Authors: Ellie Alexander
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Cozy, #Women Sleuths
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
A BATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
Copyright © 2015 by Kate Dyer-Seeley.
On Thin Icing
copyright © 2015 by Kate Dyer-Seeley.
All rights reserved.
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St. Martin’s Paperbacks edition / July 2015
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Torte may not be a real place, but it lives in my head as a happy mash-up of childhood memories in our family kitchen. This book is dedicated to my parents. To my dad, who quoted Shakespeare while creating magnificent layered tortes, many thanks for your red editing pen and drool-worthy recipes. To my mom, who ignited my passion for reading and baking, everything I touch contains a trace of you.
I write in isolation. It’s only with the help of these incredible people that my mangled thoughts become a book. To my first set of eyes, Erin, Beth, Judy, Erica, Elaine, and Arnie. To my editor, Hannah, who makes my work so much stronger and is always up for talking pastry. To the marketing team of Shailyn and Cara who help get the book in readers’ hands. To Erika my event planner who knows how to throw a killer party. To my agent, John, “the king of the cozy.” To my family, who cheer me on, taste endless recipes (good and bad) and who make Torte come to life every day, my deepest thanks.
They say that time heals a broken heart. I’ve noticed that no one mentions exactly how
time it takes, though. A week? A month? A year? Having a solid number might have made me feel better, since my heart was mending slowly.
While I waited for the heartache to subside, I busied myself with building a new life in my sweet hometown of Ashland, Oregon. Never would I have imagined that I’d be saying that, when I left the ship and my husband last summer. Returning to Ashland was supposed to be a temporary stop until I figured out what I was going to do next.
Mom had advised me to take things slow. “One day at a time, Jules. You don’t need to figure everything out this minute.”
She was right. Her words stuck, and so did I.
The summer breezed by in a whirlwind of activity. Ashland is home to the world-famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a playground for outdoor enthusiasts with sunny mountains and rivers. During the summer months, our little town bursts at the seams with tourists, actors, playwrights, backpackers, and whitewater guides. Torte, our family bakeshop, sits right in the middle of downtown.
Mom’s been serving up a selection of sweet and savory pastries with a side of love for nearly three decades. She and my dad purchased the cheery space that houses the bakery when I was a kid. Most of my early memories are of sitting on a bar stool next to the butcher-block island while the two of them kneaded bread dough and chatted with customers. Dad would quote Shakespeare sonnets and engage out-of-town visitors in lively discussions about OSF’s latest plays. Mom would press tart crust into tins and act as a sounding board for locals who came to the shop for more than just a warm cup of coffee.
Their love affair wasn’t fancy. It was quiet and easy. Maybe that was part of my problem. I wanted what they had. The other part of my problem could have been that my name set me up to be a romantic. Really, Juliet Montague Capshaw? I didn’t have a chance. Ill-fated romance is literally my namesake.
My parents thought naming their only child after one of literature’s greatest heroines would ensure a life of passion. I’m not sure they thought it all the way through, though.
When I left for culinary school after Dad died, I shortened my name to Jules. It fits. I’m pretty laid-back and casual for the most part. The one exception is in the kitchen. There I run a tight ship. It’s a good thing because after being home for a few weeks I realized that Torte needed me as much as I needed it. Mom’s a genius in the kitchen and when it comes to caring for our customers, but running the bakeshop on her own had really taken its toll. I was glad to be able to help lighten her load.
Torte needed updating and a serious influx of cash. The steady throng of tourists in and out the front door this summer had helped. We’d been so slammed for the last few months that I was actually looking forward to the off-season so that we could spend some time mapping out a long-term plan for Torte’s future.
That’s what we’ll focus on today, I thought as I laced up my tennis shoes and grabbed a jacket off the hook hanging by my front door. The October sun greeted me as I headed down the stairs from my apartment and out onto the main square. Downtown Ashland is like a little village with a collection of shops, restaurants, and the famed OSF theater complex an easy walk up the hill. Lithia Park, the jewel of town, flanks one end of the downtown. Its meandering pathways, ancient trees, and natural streams make it one of my favorite places on the planet, which is saying a lot. A decade of working on a cruise ship allowed me to visit ports of call all over the world. Other places might be more exotic or boast a more happening night life scene, but Ashland’s sophisticated charm and quaint beauty was unparalleled.
