Domestic diva Sophie Winston is in charge of the sweetest event in Old Town this summer. Amore Chocolates is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with a chocolate tasting at the mansion of the company's CEO, Joe Merano, and Sophie is running the show. With cookies, candy, and five kinds of chocolate cake, it's a chocolate lover's dream! But when Joe goes missing, the celebration becomes bittersweet. And when Sophie discovers the body of a competing chocolatier in the guesthouse, the event turns downright deadly.
As if that wasn't enough, Sophie's been receiving daily boxes of sweet treats. After ruling out her new beau and her exes, Sophie wonders if someone's trying to send her a message-and if she's next on a chocoholic's hit list.
Release date: June 2, 2015
Print pages: 304
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The Diva Steals a Chocolate Kiss
Sophie’s Friends and Old Town Residents
Nina Reid Norwood–Sophie’s best friend.
Natasha Earlene Smith–Desperate domestic diva.
Mars Winston–Sophie’s ex-husband.
Bernie Frei–Best man at Sophie’s wedding.
Humphrey Brown–Sophie’s childhood friend.
Alex German–Sophie’s new beau.
Francie Vanderhoosen–Sophie’s next-door neighbor.
Wolf Fleishman–Homicide investigator whom Sophie once dated.
Arnaud Turnèbe–Chocolatier, new to town.
The Amore Chocolates Family and Employees
Joe Merano–CEO of Amore Chocolates.
Nonni Merano–Joe’s mom. Co-founder of Amore.
Coco Ross–Joe’s daughter. Vice President of Marketing at Amore.
Mitch Ross–Coco’s husband. Vice president at Amore.
Dan Merano–Joe’s son. Head chocolatier at Amore.
Stella Simpson–Dan’s girlfriend. Manages an Amore store.
Vince Wilson–Amore employee.
Randy Hicks–Amore employee.
Marla Eldridge–Joe’s assistant.
Cheryl Maiorca–Queen of the chocolate cake.
Lori Speer–Queen of the chocolate truffle.
My mother-in-law gave me a box of chocolates that she made herself. They’ve turned gray! I think she’s trying to poison me. My husband insists they’re fine but I don’t believe him. What if they’re in cahoots? Is it normal for chocolate to turn gray?
—Suspicious in Graysville, Tennessee
It’s so common that it has a name. The powdery gray on your chocolates is called a bloom. It’s caused by moisture and often happens when chocolates are stored in the refrigerator. Chocolates with a bloom are perfectly fine to eat but not very attractive.
The first box of chocolates arrived on a Monday. I assumed they were a gift from Joe Merano, the chairman of Amore Chocolates, because I was working on events for the sixtieth anniversary of his company. But the bold red box wasn’t embossed with the Amore logo of entwined gold hearts. Nor was there a card. It had simply been left at my front door.
A second box arrived on Tuesday and another on Wednesday.
On Thursday morning, Nina Reid Norwood, my across-the-street neighbor and best friend, discovered another box at my front door. She now stared at the four open boxes on my kitchen table. “They’re like perfect little brown gems. Handmade, don’t you think?”
“Definitely.” In each box, six chocolates nestled on crimped white papers. No two chocolates were alike.
Nina’s fingers hovered, rotating in the air above them. “You haven’t eaten any.”
“Get your greedy little hand away. I don’t know who or where they came from.”
“But they’re so beautiful. You have to try one! They’re probably filled with something rich and creamy.”
“You are not eating any until we know who left them at my door.”
Nina signed with exasperation. “I’m sure they’re from Alex.”
I had been dating Alex German for a while. When he was in town, anyway. “I phoned Alex to thank him. He didn’t know a thing about them.”
I shook my head. They weren’t from my ex-husband, either.
A grin spread across Nina’s face. “You have an admirer!”
“Don’t be silly.” The notion had crossed my mind, though. Chocolates hinted at romance, didn’t they? But if nothing else, I was a realist. “More likely they’re some kind of promotional effort in connection with the opening of Célébration de Chocolat.” Arnaud Turnèbe, the famous Belgian chocolatier, had chosen Old Town as the location for his first American shop. Until now, his exquisite chocolates had been available only by special order, flown in fresh from Belgium at considerable cost. I was looking forward to actually trying one of them.
