Do you know what Christmastime means to a chocolate expert?
It means a little (much deserved) time off, that’s what.
You might not have noticed this before, but there’s not all that much Theobroma cacao involved in your typical yuletide celebration. Sure, chocolate Santas make an appearance in a stocking or two. Delicious peppermint mocha drinks pop up, and (maybe) homemade fudge. But aside from those chocolaty treats, almost all of the sweets involved in the festive season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve are of the nonchocolate variety.
Frankly, it’s a missed opportunity for deliciousness, I’d say. But I didn’t make up the system. It just so happens that other treats—fruitcake and mince pies, most conspicuously—got there first. They achieved prominence with old-timey treats-loving types before chocolate even got out of the starting gate. After all, chocolate desserts date only to the 1700s or so, when British sailors first brought back drinkable chocolate from South America, launching a worldwide love affair with cacao beans and all their super scrumptious permutations.
Professionally speaking, I benefit from that chocolate amore. That’s because I know all about chocolate…and everything that’s made from it. See, I’m a bona fide chocolate whisperer—the first in the world. I work on a (typically) referral basis, helping my clients make the most of their cupcakes, confections, gelati, candies, and other creations. One day, I’m developing new products for a powerhouse global corporation; the next, I’m perfecting triple-chocolate cookies for a mom-and-pop bakery.
Large or small, I adore my clients. That’s why I’m willing to give one hundred percent to my work on their behalf. For me, there’s no mousse too melty or truffle too tricky; no matter how difficult the job, Hayden Mundy Moore never quits. When the going gets tough (or crumbly, or sticky, or irredeemably gluey), I have a tendency to dig in my heels and try even harder.
Maybe that’s why I keep getting into nonchocolate-related trouble, though. If I see something that’s wrong, I can’t help intervening. Even when the thing that’s wrong involves…how do I put this delicately?…murder, I somehow wind up mixed up in it.
At the moment, though, my (amateur) investigations into the darker side of life had been neatly wrapped up. I was officially at loose ends, facing nothing more perilous than an ordinary day in mid-December. That’s probably why I jumped at the first invitation I received to do something. Anything. The fact that the invitation in question came from my favorite husky-voiced number cruncher (aka Travis Turner, my friend and advisor) was just a bonus. I was in before I’d even heard all the details.
Usually, Travis vets clients and arranges consulting work for me. This time, he had something more relaxing in mind. This time, I wouldn’t be using my extensive knowledge of cocoa to turn run-of-the-mill chocolate treats into gastronomic megastars for my (sometimes secret) clientele. This time, I’d be going to a party—a party in the epicenter of old-fashioned Christmases: in New England. In Sproutes, Massachusetts, to be exact.
Never heard of it? Me, either. But since I was currently sweltering in sunny Las Vegas after wrapping up a chocolate job, making a getaway to the chilly northeast sounded good to me. Snow? Small towns, picturesque covered bridges, and fir trees? Mistletoe? Converted barns? B&Bs wreathed in holiday lights?
“Sign me up, Travis.” I turned my back on my hotel’s view of the famous, flashy Strip. Those weren’t Christmas lights. I grabbed my trusty duffel, already packing. “I’d love a little New England-style Christmas cheer. It could be any time of year around here. There’s barely a nod to the season in the casinos.”
A few had leveraged the holiday for the sake of selling specialty cocktails or embellishing their lighted marquees, but for the most part, Christmas didn’t incite gambling, carousing, or doing things you’d rather forget. As the city’s official motto teases, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” That meant Sin City wanted nothing to do with the Christmas season.
Me? I wanted everything to do with it. I love Christmas.
I’d been hoping to spend the season at the famous holiday markets in Europe—maybe in Berlin, my favorite. But Travis’s invitation did tradition and gluhwein one better—especially once he let slip that small-town Sproutes was where he grew up.
My notoriously private “keeper” was essentially offering a guided tour of his largely unknown past, coinciding with one of the most nostalgic times of the year. Given the circumstances, even steady, dependable Travis might be tempted to wax sentimental about the people and places who Mattered to him.
Maybe I’d even meet the extended Turner family. I imagined a calculator-wielding clan full of preppie smarty pants, all gathered for (an organized) Christmas, and smiled to myself.
“There’s plenty of Christmas cheer around here,” Travis told me on the other end of the line. “Even some snow.”
