excerpt from Criminal Confections

Chapter One

You probably already know not to eat French fries with your fingers in Chile, not to shake hands across a threshold in Russia, and to always sit in the backseat of a taxi (never up front with the driver) if you’re a woman traveling solo in Costa Rica. But you might not know that ordinary chocolate contains over five hundred unique flavor components—more than twice that of vanilla or strawberry. You might not know that you should let your next bite of chocolate melt on your tongue (don’t chew it!) for the ultimate flavor experience. And you might not know that the most chocolaty chocolate mousse is made with high-quality chocolate and water (not cream). Not many people do—not even the restaurateurs, TV chefs, and chocolate-company executives who hire me to troubleshoot their Theobroma cacao cookies, cakes, and confections.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You didn’t ask for a compendium of travel- and chocolate-based tips, and the fact that my on-the-job adventures have included bushwhacking through the jungles of Africa, rubbing elbows with Academy Awards-catering chefs, and being blindfolded (not to do something kinky, I promise!) for a chocolate tasting doesn’t mean I never come up stumped. I do. Sometimes. But I never quit, and I never tell clients I’m mystified by their gloopy ganache or freaky frappés, either. I always keep trying until I find a solution.

In my book, perseverance counts.

My clients appreciate the effort, and I appreciate their loyalty. I’m a freelancer. That means I can’t goof around (much). My work demands expertise, attention to detail, and a thick skin when it comes to criticism…but it doesn’t usually demand hobnobbing with chocolate-industry bigwigs and members of the media at a fancy-schmancy San Francisco resort spa with a five-star rating and a “room service” option featuring Frette linens, sterling silver, Bernardaud china, and a personal butler. That’s what I was facing at the moment, though.

The prospect had me shaking in my single pair of “dressy” flats, which spent most of their time being ignored while crammed into a corner of my (always packed) suitcase. I don’t usually need to wear anything swankier than a pair of Converse or some kitchen clogs. But today I was making a grand entrance into the world of the San Francisco chocolate-industry elite. I was doing it on the spur of the moment. And I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it.

See, most of my work is done (necessarily) undercover. The companies that hire me don’t want it known that they need me, Hayden Mundy Moore, to improve their prized confections. I’ve gotten pretty good at troubleshooting on the QT, building my high-profile client list through discreet referrals. I work one hush-hush job at a time and let the next assignment take care of itself. My globe-trotting background means I’m fairly adept at blending in when necessary, too. But knowing how to navigate a Milanese street without a map or negotiate a good price at a Lebanese market doesn’t necessarily equip a girl to face the elite of her industry with perfect composure.

Not even if that “girl” just turned thirty, like me.

Look, I can backpack with the best. I can make instant friends with the back-of-house staff at a restaurant or the line workers at a chocolate factory. I can tell a wicked Dutch dirty joke that will make a sailor blush, and I can confront a squat toilet in Bangalore with equanimity and (enviable) balance. But put me in a ballroom with canapés, champagne flutes, and polite chitchat, and I suddenly come off like a monkey on NoDoz. It’s not pretty. But it’s me. That’s just the way it is.

Truth be told, as I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge from the city toward the Marin Headlands, arrived at Maison Lemaître, and saw the cadre of well-dressed, wineglass-holding, chitchatting executives, suppliers, and restaurateurs gathered on the resort spa’s manicured grassy grounds among a bunch of gauzy tents—smaller versions of the ones caterers like to use at chichi outdoor weddings—I seriously considered telling my taxi driver to turn around. Then I went ahead and did it.

“Turn around, Jimmy. I changed my mind.”

He looked at me in the rearview mirror. He shrugged. “It’s your thirty-eight bucks, Hayden. Where to instead?”

Aha. That was the crux of the problem, wasn’t it?

“Noe Valley?” I suggested with a grin, naming one of my favorite San Francisco neighborhoods. “I know a fantastic little bakery there. The strawberry-rhubarb macarons are on me.”

They were so delicious, they almost made me want to settle down in the City by the Bay. Which was saying a lot. For me.

“Sounds good. I like macarons.” Jimmy glanced at me in the rearview again. “I didn’t peg you for the chickening-out type.”

He was right. I wasn’t the chickening-out type. Never had been. “This is what I get for bonding with you on the drive from Russian Hill to here.” I sighed. “Rain check on the macarons? I already said I’d put in an appearance at this industry retreat.”

Jimmy nodded and kept driving toward the hotel. I bit my lip and stared out the window, knowing I didn’t have any place else to go at the moment. I couldn’t spend all day at a bakery, no matter how tasty their lattes and pastries were. And I wasn’t technically finished with my last consulting job, so I couldn’t leave town altogether. I still owed a comprehensive report to Christian Lemaître, who’d hired me for my last job and whose family owned both Lemaître Chocolates and Maison Lemaître.

Christian was the one who’d invited me here to his annual high-powered industry get-together. (I had the impression he saw me as kind of a trophy to be bragged about: “Step right up and see the real, live chocolate whisperer!”) He’d agreed to let me slide on our agreed-upon due date for my report, if I’d attend. Put that way, the decision had been a no-brainer. I was going.

Any inveterate procrastinator would have done the same.

Plus, I’d already invited my friend Danny Jamieson to fly in from L.A. and be my plus-one for the retreat. He was supposed to meet me here, at the chocolate-themed resort where I now sat parked, deliberating over whether I wanted to go through with this, in full view of the quizzical valets. One of them ambled out from behind his stand and headed for the taxi’s door, ready to give me the full white-glove treatment.

Decision made. I opened the door first and stepped into the breezy coolness of a northern California springtime afternoon, lugging my duffel bag and single wheeled suitcase with me.

“Welcome to Maison Lemaître! May I take your bags?”

“No, thanks!” Breezily, I maneuvered them both. Hoisting fifty-pound sacks of cacao beans and equally heavy bags of sugar on a regular basis is great for the biceps. I’m only average size for a woman—about five-foot-six, barefoot—but I’m strong. And stubborn. “I can handle them. I do it all the time.”

The valet tried to insist. I held my ground. It may be quirky, but I don’t like handing over my stuff. Not even under such innocuous circumstances. Pretty much, my two bags contain everything I own in the world. Just call me the urban nomad.

The valet seemed confused by the way I was body-hugging my duffel. I smiled to let him know my protectiveness with my stuff wasn’t his fault and then looked around the place, checking out the hotel division of the venerable Lemaître Chocolates corporation. What I saw was par for the course for a modern luxury resort spa—a sprawling hotel complex with a sparkling whitewashed finish, a hushed atmosphere of indulgence, and a nod to “locality” in the form of co-sponsorship of tonight’s welcome reception with a local winery. Several ultra-attentive uniformed staff members milled around. Surrounding the hotel and its long curved drive, the aforementioned grounds, low outbuildings, and precise landscaping lent the whole place an air of serenity.

Maison Lemaître smelled like…money.

And chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate.

Mmm. I guess I should have been jaded (or immune) to the way cocoa butter permeated the breeze at Maison Lemaître, since chocolate is my job. But I love chocolate. I love the way it smells, the way it tastes, and even the way it snaps—faintly but distinctly—when it’s expertly made. I love the way it melts just below body temperature, creating the decadent sensation that it’s melding with my tongue. Hands down, eating chocolate has got to be one of the most sensual experiences on earth.

Being eyeballed by a befuddled valet is not.

“Thanks, but I’ve got this. Seriously.” I tipped the valet, then shooed him away. With that accomplished, I peeled off a few more bills. I leaned into the taxi’s open passenger-side window to hand over my fare plus a tip. “Thanks for the ride, Jimmy. Good luck with that screenplay you’re writing. Have fun at your niece’s birthday party tomorrow at the Exploratorium, too!”

Jimmy saluted me with a grin, then drove off. I waved, feeling sorry he was abandoning me so soon. You might have guessed by now that I have a flair for making friends easily—just maybe not with grabby valets or bigwigs. My friend-making knack goes hand in hand with my always-packed luggage and my well-traveled upbringing—and the assortment of chocolate bars, truffles, and cocoa mixes I typically keep on hand to give out to people I meet. Usually, they’re post-consultancy samples from grateful chocolate companies. I can’t possibly eat them all.

I know, tough life, right? Too much chocolate is a real first-world problem. But it’s what I deal with every day.

Unfortunately, considering what passed for my usual daily travails only reminded me of the unusual event awaiting me today: the Lemaître industry retreat. Just glancing toward the suit-and-tie business types on the lawn made a wave of pure monkey jumpiness wash over me. The effect was like knocking back four espressos and then trying to name all the U.S. state capitals—doomed from the start due to lack of focusing ability.

I glanced at the hovering valets. “Big event today?”

“Huge!” one confirmed, nodding toward the lawn. “All the TV networks are here covering it. They’ve got satellite vans.”

I looked. I saw the vans, the local media…the potential disaster that awaited if I tried to “network” with my peers, freestyle, on an empty stomach. Those rhubarb-strawberry macarons at the bakery in Noe Valley had never sounded better.

Maybe I’d better check in to my room first. I could stow my stuff, freshen up, and have a snack. Maybe I could track down Danny, too. His flight from southern California should have already arrived at SFO. We could lighten the mood with a little harmless teasing, solidify our plans to check out the resort’s famous all-chocolate brunch buffet, and catch up on old times.

Then I’d network.

It was an excellent plan. Feeling less monkeylike already, I seized my luggage and headed for the Maison Lemaître lobby.

