Our reviewer, Michele Rioli, gives SUMMER AT THE FRENCH CAFE a 5 Heart, Recommended Read Review!
SUMMER AT THE FRENCH CAFE is refreshing as a mint julep in the summer heat. It stars a pretty lady, Kat Jenson, who is lucky to have a lovely house in the French village, Kirchhoffen, a handsome boyfriend, a cute dog and a dream job managing a book café in Parc Lemmel. Then, her life derails when she finds out her boyfriend isn’t who she thought, when a lunatic lady threatens her at the café. Kat has family troubles, but manages to reconnect with her half brother, Solly. Then, her employers take advantage of her good nature, leaving her angry and despaired. Will Kat find happiness again?
Dealing with Serious Issues within Romantic Fiction
If anyone ever insinuates that romance or women’s fiction is all about shoes and cupcakes, tell them to read one of my books.
Every novel I write has a romantic relationship at its heart.
Every novel I write deals with serious issues.
Reviewers sometimes comment on those two things in one novel. They’re even perplexed, though I don’t think I’m the only writer doing this.
The way I write romance, it’s not just ‘their story’. It’s her story and his story and their story. My novels are contemporary so they’re about contemporary conflicts and goals impacting on each other – and yet the heroine and hero need each other in order to find their happy ending.
The overwhelming commentary on my new book Summer at the French Café is ‘uplifting’ ‘romantic’ ‘escapism’ ‘perfect summer story’ and ‘perfect read for the summer’.
Yet… tricky conflicts do underpin these joyful comments.
Summer at the French Café contains infidelity, living a double life, cyber-attack, dynamics in and around step-families, coercive control, what responsibility one might owe an ex, a young child with emotional instability, what one might owe their child (no matter what their age), how serious illness impacts on those around the patient, a rescue dog, loss of employment, and, ultimately, what one is prepared to forgive. These themes could appear in all kinds of novels, from thrillers to tear-jerkers to literary works – or even in crime reports! But I choose to weave them in with a beautiful French setting in a gorgeous park (which I have borrowed from a real park near where I live), a book café (books and cake – what’s not to love?), sunshine, summer visitors, a funny dog, a loveable child, a motivated heroine, a hot hero, and the all-important crackle of excitement and attraction between them.
In the same way that humour can be used to put across important points, so can a love story. In real life, people deal with real problems and crises yet still find time to fall in love. Love wins out, people make sacrifices for each other.
And that’s exactly what happens in my books.
Find the five-heart review of Summer at the French Café here.
Read an Excerpt!
Kat halted in the act of sliding two novels into a crisp paper bag for a waiting customer as a dark-haired man sauntered into the book café, hands in pockets, a large backpack dangling from his shoulder. What on earth was Jakey doing here, in Livres et Café? He’d been staying with her in her small apartment since last Wednesday, but this morning she’d almost been made late for work by them saying their goodbyes. He wasn’t meant to return for eleven days.
Jakey grinned as he caught her astonished gaze. Ignoring the wicked twinkle in his brown eyes, she switched her attention back to her customer. ‘That’s seventeen euros ninety, please.’
The woman, a sunburned Brit with a beautiful Welsh lilt, produced her payment card. ‘Friends said we must visit Parc Lemmel because it has something for everyone,’ she confided. ‘My kids are on the rollercoaster and my husband’s rowing on the lake.’ She leaned forward eagerly. ‘And for me, there’s this lovely shopping arcade and your bookshop selling English novels. My husband bought me an e-reader because he said my paperbacks weigh down the suitcases, but I like proper books.’
‘Me, too,’ Kat agreed because, as the manager of a book café, she wasn’t about to admit to the Kindle lurking in her bag in the office. She dropped into her routine tourist- friendly patter as she tapped the buttons of the card machine and turned it towards the woman. ‘And I completely agree about Parc Lemmel. I’m so lucky my bosses rent these premises and I get to work in this gorgeous place. Eastern France’s borders with Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, Switzerland and Italy bring in loads of tourists, especially with Strasbourg being only seven or eight miles away, and the River Rhine not much further than that.’
