Have you ever tasted a dry, disappointing brownie? A flat, greasy chocolate-chip cookie? A chocolate cream pie that was neither creamy nor chocolaty? Me, too! The difference is, when I encounter less-than-stellar baked goods, candies, drinks, or treats, I have to fix them. And I always do. Because that’s my job.
I’m a “chocolate whisperer” (the world’s first!). That means that I specialize in Theobroma cacao—and everything that’s made from it. My clients come to me (sometimes secretly) whenever they need to turn subpar chocolate goodies into culinary superstars.
Never heard of me? That’s exactly the way my clients (and I) like it. See, I mostly work on a referral basis, troubleshooting chocolates on the QT for a carefully selected group of consultees. Sometimes that means developing new product lines for multinational corporations. Sometimes it means creating chocolate ice creams, cheesecakes, or elaborately plated desserts for restaurateurs. Sometimes it means getting my hands dirty in the back-of-house at a local mom-and-pop bakery, helping it compete with a rival pâtisserie or encroaching fast-food chain.
I don’t take jobs because they’re lucrative. I take them because they’re challenging. Or interesting. Or just because someone really needs my help. I’m a soft touch that way.
I just can’t say no. Especially not when it comes to sweet, heart-poundingly luscious chocolate, in all of its myriad forms.
The bottom line is, if you have a favorite candy bar, donut, or “house-crafted” chocolate dessert, there’s a good chance that I, Hayden Mundy Moore, worked behind the scenes to improve it.
No matter what my assignment du jour happens to be, I always succeed, too. That’s (partly) because I never quit. In the pursuit of chocolate excellence, I’m indefatigable—if sometimes a teensy bit late delivering a consultation report (ugh). In my business, persistence is a plus. Because sometimes, coaxing out the best from my favorite fermented fruit pod (aka the cocoa bean) means multiple rounds of taste-testing. Sound good? Sure, it does—the first twelve times. After that, it’s a job. Trust me.
Not that I’m complaining. I’m definitely not! I love my clients. I love my work. And I love chocolate. Melted, chopped, whipped into mousse or frozen into gelato…it’s all delicious. You think so, too? Then hang tight, because I’m bound to have a few tips of the trade to share with you—once we get to know one another better, that is. Because while I might be tireless when it comes to truffles, I’m slightly less trusting that I used to be these days. There’s a good reason for that, too.
See, my last few chocolate-whispering consultations just happened to involve (how do I put this?) murder. I know, it sounds unbelievable. It did to me, too. Things got pretty crazy there for a while. But I’m hoping those days are behind me now.
In fact, I’ve put them behind me. Miles behind me. I’m nothing if not proactive when it comes to avoiding danger—at least most of the time. I’m not saying I literally ran from the last consultation-turned-deadly that I stumbled onto in London, but once everything was sorted out, I was pretty happy to hop on a Eurostar train and head to France to visit my parents.
They’re both experimental archaeologists, currently at work on a castle-rebuilding project in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region. Because of my mom, my dad, and my own (rapidly growing) sense of self-preservation, I happened to be in France during one of the best times to visit the Continent: early autumn.
I guess all the cool, crisp days and colorful changing leaves got to me, though. Because before I knew it, I had a case of back-to-school fever. At (barely) thirty, I’m well past the age of strapping on a backpack and boarding a school bus, but I had that expectant, clean-slate feeling, all the same. I was supposed to be lining up a new chocolate-whispering gig, but I was procrastinating. (If you knew me, you wouldn’t be surprised by that.) I didn’t want to risk running into trouble again.
That’s why, when I received a message that my onetime chocolate-making mentor, Philippe Vetault, was retiring from his Brittany-based chocolaterie, I jumped at the chance to attend his au revoir party. I said goodbye to my mom and dad, grabbed my trusty crossbody bag, wheelie suitcase, and duffel, then boarded a TGV train to western France. Monsieur lived and worked in Saint-Malo, a walled seaside town full of quaint stone buildings, friendly people, and a genuine pirate’s castle—all of which made being there about a million times better than sifting through the digital dossiers of potential chocolate-whispering clients.
Not that I could just disappear via high-speed train, of course. As a woman traveling the world solo, I have a system—one that involves regular check-ins with my “keeper,” Travis Turner.
Officially, Travis is my financial advisor. He holds the purse strings to my inherited trust fund and makes sure I meet its (unusual) stipulations. He manages my travel arrangements and vets my consulting jobs, too. Aside from me, Travis is the one who decides whose chocolates will turn up next on my to-do list.
An inheritance sounds pretty chichi, but honestly, it’s not. My trust fund has some serious strings attached. As much as I appreciate (and miss) my eccentric uncle Ross, who left me the means to travel and consult—and as much as I love my on-the-go life—it’s missing some fairly standard amenities. Like a home of my own. A nearby group of friends. A routine, a future, a golden retriever. I’m happy traveling right now. But someday? We’ll see.
Anyway, whenever I have a change of plans, Travis needs to be in the loop. That way, at least one other person knows whether I’m happily gridskipping to my next chocolate-whispering job or (unhappily) being mugged in a Milanese alleyway. Seated in a French train car as startlingly yellow fields of canola flowers flashed by my window, I dug out my cell phone and did what I had to do. What I (secretly) loved to do. Check in with Travis.
He answered on the second ring. “Hayden. It’s about time.”
His voice, deep and authoritative and undeniably sexy, never failed to thrill me. I’d never met Travis—not yet—but I’d spent plenty of time imagining what he was like in person. Buttoned-up and suit-wearing was my best guess. Tall. Organized. Supersmart.
Afraid of flying. More’s the pity. Until I found an excuse to show up in Seattle, where Travis was based, we’d never meet.
“You used your credit card at Montparnasse train station an hour ago,” my financial advisor went on in a pointed tone. “I was wondering when you’d call in to tell me where you were headed.”
After leaving my parents’ rural work site, I’d changed trains in Paris. “I missed talking to you, too, Travis.”
“We agreed that you’d send me your itineraries before you embarked on them.” A pause. “Is the enforcer with you, at least?”
He meant Danny. Danny Jamieson, my oldest friend and closest confidant. He and Travis had a longstanding rivalry, sparked by the usual machismo (I guessed). “The enforcer” was what Travis called Danny, who evened out the playing field with “Harvard.”
You can guess which fancy-pants school of which my keeper is an alumnus. You might also suppose that Danny—who grew up in a gritty, wrong-side-of-the-tracks neighborhood in L.A., where he still lives and works—didn’t go to college at all. But you’d be wrong. Despite his criminal past, Danny has two university degrees to accompany his bad attitude and love of spicy food.
“No, Danny didn’t come this time. This trip is personal, not business.” For once, I wouldn’t need my buddy-turned-bodyguard. “I’m just going to a retirement party,” I assured Travis. “Don’t worry. Unless kouign-amann is deadly, I’ll be perfectly safe.”
He humphed, not at all distracted by my wisecrack about the famously buttery Breton pastry that was popular in monsieur’s neighborhood. Although its name literally means “cake-butter” in Breizh, the local dialect, it’s similar to a caramelized pastry.
“Safe?” Travis sounded skeptical. But then, he often did. He preferred facts to assumptions. “I’ll see about that. Details?”
I offered the usual—where I’d be staying, who would be there, when I’d be back. Then, “Monsieur Vetault is the reason I got into chocolate,” I explained, watching a picturesque French village whoosh past the train window. “Without him, I never would have discovered my knack for working with cacao. Monsieur saw something in me—something special. I want to be there for him.”
I was already feeling wistful about reuniting with my mentor. I’d been surprised—and a little sad—to learn Philippe was retiring. I’d spent a lot of time with him at his Saint-Malo shop, La Maison des Petits Bonheurs. My mentor was special. Kind, patient, and generous to a fault. Also, brilliant with chocolate.
I realized there was silence on the line. “Travis?”
I’d gone all soppy on him while reminiscing about M. Vetault and my chocolate-whisperer origin story. Maybe my financial advisor wasn’t the sentimental type. I wasn’t sure.
