Ellie Alexander Excerpt: A Crime of Passion Fruit

A Crime of Passion Fruit by Ellie Alexander is the 6th book in the Bakeshop Mystery series (available June 27, 2017).

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Torte―everybody’s favorite small-town family bakeshop―is headed for the high seas, where murder is about to make a splash…

Jules Capshaw is trying to keep her cool as Torte gets set to make its transformation from quaint, local confectionary café to royal pastry palace. Meanwhile, Jules’s estranged husband Carlos is making a desperate plea for her to come aboard his cruise ship and dazzle everyone with her signature sweets. She may be skeptical about returning to her former nautical life with Carlos but Jules can’t resist an all-expense-paid trip, either. If only she knew that a dead body would find its way onto the itinerary…

Now, instead of enjoying tropical drinks on deck between whipping up batches of sea-salted chocolates and flambéing fresh pineapple slices in the kitchen, Jules is plunged into dangerous waters. Her investigation leaves her with more questions than answers: Why can’t anyone on board identify the young woman? And how can she help Carlos keep passengers at ease with a killer in their midst? Jules feels like she’s ready to jump ship. Can she solve this case without getting in too deep?

Chapter One

They say that the heart is like the ocean; its rhythm shifting with the sand on the shore. My heart had found a steady rhythm in Ashland, Oregon, the quirky Shakespearean small town where I had grown up. It had been almost eight months since I had returned home to our family bakeshop Torte, and despite an occasional dull ache for the life that I had left behind, there was no debate in my mind that I had made the right choice. My heart belonged in Ashland.

During my years working as a pastry chef on a luxurious cruise ship, I had forgotten how much I loved Ashland’s Elizabethan charm, its lush parks, the eclectic shops and restaurants, and most importantly its warm and welcoming community. Tucked into the southernmost corner of Oregon, Ashland, with its sunny, mild climate, abundant recreation opportunities, and fairy-talelike village, attracted tourists from all over the world.

This morning as I walked down the plaza past the bubbling Lithia fountains and a troupe of street performers who were dressed like modern-day gypsies, I couldn’t help but chuckle. They waved and played me a spontaneous baking song on a harp and accordion. Only in Ashland, I thought as I took in the scent of the sulfur water in the basinlike fountain. The water was piped to the center of town from a rare, naturally occurring mineral spring. A stop at the fountain was a must for any tourist, not only because of the water’s famed health benefits but also because it tasted like rotten eggs.

I crossed the street and passed Puck’s Pub, an old-English-style pub with a massive wooden door and its oversized wrought-iron handles. Torte, our family bakeshop, was located on the far corner of the plaza. I walked along the tree-lined sidewalk. Magenta banners with gold lions flapped in the breeze. Antique lampposts, hanging baskets dripping with pink fuchsias, and collections of outdoor bistro tables filled the narrow passageway. Soon the plaza would be humming with tourists grabbing a bite to eat or window-shopping before the afternoon matinee at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but until the season officially launched, GONE FISHINGsigns had been posted in storefront windows and only a handful of locals lingered over leisurely lunches in the late-afternoon sun.

Torte’s fire-engine-red awning sat like an anchor at the end of the sidewalk. My mom and dad had started the bakeshop when I was a young child, offering their delectable sweets, savory pastries, and artisanal coffee to townsfolk and tourists. Torte was more than a bakeshop—it was the heart of Ashland. That was thanks to Mom. When my dad died she took the helm and had been serving up home-style handcrafted food with a side of love ever since. She was part baker and part counselor. Her easygoing style and superb listening skills made strangers feel like family from the minute they stepped inside Torte’s bright and cheery front door. Every touch and detail had been designed to make customers feel at home, from the chalkboard menu with a rotating Shakespearean quote and space for Torte’s youngest patrons to display their art work to fresh cut flowers on each table, and its vibrant teal and red color palette.

Now it was my turn to continue her legacy. Not that she was going anywhere, but we were taking on a major renovation and I wanted to make sure that I was bearing the burden of our expansion plans.