Nina frowned and picked up a lid to examine it. “What kind of promotion doesn’t mention the name of the business?”
The doorknocker sounded. I headed to the foyer and opened the front door.
Coco Ross rushed inside, breathless. “I hope you don’t mind my stopping by.” A well-known socialite, Coco had been my contact at the company for the anniversary events. I guessed her to be about fifty but she had the energy of a much younger woman. Coco laughed easily, and her expressive, dark brown eyes didn’t hide her emotions. “This is Nonni.”
A tiny woman dressed all in blue followed Coco at a slower pace, aided by a cane. Her white hair was pinned up in a tidy bun. Not a speck of makeup touched her face. She couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds.
I shook Nonni’s frail hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nonni. Won’t you come in and have a seat?”
They followed me into my kitchen, where Coco greeted Nina and introduced Nonni.
“I am going to strangle Natasha,” announced Coco.
Leaning against the center island, Nina said, “Get in line.”
“No, seriously. I’m beginning to worry about myself.” Coco flapped the neckline of her pink and green Lilly Pulitzer dress as though she thought the air would cool her. “Really. I lie in bed at night, thinking of ways to knock her off.”
“Could I offer you iced tea or lemonade?” I asked.
Coco responded, “Iced tea, please. It’s hotter than blazes outside.” She lifted the back of her neatly bobbed hair off her neck and fanned herself.
Nonni sat down in an armchair by the fireplace.
“Natasha entered ten recipes in our contest. We rejected them all. Correction. I rejected them all.” Coco pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead briefly. “I didn’t know they were from her. They were atrocious. Who wants to eat a chocolate dill cream roll? Now she’s offended and seeking revenge by bad-mouthing Amore.”
I filled tall glasses with ice cubes and poured the iced tea.
Happily, I spotted a leftover strawberry tart hiding behind the red peppers. Chocolate coated the bottom, and I had drizzled more chocolate on top of the strawberries, as well. The chocolate ought to please Coco and Nonni.
I placed slices on four square white plates and added a generous dollop of whipped cream to each.
Nonni sat in a chair by the fireplace watching me. My Ocicat, Mochie, nestled on her lap. I delivered a drink and slice of the tart to the table for her.
Nonni smiled at me. “I like you kitchen.”
She spoke with a thick Italian accent and pronounced kitchen as keetchen.
She waggled a gnarled forefinger at me. “I know everything about you when I see you keetchen. Is clean, is warm. You like you keetchen, too.”
I couldn’t help smiling. Judging a person by her kitchen was a new one to me. “Yes, I do like it.”
“Sofia is good Italian name. You are Italian?”
I hedged. We definitely weren’t Italian. “My family came from Europe.”
That seemed to satisfy her. “We have problem in family. You will help us.” With the aid of her walking stick, she rose to her feet and tottered to my kitchen table, where she took a seat.
I brought drinks and slices of the tart for the rest of us and set them on the cool fern green tablecloth, along with forks and rose-colored napkins.
“All is settled,” said Nonni. “Sofia will help us.”
“At the risk of upsetting everyone, I haven’t agreed to anything.”
“Yes, yes,” insisted Nonni. “You help. Now I eat.”
Coco licked her lips nervously. She appeared too agitated to sit down. Coco and her brother, Dan, were the heirs to Amore Chocolates. The sixtieth anniversary events weren’t the biggest projects I had ever put together, but they had certainly been different. Amore Chocolates was best known for delicious boxed chocolates, but they also made fabulous, yet lesser-known, cooking chocolate, both powdered and in squares. They had sponsored a contest for home cooks and were bringing the creators of the winning recipes to Old Town for a huge tasting in the gorgeous garden of Joe’s home. The recipes had been included in a new Amore Chocolates cookbook.