He described the bed-and-breakfast where I might stay, going into detail about its authentic Federal architecture, its expansive grounds, its décor, and its host. Honestly, I tuned out some of the specifics. I couldn’t help it. Travis has one of those voices—deep, authoritative, warm, and super sexy—that’s an aphrodisiac in itself. I swear, he could record himself reading IRS tax tables, and his listeners would be transfixed.
To be candid, I’ve always had a bit of a “voice crush” on my financial advisor. Travis doesn’t know it, but he has a unique ability to make me giddy. Even long distance. Not that I’ve ever let on, of course. We work together! Travis monitors my trust fund—the money left me by my beloved, eccentric Uncle Ross—and he does an excellent, systematized job of it, too.
Thanks to my uncle, I’ve been bequeathed the all-the-chocolate-you-can-eat lifestyle I’ve always dreamed of. Not that it’s all champagne and gourmet confections. There are strings attached. For one thing, I’m required to travel at least six months out of the year, so my inheritance keeps me on the move.
Not that I mind. With Travis holding the purse strings—and making himself available for check-in phone calls—I feel happy and secure globe-trotting just about anywhere. Sure, sometimes I long for all the standard signposts of a real grown-up life. A home of my own. A regular boyfriend. A golden retriever. A future that doesn’t fit neatly into one wheelie suitcase and a single duffel bag. But for the most part, I’m happy traveling, consulting, and doing my best to make magic with chocolate.
“…and your host has agreed to give you full range of the B&B’s kitchen,” Travis was telling me. “I mentioned that you might want to whip up a few chocolate treats while you’re here.”
“It’s as if you know me.” Travis did, of course. We’d finally met—after years of flirtatious, phone-exclusive contact—in France, where I’d gone to celebrate the retirement of my chocolate-making mentor, Philippe Vetault. “I could use some time to experiment, actually. It’s been a while since I freelanced on any new recipes, just for the fun of it.”
Like most professional bakers and confectioners, I kept a book of recipes—formulas, really—which guided me in my work. Making exemplary chocolate isn’t all magic. It’s science, too.
“I’m looking forward to tasting what you come up with.”
When Travis said so in that raspy, memorable voice of his, I couldn’t wait to get started. Fondly thinking of him, I cradled my phone. “I’m looking forward to sharing with you.”
Unlike Danny Jamieson, my oldest friend and closest confidant, Travis appreciated sweets. Danny preferred to treat himself with fried, salty, or spicy foods. The more intense, the better. But that was Danny in a nutshell. Intense. And loyal.
“It’s too bad you won’t be here in time for the tree-trimming party tonight,” Travis said. I pictured him, surrounded by Christmas lights and falling snow, buttoned up in one of his impeccable suits. “It’s only an informal get-together, but—”
“But I could have wowed your friends with chocolate?”
My financial advisor laughed. “Yes, but that’s not my point. I’m not inviting you here to work, Hayden. You’re my plus-one for the premiere party this weekend. That’s all.”
I nodded. I knew Travis had traveled to New England to be there for one of his childhood friends, writer Albany Sullivan. The fact that he’d taken time off from working in his high-rise office overlooking Seattle’s Puget Sound spoke volumes, though.
“Are you sure Albany won’t mind my being there with you?”
“We’re not romantically involved, if that’s what you mean.”
It was exactly what I’d meant. “And your family?”
A pause. “My mother lives in Seattle now.”
There’d been something meaningful in that pause. I was sure of it. I make it a habit to trust my instincts. “And your dad?”
Another pause. Then, “He never lived in Sproutes.”
I waited to hear more. My hopes of meeting the whole algebraically gifted Turner clan were dwindling. “And…?”
“And I’m about to book your plane tickets.” This time, Travis’s tone was all business. No playfulness. No innuendo. Just efficiency. “Economy both ways. Is that all right?”
“You know it is.” Despite my inheritance, I’m a down-to-earth person. I grew up gridskipping with my experimental archaeologist parents, staying in accommodations ranging from hostels to yurts to five-star hotels. I know how to blend in.
“Then I’ll tell Zach to expect you later tonight.”
Travis meant the B&B’s host, Zach Johnson. I wasn’t yet finished trying to wrangle more background from him, though.
