Meet Your Baker by Ellie Alexander is the debut in the new cozy Bakeshop Mystery series where a recent culinary school grad returns home to help her mother run a bakery (available December 30, 2014).
Welcome to Torte—a friendly, small-town family bake shop where the treats are so good that, sometimes, it’s criminal…
After graduating from culinary school, Juliet Capshaw returns to her quaint hometown of Ashland, Oregon, to heal a broken heart and help her mom at the family bakery. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is bringing in lots of tourists looking for some crumpets to go with their heroic couplets. But when one of Torte’s customers turns up dead, there’s much ado about murder…
The victim is Nancy Hudson, the festival’s newest board member. A modern-day Lady Macbeth, Nancy has given more than a few actors and artists enough reasons to kill her…but still. The silver lining? Jules’s high school sweetheart, Thomas, is the investigator on the case. His flirtations are as delicious as ever, and Jules can’t help but want to have her cake and eat it too. But will she have her just desserts? Murder might be bad for business, but love is the sweetest treat of all…
They say it takes a while to recover your land legs after years spent at sea. I sure hoped mine would come back soon.
It had been twenty-seven hours and forty-two minutes (not that I was counting) since I left the ship, my husband, and everything I’d known for the last ten years.
Nothing felt solid. Not my feet on the familiar pavement of my hometown. Not my stomach with its constant churning like I was still stuck on rough waters. Not even the welcoming sight of the cozy shops and storefronts lining Main Street were enough to shake the haze that had settled over me.
I couldn’t even blame the haze on the fact that it was 3:45 in the morning. Most people would have an excuse to feel groggy this early. Not me. I’m used to working bakers’ hours, and I was fairly confident that the foggy feeling assaulting my body had more to do with my life having been turned upside down.
Not much had changed downtown in the past decade. I took my time walking to the bakeshop, in part because of my unsteady gait, but also because I wanted to soak in the idyllic village as it sat in an early slumber.
Ashland, Oregon, my hometown, is nestled in the foothills between the Cascade and Siskiyou Mountains. It’s home to the world-famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival, an eclectic community of artists, outdoor adventure seekers, college students, farmers, hippies, rich retirees, and a constant stream of tourists. At nearly two thousand feet in elevation, its Mediterranean summers make it the perfect spot to watch Shakespeare under the stars or hike one of the nearby peaks. In the winter, Ashland attracts skiers and snow lovers to its nearby ski resorts and backcountry trails.
Growing up here made for a comfortable and imaginative childhood. Our family bakeshop, Torte, has served actors, playwrights, artists, students, and pretty much everyone else in town for thirty years. I remember the heat from the ovens warming my hands after school on cold winter afternoons, delivering cakes and pastries to the theater on opening night, and the comfort of chatting with my parents over the counter as they orchestrated an assembly line of baked goods in the kitchen. All this time away might have me idealizing my childhood, but honestly, it was pretty perfect.
It was an easy and quiet life. This morning I found myself wondering why I left.
Maybe it was hearing the foreign accents and stories of far-off corners of the planet from travelers stopping by our quaint little town. Their tales sparked a desire for me to get out there and see the world for myself. So, the day after I graduated from high school I took a giant leap and enrolled in culinary school. After I expanded my baking skills I landed a job as an apprentice pastry chef on a European cruise ship. I’ve been sailing the seas ever since.
And your legs are proof, aren’t they, Jules? I thought as I twisted the handle on the front door of Torte, causing a bell above my head to chime.
“Mom, I’m here!” I called, and flipped on the front lights.
She didn’t answer.
Torte is located in the heart of the old-fashioned plaza downtown, just a block from the Elizabethan theater and in a perfect spot for grabbing a coffee or a muffin before perusing the shops or wandering along the river path that cuts through Lithia Park. The front of the bakeshop houses a coffee bar, bistro tables and booths that line the windows. In my unbiased opinion it’s the best spot in town to catch a glimpse of all the action.
Corrugated metal siding wraps the counter and the walls are painted in royal colors—teal blue with bright, cranberry-red accents. It makes the space cheery and pays homage to my dad’s obsession with all things Shakespeare.
