When most people find out what I do for a living, they have one of two reactions. Either they think my life is a nonstop vacation (because of all the traveling I do), or they think I must have a sweet tooth the size of Texas (because of all the chocolate I sample). The truth is, those people are not wrong.
visit my share of exotic locales. The Taj Mahal. The Eiffel Tower. The Great Wall of China. All of them (and more) have starring roles in my Instagram feed. And I
taste more than the typical amount of chocolate. Caramel truffles. Triple mocha brownies. Cocoa cake with raspberry buttercream.
I'm guilty. Guilty as charged.
But that's not because I'm an incurable vagabond
because I'm a glutton for
It's becauseâin the first caseâmy eccentric Uncle Ross's will stipulates that I keep moving . . . at least if I want to supply myself with couverture spoons and Converse (and I do). It's also becauseâin the second caseâsharpening my renowned taste buds with all the latest chocolaty treats is my job. Seriously. It really is.
See, I'm the world's first (and maybe only) official chocolate whisperer. You've probably never heard of me. That's exactly the way I like it. My clients hire me on a discreetâoften undercoverâbasis to troubleshoot their floundering cakes, cookies, and confections . . . to fine-tune their frappÃ©s, mousses, and mendiants. That means that if you
like your favorite candy bar or frozen mocha drink,
might be partly responsible. Think of a famous confectioner, restaurant, or international chocolate conglomerate. I've probably consulted with them.
They'll never admit it, though. Neither will I.
In my business, discretion trumps all.
At the moment, I was in London on a job, but you wouldn't have known it to look at me. I don't carry a briefcase or consult via conference call. I don't brag about my prowess or troll for customers. I don't carry five-kilo bars of chocolate with me and whip up ganache on demand. I simply travel the globe at least six months out of every year, fixing things for my appreciative client base and enjoying life while I'm at it.
I've always had a knack for
. I don't know where it came from. I simply
precisely, how any given chocolate should taste, how it should smell, how it should snap and melt, and how it should best be enjoyed. (Slowly, at body temperature, in case you're curious.) My specialty is taking any given chocolate from “okay” to “excellent” to “ohmigod
!” I'm happy to say that I've never disappointed a client, no matter how problematic their issues (or they themselves) were.
Which wasn't to say that I wasn't considering doing exactly that at the moment. Disappointing a client, that is. Because my latest consultee, Phoebe Wright, had just popped up on my cell phone's screen, demanding that I answer her call. And I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Not immediately, at least.
I glanced at her image, seriously debating pocketing my phone instead of getting down to business. I hemmed. I hawed. I frowned at Phoebe's pretty brunette image. She was nice.
nice. Thirtysomething, pink-cheeked, polite to a fault, and very,
British. Phoebe was prone to tea breaks, crumbly Cadbury Flake bars, and marathon viewings of soapy BBC historical dramas like “
”ânot that she'd admit such a plebian pastime to any of her posh acquaintances, of course.
Phoebe wasn't someone I would call a friend. Not exactly. We were of similar ages. We were sociable, too. And I do make that transition with some of my clients. But I didn't see it happening with Phoebe. She was a bit
pinkies-in-the-air for me. She wouldn't have been caught dead pub-crawling with me on a typical Tuesday, for instanceâunlike my best pal, Danny Jamieson, my sometime security expert, who was working back in the States while I enjoyed Guinness, West Ham matches, and Maltesers without him. Not necessarily in that order.
But Phoebe wasâtemporarily, at leastâmy boss. Duty was (literally) calling. In my business, there's no such thing as “after hours.” I'm always on the hook.
I stopped in the midst of the shopping I'd been doing and picked up the call. Before I could say hello, Phoebe spoke.
