In the ninth Domestic Diva Mystery, New York Times bestselling author Krista Davis unwraps a tale in which chocolate is the kiss of death…
Domestic Diva Sophie Winston is in charge of the sweetest event in Old Town this summer. Amore Chocolates is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with a chocolate tasting at the mansion of the company’s CEO, Joe Merano—and Sophie is running the show. With cookies, candy, and five kinds of chocolate cake, it’s a chocolate lover’s dream! But when Joe goes missing, the celebration becomes bittersweet. And when Sophie discovers the body of a competing chocolatier in the guesthouse, the event turns downright deadly.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sophie’s been receiving daily boxes of sweet treats. After ruling out her new beau and her exes, Sophie wonders if someone’s trying to send her a message—and if she’s next on a chocoholic’s hit list...
Includes delicious recipes and entertaining tips!
About the Author
Hillary Huber is a multiple Audie Award finalist, an AudioFile Earphones Award winner, and an AudioFile Best Voice. She has recorded close to three hundred titles, spanning many genres.
Read an Excerpt
Sophie’s Friends and Old Town Residents
Nina Reid Norwood–Sophie’s best friend.
Natasha Earlene Smith–Desperate domestic diva.
Mars Winston–Sophie’s ex-husband.
Bernie Frei–Best man at Sophie’s wedding.
Humphrey Brown–Sophie’s childhood friend.
Alex German–Sophie’s new beau.
Francie Vanderhoosen–Sophie’s next-door neighbor.
Wolf Fleishman–Homicide investigator whom Sophie once dated.
Arnaud Turnèbe–Chocolatier, new to town.
The Amore Chocolates Family and Employees
Joe Merano–CEO of Amore Chocolates.
Nonni Merano–Joe’s mom. Co-founder of Amore.
Coco Ross–Joe’s daughter. Vice President of Marketing at Amore.
Mitch Ross–Coco’s husband. Vice president at Amore.
Dan Merano–Joe’s son. Head chocolatier at Amore.
Stella Simpson–Dan’s girlfriend. Manages an Amore store.
Vince Wilson–Amore employee.
Randy Hicks–Amore employee.
Marla Eldridge–Joe’s assistant.
Cheryl Maiorca–Queen of the chocolate cake.
Lori Speer–Queen of the chocolate truffle.
My mother-in-law gave me a box of chocolates that she made herself. They’ve turned gray! I think she’s trying to poison me. My husband insists they’re fine but I don’t believe him. What if they’re in cahoots? Is it normal for chocolate to turn gray?
—Suspicious in Graysville, Tennessee
It’s so common that it has a name. The powdery gray on your chocolates is called a bloom. It’s caused by moisture and often happens when chocolates are stored in the refrigerator. Chocolates with a bloom are perfectly fine to eat but not very attractive.
The first box of chocolates arrived on a Monday. I assumed they were a gift from Joe Merano, the chairman of Amore Chocolates, because I was working on events for the sixtieth anniversary of his company. But the bold red box wasn’t embossed with the Amore logo of entwined gold hearts. Nor was there a card. It had simply been left at my front door.
A second box arrived on Tuesday and another on Wednesday.
On Thursday morning, Nina Reid Norwood, my across-the-street neighbor and best friend, discovered another box at my front door. She now stared at the four open boxes on my kitchen table. “They’re like perfect little brown gems. Handmade, don’t you think?”
“Definitely.” In each box, six chocolates nestled on crimped white papers. No two chocolates were alike.
Nina’s fingers hovered, rotating in the air above them. “You haven’t eaten any.”
“Get your greedy little hand away. I don’t know who or where they came from.”
“But they’re so beautiful. You have to try one! They’re probably filled with something rich and creamy.”
“You are not eating any until we know who left them at my door.”
Nina signed with exasperation. “I’m sure they’re from Alex.”
I had been dating Alex German for a while. When he was in town, anyway. “I phoned Alex to thank him. He didn’t know a thing about them.”
I shook my head. They weren’t from my ex-husband, either.
A grin spread across Nina’s face. “You have an admirer!”
“Don’t be silly.” The notion had crossed my mind, though. Chocolates hinted at romance, didn’t they? But if nothing else, I was a realist. “More likely they’re some kind of promotional effort in connection with the opening of Célébration de Chocolat.” Arnaud Turnèbe, the famous Belgian chocolatier, had chosen Old Town as the location for his first American shop. Until now, his exquisite chocolates had been available only by special order, flown in fresh from Belgium at considerable cost. I was looking forward to actually trying one of them.
Nina frowned and picked up a lid to examine it. “What kind of promotion doesn’t mention the name of the business?”
The doorknocker sounded. I headed to the foyer and opened the front door.
Coco Ross rushed inside, breathless. “I hope you don’t mind my stopping by.” A well-known socialite, Coco had been my contact at the company for the anniversary events. I guessed her to be about fifty but she had the energy of a much younger woman. Coco laughed easily, and her expressive, dark brown eyes didn’t hide her emotions. “This is Nonni.”
A tiny woman dressed all in blue followed Coco at a slower pace, aided by a cane. Her white hair was pinned up in a tidy bun. Not a speck of makeup touched her face. She couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds.
I shook Nonni’s frail hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nonni. Won’t you come in and have a seat?”
They followed me into my kitchen, where Coco greeted Nina and introduced Nonni.
“I am going to strangle Natasha,” announced Coco.
Leaning against the center island, Nina said, “Get in line.”
“No, seriously. I’m beginning to worry about myself.” Coco flapped the neckline of her pink and green Lilly Pulitzer dress as though she thought the air would cool her. “Really. I lie in bed at night, thinking of ways to knock her off.”
“Could I offer you iced tea or lemonade?” I asked.
Coco responded, “Iced tea, please. It’s hotter than blazes outside.” She lifted the back of her neatly bobbed hair off her neck and fanned herself.
Nonni sat down in an armchair by the fireplace.
