Cheddar Off Dead by Korina Moss: Featured Excerpt

In Korina Moss's cozy series debut, Cheddar Off Dead, cheesemonger Willa Bauer discovers that her new home in a small Sonoma Valley town is ripe for murder. Read an excerpt below!

 

Chapter 1

“Taleggio.” I presented the younger couple with a sample of the dense, pale yellow cheese with its orange edible rind. I watched for their reaction, knowing they’d sense a pudding silkiness on their tongue just a moment before delighting in its mellow sweetness and lingering earthy aftertaste.

When their smiles told me I was right, I handed them a recipe card. “This artichoke risotto is amazing with Taleggio cheese. It’s very easy to make, but sure to impress.”

The newly married couple would be hosting their parents for the first time and were relieved to get help with dinner ideas. I could’ve kept them in my shop for hours sampling cheeses that would elevate even the most basic recipes, but I’d learned in my years training in cheese shops all over the country not to overwhelm the customer on their first visit. They agreed to the Taleggio.

I cut a portion from the refrigerated glass case by the checkout counter. My co-worker, Mrs. Schultz—“smack-dab” in her sixties, as she liked to say—was cutting and wrapping their charcuterie selections. Deluged by the choices upon entering the shop, they’d homed in on the day’s highlighted varieties, which were advertised on chalkboards hung on the raised panel wall behind the counter. In their panic, they’d ordered “one of each.” Instead, I spent time with the couple at our sampling counter so they could make a more informed choice about their cheese purchases. It was the very reason I made sure we always had a glass-covered platter of soft and aged cheeses to be tasted with accompaniments like crispy baguettes or chewy dried apricots. I never want anyone to be intimidated by cheese.

While Mrs.  Schultz was finishing up their order, I scanned the shop to make sure Guy Lippinger from All Things Sonoma hadn’t arrived without my noticing. I’d been open barely two weeks, but somehow the magazine critic discovered my French-inspired cheese shop in the small town of Yarrow Glen. His review could determine whether my shop prospered or died—no biggie.

I also had my fingers crossed that a good review would be published in time for the Sonoma’s Choice awards next month. I could use all the publicity I could get. I’d sunk every dime I’d made the last eight years into Curds & Whey, and signed for a hefty loan on top of that. Receiving the most votes for Best New Business would give my shop a boost, so I needed to get Curds & Whey noticed pronto.

I smoothed the wheat-colored shop apron I was wearing over my white blouse and khakis, which were cuffed above my ankles. I had a hard time finding pants to fit both my short stature and my cottage-cheese thighs. Hey, at least I came by them honestly. I reconsidered my shoes. I’d chosen my fanciest Keds this morning from the eight pairs in my closet. Did striped navy triple platforms properly represent me as a certified cheesemonger?

Mr. Lippinger still hadn’t arrived, leaving my nerves cranked on high. I stood at the door to glimpse my shop as he might when he walked in. There was no denying my French-inspired design. The textured orange-gold walls resembled rich wallpaper above raised panel wainscoting the color of light butterscotch. It was offset by a full antique oak-paneled wall behind the counters. But the real star of the shop was the cheese. Distressed turned-leg tables held stacked wheels of aged cheeses in wax casings and wrapped wedges from all over the world, so they towered over jars of relishes, olives, and jams. Reclaimed wood shelves lined one wall, crowded with more hard cheeses. Related items, such as picnic baskets and floral table cloths, along with pairing snacks like nuts, dried fruits, and cured meats, were scattered throughout the shop. Snug in the rear corner was a kitchenette. Everything looked perfect to my eye, but it didn’t calm my nerves.

I went to one of the front windows to fuss with the display. I rearranged some of the well-known Italian wedges—Asiago, Romano, Pecorino Locatelli, Parmigiano-Reggiano—to entice passersby who couldn’t smell their heady aroma until they stepped inside. It was meditative, tweaking each cheese wedge so it sat in harmony with the others—not too aligned like soldiers, but not too chaotic as to look messy. It was a quiet skill to achieve a measured disorder of cheeses.

