Till Death Do Us Tart: New Excerpt
By Ellie Alexander
Torte―the small-town bakeshop no one can resist―is hosting a midsummer night’s wedding where merry-making and murder are served up in equal measure. Till Death Do Us Tart is Ellie Alexander’s eighth delectable novel in the Bakeshop Mystery series.
Jules Capshaw has too much on her plate―and she’s feeling the pinch: the whole town of Ashland, Oregon, is in on the surprise Elizabethan-themed wedding she’s planning for her mom and soon-to-be stepdad. But is her secret scheme half-baked? She’s hiding racks overflowing with sweet treats while Torte is topsy-turvy with a major remodel and the return of Jules’s estranged husband, Carlos. And until now, Jules had no clue about the bitter family feud that has her friend Lance frazzled and suspicious. But when a party crasher takes someone out with a serving of poisoned wine and Jules discovers the deadly cup was intended for her, it’s time to turn the tables on a killer.
They say that love makes the world go round. Given the contagious feeling of love in the air in my warmhearted town of Ashland, Oregon, I suspected that the saying might be true. Ashland’s amorous tendencies were heightened with preparations for what locals were calling “the wedding of the century.” My mom and her longtime beau, the Professor, had finally decided to tie the knot and everyone was humming with eager anticipation. Torte, our family bakeshop, was no exception. For the past few weeks, we had been hand-pressing dainty lemon tarts with mounds of fluffy whipping cream, testing new recipes for strawberry sponge cake, and finalizing the menu for the wedding feast. Mom and the Professor had agreed on an inclusive guest list. That meant that anyone in our little hamlet who wanted to come to the wedding was invited. That also meant that my team and I were going to be baking around the clock to ensure that we had enough food to feed the masses.
To complicate matters, Mom and the Professor each had a trick up their sleeve. They had wanted to surprise one another with a Midsummer Night’s Dream wedding on the summer solstice. But the ruse was on them. Neither of them had been able to secure a venue, since Ashland was a prime destination for summer weddings. After I’d had dozens of conversations with each of them, they had both come to the same conclusion—the wedding would have to wait. Only, it wouldn’t. We were one step ahead of them. Wedding plans had been going on underground for the past month, and the entire town was in on the secret. We had created an elaborate decoy party, the grand reopening of Uva, a gorgeous hillside vineyard that I was now a one-third owner in. We had sent invitations for a reopening bash, asking guests to come in Elizabethan attire for a celebratory Midsummer’s Eve dinner under the stars. At last count, we had over two hundred and fifty RSVPs, and (fingers crossed) hopefully Mom and the Professor were none the wiser.
Keeping the real reason for the festivities a secret from Ashland’s lead detective and my very astute mom was going to be no small feat. After tossing around several white lies, we decided our best bet was to host a party. That way we wouldn’t have to try to hide vats of artichoke dip and hundreds of peach cobbler cupcakes. I had roped my friend Thomas in to help keep the Professor occupied. Thomas was Ashland’s deputy, and the Professor’s right-hand man. As of late, the Professor had talked openly about retiring, or at least scaling back, after the wedding. Thomas used the opportunity to distract the Professor by pummeling him with questions about police procedures. Throwing Mom off the scent wasn’t as easy. Her sharp walnut eyes seemed to pierce through me when she would ask if I was going overboard on the food for the launch party. I had fumbled through a lie, claiming that the frenzy of preparation around Torte was also due to trying to stockpile product for any temporary closures we might incur during our basement renovation. I’m not sure she bought my story, but she was distracted with trying to find a venue for the wedding and didn’t press further.
If we could make it through the next few days without spilling the beans, we should be in the clear. The wedding was on Saturday night—less than a week away.