Looking impressed, the woman fumbled with a pair of glasses before squinting at the screen, giving Kat a moment to glance back at Jakey, who was still hovering in the background. His thick, dark hair flopped forward, and he waggled one suggestive eyebrow, making Kat’s cheeks heat.
She held out the bag to her customer. ‘Thank you. Enjoy your new books.’
The lady wandered away to peruse the pastries in the café section, where assistant manager Danielle was serving. Jakey glanced at his watch and lifted the eyebrow again. Reading his unspoken message, Kat turned to a nearby assistant tidying the small selection of Italian-language books. ‘Justine, can you serve for five minutes, please?’
‘Oui.’ Justine jumped up, brown ponytail swinging. When she caught sight of Jakey she grinned knowingly, then turned to the next customer, beginning in French but switching to English when the elderly gentleman placed an English-language history of Alsace on the counter. The region’s rich history of belonging alternately to France and Germany meant local history books sold well.
Kat headed for the back area with a discreet gesture for Jakey to follow. The moment she opened the office door, her dog Angelique leapt from her bed with a joyful, ‘Woof!’ and whirled into a waggy canine welcome dance. ‘Oui, oui, Angelique,’ cried Jakey, laughing, but also holding out a discouraging hand to prevent Angelique from jumping up and sullying his clothes with her rust- coloured hairs. ‘I love you, too, but I have only ten minutes and I wish to spend them with your gorgeous owner.’ Jakey’s rolling French accent caressed the English words. He spoke English well, having spent several years in the UK, and Kat spoke French well, having lived in France for over eight years, so they alternated between the two.
Kat, who never minded Angelique jumping up because it saved her bending down to pat her, gave the foxy-looking dog a consolatory ear-rub, then said, ‘Bed!’ and clicked her fingers towards the cushiony oval with ‘Kat’s Dog’ embroidered on it. Angelique’s tail drooped as she gazed at Kat to check she meant it, then she plodded across the room to flop down with a disappointed sigh.
Jakey dropped his backpack to the floor and then reached for Kat. She stepped into his embrace, curling her arms around his neck. ‘It’s not even five in the afternoon,’ she said. ‘Shouldn’t you be at the circuit?’ At this time on a Sunday, she’d expected Jakey to be engaged with his job in the world of kart racing, which was what had brought him to Alsace from his base in Rennes in Brittany. Though she had little interest in motorsport, she understood he coached and managed up-and-coming young karters who hoped to move on to more senior racing categories. After something he called ‘debriefs’ with the drivers and their attendant parent at the local kart track, Jakey was sched- uled to embark on the long train journey back to Rennes this evening. For the following week he’d be office-based at the sports management company that employed him, before beginning the cycle again.
Kat couldn’t believe that karters as young as ten might need a coach-manager, but why else would Jakey travel the breadth of France to work with such hotshots? It sounded exciting to nurture young talent and ‘scout’ new drivers, but Kat much preferred her own job in a book café in the middle of wonderful Parc Lemmel where, as well as the rides and lakes, there was everything from formal gardens to vast green areas. Her younger brother Solly had just come to work in the park, too, and she was guiltily aware that she so far hadn’t devoted much time to helping him settle in, having spent the past five days wrapped up in Jakey.
Jakey kissed her, his mouth hot and hard. ‘The sessions were cut short because of a safety issue with a barrier. I jumped on the tram to Muntsheim to take a few minutes with my lover before going to the train station.’
‘You’re taking the tram in and out of the city to snatch just a few moments?’ Kat let her head tilt to the side so he could nibble a spot on her neck that sent sparks arcing through her. ‘You can’t stay tonight?’
‘I wish I could.’ His hands roved down to cup her buttocks. ‘But I cannot miss the Monday meetings I have arranged. I will not bore you. I know motorsport makes you want to fall asleep.’
She laughed, then switched to a scolding, ‘Jakey!’ as his warm hand slipped up her red polo shirt and deftly unclipped her bra.
‘We have time,’ he murmured, cupping a breast.
Infatuated Kat might be, but a quickie when a staff member might walk in was very much not her style. She clapped a firm hand over his. ‘I have to return to work.’ Then, when his face darkened, ‘We’d embarrass Angelique, anyway.’
Angelique took the sound of her name as an invitation to leap from her doggy bed and rejoin them, wagging her tail and bouncing on her hind legs, smiling her most ingratiating doggy smile.