~ ~ ~

In my third-floor room, silence enveloped me. Ah.

I like the buzz of cities—and I’d adored being immersed in the energy, grit, and fickle weather surrounding my downtown San Francisco hotel—but there was a lot to be said for luxury, too. Just as long as I wouldn’t be expected to perform cogently while immersed in it, that is. What I needed was an adjustment period.

Maison Lemaître was ready to give it to me. The resort was chic, comfy, and welcoming. The décor struck the perfect balance between starkly minimal (but modern) and lavishly cushy (but outmoded). My room featured a pillow-piled king-size bed, a sitting area with windows overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, and an enormous spa-like bathroom stocked with Maison Lemaître’s house brand of cocoa-themed personal-care products. I uncapped the shampoo and sniffed. Notes of cacao and vanilla struck me first, followed by something with a lingering floral note.

Orange blossom water, I discerned. Interesting choice. Its citrus notes blended well with the chocolate essence, but it seemed a little too sweet to me. More like candy than shampoo. Little girls would love it, but I wasn’t sure if grown women and men would get on board with the idea of lathering up with Orange Crush and Tootsie Rolls. The blend could use some refinement.

Making a note to pitch Christian Lemaître about tweaking the company’s nonfood products next (because there was nothing wrong with diversifying, right?), I padded around the room, automatically going through my postcheck-in ritual.

I didn’t fully unpack, of course. That was a waste of time. But my trusty pashmina went on the foot of the bed, where I could grab it if I got cold. My favorite fig-scented candle went on the bureau, where I could light it to feel at home. My framed photos went on the nightstand, where I could see the smiling faces of my family and friends…and wonder where the heck Danny was, anyway? The front desk had said he hadn’t checked in yet.

Yes, I was a chronic procrastinator. But Danny was a chronic late arriver. From where I stood, he was worse.

Feeling more at home with my things around me, I flipped open my Moleskine notebook and consulted my running to-do lists. Nothing serious leaped out at me—just my reminders about working on my Lemaître report. I usually made those reminders (with all good intentions) around midnight…only to abandon them at dawn for a plan of action that featured working on my report later, when I would undoubtedly feel übermotivated and energetic.

Yeah. Right. If you believe that one…

Hastily, I snapped shut my trusty notebook and shoved it back into my crossbody bag for safekeeping. Over the years, friends had nagged me to transfer my myriad to-do lists to my smartphone. But if you traveled to the kind of remote places I did, Wi-Fi coverage was about as reliable as brand-new stilettos were comfortable. It was a crapshoot, is what I’m saying.

It was better, I’d learned through experience, to go low-fi for the important things. It was better to be safe than sorry.

Heading to the room’s windows, I looked out at the proceedings below. Maison Lemaître was built on a promontory that jutted slightly into the bay, which meant the hotel boasted fresh breezes, slightly cooler weather, and a craggy-topped nature trail surrounding it on three sides. From my vantage point, I could see hotel guests tramping along that rocky sliver of pathway, laughing and shading their eyes. Probably the views were spectacular—if you didn’t mind roughing it a little.

More retreat attendees had joined the early arrivals I’d noticed earlier. Now they formed an even larger group of fancy-pants CEOs, pastry chefs, PR reps, and other corporate types whose goodwill could only boost my consulting business, if I got to know them. It was probably time to get down there. I’d checked in, gotten settled, and boosted my blood sugar with a complimentary gianduia truffle. I’d made myself presentable with a simple springtime knee-length dress (to go with my flats) and a ponytail to corral my shoulder-length brown hair. I’d reviewed my notes and lists, and I’d even swiped on some lip gloss.

Okay. Showtime! But first…

I pulled out my cell phone and considered texting Danny, then changed my mind. I wasn’t the nagging type. Besides, although our adjoining rooms were being generously comped by Christian Lemaître, I’d covered the airfare for Danny’s end of this impromptu trip myself. It hadn’t been a big deal. I could afford airfare from L.A. to San Francisco—even at the exorbitant last-minute rates airlines charged. But I didn’t want Danny to think I expected anything in return—at least not anything beyond his looking fantastic in a suit. That was de rigueur.

For Danny—a private “security expert”—it was easy, too.

What wasn’t easy was managing the guilt and complicated feelings that came along with flying your best friend upstate on a whim. It was extravagant. He knew it. I knew it. Those feelings hit me hard sometimes. Not that I intended to kvetch to Danny about it. I’d inherited a lot of money when my (admittedly eccentric) uncle had died, and although I had to jump through some hoops to get it, I knew I was lucky.

Reminded of that luck, I looked at my phone again. There was one person I could call guilt free. And I’d enjoy it. A lot.

Ten seconds later, my call connected with the office of my appointed financial advisor (and trustee of my uncle’s will), Travis Turner. Travis’s deep, raspy hello traveled over the line. He sounded like a supersmart Barry White—like a man who could (and did) make derivatives and stock sales sound hot.

That’s why I called Travis so often, of course. It wasn’t because I was fascinated with the intricacies of economics. Travis didn’t know it, but I liked his voice. I liked its masculine pitch, its timbre, its shiver-inducing huskiness. I’d never met him in person. At this point, Travis could never measure up to his voice, anyway. But for him, I made an exception to my texts-are-efficient rule and actually dialed the phone.

“So, Travis…what are you wearing right now?”

“Hayden. Aren’t you supposed to be at the Lemaître retreat?” He sounded as though he might be consulting an up-to-the-nanosecond atomic clock. “It starts in five minutes.”

Damn his perspicacity. It was really inconvenient.

As much as I yearned for Travis to help me kill time with a little sexy-sounding banter, he clearly wasn’t up for it.

“I wanted to talk to you first. You know, to check in.”

“Right.” In my imagination, he started a timer labeled billable hours, then picked up a pen. “Go ahead. I’m ready.”

“Don’t you want to tell me what you’re wearing?”

“You go first.” There it was. A hint of playfulness.

I lived for that. It made me feel I was winning every time I coaxed Travis into teasing me. “I’m wearing my fancy shoes.”

“And? What else?”

I was tempted to say nothing else. Just shoes.

But Travis didn’t sound in the mood for innuendo. Just for an instant, I wondered if something was troubling him. But then I remembered that was just him. Travis was responsible. Settled. Excellent with numbers and domesticity. He was also—at twenty-seven—younger than me and simultaneously more authoritative.

That realization nudged me into getting serious for a second.

“What else?” I echoed, musingly glancing down at myself. “A respectable dress. I might not mind being fashionably late to the retreat, but I want to make a good impression. I have absorbed one or two cultural mores in my life, you know.”

“I know.” Travis paused, polite and efficient. “So…you’ve checked in to Maison Lemaître, then? Let’s have the details.”

Dutifully, I gave him Jimmy’s taxicab medallion number and driver ID (in case of lost items or a misplaced receipt), then reported my hotel room number and expected length of stay, along with a rough itinerary. It was our regular routine. As a solo female traveler, I liked knowing someone else knew where I was.

Especially someone reliable, trustworthy, and hyperintelligent. Someone like Travis. If you had to have a keeper, he was the kind to have. But I’d rather have heard him talk than me. I’d rather have heard more of his bedroom voice.

“So,” I went on, still gazing out the window at the chocolatiering crowd milling around on the verdant grounds. “About that question I asked before. What are you wearing?”

Travis laughed. I liked the sound of that, too.

It was really too bad we’d probably never meet. Travis was (inexplicably to me) phobic about air travel. He couldn’t even drop off friends at the airport without getting antsy. Whereas I… Well, you already know all about my footloose ways.

Sadly, Travis and I are fundamentally incompatible.

“Are you wearing…a kilt?” I guessed. “A loincloth? A—”

“I’m wearing a sandwich board,” Travis interrupted before I could get too carried away. His seductive voice sounded amused, though. “It reads stop procrastinating, Hayden Mundy Moore.”

“Mmm. Anything else underneath that sandwich board?”

“Just take the hint, Hayden. Get to work, okay?”

“Okay. But be careful. Sandwich boards chafe.”

“Not if you wear them correctly.”

“Leave it to you to know the correct way to do everything.”

“That’s right. I do.” Travis’s deep voice made it sound as if he were right in my hotel room with me. “Don’t you forget it.”

But just at that moment, I could scarcely concentrate on what Travis was saying…even as (I swear) his voice gave me goose bumps on my goose bumps. Because just at that moment, I glanced down at Maison Lemaître’s lush lawn, saw a familiar-looking fortyish redhead in a skirt suit and Bluetooth headset handing out colorful Lemaître-brand T-shirts to the retreat attendees, and realized I had just been offered a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The woman in the corporate kit and headgear was Nina Wheeler, Christian Lemaître’s right-hand gal and the company’s PR exec. I recognized her. The T-shirts she’d handed out came in conspicuously matching colors, three shirts per shade, to what appeared to be teams of players. It didn’t take a genius to notice that pattern. If the recently unfurled banner snapping in the breeze was any indication of what was to come, I knew what was next, too. Specifically, a 100% chocolate scavenger hunt.

Because that’s what the banner said.

I was quick with details like that.

I was relieved, too. Spouting niceties about current events while making knowledgeable comments about Napa Valley Pinot Noir wasn’t my scene. But an icebreaker game was right up my alley. I wouldn’t even have to stand still! Scurrying around to find chocolate scavenger hunt items suited my monkey mind perfectly.

Besides, I liked winning almost as much as I liked listening to Travis talk. Being humble was not my strong suit. Not when it came to things I did well. Like chocolate.

