Whether it’s to satisfy a craving for chocolate or pick up the hottest new bestseller, the locals in charming West Riverdale, Maryland, are heading to Chocolates and Chapters, where everything sold is to die for...
Best friends Michelle Serrano and Erica Russell are celebrating the sweet rewards of their combined bookstore and chocolate shop by hosting the Great Fudge Cook-off during the town’s Memorial Day weekend Arts Festival. But success turns bittersweet when Main Street’s portrait photographer is found dead in their store, poisoned by Michelle’s signature truffles.
As suspicion mounts against Michelle, her sales begin to crumble and her career seems whipped. With Erica by her side, Michelle must pick through an assortment of suspects before the future of their dream store melts away...
FIRST IN A NEW SERIES
Includes Scrumptious Chocolate-Making Recipes!
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Kathy Aarons is the author of Death is Like a Box of Chocolates.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“I don’t do cupcakes,” I told Erica, who obviously hadn’t been listening to me in the two years we’d been best friends.
“I know, I know.” She waved her hand around as if dissipating my nonsense and reached over the counter to grab a Fleur de Sel Caramel from one of the trays I was about to parade around in front of the store. While I’d enjoyed a huge rush in the week leading up to Mother’s Day, maybe I could entice a few more customers into buying chocolate for their moms before the special day was over.
“Have you ever seen me bake even one cupcake?” I asked her. Erica and I shared a store on Main Street in the town of West Riverdale, Maryland. She and her sister, Colleen, managed the family-owned bookstore in one half of our space while I ran my chocolate shop in the other half. I should have known she wanted something when she crossed over to my side during such a busy Sunday afternoon.
“I get it,” Erica said, nibbling the caramel. “You’re a chocolate snob, I mean chocolatier, and you don’t bake. Oh wait. What did that DC reporter call you? ‘Michelle Serrano, Chocolate Artisan.’”
“Glad we got that straight,” I said. “I suggest Summer Berry Milks. Grown-ups love them, yet they have that element of whimsy that even rug rats appreciate.” I dumped newly ground coffee into the machine and turned it on. The fragrance of the coffee mixing with the ever-present chocolate scent made my mouth water even though I’d been experiencing it all day. Owning Chocolates and Chapters never got old.
Erica rolled her eyes. “Someday your distaste for anyone under the age of eighteen is going to bite you on the butt.” She pushed her librarian glasses up on her nose and gave me The Look. The one that somehow combined puppylike begging with steely-eyed command, and inevitably made everyone do her bidding. Maybe that’s why she’d won the Future Leader award so long ago at our high school graduation. “Cupcakes decorated with softball icing are even more whimsical than chocolates.”
I crossed my arms.
“It’s for the good of the Boys and Girls Club!” she said.
“I’m not baking cupcakes,” I said.
Erica seemed astounded at my stubbornness. “Really? Remember that beautiful field where you showed Sammy Duncan that girls are better hitters than boys?” She threw her hand out as if pointing to it. “You know, the field that needs to be reseeded every single year?”
She was pulling out the big guns. Before she could remind me that playing sports at the Boys and Girls Club was the main reason for my annual success in the West Riverdale Softball Tournament, I gave in. “Fine. But I’m not making them. I’ll ask Kona.”
“Awesome!” Erica was enough of a master manipulator not to show anything except gratitude, but I was sure she’d gloat later.
“‘Awesome’? Is that an official Fulbright scholar expression?” I said to pay her back.
Erica had come home two years before, just as I was opening my shop. My whole life, I’d heard of Erica Russell, girl genius, who went to Stanford on a full scholarship, got a master’s in writing, and then became a Fulbright scholar. I still wasn’t clear what that was.
I totally expected her to stick her nose up at me, the community college dropout, but we’d become best friends, and now business partners and housemates.
She made a note on her spreadsheet. “My next victim, I mean prospective donor, is Denise.”
“Do not harass the committee,” I said. “We’re lucky they haven’t run for the hills with the way this thing has exploded.”
Back in February, when Erica had suggested a Great Fudge Cook-off to celebrate the one-year anniversary of our renovation, I’d jumped at it. Our normally mild Maryland winter had been brutal, and after what seemed like the thirtieth nasty ice storm of the season, anything that made me think of spring was welcome.
I’d imagined a group of fifty or so neighbors gathered in our store, tasting all the entries, and buying real chocolate from me to wipe the taste of fudge from their palates. Erica would send out photos and a press release to the local papers, and the resulting articles would remind everyone that they needed more candy and books in their lives.