Coco handled marketing for Amore. Gregarious and outgoing, she was the perfect person to represent the company. In fact, she had told me she would be taking over most of the outings planned for the winners. I suspected she wanted to be along to schmooze when they were on TV and participated in various contests and demonstrations around metropolitan Washington, DC. It was fine with me. I arranged the tasting, the farewell dinner, lodging, and transportation. The rest was up to her.
Coco chugged her iced tea and refilled her glass. “I don’t understand Natasha. She’s so lovely and perfect on her TV show that I thought she was a smart businesswoman.” She gazed at the tart for a moment. “I had no idea that she’s an egocentric, bullheaded—”
“—nincompoop.” Nonni ended the sentence for her.
Nina slid into the banquette and listened while she sampled the tart.
I placed the pitcher of iced tea on the table, and Coco finally settled into a chair.
I joined them.
Lowering her voice, Coco continued, “There’s really not much that doesn’t work with chocolate. Nuts, spices, fruit, even chicken. But who wants to eat brownies made with bleu cheese? Now she’s offended and seeking revenge. She’s making it sound like we’re snobs because the Amore tasting is by ticket only.”
“I thought that was because your dad’s garden will only hold so many people,” said Nina.
“Well, of course that’s the reason. We’re not turning away the public. We’ve been giving away tickets in contests, through radio stations, at our stores—just everywhere! It was that or sell them but we didn’t want to charge for our tasting celebration.” Coco placed her forearms on the table, leaned on them, and looked at me. “What now? She’s making us look terrible! It’s a public relations nightmare.”
I had known Natasha since childhood. We grew up in the same small town and competed at everything in school. Everything except the beauty pageants she had enjoyed so much. Sometimes I was reluctant to admit it, but Natasha was a part of my life, especially since she had set up housekeeping with my ex-husband after our divorce. As though that wasn’t bad enough, they moved into a house on my street, just a few doors down. In the divorce, neither my ex, Mars, short for Marshall, nor I had the heart to give up Daisy, our mixed-breed hound, so we split custody, and she went back and forth between us. I had to admit that living close to Mars had made that easier for us. Because the Amore events would keep me very busy, she was spending the week with Mars.
I looked into Coco’s eyes. “I’ll have a word with Natasha but I’m afraid the damage might already have been done.”
Coco rolled her sweating iced tea glass across her forehead. “How can it be this hot? We have to find a new venue, make more food”—she spoke with her hands in true Italian fashion, raising them over her head and swinging them down in a huge circle—“and invite the general public, no tickets necessary.”
The words “find a new venue” chilled me more than any iced tea could have. I spoke gently, calmly, trying not to give away my panic. “But the tasting is this Saturday.” To make my point abundantly clear, I added, “Less than three days away.”
“Everyone says you can work magic. Surely you can find another venue.”
“For the last Saturday in June?” Was she kidding? “Brides booked Saturdays in Old Town over a year ago. And I should point out that tastings always require tickets. You have to know how many people you’re going to serve.”
“Could you move it out of Old Town?” asked Nina.
Coco gasped as though Nina had said something unimaginable. “That’s not an option. What about the Torpedo Factory?”
She was delusional if she thought one of the best venues in town wasn’t booked. Once a real torpedo factory, the fabulous building now housed art galleries and artists’ studios. The atrium, main hall, and patio could be rented for private functions, but there wasn’t a chance they would be available. “I can make some calls.” I said it more to soothe her than anything else. I knew I wouldn’t find a venue in Old Town. We had hired a caterer to make the winning recipes for the party, but he would probably go ballistic if he had to produce ten times the quantity on such short notice. As gently as I could, I added, “But don’t hold your breath. You realize we’re talking about moving from four hundred people to . . . gosh, I don’t know how many. Four thousand?”
Coco leaned back in her chair. “See what you can do.”
I was shaking my head and thinking it might be easier to bring Natasha on board in some way when Coco cried out. “Nonni! I’m so sorry, Sophie, she’s used to tasting chocolates from the store.”
Nonni held one of the mystery chocolates in her hand. Half of it was missing. “Bellissimo!”