“Hiya, Hayden!” she crowed cheerfully, her bonhomie amped by years of privilege and elite schooling. “Listen, I'm sorry to trouble you this way, but I can't quite remember if I locked up the shop properly today. Hugh bollixed up a whole batch of brownies, the poor thing, and I'm afraid I was very distracted when I dashed out. He didn't understand what went wrong. Of course, coming from his background he wouldn't, would he? So anyway, we mustn't say anything more, given the circumstances, mustn't we? So let's just never mind that.” She inhaled. “Anyway, the thing is, would you mind checking on it for me? Just pop over and wiggle the doorknob a bit, that's all. Primrose really oughtn't be left open all night, now should it?”
Couched in Phoebe-speak, that meant
get your butt over to Sloane Square and lock up my chocolaterie-pÃ¢tisserie for me.
I knew that. Phoebe might be full of
and other courteous fillers, but she was the daughter of a peer. Technically, she was the Honourable Phoebe Wright. She had no compunction about telling me what to doâno
As far as Phoebe knew, I was right around the corner. Hers wasn't an unreasonable request. Not really. But I was much farther from Sloane Square than that. I was supposed to have been meeting friends in Leicester Square to see a show. Having planned for the vagaries of London Underground service, I'd arrived in the West Endâthe “Broadway” of the U.K.âearlier than was strictly necessary. So I'd decided to kill time with one of my favorite jet-setting activities: browsing for groceries.
I know, it doesn't sound glamorous. But bear with me.
over the world during my (barely) thirty years of life. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that nothing else gives you a sense of the culture of a place more than the local grocery store. It doesn't matter if it's big or small, fancy or utilitarian, a bodega or a supermarchÃ©. All that matters is that it's
And, in the case of the Marks & Spencer store not far from Covent Garden, that it carries black currant jam, one of my absolute favorite British foods.
My delight with grocery stores doesn't stop with jam, though. I'll happily pick up anchiote seeds in YucatÃ¡n, samsa in Kashgar, or unrefrigerated eggs in Monoprix (“Monop” to the French). In Tokyo, I always hit up a
for cherry-blossom-flavored KitKat bars (provided it's springtime), and when I'm in Oz, you'll find me stocking up on delicious Capilano honey.
Phoebe, unaware of my zeal for foodstuffs, waited on the line. Hey, I'm a food professional. I was (sort of) working.
“Of course, I will.” Silently, I began composing a texted apology to my friends. “I'll stop by Primrose right away.”
“Would you? That's fab! Thanks ever so much, Hayden!”
“It's all part of the service.” I sidestepped a harried Tube commuter. They swarmed shops like M&S and Pret at lunchtime and after work, moving with prototypical city speed. “I'll let you know what I find when I get there. You can count on me.”
I heard Phoebe exhale with relief. Her worrywart tendencies could be tough to manageâmostly because I'm not a world-class worrier myself, so I can't relate. I leave the teeth-gnashing to Travis Turner, my trusty financial adviser. He's good at fretting. He's good at everything. Gallingly, he's younger than me, too. It hardly seems fair that Travis should be so organized, so responsible, and so brilliant . . . while I'm still trying to figure out all the intricacies of my favorite uncle's will.
I'd been fortunate enough to inherit a great deal of money when Uncle Ross died. It had definitely come with strings. I still missed him, though. I missed his laughter. His wild hair.
“Are you at a party?” I asked Phoebe, distracting both of us as I picked up on the sounds of a gathering. Glasses clinked. Music played. Conversations waxed and waned. “Having fun?”
“Oh, absolutely! Must dash, though. Kisses! Bye!”
With an amplified
Phoebe hung up. Now that she'd gotten me to do her bidding, I guessed, she didn't have time for chitchat. That was my life, though. I wasn't soul mates with my clients. I was a consultant. An expert one. But that was all.
Ooh, were those McVitie's Dark Chocolate Hobnobs?
They weren't. They were a knockoff of the famous cult cookies. But I was hooked, all the same. I grabbed a box, added it to my stash of British goodies, then headed for the tills.