I was sure that Travis knew about my chocolate-trainee past in Saint-Malo. He knew everything about everyone. Or he made sure he found out. Lately, I’d been relying on him for that ability.
“I’m here.” He sounded distracted. Because he’d been thinking about how he’d helped me compile background on suspects while sleuthing? I’d never know. Predictably, Travis refocused immediately. “When you’re finished there, you have a possible consultation in Las Vegas. Feeling like returning stateside?”
When he asked in that husky voice of his? You bet.
“Feeling like having me there?” I’d been abroad for a while now. “Maybe you can set up something in Seattle. There must be a chocolatier in Pike Place Market who needs my help.”
“I’ll let you know if anything turns up.” If he was tempted to bring me to his ‘hood, he didn’t let on. Travis, I suspected, would make an excellent poker player. “Anything else for me?”
I couldn’t help smiling. “Just a question.” I cradled the phone and lowered my voice, as though the two of us were sharing an intimate, saucy phone call. “Tell me, Trav,” I coaxed in my sultriest, most teasing tone. “What are you wearing right now?”
It was my habitual question to him. I could never resist trying to loosen up my famously straitlaced financial advisor.
His deep laughter was my reward, traveling the thousands of miles separating us. “Never change, Hayden. Have fun.”
Then he ended our call and left me stymied. Again.
I still didn’t know what my notoriously private financial advisor was like in person. Maybe I never would. But I’d be darned if I’d quit trying to find out—or if I’d start playing it straight on the phone with him. Teasing Travis was too much fun.
Despite knowing better, I had a tiny vocal-based crush on the man with the toe-tingling voice. Without knowing it, Travis had sparked my curiosity. That was a dangerous thing for a person with an inquisitive monkey-mind like mine. Even though Danny had done some reconnaissance on his rival, dropping bits and pieces like semi-sweet chocolate morsels, we both knew so little about Travis. He had a dog. He was a swimmer. He once raised guppies. He was a genius at finance, itineraries, and research. That’s it.
My “keeper” didn’t even have a social-media profile. Not anywhere. Not a photo, not a collection of 140-word observations, not a whisper about him on his company’s “About Us” website page.
It was almost as though Travis was hiding something. But what? If I hadn’t been so busy sleuthing (and perfecting chocolate) over the past few months, I’d have tried to find out.
My financial advisor was methodical. He was thoughtful. He was good at listening. Unlike me, Travis planned for everything.
Me? I like to leave room for serendipity. That means I try to take life as it comes: one taste at a time.
That’s also the way (not coincidentally) you should eat chocolate. With 100 percent of your attention. If it’s really good, quality cacao deserves no less. There’s no other way to properly savor chocolate’s silky texture, its complex flavor…
My stomach rumbled. My mouth watered, too. Whoops.
My brain had kicked off a chocolate-tasting party, and my taste buds wanted in on the action. Unfortunately, I was still several kilometers from my coastal destination. That meant my only options for a goûter—the traditional kids’ afternoon snack in France—were prepackaged goodies from the TGV’s dining car.
I’m no snob. I’m happy to enjoy a Reese’s peanut butter cup or a prefab Oreo cookie when one is fresh and/or available. But when monsieur’s excellent hand-molded Breton chocolates were waiting at the other end of the line? I decided I’d hold tight.
~ ~ ~
When I arrived in Saint-Malo, I was glad I’d skipped the dubious temptations of cellophane-packaged train-car treats.
The sun was out. The air was crisp. And Philippe had lost none of his expertise when it came to le chocolat. Standing in his personal atelier—his workshop—surrounded by chocolate-making equipment, I tasted dark chocolate tablettes and milk chocolate buttons filled with vanilla cream. I sampled a truffle studded with fresh crushed hazelnuts and a morsel spiked with liqueur.
My eyes widened as its heady, boozy flavor hit my tongue.
“C’est si bon, oui?” Philippe grinned, his face broadening beneath a shock of ever whitening hair. Beneath his chocolate-smudged white apron, his dark trousers and blue collared shirt were pristine. “You have not lost your feel for le chocolat, that is plain to see.” My mentor seemed pleased. “Tenez. Try these.”
He offered a tray of dazzlingly decorated chocolates. They appeared to be recently molded. I admired their shapes and colors, familiar with the cocoa-butter-based “paints” used to embellish their swirls and contours. I glanced up at Philippe’s generous face. His countenance was more wrinkled than when I’d known him, and his posture was slightly less militarily erect. But his eyes were the same vivid blue they’d always been. They regarded me with the same intelligence and verve I’d so admired.
“These are works of art, Monsieur. Merci beaucoup.”
I tried one. So did Philippe. He was no theorist, happy to devise amazing chocolates without ever indulging in them. Like me, Philippe Vetault loved chocolate—loved its smoothness, its sweetness, its complexity. His craft was a time-honored one, begun at the feet of his father and grandfather—who’d owned La Maison des Petits Bonheurs before him—and honed by further study and practice. Philippe had never been content to rest on his laurels. Even as his chocolaterie became more popular, he still strove to improve. To innovate. To keep up with new trends.
“But if I eat another bite, I’ll spoil my dinner.” I gave his hand a fond squeeze. His skin felt papery with wrinkles. “You know I would never risk ruining a wonderful French meal.”
“Sometimes I think you are française at heart, Hayden.” He beamed at me approvingly, proud of his heritage. “Except that your French still has not improved. Your accent? Terrible!”
Monsieur wagged his finger at me with stern disapproval, reminding me of the hours I’d spent at his side, scrubbing spoons and learning to make a couverture without seizing the chocolate. It was true that Philippe had seen something in me—some talent for tasting and developing chocolate that I still couldn’t explain. But developing that talent had taken work. Lots of it.
I apologized in my poorly accented French. Unlike chocolate, languages aren’t something I have a particular affinity for. I understand and can get by in a variety of foreign tongues—French, Italian, Spanish, a smattering of Japanese and Mandarin—but for me, conversing with the locals during my travels usually involves a lot of hand gestures and hope. My method is to pantomime, smile, and offer a compliment whenever possible.
That’s what I did then. “Your new atelier is beautiful.”
We both gazed around the space, housed in a converted barn on the perfectly manicured grounds of the Vetault family’s seventeenth-century château. I’d be sleeping in that château tonight and every night during my stay—something I hadn’t done in the past, while working with Philippe. Then, I’d been barely out of my teens, (sometimes sulkily) globe-trotting with my parents. Now, I was old enough to appreciate the atelier’s ancient oak beams, pristine plastered walls, and shining open spaces.
“I needed it.” Philippe turned away, busying himself with some old Breton chocolate molds. His hands shook slightly.
“Your shop was overrun with customers?” I guessed, remembering its cramped quarters where we’d worked together.
I’d rented a car—a compact Citroën with a standard transmission and a French-voiced GPS—near the train station. But my short route from the walled city of Saint-Malo to the château hadn’t taken me past La Maison des Petits Bonheurs. Its name roughly (and aptly) translates to “The House of Small Pleasures.”
Every one of monsieur’s chocolates was a miniature delight.
“Oui, something like that.” Philippe glanced toward the barn’s upstairs hayloft. I doubted it contained any hay these days. His gaze swerved to me, startling me with its…sadness? “I am glad you are here, Hayden. It has been too long.”
Aww. I felt almost overcome with affection for him. Thanks to monsieur, I’d found my true calling. Without Philippe—without his exacting ways, his expertise, his inexplicable faith in me—I would never have discovered my gift for chocolate.
Any talent that can make people smile the way mine does is pretty wonderful, I’d say. I owed it all to Monsieur Vetault.
“It has.” Smiling, I squeezed his hand again. Although we’d greeted each other with les bises—the expected French cheek kisses that were de rigeur in these parts—hugging my mentor was out of the question. To the French, an easy American-style hug was unthinkably intimate. “I’m so happy you’re doing well. I can’t imagine you retiring, though. What will you do? Fishing? Antiquing? Traveling?” I had another, likelier idea. “Spending time with les petits-enfants?”
