For once, Ivy Culpepper feels fulfilled. An apprenticeship at Yeast of Eden has opened her world to time-honored baking techniques under owner Olaya Solis’s guidance—as well as the freshest small-town gossip, courtesy of chatty regulars known as the Blackbird Ladies. Ivy even begins accepting that she and restaurateur Miguel Baptista may never again rekindle their romance—despite the undeniable tension between them . . .
But she’s tied to Miguel again when his trusted produce supplier goes missing. Old Hank Riviera’s financial troubles would make anyone consider running away forever. And with his relationship woes, there are plenty of people who might want to see Hank disappear. As Ivy, with the help of her octogenarian sidekick, turns to the loose-lipped Blackbird Ladies for leads, she soon finds herself caught in a web of lies stickier than a batch of Olaya’s popular pastries . . .
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My favorite places in my hometown of Santa Sofia were located in three different areas. The first was the charming Tudor house I'd recently purchased. The moment I'd stepped foot into the foyer, it had felt like home. I still had to pinch myself. I owned it! I'd moved to Austin for college, had gotten married, started a photography business, and then ended up divorced. The very unexpected loss of my mother had brought me back home. I felt as if I'd been wrung out, but my quaint, coastal central California town had breathed new life into my body. Into my soul.
The second was my parents' house. Pacific Grove Street would always be home to me. My brother Billy was two years younger than me. Growing up, we'd alternated between being best friends and staunch enemies, depending on the day and our moods. Now we were adults, Billy was serious with my best friend (and the deputy sheriff) Emmaline Davis, and we leaned on each other for support. Luckily, we had both finally started to heal and were moving on with our lives, helping our dad do the same.
I still couldn't believe it, but the place where I felt most at home was Yeast of Eden. I hadn't grown up as a foodie or baker, although I was perfectly capable of adding eggs, oil, and water into a box mix of some sweet treat, ending up with something tasty. I'd come to realize that it wasn't so much the bread shop itself that I connected to; it was Olaya Solis. She was the owner, had taken me in when I didn't even know I needed to be taken in, and had become like an aunt. While I worked to build up my photography business, I helped out at the bread shop, both with baking and at the front counter. Every day, I met new and interesting people. The locals of our little beach town were eclectic and some were downright fascinating. The tourists came from all over. There was never a dull day in Santa Sofia.
At the moment, I stood behind the counter, boxing up a dozen chocolate croissants. The rich, flakey dough of the pastries scattered as I placed them into the white square box. A mother, her two towheaded children hugged up next to her, was next in line. She ordered three baguettes and three scones, one lemon and the others cinnamon chip. One of the kids looked through the cases, her eyes wide. I could almost read her mind: So many treats to choose from! Should she ask for something else?
"Oh!" she explained, pointing to the back corner of the glass-fronted case. "Mama, look!"
The girl's mother looked down to her, one finger to her lips. She had her wallet in her hand, a twenty-dollar bill at the ready.
"But Mama, look! A skeleton!"
The girl's little sister pressed her tiny hands against the glass, her nose pressed up against it. "Where?" she said. "Where is the skeleton?"
I grinned, looking down into the case and spotting the target of their attention. I leaned over the glass to talk to the girls. "It's called a sugar skull."
Olaya loved seeing the sweet smiles of the kids who came into Yeast of Eden. The sugar-skull cookies were like Easter eggs — hidden treasures tucked away where children could find them and exclaim with excitement. She made a single batch every other day, taking the time to decorate them like the traditional Day of the Dead skulls. She had it down to a science, able to complete the decorating of twelve cookies in about twenty minutes. She hid them in the displays of bread, tucked between scones, or anywhere else she could think of. When a bright-eyed child discovered one, he or she was treated to the cookie. I was convinced that Olaya had as much fun watching the surprised and elated expressions on the children's faces when they discovered a cookie as much as the kids who actually found them.
I reached for the pop-up box dispenser and pulled out a square of the dry wax tissue paper we used to take items from the cases, using it to retrieve the sugar- skull cookie the little girl had spotted. Once again, I leaned over the top of the glass. "Good job spotting it!" I said, handing it to her. "Maybe you'll share it with your sister?"
She looked to her mother for affirmation that she could take the cookie from me. "Can I?" she asked.
Her mother smiled and nodded. "What do you say?" she prompted.
The blond-headed girl looked up, gave me a toothless grin, and said, "Tank you." The gap in her teeth made the th come out as t.
I couldn't help but smile in delight. I could see why Olaya took the time to make the cookies. It was worth every extra minute it took to make a child happy. "You're very welcome, sweetie," I said.
She took the cookie, her chubby hands clutching it like a treasured prize and tried to break it in half. Her mom helped her and the little girl offered one half to her younger sister. They each took a bite, the crumbs falling onto their matching red jackets.
As I finished bagging the scones and collecting payment, laughter erupted from one of the bistro tables by the window. Four women were seated around the table, each donning fun hats adorned with flowers, ribbon, and a small bird. Once I'd realized they were blackbirds, I couldn't help but smile.