“Natasha entered ten recipes in our contest. We rejected them all. Correction. I rejected them all.” Coco pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead briefly. “I didn’t know they were from her. They were atrocious. Who wants to eat a chocolate dill cream roll? Now she’s offended and seeking revenge by bad-mouthing Amore.”
I filled tall glasses with ice cubes and poured the iced tea.
Happily, I spotted a leftover strawberry tart hiding behind the red peppers. Chocolate coated the bottom, and I had drizzled more chocolate on top of the strawberries, as well. The chocolate ought to please Coco and Nonni.
I placed slices on four square white plates and added a generous dollop of whipped cream to each.
Nonni sat in a chair by the fireplace watching me. My Ocicat, Mochie, nestled on her lap. I delivered a drink and slice of the tart to the table for her.
Nonni smiled at me. “I like you kitchen.”
She spoke with a thick Italian accent and pronounced kitchen as keetchen.
She waggled a gnarled forefinger at me. “I know everything about you when I see you keetchen. Is clean, is warm. You like you keetchen, too.”
I couldn’t help smiling. Judging a person by her kitchen was a new one to me. “Yes, I do like it.”
“Sofia is good Italian name. You are Italian?”
I hedged. We definitely weren’t Italian. “My family came from Europe.”
That seemed to satisfy her. “We have problem in family. You will help us.” With the aid of her walking stick, she rose to her feet and tottered to my kitchen table, where she took a seat.
I brought drinks and slices of the tart for the rest of us and set them on the cool fern green tablecloth, along with forks and rose-colored napkins.
“All is settled,” said Nonni. “Sofia will help us.”
“At the risk of upsetting everyone, I haven’t agreed to anything.”
“Yes, yes,” insisted Nonni. “You help. Now I eat.”
Coco licked her lips nervously. She appeared too agitated to sit down. Coco and her brother, Dan, were the heirs to Amore Chocolates. The sixtieth anniversary events weren’t the biggest projects I had ever put together, but they had certainly been different. Amore Chocolates was best known for delicious boxed chocolates, but they also made fabulous, yet lesser-known, cooking chocolate, both powdered and in squares. They had sponsored a contest for home cooks and were bringing the creators of the winning recipes to Old Town for a huge tasting in the gorgeous garden of Joe’s home. The recipes had been included in a new Amore Chocolates cookbook.
Coco handled marketing for Amore. Gregarious and outgoing, she was the perfect person to represent the company. In fact, she had told me she would be taking over most of the outings planned for the winners. I suspected she wanted to be along to schmooze when they were on TV and participated in various contests and demonstrations around metropolitan Washington, DC. It was fine with me. I arranged the tasting, the farewell dinner, lodging, and transportation. The rest was up to her.
Coco chugged her iced tea and refilled her glass. “I don’t understand Natasha. She’s so lovely and perfect on her TV show that I thought she was a smart businesswoman.” She gazed at the tart for a moment. “I had no idea that she’s an egocentric, bullheaded—”
“—nincompoop.” Nonni ended the sentence for her.
Nina slid into the banquette and listened while she sampled the tart.
I placed the pitcher of iced tea on the table, and Coco finally settled into a chair.
I joined them.
Lowering her voice, Coco continued, “There’s really not much that doesn’t work with chocolate. Nuts, spices, fruit, even chicken. But who wants to eat brownies made with bleu cheese? Now she’s offended and seeking revenge. She’s making it sound like we’re snobs because the Amore tasting is by ticket only.”
“I thought that was because your dad’s garden will only hold so many people,” said Nina.
“Well, of course that’s the reason. We’re not turning away the public. We’ve been giving away tickets in contests, through radio stations, at our stores—just everywhere! It was that or sell them but we didn’t want to charge for our tasting celebration.” Coco placed her forearms on the table, leaned on them, and looked at me. “What now? She’s making us look terrible! It’s a public relations nightmare.”
I had known Natasha since childhood. We grew up in the same small town and competed at everything in school. Everything except the beauty pageants she had enjoyed so much. Sometimes I was reluctant to admit it, but Natasha was a part of my life, especially since she had set up housekeeping with my ex-husband after our divorce. As though that wasn’t bad enough, they moved into a house on my street, just a few doors down. In the divorce, neither my ex, Mars, short for Marshall, nor I had the heart to give up Daisy, our mixed-breed hound, so we split custody, and she went back and forth between us. I had to admit that living close to Mars had made that easier for us. Because the Amore events would keep me very busy, she was spending the week with Mars.
I looked into Coco’s eyes. “I’ll have a word with Natasha but I’m afraid the damage might already have been done.”
Coco rolled her sweating iced tea glass across her forehead. “How can it be this hot? We have to find a new venue, make more food”—she spoke with her hands in true Italian fashion, raising them over her head and swinging them down in a huge circle—“and invite the general public, no tickets necessary.”
The words “find a new venue” chilled me more than any iced tea could have. I spoke gently, calmly, trying not to give away my panic. “But the tasting is this Saturday.” To make my point abundantly clear, I added, “Less than three days away.”
“Everyone says you can work magic. Surely you can find another venue.”
“For the last Saturday in June?” Was she kidding? “Brides booked Saturdays in Old Town over a year ago. And I should point out that tastings always require tickets. You have to know how many people you’re going to serve.”
“Could you move it out of Old Town?” asked Nina.
Coco gasped as though Nina had said something unimaginable. “That’s not an option. What about the Torpedo Factory?”
She was delusional if she thought one of the best venues in town wasn’t booked. Once a real torpedo factory, the fabulous building now housed art galleries and artists’ studios. The atrium, main hall, and patio could be rented for private functions, but there wasn’t a chance they would be available. “I can make some calls.” I said it more to soothe her than anything else. I knew I wouldn’t find a venue in Old Town. We had hired a caterer to make the winning recipes for the party, but he would probably go ballistic if he had to produce ten times the quantity on such short notice. As gently as I could, I added, “But don’t hold your breath. You realize we’re talking about moving from four hundred people to . . . gosh, I don’t know how many. Four thousand?”
Coco leaned back in her chair. “See what you can do.”