At my French, he brightened. He also chuckled and shook his head. “Grandchildren? Not yet. Although my Nathalie is engaged.”
Philippe mentioned that his daughter was busy working in Paris. Her arrival would be unavoidably delayed, he explained. I remembered her only as a young woman, about my age, who’d had more interest in the beaches and boys of Saint-Malo than in the family chocolate business. That long-ago summer, Nathalie Vetault had gotten bronzée (tanned). I’d gotten educated in chocolate varietals and molding techniques. I wasn’t sorry.
I wondered if Nathalie would be taking over the family business after Philippe’s retirement was official—in a few days, after his party. But before I could ask, my mentor took my arm gallantly in his and steered us both toward his atelier’s door.
“But you will not want to spend your entire visit to Saint-Malo talking with an old man,” Monsieur informed me. He waved outward. “You should go out! Explore the centre-ville! Have fun! You spent all your time working when you were here last.”
“I was learning. And I was loving it.”
Philippe gave an offhanded Gallic wave. “You were a natural talent. I gave you a direction to follow, nothing more.”
That’s where he was wrong. “You gave me everything.”
I was grateful to him for it, too. But I didn’t want to embarrass Philippe by being overly sentimental. His proud stance and upraised chin told me he didn’t want to be fussed over.
“You can repay me with a dance at the Fest-Noz tonight. I will have a surprise announcement, but after that, I am yours.”
A surprise announcement? I was intrigued. But I knew it would do no good to try wheedling the news from monsieur before he was ready. He wouldn’t crack. “Won’t Madame Vetault object?”
“A Frenchwoman knows that loving is not possessing.”
I grinned. “That’s doesn’t answer my question.”
“It will be good for Hélène to see how much my young protégée appreciates me,” Philippe stated. Chivalrously, he guided me out into the sea-scented air. “Sometimes wives forget.”
I didn’t see how anyone could not treasure my beloved, talented mentor. But I didn’t know Hélène Vetault well. During that transformative summer, I’d only had eyes for chocolate.
Then, too, château Vetault had been a private residence at that time—one that I, as a mere trainee, had not been invited to visit. Given the French tendency toward formality, I wasn’t surprised. It hadn’t meant that the Vetaults were unfriendly—only that, to them, trust and closeness needed time to develop. In Brittany, as in the rest of France, there was value to be found in waiting—waiting for wine grapes, cheeses, formal parks and gardens, fine artwork, and relationships to all deepen with time.
As though acknowledging that, Philippe and I stood outside his atelier, gazing over the landscape. The areas surrounding the family château were all manicured in traditional French style, strict but lush, giving the appearance of many outdoor rooms bordered by hedges and topiaries, flowers and pergolas, dotted by fountains and ponds and tidy gravel paths. In the distance, the cliffs that supported the château gave way sharply to the sea. From our vantage point, though, the ocean appeared as harmless as a misty gray lake—one that was enormous and sounded like surf.
It was beautiful, that was for sure. But I couldn’t wait to get inside the château, which had become a luxurious B&B while I’d been away. Somewhere upstairs was a room with my name on it, sporting a grand four-poster bed, multiple tall, toile-curtained windows looking onto the gardens, and antique water taps reading chaud (hot) and froid (cold) in the tiled bathroom. I was looking forward to catching up on some non-chocolate-related, non-compulsory reading while I was visiting Saint-Malo this weekend.
Savoring a novel while in a French bubble bath? Yes, please!
“I would be honored to dance with you, monsieur,” I said.
“Flattery, bah!” Philippe squeezed my arm. Then, gruffly, he added, “Allez!” Go! He gestured outward. “It will be dark soon. The Fest-Noz waits for no one. Especially not a pokey American.”
He gave me a wink, reminding me that I’d discovered more than a precocious talent for chocolate that summer. I’d also uncovered a tendency toward procrastination. Monsieur knew that about me. He knew…but like my best friends, he loved me anyway.
On a rush of affection, I gave him a cheeky salute. “Oui, chef!” Yes, boss! “Immédiatement, chef! Merci, chef!”
“Á bientôt!” See you soon.
Philippe patted down his chocolate-splattered apron and strolled inside his atelier to work. No wistfulness. No looking back. Straight ahead. That was my mentor. Practical and direct.
When I’d disappointed him with my chocolate-making efforts, I’d always known it. Monsieur had always been demanding; I’d always tried again. Something in Philippe had kindled an urgency in his trainees to do well. I hadn’t been M. Vetault’s only protégée, but I was pretty sure I’d been the first. Until I’d wandered in, killing time while my parents delved into (yet another) experimental archaeological project, Philippe had never considered working with an outsider—someone beyond his village.
I liked to think I’d expanded his horizons, too.
Smiling to myself, I headed for my Citroën to grab my things. Almost everything I owned in the world came with me when I traveled—all of it fitting into two carry-on bags and a crossbody purse. Then I went to check in. It was time to meet my dance competition for the Fest-Noz later that night.
Inside, Madame Vetault was waiting for me.
It was l’heure d’apéro (think cocktails and nibbles) by the time I made my way up the château’s grand front steps and into its marble foyer. A crystal chandelier glimmered overhead; tasteful antique furnishings highlighted the house’s symmetrical architecture and graceful mullioned windows. A low conversation came from somewhere in front of me, full of French sibilance.
That sound was one of the reasons the French language can be challenging, especially for the linguistically challenged like me. La langue français often joins its words—something called enchaînement—to improve its sound. Add in liaison—the practice of pronouncing the (usually) silent letters at the ends of certain words if they’re followed by a vowel—and you have something that often sounds like a delightful, melodic, French mishmash.
Undaunted, I followed that sound past a sweeping stone staircase and a set of French doors, my trusty Converse sneakers silent against the finely detailed rugs. Honestly, in such plush surroundings, I felt a little out of place. In my line of work, I usually don’t need to wear anything fancier than kitchen clogs and a chef’s jacket, with a T-shirt and jeans underneath. Anything nicer gets destroyed in a professional kitchen.
I was underdressed for the occasion, but by the time I realized it, it was too late. I was just going to have to wing it. I slung my duffel higher on my shoulder, picked up my wheelie suitcase to avoid scuffing the floor, then turned a corner.
The French conversation I’d heard burbled to a stop.
Because it had been being conducted by one woman.
Caught midway through talking to herself, she brought herself up short. She peered at me through bespectacled eyes, her auburn hair twisted behind her head into what had probably once been an elegant chignon and was now (to put it politely) unkempt. With one hand, she held a wineglass full of red wine. With the other, she clutched a pencil, which she’d been using to press the buttons of an antiquated looking adding machine—the kind with a roll of paper spooling out of it. Travis would have loved it.
“Bonsoir, Madame!” I was surprised, but I wasn’t a buffoon. I knew what was expected here. The French pride themselves on good manners. “J’espère que je ne vous dérange pas, mais je—”
I hope I’m not disturbing you, but I…didn’t get to finish speaking in my halting French. The woman tossed away her pen with a careless gesture, then came at me with tipsy wobbliness.
That’s right. Madame had been enjoying the cocktail hour while performing her old-timey bookkeeping. She was a bit drunk.
That explained the one-sided conversation I’d heard.
Oddly, it had sounded sort of…argumentative, though.
“Come in! Come in!” She set aside her wineglass—clearly a last-minute decision, judging by the way she clanged that delicately stemmed goblet onto the counter. It fronted the nook she’d been standing in, which appeared to be an improvised front desk for the B&B portion of the château. “We have been expecting you!” she assured me in heavily accented English. “Your drive, it was good? The train? No strikes?” She noticed I wasn’t answering and added, “Do not worry. Pfft! Your French does not matter!”
Her breath blasted me with fruity Beaujolais, pushed by her dismissive pfft! sound. Do not worry. Your terrible French does not matter was the implication. I could hardly take offense.
My French was subpar. I was the first to admit it.
After a gulp of wine, she peered at me again. “Cat got your tongue?” A wild laugh. “Do not worry! I speak very good English!”