Time to get baking, Jules, I thought as I unwrapped sheets of filo dough and glanced at Torte’s steamy kitchen windows. The sun had yet to fully rise. It cast a purplish glow on the plaza. There was something calming and almost magical about baking in the quiet predawn hours. I loved the idea that while I was kneading bread dough my friends and neighbors were fast asleep. It was as if mornings were exclusively mine. Not many people ever witnessed the sun’s slow ascent, the way the sky shifted from deep purple to pink and how light drifted across the treetops. Every sunrise was slightly different. Some days the bricks on the plaza across the street glowed a burning orange, like the sun was begging villagers out of their beds. While other days it lagged behind wispy clouds, encouraging a lazy lie-in.
Sunrises were like pastry. No two scones or turnovers ever came out exactly the same. Sure, the average connoisseur might not notice the nuance of a slightly thinner crust or browning of crystallized sugar, but each sweet and savory treat that I pulled from our ovens had its own unique signature.
I patted the cool dough and stole another look outside. Antique street lamps cast soft halos on the sidewalk. A maroon banner with Shakespeare’s bust flapped in a hint of wind. The new season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had kicked off last month, bringing tourists and theater lovers to our small southern Oregon town. From now through the end of summer the bakeshop would see a steady stream of customers. This was our busy season, so of course we were adding in a wedding, launching a new winery, and finishing our basement expansion. No one ever claimed that I strayed away from a challenge. I just hoped that I wasn’t in over my head.
Dusting my hands with flour, I set to work placing thin layers of the filo dough on the kitchen island. Then I brushed them with melted butter. I planned to create a stacked strawberry pastry with honey, a touch of salt, and toasted almonds. If it went according to my vision we would feature it as our breakfast special for the morning rush, and potentially add it to the ever-growing list of desserts for the wedding. Once I had brushed the sheets of dough with butter, I layered fresh sliced strawberries, drizzled them with honey, and sprinkled them with toasted almonds and coarse sea salt. I repeated the layers until I had a four-inch stack. I finished the pastry with a final coat of golden butter and then slid it into the oven.
With my test pastry in the oven, I turned my attention to our daily bread and specialty cake orders. About thirty percent of our business came from wholesale accounts. We delivered bread and pastries to several restaurants on the plaza and throughout Ashland, like the Green Goblin on the opposite end of the Calle Guanajuato. They used our breads for pub-style sandwiches and offered their customers custom cake slices. It was beneficial for both of us. The Green Goblin was primarily a bar, but maintained a basic menu. Our partnership allowed them to feature locally made baked goods at a discounted rate and gave us consistent weekly income and some word-of-mouth marketing. As I kneaded sourdough starter and flour on the island, I thought about how lucky I was to live and work in such a supportive community.
Soon, the kitchen was alive with the scent of sweet bread. I was so lost in the process of twisting braids of challah dough that I didn’t even realize that the sky had lightened until I heard Stephanie and Andy come inside.
“Morning, boss,” Andy called in his usual chipper tone. He wore a Southern Oregon University T-shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. “It’s already warm out there. I think it’s going to be a cold brew kind of day.”
“Sounds delish,” I replied with a wave.
Stephanie trudged in after him. Even though they both attended SOU, their styles couldn’t have been more different. Her violet hair had been dyed black at the tips. She wore a pair of skinny jeans and a black tank top that matched her surly attempt at a smile. “Hey.” She gave me a nod and headed to grab an apron.
Andy stared at the racks of bread. “Dude, how long have you been here?”
“I don’t know. A couple of hours, maybe.” I glanced at the clock on the wall behind me and gave him a sheepish look. “I couldn’t sleep. Too much to do.” That was true, but there was more to my lack of sleep than just our bakery production. As excited as I was about Mom’s wedding, I had a lot on my mind. My estranged husband, Carlos, was arriving with his son Ramiro in two days. I had never met Ramiro, and while I was confident that we would get along, I couldn’t silence a small, nagging fear that he might not like me. I hadn’t even known that Carlos had a son until I found a stack of letters in our tiny room on the ship. Learning that Carlos had a son had been a shock, but what made it painful and confusing was the fact that he had kept it from me. I left without giving him a chance to explain. Maybe it hadn’t been my most rational moment, but returning to Ashland and cocooning myself among longtime friends had given me space and distance. I had had to come to terms with Carlos’s decision. Not that I entirely understood it, but I had forgiven him. It didn’t serve either of us for me to hold on to my anger. And, the truth was that I was excited about meeting Ramiro. The way Carlos spoke of his son had opened a desire for a family within me that I hadn’t even realized existed. Hopefully, meeting Ramiro in real life would live up to the expectation I had created in my head.