I was shaking my head and thinking it might be easier to bring Natasha on board in some way when Coco cried out. “Nonni! I’m so sorry, Sophie, she’s used to tasting chocolates from the store.”
Nonni held one of the mystery chocolates in her hand. Half of it was missing. “Bellissimo!”
I jumped to my feet, “Oh, honey, don’t eat the rest of that. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t know where they came from.”
Nonni paid no attention whatsoever and ate the other half. “Belgian or Swiss? Is familiar.”
Coco stood up to take them from Nonni. But when she saw them, her eyes widened. She selected one without care, bit in, and savored it. “Oh no,” she moaned. But she consumed the rest of it anyway. And then she keeled over and hit the floor with a thud.
My neighbor asked me if I was going to temper my chocolate. I looked it up but it sounds incredibly complicated. Will my cake be ruined if I don’t temper the chocolate first?
—Mr. Mom in Temperance, Georgia
Dear Mr. Mom,
You don’t need to temper chocolate when you bake with it. Tempering is generally only necessary for chocolates used to make candies. The tempering process allows them to be boxed and displayed at room temperature.
“Coco!” I thrust her chair aside and knelt by her. “Nina, call 911!”
I tapped Coco’s tanned cheeks, which were rapidly losing their color. “Coco! Coco!” She was still breathing.
Nonni calmly poured the remainder of her iced tea over Coco’s face. Ice cubes skittered across the floor. For a second I worried that Coco might inhale the liquid and choke.
Coco opened her eyes and blinked. She focused on my face.
“Coco, how do you feel?” I asked gently.
She moaned and blinked repeatedly as though she wasn’t quite right yet.
Outside, the siren of an ambulance drew closer.
I dabbed her wet face to dry it off. Coco tried to lift her head but the effort appeared to wear her out.
Nina opened the front door for the rescue squad.
I backed away from Coco to make room for them. Nonni seized my hand, and I gently squeezed hers in silent solidarity. One of the emergency medical technicians asked us what had happened.
Nina handed her all four of the boxes of chocolates while I explained that they had been found on my doorstep.
“Nonni!” I turned to her. “Nonni ate the chocolate, too. How are you feeling?”
Nonni patted my arm with a delicate hand. “I am quite fine.”
“I am, too,” Coco muttered. “I don’t need an ambulance. I just had a light-headed moment and felt dizzy.”
“Coco! You pregnant?” asked Nonni.
Coco snorted. “More likely having a hot flash.”
The EMTs encouraged her to go to the emergency room to be checked out. They got their way when Coco tried to sit up and passed out again.
“You’d better take Nonni, too,” I suggested. “I’d hate to have her collapse the moment you pulled away.”
Nina and I followed them outside. We watched the EMTs load Coco and Nonni into the ambulance. Nonni smiled and waved at us before they closed the door.
When the ambulance started down the street, Nina turned to me. “Have you aggravated anyone lately?”
“What? No! Why would you ask a thing like that?”
The corners of her mouth twitched down. “Those chocolates were obviously meant for you.”
“But . . . that’s . . . ridiculous,” I sputtered.
“No events that went badly? No irate neighbors? No jealous wives? Have you been poking your nose into a murder again?”
“No!” I had been busy with work these last few months, but nothing had ended in a disaster. And I certainly wasn’t having a fling with a married man!
Nina nodded. “If I were you, I wouldn’t eat anything I didn’t cook myself.”
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
“Of all people, you should know better than that, Sophie. And it started out as such a nice day,” said Nina. “Thank goodness you wouldn’t let me eat a chocolate! I’m going home. I think I have some chocolate bars stashed in the fridge.”
“You know you shouldn’t keep them there, right?”
But Nina was already halfway to her house, evidently in dire need of a chocolate fix.
Back in my kitchen, I phoned Joe Merano at Amore Chocolates and explained what had happened. He was surprisingly kind given the circumstances, but we kept our conversation brief so he and Coco’s husband could rush to the hospital.
Guilt hammered at me while I mopped up the melting ice cubes on the floor. I should have tucked those chocolates away where no one could eat them. It was my fault that Coco and Nonni were in the emergency room. I had to go there. It was the least I could do.
I dashed upstairs to change clothes and was just slipping a dress off the hanger when the phone rang. Joe’s assistant, Marla, asked me to come to his office that afternoon at two. She didn’t have any updates on the condition of Nonni or Coco.
I hung up thinking, Uh-oh. A command performance. I checked the time. One and a half hours. I’d better have some solutions for the Natasha situation at the meeting. As much as I wanted to go to the hospital, I knew they were relying on me to take care of other matters.
I nixed the hospital, pulled my skort and sleeveless top back on, and hurried to my tiny home office to make some phone calls to see if there was any possibility of moving the event. The Torpedo Factory was booked. No surprise there. I worked the phone for the next hour without any luck.
In the middle of my quest, Alex called. “Have you received any more chocolates?”
“Every day this week.”
“Should I be worried?”
“Because they’re poisoned?”
“You’re joking, right?”
I filled him in on what had happened to Coco.
“What did you do to make someone mad at you?”
“Why do people keep asking me that? I didn’t do anything.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone. “Alex? You still there?”
“When I called, I was upset because some anonymous admirer was sending you chocolates, but now I’m worried that someone is out to get you.”
I listened to his lecture about being careful for a full minute before cutting him off. I had work to do and not much time.
I had exactly one idea that might solve the Natasha problem. If Amore nixed that, I had nothing else.
Amore’s recipe winners would be arriving at the hotel anytime now. Anticipating a long day, I dressed in a slenderizing navy blue sheath, a simple pearl necklace, and matching earrings that would be appropriate for the meeting and take me through dinner. I shot a glance at the cute thong sandals that were so comfortable, but slid my feet into open-toed navy sling backs with white bows on the rear straps.
I filled Mochie’s bowl with his favorite tuna and explained that I would be out late. He took it like a cat, opening one eye and purring his acceptance of the situation. I left a light on in the kitchen and made sure the lights by the front door were on, too, since it would be dark when I came home. Carrying my briefcase, I walked five blocks toward the river and strode into the amazingly elegant offices of Amore Chocolates.