The Blackbird Ladies. They'd been called that since the dawn of time. Or at least since I'd seen them gathering for an every-other-day croissant at Yeast of Eden and had given them the moniker. They wore hats adorned with silk daisies, carnations, and roses.
Without thinking, I dubbed them the Blackbird Ladies. It was perfect. I'd tried it out in my head and then said it aloud, rolling the syllables around in my mouth. It described them to a T. Not only because of the little birds perched on each of their hats, but because the women were each so unique. So original. So utterly precious.
My favorite octogenarian, Penny Branford, was one of the four. Once everyone was served, I rounded the counter and approached the table. "What's with the hats?" I asked her as the other three women sipped their percolated coffees and nibbled on their breads.
She patted the wide rim of the one resting on her head. "Do you like it?"
My lips curled up into an amused smile. "I love it."
"Ivy, these three are my oldest friends in the world," Mrs. Branford said. She nodded toward the woman next to her. "Janice and I went to elementary school together." Janice, quite proper and sitting with her back stick-straight, dipped her head slightly in greeting. "Ivy? Quite an unusual name, isn't it?"
I shrugged, but my grin grew. "My mother liked plants."
Mrs. Branford swept her arm toward the next woman. "I taught school with Alice," she said, "and Mabel ... ah, Mabel. She was the shoulder I cried on once upon a time."
I loved a lot of things about Penelope Branford, but what I adored most about her was her honesty. I knew that if I had my skirt tucked up in my underwear, she'd yank it free. If I asked her if I had spinach in my teeth, she'd hand me a toothpick and hold up a mirror for me. And if she had something to tell me, she wouldn't hold back. Plus, she was detail oriented. It was her years as a teacher, I think. She was a dot-every-i-and-cross-every-t sort of person.
She was my kind of person.
Which meant these women probably were my kind of people, too.
"I can't imagine you needing a shoulder to cry on," I said, curiosity getting the better of me. I didn't want to dredge up old memories, but we'd already gone there once, and she'd opened the door again.
She shrugged, almost nonchalantly, but I saw a flash of emotion in her eyes. "Almost losing your soul mate can bring a torrent of tears," she said.
I swallowed hard. I knew about the almost-affair her deceased husband had nearly succumbed to ... with my other favorite woman in the world, Olaya Solis. Olaya had been the almost-mistress and the two women had been at odds ever since.
At least until I stepped in and somehow helped them begin to mend their fences. Because, as I'd predicted, they were basically the same person.
To the point where they'd loved the same man.
The Blackbird Ladies. They were here now, sitting at the little bistro table by the window. They'd sashayed into the bread shop in their orthopedic sneakers, velour sweat suits, and embellished hats.
"We've heard quite a bit about you, Ivy," the woman named Mabel said. "Photographer, baker, part-time Nancy Drew."
I laughed. "I'll cop to the photography and the sleuthing. That just kind of happened. But the baking? I'm a complete novice."
Olaya Solis swept into the dining area of the bread shop, the skirt of her caftan dusting the floor. She brushed her short, iron-gray hair back from her forehead. Even with a rogue curl falling over her forehead, she was statuesque, looking a bit like an Aztec queen, but, oddly, she was incredibly warm and approachable at the same time. A genuine smile spread on her face. "Hardly a novice." She cocked her head slightly as she looked at me. "Do not sell yourself short, mi'ja." To the other women, she said, "Beinvenidos, mis amigas. Everything is delicious?"
Mrs. Branford nodded, a flash of a twinkle in her eyes. "My dear Olaya, so good to see you."
Olaya shook her head in a barely perceptible way and scoffed. "You say that as if you are not here every day of the week, Penelope."
"Stop baking and we'll stop coming," she said.
"That, of course, will not happen. Now, do you need anything? A croissant? Cinnamon raisin bread?"
Janice, the most refined of the group, slathered strawberry preserves on her sweet bread. "My blueberry muffins can't compete, you know," she said with a wink at Olaya. "I tried. For years, we got together at my house, but when you and Penelope buried the hatchet — so to speak — that, as they say, was that. Who can pass up the best baked bread in Santa Sofia?"
"Certainly not me." Mabel Peabody, the most flamboyant of the four women, took a bite of her chocolate croissant. "I've gained close to eight pounds since we started meeting here. Eight well-earned, much enjoyed pounds."
The petite Alice Ryder looked Mabel up and down, and then raised her neatly shaped eyebrows. "With that tunic and — what are those? Culottes? A skirt?"
Mabel's forehead scrunched. "Wide-legged pants," she answered.
"Well, with those wide-legged pants and that tunic, you have room to add a few more," she said.
I thought for a moment that Mabel hadn't heard the hint of snark in Alice's tone, but then she leveled a look at Alice, smiled, and said, "Why do you think I wear them?"
Alice met her gaze. I waited, wondering what would happen next. For dear friends, the sparring was a little unexpected. But then Alice smiled back.
Mrs. Branford fluttered her hand in front of her. "It's impossible to compete with Olaya," she said. They all agreed and then their conversation shifted from bread and muffins to the television show of the day, to decorating. "Michael and I are having a gazebo built in the backyard," Alice said. She looked pointedly at Mabel. "Once it's done, we can start meeting there — with plenty of Olaya's breads, of course, so wear your expandable waistband pants."