I jumped to my feet, “Oh, honey, don’t eat the rest of that. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t know where they came from.”
Nonni paid no attention whatsoever and ate the other half. “Belgian or Swiss? Is familiar.”
Coco stood up to take them from Nonni. But when she saw them, her eyes widened. She selected one without care, bit in, and savored it. “Oh no,” she moaned. But she consumed the rest of it anyway. And then she keeled over and hit the floor with a thud.
My neighbor asked me if I was going to temper my chocolate. I looked it up but it sounds incredibly complicated. Will my cake be ruined if I don’t temper the chocolate first?
—Mr. Mom in Temperance, Georgia
Dear Mr. Mom,
You don’t need to temper chocolate when you bake with it. Tempering is generally only necessary for chocolates used to make candies. The tempering process allows them to be boxed and displayed at room temperature.
“Coco!” I thrust her chair aside and knelt by her. “Nina, call 911!”
I tapped Coco’s tanned cheeks, which were rapidly losing their color. “Coco! Coco!” She was still breathing.
Nonni calmly poured the remainder of her iced tea over Coco’s face. Ice cubes skittered across the floor. For a second I worried that Coco might inhale the liquid and choke.
Coco opened her eyes and blinked. She focused on my face.
“Coco, how do you feel?” I asked gently.
She moaned and blinked repeatedly as though she wasn’t quite right yet.
Outside, the siren of an ambulance drew closer.
I dabbed her wet face to dry it off. Coco tried to lift her head but the effort appeared to wear her out.
Nina opened the front door for the rescue squad.
I backed away from Coco to make room for them. Nonni seized my hand, and I gently squeezed hers in silent solidarity. One of the emergency medical technicians asked us what had happened.
Nina handed her all four of the boxes of chocolates while I explained that they had been found on my doorstep.
“Nonni!” I turned to her. “Nonni ate the chocolate, too. How are you feeling?”
Nonni patted my arm with a delicate hand. “I am quite fine.”
“I am, too,” Coco muttered. “I don’t need an ambulance. I just had a light-headed moment and felt dizzy.”
“Coco! You pregnant?” asked Nonni.
Coco snorted. “More likely having a hot flash.”
The EMTs encouraged her to go to the emergency room to be checked out. They got their way when Coco tried to sit up and passed out again.
“You’d better take Nonni, too,” I suggested. “I’d hate to have her collapse the moment you pulled away.”
Nina and I followed them outside. We watched the EMTs load Coco and Nonni into the ambulance. Nonni smiled and waved at us before they closed the door.
When the ambulance started down the street, Nina turned to me. “Have you aggravated anyone lately?”
“What? No! Why would you ask a thing like that?”
The corners of her mouth twitched down. “Those chocolates were obviously meant for you.”
“But . . . that’s . . . ridiculous,” I sputtered.
“No events that went badly? No irate neighbors? No jealous wives? Have you been poking your nose into a murder again?”
“No!” I had been busy with work these last few months, but nothing had ended in a disaster. And I certainly wasn’t having a fling with a married man!
Nina nodded. “If I were you, I wouldn’t eat anything I didn’t cook myself.”
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
“Of all people, you should know better than that, Sophie. And it started out as such a nice day,” said Nina. “Thank goodness you wouldn’t let me eat a chocolate! I’m going home. I think I have some chocolate bars stashed in the fridge.”
“You know you shouldn’t keep them there, right?”
But Nina was already halfway to her house, evidently in dire need of a chocolate fix.
Back in my kitchen, I phoned Joe Merano at Amore Chocolates and explained what had happened. He was surprisingly kind given the circumstances, but we kept our conversation brief so he and Coco’s husband could rush to the hospital.
Guilt hammered at me while I mopped up the melting ice cubes on the floor. I should have tucked those chocolates away where no one could eat them. It was my fault that Coco and Nonni were in the emergency room. I had to go there. It was the least I could do.
I dashed upstairs to change clothes and was just slipping a dress off the hanger when the phone rang. Joe’s assistant, Marla, asked me to come to his office that afternoon at two. She didn’t have any updates on the condition of Nonni or Coco.