A chubby guy with round wire-rimmed glasses was just leaving. He ate a chocolate and was so intent on another one in his hand that he nearly ran into me.
The receptionist called out, “Randy! You forgot your package.”
Randy stuffed the second chocolate in his mouth and ran back to her desk to collect a box.
The receptionist nodded at me. “They’re waiting for you upstairs in the boardroom.”
As I walked up the stairs, I wondered why I felt like I was heading into doom. I hadn’t poisoned Coco or Nonni. I hadn’t wanted them to eat the chocolates at all! But they had been on the table, and I felt guilty for leaving them out. Natasha’s shenanigans weren’t my fault, either. Still, a heavy weight pressed on me as though I had done something wrong and now had to face the people I had disappointed.
I could see them through the glass doors that led to the boardroom. Joe Merano, the patriarch and chairman, and Mitch Ross, vice president of Amore and husband of Coco, awaited me. I opened the door and walked in.
They shook my hand in a very cordial businesslike manner. I asked about Coco and Nonni immediately.
“Coco’s official diagnosis is heat exhaustion,” said Joe. “She’s resting at my house now. And my mom is perfectly fine.”
“Nothing was detected. According to the doctor, there is no general test for known poisons. They’re analyzing the chocolates and if they find something there, then they’ll check Coco and Nonni for it. Coco is recovering well, so the doctors don’t think she was poisoned.”
“That’s a relief!” I didn’t want to belabor the subject but I breathed a little bit easier.
Mitch smiled at me graciously. He slid his palms against each other in a slow methodical motion. “The reason we called you here is this business with Natasha.”
Joe rose and walked to the window, his back to us.
“While it may seem somewhat minor and inconsequential to you,” said Mitch, “Amore Chocolates takes great pride in our exemplary community relations. To have a recognized local celebrity putting us down and claiming that we are in some way elitist is a major blow, especially at this time of our sixtieth anniversary.”
I nodded but I was watching Joe. He wore a well-tailored dark gray business suit with a red tie. The horseshoe of hair remaining from male-pattern baldness showed considerable silver. He wore none of the trappings of wealth. Had I seen him on the street, he would have meshed with the throngs of other gray-suited businessmen.
The boardroom of Amore Chocolates revealed the success of the company in a way that its plain CEO did not. On the second floor of a huge three-story house, it featured a marble fireplace and dark hardwood floors that looked to be original or at least reclaimed wood. French doors flanked by additional windows of the same size led to a balcony. Plush red and gold oriental rugs defined the areas of the room with the biggest one in the center, where I sat at a large round table. The shape of the table told me a lot about Joe’s management style. He brought everyone in as equals. No one sat in the head chair looking down a row of peons here. I recognized a young Nonni in the oil portrait over the fireplace. She and her husband had founded the company.
“We really can’t tolerate this kind of slander,” said Mitch. “With Célébration de Chocolat opening, we’re going to feel the pinch while our local customers sample their goods. We cannot afford to lose customers because some woman paints us with a dirty brush. Especially a lie! I’ve been in touch with a leading crisis management company. They’ve seen this kind of thing before, and said it can spiral out of control.” Mitch smoothed back graying hair, and I realized that he was speaking to Joe, not to me.
He and Coco made a striking couple. A large man with broad shoulders and an ample physique, he sported a tan that rivaled Coco’s. He was still attractive by anyone’s standards, and I could imagine that his amiable face had been adorably boyish in his youth.
In the hallway outside the glass, Randy, the handyman, peered in.
Mitch glanced up at him. Raising his voice, he called, “Need something, Randy?”
Randy pushed open the door. “Sorry to interrupt. I’ll catch you later.”
Mitch consulted his notes. “They recommend a three-pronged approach. First, a Twitter campaign. We find unfortunate misstatements that Natasha has made on her show, and we send them into the Twittersphere to discredit her. Apparently, that’s a very powerful tool, and if we do it right, it won’t reflect on us. Second, the night of our tasting, we make and serve some of her terrible recipes to the press, making clear that they are hers. That’s supposed to be a passive way to handle it. You know, it looks like we’re honoring her, but the tasters get to come to their own conclusions, which makes her look bad and discredits her as an authority. Third, we hire a private detective to dig up dirt on this woman . . .”
My son-in-law gave me chocolate nibs as a present. They’re funny little things and very bitter. What are they, and what am I supposed to do with them?
—Sweet Tooth Irishwoman in Sweets Corner, Massachusetts
Dear Sweet Tooth,
The nib is the center of the cocoa bean, the part from which chocolate is made. It’s chocolate in its purest form, before sugar is added, which is why it tastes bitter. Some people consider it health food because it’s pure dark chocolate and full of antioxidants. You might find them more palatable if you mix them with some dried cherries or apricots like a trail mix to sweeten them up.
I was appalled. Natasha might not be my favorite person, but she wasn’t all bad, and I would never agree to destroying her or anyone else for that matter. I could feel my face heating up. Even the tops of my ears burned.
“No.” Joe swung around to face us. “We are not in the business of ruining people. Amore Chocolates does not lash out and stoop to the lowest, basest behavior. Sophie, did you have any luck finding another venue?”
“I’m afraid not. But I did come up with one idea.” I was afraid to pitch it to them. It wasn’t nearly as aggressive as the ideas of the experts.
“Let’s hear it, then,” said Joe.
Mitch watched me with eager eyes and leaned forward.
“We invite Natasha to the tasting as a special guest. We give her some kind of made-up title like ‘Local Chocolate Expert’ and act as though she’s someone special in the community. She’ll have to change her own tune if she’s part of the celebration.”
“What if she doesn’t go along with it?” asked Mitch.
Natasha could never turn down an honor. If they pretended she was an expert, she would think she was an expert. “I can’t make promises, but I would bet that she’ll jump at any opportunity to be an honored guest. Maybe make some kind of plaque to give her?”