‘Damn the dog, and damn the work,’ Jakey grumbled, reluctantly allowing Kat to fish his hand out of her clothing.
‘You wouldn’t stop work if I suddenly appeared at the kart track,’ she pointed out, reaching behind her back to refasten her bra before straightening her shirt.
‘Non, c’est vrai,’ he agreed firmly. ‘Never do that. You would distract me.’
Kat had zero wishes to visit the kart track, so didn’t argue. Clothing rearranged, she indulged in more kisses and then escorted Jakey decorously back into the sales area, suspecting that her cheeks were pink after his attentions when she caught Justine and Danielle’s knowing looks. Crossing the indoor café section, she took him through the doorway to the outdoor seating. June had just begun, and the full complement of tables and parasols were set out. Above them, the summer sky was dotted with clouds like white stuffing bursting from a huge blue mattress.
‘Kat!’ a man’s voice called from one of the outdoor tables.
Recognising the familiar voice, she glanced around to see a grinning young man seated beneath a dark green parasol. ‘Hi, Solly!’ Then, to Jakey, ‘That’s my brother . . . well, half-brother. I told you he arrived last week for a working holiday. I haven’t got used to him being around, as we’ve lived in different countries for the past eight years.’ Grasping Jakey’s hand, she towed him towards a table, which, she realised, Solly was sharing with another man wearing the same green park staff uniform as him.
Solly stuck out his hand for Jakey to shake. ‘So you’re Jakey, who my sister’s seeing? Jakey’s a funny name for a Frenchman, isn’t it?’
‘It’s Jacques, really, but when I worked in England someone mispronounced it “Jakes” and it ended up as Jakey.’ Discreetly, Jakey checked his watch. ‘I’m very sorry to leave as soon as we have met but I must take the tram quickly, to catch my train. Excuse me.’ He gave Kat’s fingers a last squeeze and hurried away, backpack bobbing. Kat watched his handsome head as he threaded through the milling visitors in front of the park shopping area. Her heart was still pattering after the snatched moments in her office. A dating app had brought them together a few months ago and before long Jakey had begun to arrange his work schedule to take his rest days in Strasbourg . . . or, more precisely, in Kat’s apartment in the village of Kirchhoffen, just outside Strasbourg. Their time together was filled with laughter and lovemaking, but Jakey’s schedule ensured her time to herself, too, which was the best of both worlds, in her view.
She wasn’t sure that this whirlwind romance was going to come to anything, partly because half the time there was geographical distance between them. Also, Kat didn’t give her heart easily. There had been a couple of proper relationships in her life – one at uni and one here in France – but neither time had she thought, ‘This is the one.’ ‘This is Noah, who I’m sharing staff accommodation with,’ came Solly’s voice, reclaiming Kat’s attention. ‘But he’s on the lakeside staff, not gardens and grounds like me.’
Hastily remembering her manners, she turned with a welcoming smile. ‘Hello, Noah. Are you new at Parc Lemmel, too?’ She addressed him in English as Solly had already mentioned he’d been allocated accommodation to share with ‘this older guy,’ who’d lived in France since childhood but was originally from near Edinburgh. Kat wouldn’t have termed Noah ‘older’ as he appeared to be around her own age of thirty-seven, but the perspective was different for a twenty-five-year-old like her brother.
Compared to Solly’s round features, Noah’s face was dominated by stubble and cheekbones, golden-brown hair curling above very blue eyes. His smile was slow and gentle. ‘I arrived the week before Solly, so I was able to snaffle the biggest bedroom.’ There was still a good Scottish burr to his spoken English.
‘He did,’ Solly agreed with mock indignation.
Kat was glad to see her brother already on sufficiently good terms with his housemate to allow this jokey exchange but when Danielle came out and began clearing nearby tables, she remembered there was plenty of work to be done, even this late in the afternoon. ‘I’d better get on. Have you finished work for today?’
Solly nodded. ‘We just stopped for coffee and cake to fortify us for the long slog home.’ He grinned because the staff quarters were an exceedingly short ‘slog’ away. They were old, caravan-like aluminium park homes, which had been moved up behind the shopping arcade when supplanted at their previous lakeside positions by smart new wooden holiday cabins. Kat had checked this new home of Solly’s before he’d arrived from England. Though showing signs of wear, it was hooked up to mains services and contained two bedrooms, a shower room, kitchen and living area.