One thing I was worried about was trying to find some time to talk to Carlos alone. He hadn’t told me about purchasing a share in Uva. Apparently, keeping things secret was a pattern. I wasn’t sure what that meant for his long-term plans, and quite honestly what that meant for me. After a quick return to the Amour of the Seas, the cruise ship where we had met and eventually married, I had come home resolved that it was time for me to leave that life behind. Did buying into Uva mean that Carlos also had different plans? Was he thinking of leaving the vagabond lifestyle of the sea too?
Then there was the issue of Richard Lord. Richard owned the Merry Windsor hotel across the plaza from Torte. He’d been a thorn in my side ever since I returned home. It had started when I discovered that he was trying to swindle Mom out of her ownership of Torte. His business practices were shady at best. Normally, I went out of my way to avoid any interactions with the pompous Mr. Lord. Alas, that wasn’t going to be possible any longer. Richard was also a one-third partner in the winery and had made it crystal clear that he would do whatever it took to buy us out. For some reason, Richard had been extremely accommodating with Mom’s wedding plans. That should have given me peace of mind, but instead it had me on edge. I didn’t trust Richard’s motivation. Maybe there was a small chance that he had changed his ways, but I suspected his recent sickening sweetness was part of a bigger plan. The question was, what?
Finally, most of my insomnia was due to worry over my friend Lance. Lance was the artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. His plays had won multiple awards and had become revered throughout the theater community as cutting-edge. OSF bent gender roles, casting women as the lead in many of Shakespeare’s classics and producing works by underrepresented artists. Thanks to Lance’s visionary spirit, OSF had become more than just the charming outdoor Elizabethan theater that attracted traditional theater lovers and Shakespeare enthusiasts. Sure, the company was committed to working its way through the bard’s canon, but it was also willing to take risks and showcase plays written and staged to challenge personal beliefs and leave the audience with questions.
Lance had recently been accused of murder. Fortunately, it turned out that he wasn’t a killer, but he had been struggling with the board of directors at the theater and had taken off for an unknown locale right as the new season had commenced. That wasn’t like him. Nor was his erratic behavior and his crazy spending habits. We had been out of touch for two weeks. During the time he’d been gone I’d taken it upon myself to ask around to see if I could come up with any clues to explain the sudden and dramatic shift in his personality. Thus far, nothing had come to light.
The sound of Andy firing up the espresso machine shook me from my thoughts.
He adjusted his well-worn baseball cap. “Okay, if you’ve been here for hours you need a cold brew—stat. I brewed a batch last night that’s chilling in the walk-in. I’ll have it ready for you in less than two secs.” He flashed me two fingers and sprinted to the fridge.
“You know that I’ll never turn down your coffee,” I called after him, brushing my hands on my bright red Torte apron. Our current space included the kitchen, which opened to the espresso bar and pastry counter. The front of the bakeshop housed a variety of bistro tables and window booths. My parents had painted the dining area in teal and red—royal colors—in honor of my dad’s love of the bard and all things Shakespeare. Short of freshening up the paint and modernizing our ovens, Torte hadn’t changed much since the day my parents first opened the front doors. I liked it that way and intended to keep the same welcoming vibe in the newly renovated basement. Mom and I had discussed the possibility of an expansion someday. Neither of us had expected that our dreams would come to fruition so quickly. The basement space became available at the same time that the city announced an incentive program and low-interest loans for small-business owners. One afternoon I was touring the soggy basement and the next thing I knew I was signing a contract for a major remodel.
