Struggling photographer Ivy Culpepper has lots of soul-searching to do since returning to seaside Santa Sofia, California. That is, until the thirty-six-year-old enters a bread making class at Yeast of Eden. Whether it’s the aroma of fresh conchas in the oven, or her instant connection with owner Olaya Solis, Ivy just knows the missing ingredients in her life are hidden among the secrets of Olaya’s bakery . . .
But Ivy’s spirits crumble when a missing classmate is suddenly discovered dead in her car. Even more devastating, the prime suspect is Olaya Solis herself. Doubting the woman could commit such a crime, Ivy embarks on a murder investigation of her own to prove her innocence and seize the real killer. As she follows a deadly trail of crumbs around town, Ivy must trust her gut like never before—or someone else could be toast!
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Kneaded to Death
By Winnie Archer
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Winnie Archer
All rights reserved.
Santa Sofia is a magical town, nestled between the Santa Lucia Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean on California's Central Coast. I've always seen it as the perfect place. Not too big, not too small. Historic and true to its commitment to remain a family-oriented place to live. The town accomplished this goal by having more bikes than people, concerts in the park, and a near perfect seventy degrees almost year-round.
I had been gone from my hometown since college but had come back when a horrible accident destroyed our lives as we knew them, taking my mother far too young and leaving my father, my brother, and me bereft and empty. We were still struggling to make sense of what had happened and how a nondescript sedan had backed right into her as she walked behind it in the parking lot at the high school where she'd taught.
"No one saw anything. It was a hit-and-run," my best friend, Emmaline, had told me sadly. "She never saw it coming, and the doctors say she didn't suffer."
That made no sense to me. She was run over by a car. There had to have been pain and suffering, even if it was brief. I relived what I imagined were my mother's last moments. The split second when she saw the truck backing up, realizing that it was coming too fast and that she couldn't get out of the way in time; the impact when it first made contact, hurling her back against the asphalt; the force of the vehicle as it rolled over her. I caught my breath, swallowing the agony I knew she'd felt.
The final result of the tragedy was the emptiness of being back in Santa Sofia without her. The place where I was born and raised no longer filled me with the comfort it used to. Things were different now; six months later, I was still trying to pick up the pieces.
Since I was a little girl, taking photographs had always been my saving grace. Capturing the beauty or heartbreak or pure, unbridled emotions in the world around me showed me how small I was in the scheme of things. At the same time, it allowed me to revel in the moments I captured, treasuring each one as a work of art in and of itself. My mother had given me a camera when I was nine years old and constantly in her hair. "It'll keep you busy," she'd told me, and it had. I had picked up that camera and had never put it down again. Now I had a degree in design and photography. I'd started a photography blog to keep my creative juices flowing, posting a picture a day. I'd had a vibrant business in Austin. But I was floundering. Since I lost my mother, finding inspiration had become a challenge. My voice had been silenced, it seemed, and I had nothing more to say with the images through the lens.
This lack of direction and the loss of my creative vision are what led me to Yeast of Eden, the bread shop in Santa Sofia. I might be able to end my dry spell if I could find inspiration somewhere. Somehow. But now, as I stood at the doorway, one hand on the handle, I wondered what in the hell I'd been thinking. Baking? A pan of brownies from a boxed mix? Sure. A batch of chocolate chip cookies, courtesy of the recipe on the back of the Nestlé package? Definitely. But from-scratch bread? Not in my wheelhouse. Baking was a far cry from finding beauty through the lens of a camera. The mere thought that I was even contemplating this bit of craziness clearly meant that I was under duress.
True, I'd been to the local bread shop every day since I'd moved back to Santa Sofia. Truth be told, the place was becoming my home away from home, but that did not give me the right to think I could actually make the stuff. And it certainly didn't mean baking would solve my problems. Grief had to run its course. I knew this, but the reality was that I'd never not feel the emptiness inside.
An image of my dad popped into my head. "What did you bring today?" he regularly asked me. It was becoming almost a joke, because I'd already cycled through nearly everything Yeast of Eden had to offer ... twice. Baguettes. Sourdough. Croissants. Rye. Wheat pumpernickel. Focaccia.
There were so many choices, and I loved them all. But I did have my favorites. The flaky, buttery croissant in the morning or a crusty sourdough roll at lunch — these were the staples. On a sunny day, the pumpernickel with sliced turkey and cheese hit the spot. When it was rainy, I bought a round loaf of French bread, turned it into a bread bowl, and filled it with homemade chowder.
But this time I wasn't here to buy bread; I was here to get my hands dirty, so to speak. To plunge them into a bowl of dough and knead, knead, knead. And somehow, despite logic and despite reason, I knew that it was going to be life changing. I had no idea how ... or why, but as sure as I was standing on the cobbled sidewalk in Santa Sofia, and as sure as the breeze off the Pacific Ocean blew through me, I was 100 percent certain that the bread-baking class at Yeast of Eden was going to send me on a new trajectory.
But was I ready?