Mrs. Schultz finished ringing up the couple’s purchase. I’d suggested when she started working here that she dress comfortably under her Curds & Whey apron, especially because she rode her bike to work. However, she insisted on wearing her usual attire, which was a fit and flare dress paired with a loose scarf. She looked like an updated Lucy Ricardo, but with the curly blonde hair of her sidekick, Ethel.

The newlyweds thanked us as they left and I returned the sentiment perhaps a little too aggressively as I followed them out the door, repeating “Thank you” and “Come again” multiple times. I couldn’t help but be grateful for every customer.

“They’re going to have strange dreams tonight,” Mrs. Schultz declared after they left.

“Oh? Why do you say that?”

“Everyone knows eating cheese at night gives you strange dreams.”

Mrs. Schultz was a lot like her statements—very matter-of-fact, but also a little out there. When she applied for the job, she let me know she preferred to be addressed as “Mrs. Schultz,” thank you. Perhaps her background as a high school drama teacher explained her unconventionality.

The squeal of metal upon metal brought our attention outside, where a delivery truck braked to a stop in front of the shop. I took a detour to the sampling counter, then hurried to the sidewalk.

The driver hopped out of the box truck he’d double-parked. “You Willa Bauer?”

“I am,” I said.

He opened the back of the truck, then took a second look at Curds & Whey. “That your shop?”

I nodded and looked at it, too, beaming with pride like a new mom. The façade was encased in wide cream-colored molding with Curds & Whey painted in teal in a sweeping font. Beneath the name, the matching teal front door with a six-paneled window was kept open in the pleasant April weather for customers to wander in. On either side of the door, plate-glass windows displayed shelves of aged cheeses in differing shapes and sizes, their wheels cut open to reveal their speckled textures and varying white and yellow coloring. On the top tier of the wire shelves were brightly painted milk jugs and metal sheep and cow sculptures beside a stack of cheese-lovers’ cookbooks. It was a feast for the eyes.

I knew my cheese shop would have to compete for attention with the dozen other wonderful stores on Pleasant Avenue, directly perpendicular to the busier Main Street in the center of town. The street was a hodgepodge of mostly older flat-roofed buildings, which were renovated into shops and cafés with second-story offices or cozy apartments. Shoppers strolled the wide brick-lined sidewalks dotted with crepe myrtle trees awakening for spring. Curds & Whey was adjoined on one side by Carl’s Hardware and abutted on the other by an alley, separating it from the next pair of shops.

“It’s new, huh?” the driver noted.

“Brand spankin’,” I answered. “ Here.” I handed him a cocktail napkin with the last square of cheese from the sampling platter.

“What is it?” He took it from me.

“Aged goat Gouda.”

His eyes squinted skeptically at the unfamiliar offering. “Never heard of it.”

“I promise you’ll like it.”

He put it up to his nose. The crease between his brows disappeared. “Smells kind of like . . .”

“Butter pecan ice cream?”

“That might be an exaggeration.”

I laughed. “Try it.”

He popped the nugget of cheese into his mouth, then nodded in approval. “It’s not butter pecan ice cream, but I like it.”

I smiled. There were few things more satisfying than introducing people to flavors and textures they’d never experienced before. “Come in anytime. We’ve got lots more.”

“I think I just might.” He returned his attention to his clipboard. “It’s just the one box, otherwise I’d have pulled into the alley.”

“This’ll do.”

I rubbed my arms over my rolled-sleeved blouse to ward off a chill. April weather in Sonoma Valley was warm when the sun was high, but as soon as it dipped behind the mountains in the late afternoon, the temperature followed suit.

Nineteen-year-old Archie, my other store clerk, came to meet us at the truck. His affable smile was as ever present as his freckles and the port-wine stain birthmark across his left cheek. His board shorts mostly hid his knobby knees, but he didn’t seem chilled in the least under his T-shirt and Curds & Whey apron. The driver passed his clipboard to me. I checked the sheet carefully. This was a custom order and I wanted to be sure it was right before I signed it.