Progress had sped up over the past few days. The electrician was due later in the afternoon for the final inspection. After that it would be a matter of paint, trim, and then the fun stuff—like arranging furniture and artwork. Our goal was to move wholesale baking operations downstairs within the week. Once we had the new kitchen up and running we could tear through the current kitchen to create stairs between the spaces. The dining room, espresso bar, and pastry counter would expand and customers would have additional seating options downstairs with a view of the brick pizza oven and our bakers at work. Our architect, Roger, had found a way to add a woodstove in the seating area so that customers could cozy up with a latte and pastry on cold winter afternoons. I felt like a kid at Christmas every time I went downstairs to check on progress. We were so close I could hardly wait.
“What do you want me to start on? It looks like you’re almost done with the wholesale orders.” Stephanie stared at the whiteboard, which had the day’s tasks outlined, and then back to the racks of bread. “Weren’t you just lecturing me about not getting enough sleep?”
She had a fair point. Mom, the team, and I had almost had to stage an intervention because Stephanie had been so sleep-deprived, thanks to a neighbor with a love of show tunes keeping her awake every night. Her lack of sleep had impacted her personal well-being and her baking. Thankfully, a good set of earplugs was all it took to get her back on track. Was I in the same position? Typically, I thrive on little to no sleep. It comes with the territory—bakers’ hours. In my line of work sleeping in is unheard of. Bakers rise with their bread in the wee hours of the night.
I didn’t feel rusty or sluggish, but then again, I also felt like I was operating on autopilot. “True,” I replied with a chuckle. “But I’m the boss so the rules don’t apply, right?”
Stephanie scowled. “Ha!”
“Promise me that if I start acting loopy, you guys will keep me in check?”
“Oh, we’ll keep you in check,” Andy replied before Stephanie had a chance. He handed us glasses of iced coffee with a lovely layer of something creamy on the top. “You don’t have to worry though. This is my toasted-coconut cold brew. One glass of this will have you revved up and ready to bake for days.”
Stephanie dunked a spoon into her coffee and swirled the thick coconut milk together with the dark brew. “I don’t know about the coffee, but we’ve got your back, Jules.”
I fought a tightness in my throat. Stephanie’s outward appearance and aloof attitude sometimes gave the impression that she didn’t care. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t know how Mom and I had lucked out with such a stellar young staff, or what we would do without them.
“Thanks,” I said, taking a sip of the coffee. The rich espresso and bright coconut flavor were a perfect pairing.
Andy returned to his post while Stephanie and I reviewed what I had already completed and what needed to be tackled next. Desserts had begun to outshine the cake at many weddings that we had recently catered and Mom’s nuptials would be no exception. We had sketched out a tablescape for the reception with a combination of whimsical and elegant dessert offerings sure to please every palate. I tasked Stephanie with working on the dough for what would become milk and cookie shots.
“How am I supposed to make the dough into cups?” Stephanie asked, washing her hands with lavender soap.
I pulled out my notebook and flipped it open to my sketches and recipes. The milk and cookie shots were a nod to childhood nostalgia. We would make three kinds of cookie dough—chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, and snickerdoodle—but reduce the butter to create a crumbly, pliable dough. Then we would mold the dough in a popover pan. Once the cookies had baked we would have adorable cups that we would fill with melted dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and caramel to create a seal. Right before serving the shots we would fill the cookie molds with milk infused with vanilla, almond, and cinnamon. I had a feeling that the rich and fun cookie shots were going to be a hit among the guests.