“I never forget a thing, Travis,” I told him truthfully. “Especially when it comes to you. Talk to you later!”

Then I signed off on our call, heaved a regretful sigh for Travis’s refusal to indulge me with sexy talk, and grabbed my bag. Within moments, I’d eschewed the hotel’s molasses-slow elevators and was headed downstairs the old-fashioned way (via the chilly, deserted-but-efficient staircase), ready to show the San Francisco chocolate world a thing or two about Hayden Mundy Moore…and what she could accomplish when it came to being the world’s first (and only) chocolate whisperer.

I even made house calls. For the right chunk of cacao and a nice referral, of course. A girl had to have standards.

And maybe, today, she had to have the right color of T-shirt, too. When it came to that, time was wasting.

For the sake of scoring a good team, I decided to run.

Chapter Two

By the time I’d practically skidded to a stop downstairs (my fancy flats left me surprisingly spry), things were hopping.

The resort’s driveway was packed with cars and taxis and gleaming SUVs. The guests who’d driven (or been driven) in them impatiently awaited bellmen or valet service or both. The valets ran to and fro clutching keys and wearing anxious expressions.

The fragrance of fine chocolate wafted over everything, of course. I couldn’t tell if it emanated from Maison Lemaître’s Michelin-starred restaurant or its expansive spa or both. I made a note to double-check the spa treatments that were included in the retreat, then gauged my best path across the driveway.

Crossing was like playing a real-time game of Frogger (albeit an upscale version), but it was nothing compared with crossing streets in Paris. I made it alive to the hotel grounds where the gauzy tents and chocolate VIPs were. There, the scent of chocolate was weaker, but the mingled fragrances of Merlot and mown grass were stronger. So was the breeze. Ruffled by its force, men shucked their suit jackets and tugged on T-shirts atop their dress shirts and ties; women shrugged and giggled and wiggled their way into their T-shirts, preserving their modesty by layering them over their dresses or shirts or lightweight, ideal-for-northern-California short-sleeve sweaters.

At least most of them did, I noticed. One woman, standing near a tent featuring Lemaître Chocolates press releases and promotional items, simply turned her back to the crowd, shimmied out of her white-sequin-spangled cashmere T-shirt, and handed it to an older, white-haired man waiting nearby. Then, clad only in her pristine white skirt and jeweled sandals, the woman pulled on an orange Lemaître-logo T-shirt. When she turned to model it, I saw that she was a pretty, olive-skinned woman about my age, with expertly applied makeup, dark hair, and a lot of élan.

Wow. I wanted a woman like that on my team. She had audacity. She wasn’t afraid to go for broke, either, no matter what it took. While everyone else was gawking at her immodest (and braless) way of changing clothes, I grabbed a yellow T-shirt from a box near Nina Wheeler’s elbow. I zeroed in on a woman standing nearby with her back to me, then nudged her.

“Trade you?” I offered, keeping my gaze fixed on my prize—her orange T-shirt—while simultaneously offering her my yellow one in trade. “You don’t seem up for a striptease today.”

“I’m not! Take it.” All but shoving her orange shirt at me, the woman completed the swap quickly—as though she was afraid I might change my mind. In an irked and preoccupied tone, she grumbled, “I should have known Isabel Lemaître would make a scene. She doesn’t usually attend the retreat.”

That’s Isabel Lemaître? Bernard Lemaître’s wife?”

A general murmur of assent met my question. Apparently, there was no such thing as a private conversation at a company retreat.

That was understandable, though. The world of chocolate was a small one, really. Everyone knew Bernard Lemaître. More than a hundred years ago, his family had founded one of the most successful chocolate companies in the world. Bernard had brought that company to new heights. He’d turned it into a San Francisco institution as familiar as cable cars, Lombard Street, and Pier 39. He’d partnered with a local television kids’ show, making children of all ages love Lemaître Chocolates—and love him. He was an icon unto himself. When I’d accepted the consultancy at Lemaître, I’d hoped to meet Bernard. Christian had insisted his Uncle Bernard was “too busy” to drop into the office regularly.

It seemed apparent to me that Bernard was “too busy” with his dishy-looking younger wife. Even now, as I held my newly won logo T-shirt, I glimpsed my team’s other two members canoodling.  Isabel Lemaître gave her husband a kiss, then stroked his orange-T-shirt-covered chest in a very possessive and lusty fashion. For all her ardor, anyone would have sworn that Bernard had six-pack abs and shoulders of steel under that T-shirt. In reality, he had the body you’d expect of a sixty-two-year-old man who’d made a fortune in cocoa butter, sugar, and cream.

They were both sweet, really. Rumor had it that Bernard Lemaître had been forced out of the company (for all intents and purposes, at least) by his nephew, Christian. But from the looks of things today, Bernard seemed pretty content in “retirement.”

I guessed that’s what happened when a die-hard bachelor like Bernard discovered the joys of wedded bliss and qualifying for AARP membership at the same time. Isabel was his first wife.

“Wait a minute,” someone blurted beside me. “Hayden?”

I was donning my orange T-shirt, getting ready to join what I felt sure would be the winning team, so I didn’t answer at first. I couldn’t do much besides yank, hoping to see who my questioner was. I was blinded by orange. It was, however, the best quality “gimme” T-shirt I’d ever encountered. Mmm. Soft.

“Hayden?” came the voice again. “Ohmigod. It is you!”

I felt a hand grab my arm. I inhaled harshly, then froze. All my muscles tensed, reacting instinctively to the contact.

This is not an emergency, I reminded myself. Although I’d had a few helpful self-defense lessons over the years from well-meaning Italians and Spaniards and once (memorably) a Frenchman, this situation didn’t call for an eye gouge or a knee crack.

I gave a hard tug, and my questioner’s face came into view. It was Adrienne Dowling, Lemaître’s head chocolatier and one of the most talented people I’d ever met while on a consulting job.

While I’d been undercover troubleshooting for Lemaître Chocolates, Adrienne and I had gotten to know one another fairly well. We’d shared lunches, after-hours drinks, and a giddy appreciation for cute 49ers football players. We’d also shared a similarly scrupulous approach to recipe development.

I liked Adrienne. I admired her. I knew she was forty-six, but with her blue eyes, curly blond hair, and petite frame, she looked more like a fragile teenager—a teenager dressed in her mother’s frumpy business wear, admittedly, but still a teenager. I wondered if Adrienne knew how openhearted she always appeared.

I also wondered if she was the only person attending the retreat without a plus-one. (Well, except for me, so far, but that was temporary.) Everyone else had brought spouses or dates to the annual event, just as Christian had told me they would.

I thanked my lucky stars Danny had agreed to join me.

“Adrienne!” I yelled back, laughing at my own goofy self-defense impulses. I hugged her, embarrassed to have been so preoccupied earlier. “I’m sorry. I was so focused on getting a team orange T-shirt that I didn’t even recognize you.”

“That’s all right. It happens, especially to me.” With cheerful, self-deprecating charm, Adrienne waved off my apology. “I’d rather have this yellow T-shirt anyway.”

She aimed a meaningful look at Isabel and Bernard, who were now holding hands and trading pet names for one another. It was endearing, like I said. But it was probably awkward for Adrienne to see Lemaître’s founder under such intimate circumstances. No wonder she’d been so keen to switch T-shirts with me.

As a decidedly unmarried woman (remind me to tell you about my three ex-fiancés sometime), I felt more comfortable with Adrienne myself…even if I couldn’t quite tear away my gaze from Isabel Lemaître. Her laughter was engaging. Her free-spirited attitude toward wardrobe changes reminded me of the European countries I’d lived in, where nudity was featured without fanfare in everything from movies to cereal advertisements.

It was…liberating. And natural. And so, it seemed, was Isabel. Which made me curious about her. I turned to Adrienne.

“You said Isabel doesn’t usually attend the retreat?”

Never,” Adrienne said emphatically, swerving her gaze away from a good-looking man with black curly hair wearing a yellow T-shirt that matched hers. Hmm. Maybe there was another reason Adrienne wanted to be on Team Yellow. “Isabel has always said Lemaître is too ‘stodgy’ for her trendy tastes. But now that Bernard has been all but ousted from the company, Isabel won’t stay away. It’s downright perverse.” Adrienne frowned. “I’ll never understand that woman. I don’t want to, either!”

I’d have sworn that mild-mannered Adrienne actually muttered a swearword aimed at her erstwhile boss’s wife. But at that instant, Nina Wheeler charged up—with a cell phone in each hand and her Bluetooth headset crackling static—and interrupted us.

“You two! Get with your color-coded groups, please!” Nina said. “We’re about to start. We’re already three minutes late!”

Her wild-eyed demeanor surprised me. Usually Nina was the epitome of self-assurance. Evidently, being in charge of the Lemaître retreat was a stressful event. Nina and I had met during my consultancy, too. We hadn’t spent much time together, though—and the double take Nina gave me as she looked up from her pair of cell phones showed her surprise at seeing me there.

“Hayden Mundy Moore? What are you doing here?” She frowned. “I thought your consultancy at Lemaître was finished.”

“Almost. Just a few loose ends left to tie up.” Like a thorough multipage report, I remembered guiltily. “Don’t worry. I’m not a gate-crasher. Christian invited me.” Hoping to calm Nina’s obviously frazzled nerves, I smiled and added, “He’s probably already included me in the seating plan for the welcome reception and…everything else, too. I won’t be any trouble.”

