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Authors: Colette London

Dangerously Dark

BOOK: Dangerously Dark
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ICE CREAM, YOU SCREAM
You would think that once you've stumbled upon an honest-to-God murder, you'd be prepared for anything, right? No matter how ghastly or unlikely. But I wasn't prepared for what greeted me inside Carissa's Airstream trailer. I wasn't prepared at all.
I vaulted inside, heart pounding, and glimpsed Carissa collapsed on the floor. She seemed to have fallen on top of . . .
something
. Something bulky and long. Bags of sugar, maybe?
Trying to see what it was, I edged closer. I couldn't see clearly, though. A ghostly vapor filled the space where Carissa kept her equipment and inventory, partly obscuring my vision.
Plus, I felt downright woozy. Short of breath, too. Spots swam before my eyes. I was terrified a homicidal maniac might burst from a dark corner at any moment. After all,
someone
must have gotten in here. On the alert for a potential attacker, I blinked and moved closer, shivering from the chill. It was as if the Airstream was refrigerated—and now so was I. Shakily veering from side to side, I tried not to think of haunted houses and horror movies, dead bodies and killers lurking in the shadows.
It didn't work.
Murder
was all I could think of.
“Carissa!” I crouched beside my unmoving friend. I touched her limp arm. I peered at her face. Her stillness scared me.
A faint hissing sound filled the trailer. My raspy breath overrode it. I was freaked out and not afraid to admit it. At least now the mist was subsiding. That meant I could see.
In that moment, I almost wished I couldn't.
“Carissa?” Gently, I tried to jostle her, feeling on the verge of tears. I'm not a crybaby, but these were extraordinary circumstances. I swallowed hard. “Carissa, are you okay?”
Books by Colette London
Criminal Confections
 
Dangerously Dark
 
The Semisweet Hereafter (coming soon!)
 
 
 