Thanks to an art foundation’s grant that my friend and artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Lance, had helped us secure, we were about to double Torte’s square footage. It wasn’t exactly something we had planned on. Mom and I had discussed Torte’s future many times since I’d been home, but mostly in passing. We had both been content with the bakeshop’s slow and steady growth and had saved up enough cash to upgrade our ovens. That project alone had us both reveling in how much more productive we could be, but when the opportunity arose to take over the property below us, neither of us could pass it up.

Real estate on Ashland’s bustling plaza was always at a premium. If we didn’t jump at the chance it could be years—or decades—before the opportunity might arise again. Mom had been managing the busy shop for ten years without me, and part of the appeal of returning home to Ashland was being able to take on more duties so that she didn’t have to work so hard. She loved Torte, but I also knew that she was reaching a time in her life where she could travel and indulge in more leisurely activities. Without her gentle yet firm nudging I may never have followed my dream of going to culinary school, and I hoped one day she would do the same. She and the Professor, the town’s lead detective and resident Shakespeare aficionado, were getting closer and it was her turn to set sail and explore. I just hoped that she would allow herself the same freedom she had allowed me.

Expanding into the basement space had already turned out to be a bigger undertaking than either of us had initially imagined. The property had been abandoned for years, and to make matters worse it had flooded numerous times, most recently after a monsoon hit downtown Ashland. Our first task was to pump the basement and have a new drainage system installed. No work on renovations or breaking through to Torte’s upstairs could begin until we fixed the water issue. The problem was that our fellow shop owners were in the same boat. In a town the size of Ashland there weren’t enough contractors to go around. We were in a holding pattern until the construction crew finished other repairs along the plaza.

As I reached Torte’s front door I pushed my worries about our basement plans aside. I had other pressing things on my mind, like tonight’s Sunday Supper. We had started offering Sunday Suppers at the bakeshop as a way to supplement our income during the off season and to showcase our cooking. Both Mom and I enjoyed cooking as much as baking, and Sunday Suppers allowed us to stretch our creativity. We served dinner family-style to encourage guests to mingle and help build an even stronger sense of community. Thus far the suppers had been a hit. Until now they’d all sold out, and we had a lengthy waiting list of guests who wanted to attend tonight. Yet another reason that expanding the bakeshop could be good for our bottom line. We simply didn’t have enough space at the moment.

Although I had to admit that one of the reasons that demand for Sunday Suppers might be so high was thanks to my estranged husband, Carlos. He had been in town for a short stay and had entranced the town with his sultry Spanish accent and spicy tapas. His Latin-inspired feast had left the town hungry for more. With his succulent tapas still fresh in everyone’s mind I had opted for a decidedly different cuisine for tonight’s supper—Asian fusion.

“I’m back,” I called, opening the door with my free hand and tucking the box of vegetables I’d picked up from the market under my other arm.

“It’s about time, boss.” Andy, Torte’s resident barista, winked from behind the coffee bar. He pushed up the sleeves on his Southern Oregon University football sweatshirt. “We’ve been dying without you.” In addition to handcrafting creamy lattes, Andy was a student and football star.

“Right.” I laughed, scanning the dining room where a couple was sharing a slice of Mom’s chocolate caramel cake at a booth in front of the windows and a student with headphones was nursing a coffee as she studied. “It looks pretty packed in here.”

“I’m serious. We can’t get anything done around here without our fearless leader.” He gave me a half salute and organized canisters of coffee beans.

I shook my head and passed by him. “Carry on. Just as you are.” Torte’s staff might be young but they were highly capable. Mom and I had often commented on how lucky we were to find such hardworking and talented help.

Walking around the coffee bar, I entered Torte’s open kitchen where Mom, Sterling, our young sous chef in training, and Stephanie, another part-time college student, who had turned out to be an incredibly skilled baker, were working on the evening’s dinner. Every time I entered the newly remodeled kitchen I had to smile. We had upgraded our old, clunky ovens with shiny modern beauties that not only sparkled but cranked out so much heat that we were still tinkering with finding the right settings. The team had painted the kitchen walls in an opaque teal about three shades lighter than the dining room. It gave the workspace a vivid feel and blended in with the cheery color scheme in the front.