Before I had the chance to answer that question in my head, the door opened, and a woman in a colorful caftan and red clogs, hands firmly on her hips, emerged. Her iron-gray hair was cropped short and loose, playful curls danced over her head. Her green eyes, heavily flecked with gold, stared me down. "Ven aqui, m'ija," she said to me in Spanish, as if I could understand her. Which I could not. "You have to come inside to change your life."
I jumped, startled. "To change my ... what? I'm sorry. What?" "You don't think I recognize you? You, mi amor, are here every day. You have discovered the magic of this place, and now you want more." She smiled, her eyebrows lifting in a quick movement that seemed to say "I see this every day." "Come in. We're all waiting."
"You're all ...?" I stared. "Who's waiting?"
This time the woman laughed. She threw her head back and gave a hearty guffaw that made me take a step back. Of course, I recognized her, too. Her daily authoritative presence had made it easy to deduce that the woman owned Yeast of Eden. "The rest of the bakers, por supuesto."
Her laughter seeped into me, and despite myself, I felt a smile tilt my lips upward, but I bit down to stop it from being fully realized. Being happy was simply not okay. How could it be when I'd lost my mother just a few short months ago, and when my dad, my brother, and I were hanging on to each other just to get by? My grief had become part of me. It was embedded in my soul. Trapped in my pores. Smiling felt like a betrayal of my sorrow. A betrayal of my mother.
The woman watched me with a gaze that seemed to burrow through every bit of me. Her voice softened. "It will be all right, you know."
A flurry of goose bumps danced over my skin. I'd spoken to this woman no more than a handful of times, and the interactions were always superficial and cursory, and yet somehow she seemed to know exactly what I was feeling. I tried to school my expression. I tended to show every one of my emotions on my face the very second I felt them; I was working on that particular problem.
"I don't know what you mean," I said, my voice a little more indignant than I'd intended it to be.
She considered me again and then gave a succinct nod. "Está bien, m'ija. Come in then." She held the door open, letting me pass. "It is time to bake some bread."
"I'm not ... I've never ... I don't cook, you know," I said, already apologizing for the future failure I was afraid might happen once I got into the kitchen.
"Perhaps not yet, but you will ...," she said, letting the words trail away, and just like that, I felt as if I really might be able to do the impossible and learn this new, tantalizing skill.
She flipped the sign hanging in the window to show CLOSED and locked the door. I followed her deeper into the bread shop, the scent of fresh-baked bread swirling around me and enveloping me like a cocoon. As I breathed in, letting it soak into me for just a moment, I felt the grief that was always with me soften around the edges. For the first time since I could remember, it ebbed and I felt my lungs open up.
I followed her flowing caftan–clad body through the swinging doors, which led to the back room. "La cocina," she said, gesturing wide with her arms. "This is my favorite place in the world. Settle in, m'ija. This is where you belong."
I didn't know if she was right about that, but I let the comment go, instead looking at the other women gathered around the room. They had been chattering excitedly, but their voices had tapered off as we walked in.
"It's about time," one of the women said, her gaze trained on the bread shop owner. "At long last. Lista? Are you finally ready?"
"Keep your pantalones on, Consuelo." The iron-haired woman wagged a finger at the one called Consuelo, and I noticed how alike they looked. Sisters. They had to be. Consuelo was a few inches taller and her hair was dyed a deep brown, but they had the same eyes, the same nose, slightly curved down at the end, and the same hollowed cheekbones.
The other women in the kitchen were of varying ages. I placed the owner — I still didn't know her name — in her early sixties; Consuelo, a few years younger; and another woman, who was wearing wide-legged black pants, a T-shirt with a cardigan over it, and slip-on sandals, somewhere in her late fifties. Three others were closer to my age.
I stepped forward and gave a little wave. "I'm Ivy Culpepper."
The owner's eyebrows flicked up again, as if something she'd thought had just been validated. "And I'm Olaya," she said. "Olaya Solis. This is my shop. Bread baked the way it used to be made back in Mexico."
The comfort I'd felt when I'd walked into the shop and breathed in the scent of bread deepened. It almost seemed as if we were connected somehow, this woman and me. But the moment I thought it, I shook the thought away. It was ridiculous. I'd been away from Santa Sofia for nearly a decade, and before I started coming to Yeast of Eden, I'd never laid eyes on Olaya Solis.
But still ...
Olaya stepped up so that she was even with me, and started pointing. "Consuelo is my sister. Y tambien ... so is Martina."
The woman in the cardigan, Martina, lifted her chin and gave a slight smile and a shy wave.
"Martina is the quiet one in the family," Consuelo said, her own voice booming.
Consuelo definitely was not the quiet one. They were three sisters who might be different from one another, but they had each other. I had a brother, and while we were close, it wasn't the same as what I imagined having a sister would be like.
"I'm Jolie," one of the younger women said. She looked to be in her mid- to late twenties, maybe not around the corner from my own thirty-six years, but relatively close. She had long, straight black hair, which she'd pulled back into a careless ponytail. I inadvertently touched my own mop of curly ginger locks. I looked just like my mom, which I was grateful for, but as a result, I generally appear just a touch disheveled and not nearly as effortlessly put together as Jolie appeared. My hair looked like it had been shampooed with liquid paprika and made my green eyes sparkle like shiny emeralds. I'd pulled it up, wrapped it around and around, and tied it with a hair band.
