Dec 27 2016 10:04am
Fudge and Jury: New Excerpt
Fudge and Jury is the 5th book in the Bakeshop Mystery series (Available January 3, 2017)
Welcome to Torte—a friendly, small-town family bakery where the pastries are delicious…and, now, suspicious.
It’s almost spring in Ashland, Oregon, and the town is preparing for the Shakespeare and the annual Chocolate Festival. Business is cookin’ at Torte, and the store is expanding as Jules’ team whips up crèpes filled with mascarpone cheese and dark chocolate. Torte stands a chance of being this year’s confectionery belle of the ball! Life couldn’t be sweeter—unless murder taints the batter.
Evan Rowe, of Confections Couture, makes a chocolate fountain that would put Willy Wonka to shame, and his truffles are to die for—literally? Yes, the world-renowned chocolatier has just turned up dead…right after sampling a slice of Jules’ decadent four-layer chocolate cake. Now all eyes are on Jules as she tries to find the mysterious ingredient in her own recipe. Can she sift out the truth before another contestant bites the buttercream?
They say that chocolate makes everything better; I agree. Torte, our family bakeshop, looked as if it had been dipped in chocolate. Every square inch of counter space was filled with chocolate tarts, chocolate éclairs, chocolate cakes, chocolate cookies, and chocolate truffles. Whimsical chocolate posters promoting Ashland’s annual Chocolate Festival hung on the bakeshop’s front windows and the scent of chocolate simmering on the stove permeated the cozy kitchen.
Every March in Ashland, Oregon, my hometown hosts one of the largest chocolate festivals in the Pacific Northwest. This year Torte had been chosen as one of the showcase vendors, which meant we would have a prominent booth in the center of all the delicious action and have an opportunity to showcase our chocolate artistry. Being recognized as a showcase vendor was a huge accolade, but also meant that we had to prepare double—if not triple—the amount of chocolate samples. Our staff had been working around the clock.
I surveyed the kitchen. It looked like a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Chocolate bubbled on the stove and cooled in long thin sheets on the butcher-block island. Stephanie drizzled white, dark, and milk chocolate over marzipan. Mom dipped shortbread cookies in vats of molten chocolate. I twisted the lid onto an industrial-sized container of cocoa powder and brushed dust from my hands.
In addition to the bakeshop being taken over by chocolate, we were in the middle of a remodel. After months of skimping and saving, Mom and I had finally managed to amass enough cash to purchase the new ovens we desperately needed. Since the Chocolate Festival would take place over four days, we decided to close Torte for the duration of the fest. Andy, Stephanie, and Sterling, our small but mighty staff, would focus on the kitchen upgrade while Mom and I dazzled guests with our chocolate confections at the festival.
I moved canisters of sugar and flour to the side and gave the whiteboard a final glance. I had worked out a schedule that would allow enough time to clean and prep the kitchen, paint, reorganize and inventory our stock, upgrade our ordering and payment system, and—fingers crossed that everything went as planned—to install the new ovens just in time to reopen for business on Monday. The Chocolate Festival kicked off tomorrow, which meant that the team had two and half days to complete everything on our to-do list before the installers arrived with our ovens on Sunday afternoon. It was going to be tight, but I was confident we could pull it off.
No one at Torte was afraid of hard work or a little elbow grease. I knew that was due to Mom’s incredible work ethic. I smiled as I watched her dunk a shortbread cookie in dark chocolate and banter with Stephanie. She set an example for our young staff; despite the fact that she was in her mid-fifties she was still one of the first people to arrive at the bakeshop every morning and last to leave.
She had been at Torte’s helm since my dad died, and thanks to her tireless effort, kind listening ear, and delicious bread and pastries, Torte was thriving. I wanted her to thrive too. As the thought passed she turned and caught my eye. Her face was bright. “What is it, honey?”
“Oh, nothing,” I replied, sliding the canisters back into place. “Just going over the schedule one more time.”
Mom chuckled and winked at Stephanie. “Is that the hundredth time so far this morning?”
Stephanie poured white chocolate onto parchment paper. “At least.”