It wouldn't be easy tromping all this stuff back across London on the Piccadilly and Victoria lines, but it would be worth it. I'd miss the show with my friends, but I'd have a few of my favorite goodies to comfort me while I texted them to reschedule. I'd be in London a while yet. I had plenty of time.
In the meantime, I'd almost forgotten my daily phone call to Travis. As a woman traveling solo, I couldn't be too careful about safety. Checking in with my financial adviser meant that at least one person knew whether I was happily gridskipping or unhappily being mugged at any given moment. Ordinarily, I like to savor my phone calls to Travis. I like to settle in, focus, and really melt into the experience. If you heard Travis's deep, sensual, faintly raspy voice, you'd do the same, believe me.
But given the time difference between The Big Smoke and downtown Seattle, where Travis's office was located, I sometimes had to compromise. That meant, in this instance, pocketing my colorful pound-sterling banknotes with their pictures of the Queen and heading for the closest Tube station while waiting for the man who held the purse strings to my fortune to pick up.
Promptly, he did. Hearing the call connect, I couldn't help smiling. Travis had that effect on me, despite everything.
“So, Travis . . . what are you wearing right now?”
It was my usual gambit. I couldn't shake Travis's financial leash, but I
let him know that I didn't intend to toe the line all the time. That's what my teasing opener was all about.
That . . . and the under-the-radar hope he'd (someday) tell me.
I'd been curious how things stood between us, but it turned out I hadn't needed to wonder. Travis's deep chuckle let me know that everything was copacetic. Despite the . . . incidents . . . in San Francisco and Portland that I'd run into, despite the borderline sketchy things that Travis had done to help me out of some dangerous situations in those cities, we were still buds.
“Hayden Mundy Moore.” His sexy, sonorous voice induced shivers. As usual. I imagined all the associates and admins in his office glancing up from their spreadsheets and swooning. “Shouldn't you be working? You don't have time to call me.”
have time to call you.”
“No, you don't. You have clients to see, chocolates to improve, cacao farmers to meet.” He knew my job as well as I did. I pictured him ticking off items on his talented hands. “Reports to write. Expenses to file. That reminds meâ”
He broke off, shuffling papers in the background. Yep. Papers. Evidently, financial management required old-fashioned tree killing. I wouldn't know. I'd never been to Travis's office in person. I'd never met
in person, believe it or not.
“Have you been using the app I recommended?” he asked.
I frowned, remembering. “The anti-procrastination app?”
“That's the one.” Crisply, he recited its name.
“Nope. I didn't have time. I forgot. I mean, it broke.” I picked up the pace, jogging as I spotted a roundelâthe iconic red, blue, and white symbol of the London Underground. “Anyway, my cell phone battery died. I don't think it was meant to be.”
“And your dog ate your homework?”
“Exactly!” I paused outside the station, adding one of those tawdry free tabloid papers to my bag. “You get me.”
This time, Travis laughed outright. “Nice try. Don't make me enlist the enforcer on this effort. I'll do it, believe me.”
“No. I still have nightmares about the last time you two collaborated on something.”
“I'll use it. I promise.”
nickname made me grin, though. He meant Danny, of course. My on-call bodyguard and longtime platonic pal.
I'd known Danny for ages. He was my frequent traveling partner, my favorite plus one for occasional fancy events, and my most trusted confidante. People tended to take Danny at face value. They saw six-plus feet of musclebound, sporadically tattooed security expert and nothing else. But I knew better.
I knew there was more to Danny Jamieson than sticky fingers, a shady past, and a scowl that intimidated even the most hardened criminals . . . maybe because he was one of them at heart, no matter how far he'd moved from his bad old neighborhood.
Recently, “the enforcer” (Danny) had teamed up with “Harvard” (Travis) to make sure I took matters appropriately seriously while on assignment in Bridgetownâthe up-and-coming foodie nirvana of Portland, Oregon. Having the men in my life, the two of them archenemies, team up to “help” me had been . . .
Well, let's just call it
and leave it at that.