Nina’s eyes narrowed. “We’ll see about that.” Shoving her dual phones in her suit pockets, she consulted a clipboard hanging from a bungee clip around her neck. Then she spoke into her headset. “Yes, that’s Hayden Mundy Moore. Verify, please.”

As I listened to Nina spell out my last name—which tended to confuse people, especially in alphabetical-order situations, due to its nonhyphenated nature—to the person on the other end of the line, I traded a concerned glance with Adrienne. My chocolatier friend only shrugged and raised her palms in a “what can you do?” gesture. Evidently, this wasn’t unusual for Nina.

The redheaded PR rep got off the phone, scribbled my name on her clipboarded list, then looked up. Tensely. “Well? What are you two waiting for? Get with your groups, will you?”

Then she stalked off, muttering and shaking her head.

“Yikes.” I frowned after her. “Poor Nina.”

“We’d better do what she says,” Adrienne said. “I only have a few minutes to spare anyway. I’m supposed to be in the hotel kitchen, working on my contribution to the welcome reception.”

Before I could ask Adrienne what her contribution would be—undoubtedly something creamy, dark, chocolaty, and scrumptious that I would need to gobble up for “testing purposes”—Mr. Black-Haired Yellow T-shirt strode up. Impatiently, he gestured at Adrienne. “I think that’s our cue. Shall we get started?”

“Of course!” Adrienne accepted his hand. “Right away.”

The two of them crossed the lawn to join the third member of their team—a nondescript-looking cacao bean supplier—for the scavenger hunt. I hoped Adrienne and Mr. Yellow T-shirt hit it off. Stranger things had happened. After all, Adrienne deserved a fun, confidence-boosting fling. If he was flying solo too…well, maybe they’d connect. Sometimes industry events like this one were hotbeds of intrigue, gossip, and secret alliances.

Under those circumstances, hookups weren’t unthinkable.

Except for me. Because I was teamed up with the king and queen of chocolate: Bernard and Isabel Lemaître. Hauling in a deep breath, I plastered on my brightest smile and headed off to start winning my first-ever chocolate scavenger hunt.

~ ~ ~

Winning was not quite as easy as I’d first anticipated.

For one thing, the items we were meant to scavenger hunt had been placed all over the resort’s expansive grounds, so it was a trek to find them in my unwelcome fancy flats. For another, some items were actually tests to be passed rather than objects to be found, which was kind of a letdown for a competitive type like me. For another, the other teams took a quick lead, since they weren’t hampered by Bernard and Isabel’s habit of ducking behind leafy trees and beside flower beds of geraniums to make out.

Dispirited but not defeated, I rallied my team and kept going. At each station (identified by the gauzy tents I mentioned before), Lemaître employees waited with chocolate samples and on-the-spot quizzes. Ostensibly, the only trick was acing the quizzes and collecting the rewards: embossed gold foil stickers, which were placed on a bingo-style scorecard.

The team with the most stickers won the scavenger hunt. As a PR stunt for Lemaître, it was effective. As an in-person alfresco advertisement for the company, it excelled. As a fun and challenging icebreaker activity…it was not the best.

The trouble was, the quizzes were too easy. They didn’t have the intricacy to inspire much conversation or strategizing, so all the teams whipped through them with lightning speed.

I’d expected to be doing something like differentiating a Tanzanian single-varietal cacao bean from a premium Grand Cru blend, or picking out the essence of a single-bean 73 percent Côte d’Ivoire cacao from the bite of an arabica coffee bean after it had been brewed into a creamy café mocha. Instead, the “challenges” asked me to identify milk chocolate from dark, explain what white chocolate consisted of, and identify the original recipe for Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies.

At that station, I peered at the artificially antiqued recipe cards laid out near a tray of cookies. I pointed. “This one. Ruth Wakefield’s original recipe for Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies called for baking soda dissolved in hot water.”

“Yes!” Beaming, the Lemaître employee gave me a sticker.

I pasted it on my scorecard—which now looked like a shiny gold flyer for Lemaître chocolates, because the stickers all bore the company’s familiar embossed logo—and hastily moved on. It took a while for me to corral Bernard and Isabel after each station, but by this point, that wasn’t a big deal. The other competitors were starting to get bogged down with tasting all the chocolate samples. Team Orange was actually in the lead.

I’d do my chocolate tasting later, I’d decided. Good chocolate deserves to be savored. Being outdoors, blown by the wind and surrounded by competitive chocolate-industry insiders, was not conducive to proper enjoyment. While eating chocolate, I believe in doing just one thing: eating chocolate. That’s it.

A girl had to have priorities. That was one of mine.

In the meantime, I tried to win. I yearned for my practical Chuck Taylor sneakers as I navigated the marshy area near the single boat dock, then crossed the hilly zone closest to the wind-scoured Marin Headlands. I completed two more challenges.

I spied Adrienne and waved to her. Before long, Team Orange needed only one more sticker to win. Bernard Lemaître seemed impressed by my performance. His approval was like a shot of adrenaline, driving me toward the waiting finish line. After all, Bernard was a verifiable chocolatiering hero! His approval meant a lot to me—even if he was, at this point, behaving like a kindly but horny grandpa out for a nature hike. Bolstered by the real possibility of winning—and by the idea that I could restore a little luster to Bernard’s reputation by sealing a victory on his behalf—I took a bold shortcut across the jagged promontory point I’d observed from my hotel room window.

There, I almost took a header into the frigid bay waters.

“Whoops! Watch yourself there, Hayden!” Bernard chuckled and hauled me to safety just in time. He gave me a gruff pat with his bearlike arm. “It’s pretty steep around here.”

“You’re not kidding.” With my heart pounding, I gawked at the gray-looking bay waters swirling at the rocky point’s edge, fifteen or twenty feet below the designated trail. “Thanks!”

“You’re more than welcome.” Bernard’s warm smile, twinkly blue eyes, and kind wrinkled face made him look every inch the chocolate company mascot. If he told you chocolate-covered bees were delicious, you’d believe him. He was just that likable.

“Are we done yet?” Sounding bored, Isabel cast her gaze on the gold-stickered scorecard in my hand. “I’m cold, Bernie.”

At that, Bernard’s eyes twinkled even more. He seemed oddly touched by his wife’s use of her nickname for him. It was…

Okay, it was sweet. You guessed it. I couldn’t quit thinking that Bernard and Isabel were sweet together. They were!

Tenderly, Bernard hugged his wife close to him for warmth. “We’ll go down to the spa and have a nice hot-cocoa mud bath after this, all right? That will warm you up in a hurry.”

Isabel smiled. “You’re always so good to me, Bernie.”

I was tactfully trying to look away to allow them some privacy, gazing studiously across the resort’s grounds to locate the final challenge station. But as luck would have it, I accidentally chose that moment to let my eyes wander back to Bernard. His expression looked hard. And…guilty? What the…?

An instant later, I decided I’d imagined it. Because that’s when I spied the challenge station I was looking for—and Team Blue T-shirt, heading straight toward it for the win.

~ ~ ~

Ordinarily, I’m not ultracompetitive. I mean, I might not know how to change a carburetor or grow cucumbers from scratch, but I have my areas of expertise. I’m fine with my skill set just as it is. I don’t usually feel the need to grandstand or brag.

Yes. Okay. I can work magic with chocolate. But that’s not going to change the world or anything. I have to be realistic.

I have to accept that I’m not going to conquer everything.

But for whatever reason, as I squinted across the resort’s grounds and saw the blue team—headed by the unmistakably boyish Christian Lemaître, the company’s CEO, my host, and the man who clearly was about to win his own scavenger hunt (which basically defined “poor sportsmanship”)—something in me snapped.

I had to get down there and win.

“We’d better get going!” I said brightly to the Lemaîtres.

Then I took off at a loping run/walk, mentally reviewing the most arcane bits of chocolate trivia I knew in an effort to prepare for anything. Other competitors waved. I waved back but kept going. Colored T-shirts and green grass and flowered shrubs flew past me. The deluxe resort’s windows glinted in the distance. I was almost there, and I knew I could win.

I couldn’t wait to tell Danny I’d won. Travis too.

Fifty yards from the final station—whose challenge seemed to involve a taste-off between various chocolate liqueurs—I glimpsed Adrienne at the Toll House cookie-themed station. She looked beleaguered. Neither of her teammates were in the vicinity, but she did have a messenger bag slung crossways around her torso, bulging with papers. Maybe, I reasoned, she’d come prepared for this event with research notes and tips?

“I don’t know!” she was wailing. “I’m having a brain fade!”

Or maybe not. Struck by Adrienne’s fraught tone, I stopped.

“I know I should know this. I do know this,” she was telling the Lemaître employee who was manning the cookie station. “But I didn’t sleep much last night, and I’ve been busy working all day, and I wouldn’t even be here at all, except—”

That’s when I butted in. “Hi, Adrienne. Need some help?”

Startled, the chocolatier glanced from me to the cookie station to a spot behind me—probably the spot where Bernard and Isabel were bringing up the rear. Or maybe giving each other hickeys. Anything was possible. Adrienne waved her scorecard.

“Hayden! I’m such a dummy. My team split up for efficiency. I was supposed to do this station, but I missed it somehow.” Adrienne bit her lip. She cast a frantic glance at the grounds, as though looking for Mr. Yellow T-shirt and his cohort. “If I don’t do it, we’ll lose! But for some reason, I can’t remember—”

Her gaze dipped to my scorecard. Comprehension crossed her face. She glanced over her shoulder at the final station.