Stephanie added butter, eggs, and sugar into the mixer while I gathered ingredients for a test batch of another fanciful dessert, pie fries. For the sweet fries, I began by cutting butter and flour together for a pie crust. I added a splash of my favorite secret pie-crust ingredient—vodka (which ensures a tender, flaky crust)—and rolled up my sleeves to knead the dough. Soon I had a lovely round ball of dough that I rolled into a thin sheet. Next, I cut the crust into half-inch strips and brushed each side with melted butter. To finish them, I sprinkled them with a healthy dose of cinnamon and sugar and popped the strips into the oven to bake for ten to twelve minutes. The scent of the spicy sticks soon filled the kitchen.
Andy and Stephanie concentrated on their work. One of the many things that I appreciated about our team was everyone’s ability to take initiative. I didn’t have to remind Andy to wipe down the espresso machine at the start of his shift, or ask Stephanie to whip buttercream for our specialty cakes; they jumped in and helped with whatever was needed.
Once my timer dinged, I removed the golden-brown fries from the oven and arranged a half dozen of them in a red and white striped cardboard fry box. “Who wants a taste?” I called to Stephanie and Andy, setting the fries next to a ramekin of raspberry “ketchup” for dipping.
“Did someone say taste?” Andy practically hurdled the espresso counter.
“Careful,” I cautioned. “They might be hot.”
Sterling and Bethany, the two other members of our small but mighty staff, arrived. Sterling had been taking on a bigger role as kitchen supervisor. He didn’t have formal chef training, but was a quick study and had an innate ability to know what flavors worked well together. Finding Bethany had been serendipitous. We met at Ashland’s annual Chocolate Festival where she debuted her droolworthy brownies. Mom and I asked her to help out while we were on the cruise. She was such a natural fit that we ended up inviting her to stay on permanently. To my surprise and equal delight, she and Stephanie hit it off instantly. They had teamed up to expand Torte’s social media presence with daily contests and gorgeously styled pictures of our culinary creations.
I knew that we were going to have to hire more staff with the expansion. The thought of interviewing potential candidates made my head swim. That could wait, at least a little while longer.
Bethany squealed when she saw my pie fries. “These are the cutest things I’ve ever seen.” She reached for a fry. “Let me put my stuff down and get my phone. I can see the hashtags now. #PieFries and #PlayWithYourFood.”
“Aren’t these the absolute best?” she said to Sterling who joined us in the kitchen.
“Sure.” He grabbed a fry. “What’s on the lunch menu today?” He folded his apron in half and tied it around his waist. Even with the warming summer temperatures he wore his standard black hoodie and skinny jeans.
“How does an Italian sub sound?” I pointed to the walk-in fridge. “I ordered extra salami. You could use the baguettes that are coming out of the oven next.”
“Works for me.” He reached for a spiral notebook. “What do you want on them?”
“Maybe start with an Italian dressing with fresh parsley and basil. Salami, black olives, roasted red peppers, spinach, and mozzarella cheese.”
“I’ll take two of those,” Andy shouted above the sound of foaming milk. He had a stash of fries sitting next to the espresso machine.
“Do you want them grilled or cold?” Sterling jotted down my list of ingredients.
I thought about it for a minute. Grilled baguettes brushed with olive oil and served slightly charred sounded delicious, but it was supposed to warm up as the day progressed. “Cold,” I said. “In fact, if you make a few dozen now you can chill them so that they’ll be nice and cool by the lunch rush.”
“On it.” Sterling headed for the fridge.
Bethany clicked a dozen shots of the pie fries and Stephanie’s cooling cookie cups. She offered to tackle muffins and croissants. That left me to deliver our wholesale orders. I enjoyed getting a chance to pop into neighboring businesses along the plaza, especially as the theater season ramped up. It would become harder and harder to find a spare minute once the summer crowds descended. I packaged buttery loaves of sweet bread and crusty sourdough into a box and headed outside. Flowers spilled from window boxes along the plaza. Empty galvanized tubs were secured with a bike lock on the side of A Rose by Any Other Name, the flower shop owned by my friend Thomas’s parents. Soon they would be bursting with colorful, fragrant blooms. The tree-lined sidewalk looked sleepy, but I knew that wouldn’t last long. By noon the outdoor bistro tables would be packed with diners and the shops would be bustling with tourists. Each building along Main Street had been designed to resemble Elizabethan architecture. Walking this route never got old. I felt like I saw something new each time, like the scalloped iron gate on the terrace above the bookstore or the curved brick archway that opened into a hidden alleyway.