Getting people to talk to me—consulting clients, random strangers, people at train stations—is something I’m good at. It’s kind of my superpower. It helps me troubleshoot cacao.
“What about your grandparents?” I pressed. “Surely they—”
“They’ll be delighted to meet you.” Travis’s tone said he knew what I was up to. “I’ve told them all about your exploits.”
“Not all of them, I hope.”
“Only those that didn’t involve murder.”
“Good.” I hoisted my packed duffel and set it atop my wheelie bag. I slung on my trusty crossbody bag, awkwardly using only one hand, then opened my hotel room door. Bye bye, Las Vegas. “I wouldn’t want to shock Grandma and Grandpa Turner.”
“It’s Grandma and Grandpa Miller, Bessie and Walter. My mother’s parents. Don’t worry, there’re not easily shaken.”
I debated climbing another branch of the family tree, then decided not to. Travis didn’t want to talk about it. I headed down the football-field-length hotel corridor, pulling behind me almost everything I had in the world. It all came with me.
“Tell me more about Albany,” I urged. I knew that Travis’s friend had published a sensational, “lightly fictionalized” memoir of her life growing up in Sproutes. Now her memoir was being turned into a holiday-themed musical called Christmas in Crazytown. Its debut was supposed to be a hot ticket this year.
My advisor gave me a very bare-bones rundown, then quit.
“Once you meet Albany, you can draw your own conclusions,” he told me in summary. “Just keep in mind, it’s been a stressful time for her. The runup to the stage show hasn’t been easy.”
I scoffed. “What’s not to love about having your bestseller turned into a soon-to-be sold-out show? Sounds pretty easy to me.”
“You’ll see.” Travis’s tone had turned…ominous? “Bring your couverture spoons and your A game,” he added in a lighter voice. “I may have hinted to everyone about your most famous product.”
I couldn’t believe it. “You didn’t.”
“I did. Why not? Everyone loves it.”
Hmm. The “product” in question was a Christmas-themed smash. I had to admit it. So far, it was my only successful foray into persuading a corporate client to embrace chocolate during the holidays. You would definitely recognize it, but…
Well, I’m sworn to secrecy. So there’s that.
This time, it was my turn to change the subject. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then. At seven? Bright and early. Baker’s hours.”
They were my hours, too. Up with the roosters, just the way my clients tended to be. I didn’t mind. Lately, though, I’d been struggling with some pretty epic jetlag. Crossing several more time zones to arrive in Massachusetts wouldn’t help matters.
“See you then,” Travis told me, affectionately this time.
Not that we were involved, or anything. Even after meeting Travis in Saint-Malo, I’d avoided the temptation to become more than friends. For me, one (memorable) trip down that path was enough. Which only made me wonder…where was Danny these days?
Last time we’d spoken, he’d mentioned a Hollywood client. He’d been cagey about the specifics, but that wasn’t a surprise. As an in-demand, L.A.-based security expert, my bodyguard buddy often worked for high-profile clients—people who didn’t want their names thrown about willy-nilly. Danny Jamieson was nothing if not discreet. Also, tall, dark, handsome, and irredeemably macho. He’d earned two university degrees, but you wouldn’t have guessed it to look at him. Danny was, well…rough around the edges. We went way back, all the way to our days trawling SoCal dive bars together, acting as each other’s wingman. Now, those days were behind us. But we’d shared plenty of other adventures.
Do I sound nostalgic? At the ripe old age of (just barely) thirty, I guessed I was. Or maybe it was simply the season.
I couldn’t wait to indulge all my most Christmassy impulses. Eggnog and mistletoe? Multicolored chaser lights? Decked-out fir trees? Wrapped gifts? Santa, stockings by the fireplace, and Bing Crosby on the (virtual) stereo? Sign me up!
All that stood between me and a whole lot of Christmas cheer were one ride to the airport, one five-hour flight, another ride to the B&B in Sproutes, and some time. Easy-peasy.
I left a gift box of chocolates with my Las Vegas hotel’s concierge, several more with each member of the desk staff, and another with my cab driver, then headed for snowy New England.
~ ~ ~
When I awakened that night, I didn’t know where I was.
That’s not unusual for me, though. Given all the traveling I do, I’m statistically more likely than the average person to forget where I’d fallen asleep and stub my toe on the bedframe while getting up in the middle of the night. Knowing that didn’t offer much comfort when grappling for a toe in the dark, though.