“Juliet, did they have scallions?” Mom asked, whisking a sauce on the stove. Her chestnut hair was tucked behind her ears, revealing a pair of coffee-cup earrings.

I placed the box of veggies on the island and held up a bunch of scallions.

“Excellent!” She dipped her pinkie into the sauce and gave it a taste. “I think that a nice bite of scallion will finish this off perfectly.”

“You mean elevate,” Sterling said from the opposite side of the island. His dark locks shaded one eye. He wore his apron around his waist with a dish towel tucked into it. It was a trick he had learned from Carlos. I could hear Carlos saying, “A chef must always have a towel, ? You do not need to use these pot holders.” He scoffed at the silicone oven mitts we used. “These take too much time. A towel it is easy and quick and you can use it for so many things.” Sterling had taken Carlos’s words to heart.

“Elevate?” Mom wrinkled her brow.

“That’s what the professional chefs say.” Sterling pushed up the sleeves of his black hoodie, revealing his tattooed forearms, and began kneading pork and spices in a large mixing bowl.

Mom grinned. “Well, I like the sound of that. I’m elevating my sauce. Very impressive.”

“Since when do you pay attention to how professional chefs are talking?” I asked. “Elevate” wasn’t a term I had ever heard Carlos use. He was more provincial in his approach to food.

Stephanie who as usual appeared uninterested in our kitchen banter busied herself assembling strawberry tarts on a tray and finishing each one with a sprig of fresh mint.

Sterling shrugged. “I’ve been watching a few cooking shows here and there. For research. You know.”

He tried to sound casual but I knew exactly what he meant, and by the looks of Stephanie’s cheeks, which matched the red strawberry tarts, I had a feeling I knew who he’d been watching cooking shows with. Stephanie was addicted to the Pastry Channel, especially the cooking competition shows, which had surprised all of us. Her somewhat sullen attitude and goth exterior didn’t exactly match with cheesy culinary television. Which just proves that the kitchen is the great equalizer. People of all walks of life connect over food. It’s one of the many, many reasons that I love being a chef.

The attraction between Sterling and Stephanie had been apparent to everyone in the bakeshop, but as of yet neither of them had been public about whether they were or weren’t a couple, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask.

Mom wiped her hands on her apron and joined me at the island. “That produce looks gorgeous.” She ran her hand over a bunch of yellow peppers. I noticed that she wasn’t wearing her wedding ring. Instead it hung from a simple gold chain around her neck. “Look at the color on these.”

“I know.” I nodded toward Sterling. “How is the pot sticker preparation coming along?”

“Good.” Mom pointed to the pot she had left simmering on the stove. “The sauce is almost ready and as you can see Sterling is up to his elbows in the filling.” To Sterling she added, “As soon as you’re done incorporating the spices I’ll show you how to fill them.”

My mouth watered at the thought of homemade pot stickers. At least once a month when I was growing up my dad would make an Asian-inspired feast that always included hand-rolled pot stickers. The flavorful dumplings were always my favorite. We were using his recipe tonight. In addition to the pot stickers, we planned to serve an Asian noodle salad chock-full of cabbage, bean sprouts, julienned carrots, cilantro, and peppers tossed in a tangy peanut sauce. For dessert we would add a touch of whimsy to the table with coconut and chocolate deep-fried wontons.

“It’s starting to smell amazing in here.” I unpacked the rest of the vegetables and assembled piles of organic carrots and bunches of cilantro on bamboo cutting boards on the island.

Andy came into the back balancing a tray of coffees. As our resident coffee mixologist he was constantly experimenting with new drinks. No one ever complained about tasting one of Andy’s creations. We usually fought for position to be the first in line for a taste. “Hey, so I thought it might be cool to do a drink pairing with your wontons,” he said, passing us each a cup. “Give this a try and let me know what you think.”