He died when I was fifteen. Mom pays a subtle tribute to him with her rotating quote of the day on Torte’s massive chalkboard menu.
Today’s read, “Torte—where everyone is above the salt.”
I didn’t recognize the obscure reference. That’s what Dad used to be good at, making Shakespeare’s words accessible to everyone. All these years later, it looked like Mom was continuing the tradition.
“Good morning, Mom,” I called again. I could see her working in the back. Torte’s industrial kitchen is open so that customers can watch Mom rolling out dough or sidle up to the counter that divides the front from the back to gab over coffee.
The air-conditioning chugged, attempting to keep up with the heat rising in the ovens and creeping in from outside. July in Ashland can be a scorcher, but mornings and evenings tend to be cool. Not today. A heat wave had settled in, making me wish for a saltwater breeze.
“You beat me,” I said to Mom, taking in the scent of brewing coffee and yeast and grabbing an apron from the hooks hanging on the wall. “Whew, it’s hot out there.”
Mom started. “Juliet!… Sorry … Jules.”
Okay, let’s just get this out of the way now. My real name is Juliet.
Wait. It gets worse.
Juliet Montague Capshaw.
I know. It’s ridiculous.
When I was a kid it seemed sort of sweet and fitting for the town. Plus, it made my dad proud. As soon as I left, I quickly realized a name can make or break you. I have firsthand experience working as a sous-chef for a nasty pâtissier. He made me the laughingstock of the kitchen, singing “Romeo, Romeo” whenever I made a mistake.
I shortened my name to Jules. Thankfully, it fits.
Mom shifted the stainless steel mixer to low. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you come in.”
“All these years of working in a loud kitchen is making you deaf, Mom.”
“Honey, you worry too much.” She brushed flour from her hands and wiped her brow. “I still can’t believe you’re really here. I want to pinch myself.” She squeezed the skin on her petite wrist to prove her point.
Do I worry too much? No. If anything, I have a tendency toward self-reliance much like her.
Being away made me realize that the last few years had taken a toll on her. Don’t get me wrong, she looks amazing for fifty-five. She wears her dark hair, streaked naturally with silver, in a shoulder-length bob. Age is leaving its subtle mark on the corner of her walnut eyes, and her gentle smile now has soft lines.
“I’m all yours.” I sighed, cinching my apron around my waist. “Want me to jump in?”
Mom shut the mixer off and started scooping buttery dough on the wooden island that sits in the center of the kitchen. “No, no, I’ve got this under control. You look like you could use a cup of coffee.”
“Yeah, an extra kick might help.” I tried to keep my voice light, hoping that our being oceans apart for so long would make her less likely to see through me.
I poured myself a cup of the nutty brew, adding just a splash of cream. “What’s the ‘above the salt’ quote?”
“Oh, that’s an old Shakespeare reference.” Mom sprinkled flour on top of the dough and began rolling it with a well-used wooden rolling pin. “Back in his time, salt was a valuable seasoning. It was placed in the center of the table—close to the king and his family. Everyone else was seated below the salt.”
She finished rolling the dough and began pressing the tart crust into twelve-inch pans, taking extra care to work it into the indentations in the sides. “I think it speaks to our philosophy: everyone’s royalty at Torte.”
Sips of Mom’s expertly brewed coffee helped take the edge off. “Definitely.” I paused, taking another gulp of coffee. “I see raspberries over there. I’m feeling nostalgic for that raspberry Danish Dad used to make. Are you game?”
She put her hand to her heart. “That sounds delicious. Yes, of course. Look at us, right back where we left off.”
“Okay, but Mom, remember—this is only temporary. I’m only here until I figure out what I’m going to do next. I don’t want to jump in and mess up your routine or anything.”
She stopped forming the tarts and held up a dough-covered finger. “Listen, honey, I know you’re—you’re…” She paused. “Working some stuff out, but please, let’s not tiptoe around each other. Okay?”
“Yes, captain.” I saluted her.
When I called her last week to tell her I was coming home, I took her by surprise. It’s not like we haven’t tried to maintain a relationship. We’ve had a standing Sunday-evening phone call since I left. But mainly we just covered the highlights. There wasn’t time to dive deeper.