That was a relief. But I was puzzled. Was this really Hélène Vetault, my mentor’s wife? Why had monsieur not mentioned that his wife might have been knocking back le vin since lunchtime?
Maybe someone else was supposed to be checking me into the B&B. Maybe the Vetaults were merely family figureheads, who left the day-to-day running of the château’s lodgings to someone else?
Surreptitiously, I sneaked a glance around. I glimpsed an entryway leading to a dining room edged by more French doors and a terrace, lit against the approaching sunset by golden lamps. I saw a passageway leading to an enormous sitting room, another hallway, and a multi-paneled door nearby with a privé sign on it.
Private. The curious side of me wanted to open it.
Instead, I offered Madame Vetault a handshake.
“Thank you.” I smiled at her. “I’m Hayden Mundy Moore. Monsieur Vetault invited me to his retirement party.”
“Of course, he did. Of course! You are the famous protégée! Everyone has heard of you.” Warmly, she ignored my outstretched hand and leaned forward to offer me cheek kisses—air kisses, really. They left me inhaling her delicate perfume along with the tannic, fruity aromas of red wine. “Welcome to château Vetault!”
She threw out her arms, almost splashing us both with wine.
Unfazed, she gulped more wine. Conspiratorially, she leaned nearer. “I am Madame Vetault.” She gave me a tipsy nod. “And you are our honored guest, Madame Mundy Moore.”
“Please, call me Hayden.”
“Unthinkable.” Madame dismissed that idea with a pretty moue and a head shake—quintessentially French. Attractive and soft spoken despite her obvious tipsiness, she wore a ladylike navy dress in lightweight wool, paired with a scarf and slingback pumps. “Perhaps you would like some wine? Our dining room is closed this evening, because of the Fest-Noz, but I happen to have an open bottle at the front desk. It is very good.”
I didn’t doubt it. But because I’d eaten nothing but chocolates for hours, I politely declined. I was a lightweight, and I knew it. Danny often teased me about my low tolerance for alcohol, dating back to our days trawling Southern California dive bars together. All the same, we’d managed to knock back a few pints in some of those cozy British pubs recently.
“Are you sure?” Madame Vetault pressed, looking concerned.
“Yes, thank you.” I glanced at that private door behind her, still drawn to it. Sleuthing had changed me. Did I really prefer digging up secrets to savoring a nice Beaujolais? “That’s very kind of you, but I should probably get ready for the Fest-Noz.”
I’d experienced that time-honored nighttime festival when I’d been in Brittany years before. The fête was unlike anything I’ve encountered in America. If I had to describe it, I’d liken it to a music fair crossed with Independence Day. Everyone in the village turns out to enjoy live music and traditional dancing, plus singing, food, drinks, fireworks displays, and more. Some party until midnight or later, for days at a time. The Fest-Noz was not at all lightweight. It was held in great affection by the local people, most of whom remembered attending as children.
For monsieur’s retirement, I would have expected a fancy celebratory dinner at the château, not a raucous French street festival. But Philippe hadn’t explained the choice of venue, and I hadn’t wanted to pry—not until we’d had more time together, at least. Maybe Philippe wanted to share his retirement fête (party) with the whole village? He had lived there his whole life.
Hélène’s gaze flicked over me. She gave a solemn nod.
“Oui. You will want to change before the celebration,” she agreed after assessing my jeans, T-shirt, sneakers, and casual jacket. In moments, she’d gone to the front desk and produced an oversize key on a gilt fob, along with directions to my room. “It would not do justice to Monsieur Vetault or to the patrimoine if you arrived at the fête looking….” She trailed off, giving a vague gesture of disapproval with her wineglass. “That way.”
I wanted to defend myself and my ensemble (such as it was). But just as I opened my mouth, the château’s front door opened, too. All thoughts of wardrobe and patrimoine (the vaunted French sense of heritage) dropped out of my mind as a troupe of noisy people spilled inside, chattering in rapid-fire français. At their head was one of those überchic French women with messy blond hair, effortlessly stylish clothes, and two men hanging on her every word. One of those men was prototypically tall, dark, and handsome; the other, compact and dressed worse than I was.
Behind them, a few more people crowded in. All I saw was my excuse to slip away from M Vetault’s censorious drunken gaze.
I couldn’t help being puzzled about her drinking while on duty. There was no doubt now that Hélène was manning the B&B’s front desk, because she bustled over to greet the newcomers, trailing wine fumes and perfume and leaving me in the dust.
There was a story behind Hélène’s drinking. I was sure of it. But for now, it was none of my business. That was enough for me—or at least, it would have to be. Just like that privé door.
When I told Danny about my newfound nosiness, he wouldn’t be happy. But it wasn’t possible to investigate murders and wind up unchanged, was it? All I could do was try to be careful.
And enjoy monsieur’s party tonight, of course. Allez!
~ ~ ~
As soon as I stepped into the village, I was swept away by the Fest-Noz. It was Glastonbury meets the Fourth of July (French style) in the best possible way, with a live bagad—a Breton band—playing bagpipes, bombards, and drums. There were groups of lively Saint-Malo residents dancing in circles, stamping and smiling. Children streaked past, their shining faces lit by the canopy of lights that had been strung from the eaves of one small village shop to the next. The sea-swept autumn air smelled full of incredible things to eat, from sweet apple cider to salted butter caramels to ham-and-cheese galettes. There were crumbly palets bretons (butter cookies), crunchy frites (fries) and more.
Naturally, I started with the food. I was starving after traveling, unpacking, and changing into a (more suitable) knee-length dress with flats and my most stylish jacket. My chocolates had long since worn off, so I tried a cheesy mushroom galette (basically, a savory crêpe) first. Then I chased it down with local apple cider served the traditional Breton way: in a small bowl, held cupped in both hands. Voilà! Dinner was served.
After that, I headed toward the town’s biggest square, in search of monsieur’s party. It wasn’t hard to spot. I glimpsed a long table full of chatting people, set with a tablecloth and lit by more of those glowing light strings overhead. If I wasn’t mistaken, those were Philippe’s family and friends, come to raise a toast and share a slice of rich far breton cake in his honor.
Hélène Vetault noticed me. She waved. I waved back.
With the loud music pushing me along, I trod past the Fest-Noz stalls, one of them undoubtedly representing Philippe’s La Maison des Petits Bonheurs. I was curious which chocolates he’d have on offer, but I didn’t want to stop. Not now, when I’d already spent time noshing on my improvised dinner. Other local shopkeepers sold everything from food to antiques to vivid blue and yellow Quimper pottery called faience, which was especially sought after by the English who took summer homes on Brittany’s rocky coast.
Things didn’t always go smoothly between the locals and those British part-time residents, I’d heard. But at its heart—and despite its history of corsairs (pirates!)—Saint-Malo was a town driven by tourism. For tonight, at least, everyone inside its towering city walls seemed to be getting along famously.
I moved past another stall, struck by the realization that none of them bore logos or ads. There weren’t paid spokespeople offering samples. There weren’t Fest-Noz bikini models posing with attendees and taking pictures. There wasn’t a Red Bull truck driving around the town square. The sugary crêpes didn’t arrive bearing the golden arches of McDonald’s (McDo to the French).
The resulting simplicity gave the whole Fest-Noz a sort of nostalgic glow. Being there was, in some ways, like stepping back in time—eating traditional foods, listening to traditional music, watching traditional dances that had been performed the same way for generations. I liked the Bretons’ deep sense of history.
Passing the final vendor, I glanced to the left. That’s when I saw it: the massive archway in the city wall leading to the centre-ville…and the huge, spotlit banner plastered atop it.
La Maison des Petits Bonheurs. All the best for Bretagne.
Aww. No wonder Philippe had wanted his retirement party at the Fest-Noz, I realized. The whole town must have turned the festival into a celebration of Monsieur Vetault and his work.
Touched, I took out my phone to snap a photo. Then I swiveled in place, looking for more tributes to my mentor.