I cradled the warm mug in my hands and inhaled the scent of Andy’s drink. The creamy tea smelled fruity and fresh. I took a sip and tasted a hint of pear mingled with just a touch of ginger. The balance of the spicy ginger and sweet pear was sinful.

“This is amazing,” I said to Andy, taking another drink.

Sterling mumbled with his mouth full and gave Andy a thumbs-up.

“What’s in it?” Mom asked. “Pear?”

A smile tugged at Andy’s boyish cheeks. He wore a baseball hat backward, making him look even younger. “That’s right, Mrs. C. Asian pear and a hint of fresh ginger. I used a custom blend of chai tea with coconut and almond milk. Do you like it?”

“I love it.” Mom looked at me and widened her eyes. “He’s done it again, hasn’t he?”

“He has.” I nodded enthusiastically.

Andy’s shoulders swelled at the compliment. “I thought it might be unique.”

“It’s like we planned it,” I said. “This will be great with our dessert wontons. You should add it to the specials board.”

“Awesome.” The door jingled and Andy hurried to the front to help the customer.

I was about to get started on chopping purple and yellow cabbage when my cell phone buzzed in the back pocket of my jeans. Not many people call me. I am sadly way behind the digital trend after working on cruise ships for so many years, and practically everyone I knew in Ashland came to Torte at least once a day. Whenever my phone buzzed it always took me by surprise.

I rested the knife on the cutting board and pulled my phone from my pocket. My heart skipped a beat when Carlos’s face flashed on the screen. Why was my husband—or should I say estranged husband—calling me?

*   *   *

Carlos and I had spent many blissful years at sea. If you had asked me on our wedding day whether I thought our love would last, I would have never guessed that we would end up oceans apart. But I never would have guessed that he would have hidden something so important from me either—the fact that he had a son. When I learned about Ramiro, I panicked and left the ship. At first I thought that Ashland would be a temporary stop until I recovered from the shock. I never anticipated leaving the life I had built with Carlos behind me for good. But then something unexpected happened as I settled into my familiar hometown. I fell in love again—with Ashland. Ever since, I had felt as if I were dancing between two worlds. I knew that soon I was going to have to decide once and for all where my heart was going to live, but I wasn’t ready to face the fallout yet.

*   *   *

“Julieta, is that you?” Carlos’s thick Spanish accent greeted me from somewhere halfway around the world. Carlos was the executive chef on the Amour of the Seas. It was fitting that the ship had been christened with a name like Amour. The kitchen staff used to tease me, saying that Carlos was the love chef. He’d earned his nickname by showering me with luscious food, Spanish wine, and quoting poetry in my ear when he would pass me in the ship’s long hallways. Why was he calling me now? He rarely called, and certainly not in the middle of the day.

“What’s going on, Carlos? Where are you?” I asked, clutching the island to steady myself. Hearing his voice threw me off balance. After a brief stay in Ashland last month, Carlos had returned to the ship. I hadn’t expected him to follow me to Ashland and was glad for our time together. I think we both had had a chance to heal, but our future was shaky. As much as I loved him, and the chemistry between us was undeniable, we were worlds apart. Carlos was a vagabond at heart. He belonged to the sea. I belonged to Ashland.

“I am on the ship, mi querida.” He paused for a moment. “I have a favor I must ask of you.”

“Okay.” I could hear the trepidation in my voice. Mom studied me. Her gingerbread eyes widened when I said Carlos’s name. I held up my finger and waited for Carlos to continue.

“It is our pastry chef. He, how do you say it? He freaked out and quit.”

“Why?” I glanced behind me. Sterling and Stephanie appeared to have everything in control, so I motioned to Mom and pointed to the window. She nodded while I hurried outside. Thankfully the sidewalk bistro table sat empty. I plopped down on an iron chair. “Why did he freak out?” I repeated.

“I do not know. Someone said he is angry because a customer complained that his flan it is no good.” Carlos laughed. “I am with the customer. His flan it was terrible.”

I laughed too. “There’s nothing worse than a bad flan.”