I hung up thinking, Uh-oh. A command performance. I checked the time. One and a half hours. I’d better have some solutions for the Natasha situation at the meeting. As much as I wanted to go to the hospital, I knew they were relying on me to take care of other matters.
I nixed the hospital, pulled my skort and sleeveless top back on, and hurried to my tiny home office to make some phone calls to see if there was any possibility of moving the event. The Torpedo Factory was booked. No surprise there. I worked the phone for the next hour without any luck.
In the middle of my quest, Alex called. “Have you received any more chocolates?”
“Every day this week.”
“Should I be worried?”
“Because they’re poisoned?”
“You’re joking, right?”
I filled him in on what had happened to Coco.
“What did you do to make someone mad at you?”
“Why do people keep asking me that? I didn’t do anything.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone. “Alex? You still there?”
“When I called, I was upset because some anonymous admirer was sending you chocolates, but now I’m worried that someone is out to get you.”
I listened to his lecture about being careful for a full minute before cutting him off. I had work to do and not much time.
I had exactly one idea that might solve the Natasha problem. If Amore nixed that, I had nothing else.
Amore’s recipe winners would be arriving at the hotel anytime now. Anticipating a long day, I dressed in a slenderizing navy blue sheath, a simple pearl necklace, and matching earrings that would be appropriate for the meeting and take me through dinner. I shot a glance at the cute thong sandals that were so comfortable, but slid my feet into open-toed navy sling backs with white bows on the rear straps.
I filled Mochie’s bowl with his favorite tuna and explained that I would be out late. He took it like a cat, opening one eye and purring his acceptance of the situation. I left a light on in the kitchen and made sure the lights by the front door were on, too, since it would be dark when I came home. Carrying my briefcase, I walked five blocks toward the river and strode into the amazingly elegant offices of Amore Chocolates.
A chubby guy with round wire-rimmed glasses was just leaving. He ate a chocolate and was so intent on another one in his hand that he nearly ran into me.
The receptionist called out, “Randy! You forgot your package.”
Randy stuffed the second chocolate in his mouth and ran back to her desk to collect a box.
The receptionist nodded at me. “They’re waiting for you upstairs in the boardroom.”
As I walked up the stairs, I wondered why I felt like I was heading into doom. I hadn’t poisoned Coco or Nonni. I hadn’t wanted them to eat the chocolates at all! But they had been on the table, and I felt guilty for leaving them out. Natasha’s shenanigans weren’t my fault, either. Still, a heavy weight pressed on me as though I had done something wrong and now had to face the people I had disappointed.
I could see them through the glass doors that led to the boardroom. Joe Merano, the patriarch and chairman, and Mitch Ross, vice president of Amore and husband of Coco, awaited me. I opened the door and walked in.
They shook my hand in a very cordial businesslike manner. I asked about Coco and Nonni immediately.
“Coco’s official diagnosis is heat exhaustion,” said Joe. “She’s resting at my house now. And my mom is perfectly fine.”
“Nothing was detected. According to the doctor, there is no general test for known poisons. They’re analyzing the chocolates and if they find something there, then they’ll check Coco and Nonni for it. Coco is recovering well, so the doctors don’t think she was poisoned.”
“That’s a relief!” I didn’t want to belabor the subject but I breathed a little bit easier.
Mitch smiled at me graciously. He slid his palms against each other in a slow methodical motion. “The reason we called you here is this business with Natasha.”
Joe rose and walked to the window, his back to us.
“While it may seem somewhat minor and inconsequential to you,” said Mitch, “Amore Chocolates takes great pride in our exemplary community relations. To have a recognized local celebrity putting us down and claiming that we are in some way elitist is a major blow, especially at this time of our sixtieth anniversary.”
I nodded but I was watching Joe. He wore a well-tailored dark gray business suit with a red tie. The horseshoe of hair remaining from male-pattern baldness showed considerable silver. He wore none of the trappings of wealth. Had I seen him on the street, he would have meshed with the throngs of other gray-suited businessmen.