Joe smiled. “A simple and elegant solution, my dear. The best kind. Mitch, get on that within the hour. The sooner Natasha feels included, the sooner she’ll stop this bad-mouthing nonsense. Maybe call her Amore’s finest taster. Give her roses, champagne, and of course, Amore chocolates. Dan can create a small chocolate sculpture of some kind to give to her.”
Joe shook my hand and strode out of the room, thus ending the meeting and leaving me with Mitch.
He smiled at me. “I’m kind of relieved. Those other recommendations sounded below the belt to me.” He shrugged. “Besides, I’ve never even heard of this Natasha woman before. How big a star can she be? It’s not like she’s Martha Stewart or anything. I’ll see you at the dinner tonight, Sophie.”
He waved and returned to his own office, while I took the stairs. I released a sigh of relief, shifted gears, and headed for the hotel where Amore was putting up the people who had submitted winning recipes. They would be checking in soon.
The hotel was on the small side but very gracious and personal with exquisite service. Colonial from top to bottom, it featured elegant rooms and a piano for singing along in the foyer. A favorite for weddings because of the romantic atmosphere, I knew it would be booked solid, and I didn’t want any problems.
Happily, the hotel was on top of things. They had the registration packets with maps and schedules that I had prepared according to Coco’s instructions. The welcome baskets, chock-full of Amore chocolates and copies of the new cookbook, were already in the guest rooms, and the private dining room was being set up for their welcome dinner.
The hotel had arranged a wine and appetizer bar at my request so the winners could mingle after checking in, and it wasn’t long before the first of the sixty winners began arriving. Some were excited, some exhausted. They had come from all over the United States, by car, plane, and train. They fit every imaginable description, male and female, young and old. As they mingled with glasses of wine, talk soon turned to the one thing they all shared—a love of chocolate.
At ten o’clock that night, the recipe winners had been wined and dined by the Amore family—Joe, Nonni, Coco, Mitch, and Dan. Nonni looked like her usual self in a summery lavender dress, but Coco appeared tired and drawn. Not that it dampened her enthusiasm for a moment. She flitted between the guests like a social butterfly, clearly in her element. Mitch glad-handed their guests, slapping men on the back and air-kissing women. It was Dan who seemed the least comfortable in the social milieu, often standing by himself, nursing a glass of wine.
By eleven, the Amore family had gone home and most of their guests had retired for the night. A handful remained in the lobby, singing show tunes.
A portly gentleman, wearing a suit with his tie untied and hanging loosely on his shirt, approached me. He was about fifty, I guessed, with shoulders that rolled forward a bit. His thin, dark hair had become disheveled. “Ma chérie,” he murmured, picking up my hand and kissing it. “No wedding ring?”
The accent was French. I didn’t recall that he was one of the winners but I probably hadn’t met all of them. Not daring to be rude, I withdrew my hand and asked, “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Now I am. How can such a beautiful woman be without a husband?”
I recoiled from the gin on his breath. His blue eyes stood out in a round face the color and, oddly enough, the shape of a ripe red tomato. He teetered uncertainly and regained his balance.
“Do you like chocolat?” he asked, pronouncing the word as the French do. A narrow strand of hair fell into his fleshy face. “I’m sick of chocolat. I would”—he tucked his chin in and struggled to continue speaking—“be happiest if I never saw another chocolat in my life.”
I strained to maintain a smile. Hoping he would take the hint, I said, “Well, it’s been a lovely evening. It looks like most people are going to bed.”
He swayed sideways. I reached out to steady him.
“Will you come with me?” he asked.
Ugh! Ugh, ugh, ugh. Shivers crawled up my arms. I tried not to squirm in disgust. What a slimy creep. It wasn’t the first time I had encountered a lecherous drunk, though. It came with the territory of being an event planner. I used my standard line. “Not tonight. My boyfriend is waiting for me.”
Those who weren’t too intoxicated to think straight usually laughed or apologized and left me alone. Those who were so loaded they wouldn’t remember anything in the morning often suggested I ditch the boyfriend.
“Get rid of him. Room 210.” He pushed a room card at me.
I winked at him and lied in an exaggerated whisper. “You go ahead so my boyfriend won’t see us leaving together.”
He nodded with his entire upper body, nearly falling over. His hand twisting, he lifted a finger to his lips in a sign that he wouldn’t say a word, and he weaved toward the elevators.
I strode over to the handful of winners who were relaxing in the cushy sofas, chatting. “If no one needs anything, then I’ll say good night and see you in the morning.”
“Good night,” they chorused, and I took my leave.
I stepped out of the hotel into a warm summer night—the kind of night meant for sitting on porches or at outdoor cafes. The sidewalks of Old Town still teemed with people. Lights glowed inside the historic houses and on front stoops. I strolled along the brick sidewalks, enjoying the casual summertime ambiance.
The moon garden at the Honeysuckle Bed-and-Breakfast across the street caught my eye. I slowed to take it in. White roses climbed up trellises that marked the garden entrance to the B and B. At their feet, Shasta daisies and snow-in-summer seemed to glow in the light of the moon. It was a charming and clever idea to plant white flowers there. They were very welcoming for guests coming back to the B and B in the dark.
At that moment, Coco Ross hurried along the sidewalk and took a sharp right into the B and B property. I had seen her just over an hour ago. She had changed into pedal pushers and a top in the interim.
It was none of my business what she was doing there, but that didn’t stop me from dashing across the street for a better view. I arrived just in time to see Coco step inside the house.
That was odd. After the day she’d had, I would have expected her to go home to bed. Maybe she was a night owl and the owner was a friend.
I went on my way, too dog-tired to contemplate Coco’s behavior.
A large basket awaited me at the front door. Wrapped in cellophane and tied with a red bow, it was huge. I unlocked the door and carried it inside.
As though he had a mysterious cat radar and knew I was on my way home, Mochie waited for me in the foyer. He wound around my ankles until I picked him up. “Did you miss me or is your food bowl empty?” He purred a response, which I took to mean he was lonely—until I walked into the kitchen with him on my shoulder and realized that his cute little bowl was indeed empty.