“Never mind. You should go!” Adrienne shoved me—pretty hard for such a small woman. “Hurry up! You can still win!”

I could. I cast a wistful glance toward my original goal, then shrugged. “I’ll win another time. No biggie.” I eyed the cookies, chose a particularly tasty-looking chocolate-studded specimen, then handed it to Adrienne. “Try eating this. Maybe you just need a boost, so you can think straight. If I don’t eat, my ability to concentrate goes right out the window.”

“Oh, it’s not that! I’ve been sampling test chocolates all day.” Nevertheless, Adrienne chomped off a giant bite of cookie. Nervously, she chewed, casting another fretful glance at the retreat attendees. It seemed that she was looking for someone—probably her yellow-shirted potential paramour. “Caffeinated chocolates. You know, for the new Lemaître nutraceutical line?”

Her worried gaze probed mine. All I could do was shift uneasily. Part of my report on Lemaître concerned that line of chocolates. They were supposed to have healthy—even medicinal—benefits. Hence the “nutraceutical” tag—a mashup of “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical.” Christian was putting a lot of emphasis on the line, but I knew it had issues.

I didn’t want to go into it. My analysis of the caffeinated chocolates line could wait. I knew it might devastate Adrienne, who’d already spent months developing it. Those were the breaks in the chocolate business, but I didn’t revel in that fact.

Reassuringly, I patted her shoulder. “You’re very talented, Adrienne. Just take another look at the Toll House quiz. Okay?”

To my relief, my diversionary tactic worked. Adrienne still seemed jumpy and apprehensive, but that might be explained by the fact that she’d apparently been mainlining the equivalent of mini chocolate-covered caffeinated energy drinks for hours now.

Me? After one of those drinks “with wings,” I’m a goner.

My vice is chocolate. I definitely don’t need extra “energy” revving up my already manic simian tendencies.

I nudged Adrienne. “Go ahead. Which recipe is it?”

With one hand hovering over a Toll House cookie recipe, she hesitated. She exhaled, then gave me a shy smile. “You’ve always been so nice to me, Hayden. I really appreciate it.”

Aw. Unfortunately, I’d chosen that moment to sneak a glance at the final station. Christian had thrust both arms in the air, I saw. He seemed to be performing a victory dance while his Lemaître lackeys and other guests applauded. On him, that ridiculous spectacle actually looked pretty good. Christian was fit, forty, and brilliant enough that even his competitors lauded the way he’d updated his company’s quaint confectionary.

Discomfited to have been caught not being so nice to Adrienne at a crucial moment, I shook my head. “If only I could do more,” I told her guiltily, knowing my report to Christian might well torpedo all the work she’d done so far. “I really wish I could help you”—not have your work wasted—”even more.”

She gasped with evident delight. “Do you mean it?” She grabbed both my arms. “Oh, Hayden! That would be great!”

Ruefully, I wriggled free, not wanting to commit. I’d been hoping to devote some one-on-one attention to Danny during my downtime at the resort. I was mostly booked solid with warm chocolate-fondue body wraps and cacao-nib-and-espresso-bean pedicure scrubs, but on my off-hours, I’d hoped to have fun.

I’d missed Danny. He understood me. He made me laugh.

He was more to me than just a tardy stud in a suit, there to make me look as if I had a modicum of normalcy in my life.

“I’m not sure how much more I can do, Adrienne,” I hedged, but before I could say more, Christian Lemaître spotted me.

“Hayden Mundy Moore!” he bellowed jovially. “The chocolate whisperer herself! You made it! That’s excellent!”

Uh-oh. I recognized that tone. I hadn’t worked with Christian long, but for all his brash intelligence, he wasn’t exactly complicated. He liked to seem important. The end.

This time, he meant to use me as a means to that end.

“Not that I’ve ever needed Hayden’s services at Lemaître, of course,” he lied in a smooth undertone to his associates. “But I’m happy to introduce all of you losers to Hayden!”

His guffaws of laughter grew louder as he came closer.

I looked his way again. Like the pied piper of chocolate he aspired to be, Christian strode toward me while surrounded by adoring industry types. His blue crew-neck T-shirt made him look younger than his years; his avaricious expression made him look older. Just then, he reminded me of a middle-aged frat boy.

Bernard frowned as his nephew sailed past. Christian didn’t seem to notice. That was Bernard and Isabel’s cue to leave.

In their wake, Adrienne’s yellow T-shirted pal drifted closer. I tried to send him a mental message to approach Adrienne and ask her out for drinks later. My telepathy failed.

I noticed redheaded Nina, too, bounding along devotedly in her boss’s wake in three-inch pumps (on the grass!) with a grace and alacrity I envied. She seemed to have calmed down a little, with only one phone in hand and her clipboard stowed someplace, now that the scavenger hunt appeared to be a rousing success.

Even if the host had won it, I recalled. Lame.

Christian’s over-the-top laughter struck me again. So did Adrienne’s downright panicked expression when she heard it.

Was she supposed to be working right now? She must be. That was the only explanation for the way Adrienne went still, like a frightened rabbit, gazing unblinkingly as her boss approached.

Christian didn’t seem pleased to find Adrienne standing there. “Ms. Dowling!” he barked. “Shouldn’t you be in your magical workshop, coming up with some tasty treats for later?”

“Um,” Adrienne began. Her gaze darted to me. “Uh—”

Christian’s abrupt clap made her jump. “Yes! Get on it!”

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I’ll leave right now.”

As Christian turned to his retreat guests—presumably making sure they’d witnessed his masterful employer-employee relations—Adrienne caught my arm again. Her intent expression riveted me.

Take this.” She whispered the words harshly, shoving a thick rectangular item at my midsection. “Please, Hayden. Take it! I can’t let Christian have it. Just…keep it safe for me, okay?” Her fearful gaze zipped to her boss. “I’ll get it later.”

Dumbfounded, I accepted it. It was a notebook, I saw after a hasty downward glance, not much different from my favorite Moleskine number. It was the kind of thing pastry chefs (for instance) and chocolatiers typically use to track recipe ideas and formulas. It had to contain years’ worth of work, judging by the heft of it. Nodding, I bundled it close.

The whole exchange took maybe fifteen seconds. Ten seconds after that, Adrienne had scurried up the lawn toward the hotel.

Mr. Yellow T-shirt watched her leave. Just like Danny, he was too late. You missed your chance, buddy, I told him with a regretful mental shrug. You just let a great woman slip away.

Christian’s next bellow roared into my consciousness.

“What about you, Hayden?” He transferred his gaze from Adrienne’s former location, which—if looks could start fires—would have been a blazing inferno. Hmm. “Isn’t there something you’re supposed to be working on right now, too?”

He had to mean my report about Lemaître’s operations, I realized. But he couldn’t come out and say so in mixed company—not without letting on that he had used my consulting services. Moments ago, he’d sworn he never had.

But he still wanted to needle me about my report?

Christian Lemaître had a lot of nerve. He was a bully.

Determined not to be as easily cowed as poor Adrienne, I held my ground. Calmly, I tucked away Adrienne’s notebook into my crossbody bag for safekeeping, just as though it were mine.

Butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth when I smiled at him.

“Right now, I’m just enjoying your hospitality,” I said.

Christian nodded at me. “Well, enjoy it while you can.”

Even nonchalantly said, that statement sounded like a threat. Maybe Christian Lemaître wasn’t as laid-back about deadlines as he’d claimed to be, I realized. But I was stuck.

“I’m dying to know about that fascinating assignment you were working on. You know the one,” Christian persisted while waggling his brows, obviously intending to carry on some sort of double-coded conversation with me while his otherwise clueless guests looked on. Maybe he enjoyed messing with people that way. “Did you ever find out exactly what the problems were?” Eager to appear the expert, Christian turned to a bystander and confided, “Hayden is an absolute whiz at what she does. She’s unstoppable.”

At the fringes of the group, Nina Wheeler narrowed her eyes at him. Evidently, the PR rep wasn’t any more fond of her boss’s antics than I was. Although Nina didn’t intervene—I wouldn’t have, either, to be honest—she did cast me a speculative glance.

I nodded at her in shared understanding. You’re right, my nod said. You’re not crazy—Christian is acting weird. I’d worked for my share of annoying bosses, and I knew it wasn’t fun. Sometimes it was necessary, though. That was apparently the position that stressed-out Nina was in. I felt relieved that someone besides me appeared to recognize what was really going on here.

I’d barely completed that thought before Nina left the group. Probably, she was going to comfort Adrienne, I figured. I was glad someone was. Right now, I was trapped. Christian hadn’t paid me for the work I’d (almost) completed. Although I had the money in my trust fund for a fallback, I had a reputation to maintain.

Plus, I didn’t want to disappoint Travis—or rile up Danny, who was occasionally frustrated by my “lackadaisical” attitude toward the report-writing part of my consulting business. I understood where he was coming from, but I didn’t agree.

I also didn’t agree with Christian’s intimidation tactics. Adrienne’s frightened face still stuck in my mind. For her sake, I straightened my spine and stepped up squarely to Christian.

“Actually, my assignment is going well,” I told him. “I’m just surprised you weren’t already aware of the…troubles…I was looking into. You’re usually so on top of things. Aren’t you?”

“Yes. I am.” Christian tightened his jaw. He managed a blasé-seeming wave. “We can touch base later. That’s fine.”