My whole childhood, I'd longed for the sleek look that Jolie had, instead of the free spirit presence that I'd inherited from my mother. I waited for that old, familiar feeling of envy to seep in ... but it didn't. Jolie was a beauty, but for the first time, I consciously realized that while I wasn't gorgeous like she was, I was okay with who I was. More than okay. I loved looking in the mirror and catching a glimpse of where I came from. Of who I came from.
"Nice to meet you," I said.
"There was a teacher — Mrs. Culpepper — at the high school. English, I think. Are you ...?"
"She was my mother," I said, glancing away.
"Wasn't she ... was she ... ," Jolie began, but she trailed off.
One of the other young women finished for her. "There was a hitand-run at the school a few months ago."
"It was a horrible accident." I managed to keep my voice from quavering.
"Oh!" Jolie's jaw dropped. "I'm sorry."
Olaya placed her hand on my back, a comforting gesture. "Let's get to our baking," she said, sensing that I didn't want to talk about my mother's death. She introduced the other two young women as Sally and Becky. They each lifted their hands in a quick wave, and we all found our spaces at the counter. Each station had a name tag with a name neatly printed on it. Next to the name was a drawing of an apron. From what I could see, each apron was unique. As Olaya directed me to my station, I saw that even I had a name tag.
I spun around to look at her, raising my eyebrows in puzzlement. "How ...?"
"I knew you'd be coming," she answered.
I couldn't fathom how she'd known with such certainty that I'd come to this baking class when I hadn't even known for sure. But there was my name, my station, a lovely petit four, and an apron, all waiting for me. Each baking station had been equipped with a large mixing bowl, a container of flour, ajar of yeast, and the other essential ingredients for bread making, as well as a glass of ice water for our own hydration. I immediately took a deep sip, steadying my nerves. Only one empty station — water and petit four untouched — remained. Everyone else seemed to have eaten their sweet treat. I followed suit and nibbled mine.
Olaya took her place behind the stainless-steel center island and began talking. I'd detected a slight accent when she first met me at the door to Yeast of Eden, but now, as she spoke about the history of bread making in Mexico, it became more pronounced. "I know what you are thinking," she said. "Tortillas, yes? The bread of Mexico has always been tortillas. And yes, I make and sell Mexico's traditional fare once in a while. But bread ..." She gestured toward the swinging doors, which led back to the front of the now closed shop and the display cases that were littered with what was left of the day's baked goods. "I have been baking bread since I was a little girl. Once I started, I never stopped."
I listened, enthralled. Her words seeped into me, and I understood completely. It was all about passion. Mine was photography. I had left California to go to college in Texas and had stayed there for many years, building my business. Circumstances had brought me back, I was starting over, and turning to the lens was the only thing I knew how to do. I imagined the display cases in Yeast of Eden overflowing with the day's offerings every morning, and I had a sudden hankering to photograph them. I made a mental note to myself to bring my camera in the morning and take a few shots, excited to see how the light would be and thinking about how best to capture the delicacy of the bread.
As Olaya continued filling us in on her history as a bread maker, the back door opened and a woman in a knee-length jean skirt and a floral blouse breezed in. "Sorry I'm late!"
"Late?" Olaya said, not missing a beat. "Jackie, five more minutes and I would have locked the door. You would have been stuck outside, with not an ounce of bread. You would have been ... How do you say it?" She drew a finger across her neck. "Out of luck."
Clearly, Olaya didn't like tardiness with her classes. Duly noted. But I'd detected a light touch in her voice, and there was the faintest hint of a smile on her lips. I suspected that Jackie wasn't often on time and that Olaya had learned to accept this about her.
Jackie looked around and frowned, but Olaya ushered her to her workstation. She grabbed an apron off a hook and handed it to her. "But you are here now. You might as well stay."
"I had my own class to wrap up. Not as meaningful as baking bread, of course, but my livelihood." Her eyes glinted mischievously as she pushed her name tag aside, tied on her apron, took a drink from her ice water, and bit into her petit four. "Did I miss the talk about you baking bread as a child in Mexico?"
"She was just finishing," Consuelo said, and the two women's gazes met.
Jackie mouthed, "Phew!" and a knowing grin crossed each of their faces. Evidently, they had both taken the bread-making classes before and had heard Olaya's stories.
Olaya ignored her sister and her friend. She scanned Jackie up and down, and her gaze settled on the wedge heels. "Very nice shoes you are wearing," she said. "Perfect for baking."
Jackie burst out laughing and boisterously kicked up one leg behind her in an old Hollywood starlet manner. "That's exactly what I thought. You know my philosophy. One should always look her best, and shoes are the instant wardrobe definer." She fluttered her hand. "Carry on, Olaya."
Excerpted from Kneaded to Death by Winnie Archer. Copyright © 2017 Winnie Archer. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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