Philippe deserved this, I thought. He’d worked so long and so tirelessly. He’d shared his expertise with so many people. He’d shared his scrumptious chocolate with so many people. Maybe I’d overlooked another banner? Maybe, in the darkness, I’d marched right past an engraved plaque, a bronze statue, a monsieur-size boxwood topiary in the park edging the square?
I glanced that way. Then, distracted by a furtive movement in the shadows, I squinted more purposefully in that direction.
Was that a man creeping through the park’s tall trees?
As I watched, he dropped to his knees. His arm thrust downward. Something near him on the ground lurched sickeningly.
I glimpsed a shock of white hair and found myself running.
~ ~ ~
I wasn’t sure what I planned to do. All I knew was that I recognized that white hair. That was Philippe on the ground.
Philippe! Enveloped in the park’s chilly rows of hedges and chestnut trees, I knelt beside him, skinning both knees in my haste. I had the awful feeling I was already too late. The man I’d always called monsieur—with great affection and respect—lay face-down on the ground, cold and motionless in the darkness.
A heart attack? Maybe a fall? Philippe was getting older…
The man I’d seen gibbered to me in slurred, unintelligible French. He looked angry, his face contorted with rage as he stretched his trembling palm toward me. It appeared to be full of something—something that looked like a pool of melted chocolate.
Blood, I realized shakily. That was blood. I veered back, careful to keep one eye on the man beside me. I didn’t think he’d hurt me. But this area had been designed as a hideaway for the people of the ville—a place for lovers’ assignations and secrets. I wasn’t sure how much anyone at the Fest-Noz could see. I’d only noticed what I had because I’d been purposely, carefully looking.
Only to find this. Tears sprang to my eyes, blurring my view of the park, the ground, Philippe. Everything happened through a foggy haze. I had to focus. I hauled in a breath. Not enough.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. Not here. Not now.
More shouting from the distraught-looking Frenchmen. I shook my head at him, then felt for a pulse. “Je ne comprends pas.”
I don’t understand. I didn’t understand, either. Not what the Frenchman was saying or doing. Not what he’d been doing. Not what had happened to dear Philippe, only yards away from the gaily decorated table that had been set for his retirement party.
I knew it was him. I didn’t want it to be. For a moment, I tried to convince myself this was someone else—someone who’d wandered into the municipal park for a stroll. But I recognized his long apron, tied around his waist. His dark pants and blue collared shirt. His leather oxford shoes, still neatly laced and tied with twin bows—Philippe’s quaint notion of “casual Friday.”
I didn’t recognize the thing sticking cruelly out of his back, though. It was obvious that’s what had caused all the blood. Something long-handled and sharp…something deadly.
Oh no. No no no. Not Philippe.
“Au secour!” the other man screamed. He looked about Philippe’s age. Shorter. Louder. “Aidez-moi! C’est Philippe!”
He was calling for help. But I could have sworn I’d seen him standing over Philippe moments ago. I could have sworn I’d seen him thrusting something downward. The thing? Oh, Philippe…
I glanced behind me, toward the spot where Hélène had flagged me down earlier. I couldn’t see her anymore. In her place were startled locals. People running. Confusion and concern.
I pressed harder on Philippe’s neck, searching for a pulse. His skin already felt cold. I imagined it was turning paler, too.
Suddenly, I felt dizzy. I swayed on my knees, blinking back more tears. They swamped my vision anyway, partly obscuring the awful reality. My mentor was dead. Sweet, wonderful, demanding Philippe. He wouldn’t ever make me redo a couverture again.
He wouldn’t ever smile at me again. I couldn’t stand it.
I would never be able to stand it. Why had I stayed away so long? That was all I could think about as more people came to help. They crowded around, shouting in emotional French. The gendarmes arrived, competently moving back the festival-goers to reach Philippe. I blinked up at one policière, a tall brunette with a serious demeanor and an unequivocal air of authority.
She gave me an order in French. I understood enough of it.
Move away. She was telling me to leave Philippe’s side.
I didn’t want to. But her grave expression confirmed what I’d already suspected. Philippe was gone forever. One of the shopkeepers helped me to my feet, murmuring something soothing in French. I gave him a robotic merci and watched the proceedings.
It all happened with ruthless efficiency. Several officers erected a barricade around the ground where Philippe lay. Portable lights illuminated that awful space. Several gendarmes worked inside the cordoned-off area that held my mentor’s body.
They were identifying evidence, I realized with a nauseatingly familiar feeling. Because this was a murder.
Without wanting to, I watched what the policiers were doing. I watched as they took statements from people nearby, as they lay out evidence tags, as they took photographs. I knew murder now.
I could help with this. If I could focus, I could help.
Forcing myself into alertness, I searched the people in the crowd. I still didn’t see Hélène. That was probably for the best, though. The sight of her grief-stricken face would have dissolved what little concentration I’d mustered. I saw other sad faces, heard worried murmurs. I saw children being hurried away by their parents. I saw that even the bagad—the live band—had quit playing. Instead, the musicians had come to see the grisly scene.
I saw the man who’d loomed menacingly over Philippe, there in the deep shadows, in the moments before I’d rushed to him.
The village still shone with its festive light strings and decorations, but now the effect was macabre. Chilling. The moon had risen, but its light was muted. In the distance, ocean waves crashed against the craggy shoreline. It seemed miles away.
So did the girl I’d once been, learning at monsieur’s side.
I returned my attention to the man—to Angry Bloody Hands Man, as I thought of him now. He stood arguing with a different gendarme a few feet away, gesticulating as he spoke in fiery French. I made myself stare at him. I wanted to memorize his features, his movements, his face. I’d never forget his voice.
Au secours! C’est Philippe Vetault!
I transferred my attention to my mentor, determined to collect all the details I could. He lay on the park’s cold dirt path with one arm outstretched, clutching something in his left hand. A scrap of paper? A business card? A receipt? From my vantage point, I couldn’t tell. I wished I’d had the presence of mind to examine it as a possible clue, but I’d been too upset.
Feeling queasy, I watched as two gendarmes circled around Philippe’s body, pointing and frowning as they discussed the murder weapon. That’s what the thing had to be, didn’t it? I couldn’t tell what it was, though, horribly sticking out of Philippe’s back. Some kind of tool? With a wooden handle?
A spade, I guessed. Or another gardening implement. Maybe something used for woodworking. An awl? It wasn’t a knife. The handle looked too rough-hewn for that—too round and too skinny. I’ve been in enough professional (and home) kitchens to recognize a knife when I see it. Philippe hadn’t been killed by a knife.
But he had been stabbed in the back. That in itself spoke volumes, I thought. Had someone felt betrayed by my mentor?
“Excusez-moi, madame,” a woman said. “Je vous—”
That no-nonsense voice ended my examination. I turned to see the policière I’d noticed earlier—the tall, severe brunette.
My expression had stopped her cold. She opened her mouth to regroup, but I shook my head. “Parlez-vous anglais?” I asked.
She nodded and continued in exemplary, if accented, English. “I am Mélanie Flamant, the officer in charge of this case.” Her gaze probed mine. “You were the first to find Monsieur Vetault?
“Not the first.” I glanced at the angry man. He’d calmed down somewhat while talking with the police, but I still felt deeply suspicious of him. “Who is that?” I wanted to know.
Officer Flamant’s mouth tightened. “I will be asking the questions tonight. If there is time, we will get to yours.”
“He’s a suspect, though, right?” I pushed. “I saw him over Monsieur Vetault’s body. I saw him stab him!” I was sure I had.
The gruesome memory made me shiver. I felt woozy again.
Evidently, I looked just as bad as I felt, because officer Flamant seemed concerned. She took my elbow and led me to a wrought-iron bench nearby. She sat me down on its chilly surface.
“First, please, your name.” She waited expectantly.
I obliged. This was the point (usually) where someone in the police department told me, “Don’t leave town, Ms. Mundy Moore.”
“Tell me exactly what you saw,” officer Flamant said instead. “Start at the beginning. Step by step. Take your time.”
She pulled out a notepad. A Moleskine exactly like mine—the one I use to compile to-do lists and make chocolatiering notes.