“Willa, where do you want this?” Archie’s strained voice matched his reddening face as he cradled the heavy wooden box of cheese in his skinny arms. He staggered from the truck through the doorway of the shop. I hastily passed the clipboard to the driver, shouted a thank-you, and raced to the checkout counter ahead of Archie. I cleared off the corner, helping him lift the round box onto it. He shook his arms and squeezed his nonexistent biceps, probably trying to get the blood flowing through his rangy limbs again.

“You should’ve let me help you,” I said.

“It didn’t look that heavy. I was excited to get it inside. It’s what we’ve been waiting for, isn’t it?”

What my new clerk lacked in cheese knowledge, he made up for in enthusiasm. I thanked him and walked behind the counter to remove the aged artisan cheddar from its box. Even though I bought my clothes in the petite section, I was used to pulling palettes and heaving cheese wheels during my decade working in cheese shops across the country, so I was able to lift this particularly heavy custom wheel on my own.

“So this is the secret cheddar wheel we’ve been expecting?” Mrs. Schultz asked.

“It is. We’ll be encouraging the customers to guess its weight. We’ll put a jar next to it where they can put in their written guess along with their email address. At the end of the month, whoever comes closest without going over will win a sample of it, delivered if they choose. It’ll be fun. Hopefully we’ll get enough addresses to start sending out a newsletter.”

“It’s gotta be over a hundred pounds,” Archie ventured his own guess.

I didn’t want to correct him and bruise his ego. “Cheese wheels are usually standard weights, so I had it custom made so nobody can find the answer on the internet.”

“So how much does it weigh?”

“It might be easier to keep it a secret if I don’t tell you.”

Archie looked dejected, but Mrs. Schultz nodded.

“Mr. Schultz had a tell whenever we played poker,” Mrs. Schultz told us, which left me wondering about her poker-playing days. “His left ear would burn red if he had a really good hand. No one else seemed to catch on to it but me.”

She often interjected her late husband into conversations. It was understandable—I was still occasionally reminded of my ex-fiancé, and we’d only been together a few years. After forty years together as the Schultzes had been, I imagined pretty much everything would be a reminder of him.

“Should I take a picture for the website?” Archie pulled out his phone.

“Good idea.” I turned the cheese wheel one way and then the other, futilely looking for its best angle.

I was able to get Curds & Whey on the California cheese trail, an online list of creameries and cheese shops for cheese-loving travelers to visit, so our linked website was important. All tourists had to do was venture off the beaten path to this nook of northern California’s Sonoma Valley, and I knew they’d fall in love with our small town of Yarrow Glen, as I had. Hopefully, they’d fall in love with my cheese shop, too.

“The chalkboard signs I made for it are in the back,” I told Archie. “Check my office for them.”

He nodded and went to retrieve them.

“I’m glad it got here before Mr. Lippinger.” I eyed the wall clock. “It’s only two hours until closing, so he’s got to be coming soon, right?” I pressed my hair behind my ears, a nervous habit I’d developed since getting it cut short. It hadn’t quite grown enough to pull it into a ponytail.

Mrs. Schultz obviously sensed my jitters. “There’s an exercise I used to do with my drama students when they’d get nervous right before a performance.”

“Oh, that’s okay, I—”

“Breathe in from the diaphragm, Willa.” She inhaled audibly to demonstrate.

It was a few moments before I realized she was still holding her breath, waiting for me to follow her lead, so I quickly inhaled to keep her from passing out.

“Exhale through the mouth.” She exhaled like she was blowing up a stubborn balloon.

I did as I was told.

“Now we’re going to project our voices from the back of our throat.”

“Um, why?”

“It pushes the tension out of the body.”

“Maybe we should stick with the breathing?”

A guttural sound came from Mrs. Schultz, long and loud like an angry moose. No one was in the shop, but I looked out the front windows to make sure we weren’t scaring anybody away.