He waited patiently next to it while I opened a can of minced turkey and spooned it into the bowl. He sniffed the food first, as though he wasn’t sure I had correctly interpreted his menu request. But it must have passed muster, because he settled in to eat.
I carried the giant basket into the kitchen and opened the wrapping. Inside, five boxes of Amore chocolates in graduating sizes formed a pyramid. The enclosed card read For my sweet, safe to eat, love from Pete (because Alex doesn’t rhyme with anything).
It made me laugh. I checked the clock. Too late to call to thank him.
I made sure the doors were locked, poured myself a glass of sparkling water, and headed upstairs to bed. The next few days would be hectic. After changing clothes, I opened the curtains and the windows in the bedroom to let the gentle night air waft into the house. I crawled under a light blanket, and the last thing I saw before closing my eyes was Mochie’s silhouette in the window.
Before I started working in the morning, I phoned Alex to thank him for his lovely gift. I had no time to get together with him, but he promised to come to the chocolate tasting.
Between wrangling the winners and preparing for the tasting, Friday flew by. I’d had the good sense to hire a tour company to take the winners on a daylong tour of the Smithsonian, the White House, the Capitol, and the monuments.
The bad news was that another box of chocolates showed up at my front door. I hid it in a desk drawer, safely away from anyone who might be tempted to taste one.
On Saturday morning, I was mixing batter for blueberry muffins when Nina burst into my kitchen, still wearing a lavender bathrobe, which added a little bulk to her figure. I had never understood how she could eat constantly but not find her clothes were too tight like I did. I had an ongoing battle with my weight.
Nina’s hair usually varied between a short cut and shoulder length. At the moment, it was short for summer. She needed only to run her fingers through her thick hair, and it fell into place.
“Are you watching Natasha’s show?” She turned the small TV in the kitchen to Natasha Live! on a local channel.
We watched as Natasha received two dozen red roses on air from Amore Chocolates and bragged about being their special guest of honor because of her refined taste and superior palate.
Nina and I high-fived in my kitchen, and she switched it off.
“You’ve been so busy. I feel like I’ve hardly seen you for the past couple of days,” Nina complained.
“I’m making blueberry muffins and ham and cheese omelets for breakfast. Want some?”
She nodded and poured coffee for both of us.
“The busiest part will be over tonight. The winners have a free day tomorrow. I’m on call in case they run into problems, but I don’t anticipate any. How about brunch in my garden tomorrow morning? I can whip up a quiche.”
“Sounds wonderful. I know it’s a lot of work for you, but I’m looking forward to the tasting tonight. Word around town is that there will be five different chocolate cakes.”
“For once the gossip is correct. You wouldn’t believe how many variations there can be on something as basic as chocolate cake.” For just a second, I thought Nina might start drooling.
The timer on my oven dinged. I pulled out the muffins.
“Gosh, but those smell good. They should bottle scents like that,” exclaimed Nina.
I poured her a cup of coffee and set the muffins on the table.
My kitchen door opened again and Daisy ran to me, wagging her tail as though she had missed seeing me. I hugged my sweet dog and gushed over her.
“You know we’re in the room, too,” said Mars.
“Good morning, Mars. Good morning, Bernie,” I said with mock formality. “Could I interest you in omelets?”
Mars slid onto the banquette next to Nina and picked up a muffin. “These are still warm!” A political advisor, Mars had the good fortune to possess wholesome looks that encouraged people to confide in him. He still had a full head of dark chocolate hair, though a glimmer of gray had moved in just around his ears. I had fallen in love with him because of his humor, which showed in his eyes and the little crinkles on their outer edges.
Bernie, who had been the best man at our wedding and always sounded clever with his British accent, said, “If it’s not too much trouble.” Bernie and Mars couldn’t have been more opposite in appearance. Bernie’s sandy hair was always unruly, as though he had just rolled out of bed. His nose had been broken at least once and sported a very slight kink. He shared Mars’s sense of humor, though, and had astonished all of us by running the most popular restaurant in Old Town.
I cracked more eggs into a bowl and chopped additional peppered ham while Bernie poured coffee for everyone, and Nina set the table with summery Marlborough Sprays dishes and pink napkins.
We sat down to eat, and I relaxed with my friends, knowing full well that once I dressed and left for Joe’s house, I would be putting out fires until night fell.
“You know Natasha has been a real pill about Amore’s tasting,” said Nina, selecting a muffin. “Why did she have to bad-mouth them? Doesn’t she understand that it makes her look bad?”
Mars sucked in air. “When isn’t she a pill?”
Bernie’s fork fell out of his hand and clattered to his plate. Nina choked on a muffin.
I stared at Mars in shock. He always defended Natasha! “What’s going on?” I asked.
Mars studied his plate. “Life shouldn’t have to be so hard. Everything is going well. I should be the happiest guy on the planet. But with Nat there’s always a drama, always a crisis, always a new plan to break out of the local market and finally become a nationally recognized name in every household.”
“Like Martha Stewart?” asked Nina.
“Just like that. I’m tired of it.”
“Did something happen?” Bernie ate a bite of his muffin but kept his eyes on Mars.
“She wants to become a chocolatier. She even ordered chocolate beans, a roaster, and some kind of special grinder.”
Nina guffawed. “Natasha and The Chocolate Factory?”
I had no idea what to say, and from the startled look on his face, neither did Bernie.
Nina, however, reached over and slapped Mars on the back. “Well, maybe it’s time you left her to her craziness. I can’t imagine what you were thinking to stay with her this long. Let me know if you need help packing.” And then she smiled at me. “Sophie has an extra room.”
Bernie quickly shifted the conversation back to the chocolate tasting, but the spectre of a major change hung over us. Poor Mars.
While my friends cleaned up the kitchen, Daisy and Mochie bounded up the stairs with me. Experience had taught me to wear clothes that would allow me to handle any catastrophes that came along. I could come home midafternoon to change into clothes more suited to the tasting. I pulled on cotton crop pants in periwinkle blue that, thanks to my short legs, actually came to my ankles. A sleeveless white top looked cool and tidy. A pair of simple silver hoops were all the jewelry I needed. I slid my feet into ultra-comfy white thong sandals with glittering sparkles on top.