We were kindred spirits. This time, I’d have help when I tried to track down a killer. Because that’s what I was going to have to do, I realized numbly. Philippe deserved every effort.
Determinedly, I nodded. I described everything in detail, from the moment I’d seen the banner dedicated to Philippe and his shop to the instant I’d glanced into the park’s shadowy interior.
I hauled in a breath and made sure officer Mélanie Flamant was listening closely. She was. I pointed at the short, angry, bloody-handed man, intending to make sure he did not get away.
“Then I saw that man,” I said, “kill Philippe Vetault.”
You might think that, since I’ve been unfortunate enough to wind up front and center at a few murder cases recently, I would become inured to it all. You’d be wrong. I’m not at all inured.
I’m just as vulnerable now as I was the first time I stumbled across a dead body. Then, it had been at a chocolate-themed resort and spa near the bay in San Francisco. The victim? A friend I’d been working with to troubleshoot problems at Lemaître Chocolates. That had been horrible—life-changing, in fact. This time, though, somehow things felt even worse.
This time, I’d lost a longtime friend. A mentor. Philippe.
I made my way back to the château, unsure where else to go. I was in no condition to wrangle transport back to the States on such short notice or to board a train to my parents’. Besides, I didn’t want to bring my sadness to their (rustic) doorstep.
I clutched the key to my chambre like a talisman, trodding up the ornate stone staircase without seeing much. The oil and watercolor paintings on the walls might as well not have existed. They, like the hand-loomed rugs, gilded lamps, and pieces of antique furniture, were just background to my awful reality.
Inside my quiet room, I dropped my key on the carved fireplace mantel. I eyed the empty hearth as I slipped out of my one pair of stylish flats, then crossed the room to stare out the tall windows, hugging my jacket against my midsection for warmth. I was still so cold. But that’s my reaction, sometimes, to a crisis. I simply can’t warm up. It would pass eventually. Like a craving for chocolate at midnight, I had to wait it out.
Around me, the château was silent. I’d passed a housekeeper on my way along the upstairs corridor, but she’d merely nodded and kept walking with an armful of fluffy towels. It seemed likely to me that she wasn’t even aware of what had happened to Philippe.
It all seemed unbelievable to me, too. Still. Always.
I might be capable of attending a chocolate industry awards ceremony, parasailing with some Aussie friends, and then tromping through a cacao plantation to assess a harvest—all in the same week—but I’m still a human being, with all the frailties and faults that implies. I’m far from perfect. I’m often alone, too.
When push comes to shove, that’s the price of my work—the price of my ability to work. Yes, I travel the world doing what I love to do. Yes, Uncle Ross left me with an all-the-chocolate-you-can-eat lifestyle. But it’s not always a nonstop party.
Fortunately, I have a knack for making friends. People like opening up to me. I like meeting them. I enjoy getting to know everyone from taxi drivers to scuba divers, from chocolate moguls to dishwashers, from mechanics to bakers. Everywhere I go, I’m interested in finding out what people think, what they believe, what they hold dear, and what they prefer in their chocolates.
But that night, I was all by myself with my shock and grief.
I still couldn’t believe Philippe was gone—especially not that way. Officer Mélanie Flamant had listened to my statement. She’d carefully noted every word. But she’d appeared distinctly skeptical when I’d pinpointed the angry man as Philippe’s killer.
I’d seen that dubious look before. In San Francisco, in Portland—where I’d gone to celebrate a friend’s bachelorette party and had wound up running a chocolate-after-dark tour while tracking down a murderer—and in London, too. What was going on?
Why did this keep happening to me? Why did I, ordinary Hayden Mundy Moore, feel compelled to embroil myself in trouble?
I ought to leave things to the professionals, I reminded myself as I crossed the room to switch on another lamp. Its glow brightened the walls—covered in delicate fabric, not wallpaper—and threw shadows behind the upholstered twin armchairs. I ought to mourn Philippe, yes, but then leave Saint-Malo for good.
I ought to…but I knew I wouldn’t. The same thing that made me want to find out what was behind a door marked privé drove me to look for answers elsewhere, too. The same tenacity that I applied to my work with chocolate—tracking down solutions even when all seemed hopelessly chalky, dull, or flawed—gave me an edge when looking into a murder, I thought. By now, I recognized that about myself. In fact, I was almost proud of the way I’d managed to persevere during some difficult and unexpected times.
But this shocking tragedy involving Philippe….
I had to leave matters with the gendarmes. Didn’t I?
Even as I thought it, I could almost hear Danny laughing. My best pal knew I wouldn’t be satisfied without answers.
I picked up my cell phone and dialed. It was late in France. Eight or nine hours earlier in L.A., depending on the season.
Time zones didn’t matter. Danny answered on the first ring.
“What’s up?” he asked. “Solve any murders without me?”
I almost crumpled right then. For a second, I couldn’t speak. I could only gulp air as I gripped my phone. Hard.
“Hey.” Danny’s voice softened. “Hayden. Are you okay?”
Leave it to my oldest friend to somehow sense the truth.
I felt suddenly reluctant to say anything—to make Philippe’s death even more real. I blinked back tears and settled on, “Why do you sound so far away?”
His voice had a tinny quality. A bad connection, maybe?
“I’m on speakerphone,” Danny told me, his tone sharper now. There were reasons he could intimidate and subdue troublemakers on the red carpets of gala parties and premieres—his usual stomping grounds as a sought-after security expert. “There’s no one listening. Tell me what’s going on. It must be pretty late over there. Without my bad influence, you’re in bed by eleven.”
I cracked the ghost of a smile. He wasn’t entirely wrong. In my work, I’m often up with the roosters. A pâtisserie starts baking treats ridiculously early, hours before dawn arrives.
I inhaled. “Tell me I can’t investigate another murder.” My eyes stung. I blinked fiercely. “It would be dumb, right?”
There was a long pause. Then, Danny said, “You can’t investigate another murder. It would be criminally stupid.”
“I said ‘dumb.’ It would be dumb.”
“It’s worse than that.” Danny exhaled. Worriedly, I knew.
We’d temporarily parted ways after London. He’d planned to continue dating someone he’d met there. I’d planned to visit my mom and dad. We weren’t joined at the hip, Danny and me.
His last words still lingered, though. He’d warned me, I recalled belatedly, not to nose into any more murder investigations. We both knew it wasn’t safe. Even though I’d put Danny on semi-permanent retainer (against Travis’s better judgment) as an on-call bodyguard, he couldn’t be with me 24/7. I didn’t want him to be. We didn’t have that kind of relationship.
I knew what he’d say next. He’d say he was on his way.
It was what Danny always said. What I relied upon. No matter what happened or where it took place, Danny Jamieson always had my back. He would have protected me with his life. I believed it.
Just then, with a murderer somewhere in Saint-Malo, I was counting on it, too. L’agent Mélanie Flamant had duly questioned and then arrested Angry Bloody Hands Man. But her skepticism when I’d pinpointed him as Philippe’s killer still bothered me. A lot.
“Hayden…” Danny sounded pained. “Don’t get mixed up in anything. Whatever’s going on, leave it to the professionals. You’ve been lucky so far, but sooner or later, that’s gonna end.”
Whoa. That was an unwanted change of pace.
“Hold on. Whatever happened to, ‘I’m on my way’?”
“I can’t come. Not this time.”
Anger whooshed over me. Or was it fear? I couldn’t tell.
“You mean, you won’t. This is no time to teach me a lesson about snooping, Danny. Philippe Vetault is dead. My mentor!”
“I mean, I can’t.” Danny sounded terrifyingly resolute. “A bad guy popped me in the face on my last bodyguard job. I took him down—of course—but my eye is pretty messed up right now.”
“So you’re a little bruised! Big deal. You’re tough, right?” He was the strongest, bravest, most capable person I knew. I couldn’t accept that he was legitimately laid low. “Shake it off, okay? I’ll ask Travis to arrange a flight. You can be here—”
“I had surgery for a detached retina yesterday. It’ll heal up fine, but right now I’m immobilized. As in, facedown. Doctor’s orders. That’s why I’ve got you on speaker.” Danny paused to inject a little lightness into his voice. “Do you know how hard it is to mainline tacos and beer while facedown? I’m reduced to smoothies and those disgusting green juice things. Ugh.”