“Are you sure?” I widened my eyes as disingenuously as I could. Insincerity didn’t come naturally to me. Ordinarily, I’m a take-me-as-I-am kind of gal. But he’d riled me up by being mean to someone as softhearted as Adrienne. “I’d be happy to discuss my findings and all the implications of them now.”

I recognized immediately when Christian understood my meaning. He could leverage me with my overdue report—but I could leverage him with the lie he’d just told about not using my chocolate whisperer consulting services. We were at an impasse.

If anything, Christian somehow tightened his jaw even further. I was surprised his teeth didn’t snap. “No. Thank you,” he managed. Then, a clap. “Everyone, I think it’s teatime!”

He meant Maison Lemaître’s well-known British-style all-chocolate afternoon tea service. I’d been looking forward to it.

The crowd meandered toward the hotel. I started to, too—and almost ran smack into Christian on my way. His arm clutched mine. What was it with people grabbing me so hard today, anyway?

“I’m trying to be nice, Hayden,” he said with a mean look. “Don’t try my patience too far. You’ll be sorry you did.”

Too late, I remembered he was notoriously ruthless. He’d banished his own uncle from running the family business.

“Don’t push me, either,” I said. “You need me, remember?”

Scowling, Christian let me go. I waited until he’d stomped away. Then I bolted for my hotel room, suddenly feeling pretty darn übermotivated, energetic, and ready to work on my report.

Chapter Three

I had every intention of working on my report. Honestly, I did. But as I was striding diligently toward my room at Maison Lemaître—scarcely noticing the fragrant begonia beds and tinkling tiled fountains I passed along the way—I caught another intoxicating whiff of chocolate…and thought of Adrienne.

Somewhere nearby, poor Adrienne was knocking herself out to create chocolates for her demanding tyrant of a boss, Christian. With the reception only a couple of hours away, Adrienne didn’t have a lot of time left, either. She’d mentioned that she hadn’t slept much the night before. She was probably exhausted.

Adrienne needed my help, I decided, and veered in the other direction. When I found the kitchen she’d been assigned to—an offshoot located within close proximity of the ballroom and its nearby light-string-bedecked and landscaped patio—I got right down to work. It didn’t take much to shuck my crossbody bag, slap a chef’s apron atop my orange Lemaître T-shirt, and dig in.

Adrienne was surprised to see me; I was surprised to find her working on her “luxury” line of caffeinated nutraceutical Lemaître chocolates—specifically, gilded “energy” truffles.

Adrienne only grimaced. “This is what Christian wants.”

Everyone knew Christian got what he wanted. She didn’t need to say it for both of us to know it. Bernard was proof of that.

“With all the changes at Lemaître since Christian took over from Bernard,” Adrienne went on, “I really can’t afford to goof up on this. People lost their jobs! Everyone got reshuffled.”

Right. That explained Adrienne’s panic at being caught red-handed—by Christian—not working during the chocolate scavenger hunt. It also explained her visible agitation now. She talked a mile a minute, seeming almost as frenzied as I sometimes did.

I’d originally planned to return Adrienne’s notebook. Looking at her now, though, I decided to wait until morning. In the state she was in at the moment, she might lose it, drop it in a double-boiler of melted chocolate, or accidentally set it on fire. She was just that frantic as she worked on her truffles.

Watching Adrienne scurry to and fro across the kitchen, I felt torn about what to do. The trouble was, I’d thought the caffeinated chocolate line was already an official no-go. I’d voiced my preliminary concerns about it to Christian several days ago, during our agreed-upon “final meeting.” I just hadn’t detailed them all in writing yet.

At the company’s primary San Francisco facility, I’d learned that anhydrous caffeine is extremely difficult to work with. It looks harmless—similar to just-add-water lemonade powder—but it’s intense and highly concentrated. It comes with a correspondingly bitter flavor that’s difficult to disguise.

Even in the minute amounts used in making chocolate, that bitterness is evident…and unpleasant. It ruins the terroir of the chocolate—the unique characteristics given to it by the climate, geology, and geography of the place its cacao beans were grown. It throws off the flavor. No matter how Adrienne and I adjusted the formulas, we weren’t able to create a truffle that delivered the necessary nutraceutical “kick” of caffeine while preserving the expected Lemaître Chocolates’ quality.

Evidently, Christian had ignored my warnings. According to Adrienne, he’d instructed her to continue developing caffeinated chocolates without me—and to prepare “sneak preview” samples for the welcome reception, too, where the nutraceutical line was to be unveiled. The problems inherent in that had kept eager-to-please Adrienne working feverishly in the days leading up to the retreat. They’d made her a nervous wreck by the time I arrived on the scene, too.

But there wasn’t much two diligent chocolatiers couldn’t accomplish together. Knowing Adrienne as well as I did, I was able to duck in and out of the proceedings without distracting her. With our energy pumped by the music I switched on for a morale booster, Adrienne and I performed a familiar ballet of chocolate production. We prepared several pounds of dark chocolate couverture. We measured minuscule amounts of powdered caffeine. We dipped dozens of truffles, then gilded them with edible gold leaf and arranged them on serving trays.

By the time we were finished, I felt more like a mad scientist than a chocolate whisperer. I also felt giddy with relief and buzzed with a glow that felt more like the result of a philanthropic job well done than the effect of the few sugary truffle samples I’d cadged. Giving Adrienne a hug, I smiled.

“You did it!” I told her. “Now, get out of this kitchen, willya? Go take a break. Have a massage! You earned it.”

Uncertainly, Adrienne bit her lip. “I don’t know, Hayden. There’s still more to be done. The formula might not be right.”

“It’s as perfect as you can make it for now. That’ll have to be good enough.” If the chocolates didn’t deliver the expected “kick,” it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Firmly, I caught hold of my friend’s slight shoulders. I turned her around. “Don’t make me march you off to the spa myself. I’ll do it, you know! Have something healthy to eat, too. They’re bound to have something energizing at the spa café.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Laughing, Adrienne relented. “I will.”

“Maybe you’ll run into Mr. Yellow T-shirt on the way,” I teased. “It looked as though you two were hitting it off today.”

“Oh.” Suddenly, Adrienne’s pert face clouded. She fidgeted with her apron strings. “Um, it wasn’t like that. Not with him.”

“Come on.” Giving her a nudge, I persisted. “He likes you!”

But Adrienne only shook her head. Then she gave me a long look. “Thanks again, Hayden. You’re always coming to my rescue.”

Touched by her appreciation, I hugged her. “Anytime.”

Then we both undid our aprons, grabbed our things, and went our separate ways—Adrienne to unwind at the spa, and me to track down my errant plus-one and make him model potential welcome-reception attire for me. Danny sure did look good in a suit…but I couldn’t remember now if I’d told him to bring one.

Hoping I had, I waved to Adrienne and then dashed toward the exit door. Like every hotel kitchen I’d ever been in, it connected with a warren of slightly dingy hallways for staff use, additional stairwells, and—after a little backtracking—the main staircase I needed to get to my room. Grateful for my travel-honed sense of direction (it hadn’t failed me yet), I ascended three flights of stairs with my crossbody bag thumping along at the effort, reached the third landing, opened the fire door…and found a surprise waiting for me outside my room.

~ ~ ~

The man standing there frowning at room 332 was tall, tousle-haired, and rakish looking. He was holding a manila filing envelope. He was handsome and broad-shouldered, and I know what you’re thinking: I’m just being coy. He was Danny.

Except he wasn’t. This man was Mr. Yellow T-shirt himself. I couldn’t fathom why he’d be lurking outside my hotel room.

Reasoning that he was probably looking for Adrienne (via me, the only one of the two of us who hadn’t been too shy to look him directly in the eyes), I strode forward.

“Hi!” I said. “You must be looking for Adrienne.”

I guess I was more hyped-up on chocolates than I thought, because I spoke pretty loudly. I accidentally startled him. He jerked and almost dropped his manila envelope. When he saw it was me, he recovered quickly, though. He tightened his grip on his envelope and then shook his head. “No, not Adrienne.”

He seemed uncomfortable. Up close, I noticed his outdoorsy demeanor and his faint hand tremor. His slightly suntanned face sported a sheen of sweat, too. That imperfection didn’t mar his good looks, though. It only made him seem more real, less glossy.

“I was looking for you,” he said…and then I understood.

He wanted to hire me. He wanted to do it clandestinely. That’s why he was approaching me here, in private, instead of downstairs in the hotel bar or later at the welcome reception.

I wasn’t surprised. By the time my clients find me, they tend to be pretty desperate. They’re often at the end of their ropes, with no idea how to fix the problems bedeviling them.

Sometimes a new product launch has gone hideously awry and has to be dealt with before the company stock takes a dive. Sometimes a longtime flagship product plummets in popularity and needs to be retooled for twenty-first-century tastes. Sometimes what seemed like a good idea to a CEO can’t quite be made to work in the real world of fast-casual foodservice. It varies.

“Well, you found me.” Smiling, I offered him a handshake. “Hayden Mundy Moore. Chocolate whisperer. Orange team member.”

His gaze dipped to my orange T-shirt—specifically to my modest, T-shirt-covered breasts. He leered. For the first time, I felt on edge. I know how to take care of myself, but in this case, my impulse to knee a creeper in the groin warred with my need (constantly hinted at by Danny) to grow my business.

“Rex Rader,” he announced in a tone made sloppy by more than one sample (I was guessing) of scavenger hunt chocolate liqueur. I detected it on his breath. “Of mmm-Melt.”