Published by Kensington Publishing Corp.
Dangerously Dark
COLETTE LONDON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
http://www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
To John Plumley, with all my love.
One
You should probably know one thing about me right up front: I'm not a morning person. Never have been, never will be. If it's too early for traffic jams, tequila, and at least 50 percent of the taxi drivers in any given metropolis to be plying their trade, then it's too early for me. End of story. But sometimes I have to make exceptions. Doesn't everyone?
The fact of the matter is, I don't always set my own hours. Sometimes my clients do that for me. That's because I'm a freelancer—a freelance chocolate whisperer. You might not have heard of me. I'm the first of my kind. My clients would probably prefer you don't know I exist. But I definitely do.
My work takes me around the world, where I use my expertise with
Theobroma cacao
to solve problems (on the QT) for my influential clients. Usually, they find me by referral. I'm not exactly a household name; I don't want to be. But the downside of working on an on-demand basis is that I don't always work when I want to.
For instance, consulting for bakeries means getting up with the roosters (because bakers are lunatics). Consulting for multinational corporations means crossing multiple time zones (because CEOs are relentless). Consulting for mega chocolatiers (some of the biggest in the biz) who are desperate for me to troubleshoot their gloopy ganaches and freaky frappés means working around the clock. But that's okay, because chocolatiers are
wonderful
—truly some of my favorite people in the world.
So
sometimes
I'm up at dawn. While I'm working, at least.
For the most part, though, the whole early-bird routine isn't for me. Neither is planning too far ahead, taking on clients who won't reveal who referred them to me, or passing up any chance I get to taste a new single-origin varietal chocolate (preferably around 72 percent dark). But after the consultation-gone-wrong that I'd just had, all bets were off.
After everything that had gone down with Lemaître Chocolates in San Francisco, I was ready for a change of pace.
Ordinarily, after finishing one hush-hush assignment for a client, I'm off and running to the next. Partly because it suits me—I grew up rough-traveling the world with a pair of globe-trotting parents who wore out passports the way other parents wore out their suburban SUVs' tires, so gridskipping feels like walking around the block to me—and partly because if I don't . . .
Well, my financial advisor—steady, sexy-voiced Travis Turner—could fill you in on the consequences of what happens if I
don't
keep my duffel bag and always-packed wheelie suitcase at the ready. Suffice it to say, it's in my best interest to keep moving, which I do by fixing problems with my clients' cocoa-butter-filled cookies, cakes, and confections. I like chocolate. It likes me. Together we make magic. For money.
Don't tell anyone, but I'd do it for free. In a heartbeat.
I'd just rather not do it before noon, if possible.
That's why, if I'd been a celebrity, there would have been paparazzi present to document my arrival at PDX in Portland, Oregon (since my plane touched down at the earlyish hour of 8:00
A.M.
). If I'd been an endangered monkey (instead of a woman with a rampant monkey mind), there would have been a Sir David Attenborough–style voice-over to narrate my transfer from the terminal to the car-rental counter to the highway leading into the city. That's just how unusual it was to find me, mobile and agile, drinking excellent cappuccino while squinting into the sunshine
before
eleven o'clock or so. But since I was just me, ordinary Hayden Mundy Moore—thirty, single, possessed of an unusually talented set of taste buds and an admittedly oversize collection of Moleskine notebooks (home of my omnipresent to-do lists)—there wasn't anyone around to remark upon the fact that I was voluntarily up early. On purpose. Playing hooky.
After leaving Maison Lemaître and its disastrous consultation-turned-murder behind (don't ask), I'd planned to visit Seattle to meet Travis. In person. For the first time ever. Because I'd (technically) risked my life while bayside, and that kind of thing had a way of reordering a girl's priorities. I wanted to
see
the man who (along with my security expert, Danny Jamieson) had helped me sidestep disaster. So I'd booked a ticket online, headed for SFO . . . and gotten a call from Travis just as I'd climbed into a taxi to leave for the airport.
“Seattle, huh?” he'd asked in that memorably husky murmur of his, sounding
almost
as though he'd set down his calculator and spreadsheets for the occasion. “What's in Seattle, Hayden?”
“Well, he's tall, dark, handsome, planephobic—”
“If you're talking about me, I'm blond.”
How would I know? I'd never so much as seen a photo of him. Travis was notoriously private. On the other hand . . . I had him.
“Who says I mean
you
?” Of course I meant him. I'd been angling to meet Travis for a long time now—practically from the day he'd taken over for his less enigmatic (and less intriguing) predecessor. A meeting had never worked out for us, though. I was always on the run. Travis was the ultimate homebody.
Danny had met him. In fact, they were archenemies.
I didn't know why they didn't get along. They wouldn't say.
“You can't come to Seattle,” Travis said. “Not today.”
“Sure, I can.” Stubbornness is my middle name. Except I like to call it persistence. “I already have a ticket. I'm coming.”
That's why Travis had called, of course. To stop me. He must have seen the airfare purchase show up in my bank account.
See, that was the trouble with my otherwise workable setup with Travis. Stealthiness was tricky to pull off when the person you were trying to surprise could—and did—track your every move.
For the first time, it occurred to me to wonder if Travis had thwarted me this way before. Maybe he wasn't really gripped by an intense (and, to me, inexplicable) fear of flying. Maybe he was simply determined to keep our relationship professional.
Boringly, frustratingly,
professional.
Where was the fun in that?
“No, I mean you can't come to Seattle today because you're supposed to be in Portland.” Travis could have been consulting a complex FBI database instead of a simple shared online calendar. That's how focused he sounded. Which was what I got for having someone as detail-oriented as a CPA keeping my schedule for me. “For your friend's engagement party. You can't have forgotten.”
“I . . . might have forgotten.”
Rats.
Foiled again.
“Hayden.” Travis sounded disappointed. “You forgot?”
“Hey, I was just almost
murdered
via hot-cocoa mud bath at Maison Lemaître, remember?” Thinking about it, I couldn't help shuddering. Of all the ways to die, biting it via chocolate-themed spa service would have lacked a certain dignity. On the other hand, my complexion would have looked