I ignored their teasing, and walked to the sink to rinse cocoa powder from my hands. As much as I knew that Mom loved the bakeshop, I also knew that she was due for a vacation. She and the Professor, Ashland’s resident detective and Shakespeare buff, had been getting serious. The Professor wanted to travel, but Mom had been reluctant to commit and I had a sneaking suspicion I knew why—me.
When I returned to Ashland last summer my heart was broken. I’d left everything I knew, including my husband, at sea. Being back in Ashland, surrounded by warm and welcoming familiar faces and Torte’s bright cherry-red and teal walls was exactly what the doctor ordered. My heart had finally started to mend. It helped that Carlos, my semi-estranged husband, had made a surprise visit to southern Oregon last month. When we had parted ways we agreed that we would take a hiatus. He was the last person I expected to show up in Ashland.
At first the distraction of having him back in my life and back in my kitchen had been overwhelming, but after a few days we fell into our old easy rhythm. I guess in some ways it was inevitable. Food was our love language. We didn’t even need to speak when we were in the kitchen together, our bodies remembered. We moved in a comfortable easy cadence just like we had on the ship. But things were different now. Carlos had lied to me. He had hidden the fact that he had a son for the duration of our marriage. I hadn’t been sure that I could forgive him for that.
When he first arrived I was angry, but that had begun to dissipate. Of course I was sad and disappointed that he had kept something so important from me, but I began to understand why. He was trying to protect his son, Ramiro. I couldn’t blame him for that.
It would have been so much easier if I could have stayed angry with him. When Carlos was oceans away I had been able to concentrate my time and energy on Torte and let thoughts of us slip into the recesses of my brain. He became more like a fuzzy dream—until he showed up in real life and flipped everything upside down again. His sultry dark eyes and playful personality had sucked me back in, and I found myself not only forgiving him, but falling for him again.
Then, as quickly as he had appeared, he was gone. My heart hurt, but not like it had when I left him. Things were healing between us and, for the first time, I knew that Carlos loved me and would do anything for me. But that didn’t change the fact that we were worlds apart. My life on the ship was a distant memory. My future was at Torte, and only time would tell if Carlos was part of that future. For the moment, he was back on the ship and sailing under sunny Caribbean skies, and I was due at a meeting on the other side of the plaza.
I shook myself free from my thoughts and concentrated on my immediate surroundings. Mom and Dad used to tease me about living in my head too much when I was growing up. I blame them; after all, they named me Juliet Montague Capshaw. A name like Juliet requires time spent in your head.
The clock on the far wall signaled that it was a few minutes before noon. I needed to get moving. I dried my hands, untied my apron and folded it on the island. “Back in a few,” I called to Stephanie and Mom and headed for the front door.
The sky dripped like a leaky faucet as I stepped onto Main Street. It had been raining for five days, which was a rarity in Ashland. Many tourists are surprised to learn that we get very little rain in this corner of the state. People tend to think that Oregon is one giant mud puddle. While there’s some truth to that—Portland and the surrounding valleys west of the Cascade Mountains tend to get waterlogged—Ashland has a much more Mediterranean climate. It’s one of the sunniest cities in the Pacific Northwest, another reason I was happy to call it home.
I pulled my rain jacket over my head and ducked under the red and white striped awning at Puck’s Pub. In addition to boasting a serene climate, Ashland is also known around the world as being home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Our quaint downtown plaza could be mistaken for an old English village. Most of the buildings are Shakespeare–themed, with ornate façades and gables, and many of the shops have witty Bard-inspired names, like Puck’s. Right now I was on my way to meet with Rosalind Gates, the president of the downtown business association. Rosalind had been working with the city to preserve Ashland’s old-world charm. The city (thanks to Rosalind’s persistence) had recently passed new design ordinances in order to ensure that businesses in the busy plaza adhered to the Elizabethan aesthetic.
Rosalind was spearheading a grant program to help small businesses, like Torte, expand. That’s why I was meeting with her today. I tucked a white paper bag with our Torte logo stamped on the front into the inside pocket of my jacket and hurried along the wet sidewalk.
Hearth & Home, the brokerage firm where I was meeting Rosalind, was located just outside the plaza. I headed toward Lithia Park and took a right at the end of Main Street. Rain spattered on my jeans and soaked through my tennis shoes.