She stopped only long enough to say, “Do it with me, Willa.” And then the low moan began again.

It seemed the only way to stop her was to do it, too, so I joined her in making moose noises.

Archie came running out from the stockroom. “Are you two all right?”

Thankfully, this ended Mrs. Schultz’s lesson.

“How do you feel now?” she asked.

I assessed myself quickly. Surprisingly, I did feel better. “I actually feel pretty good.”

A man close to Mrs. Schultz’s age walked in, and my newly relaxed state vanished.

“Welcome to Curds and Whey,” I announced, unintentionally sounding like a circus ringmaster welcoming him to the greatest show on earth. I was about to ask if he was Mr. Lippinger when he inquired about a restroom. Thoroughly deflated, I pointed out where our sole bathroom was, and he hurried to it.

I directed Archie where to place the chalkboard signs alerting our customers to guess the cheddar’s weight.

“When he does get here, he’s going to love your shop,” Mrs. Schultz said. “How could he not?”

I appreciated her assurances. “It’s nice to have a calm and supportive voice to drown out my anxious one. I bet you were the most popular teacher at your school.”

She smiled. “All my students had their share of talent. What separated them was their level of confidence. I felt my job was to build their belief in themselves so they could perform to their potential.”

“Have you always been so self-assured, Mrs. Schultz?”

“More so when I was younger. When Mr. Schultz passed, I was already retired and I found myself becoming scared of almost everything. That’s why I applied for this job. I needed to get out of my . . . what do you call it? My comfort zone.”

“I’m thrilled you applied, then. I have to say, you covered your nervousness well in your interview. I wouldn’t have known it.”

“You just have to pinpoint one or two things about yourself that will secretly give you confidence for a particular situation.”

I could already list many things Mrs. Schultz was good at. “I recall you said you were a quick learner and a people person, both very true.”

“Those were standard interview answers, but they weren’t my confidence boosters.”

I laughed at her savvy. “May I ask what they are, then?”

“I have distinct taste buds and good ankles.”

“Even better!”

I looked at my shop, chock-full of cheese, but empty of customers. “I’m confident in my cheese, but I’d feel better with a few more customers milling about when he comes.”

“Will I do?” Roman Massey sauntered in, his voice as chill as his gait. I’d only met him once before at his Golden Glen Meadery across the street.

You’ll do just fine. I immediately rebuked myself for the unbidden thought.

“What—uh, what brings you in?” I stammered.

“I forgot what time you said the cheesemaking class will be tonight.”

“It’s at seven. You’re still able to come, I hope?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.” His lips formed a slow crooked smile. The dimple in his cheek wasn’t hidden by his close-shaven beard.

Gosh, he was cute—in an approachable way, not like a Chris Hemsworth way. He looked about my age, a few years over thirty. His manner seemed as laid back as his T-shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. I was determined not to let his easy charm get to me, though. I wasn’t about to let myself get sidetracked by another man. I’d keep my butterflies about Roman in check.

“Care to take a guess, Roman?” Mrs. Schultz indicated the new cheddar wheel.

“It’s a monster,” Archie offered, subconsciously massaging his arm again.

Before Roman ventured a guess, a woman in her early forties entered the shop with a warm smile and two laden paper bags. We all recognized Vivian, the bangs of her unnaturally vivid red hair stuck out underneath a bandana. The apron that hugged her full-figured curves was the same bright blue as the awning on Rise and Shine Bakery.

“I come bearing bread.” She transferred the larger bag to me, the warmth of the fresh loaves seeping through. She handed the other to Mrs. Schultz.

I thanked her, inhaling the aroma as I unpacked two crispy loaves of sturdy French bread and a fragrant rye for my soft cheese tastings. My creamier cheeses like Camembert and Brie coated all the nooks and crannies in her crispy baguettes. The deep-flavored, chewy rye loaf was perfect for the more pungent, buttery-textured blue cheeses. I wanted to be sure to have the freshest breads possible on hand today.