After clearing Solly and Noah’s cups and plates, Kat went back inside. The queue at the book till had disappeared and there was only one customer at the café counter, who Danielle was serving with peppermint tea, while Justine wiped empty tables. Few cakes remained in the glass- fronted cabinet at this point in the day and Kat swerved around it to deposit her crocks through the hatch to the kitchen, ready to be stacked in the dishwasher. ‘I’ll cash out when we close,’ she called over her shoulder to Danielle. ‘I think we’ve had a good day considering it’s only early June.’ When the summer was so young, the rides and shops would close at five. Come July and August, they’d stay open to eight p.m. all week long to give tour- ists plenty of time to part with their holiday euros. The summer months were the pot of gold for Livres et Café, when the bookshelves were firmly orientated to British, Italian and German tourists, and Kat wouldn’t increase the stock of French-language books until November or even December.
Her customer served, Danielle’s brown bob swung as
she used tongs to transfer the last few slices of cake to a tray so she could clean the cabinet’s interior. She sighed. ‘It’s strange not to work with Reeny and Graham anymore.’ Owners Reeny and Graham were absent not because they were heading for retirement, though they were both in their sixties, but because Reeny was seriously ill, a fact that hung over them all like a grey cloud.
At the thought of her friend fighting so hard against her illness, Kat had to swallow a sudden lump in her throat. ‘Hodgkin lymphoma sounds horrible and chemo and radiotherapy are gruelling. Poor Reeny – she’s so weak it’s no wonder Graham’s sick with worry. Then, with his mum developing heart trouble back in the UK . . . well, you can see why they’ve left Livres et Café in our hands.’ As Reeny kept being hit by infections that necessitated postponing chemo cycles, she was often too vulnerable for visitors, so Kat kept up with her via FaceTime. Even if Reeny was too fatigued for a chat of more than a few minutes, she’d summon the strength to ask Kat if she was finding time for writing or how things were going with Jakey. Illness had robbed Reeny of much, but not her warm, caring nature.
It was Graham Kat emailed or phoned on business matters but she knew the best way she could help him at this awful time was to run the book café and otherwise keep out of his thinning hair. As well as Justine, she’d recruited three other part-time assistants for the summer – Romain, Antoine and Pierre – to work alongside herself and Danielle, and felt she had everything in hand for the busiest Far from minding the added responsibility, Kat was delighted to step up because Reeny and Graham had been kind to her from the moment they met, seven years ago.
Then, Kat had still been a journalist. With no close ties to the UK, she’d gone freelance, wandering Europe, writing travel features and website content. Then she’d reached Alsace and fallen in love with its colourful timbered buildings along the many tributaries of the Rhine. Drifting into the town of Muntsheim, she’d spotted two of her favourite things on sale together – food and books – and gone into the book café, then called Le Café Littéraire Anglais. When she saw they had a summer job on offer – just when she needed to boost her bank account – it seemed as if the stars had Reeny and Graham, the UK ex-pat owners, had been overwhelmingly welcoming, so much so that they even housed her in their pool house for a few months, and soon her employment became permanent. Danielle joined a couple of years later, to complete the team. Last year, Reeny and Graham had transferred their business to its current prized position within the town’s busy tourist park, renaming it Livres et Café – not grammatical to the French eye, but easily translated by tourists – and increasing their stock to include books in Italian and German.
Everyone had been jumping for joy . . . until Reeny’s diagnosis brought them crashing back to earth.
The sound of the door opening disturbed Kat’s thoughts and she looked up to see Solly’s co-worker Noah enter, his blue eyes homing in on the shelves of books, a frown digging a line between his brows. Diffidently, he said, ‘I could use a book that takes my mind off things.’
Kat didn’t tell him they were closing, instead crossing to a display of the summer’s bestsellers and touching the moody red cover of a paperback. ‘This is a good escapist read – the characters time-travel to the Viking age. Nothing like slipping back a millennium or so to forget the day- to-day.’ She moved on to another book. Its cover was black with accents of blue. ‘Or domestic noir’s popular.’