When I arrived at the homey, wood-framed building, I pushed open the glass door and stepped inside. Rosalind was waiting for me near the reception desk. Her silver hair was tucked behind her ears, revealing plastic earrings in the silhouette of Shakespeare’s bust. She wore a purple T-shirt that read ASHLAND: SUCH STUFF AS DREAMS ARE MADE ON. The last time I’d seen Rosalind she had been sporting a SAVE OUR SHAKESPEARE shirt when a chain restaurant threatened to move into the plaza.
“New shirt?” I asked, taking off my raincoat and hanging it on a rack by the door.
She glanced at her chest. “Do you like it? I’m testing out a new tagline for the plaza. I’m not sure if this one is going to stick.”
“But you made a shirt.”
“My son bought me a screen press for Christmas and I figured I’d give it a whirl.”
“That’s great.” I walked toward her and handed her the bag. “Sorry I’m a little late, but I come bearing chocolate.”
“Lateness is completely excusable if it involves chocolate.” Her eyes lit up as she removed a dark-chocolate-covered cherry from the bag. When she smiled deep crevasses formed on her aging cheeks. “Oh my, talent does run in your family, doesn’t it? Your mother and then that romantic husband of yours. I can’t wait for another Sunday supper at Torte. Everyone is in a twitter about how delicious your husband’s tapas were. He enchanted the entire town, you know.”
“He has that effect on people.” I smiled. Carlos’s tapas were irresistibly succulent and full of Spanish flavor. They were one of the reasons I fell for him—hard—on the ship. I understood why Rosalind and everyone else in Ashland had fallen under his spell.
“Will he be back in Ashland anytime soon?” Rosalind asked.
The truth was I had no idea. We had left things open-ended when Carlos went back to the ship. I wasn’t sure when I would see him again, and I was trying my best to be okay with that. The distraction of preparing for the Chocolate Festival and cleaning out the kitchen had been helpful. It felt symbolic to clean and reorganize things at Torte as I was reprioritizing my personal life. To Rosalind, I said, “Hopefully.”
“Yes, let’s hope.” She gave me an understanding smile. “Come on back. I have the paperwork for you to look over.” She led me to an empty office near the back of the building. Blueprints and maps were tacked to the walls along with old photos of Ashland from the early nineteen hundreds, and a plan for a railroad terminal and station. “Is this for a railroad?” I pointed to the far wall.
Rosalind’s smile broadened. “Yes. It’s not public knowledge yet, so let’s keep that between us.”
I studied the sketch. “But the railroad tracks have been abandoned for years.”
“Exactly.” Rosalind walked behind the oak desk and took a seat. She motioned for me to sit too. “Do you remember the sound of the train whistle when you were a girl?”
“We’ve been cut off from the rail line for too long and I intend to change that. Not only will freight deliveries return, but with my plan we’re also negotiating with Amtrak to bring passenger trains to Ashland again.” She nodded toward the wall. “The Siskiyou Summit Railroad Revitalization Project is set to resume train traffic early next year. I can’t wait to hear those lovely whistles again.”
Rosalind explained that the railroad had abandoned service to Ashland in 2008. Since then freight had to be hauled by big-rig trucks. In the winter when the mountain passes were snowed in that meant that goods and supplies often couldn’t be delivered until the roads were cleared.
“I didn’t know there were any plans to reopen the rail lines,” I said to Rosalind.
She nodded. “It’s been a long time coming, and a vital step for our local economy. Per-mile costs are much less by rail, and that’s a very good thing for you as a business owner.”
“Right,” I agreed. If anyone could handle a project of this magnitude it was Rosalind Gates. Most of her peers had retired and spent their days knitting and volunteering to hand out seat cushions at the theater. Not Rosalind. She was a powerful force in Ashland’s downtown community, constantly petitioning the city council on behalf of business owners.
Pushing a stack of blueprints rolled up with rubber bands to the side of the desk, Rosalind picked up a file folder and handed it to me. “Here are the loan papers. You’ll need to fill them out and return them to me no later than tomorrow at noon. That deadline is firm. The city council will be making all of their decisions on granting funding. I’ve already submitted your preliminary application. This is the final paperwork—and Juliet, I do think you’re a sure thing. Would you and your mother like to do a walk-through this afternoon?”