The boardroom of Amore Chocolates revealed the success of the company in a way that its plain CEO did not. On the second floor of a huge three-story house, it featured a marble fireplace and dark hardwood floors that looked to be original or at least reclaimed wood. French doors flanked by additional windows of the same size led to a balcony. Plush red and gold oriental rugs defined the areas of the room with the biggest one in the center, where I sat at a large round table. The shape of the table told me a lot about Joe’s management style. He brought everyone in as equals. No one sat in the head chair looking down a row of peons here. I recognized a young Nonni in the oil portrait over the fireplace. She and her husband had founded the company.
“We really can’t tolerate this kind of slander,” said Mitch. “With Célébration de Chocolat opening, we’re going to feel the pinch while our local customers sample their goods. We cannot afford to lose customers because some woman paints us with a dirty brush. Especially a lie! I’ve been in touch with a leading crisis management company. They’ve seen this kind of thing before, and said it can spiral out of control.” Mitch smoothed back graying hair, and I realized that he was speaking to Joe, not to me.
He and Coco made a striking couple. A large man with broad shoulders and an ample physique, he sported a tan that rivaled Coco’s. He was still attractive by anyone’s standards, and I could imagine that his amiable face had been adorably boyish in his youth.
In the hallway outside the glass, Randy, the handyman, peered in.
Mitch glanced up at him. Raising his voice, he called, “Need something, Randy?”
Randy pushed open the door. “Sorry to interrupt. I’ll catch you later.”
Mitch consulted his notes. “They recommend a three-pronged approach. First, a Twitter campaign. We find unfortunate misstatements that Natasha has made on her show, and we send them into the Twittersphere to discredit her. Apparently, that’s a very powerful tool, and if we do it right, it won’t reflect on us. Second, the night of our tasting, we make and serve some of her terrible recipes to the press, making clear that they are hers. That’s supposed to be a passive way to handle it. You know, it looks like we’re honoring her, but the tasters get to come to their own conclusions, which makes her look bad and discredits her as an authority. Third, we hire a private detective to dig up dirt on this woman . . .”
My son-in-law gave me chocolate nibs as a present. They’re funny little things and very bitter. What are they, and what am I supposed to do with them?
—Sweet Tooth Irishwoman in Sweets Corner, Massachusetts
Dear Sweet Tooth,
The nib is the center of the cocoa bean, the part from which chocolate is made. It’s chocolate in its purest form, before sugar is added, which is why it tastes bitter. Some people consider it health food because it’s pure dark chocolate and full of antioxidants. You might find them more palatable if you mix them with some dried cherries or apricots like a trail mix to sweeten them up.
I was appalled. Natasha might not be my favorite person, but she wasn’t all bad, and I would never agree to destroying her or anyone else for that matter. I could feel my face heating up. Even the tops of my ears burned.
“No.” Joe swung around to face us. “We are not in the business of ruining people. Amore Chocolates does not lash out and stoop to the lowest, basest behavior. Sophie, did you have any luck finding another venue?”
“I’m afraid not. But I did come up with one idea.” I was afraid to pitch it to them. It wasn’t nearly as aggressive as the ideas of the experts.
“Let’s hear it, then,” said Joe.
Mitch watched me with eager eyes and leaned forward.
“We invite Natasha to the tasting as a special guest. We give her some kind of made-up title like ‘Local Chocolate Expert’ and act as though she’s someone special in the community. She’ll have to change her own tune if she’s part of the celebration.”
“What if she doesn’t go along with it?” asked Mitch.
Natasha could never turn down an honor. If they pretended she was an expert, she would think she was an expert. “I can’t make promises, but I would bet that she’ll jump at any opportunity to be an honored guest. Maybe make some kind of plaque to give her?”
Joe smiled. “A simple and elegant solution, my dear. The best kind. Mitch, get on that within the hour. The sooner Natasha feels included, the sooner she’ll stop this bad-mouthing nonsense. Maybe call her Amore’s finest taster. Give her roses, champagne, and of course, Amore chocolates. Dan can create a small chocolate sculpture of some
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