That’s right. He actually said it like that: mmm-Melt.

He sounded like a porn star filming an ad for candy bars—candy bars that could make you much happier than most did.

I blinked. “…mmm-Melt?”

“Melt chocolates,” Rex clarified in a less sexed-up tone. “You must have heard of us. We’re the modern chocolatier.”

Now that he’d pronounced his company’s name normally, I realized I had heard of it. I’d heard of him, too. Rex Rader was, for lack of a better description, the thirtyish Hugh Hefner of the San Francisco chocolate industry. He was smart, charming, and usually accompanied by beautiful women. Now that I knew who he was, I half expected to see a glamazon posse materialize.

It was difficult to take him seriously. But I tried.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Rader?” I asked.

“Call me Rex.” He leered at my chest again, then leaned his shoulder against my room’s doorjamb with a confident air. He ran his fingertips along the edge of his manila envelope with a suggestive look. “You can invite me inside, for a start.”

Ugh. Sure, Rex Rader was supposed to be charismatic and fascinating and full of “cool” ideas—the wunderkind of chocolate. But just then, I wasn’t in the mood for flirting.

“No, I won’t be doing that. But I will tell you my fee for an initial consultation.” I did, jacking it up by 20 percent as a deliberate disincentive. His eyes widened with satisfying—and hopefully libido-dulling—surprise. “If you’re still interested, we can set up a meeting for later. Downstairs.”

Rex breezed right past the public locale I’d suggested.

“But I’m here right now.” He pouted, fondled his manila envelope, then looked up. “Come on, Hayden. Let’s work together. I know you’ll enjoy what I have to offer at mmm-Melt.”

I’ll admit it. I almost weakened. There was something about Rex Rader that pulled me in…that made me want to know more. Plus, I would need another consulting job after my work for Christian Lemaître was finished, and I liked San Francisco.

Then Rex came out with that ludicrous mmm-Melt thing, and all my curiosity about him vanished. Poof! I wanted him gone.

“Look, I have a process. I don’t take jobs on a whim.”

“It’s not a whim! Take my portfolio! You’ll see.”

“I typically consult with my financial advisor first.”

“Go ahead! I’m an open book.” Another leer. “Ask anyone.”

“Fine.” I snatched his portfolio. “I’ll consider it.”

“Goood.” Rex drew out the word in a satisfied purr. His gaze dropped to my legs this time. He leered at them, too. “Niiice.”

Wow. Did this technique really work with some women?

“See you at the reception.” I squashed his Melt portfolio against my chest, then offered a handshake. “Bye for now.”

Rex couldn’t have missed my purposely dismissing tone. But he darn well pretended he had. He didn’t even quit lounging in my hotel room doorway. But he did raise his gaze from my knees.

“‘Bye’? Are you sure?” His liquored-up breath blasted me in the face. He lowered his voice. “We could go inside and—”

Thankfully, I never found out what Rex was going to suggest. Because a second later, my longtime friend Danny emerged from the same stairwell I’d used (what can I say—we approach life similarly) and made a beeline straight for us.

His approach had a typically dampening effect on Rex Rader. That happened sometimes, given that Danny Jamieson was more than six feet tall, packed with muscle, and sporadically tattooed. At thirty-two, Danny possessed a swagger that told the world he knew how to handle…well, anything. It was that quality, I suspected, that tended to make people step out of Danny’s way.

Rex was no exception. He actually gawked.

Most likely, I did, too. Danny also had that effect on me. It didn’t matter that I knew he had two college degrees, more than his share of street smarts, and an endearing, childlike enthusiasm for birthday parties. Every time I saw Danny after a long time apart, all I saw was one thing: beefcake. My beefcake.

This time, I also saw my way out of this standoff with Rex. So, drawing on years’ worth of time spent trawling SoCal bars with my buddy Danny, I offered him our shared, silent, barely detectable secret signal: a head scratch. Originally, we’d used it while acting as each other’s “wingman” to ditch dates that weren’t going well. Today I was using it to ditch Rex Rader.

Danny caught my signal without breaking his stride.

Filled with mingled relief, annoyance (he was late again, after all), and appreciation, I watched Danny approach. I’d just decided he’d missed my signal when he reached me, pulled me into his arms…and planted a big, passionate kiss on my lips.

Uhh… That wasn’t our usual greeting. I was tingling when Danny released me, deliberately placing his body between me and Rex. He smiled, and I had second thoughts about the cleverness of this rescue. Because while Rex was supposed to be charming, Danny actually was. He just didn’t usually unleash it with me.

“Hey, babe. Sorry I’m late.” His voice rivaled Travis’s for sheer sexy huskiness. He winked. “I’ll make it up to you later.”

My heart fluttered. For Rex’s sake, I pretended to swoon.

Barely noticing, Danny confronted Rex. “Rex Rader!” He slapped his hand on Rex’s shoulder. Hard. “How’s it hanging?”

“Uh, fine.” Rex cleared his throat. He was too busy keeping a wary eye on Danny to let his gaze wander anywhere near my T-shirt-covered breasts. I was too busy wondering how in the world Danny had identified him so quickly to appreciate the reprieve from being leered at. “Just trying to convince Ms. Mundy Moore to do some consulting work for me.” Rex gave a weak laugh.

“Really?” Danny crossed his arms, appearing interested.

Okay, to be honest, he appeared to be an interested thug. No matter what else he did, his rough upbringing never quite got completely sanded off. His short brown hair made people wonder if he was ex-military; his intense eyes could be jovial or hard.

I guessed Rex saw hard right now. “Yes, really,” he said.

“Well, be sure to give Hayden your card.” Danny tossed me a smart-alecky look. “She’s awful at remembering faces and names.”

You liar! I was about to yell, but then Rex obediently reached for his wallet to retrieve a mmm-Melt business card…and came up empty instead. “My wallet!” he yelped. “It’s gone!”

Hmm. I stared fixedly at Danny. He gazed innocently at me.

“Have you checked the hotel’s lost and found?” he asked.

Swearing, Rex patted his pants pockets. His T-shirt. He turned in a circle, then started pacing. “It’s really gone!”

“Seriously. Ask at the front desk,” Danny suggested.

Rex nodded. The moment he distractedly entered the distant elevator and I heard the doors ding shut, I turned to Danny.

“You idiot!” Frowning, I held out my palm. “Hand it over.”

“Hand over what?” he asked with exaggerated guilelessness.

“You know what. Rex Rader’s wallet. I know you lifted it.”

Danny shrugged, unbothered by my theory. My heart sank at his tacit acknowledgment that I was right. He’d promised me more than once that he would shed his shady past and go wholly legit.

Today’s antics only proved he hadn’t. I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised. This wasn’t the first time Danny’s easy-fingered ways had gotten us both out of a sticky situation.

If I knew us, it wouldn’t be the last time, either.

As expected, Danny brandished Rex’s expensive wallet. He grinned unrepentantly. “We should at least riffle through it once, just to make sure Rader’s on the up-and-up,” he said by way of a compromise. “Then I’ll turn it in to the front desk.”

Like the world’s most audacious con artist, Danny crossed his hand over his heart. The fact that he used his stolen-wallet-holding hand didn’t add much authenticity to the gesture.

I gave in. “Fine. Just quit giving me those puppy-dog eyes. I’m trying to be mad at you for being late to the retreat.”

“Yeah. It seems like a real classy affair so far, what with you being mauled in the hallway and everything.” With a wry look, Danny stuffed Rex’s wallet in his jacket. “Why didn’t you just drop him cold, like that would-be mugger in Barcelona?”

At the memory of that incident, I cringed. I wasn’t proud of fighting back—it had been dumb, frankly—but I’d survived.

“I’m here at Maison Lemaître to network,” I reminded him crisply, “not to become the ultimate fighting champion.”

“Right. How’s that working out for you so far?”

“I’m still optimistic. And you’re still late.”

“The more things change…” Danny flashed me a carefree grin. He looked me up and down. “You look great, by the way. Nice T-shirt.”

Then he produced a glossy keycard, opened my hotel room with it, and chivalrously stepped back to allow me to enter first. Always a consummate gentleman—that was Danny. I was so happy to see him that it almost didn’t occur to me to wonder…

How had Danny gotten ahold of my hotel room keycard?

In the minutes before we were due at the Lemaître welcome reception in the ballroom downstairs, I intended to find out the answer to that question. In the meantime, I decided to hug him.

~ ~ ~

As you might have predicted by now, I didn’t wrangle any answers from Danny—not about my hotel keycard, not about his late arrival, and not about what he’d been up to lately, either.

At my first question (about my keycard), he merely raised his eyebrows in a “who do you think you’re dealing with?” way that told me all I really needed to know about my (mostly) former-thief friend…although he swore he “only used his powers for good” these days. At my second question, he simply changed the subject. At my third, he began stripping to put on a suit for the gala welcome reception. I was forced to improvise and push his chortling, partly naked self into his own adjoining room.

I’d glimpsed enough bare skin and rippling muscles, though, to know Danny wasn’t all talk when it came to his freelance security business in L.A. He was capable of action, too.

Now, ensconced in the midst of the welcome reception, I had more important things to think about than Danny’s secrets, his musculature, and that whopper of a kiss. I had to get serious.

The atmosphere should have made that easy. The ballroom was spectacular, furnished with chocolate brown wallpaper, plenty of mirrored surfaces, lots of gleaming marble, and gold accents galore. A string quartet played, filling the room—and the moonlit patio visible through the opened French doors that lined one wall—with classical music. Waiters passed drinks and canapés and chocolate delicacies; fancily dressed chocolate-industry bigwigs surrounded me, conducting laughing conversations.