But taking the suggestion from the mayor to schedule our contest during West Riverdale’s Memorial Day weekend celebrations had been a big mistake. Somehow our little fudge contest had mushroomed into the opening event of the first ever West Riverdale Arts Festival in the park. And our book signing the Sunday night before Memorial Day now included a silent auction fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club. We counted our blessings that the actual parade on Monday hadn’t been added to our plate. The parade committee was an exclusive group of old-timers who wouldn’t think of letting anyone under the age of sixty interfere.
I delivered steaming cups of coffee and a small plate of assorted chocolates to the table of grandmothers showing off photos of grandchildren on their phones, and discreetly left the bill on the table.
Erica continued when I returned to the counter. “I’m donating the I So Don’t Do Mysteries series and some Michael Connelly first editions for the silent auction.” Erica also ran a thriving used and rare book business out of the storage room in the back. “And you’ll be really happy about the big surprise I have for today’s meeting.”
“What is it?”
“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise.” She gave me a mysterious smile and headed back to her side.
I picked up my tray and opened the front door as Erica’s sister, Colleen, struggled through with one blond-haired two-year-old boy on her hip and the other twin rebelliously dragging behind her.
“Erica,” Colleen called after her sister with a rush of relief. “Can I leave the twins in the play section while I take Prudence to her dance recital?”
The two sisters worked well together, but lately Colleen had been busier than usual with kid duty, and Erica had taken up the slack. I sometimes wondered if Colleen would even be working in the bookstore if she hadn’t become pregnant with her first child during her freshman year of college. She didn’t have Erica’s love of books, though she enjoyed the business side of the store. But back when she was eighteen and pregnant, working in her parents’ bookstore was a good option while her husband, Mark, finished up his business degree.
While Colleen made an effort to appear somewhat professional when she worked in the store, today she had on a stretched-out orange cardigan that had seen better days, and her hair was falling out of her wilted scrunchie.
“Sure, but where’s Mark?” Erica seemed confused as the twins ran toward the wall of brightly colored bricks that separated the small play area—what I called the first circle of hell—from the rest of the store.
Colleen scowled. “He says he has the flu. He just got back from yet another trip and he’s too sick to do anything. And the nanny is out of town.” She sounded mad at both of them.
If I had twins like Gabe and Graham, I’d have the flu pretty often too, I thought, as they expertly opened the childproof gate and double-teamed a boy twice their size, wrenching a firefighter’s hat away from him.
“I guess,” Erica said. She ran to comfort the howling victim as Colleen gave a helpless flutter of her hands and escaped. Through the front window, I could see her daughter, Prudence, wearing a lime-colored leotard and fancy headpiece and waiting in their ancient Volvo station wagon. That girl had the patience of a saint, or even better, the patience of an older sibling of twin boys.
I took a step to help Erica, but instantly the wailing stopped and the twins were soon sitting in Erica’s lap waving around the latest cardboard books. I watched for a moment and, sure enough, one of them whacked Erica in the jaw with a book before settling down.
The Pampered Pet Store across the street was holding their monthly adoption event and when I went outside with the sample-sized caramels, the local animal lovers emptied my tray in a few minutes. Kona called these petite caramels my “gateway drug.” Once people ate this perfect bite of caramel wrapped in creamy chocolate, with the tiniest sprinkle of sea salt on top, they always came back for more.
After serving the burst of customers who’d followed me back into the store, I did a spot-check of our dining area, which was perfect. It had been Erica’s idea to remove the wall between the two stores to increase our usable space. We’d all survived the renovation, but Colleen and I had grumbled a lot more than Erica, maybe because she could visualize what it would look like today.
A homey, welcoming room with books lining the walls, tempting customers to pick one up and read in an overstuffed chair, and the smell of chocolate enticing them to choose from my selection of sinful sweets. Chocolates and Chapters had become an unofficial community center for our little town. Our smattering of mismatched couches and coffee tables now hosted various committee meetings, knitting circles, book clubs and, my least favorite, birthday parties.
I straightened a painting from a local artist who was new to our rotation wall. Erica had told me ahead of time that he interpreted famous paintings using the opposite on the color wheel, so the paintings appeared familiar and strange at the same time.
My assistant and right hand, Kona, walked in from the back kitchen with a tray of assorted tortes, her specialty. I was lucky to have her. Although I still didn’t understand why, sometimes customers wanted pastries instead of chocolates. And while I could whip up a thousand truffles in a few hours, I couldn’t bake to save my life.
“I just volunteered you for a couple dozen softball-decorated cupcakes for the book launch,” I told her.
“No problem,” she said, her almond eyes laughing at me. She knew how I felt about cupcakes. “By the way, I opened the latest shipment from the supply company.” She paused. “Did you order a lot of the new jeweled cocoa butter? They charged us extra to rush it.”