Mabel scoffed. "You better believe I will."
"Well, of course," Janice said, pulling a few flakes and a soft tuft from her croissant and delicately placing them in her mouth. "No backyard could possibly be perfect without Olaya's breads. No offense, Alice, but baking has never been your strength."
I watched the dynamics of the women with fascination. They were sparring, flinging their verbal jabs as if they'd been choreographed and they were each playing their roles expertly. Alice turned toward Janice, paused dramatically, and then cracked a smile. "None taken. I never claimed to be a baker." She fluttered her hand, gesturing to herself. "If I were, I'd outgain Mabel."
Mabel held out a plate, half of a scone and a good spattering of crumbs on it. "It's never too late to start."
Mrs. Branford tapped her cane on the floor and the women all turned to look at her. She took the scone from Mabel's plate. "Now, now. We can't waste a perfectly wonderful scone on Alice, can we? She'd never appreciate it the way we do."
And then she took a healthy bite.
Mabel, Janice, and Alice all looked at Mrs. Branford for a long beat, looked at each other, and burst out laughing.
"You are so right," Alice said, her smile reaching all the way to her eyes.
"Is Michael building it?" Mrs. Branford asked and then took a bite of her own butter-slathered bread.
Alice cocked her head. "What?"
But Mrs. Branford's cheeks were puffed with her bread and she couldn't answer. Janice answered for her. "Your gazebo."
"Michael?" Alice blurted. "Ha! He can barely build a fire."
"Good thing we don't need to build many fires in Santa Sofia," Mabel said, dramatically dabbing a paper napkin against her lips. The women all nodded in agreement.
Alice turned to Janice. "Your handyman did a good job on Richie's patio cover, right?"
"Oh. You mean Collin?" Janice's face clouded for a moment, but then it cleared again. "He did, yes. A great job, in fact, but —"
"No, don't tell me he's too busy. There are a few things that can ruin a marriage. Moving, remodeling, infidelity, deceit — and in our case, Michael trying to build something," Alice said with a laugh, but I got the distinct feeling she wasn't really joking. "Your handyman might just save ours."
But Janice shook her head. "Another handyman might have to do that. He moved to the East Coast. I saw him off myself. I've missed him. He was quite good at building things."
"That's too bad," Alice said, her disappointment evident.
Janice patted the air with her palms facedown. "Settle down, Alice. I can get some names for you. I bet another one of Richie's tenants could probably do it."
The conversation was interrupted when the door to Yeast of Eden opened, the bell chimed, and a man, probably in his late sixties, ambled in. He walked slowly and with a slight limp, but he had a good build and he held his head high. The one thing that made me do a double take was his handlebar mustache. It was big and bold and ... well, you just didn't see a mustache like that everyday. He looked weathered and haggard, but every one of the Blackbird Ladies instantly perked up, preening in their hats.
Once again, I looked on in fascination as they fawned over him. Mabel was the first to speak, tucking a strand of her vibrant red hair behind her ear. "Why, if it isn't Mustache Hank. You are a sight for sore eyes."
I raised my eyebrows at Olaya. "Mustache Hank?" I whispered.
She nodded. "He is our local produce man. That is what people have called him for as long as I have been here."
Which was a long time. Olaya hadn't been born and raised in Santa Sofia, but it was most definitely her home and had been for decades.
It wasn't hard to know why the man in front of us was called Mustache Hank. That salt-and-pepper thing attached to his upper lip looked like it belonged on Hercule Poirot, not the local purveyor of veggies and fruits. "The Blackbird Ladies certainly seem to like him."
This time Olaya lifted her eyebrows at me. "Blackbird Ladies?"
I pressed my fingers to my lips, hiding my smile. "It fits, don't you think?"
She let her eyes settle on each one of the four women before turning back to me. "Yes, I do think it does."
"How's that bum ankle of yours, Hank?" Janice asked.
"I can tell you when it's going to rain," he said lightly, but the grimace gave away the apparent pain he was in, one side of his mustache lifting oddly. He looked away and I thought he must be uncomfortable being the center of attention.
Mabel stood up from her seat and rested her wrinkled hand on Hank's forearm. "Here, Hank. Do you want to sit?"
Mrs. Branford used the rubber end of her cane to push the chair closer to him. "Take a load off," she said. She preened less than her three friends, but I still detected a glimmer of something mildly flirtatious. Take a load off ? That was so not Penelope Branford.
And yet she'd said it, so maybe I was seeing a new side of her. As I watched the four women tumble over their words around Mustache Hank, I smiled to myself. Getting older — or just plain old — didn't mean your emotions shriveled up and died. These women definitely had libidos and poor Mustache Hank was the nucleus of their attention.
"You look pretty down in the dumps," Mabel said to Hank, concern on her face.
He shrugged and nodded his head. "Lost a friend."
The five women, including Olaya, frowned in sympathy. "That's never easy, is it?" said Janice. "Funeral?"
He shook his head. "No, no funeral," he said, but he didn't offer any more than that.
Excerpted from "Crust No One"
Copyright © 2018 Winnie Archer.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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