French Roast
by Sandra Balzo
Book Excerpt:


‘You have an appointment with Helen Durand?’ Surprised, I glanced up from the table I had been clearing in my Brookhills, Wisconsin coffeehouse, Uncommon Grounds.

Face half obscured by the espresso machine, Amy Caprese pushed a strand of short fuchsia hair behind one multiply pierced ear. ‘I shouldn’t be long. It’s really not—’

‘The barista needs a shrink?’ Sarah Kingston rounded the corner from the storeroom. My business partner had the ears of a bat. ‘And here I thought we were shrinks.’

‘Just because people dump their problems on us all day, every day, doesn’t mean we don’t have some of our own.’ I glanced at Amy, who admittedly had her head screwed on tighter than either Sarah or I did. ‘Nothing personal.’

‘No offense taken,’ she said, leaning through the service window to continue the conversation. ‘I was just reading that some therapists set up sessions in coffeehouses rather than offices because patients feel more at ease chatting.’

‘I can see that,’ I said.

‘We could use that in our marketing,’ Amy said. ‘Maybe Helen—’

‘Wait.’ Sarah was holding up her hands in a double stop sign. ‘The shrink charges their usual fee but has no overhead. The patient is happy because they have this comfy-cozy session in a familiar setting. What about us?’

‘Exposure and repeat business,’ Amy said. ‘I assume they order a couple of drinks at a minimum.’

‘And what? Sit here for an hour taking up space?’

‘That’s no different from anybody else,’ I pointed out.

The truth was that customers wanted to feel welcome to stay as long as they wished. For our part, we wanted to pay our rent. And that’s where Amy excelled – maintaining that beautiful balance between hospitality and marketing.

And, therefore, we needed her to be well balanced. ‘Take all the time you need,’ I told her now. ‘The morning trains have come and gone.’
Uncommon Grounds was situated in Brookhills’ historic train station, which serviced commuter train traffic into Milwaukee fifteen miles to our east.
‘If you’re not back,’ I continued, ‘Sarah will stay to cover for lunch. Right, Sarah?’
‘Right, Maggy,’ my partner semi-parroted, as Amy circled from behind the counter to front-of-house. When our barista collapsed into a chair at the table I’d been clearing, though, Sarah exchanged a concerned glance with me.

‘You know there’s no shame in seeing somebody, Amy,’ I told her, taking the chair across from her. ‘Sarah and I certainly have.’

‘Please?’ Sarah snorted. ‘Maggy likes to talk a big game, but she was strictly minor league therapy-wise. “My dentist husband cheated on me with his hygienist, wah, wah, wah.” That’s all she had.’

‘Well, it was hurtful,’ I said defensively. ‘Besides, this isn’t a competition.’
Sarah took the chair next to me. ‘I’m just saying that you divorced him and got over it, right? I bet you didn’t even take anti-depressants.’

‘I tried one,’ I said. ‘But they made me gain weight.’ Which was depressing.
‘Wow, big whoop-dee-doo. Gained a few pounds. You should live in my shoes.’
Sarah’s size nines could do without me, thank you very much. ‘You’re saying because you’re bipolar and I’m not, I don’t have a right to be unhappy?’

‘No . . . well, yes. I’m saying that I have a legitimate disorder. You were just sad for a while.’

‘They call it situational depression,’ Amy said. ‘Rather than clinical.’

‘And I’m clinical.’ Sarah sat back in her chair, hitching a thumb toward her chest. ‘I’m about as clinical as you can get.’

‘Amen,’ I said under my breath.

Amy suppressed a grin. ‘Well, personally, I think you’re amazing, Sarah. I have no reason to complain in comparison.’

We really didn’t talk much about Sarah’s condition in the shop, at least not in a caring, sensitive way. It was more me asking her if she was off her meds when she was being particularly annoying. And, honestly, Sarah seemed to prefer it that way.

Now, her face reddened. ‘I . . . well, thanks.’

Amy shifted in her seat. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be too—’

‘Nice?’ I asked pleasantly, to move things along.

‘I was going to say personal.’ Amy smiled. ‘But yes. I’m sorry I committed “niceness.”’

‘Forgiven,’ Sarah said gruffly. ‘Just don’t do it again.’

I was studying Amy. ‘This thing, this problem . . . you would tell us if it had to do with work, right?’

‘Pfft,’ Sarah sputtered, before Amy could open her mouth. ‘What is there to complain about at work? You and I are absolute joys to work for, Maggy. And, besides, Amy pretty much runs the place and us, anyway.’

‘It’s true,’ Amy said, moving her chair back a smidge, as if distancing herself from the conversation. ‘And no, my’ – she was searching for a word – ‘my concern is not work. It’s personal.’