“I think that’s probably a good idea.” I could hear the hesitation in my voice. Everything was moving so fast. It had only been a couple of weeks since Rosalind approached me about the city’s grant program. The space below Torte had come available for lease, and we were seriously considering an expansion. It was rare for property on the plaza to open up, and when it did there were usually multiple offers from businesses vying for a spot in Ashland’s prime retail market.
Mom and I had discussed expanding Torte someday, and suddenly that dream was within reach. We both had reservations about more than doubling our square footage, though, especially as Mom was starting to think about scaling back. At the same time, we knew that opportunities like this didn’t come very often.
Having help from the city would be paramount. Renovating the basement space was a much bigger project than our kitchen remodel and new ovens. We couldn’t afford that kind of undertaking on our own, but with grant money or a low-interest loan from the city, the idea was one step closer to reality. The only problem was that this was a temporary offer.
“Juliet, I can’t stress this enough. If you’re serious about moving forward, you have to be ready to go. This is unprecedented. Thanks to Lance we have secured an art development grant, but that money has to be spent before the first of July. If Torte is awarded a grant, construction must start immediately.”
“I understand.” I nodded.
“The city is also planning to roll out a new loan program for businesses in the plaza that are directly in the flood zone.” She paused and studied me for a minute. “Torte hasn’t had many issues with flooding, has it?”
“Not as far as I know.”
“I’ll ask your mother.” She made a note on a yellow pad. “In any event, we have to do something about this ongoing flooding issue. It’s critical to the plaza’s continued success, so the city is going to offer low-interest loans. Those funds must be used specifically for building upgrades.”
“Got it.” I took the final loan papers, thanked Rosalind for her time, and left. The loan papers felt heavy in my hands as I made my way outside into the dripping sky. I took a different route back to the bakeshop, along the Calle Guanjuato, a brick path complete with antique street lamps and deciduous trees that paralleled Lithia Creek. Tiny green buds bent the tips of the tree branches, revealing the first signs of spring. I tightened my raincoat and smiled at the thought of cherry blossoms and fresh cut grass.
Many of the shops and restaurants with storefronts facing the plaza also had outdoor space and seating on the Calle Guanjuato. During the height of the season theatergoers would dine creekside on second-story decks under the stars. For now, patio furniture and tables had been stacked away and sandbags barricaded the back entrances.
The entrance to the basement was on the opposite side of the street from Torte’s front doors at the far end of the Calle Guanjuato. Steep concrete steps with a black iron railing led down to the shop. I couldn’t resist peeking in the window for the hundredth time. The steps were slippery. I held tight to the railing as I made my way down the slick moss-covered steps. Water had pooled in a large puddle about two inches deep in front of the door. That wasn’t a good sign.
I bent down to see if it was spilling under the rusted old door. Power had been cut off to the empty space months ago so it was too dark to tell. I’d have to mention that to Mom and add potential flooding to our “con” list.
Ashland’s plaza sits in the middle of a flash-flood zone. When heavy rains fall (which, fortunately, doesn’t happen very often) they spill down the city’s surrounding hills and funnel straight into the plaza and Lithia Creek. One summer, when I was in high school, a thunderstorm erupted over the city and three inches of rain fell in less than an hour. Every business on the plaza, including Torte, was inundated with water. In some places the water came as high as the second story. We fared better than most, with only a few inches of water flooding Torte’s dining room, but it took weeks to pump all of the water out of town, and for business to return to normal on the plaza.
Was this a sign? I pressed my face to the wet glass and peered inside. As far as I could tell the basement looked dry—at least for the moment. But I could hear Lithia Creek raging only a few feet away. If it spilled over its bank the basement property would definitely be underwater.
I sighed and walked back up the stairs. There was nothing I could do for now. A contractor would know what to do about potential flooding and, fortunately, we were scheduled to meet with the city’s building inspector soon. At the moment, I had to get back to my chocolate.
Copyright © 2017 Ellie Alexander.
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Ellie Alexander is a Pacific Northwest native who spends ample time testing pastry recipes in her home kitchen or at one of the many famed coffeehouses nearby. When she's not coated in flour, you'll find her outside exploring hiking trails and trying to burn off calories consumed in the name of research. She is the author of the Bakeshop Mysteries, including Meet Your Baker and A Batter of Life and Death. You can find her on Facebook to learn more!