Ouch. Frowning, I sat on the bed and clutched my big toe, hoping to massage away the pain. I remembered arriving past midnight, thanks to a delayed plane. I’d fallen onto my room’s cheery double bed (made up with red flannel Christmas-print bedding) and promptly passed out. I hadn’t changed into sleep clothes. I hadn’t unpacked. I’d simply brushed my teeth—my one nonnegotiable—and gone in pursuit of the requisite forty winks.
I was still planning to meet Travis first thing in the morning. My keeper might be famously methodical, but I’m famously determined. I make it a point of pride to keep my word.
We’d agreed to meet at 7 AM for breakfast. I meant to do that. However, my circadian rhythm had other ideas. My body and brain were still stuck between Nevada, Brittany (where I’d been before meeting my Las Vegas client), and Melbourne (where I’d been working before that). Frankly, I was all over the place.
Feeling hopelessly jet lagged, I studied my room at the B&B. I’d loved it on (bleary) sight—possibly because it looked as though a (chic) holiday-themed boutique had exploded inside.
The walls featured framed Christmas artwork. The antique bureau, nightstands, and bedstead were all decked out in swags of holly, complete with tiny red berries. The rugs and bathroom linens were jolly and white, bordered with green. There were red velvet bows, colonial-style garlands of crimson wooden beads, and plenty of (currently unlighted) wreathed holiday candles.
I inhaled their pine-and-cinnamon fragrance and couldn’t help smiling. I was in Sproutes, Massachusetts, I remembered. So far, the place felt like Christmastown, USA. I was in love.
I was also hideously awake. I recognized the feeling. It meant there’d be no more sleep for me, not even in that super cushy bed in that peaceful bed and breakfast. I wasn’t kidding, either. You could have heard a pin drop. It felt…hushed.
Not wanting to disturb anyone, I got out of bed quietly. My host, Zach Johnson, had been asleep when I’d arrived. He’d left arrangements for me to check in and get my room key from a lock box tucked behind a pillar on the B&B’s impressive entryway.
It was a trusting, generous gesture. I like Sproutes already. If this was the way people behaved in small-town New England, then Travis and I were in for a memorable stay.
Wanting to express my gratitude, I tiptoed downstairs. The treads were in perfect repair; they didn’t so much as creak. On the landing, I took in the view, savoring the decorations that Zach had put in place for the holiday. The banisters were adorned with more garlands, these made of fresh evergreens.
Their fragrance led me toward the foyer. From that cheery enclave, another corridor branched toward the parlor on the left and the dining room and kitchen on the right. I veered right.
It was easy to find my way. Even carrying my bulky bag of chocolate-making gear, I could make out my surroundings. I hadn’t explored earlier, but now there was enough moonlight to view the B&B’s immaculate historical furnishings and Christmas decorations. I glimpsed a towering, ornament-bedecked fir tree in the parlor and almost veered toward it. I stopped myself just in time. I planned to make a handmade batch of truffles to surprise Zach and the other guests. I needed to get started.
I’d make chocolate-peppermint truffles, I mused as I reached what I judged must be the kitchen. That was the flavor of my most successful Christmas treat—the secret one that Travis had mentioned earlier. Why not? My corporate client would never know that I’d done a riff on those popular flavors. I was sworn to secrecy about the goodies I developed for consultees, but that didn’t mean I could never enjoy their original formulas.
Happily envisioning Zach and the B&B’s guests smiling as they tasted my chocolaty creations, I groped for the kitchen’s light switch. No dice. I set down my bag and tried again.
The lights flared to life. Reflexively, I blinked against their brightness. I crouched to retrieve my chocolatiering bag.
But I wasn’t in the kitchen, I realized as I straightened. Instead, I was in the dining room. And this wasn’t going to be a memorable stay in Sproutes for any of the reasons I’d imagined.
This was going to be a memorable stay for another, more horrible reason. Because judging by the inert, awkward pose of the woman I saw sprawled atop the jolly red loomed rug, beside the enormous dining table, splattered by what appeared to be Christmas wassail punch, I’d just stumbled upon another murder.
– END OF EXCERPT –
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, sign up for my new-book reminder service, catch sneak previews of my upcoming books, and more.
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