Going back to work on the tarts, she chuckled. “Plus, no one else in town has a world-class pastry chef manning the kitchen, now do they?”
I polished off the bottom half of my coffee and scoffed. “Hardly.” I twirled the antique platinum wedding ring on my left hand.
Mom placed a tart pan in the oven and came around the island to me. She squeezed me tight, floured hands and all. “Juliet, you’re going to be fine. And, at some point you’re going to have to talk about it. I’m here when you’re ready.”
“I know.” I looked at my feet.
She released me from her grasp. I didn’t move.
“Okay, we’ll leave it for the moment.”
I’d forgotten how Mom can be equally pushy and patient with me.
She clapped her hands together. “So, let’s get baking.”
Over the next hour we started to find our rhythm. I was surprised by how quickly we eased back into our old routine. It must have been cellular memory. My hands instinctively remembered that measuring spoons are in the second drawer down and that the spatulas and wooden spoons hang on the far back wall.
Baking on solid ground certainly had its advantages. Like not having to worry that muffin batter will spill out of the pans if the ship lists to one side. Or having to clutch onto utensils so tightly they leave marks on your hands, because you’re afraid that if the ship hits a wave the wrong way they’ll go flying and take out a poor busboy’s eye. Not to mention baking for thousands at a time in a hectic kitchen.
Maybe life on land wasn’t so bad after all.
By the time we opened at six A.M., we’d cranked out enough pastries to feed the entire town. The glass cases were stuffed with morning buns, cinnamon scones, rhubarb muffins, cherry tarts, savory quiches, almond crescent cookies, and my raspberry Danish.
Andy and Stephanie, the college students Mom had hired to help, arrived before the first customer.
“Hey, you must be Ms. Capshaw. How’s it going?” Andy stashed his backpack behind the cash register. His long strides with his shoulders hunched slightly forward were a telltale sign he hadn’t grown into his height yet. He tugged off a tattered Southern Oregon University sweatshirt and grabbed an apron. Torte’s aprons are fire-engine red with blue stitching and a chocolate torte on the front.
“You can call me Jules,” I said, trying to wink. “I think I’m a few years past Ms.”
He grinned and fired up the espresso machine. “Yeah, but you’re, like, my new boss and my mom always says I should treat a boss with respect.” He covered his shaggy, sand-colored hair with a baseball hat.
I pointed my thumb to Mom. “I’m not the boss. She is.”
Stephanie barely made eye contact as she shook my hand. In fairness, her jet-black hair, streaked with plum highlights, fell in front of her face. Hopefully she’d brought along something to tie it up with.
Mom bustled to the front in a clean apron. “Andy, you’re here. Can you start pulling a double espresso? Lance should be here any minute now.” She peered out the window. “Oh, and it looks like Caroline is with him. Stephanie, can you bring a stack of pastry boxes to the front?”
Stephanie chomped on a wad of gum and shuffled to the back. “Uh-huh.”
Andy patted the espresso machine. “She’s already warmed up and ready to roll, Mrs. C. Drinks will be on the bar in two minutes.”
True to his word, Andy poured perfectly balanced shots of thick espresso and steamed soy milk.
As the bell on the front door jingled, he placed the artistically designed coffees on the bar.
I took a deep breath and steadied myself on the island. It had just occurred to me that stories about why I’d returned were sure to be circulating. I should have prepared better for the onslaught.
“Good morning, Lance, Caroline.” Mom greeted them from behind the counter.
“Helen.” Lance reached over the bar and kissed Mom on both cheeks. “You are my morning muse. Look at this! My coffee is waiting and it smells divine in here. What would I do without you?”
I’d peg Lance to be in his mid-forties. He adjusted his thick, black-framed glasses and smoothed his dark goatee. His navy suit looked as if it had been hand-stitched and cut exactly to his lean frame.
Caroline, the woman next to him, I recognized. She’s about ten years older than Lance and a fixture in town. Just my luck that she would be the first person I’d see. Her reputation as an actress and as a busybody who likes to exaggerate is legendary.