When I returned to the kitchen, my three friends had loaded the dishwasher and tidied up. After leaving a bowl of salmon for Mochie to nosh on during my absence, we left the house and went our separate ways.
Excerpted from "The Diva Steals a Chocolate Kiss"
Copyright © 2015 Krista Davis.
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
Praise for the New York Times bestselling series:
“Reader alert: Tasty descriptions may spark intense cupcake cravings.”—The Washington Post
“Davis...again combines food and felonies in this tasty whodunit.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Loaded with atmosphere and charm.” —Library Journal
"A mouthwatering mix of murder, mirth, and mayhem." —Mary Jane Maffini, author of The Busy Woman's Guide to Murder
“Raucous humor, affectionate characters, and delectable recipes highlight this unpredictable mystery that entertains during any season.” —King’s River Life Magazine
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved this book! It was a fun mystery with warm, interesting characters and yummy food (lots and lots of chocolate). Sophie Winston, an event planner in Old Town Alexandria, is in charge of Amore Chocolates 60th anniversary celebration. When one chocolatier has gone missing and another is found dead, Sophie and her friends are thrown into the mystery. I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
It's the 60th Anniversary of the local chocolate company and while Sophie is managing the event things go terribly awry when a dead body turns up and the patriarch of the chocolate family goes missing! A new detective and an old flame detective show up on Sophie's doorstep with accusations when another dead body turns up. Looks like Sophie is going back into the sleuthing business if she is going to clear her name and get to the bottom of the mystery. Another great addition to the Diva series, we get a more in depth look at the psychology of Natasha's character which actually fits in well with the development of her character. As the mysteries unravel and untwist, we get a closer look at several of the characters in the story which fleshes them out more fully. I'm looking forward to the next installment in the series.
Sophie's latest event finds her organizing Amore Chocolates anniversary celebration. What should be a grand party quickly turns into a mystery when the company's CEO goes missing, the family is obviously harboring a few secrets and a dead body show up with evidence leading towards poisoned chocolate. I adore this series and always enjoy dropping in on the characters in Old Town Alexandria. All of my favorite reaccuring cast (Nina, Mars, Natasha, and Wolf) were back and offering full amusement. Talk about a few awkward relationships. I can understand why Alex is a bit on edge with Sophie hanging out with Mars and Wolf, but he should trust her. However, I'm still disgruntle that Wolf is no longer the love interest!! There was a big handful of new characters introduced in this book too. They were fairly easy to keep tabs on though. I loved Nonni!! The mystery played out really well. There were plenty of twists and secrets to keep me interested even though I pegged the culprit fairly early on. The food descriptions in this series always makes my mouth water. Who wouldn't want a neighbor like Sophie who cooks you up a delicious meal or offers you the perfect mixed drink the moment you walk in her door. Add to that all of the chocolate talk and this makes for one scrumptious book. I will be looking forward to reading book 10!!
Another wonderful Diva book from fabulous author Krista Davis. Lots of chocolate if that is your pleasure too. Love all the characters, human and furry too. Well written mystery and story line. You can never go wrong with a cozy from Krista Davis and this is a great one. As always the characters are fun, humorous and eclectic. An extremely tasty and tasteful read!!
Wow, Ms. Davis continues to deliver. I have loved this series from the start and it just keeps getting better. Sophie is overseeing the anniversary celebration of Amore Chocolate when the CEO disappears, then Sophie finds a dead body of a man that has one heck of a past. This mystery has you twisting and turning trying to piece together how everything ties together, and just when you think you have it figured out, watch out you will be hit with another twist, which all ties together nicely in the end. Many of the regular characters are back, and is Sophie and Alex going to get together (frankly, I agree with Alex to a point) Mars needs to quit relying on Sophie and move on(sorry that's my own personal little gripe, it does not detract from the story in any way). I will definitely continue on with this series, my only regret that I have to wait for the next.
Love! Mystery, chocolate and some of my favorite characters. A very enjoyable read with Sophie and all her friends. This time her event involved a famous chocolate family and of course there are missing and/or dead people. Well told and fun to read. And of course I am craving chocolate! The only downfall...waiting for the next in series. Highly recommend to fans of the series and I recommend the series to all but you'll enjoy it even more if you start with book one.
Dollycas’s Thoughts I love this series. Sophie and Natasha are just wonderful characters. Sophie is very soothing and handles things in a very sensible way and Natasha seems to have no common sense whatsoever and poor Mars is caught right in the middle. Add a little murder to the mix along with a jealous boyfriend and chocolate and you have a fantastic story I love the way Krista Davis writes. Her characters are quite a quirky mix, perfect for a cozy mystery. This time we meet Joe Merano and his family, the owners of Amore’ Chocolates. They have a very complex history and it may be coming back to haunt them. When Joe goes missing and another man is killed in their guest house Nonni immediately says the family is cursed. Well Sophie is on the case and she hopes to find Joe and a killer too. Nonni is my favorite character this time. She is a very strong, wise and opinionated woman who keeps her family on their toes. Davis gives us a story with many twists and spins. She drops the clues with the hand of a master leading the reader at a perfect pace. The antics of Natasha will have you laughing out loud and feeling for Mars as he deals with her outlandish ideas. Thankfully Sophie is there to help but Alex doesn’t like it one bit. We are also treated by tips from Sophie and Natasha at the start of each chapter. These bring a few giggles too. Don’t forget the chocolate, you will be craving it from the first page to the last so be sure to stock up. Krista is nice enough to include a few recipes, Nonni’s Tiramisu and Double Chocolate Bourbon Bread Pudding are just 2 I would love to try. I highly recommend this book and all the others in this series. Grab it today and enjoy!
