blame them. My staff had grown used to seeing Lieutenant Quinn at our after-hours meetings. Mike always enjoyed the banter between my baristas, along with samples of my new roasts and the leftover treats in our pastry case. And my baristas appreciated quizzing him about police activity in our neighborhood, especially patterns of crimes-from more serious events like muggings and assaults to misdemeanor infractions like bike thefts and graffiti.
The last two weeks, however, my fiancé had been notably absent.
"Mike is working, okay?" I snapped out. "Which is what we are supposed to be doing, remember?"
I kicked myself for my tone. I had wanted to respond without emotion, but the words came out way more defensive than I meant them to be. I might as well have been wearing a neon sign that flashed Trouble in Paradise.
With a frown, Matt studied my unhappy expression. That's when I realized what all his teasing and chasing was really about.
My ex had noticed my anxiety over those honeymoon brochures. His impromptu "playtime" had been his way of trying to lighten my mood. Now he saw the truth. My worries could not be chased away by a few jokey remarks and an adult version of Romper Room.
Matt stepped close, his brow knitting with unspoken questions. But this was not the time to answer intimate queries about my relationship with Mike Quinn.
DING! The smartphone timer went off in the pocket of my Village Blend apron. The French presses were ready.
"Let me finish the coffee," I said.
As I pushed past Matt to press down the plungers, his low whisper told me he was not letting this subject die.
"You're not saved by the bell, Clare. I want to know what's going on-"
To my relief, his words stopped there. Remembering we had an audience, he faced the staff and clapped his hands.
"The Boss Lady's right! Fun time's over. Everyone, grab a cup and let's get down to business."
A minute later, I was listening to Matt and my staff loudly and dutifully slurp. (It may have sounded uncouth, but sucking air in with the coffee was essential for a proper tasting. Not only did it help spray the entire palate, it allowed the nose to get in on the tasting action.)
When Matt finally cleared his throat to speak, I held my breath. These beans were special, and this finished coffee had to be.
"Clare, this is one of the finest roasts you've ever created. It's masterfully balanced, and you've perfectly preserved the fruit and floral notes." He met my gaze with a mix of gratitude and admiration. "It's intoxicating."
I exhaled with relief. My ex was not a man who offered praise easily, especially when it came to the beverage that defined his life's work.
"What do the rest of you think?" I asked.
Esther, Dante, and Nancy all gave enthusiastic thumbs-up. That left Tucker, who sat in silence, eyes closed.
"What's the matter, Tuck?" Nancy frowned. "Don't you like it?"
Without a word, Tucker fanned his hands to catch more of the fragrance rising from his cup. Then my oldest and most experienced staff member slurped again and opened his eyes.
"I got the fruit and floral notes," he began. "Peach and candied apricot with a hint of rose petals. But as the coffee cools, there is so much more-a luscious honey sweetness. And it's a clean, bright sweetness, not heavy or syrupy. This coffee is so lively and complex, it's throwing a dance party on my tongue!"
"Don't hold back, Shakespeare," Esther cracked. "Tell us what you really think."
"I just did, dearie. This brew beats anything I've been served at a TSCA annual banquet."
Esther smirked. "The last time I checked, you were a server for the Tri-State Specialty Coffee Association, not one of the served."
"Caterers are on the front lines, sugar. We sample everything first."
"Oh, really? Does that include the Dom Pérignon?"
"Only when I'm rehearsing my Academy Awards acceptance speech for Best Actor." Tuck flipped his floppy brown mop. "You have to admit, when draped in formal wear, I bear an uncanny resemblance to a young Hugh Grant."
As Esther snapped a comeback (something about "Notting Hill you're not"), Matt bypassed the bickering baristas and extended his empty cup.
"More, please," he said, his furry face beaming. Clearly, he was pleased, even a bit euphoric, and he had every right to be.
At my request, Matt had traveled to Central America, where the "honey processing" of coffee had originated and was still all the rage. He'd already forged an alliance with one of the most highly regarded fincas in Costa Rica, and on this trip, he bought the farm-not literally, of course. But Matt did buy an entire shade-grown, certified organic, honey-processed microlot.
While my ex-husband's agricultural chess move was perfectly executed, it cost the Village Blend a hefty chunk of change, which meant Matt and I had a lot riding on the quality of this brew. Fortunately, the oohs and aahs emanating from my baristas told me our financial gamble had paid off.
My expertise in roasting hadn't hurt, either.
I had micro-roasted multiple test batches to achieve that perfect crack. This final batch was finished a short time ago, right after my regular roasting session for the shop.
Now my baristas were eagerly pouring second and third cups.
"This coffee is awesome," Dante declared. "It's sure to wow that Tri-State coffee group, including the stuffed shirts and know-it-all snobs among them."
I appreciated Dante's support, but impressing members of the TSCA was not my main concern. My primary worry was producing a coffee that served as a dazzling representation of a single person: Blanche Dreyfus Allegro Dubois, the Paris-born owner of the Village Blend, known affectionately (and respectfully) as "Madame."
Like our landmark coffeehouse, Madame had become a beloved asset to the Greenwich Village neighborhood she served. Despite coming to America as a penniless, motherless refugee and being tragically widowed twice, our grande dame had risen to become a pillar of the community.
For decades, she'd caffeinated, cajoled, and even bankrolled struggling artists, writers, actors, and musicians, some of whom rose to the ranks of worldwide acclaim.
Along the way, she birthed and raised a widely respected globe-trotting coffee hunter (our own Matteo Allegro); and she didn't hesitate to take a pregnant art school dropout (me) under her wing to teach her the coffee business from top to bottom, including the master art of blending and roasting the best beans on the planet.