“Oh, yeah.” I tried to appear nonchalant. “That’s okay.”
“What are you going to use it for?” she asked.
I avoided answering her. “Just thinking about a few new ideas.”
“Want me to cover the front so you can try it out?” Kona knew how much I loved to play with anything new, but I had plans for that gold cocoa butter that no one could know about. “I put it in the kitchen.”
“Um,” I said. “I’m going to try it out at home, but I want to look at it for a minute.”
She started placing the tortes in the one measly glass display case I allowed for pastries. “No problem. I’ll handle the counter.”
“Thanks.” I headed to the back kitchen to see if my new gold cocoa butter would do the trick. We had a small kitchen out front where customers watched us dip fruit in chocolate or put finishing touches on the truffles, but we did most of our work in the larger back kitchen.
I didn’t want our customers to see the messy part of my magic, like when we mixed ganache by hand to achieve the ideal consistency; or smelled the caramel to ensure the ultimate balance of smoky, almost-burnt sugar; or scraped off the untidy “feet” of my truffles so they were perfect.
I picked up the bottle of gold cocoa butter. It looked a little like gold paint now, but once I melted it down and airbrushed it across my chocolates, it would look amazing.
· · · · · · · · ·
We scheduled the weekly cook-off meeting for right after our regular early Sunday closing. I was setting up when Erica lugged her ever-increasing Great Fudge Cook-off file box to the largest table in the store. Located in the back corner, it was where high school students crammed for tests, or pretended to, retirees met to plan their day trips, and an endless supply of PTA moms coordinated school events.
Even the always-put-together Erica looked a little drained from balancing the twin terrors and customers.
Without comment, I handed her a Balsamic Dream, her favorite truffle—dark chocolate ganache with a rush of balsamic vinegar. “How did the recital go?”
“Colleen said it was delightful,” Erica said, enjoying her treat.
“Did Mark make it?”
“Yes,” she said. “He had a miraculous recovery just in time to see it.”
Denise Coburn walked through the open back door of the shop, tiny magenta shorts emphasizing her incredibly long legs that always made me feel like a hippo. A pygmy hippo. And she was the giraffe undulating across the African plains.
Undulating? I was hanging out with brainy Erica too much. “Hi, Denise,” I said as she slouched into a chair across from Erica.
“Hi,” she said as part of a long-winded sigh. She’d pulled her thick auburn hair into a huge bun that magically stayed in place on the top of her head with only one clip, and once again I cursed my own wispy strawberry blond hair that behaved only as long as it took me to leave the salon.
Denise’s photography studio, next door to our shop, catered to families and smaller businesses in our town. She’d recently landed the contract for the local high school’s senior portraits, but everyone knew she dreamed of selling her artsy work to galleries in Washington, where people had more money to spend on that stuff. Personally, I thought her creative photos were out of focus and just a bit odd. Who wanted a blurry photo of a shiny penny in a gutter hanging on their wall?
“Tough day in the photography trenches?” Erica pulled out more files and a color-coded spreadsheet.
“I guess,” she said, picking up a truffle. “Another delay by that gallery owner I told you about.” She bit off one tiny corner and put the rest down. How do people do that? Of course, she couldn’t resist my Amaretto Palle Darks, the only candy I’d ever seen her eat in one bite, but I’d sold out of those earlier in the day.
“The gallery in DC?” I popped a whole Mayan Warrior in my mouth and let the chocolate melt on my tongue, the spicy cayenne tickling the back of my throat just like it was supposed to. “What happened?” I asked as I sat down.
Denise shrugged. “He left a message telling me he had a family emergency and had to reschedule our meeting tomorrow. And I’d cancelled all my sessions for the trip up there.”
“I’m sorry,” Erica said. “Why not email them? Once he sees your photographs, he’s going to just adore your work.”
The eternal optimist.
Denise sighed dramatically again. “He said he has to meet me first. He believes my montage of work is an inward expression of my outward view of the world.”
What a load of BS. I was about to warn her that this dude might just have a casting couch when the final two members of our committee walked in.
Steve and Jolene Roxbury arrived in their usual geek chic: Steve, the high school science teacher, wore an ancient T-shirt of the periodic table, and Jolene, the math and drama teacher, wore a shirt that read, “Half playwright. Half ninja.”
“Love the shirt,” I told her.
“Thanks!” Jolene said. She gave a little “Hi-yah!” along with a karate chop. “Gift from Steve-o when I got my black belt in tae kwon do.” She and her husband both put a few Bacon-and-S...
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