Despite everything, I laughed. “Knowing you, you have a gorgeous and dedicated on-call nurse to bring them to you.”
His answering laughter spoke volumes. Danny had learned to make the best of things. Given his rough upbringing, he’d had to.
I pictured him recuperating, all six-feet-plus of his musclebound frame lounging on what my mind’s eye insisted on imagining as a massage table. It didn’t seem all that comfy.
I was worried. “Are you really okay? Does it hurt?”
“No more than your pity does.” Danny swore. “There’s a reason I didn’t send out a PSA about this,” he grumbled. “It’s bad for my tough-guy image. I was hoping no one would find out.”
With me, I doubted he was truly worried about his reputation. It seemed likelier something else was at work here.
“I won’t tell Travis, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
My buddy humphed. “Harvard probably has your phone bugged,” he pointed out in an aggrieved voice. “Thought of that?”
“It would explain how Travis always knows where I am,” I reflected. But I knew my financial advisor wouldn’t stoop to listening in on my phone calls. From Travis’s perspective, tracking my finances was more telling and less invasive. As a private man himself, Travis wouldn’t have wanted to pry.
But he was a sore subject with Danny. When it came to the two of them, there was (usually) no reasoning with either one.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you were injured,” I protested, getting back to the important stuff. “Surgery? Danny! Next time, you’re going to have to come clean from the get-go.”
“That’ll be the day.”
“Do it for me,” I urged. “Promise me. Okay?”
“Are you kidding? Everyone except my nurse thinks I’m taking a road trip to Tijuana this week. You already know too much.”
Reality thudded back. “That’s the name of my game lately.”
Danny understood the reason for my altered tone immediately. “Tell me what happened,” he urged. “I can help from here.”
“No, you can’t.” I was alone on this one. “Thanks, but—”
“My brain isn’t on doctor-ordered bed rest,” my buddy-turned-bodyguard interrupted testily. “Spill it, Hayden. Now.”
“Thanks, Danny. But you’re right. I should just sit this one out. There’s already a suspect in police custody anyway.” So what was I worried about? “I’ll stay until monsieur’s memorial service and then I’ll come home.” Wherever that was. These days, who knew? “Travis has a job for me in Las Vegas. That might be fun, right? Showgirls for you, chocolate for me, winning all around.”
Danny hadn’t been my friend for years for nothing. He knew me. He proved it then, too. “I bet you already have suspects.”
“Well, there is Angry Bloody Hands Man,” I admitted. “He’s obvious. Also, Hélène Vetault, Philippe’s wife.” In the past, investigating detectives had warned me that spouses always had to be considered suspects. “Aside from them, I’m not sure. Philippe was so kind. I can’t imagine monsieur having any real enemies.”
Whoops. Danny had roped me into revealing too much. My need to know who, how, when, and why. It was the same need that drove me to perfect chocolate, even when solving problems with it became challenging. Through force of habit, I’d confided in him.
I stopped talking, irked and distraught at the same time.
What was I going to do without Danny? All on my own? If Angry Bloody Hands Man hadn’t killed Philippe, then I’d need to start looking. But circumstances were putting a major crimp in my still-forming plans to (maybe) find out who, when, how, why.
Without Danny, investigating on my own would be foolhardy. Any reasonable person would have bowed out. By now, though, I’d moved beyond the reasonable stage. I’d changed too much.
“I’ve got this, Hayden,” Danny assured me. “Long distance is better than nothing. For you, I’m always a phone call away.”
His reassurance grounded me. To his credit, Danny didn’t even crow about being right. But rather than convince me to forge ahead with more (inadvisable) amateur sleuthing, Danny’s offer of long-distance help made me snap out of my daze of grief.
“Thanks, but I mean it. I’m not investigating this time.”
He scoffed. “If you think I’m buying that—”
“You’re going to have to.” Especially since you’re too hurt to help me. I knew that bothered him. I didn’t want him to think he was letting me down. Hoping I sounded convincing, I added, “Listen, it’s late here, and I need to get some sleep.”
I could tell he didn’t believe me about not looking into Philippe’s death. I wasn’t sure whether I believed me, either. Especially since my motivation at the moment was sparing Danny’s feelings. He’d always hated being less than 100 percent.
“Call Travis,” Danny urged. “He’ll be your backup.”
That brought me up short. He’d referred to his arch-nemesis as Travis. Not Harvard. Not the Human Calculator. Travis. Uh-oh.
This was serious. Even more serious, maybe, than the time the two of them had teamed up to “protect me” in Portland.
“I can’t call Travis.” We both knew the reason. My “keeper” was afraid to fly. He was phobic about it. We weren’t sure why. “It will only make him feel bad about being unable to help.”
Danny swore, belatedly reminded of Travis’s condition. Then, “Fine. But be careful. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“That doesn’t rule out much.”
“Don’t do anything I would do.”
“Don’t you want me to have any fun?”
His growl of frustration made me smile. Danny didn’t know it, but his protectiveness made me feel a little better. I had lost Philippe. But I was going to make it through. I’d be okay.
“I want you to have exactly as much fun as is safe.”
“Travis?” I joked. “Is that you? You did bug my phone!”
“Har, har. We both want you to get out of France alive.”
“That makes three of us.” I hugged my jacket close again, then glanced at the waiting four-poster bed. Suddenly, it looked pretty darn inviting. It had been a very long day. “I’ll check in later. Oh, and don’t tell Travis, okay? He’ll only worry.”
“He’s going to find out,” Danny warned. “He has his ways.”
“I’ll tell him tomorrow.” When I feel less like crying. Travis’s sympathetic demeanor—unlike Danny’s take-charge stance—tended to bring out the waterworks with me. “Count on it.”
“However you want to handle Harvard is up to you. It’s none of my business.” I knew Danny didn’t understand my sight-unseen voice crush on my financial advisor. “Try to get some sleep.”
I nodded, then realized I hadn’t spoken. “I will.” I’ll try.
And that’s exactly what I did. Try to sleep. All the rest of the night…with very little success to show for it.
~ ~ ~
Morning came early in the French countryside—la campagne. Although château Vetault was only a few kilometers from Saint-Malo, the house and grounds felt relatively isolated on that scenic clifftop. Traffic was sporadic, winding along the narrow country roads at an escargot’s pace. Neighboring houses were held at a distance due to the château’s lush, extensive grounds.
It was a rooster that finally got me. I must have fallen fitfully asleep—dreaming of Breton music and blood—when that noisy bird started crowing. I wasn’t sorry to see the night end.
I wasn’t sure what the day had in store for me, but I had a few plans of my own. I wanted to offer my condolences to Hélène—and to Nathalie, who I assumed would be coming home from Paris that day. I understood she’d been delayed by work and would have missed her father’s retirement party altogether…if it had ever taken place. Then I wanted to drop by La Maison des Petits Bonheurs. It was possible I could help out. Philippe had always kept a small, trusted staff on hand in his chocolaterie. They would likely be overwhelmed today—if they were open at all.
They might be. The Fest-Noz had a daytime component, as well: the Fest-Deiz. No one would want to disappoint the remaining tourists or the locals who’d placed chocolate orders.
I crawled out of bed, caught sight of my brown, shoulder-length, bedhead hair and hollow eyes, and wished I hadn’t looked. I was still mourning Philippe. I had the tear-stained cheeks to show for it. But there was no rushing grief. Staying in bed all day wouldn’t force out my sadness any faster. It wouldn’t help anyone. Philippe wouldn’t have wanted that. Neither did I.
I showered carefully in the tub—there wasn’t a shower—using the ornate French-style handheld shower head. Doing so required a little dexterity, but I managed. Once you’ve navigated a squat toilet in Bangalore, learned to use a bidet in Bern, and had your personal bits delicately blown-dry by a robo-potty in Tokyo, you tended to take differences in bathroom amenities in stride.