I smiled and waved as I passed Elevation’s front door. My apartment is above the outdoor store and I’ve gotten to know the owners. They keep promising to take me climbing once things slow down. From the look of the store this morning, climbing would have to wait. A group of tourists were bunched near the front of the store, waiting for a turn on the indoor climbing wall.
Sulfur fountains bubbled in the square. Visitors drink the fizzy mineral water, pumped in from Lithia Springs, for good health and good luck. I stopped and watched as a teenager, eager to impress two young girls, drank a mouthful of the water and then quickly proceeded to spit it out all over himself. It’s definitely an acquired taste.
I continued on toward Torte. Its bright red and teal awning swayed in the slight midday breeze. Flower boxes with clematis cascading down the side hung below the windows. I greeted customers enjoying their pastries at the bistro tables on the sidewalk, and checked to make sure their coffee was fresh before heading inside.
Usually I arrive at the bakeshop much, much earlier than this, but last night I had stayed late to have dinner with a producer who was in town from California. Mom told me to sleep in. Things were starting to slow down as we eased into the off-season.
I felt surprisingly excited to share my news from last night’s dinner with everyone. As I swung open the front door, the familiar smell of rising yeast and espresso made me pause and take in a deep breath. Torte is the kind of place that lifts your mood. The space is inviting, with corrugated metal siding, royal teal and red accent colors, and concrete floors. A giant chalkboard menu with rotating daily specials fills the far wall. Each table and the booths along the windows had been polished and held bright fall bouquets. A preschooler noshed on a cookie the size of his head while he scribbled on the bottom of the chalkboard—a space Mom reserves exclusively for our youngest customers. In the far corner, a writer tapped on her laptop while downing a latte. Tourists ogled the glass pastry cases at the front counter.
Yep, this is the place for me, I thought as I snagged an apron with our Torte logo from the wall and wrapped it around my waist.
I passed the chalkboard on my way to the open kitchen in the back. It read, “They Are All but Stomachs, and We Are All but Food.”
“Nice quote, Mom.” I walked up behind her and pinched her on the waist.
She jumped, sending flour flying in the air. “Jules. You startled me.”
“You need hearing aids, Mom.”
“I’m much too young for hearing aids, honey.” She brushed flour from her apron and studied me. “You look refreshed. How was the dinner?”
I glanced toward the front of the shop where Andy, our resident coffee geek and college student, stood at the espresso machine, pulling shots. His boyish good looks and easygoing attitude charmed a customer waiting for her drinks. Quite an impressive feat. I’ve found that people tend to be chatty and polite
they’ve consumed a cup of our delicious brew, but Andy has mastered the art of coffee talk. He’s also mastered coffee art. I watched as he poured the shot into a mug and designed a foam leaf on top.
Sterling, our newest employee, manned the cash register and pastry case. Mom and I sort of adopted him earlier this summer. He’d showed up in Ashland the same time I did, and while our paths were different, we were kindred spirits in our nomadic lifestyles and search for home. Sterling, like Andy, had a natural rapport with customers—although his approach couldn’t be more different.
Andy typically talks sports with customers, and likes to get their input on his latest coffee creations. He keeps a spiral-bound notebook under the counter and whips it out whenever he has time to mix a new drink. His signature concoctions have become legendary around town and with tourists, who keep coming back to Torte for more. Lately, he’d been experimenting with fall flavors—amaretto, caramel, and an organic pumpkin pie latte made with real pumpkin purée.
Sterling’s dark hair, tattoos, and startlingly blue eyes tend to captivate our customers, especially the female ones. He has just the right balance of an edge with a kind heart. The girls swoon over his sultry looks, but it’s a wasted effort. He only has eyes for Stephanie, the somewhat sullen, alternative college student who’s been apprenticing under Mom and me for the past couple months.
Stephanie used to work the counter, but it turned out that customer service wasn’t exactly her strong suit. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the progress she’s making in the kitchen. She has innate skill and “the touch,” as Mom likes to say, when it comes to pastry. If I could only soften her up a little, it would make things so much easier.
Mom flicked me with a dish towel. “Jules, you with me? How was dinner?”
I returned my attention to her. “Sorry. It was good. Really good. I want to tell everyone about it, though. How about if we try to call a team meeting once this mid-morning rush dies down?”
Mom brushed a tray of pies with an egg wash and sprinkled the crusts with crystalized sugar. “You want to throw these in the oven?”