“I thought I was your muse.” Caroline flicked Lance in the arm with perfectly manicured fingernails and removed her coffee from the bar. Her lush ginger curls fell to her chest. She was dressed in flowing white from head to toe and her makeup looked as if it had been expertly applied.
“Soy. Exactly how I like it.” She turned to Mom. “Thank you, Helen.”
“What is that gooey, sticky raspberry delight?” Lance asked, pointing a well-manicured finger at the raspberry Danish.
Mom pulled me forward. “I don’t think you’ve met my daughter yet. Lance, this is Jules.”
Caroline squealed. “Juliet!” She raced around the counter and embraced me in a tight hug. “I didn’t even recognize you! You look fantastic. Oh, everyone is talking about you!” She caught Mom’s eye. “We’re all so happy to have you home.”
“The Jules?” Lance mocked. “The world-famous Jules whose pastries have launched a thousand ships?”
He surveyed my appearance. “Helen, why didn’t you tell me your daughter was as lovely as she is talented?”
Caroline waved him off. “Juliet, don’t pay attention to him. He’s a charmer.” She patted my shoulder and returned to the other side of the bar.
Lance grabbed my hand, and stretched out my fingers. “The bone structure. So elegant. Fine lines. Stunning cheekbones. Those eyes. Men could lose themselves, really lose themselves, in those eyes.” He dropped my hand and studied my face. “You remind me of a young Gwyneth Paltrow. That hair. It’s absolutely ethereal—golden, white. Can you take it down?”
I reached my hand up to my ponytail protectively and shook my head. “Can’t. Wouldn’t want to leave a hair in a cheesecake or something.”
Growing up around theater types like Lance and Caroline had given me a healthy mistrust of gushing compliments like Lance’s.
“What a Mona Lisa smile you have,” Lance gushed.
“Leave her alone, Lance,” Mom chimed in. “She gave up her acting days years ago.” She elbowed me in the ribs. “He’s right, though, how long have I been telling you that you need to actually smile?”
I ignored them both.
Lance made a tsk-tsk sound. “What a shame. We won’t let that stop us from convincing her otherwise, will we, Caroline?”
Caroline smiled through pursed lips. “You’re embarrassing her, Lance.”
Mom kicked me behind the counter. “Now about that raspberry Danish. You two go sit and I’ll bring you each a slice. Jules just pulled it out of the oven.”
While Caroline and Lance took a seat I grabbed wedges of Danish. I couldn’t resist finishing off the plate with fresh raspberries and a sprig of fresh mint. Mom cut bread dough with a large knife and plopped the loaves into a big plastic tub. She covered the tub with a clear plastic bag and set it on a baking rack to rise.
“Who’s Lance?” I whispered.
“He’s OSF’s artistic director. He’s been here maybe five or six years.”
“I figured he had to be part of the theater.”
“Whatever gave that away?” Mom kept a serious look on her face, but her eyes twinkled.
“And Caroline’s still a stage diva?”
“Yep. She likes to make it known that she’s been with the company longer than any actor on record.” A timer buzzed. “I think that’s you.” Mom motioned to the oven.
I removed another batch of Danish from the oven. The crust came out tawny and firm. The raspberry sauce glistened on the top, left the sweet bread slightly gooey. I drizzled vanilla glaze over the top.
“I’ll take these out, Mom. Can you keep an eye on the shortbread?”
Lance and Caroline had settled in the farthest booth from the front door. He patted the red vinyl bench as I placed the Danishes in front of them. “Join us, Jules. We’ve heard so much about you from your mother.”
I glanced at the front counter. Andy was chatting with a customer as he steamed milk for the line of people eagerly awaiting their morning fix. Stephanie bagged and plated pastry orders. Mom stood faithfully by the cookies in the oven. I needed to get back to work, but the idea that the customer’s needs always come first is ingrained in me.
“Okay,” I said, scooting in next to Lance. “Just for a minute.”
Lance took a sip of his dark espresso. “Where’s your poison?” he asked, noting my empty hands.
Before I could answer, the front door burst open. The usually charming little bell clanged frantically from side to side.
Lance’s body went rigid. Caroline turned her head to see who was at the door. She rolled her eyes and muttered, “Nancy Hudson.”