Once dressed in my typical jeans and sneakers with a light gray sweater and jacket, I felt very much at loose ends. This was the part where Danny usually met me—where we reviewed the trouble I’d run into and made a plan to tackle it together.
I didn’t intend to actively start sleuthing, of course. I’d promised myself as much late last night, especially given that the police already had a suspect in custody. But if the opportunity presented itself, if some new evidence turned up, I might…
Give it to the gendarmes, I reminded myself sternly. I was only hanging around to honor my mentor’s memory at his funeral services and (maybe) lend a hand at his chocolaterie.
I certainly wouldn’t need Danny’s security-expert services for any of that. Especially since, at the château, all was…well, noisy, actually. What was all the ruckus outside?
I locked my room behind me, then stopped at one of the second-floor hallway windows to look. The source of all the hubbub was the same French guests who’d interrupted my check-in yesterday. As a group, they stood around the fountain at the formal garden’s center, staring up into the morning sky.
Puzzled, I craned my neck to see better. All I glimpsed were puffy clouds in a serene canvas of blue—nothing to merit the shouting and pointing the chic blonde and her friends were doing.
I shrugged and kept going downstairs. If there was a petit-dejeuner (breakfast) to be had, I planned to partake. I wasn’t particularly hungry, given the circumstances, but I’d be no help to anyone if I keeled over later. Plus, the B&B portion of the château was obviously still functioning. If the rowdy group was anything to go by, none of the guests were being asked to leave.
I’d almost expected a knock late last night, telling me to vacate my room and find elsewhere to toss and turn. Château Vetault was a family home, first and foremost; it would have been understandable if Hélène had wanted privacy to mourn Philippe.
But no knock had come, and as I reached the stairs, I caught a whiff of fresh coffee—maybe, I thought, viennoiseries, too. A basket of pain au chocolat, croissants aux amandes, and baguette slices with good Breton beurre (butter) and confiture (jam) would put some pep in my step—especially if those items were accompanied by the juice, sliced local fruit, and yogurt that typified a European-style start to the day. I don’t tend to wake up ravenous, as a rule, but that morning my stomach growled.
Hélène was the first person I saw. “Bonjour!” she trilled.
Her smiling, jubilant demeanor startled me. In contrast to her appearance the evening before, today Madame Vetault appeared tidy and chipper. Her auburn hair was wound into a topknot. Her pencil skirt and sleek sweater were matching in black on black.
The bespectacled widow Vetault was…downright dishy.
“Bonjour, Madame Vetault.” I’d always enjoyed the French tradition of politeness. It insisted on personal greetings, whether you encountered a colleague at work, a waiter in a café, or a clerk in a shop. Today, that custom held new resonance.
Bonjour! Literally, “good day.” That seemed unlikely.
“I’m so sorry about Monsieur Vetault,” I said, stepping close enough that no one would overhear us. I didn’t want to embarrass Hélène. “It’s truly a tragedy. He’ll be so missed.”
“Indeed!” Madame Vetault’s gaze met mine, held for one crazy overlong instant, then skittered away. She lifted the basket of pastries she’d been delivering to the dining room. “Well, life must go on, must it not? We cannot fight what fate has decreed.”
I stood gobsmacked. I knew people sometimes spoke about a certain French tendency toward fatalism, but…this? On the day after losing her husband? I couldn’t quite grasp it.
Hélène had to be in shock.
“Here. Let me take these for you.” Gently, I eased the basket of flaky, buttery treats from her grasp. “I’ll take them to the dining room myself. Is there anything else I can do?”
For a moment, Hélène looked lost. Everyone reacts differently to grief, I knew. Sadness strikes intermittently and ruthlessly. Maybe Hélène was relying on busyness to push it away?
If so, I was sorry I’d deprived her of her coping mechanism.
Before I could devise another approach, a whoop from outside jolted us both. Hélène and I started, then stared through the French doors. Beyond them, the blonde and her cohorts appeared to be taking selfies near some statuary. They posed with huge grins.
“Parisians,” Hélène told me in an apologetic tone—as if that explained everything. “Here to film a series of music videos.”
Nothing had ever seemed less necessary to me. “Is there anyone to intervene? Do you want me to ask them to leave?” I straightened. “If they’re disturbing you, I’d be happy to do it.”
I’m protective that way—always willing to champion the underdog. Particularly under circumstances like these.
“Non. No, of course not! They are paying a great deal for the privilege of shooting here. They are friends of my daughter.”
Madame Vetault broke off, probably thinking of when Nathalie would arrive. At her woeful expression, I wanted to comfort her.
I was supposed to be considering Hélène Vetault an official suspect in Philippe’s murder. Or would have been, if the police hadn’t already had a suspect and I’d actually been snooping around to find out more. But I wasn’t. So I didn’t have to tamp down my natural instincts. I liked her. I felt sorry for her.
“Nathalie and I have met,” I chatted into the forlorn gap that had fallen between us. “The summer monsieur trained me.”
Hélène brightened enormously. She actually squeezed my hand and smiled. It was a slightly manic smile, but still. Progress?
“Yes, I remember! You were Monsieur Vetault’s favorite,” she told me. “He could not stop talking about you! You must stay for the funeral, Madame Mundy Moore. It will be beautiful.”
Her moody behavior gave me chills. It was odd, I won’t lie.
“Of course, I’ll stay. If you’re sure you want me to.”
“That is what Monsieur Vetault would have wanted, n’est-ce pas?” Hélène assured me. She shot a grievous glance at the noisy Parisians outside, then squared her shoulders. “The police tell me it will be a few days before we can have the memorial.”
Because they needed time to perform an autopsy, I guessed. Time to gather evidence. Time to be sure about Angry Bloody Hands Man.
I nodded, feeling a lump rise in my throat. This was what death made us do—speak in normal tones about unthinkable things.
At that moment, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to Philippe’s service. I needed perspective. Answers. Both were in short supply. On the other hand, I mused, merely speaking with officer Flamant wasn’t off limits, was it? I could still ask questions.
“Do enjoy your breakfast!” Hélène nodded at the basket of pastries I was still woodenly holding. “I must get more coffee.”
She whirled in her pumps and left me standing there while she bustled toward what I assumed was the château’s kitchen.
The moment she left, it was as though a spell had broken.
Once again, I heard that rooster crow outside. I heard the Parisians laughing. I saw the yellow and orange flowers arranged on the antique sideboard near the dining room. I felt the cushy rug beneath my sneakers. Autumn air crept in from an open window someplace, raising goosebumps on my arms. The scents of coffee and perfume, floor wax and ripe apples, permeated the air.
Travis’s voice, full and deep and authoritative, rang out.
Huh? Sure I was losing it, I listened harder. Maybe Hélène’s temporary, grief-induced mania was catching. Or maybe—more sensibly—one of the other B&B guests who’d assembled in the dining room sounded a lot like my stateside financial advisor.
It wasn’t unreasonable, I reminded myself. Lots of men had husky, sonorous voices. Lots of men sounded as if they could compute compound interest while simultaneously preparing their income taxes and figuring out how much to tip the delivery person who’d just arrived with their turkey-tomato sandwich on rye.
Besides, that voice I’d heard had been speaking French.
I shook my head to clear it, then headed into the dining room. My thoughts were on pastries and coffee—but my gaze landed on the man standing at the head of the long dining room table.
He was still speaking French, fluently and affably, with a smile and a presence that had drawn in all the other guests. They stood assembled around him, listening as he said something about his arrival having been delayed by une grève (a strike) on the railway coming in from Paris. Everyone nodded knowingly.
The women in the group appeared transfixed. The men stood with widened stances and lowered voices, laughing at the man’s next anecdote—even as they seemed subtly to compete at appearing taller, smarter, funnier, and more admired by everyone else.
Only one man I knew could have engendered that response.
Our gazes met, and I knew. Somehow, this was Travis.
– END OF EXCERPT –
Colette London sometimes eats salad. She always eats chocolate. And she’d love for you to come back for more of Hayden’s chocolatey adventures!
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.
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