He rolled his eyes. ‘We all get enough domestic agony. I’ll take your recommendation.’ He took down a copy of the Viking book, paid with a card bearing the name N M Toleman, smiled and said, ‘Bye,’ as he left.
Justine and Danielle cleared the outside chairs and tables and brought them inside. Kat cashed out the tills and headed for the office, Angelique bouncing to her feet the moment she set eyes on her owner.
Kat laughed. ‘You know the cash drawers mean it’s nearly time to leave, don’t you? Let me get to the safe, then.’
Finally, she was able to say goodnight to her colleagues and lock the front door behind them. Next, she wrestled the excited Angelique onto her lead, grabbed her bag and stepped out through the back door into a balmy summer evening filled with birdsong. After locking up, she freed her dark, curly hair from its topknot to let the wind rake through it.
Kat usually walked Angelique in the park before and after work. Though Angelique got company throughout the day from whoever had business in the office, Kat tried to give her a lunchtime outing, too – usually past the formal knot garden and down to the biggest lake where swans, ducks, geese and coots coexisted serenely alongside humans in rowboats and kayaks. The midday treat was tricky on Danielle’s day off as either Danielle or Kat had to be present whenever Livres et Café was open, but a few days ago Solly had offered to give Angelique a lunchtime run when Kat couldn’t.
She paused, enjoying the warmth that small act of kind- ness kindled in her, and the novel pleasure of having her brother nearby. They’d shared their father’s home at week- ends until Solly turned six but then Kat had gone to university and struck out alone, rarely returning. She wasn’t entirely sure why Solly had suddenly decided to use the working holiday visa scheme to come to France. He’d been sailing through his year as a newly qualified teacher in the UK . . . until he wasn’t. So far, his only explanation for this had been, ‘Didn’t work out.’ Kat hadn’t broached the subject with their dad Howard as Solly’s mum Irina would no doubt have taken exception, had she found out. Irina wasn’t the wicked stepmother of fairytales but neither was she the friendly, welcoming variety, and she’d always been ultra-protective of her son, apparently unconcerned if Kat was sidelined in the process. With a pang, Kat thought of her own mum, Joanne, picturing her long dark hair with the fringe that never quite lay flat. After Howard had left home to form a new family with Irina and Solly, Joanne had eventually married Geoffrey, a quiet, serious man who’d probably felt safe and restful after Howard. Kat had lived with her mum and Geoffrey on weekdays and Howard and Irina on weekends. Big-hearted Joanne had welcomed Geoffrey’s young children, Amber and Jade, and when their own mum had been tragically killed on the road, she’d devoted herself to helping them through their grief – leaving Kat feeling sidelined there, too. Joanne had passed away during what was supposed to have been a routine medical proce- dure when Kat was in her twenties and Geoffrey had taken his kids off to live in Canada. Apparently, he’d been too sunk in his own grief for it to occur to him that he could be there for Kat as Joanne had once comforted his children when they lost their mum.
Kat should definitely make more of Solly while he was in France, she decided. It was a shame he didn’t speak better French, because then he could have worked at Livres et Café. Luckily, working as a park groundsman needed no great language skill, and Kat had been able to smooth the way to her brother joining the workforce.
She set off through the trees, using her pass to open the gate bearing the words: Accès réservé au personnel. Solly’s park home – or Solly and Noah’s, she supposed – was a minty shade of green with darker green stripes and four metal steps leading up to the door. She strolled down the gravelled track towards it, Angelique trotting alongside with her nose to the ground, looking a lot like a fox. While the dog’s bent ears twitched as if listening to the trees tossing their heads in the breeze, Kat studied the nests built in the topmost branches and tried to recall whether folklore said this was a sign of a good summer.
Then a man in park uniform sitting statue-still on a bench caught her attention.
His arms were stretched along the bench’s top rail, legs crossed at the ankles while he stared fixedly at a spot on the patchy grass. Low sunlight picked out strands of gold in his hair. Beside him on the bench lay a white paper bag, out of which peeped a book. Kat knew it was about Vikings and time travel . . . because the man was Noah. He seemed totally unaware of Kat’s approach, and her steps slowed. There was something about the blank deso- lation in his expression that made it hard for her to stroll on by. ‘Hi again, Noah,’ she called softly.
