Excerpt from Chapter 1
The bear wasn’t cuddly or cute. His eyes were squinty and mean, and his face was grimy. A harness – or was it a muzzle? – was around his snout, and he looked as if he resented it. In fact, he looked like he might take a bite out of anybody who tried to take a bite out of him.
“I don’t care how much milk chocolate you load into that mold,” I said. “That bear’s never going to be a teddy.”
The other bear molds looked dirty, too. The metal clamps that held the backs and fronts together were all askew, and their silver-colored metal seemed to be all tarnished. All of them looked as if they needed to be soaked in soapy water and scrubbed with a brush. I wasn’t impressed with the cleanliness of the dozen antique chocolate molds Aunt Nettie was arranging on the shelves of TenHuis Chocolade.
“I’d be glad to wash all of these,” I said.
“Wash them!” Aunt Nettie teetered on the top step of her kitchen step stool. “You don’t wash them!”
“But they’re dirty looking!”
“Those are chocolate stains.”
“Naturally, since they’re chocolate molds. But you don’t let the modern-day molds sit around dirty. Wouldn’t the antiques look better if they were cleaned up?”
Aunt Nettie clasped the mean-looking bear to the bib of the apron that covered her solid bosom and looked so horrified that I could tell my suggestion was making her wavy white hair stand on end, right through the holes in the white food-service hairnet she wore.
But she spoke patiently. “Lee, the plastic molds we use today won’t rust. These antique ones are tin plated, and they can rust. So the normal way to maintain them – back when they were in general use – was to put them away without washing them. The coating of chocolate was like oiling them. It kept them from rusting. When the old-time chocolatiers started on their next batch of chocolates – maybe a year later – then they’d wash them.”
“But since we don’t plan to use these, but just display them…”
“No, Lee. The chocolate traces show that the molds are authentic.” She held out the mold of the mean looking bear. “This one has been washed, and it wasn’t dried properly. It’s rusted already. I pointed that out to Gail Hess when she brought the molds by so she’d know we didn’t do it. Washing them would be like putting a coat of acrylic on a genuine Chippendale table.”
I didn’t argue.
My aunt, Jeanette TenHuis, is an expert on chocolate and is the boss of TenHuis Chocolade. I’d had to be told that lots of chocolate people use the European spelling – “mould” with a “u” – for the forms they use for making chocolates, and reserve the American “mold” to refer to that stuff along the hem of the shower curtain. No, I’m not just the bookkeeper – business manager, if you want to sound fancy. I pay the bills for the butter, cream, chocolate, and flavorings Aunt Nettie uses to make the most delicious bonbons, truffles, and molded chocolates ever placed into a human mouth, but I don’t take any part in how she assembles those ingredients.
“Anyway, I think the molds will get us into the teddy bear spirit,” Aunt Nettie said.
“The chamber of commerce committee ought to approve,” I said. “They’re going to look nice, even if they are a bit dingy.”
The little retail area of TenHuis Chocolade was looking quite festive. Warner Pier, already tourism central for western Michigan in the summer, was making a special push to draw winter visitors, and the chamber of commerce had decided on “A Teddy Bear Getaway” as the theme for a late-winter production of Teddy and His Bear, a comic look at the hunting exploits of Teddy Roosevelt. The Warner Pier Sewing Society had costumed the high school choir as toys, and the kids were going to present a concert with “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” as a theme. The twelve blocks of the Warner Pier business district and dozens of the town’s authentic Victorian houses were festooned with bear banners, and cuddly bears shinned up the pseudo-gaslights on each corner. The Warner Pier restaurants – the ones that are open on the off season – were serving honey cakes and Turkey a la Teddy. There’s a bed and breakfast on nearly every corner in Warner Pier, and the ones that were taking part in the promotion were so full of teddy bears there was hardly room for the guests. Their special Getaway rates had been advertised as far away as St. Louis and New York. The weather seemed to be cooperating, providing picturesque snow that made us look as if were decorated with stiffly starched antimacassars, but didn’t block the roads. The snowmobile rental places were gearing up, and volunteers were checking the cross-country ski trails. Even the Warner Pier bars were offering specials – bear beer and teddy tonics. The official Warner Pier greeting was a bear hug.