“Thanks for bringing mine by. I could’ve picked up my rolls before you closed,” Mrs. Schultz said to Vivian.

“I was afraid we’d run out before you got there. I don’t mind getting out of the kitchen. I had to bring the extra order for Willa, anyway. By the way, Archie, Hope’s saving you a cinnamon roll. For some reason, she didn’t want me to bring it over.” Vivian’s lighthearted bewilderment indicated she knew exactly the reason.

A pink flush crawled up Archie’s neck and rosied his cheeks. I hadn’t yet met Vivian’s niece, and had no clue before now that she and Archie might have a thing for each other.

“Nothing for me, Vivian?” Roman splayed his empty hands.

“I didn’t expect to see you here. Are you already starting in on the new girl?” She elbowed him playfully.

He seemed to take the ribbing in stride, but I was wide-eyed. What did she mean by that?

“Give her time to settle in, at least,” she continued. Then to me, “Watch out for him. He’s gone through all the single women in Yarrow Glen.”

“I haven’t dated you yet, Vivian,” Roman retorted just as good naturedly, adding a wink.

“If I decide to become a cougar, I’ll let you know.”

I chuckled at the exchange, but kept that piece of information in my mental file. There was always some truth to jokes, and Roman’s charm was evident.

“Sorry I was running late with the extra bread you ordered,” Vivian said to me.

“It’s actually good timing,” I assured her. “It’ll be nice and fresh when the critic from All Things Sonoma gets here. If he ever does. He’s supposed to review my shop for his magazine today.”

“Guy Lippinger’s coming here?” Vivian said, suddenly slack-jawed. She whipped her head around, as if he might be hiding behind the wedges of Manchego.

“You know of him? Has he reviewed your bakery?” I said.

“No, I got off the hook.”

“Off the hook? Won’t it be good publicity?” I surveyed their faces, every one of them apparent with anxiety.

“You told me some critic was coming,” Archie said to me. “You didn’t say it was Guy Lippinger.”

“What’s the difference? What do you all know that I don’t?”

Nobody was willing to speak up.

Vivian said, “I’ve got to get back to the bakery. You’ll be fine, Willa. I’ll lend you my motto: ‘Take one problem at a time.’”

“Does that mean Guy Lippinger’s going to be a problem?”

“I mean, don’t worry about things until they happen. I’ll see you at your class tonight.” She scurried away, calling out “Good luck” as she left.

That didn’t make me feel better. “Okay, what’s going on?” I looked the three culprits right in the eyes.

“You know I used to work at Apricot Grille before I started here,” Archie said.

“Yes.”

“Archie . . .” Mrs.  Schultz’s tone appeared to be a warning.

“Tell me, Archie,” I insisted.

Archie reluctantly continued, “He gave the manager Derrick a pretty scathing review. I didn’t read it, but Derrick sued him for defamation because of it.”

“It was that bad, huh?” This was the last thing I needed to hear right before his visit.

Archie tried to soften the blow. “Lippinger ended up settling, so . . . if he slams the shop, maybe you can sue?”

“Great.”

I went behind the counter where I took out the special cheese sampler I’d prepared for his visit. I was torn between needing to scarf down some soothing cheese and not wanting to disturb the beautiful platter I’d spent an hour meticulously arranging this morning. I’d included some varieties that would likely be new to the critic. I loved getting lost in the stories behind each one, like the firm Swiss I’d chosen, Kaltbach Le Crémeux. It’s named for the river that runs through the twenty-two-million-year-old sandstone caves near Lucerne where it’s aged.

What did it matter? I could probably eat ten pounds off that giant artisan cheddar wheel and still not feel calm. I left the cheese board alone and paced the wood floor instead.

“I told you not to tell her,” Mrs. Schultz admonished Archie in a whisper I still heard.

“It’s okay,” I said, trying to reassure myself as much as them. “We do our best and we don’t get upset.” Oh boy, now I was repeating my parents’ sayings.