Amazing book! I won this book in a contest and it's the first Domestic Diva mystery that I've read. When I discovered it was the 9th book in a series, I have to admit I was a little bit scared. I love reading series mysteries, but I like to read them in order. I shouldn't have worried, the book was fabulous. Now I get the luxury of going back and picking up books 1 - 8 and reading them this summer. This was a fun read with a colorful cast of characters. The writing was fantastic and kept me engaged even when there was chaos going on in the house around me. I had my suspicions throughout the book, but those suspicions kept changing the more I read. It was the perfect book for me.
I've read every book in the Domestic Diva Series and loved them all but this one is my favorite. Sophie Winston is in charge of the sixtieth anniversary celebration of Amore Chocolates. All is running smoothly until Natasha, fellow "domestic diva" and a continual problem for Sophie starts bad mouthing Amore Chocolates. Add to that the disappearance of the CEO of Amore Chocolates, a murder, a surprise family member and another murder. Sophie's new boyfriend is also having trouble with all the time she spends with her ex-husband and ex-boyfriend. When you read this book you will not only get a great mystery, you will get helpful hints about chocolate at the beginning of every chapter and some great recipes too. Add this book to your must read list! Thank you to the author for providing a complimentary ARC in exchange for a honest review.
The Diva Steals A Chocolate Kiss is the ninth book in the A Domestic Diva Mystery series. Sophie Winston is busy putting the finishing touches on the Amore Chocolates sixtieth anniversary gala celebration at Joe Amore's family mansion in Alexandria, VA. The company has held a contest and the winners of various candies have been invited to attend the celebration and to have their creations sampled. For a couple days prior to the party, Sophie has been receiving small boxes with four pieces of chocolate candies in them. Since they are unmarked and she has no idea who sent them, she hasn't been eating them. The day before the party, Coco, Joe's daughter, and Joe's mom, Nonni-co-founder of Amore, come to Sophie's home to go over some last minute details. While there Nonni and Coco sample the candies in one the boxes. Within in minutes Coco passes out and Sophie's first thought is that the chocolates had been poisoned. Fortunately that wasn't the case. As the celebration is about to begin, Sophie notices that the family seems to be on edge and not as outgoing as they have been during the planning meetings leading up to the celebration. Then she soon finds out that Joe has gone missing and everyone is sure that he has been kidnapped. As the party is winding down Sophie is checking that things have been picked up and enters the guesthouse to check it. As she is picking up glasses and plates, she notices a champange glass that has a couple undissolved pills in it. Something about this seems wrong to her and she puts the glass in a safe place, in case it might be important. As she goes to check the bathroom, she finds the body of Arnaud Turnebe laying over the edge of the bathtub, dead. A medical examination shows that he had been strangled. Turnebe was also a maker of chocolates and was able to open a store in Old Alexandria in direct competition with the Amore's. As Sophie begins to do some sleuthing she learns that not only was Turnebe using an alias, but he had at one time dated Coco and her estranged sister, Marla. In addition he had ties to two of the contest winners, who might have reasons for getting rid of Turnebe. As Sophie begins to look into Joe's disappearance and the murder of Turnebe she soon discovers some the families well kep secrets. Most all of the regular characters are back to help Sophie investigate. Her current boyfriend, Alex German, feels she is spending too much time with Detective Wolf Fleishman, former boyfriend, and Mars Winston, her ex-husband, investigating this case. Also her best friend Nina is back to provide lighter moment, as always. Such an enjoyable character. Of course Natasha, the desperate Diva is back to also provide some humorous times. Helpful hints from the Diva's start each chapter and recipes are also included. Looking forward to the next book in this delicious series.
Sophie Winston is a well-known young woman living in Old Town. She has lots of friends and with homes and businesses so close together, she enjoys walking everywhere. The Amore Chocolates company is celebrating it’s 60th anniversary with lots of events. After numerous people submitted their recipes for various chocolate confections, a number of winners were chosen to attend the anniversary celebration. Sophie Winston is in charge of the event ensuring that everything goes according to plan. At the chocolate tasting garden party, a body is found upstairs in the Amore guesthouse located on the property. It turns out that the victim is an unpopular man who had been trying to break into the chocolate making business. At the same time, the head of Amore Chocolates, Joe Merano, has gone missing. When Sophie starts getting boxes of “unlabeled” chocolates left on her doorstep, she dons her sleuth hat and works to try and piece things together to get to the bottom of these incidences. We follow her as she once again tackles a mystery in her town. As her friends jump in to try and help her figure out who murdered that man and where is Joe? Has he be murdered too? When another body shows up poisoned by chocolates in a box with Sophie's fingerprints on it, the police start questioning her. I’m ashamed to admit that this is the first of Krista’s novels that I’ve read. However, it most certainly won’t be the last. The story is chock full of characters knitted together to show a warm, loving community. Sophie is always cooking up something delicious in her kitchen and her friends seem to have radar knowing that she is baking as there is never a lack of them helping to munch the goodies she makes. Throughout the book there are great tips on cooking with chocolate. Added to that are yummy recipes at the back of the book that will make you want to run to the kitchen and start cooking. A word of advice when you are reading this book. Keep some chocolate nearby otherwise you will find yourself jumping up looking for something sweet!
This book starts with a great character guide to help the reader become more familiar with the characters. I’ve seen this in a lot of books recently and I think it’s a cool feature. Also, each chapter begins with a Dear Sophie or Dear Natasha letter. I had to keep myself from going through the whole book and reading them all at once! This ninth installment of the Domestic Diva series may be the best so far. The storyline was wonderful. It pulled me in from the very first page and kept me entranced until the end. While I can cook and bake, I am so far away from being a domestic diva. Series lead, Sophie Winston, makes it seem so easy. And she still has time to solve mysteries! The supporting characters are all so diverse, but they blend really well together. They are a group of people I wouldn’t mind hanging out with. The worst part of THE DIVA STEALS A CHOCOLATE KISS was when it ended. I didn’t want it to! I’m already looking forward to book ten. Don’t forget to check out the back of the book for some wonderful recipes and a sneak peek of MURDER MOST HOWL, the upcoming book in Krista’s Paws and Claws Mystery series!