“Who’s Nancy Hudson?” I started to say but was drowned out by Nancy’s shrill voice demanding that Andy get her coffee on the bar—stat.
Caroline kept her voice low. “She’s the newest OSF board member, and let’s just say she hasn’t been making many friends.”
Lance removed his glasses and fingered his goatee. “That’s for sure.” He nudged me playfully in the arm. “Speaking of poison, you don’t happen to have any hiding in the back that we can spike her coffee with?”
I laughed, and secretly felt a wave of relief that there was other gossip than my surprise return spreading around town.
Lance’s eyes darkened. To Caroline he said, “She thinks I’m kidding.”
“We try to keep poisonings to a minimum,” I joked. “You know—kind of bad for business.”
Lance stabbed at his Danish. “You are a clever one. I’m kidding of course. Dramatic effect, honey. It’s what we do in the theater.”
Nancy continued to bark at Andy, demanding her coffee be remade and insisting that her quiche felt cold.
“He might be kidding, but I’m not. That woman is on a mission to destroy everyone and everything in this town.” Caroline took a dainty bite of the sweet bread. “This is absolutely delicious! The best pastry I’ve ever tasted.”
Clearly, she hadn’t lost her flair for the dramatic. I nodded my thanks and motioned for her to continue. “What’s her story?” I asked.
“Nancy arrived in town a few months ago,” Lance said. “She made an extremely generous donation to OSF that unfortunately had more strings attached than a marionette.” He lowered his voice a bit. “This recession hit the theater hard. The arts are always the first thing to feel the pinch, so when Nancy and her checkbook arrived it seemed like a gift from the theater gods. I’m afraid I jumped in without reading the fine print.”
OSF is a nonprofit and one of the oldest professional theaters on the West Coast. Founded in 1935, the theater historically only produced Shakespearean works. Today the company offers eleven plays in three theaters during the season. Only four works of Shakespeare are offered. The remaining plays range from classics to contemporaries and independent scripts written by local actors and playwrights.
Throughout my childhood the theater was constantly trying to raise funds through private donors, foundations, and grants. When times got tight, the theater would always struggle but never stop.
“No amount of money is worth the hell she’s putting us through,” Caroline chimed in. “I’ve been an actress with the company for thirty years, and she waltzes into town and thinks she can get me fired.”
Lance signaled for her to be quiet.
Nancy was heading our way. She wore a peach silk blouse, tailored white slacks, pearls, and white strappy sandals. Her posture oozed snobbery. I knew her type. I’d met her a hundred times on the cruise ship. She’s the passenger who would steamroll the waitstaff into bringing someone from the kitchen to her table in order to pay her “compliments to the chef.” Yeah, right. That someone usually ended up being me, since my boss liked to sample the evening’s sherry and port by the bottle. Halfway into every dinner service he was always sauced.
When I’d arrive tableside in my kitchen whites, the “cruise ship Nancy” would find a way to undermine her praise with a backhanded compliment.
“This rum sauce reminds me of when I was in Paris. You’ve managed a decent replica given that you’re cooking on a cruise ship.”
The Nancys of the seas like to flaunt their money and feel important by waving their power around. She didn’t scare me.
Nancy eased into the open seat next to Caroline without asking if the space was free.
She extended an arm, adorned with expensive bracelets and flashy rings. “Nancy Hudson. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you yet. You must be new in town.”
“Jules Capshaw. My mom owns this place. I’ve lived here most of my life.”
Nancy recoiled slightly. I had to hide a smirk. People like her hate to appear as if they aren’t in the know.
She recovered by hurling an insult Caroline’s way.
“Caroline.” Her voice dripped with fake sweetness. “You are simply too lucky. If I ate one bite of that sinful pastry you’re gobbling down I’d have to pay double for my personal trainer to burn off all those calories. It must be so nice to be in a theater where no one cares about your shape.” She focused her eyes like lasers on Lance. “All that’s changing now, though, isn’t it, Lance dear?”
Lance blew on his glasses and rubbed them on his shirt.
The color drained from Caroline’s face. She clutched her napkin and pursed her lips.
Nancy continued, “It’s like I say, women of a certain age have to make a choice between their face or fanny. Caroline has obviously chosen her backside.”