Sí, sí. It is not a real loss. No one liked this chef, but this is our problem. We have a new pastry chef coming from a sister ship, but he can’t arrive for over a week. He is already at sea.”

“Uh-huh?” I stared at the tree above me. Its dainty green leaves quivered in the slight wind.

“Okay, so we want you to come.”

“Me!” I shouted. Then I regained my composure as a couple strolled past with a bag of Torte pastries. “I can’t come on the ship. I’m working—at Torte. You know that.”

Sí, I know, but it is only for a few days. We need someone good to come help until the new chef comes. The staff, they already know you. You know the ship. It will be easy for everyone and it makes the most sense.”

“Carlos, I can’t just leave Ashland and come back to the ship.” A leaf floated down from the tree and landed on the table. I picked it up and ran my fingers along its spine.

“Only for five days. This is nothing. And they will pay you extra. Double pay.”

“Double pay?” The cruise lines rarely offer bonuses or double pay.

Sí, double. And I talked to the captain about your mom.” Carlos sounded smug, like he knew he had won.

“My mom?” I glanced into the kitchen window where Mom stood next to Sterling at the stove. “What about Mom?”

“I thought it would be so nice if you bring her along. And the Professor too. They could have a vacation here on the ship while you are baking, no?”

“A vacation?”

Sí. They can be my guests for free. No charge. They will each have a nice suite with a balcony and all expenses will be paid.”

“Wow.” I found myself at a momentary loss for words.

“It is a good cruise too. We will go to so many stunning locations, Julieta. You can show them the gorgeous white beaches, they can explore each port, and I will make you all such wonderful fresh food that you will never want to leave. What do you say?”

“I don’t know what to say,” I stuttered. “When? And how would it work with Mom?”

“I need you here in three days. You have your passport and you still have clearance, so it should be smooth and easy. The flights they can be arranged right away.”

“Three days?” I ripped the leaf in half. That wasn’t much time.

“Will you come?” I could hear the longing in his voice.

“I don’t know.” I hesitated and glanced inside again. “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”

“Okay, but you must tell me soon. Otherwise we must find someone else.”

“Why don’t you promote one of the sous chefs?”

“No, the captain will not allow it. There is too much drama. One of the sous chefs left with the head pastry chef and the others they are not liking the vibe in the kitchen. It is a bad idea. You will be perfect because you will help things run smoothly until the new chef comes.”

“I don’t know.” I wavered. Mom deserved a vacation, but there was so much to do at Torte.

“You think about it. Talk to Helen and then you let me know, okay?”

“Okay,” I agreed and clicked off the phone. When I returned to the kitchen Mom pounced on me. “Was that Carlos?” she whispered. “Is everything okay?” I tugged her by the shoulder toward an empty booth in the dining room. I didn’t want to have this conversation in front of our staff.

I explained everything and she nodded along with relative calm until I got to the part about Carlos’s invitation to her and the Professor. Her eyes lit up. I could tell that she was excited about the idea.

“Would you have any interest in going?” I asked, carefully.

She tried to keep her face neutral but I could see the glimmer in her eyes when she said, “No, I mean that’s a wonderful and generous offer from Carlos, but I wouldn’t want to put you in the middle of something like that or make things awkward for you.”

“I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about leaving Torte. We have so much going on right now, with the expansion.”

Mom leaned her head from side to side and looked thoughtful for a moment. “True, but we’re in a holding pattern for a while and it’s only five days, right? I think the kids could handle things for a while, don’t you?”

I nudged her in her petite waist. “You want to go, don’t you?”

She shrugged and smiled wider. “I have to admit the thought of lounging by the pool with a good book and tropical drink is very appealing. It’s been a stressful winter.”

“Done. I’ll call Carlos back right now.”

“But, honey, wait. You don’t need to do this for me.”

“I’m not. You’re right. A free trip for you, double pay for me, and there’s nothing we can do here until they get the basement pumped out. Let’s do it. Five days in paradise. What could possibly go wrong?”

Famous last words.


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!