Noah blinked, his gaze focusing so slowly on her face that she wondered for a shocked instant whether he’d taken something. Then his eyes cleared. ‘Sorry, didn’t see you. Miles away,’ he mumbled. He managed a smile, as if gradually pulling his thoughts together. ‘Nice dog.’
Angelique flattened her ears, looking pleased.
‘She is,’ Kat said fondly, thinking Noah had a nice smile – calmly confident, but kind at the same time. ‘I made the mistake of following a local rescue centre on Twitter and when they put Angelique up as needing a new home, I sort of fell for her.’ She laughed. ‘She was so frightened of everything when I first got her that I called her “Scaredycat”. Then I realised that might bruise her dignity, so I use her real name of Angelique.’
He leaned forward to hold out a hand and Angelique dashed forward to meet it with her wet, black nose. He said gravely, ‘If someone’s naturally anxious, you do have to be careful not to damage their self-esteem.’
Kat laughed. ‘True. I probably ought to have renamed her “Superdog”.’
His blue eyes twinkled. ‘Are you looking for your brother, by the way? He’s gone into town for a beer with a few of the park crowd.’
‘Oh, right, thanks. Glad he’s making friends. We’ll just finish our walk, in that case.’ They said their goodbyes, then Kat set off again, hair blowing in the evening breeze, wondering what on earth had put that sad expression on Noah’s face and why he was sitting alone rather than joining his colleagues for a drink.
And if he wanted a book to provide an escapist read, shouldn’t he actually pick it up and read it? Letting it sit next to him on the bench didn’t seem to be doing the trick.
It was the middle of the night when Kat was yanked from sleep by a phone call. She’d expected Jakey to text, as he usually did, to grumble about the long journey home and changing trains in Paris but had fallen asleep before anything arrived.
She fumbled for the handset, guided by its illuminated screen. Drowsily, she answered, ‘Hello?’ then, in case the call was to take place in French, ‘Oui, allo?’
A pause. Then a female voice spoke, the accent French
but the words English. ‘Is that Jakey’s girlfriend?’
Kat woke up properly, reaching out to switch on the lamp, its pool of light spreading over her peacock blue duvet cover and the geometric-pattern rug, picking up the lights in Angelique’s eyes as she lifted her head from her bed by the door. ‘Is he all right?’ she demanded, her heart giving an unpleasant thump. Her bedside clock told her it was past two a.m.
‘Yes, yes. I did not mean to worry you,’ the female voice said soothingly. ‘I’m one of Jakey’s colleagues and I cannot locate him. Is he with you, perhaps? I apologise for being so cheeky as to ask you.’
Kat relaxed onto her pillows, her heart returning to its normal rhythm. ‘It’s OK. No, he’s not here. He was at the track today and then he was to head back to Rennes.’ She didn’t feel the need to mention the ten-minute tryst in her office. She glanced at the clock again. ‘Why do you need to talk to him at this hour?’
‘At the track?’ the female voice asked on a note of curiosity, without commenting on the time.
‘Yes, near Strasbourg – as usual,’ Kat answered briefly, feeling irritable that once Jakey’s colleague had established he wasn’t with her, she hadn’t simply apologised before ending the call.
As if reading Kat’s thoughts, the woman said, ‘Sorry to have disturbed you,’ and then the line went dead.
In the silence, Angelique yawned and turned around on her bed before resettling. Kat was about to switch off the light when her hand paused in mid-air. How had a colleague of Jakey’s got Kat’s phone number? He’d certainly never mentioned that he’d listed her as a contact with his employer, which would have been polite, especially if colleagues might be searching for him during the night.
This conundrum, and the fact that Jakey still hadn’t texted, stopped her drifting back to sleep.
It could be as simple as him getting home and forget- ting to send her a message before putting his phone on silent.
But what if something had happened?
Sue Moorcroft is a Sunday Times bestselling author, has reached the #1 spot on Kindle UK and top 100 in the US. She’s won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award, Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary. Published by HarperCollins in the UK, US and Canada and by other publishers around the world.
Amazon page: Sue Moorcroft