I spent quite a bit of time as a kid trying to get out of mucking stalls and carrying grain and water buckets on our dairy farm. I didn’t love farming the way my younger brother Grayson did. My parents finally relented when I was a teenager and allowed me to trade off farm chores on the weekends for selling our cheese on my own at the farmer’s markets. I was thrilled with the arrangement at first, and not just because I wouldn’t be ankledeep in cow manure. People actually listened to me and believed in my expertise about our product. I didn’t realize then that I was experiencing a glimpse into my future, connecting with others through cheese. It was my first taste of independence with a dash of success thrown in, which only heightened my desire to prove to my parents that I could contribute in my own way.

However, as my expectations for myself rose, the pressure began to weigh on me. My father would say that was life’s way of keeping us humble. I could practically hear his voice now—“It’s not about the outcome, it’s about the work.” I started to feel guilty that my parents had given in to my complaints, seeing as how they never voiced their own. In the Bauer family, you didn’t brag and you especially didn’t complain. “We do our best and we don’t get upset.

So I couldn’t be giddy about the days I sold every wedge or grouse about the times I didn’t. Not to my parents, anyway. Grayson, still barely in middle school, would high-five me when I returned from the farmer’s market with an empty cooler. Even if he understood the dairy cows more than he did my adolescent worries about being my own person, he listened. My parents supported my desire for something more than just an honest day’s work, but they didn’t understand it. They wouldn’t appreciate my apprehension about the opinion of Guy Lippinger, a stranger. They would say his judgment didn’t change what I knew about cheese or the work I’d put into my shop. And they’d be right.

I stopped pacing, but my craving for cheese remained.

A rapid pair of dings sounded. All of us checked our cell phones—except for Mrs. Schultz, that is. She had an aversion to them and didn’t keep her phone on her, even though the full-skirt dresses she wore tended to have enviable pockets.

The text was Roman’s. He checked it briefly, then said, “I have to get back to the meadery.” He stepped closer to me and trapped my gaze with his. “You’re going to do great. Don’t doubt yourself. I’ll see you tonight.” He threw a wave to Archie and Mrs. Schultz, then left the shop, leaving me with a tingly sensation I didn’t approve of.

I had to admit, though, he was right. Maybe I still had some lingering doubts about moving to a new town where I knew no one, but I never doubted myself when I was in my element—I know cheese the way a vintner knows wine. There’s no way Guy Lippinger would be anything less than impressed.

“One critic’s opinion either way is not going to change how incredible our shop is.” I was really channeling my parents now.

“That’s the spirit,” Mrs. Schultz said.

I went back to the samples board and lifted the glass dome. “Let’s toast to our hard work.” We each plucked a toothpicked piece of cheese off the board, gathered in a circle, and held them aloft, as if we were knights raising our swords in alliance.

“To Curds and Whey,” we toasted, and enjoyed the bite.

“There’s almost nothing an exceptional piece of cheese can’t fix,” I said afterward. “I’m feeling better already.”

The customer I’d forgotten about came out of the restroom. Before I could offer him a cheese sample, he said, “By the way, your toilet’s stopped up. Sorry.” He hustled out of the shop.

I looked at Archie and Mrs. Schultz and turned back to the cheese board. “I think it might take more than one piece.”

Copyright © 2022 by Korina Moss. All rights reserved.



About Cheddar Off Dead by Korina Moss:

Cheesemonger Willa Bauer is proving that sweet dreams are made of cheese. She’s opened her very own French-inspired cheese shop, Curds & Whey, in the heart of the Sonoma Valley. The small town of Yarrow Glen is Willa’s fresh start, and she’s determined to make it a success—starting with a visit from the local food critic. What Willa didn’t know is that this guy never gives a good review, and when he shows up nothing goes according to plan. She doesn’t think the night can get any worse…until she finds the critic’s dead body, stabbed with one of her shop’s cheese knives. Now a prime suspect, Willa has always believed life’s problems can be solved with cheese, but she’s never tried to apply it to murder…

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