I passed Puck’s Pub where a bartender was sweeping up the remains of last night’s revelry. He tipped his cap. I waved and continued on to the Green Goblin at the far end of the plaza. The pub and restaurant sat across the street from Lithia Park, Ashland’s crown jewel with acres of hiking trails and lush grassy areas perfect for an impromptu summer picnic or to watch herds of black-tailed deer. I was tempted to take a quick spin through the lush grounds before returning to the bakeshop to calm my mind. Instead, I dropped off the Green Goblin’s order and crossed Main Street to finish the delivery route. By the time I made it back to Torte, Andy was chatting with a line of customers waiting for lattes and Bethany was packaging up boxes of croissants and sticky buns.
“Are you Juliet?” A woman waiting for her drink order stopped me. She wore a tailored black suit jacket and trim white pants. Most Ashlanders rolled into Torte wearing khaki shorts and sandals or flowy peasant skirts, especially during the morning rush. Evening hours brought a more sophisticated style to the plaza as theatergoers meandered through the shops or stopped for a bite before a show.
“Yes.” I didn’t recognize her.
She extended a manicured hand with a diamond so huge it devoured half her ring finger. “Clarissa.” She didn’t exactly smile.
“Nice to meet you. Did you need something?” I nodded to the pastry counter.
“No. This young gentleman is making me a nonfat latte. I wanted to introduce myself, because I believe you’re working with my husband?”
“Really?” I placed the delivery box on the counter, and pushed a loose strand of hair back into my ponytail.
Her penciled lips turned downward. “Yes, Roger. Your architect.”
“Oh, Roger. Of course. We love Roger. He’s done an incredible job.” I suddenly felt self-conscious about my jeans and tennis shoes.
“I know that he’s the best,” she snapped. “He’s not the best architect in Ashland. He’s the best architect in the entire Rogue Valley.” She twisted the brilliant diamond. “You’re lucky that he agreed to take on a project…” She paused and glanced around the bakeshop. “Of this size. Typically, he prefers to focus his efforts on larger, more profitable endeavors.”
The way she spoke made me feel like we were a charity case. “He never mentioned that.”
Andy put Clarissa’s drink on the bar. “Nonfat latte is up.” He glanced at me and rolled his eyes.
“I’m meeting Roger shortly.” I tried to keep my tone upbeat. “Have you had a chance to see what he’s done with the basement?”
Clarissa shook her head. “No.”
“You should come say hello and take a look. He added a woodstove that is going to be the centerpiece of the seating area downstairs. I can’t wait to arrange cozy couches and pillows around it.” My excitement spilled through in my tone, which seemed to irritate Clarissa.
“I’m sure it will be charming.” Somehow, she made the word sound loathsome.
“It’s such a quaint space you have here.” She paused and turned her attention to the front door and motioned to a woman in her mid-thirties with bleached blond hair and black leather biker jacket. “I must go. I’m meeting someone.” Clarissa dismissed me.
She and the woman in the leather jacket made their way to one of the booths in the front. They were an odd pair.
I got the sense that Clarissa wasn’t impressed that her husband was designing a bakeshop. She obviously wanted him working on more prestigious projects than our quaint bakery. Roger had never seemed disinterested during the time we’d spent working on the redesign. If anything, he’d been enthusiastic and was constantly bringing Mom and me new ideas and suggestions. Oh well, I sighed and returned to the kitchen. Clarissa could turn her nose down on Torte. I knew how lucky I was to get to spend my days in such a comfortable and welcoming space.
Copyright © 2018 Ellie Alexander.