I’d dived in an hour ago, having entered the room with Danny, only to split up almost instantly to circulate.

So far, I’d conversed with at least a dozen people, gabbing with the kind of loquaciousness that could only come from my gypsy upbringing in multiple countries. I’d even managed not to fidget too much, which counted as a big victory for me.

But while my initial apprehension faded, I noticed that Adrienne’s had never left her. If anything, it had increased.

I glimpsed her running around behind the scenes, wearing a pristine white chef’s coat over her party dress, darting into the ballroom with refills of ordinary (non-nutraceutical) Lemaître chocolates. Evidently, Christian had ordered her to wait until the right moment to unveil the caffeinated version.

I hoped the line succeeded. I still had my doubts. But more than that, I was concerned about Adrienne. She seemed unusually tense and pale. Her ordinarily springy blond curls were lank—from the heat of the hotel kitchen, no doubt—and her face was shiny with perspiration. Sweat even darkened the underarms of her whites. When she headed back to the kitchen, she swayed.

Worried, I followed her. But by the time I caught up with Adrienne in the hotel kitchen, she insisted she was fine.

“Look! I’ve got my patented instant-energy healthy green juice to keep me going!” Manically, she brandished a carafe full of icy green slush. She poured two tall glasses of it, handed one to me, then clinked glasses. “Cheers!”

I took a tentative sip. I made a face. “What is this?”

“Kale, banana, powdered greens, avocado, pineapple, lemon…” With a confiding air, Adrienne leaned closer. “And a teensy bit of my booster powder, of course.” She nodded toward her supply of anhydrous caffeine, waiting where we’d left it earlier, next to the supersensitive culinary scale. “Just enough to keep me going,” she added when she saw my dubious expression. “It’s like coffee, only better! You were right, Hayden. I did need something healthy.” Adrienne toasted me. “This is it!”

I stared at its dismal color. “This looks like something a socialite would try to ‘detox’ with. How about some water?”

“No time now! Gotta run!” Adrienne pointed at my mostly untouched glass. “Drink up, Hayden. It’s good for you.”

“I don’t know about this, Adrienne,” I called after her, raising my voice to be heard above the music and the sound of a hundred-odd noisy voices. “I think I’ll help you instead.”

But by then, my fellow chocolatier was gone, vanished into the ballroom again. When I looked at the array of serving trays Adrienne had lined up—clearly with an elaborate system in mind—I wasn’t sure which one to choose. When I glanced at the leftover blocks of chocolate, whisks, and waiting stainless-steel bowls, I couldn’t be sure what she’d been working on, either.

With no other alternative, I headed back to the ballroom.

~ ~ ~

Isabel was the first to notice my homebrew “energy” drink.

“Hayden! What in the world are you drinking?” Tipsily, she peered at my glass. I’d forgotten I was still holding it. Isabel weaved in place, dressed to kill and clearly drunk—but interested. “It looks disgusting. Just like my detox drink!”

I saluted Isabel with it, grinned, and kept mingling. I spoke with Nina and Bernard, Christian (briefly) and Rex Rader (ditto). I gave Adrienne an “are you okay?” nod as she passed me. I traded back-of-the-house war stories with a local pastry chef. At the urging of a photographer for a local newspaper, I even posed along with everyone else for a group photo op.

“I’m sure I looked horrible!” Adrienne whispered to me as we all regrouped afterward. “I don’t take good photos.”

Nobody thinks they take good photos,” I assured her. “Believe me. Everyone looks better in real life than on film.”

“Isabel Lemaître doesn’t,” Adrienne groused. She examined the assorted drinks that had been temporarily abandoned on a nearby table during the photography session, then chose one. Her (very recognizable) green juice, of course. She handed me mine. “Someone told me Isabel used to be a lingerie model.”

I believed it. “That explains why she went braless today,” I joked. “I guess she’s already worn her lifetime bra quota.”

Adrienne guffawed. She almost snorted green juice.

I wanted to hang around and make Adrienne laugh again—if only to make up for the potential devastation I might wreak on her nutraceutical chocolate line after my report to Christian was turned in—but I spied Danny giving me a panicked-looking “head scratch” signal just then and had to run to his rescue.

After I’d extracted him from a clingy blogger from a San Francisco-based culinary site, I pantomimed scratching my head.

“You’d better watch that, pal. Might be dandruff.”

“Har, har.” He got his revenge by pinching me as I sailed away, but I was okay with that. It was only fair that I helped him as much as he helped me. Danny didn’t know it, but that was partly what this impromptu retreat was all about: helping him. Specifically, helping him stay away from the lowbrow, bad-influence buddies who tended to congregate around him.

I wasn’t sure how much time had passed before I realized I hadn’t seen Adrienne for a while. Despite the general sense of urgency, the reception had been running two steps behind all night. The nutraceutical line hadn’t even been unveiled yet, and it was getting late. Adrienne must be frantic by now. Thinking I might be able to help, I put down my “energy” drink and went to check on her. Partway there, I spied Rex Rader buttonholing a TV reporter—a woman who seemed far more interested in him than I’d been, judging by her enraptured expression—and I decided to make a detour to the ladies’ room first.

Some needs, I figured—like Rex’s apparent need to be 100 percent smarmy, 100 percent of the time—just couldn’t wait.

~ ~ ~

When I emerged, something was happening. The string quartet’s music had stopped. Raised voices rang from the ballroom. Shouts could be heard from the patio. Footsteps too.

A hotel staff member ran past me, looking grave.

Alarmed, I followed him to the ballroom. There, the retreat attendees streamed toward the open French doors leading to the patio. More guests pushed onto the patio itself, spilling onto the walkway and crowding between the potted topiaries and the tiled fountain that still burbled merrily in the moonlight.

“They said it was one of the chocolatiers,” someone blurted near me. “One of the people who works for Lemaître.”

“Maybe it’s Christian,” someone else said with ghoulish zeal, but I couldn’t stop to listen. I pushed my way past gawkers and bystanders, ignoring people whom I’d wanted to impress earlier.

All I could think about was Adrienne. I had an uneasy feeling about her. I know it’s silly. I do. After the fact, anyone can say they had a premonition of disaster. Anyone can claim to have known, in their bones, that something was wrong.

But not just anyone saw what I saw next.

Between the onlookers, I glimpsed Nina. She sat on one of the low stone planters bordering the patio, cradling something. In the dim glow afforded by the now incongruously cheerful white light strings, I saw that she was crying. A man was trying to take something from her. I had the confused impression that Nina was fighting him off. Her agonized wail pierced all of us.

There was anguish in that sound. I’d never heard anything like it. My heart pounded twice as fast. My mouth went dry. I felt dizzy, but I kept moving like an automaton. I had to.

“I’m sorry.” Two men wearing uniforms stood. One silently collected his equipment. “There’s nothing more we can do.”

Belatedly, I realized they were an EMT unit. The police had been called, too, along with the hotel staff. Hazily, I tried to peer around them—tried to see what was wrong with Nina.

Instead, I saw Adrienne. Her limp body was propped in Nina’s arms, slumped at a strange angle. Her head lolled. Her chef’s coat was stained with blood. Her sleeves were speckled with it, too, as though she’d held up her arms to ward off…something.

Something, I realized, that had killed her.

Adrienne was…dead?

It didn’t seem possible. But then suddenly Danny was there.

He was fighting through the crowd, pulling me into his arms, tucking my head against his shoulder. “That’s enough now.”

Oh, God. That’s when I knew it was true.

Danny was pugnacious. Straight talking. Tough as nails. He didn’t believe in babying people. He would never have comforted me this way over anything less than a disaster.

I raised my face to his. His gentle eyes looked back at me.

I started trembling uncontrollably. That’s when Danny took charge. He nodded. “We’re leaving,” he said. “Right now.”

Then he led me away.

– end of excerpt –

criminal_confections_lgColette London sometimes eats salad. She always eats chocolate. And she’d love for you to join her chocolate-loving community!

p.s. – Colette London is a pseudonym for a best-selling novelist who’s published more than three dozen books worldwide. Want to use your Google Fu to find out her secret identity? Nah. Don’t spoil the surprise. Use your powers for good and order a Chocolate Whisperer mystery instead!

From the Author

Thank you for reading this book! If you enjoyed it, I hope you’ll share your enthusiasm by writing a review online, posting about this story on your Facebook page, Twitter account, or blog, or talking about it with your friends.

If you’re curious about my other books, please visit my Web site at www.colettelondon.com, where you can find fantastic chocolate recipes, catch sneak previews of my upcoming books, and more.

Best wishes,
Colette London

The complete Chocolate Whisperer series

Criminal Confections (2/2015)

Dangerously Dark (10/2015)

The Semisweet Hereafter (10/2016)

Dead and Ganache (10/2017)

The Peppermint Mocha Murder (10/2018)

Praise for the novels of Colette London

“Chocoholics and food cozy fans rejoice! With prose as smooth and delicious as its theme, this quality debut cozy by an anonymous best-selling novelist introduces a smart protagonist with an unusual and tasty profession.”Library Journal (starred review!)

“This mystery, centered around yummy treats and high crime, was a spooky-cute lead up to Halloween. I was hooked from the start, and afterward I was craving a chocolate truffle!” —Lauren Gatcombe, assistant editor, FIRST For Women magazine