fabulous.
“Cut me a little slack.”
Instead, Travis had gotten back down to business. Even as I'd watched the busy streets of Nob Hill sliding past the taxi's window, my financial advisor had squashed my plans.
“I'll send you the Evite again with the details,” he'd said, typing in the background. “And book you another flight.”
I'd remembered that hot-pink electronic party invitation and made a face. “I can book my own flight, Travis.”
“It's already done. I'm texting you the details.”
Now, several hours and roughly 550 air miles later, I was on my way to my friend Carissa Jenkins's engagement party weekend. I was happy for Carissa—and her fiancé, Declan Murphy—who'd shared a whirlwind romance the likes of which usually only happened in the movies. But I wasn't thrilled about being rerouted through an early-bird flight, and despite wanting to support my friend, I wasn't over the moon about the prospect of a few days spent in hypergirly mode, oohing and aahing over diamond rings and flower arrangements.
I'm not the girly-girl type, prone to all things foofy, fussy, or bejeweled. I spend my days with burly, chain-smoking line cooks and tattooed back-of-house staff. That kind of thing tends to crush a person's girlier tendencies. I was about as likely to wear pink willingly as I was to leave my chopsticks upright in my rice during a dinner in Osaka (a serious no-no).
On the bright side, though, I'd probably make it out of Carissa's party weekend alive, I figured as I crested I-5 and caught sight of the city's iconic White Stag
PORTLAND OREGON
sign perched over the cloud-gray skyline. That was more than I (almost) could say about my stay at chichi Maison Lemaître.
The chances of something dangerously deadly happening in the Pacific Northwest were slim. Portland was known for its roses and bridges, brewpubs and bicycles, tattooed baristas and cutting-edge indie restaurateurs. (And rain.) Not for
murder.
As it was, a getaway to someplace scenic and safe sounded pretty good to me. I'd had enough of threats and surprises, of sneaking around and of suspecting strangers, of playing amateur Sherlock Holmes, minus one deerstalker hat and/or one Benedict Cumberbatch and/or one Jonny Lee Miller and/or one Robert Downey, Jr. (take your pick.) For one weekend, at least, I wanted to forget about my foray into catching a killer. If Travis wouldn't help me accomplish that goal (and he obviously wouldn't), then Carissa, her fiancé, and her friends would have to do so.
This weekend, I didn't want to spend any time thinking about criminal behavior. Or even chocolate, for that matter.
Danny Jamieson, my oldest friend and newly hired protection expert, would have said I was dodging the facts. He would have said that my plan to visit Travis and my trip to “PDX” (a nickname for Portland) were both procrastinatory detours from what really needed to be done: dealing with what had happened to me at Maison Lemaître.
He might have had a point. Because even though justice had been served and things had ended well, I was still shaken up. I still felt unsettled. Vulnerable, even. But who wouldn't? It wasn't every day that a person showed up to troubleshoot some nutraceutical truffles for one of San Francisco's most venerable chocolatiering families and wound up dealing with a killer.
I was proud of the way I'd handled my inexpert sleuthing. But I
didn't
want to repeat the experience. Not even for the sake of cozying up to Danny again—and we
had
gotten cozy.
Nothing serious had happened. Just a night of brainstorming in a dive bar in the Tenderloin. Just drinking, joking around, and being reminded of good times past. Just sharing a few saucy remarks. That's it. We both knew better than to take it further. But I'd been tempted. If you met Danny—all muscular, macho, and ready to get down to business—you would have been, too. The thing was, I was supposed to know better.
I
did
know better. But some nonnegotiable time apart—while Danny stayed in California and I partied down with Carissa's bridal party in the “Rose City”—sounded like a sensible idea.
I was being so responsible, it was downright saintly.
Travis would have been thrilled. But my financial advisor didn't know everything about Danny and me, and I wanted to keep it that way. For now, Travis's objections to Danny were limited to opposing paying his salary as my bodyguard-on-retainer. That, and balking at Danny's light-fingered way of getting evidence, of course. Travis wasn't thrilled with Danny's shady past.
But I believed in giving people second chances, which was part of the reason I was in “Stumptown” in the first place. And before you get confused, let me clue you in: Portland has a number of nicknames—”Bridgetown,” “Stumptown,” “Rose City,” “PDX,” and (because of its many brewpubs) “Beervana.” The rallying cry of the city's residents is
“Keep Portland Weird!”
and it works.
Portland is one of my favorite places. It has greenery, mild weather, friendly residents, the winding Willamette River, and one of the most up-and-coming food scenes anywhere. Sure, it has its gritty side. And its stodgy side. And yes, it sometimes trends too hard toward hipster haven. But the thing about Portland is that it's
earnest.
In my life, there's too little earnestness. Wandering the world can make you cynical.
I
can be cynical. Which was probably (along with the aforementioned murder) why I'd forgotten Carissa's engagement party weekend. We'd known each other in college, during my parents' brief fling with academia at a New England university. We'd gotten close. Then Carissa had pledged to a sorority, I'd (strenuously) objected in the way that only a self-styled emo kid could do (don't laugh—you've probably got a few embarrassing memories from college yourself), and that had been that. Not long after, I'd left for a sojourn in Belgium.
Surprisingly, distance had only brought us closer—probably because living on separate continents had a way of shrinking our differences. It had been tricky to stay in touch, but Carissa and I had been devoted. We'd emailed and shared, Instagrammed and video chatted. We'd managed. I was grateful to hang on to a friend who connected me to my onetime Ivy League past, and Carissa . . .
Well, Carissa now lived someplace that hadn't been touched since Norman Rockwell dabbled with Crayolas. Driving toward the food cart pod, where Carissa and Declan both worked—where I'd arranged to meet Carissa for a “surprise” (her word, not mine)—I passed Tudor-style cottages and Craftsman bungalows, California ranch homes and modern post-and-beam Rummers, foursquares with dormer windows and well-kept Colonials. I was Airbnb-ing it in the surrounding neighborhood, but rather than check in to my accommodations, I decided to go straight to Cartorama instead.
BOOK: Dangerously Dark
11.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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