We were cuddly as all get out.
TenHuis Chocolade, one of the specialty shops catering to the town’s wealthy visitors and part-time residents, was getting into the spirit by displaying antique chocolate molds, loaned to us by Gail Hess, who ran the antique shop across the street and who was chairman of the promotion.
“I want to have these up by the time Gail comes back,” Aunt Nettie said.
I left Aunt Nettie to arrange the molds and got down on my knees to festoon swags of red velvet ribbon along the edge of the glass showcase. Since I’m close to six feet tall, I would have had to bend way over to do it standing up, but kneeling put the counter almost at eye level for me. Of course, it also meant that the glass front of the showcase reflected my face in a frightening close-up. I’m not used to seeing every strand of my Michigan Dutch blond hair – pulled back George Washington style – and every speckle in my Texas hazel eyes jump at me in such detail.
The showcase was already filled with an artfully arranged selection of TenHuis teddy bear specialties. We had a milk chocolate teddy who was much more jovial than the cranky-looking antique one, tiny teddy bears in milk or white chocolate, a twelve-inch-high teddy with a white chocolate grin and dark chocolate eyes. Interspersed among the large molded items were miniature gift boxes of gold and silver, each stuffed with yummy TenHuis truffles and bonbons and molded bears. Est of all, I thought, were the gift certificates – beautiful parchment scrolls peeking out of backpacks worn by eight-inch teddy bears or held in the paws of cunning six-inch cubs.
There were no peppermints or hard candies here. TenHuis makes only fine, European-style chocolates – bonbons, truffles, and molded treats.
I had just put the final red velvet swag on the counter when the door opened and Gail blew in.
It wasn’t really a pun. Gail Hess walked and talked so fast that a conversation with her was like standing out in a high wind. She was fiftyish, maybe twenty years older than I was, and she wore her frankly fake red hair cut short and tousled – as if it had been styled by a hurricane. She always left me feeling as if I were back in my hometown on the Texas plains, facing into one of our thirty-mile-an-hour breezes.
Gail began talking as rapidly as usual. “IsOliviahereyet?”
My Texas ears didn’t understand a word she said. Aunt Nettie seemed to, though she looked surprised. “Olivia VanHorn?” she asked.
“Yes. I invited her to come by.”
“I didn’t even know she was back in town.”
“She’s clearing out her mother’s house. I was afraid she would be here before me. Nettie, the molds look lovely!”
Aunt Nettie gave an antique teddy a final tweak, then climbed down from her step stool. She seemed puzzled. I wondered what was bothering her. It couldn’t be the arrangement of the chocolate molds. Gail had just admired them, anyway. It must be the mention of this Olivia person.
“Who is Olivia VanHorn,” I said, “and why does she want to see the display of molds?”
Gail looked at me. “Oh, Lee, I keep forgetting you’re almost a stranger to Warner Pier. Being Nettie’s niece and all. Though I will say you two don’t look as if you’re related.”
“We’re not blood relations,” Aunt Nettie said. “Phil was Lee’s mother’s brother. Lee has the TenHuis head for business. I bless the day she agreed to help me out. “
“And I bless the day she agreed to help me get out of Dallas,” I said.
We both laughed. The secret, of course, is that Aunt Nettie and I just love each other. And we respect our differences. So we’re able to work together all day and share a house at night without getting on each other’s nerves too often.
“Phil always handled the business side, so I was lost after he died,” Aunt Nettie said. “Lee’s got me back on my feet.”
I gritted my teeth at that one. Aunt Nettie’s business was still teetering, and we had an obnoxious banker leaning over our shoulders to prove it. But I didn’t want to tell the other Warner Pier merchants that, so I changed the subject. “Now, back to my question. Who is Olivia VanHorn?”