I smiled broadly at Nancy. “No way. You should have a piece, Nancy. I say if you eat sweets before noon it doesn’t count.” While I found Caroline slightly annoying, I had to stand up for her. Nancy’s attitude was getting under my skin.
Nancy waved her hand in the air. I noticed a huge emerald on her ring finger. “Thanks anyway. Whatever I eat goes straight to my hips.”
I could tell she was fishing for a compliment; hoping one of us would assure her that her figure was perfect. No one said a word.
Finally, I broke the silence. “What brought you to town?”
“I needed a change of pace.” She flexed her fingers and gazed at her ring. Then she turned her hand so I could have a full view of the princess-cut stone. “An engagement present from my now deceased fiancé. He died before we could walk down the aisle.”
She took in a breath and put her hand over her heart.
Even Lance’s most junior cast members could put on a better act than Nancy.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said, standing. “I wish I could talk longer, but I’ve got to get back to work. Nice meeting you, Lance. Nancy.”
“I’m sure you’ll find me to be a regular fixture around here,” Nancy said. “I’ve become quite immersed in OSF. Which reminds me, will the Midnight Club be meeting here tonight? I haven’t seen a single e-mail about it.”
“Are you still doing those?” I asked Lance.
The Midnight Club came into being years ago. Many of the actors in the company also moonlight as playwrights. They needed a space to brainstorm together, and my father offered up the bakeshop. Since performances run late into the night, they decided to meet once a month at midnight. I used to love coming to the bakery in my pajamas where I’d sit and listen on a kitchen stool as my parents poured coffee and passed around pound cake. The group would act out scenes as they brainstormed, often pulling me in to play an angry dancer or kid with a toothache.
“Yep, every month. We’ve produced three plays written by the Midnight Club in the last few years. We should thank your mom and her pastries in the liner notes,” he quipped. “On that note, I’ve got to get over to the theater. Maybe we’ll see you tonight, Jules?”
Nancy crinkled her nose. “I hope so because that boy your mother hired is completely inept.” She said this loudly enough for Andy to hear over the hum of the espresso machine. “He needs to learn how to make a coffee, or you’re going to have to axe him. This is too bitter.” She held up her nearly empty cup.
“You’re pretty axe-happy, aren’t you, Nancy?” Caroline said through clenched teeth.
“In my opinion the axe is the only way to trim the fat.” Nancy rolled her eyes in the direction of Caroline’s rump.
Wow. These two really don’t get along.
I wasn’t going to get in the middle of their battle. Our philosophy at Torte has always been to treat each customer with kindness. I took her cup and the other dirty dishes and flashed her a smile, complete with my pearly whites. “Thanks for the feedback.”
“And that girl behind the counter has the most appalling customer service skills I’ve ever seen.” Nancy glared at Stephanie.
Stephanie glared right back. Maybe she and I were going to get along after all.
Lance and Nancy exited together. Caroline hung back.
She squeezed my elbow. “I know your mom is thrilled to have you back. Maybe we can chat alone sometime soon?” She craned her neck toward Mom in the kitchen. “I’m pretty worried.”
Mom spotted us talking and waved.
Caroline continued, “I’ve got to run, but let’s find time to have a cup of Andy’s coffee. Thanks for jumping in with Nancy. Isn’t she awful?”
I nodded. “Don’t let her get under your skin. I know her type. As Mom likes to say, we’ll just have to kill her with kindness.”
Caroline’s eyes hardened. “I’d like to kill her with something else.”
She waved good-bye and breezed out the door.
I glanced out the window, which offered the perfect view of the town square. My nerves felt unsettled, and not just because of my sea legs. Nancy Hudson took the cake for being obnoxious, but I couldn’t quite figure out what she’d done to warrant death threats. And more disturbing was Caroline’s comment about Mom. As far as I could remember she and Mom weren’t close. Was she just being dramatic? If she was concerned about Mom, was something really wrong? I’d come back to Ashland to get grounded and mend. What was happening to my sweet, cozy hometown?
Copyright ©2014 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. You can friend her on Facebook to learn more!
I think I will love this–and not simply because I’m living in a small town in Oregon. A new author for the new year!