That narrowed things down. ‘What did Jacque do?’
Jacque Oui was Amy’s beau and owned Brookhills’ upscale market, un-eponymously named Schultz’s. Jacque was considerably older than Amy, pompous and nearly comically French, his accent only thickening in his decade and a half in the US.

Jacque was also my third cousin, as I’d recently found out thanks to my son’s dabbling on a DNA website. The news hadn’t exactly thrilled me since I’d always thought the man arrogant. Jacque, in turn, thought that I . . . well, I’m not sure he actually gave me much thought.

‘Nothing, really.’ Amy’s nose had turned red. ‘We’re just going through a rough patch.’

I fished a napkin from my apron pocket and handed it to her across the table. ‘So, you’re doing couples counseling with Helen. That’s very sensible.’

‘Actually, no. Not couples.’ She blew her nose. ‘Jacque can’t make it.’

Or didn’t want to, more likely.

‘Jerk,’ Sarah said.

My partner having said what I was thinking, I was free to take the high road. ‘Ted wouldn’t go with me either. It’s not necessarily the worst thing.’

‘You ended up divorced,’ Sarah reminded me.

Oh, yeah.

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Amy said. ‘Jacque is the one who suggested I see Helen in the first place.’

‘He is?’ Sarah glanced sideways at me. ‘As in “you’re crazy so go talk to someone and I’ll stay here cuz I’m just fine”?’

‘No, not at all,’ Amy said. ‘Jacque knows he’s been difficult, and Helen is a friend. Her husband Denis and Jacque have known each other since university in Paris.’

‘And they both ended up here?’ Women might go to the bathroom together, but they usually didn’t emigrate. ‘That’s quite a coincidence.’

‘Not really. Denis and his daughter Molly had been living here for like three years when Jacque decided to move after his divorce. Denis suggested Brookhills and let Jacque stay with them until he got his own place. This was before Denis married Helen, of course.’

‘You won’t find it awkward confiding in a friend of Jacque’s?’ I asked.

‘I don’t think so,’ Amy said. ‘Denis aside, Helen’s credentials are pretty spectacular. She has a PhD and her internship was spent in Chicago working with at-risk kids.’

‘You’re a fine person to ask that question anyway, Maggy,’ Sarah said. ‘Didn’t you want to do your couples counseling with Father Jim at Angel of Mercy?’

‘What’s wrong with that?’ Amy asked. ‘Or isn’t Ted Catholic?’

‘No, he’s not,’ Sarah informed her. ‘But neither is Maggy.’

‘But Jim is an excellent counselor,’ I told Amy.

‘And a former lover,’ Sarah prodded.

‘Oh.’ Amy sat back. ‘That is kind of a conflict of interest. Certainly worse than Jacque knowing Denis.’

‘Unless Jacque was doing Denis.’ This was from Sarah, no surprise.

I groaned. ‘I didn’t “do him,” as you so charmingly put it. We dated in high school, but nothing happened.’

‘Sure it didn’t,’ Sarah said.

‘It didn’t. Not sexually, I mean. We didn’t go—’

‘If you say “all the way,” I’ll scream,’ Amy said, covering her ears.

‘It does make you sound like a dinosaur,’ Sarah told me. ‘An adolescent dinosaur.’

Says the adolescent dinosaur herself. I sniffed. ‘I didn’t bring the subject of Jim up, if you’ll remember. All I was trying to say is that I think it’s a shame Jacque won’t go to counseling with Amy.’

‘He just has so much on his plate right now,’ Amy said, tracing her thumbnail on the table. ‘And it’s me, really, not—’

Sarah groaned.

‘What?’ Amy asked.

‘“It’s me, not him,”’ Sarah parroted. ‘“We’re going through a rough patch. Jacque has so much on his plate.” Maggy isn’t the only dinosaur here.’

Amy squinted at her. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just—’

‘You’re explaining away Jacque’s behavior,’ I finished for her. ‘With timeworn excuses, no less.’

Amy sent me a dark look even as Sarah nodded approvingly. ‘All my years of shrinkage have rubbed off on you, Maggy. Congratulations.’

I cleared my throat. ‘Thank you. I think.’

‘It’s just that we expect more from your generation,’ Sarah continued to our barista. ‘You know, “I am woman, hear me roar” and all that?’

Amy’s face screwed up. We’d lost her again.

‘Helen Reddy?’ I tried.

‘Ready for what?’

I didn’t mean Helen Durand, of course, but Helen Reddy. Trail-blazing Australian songwriter, singer—

‘Never mind,’ Amy said, interrupting my thoughts. ‘But Jacque can’t take the time to see Helen because he is legitimately busy. In fact, he’s trying to keep his business afloat, if you really care.’

Schultz’s Market had been around for more than fifty years. It started as a small mom-and-pop grocery store and then, under Jacque’s ownership these last fifteen years, had morphed into a high-end market, specializing in seafood.

And I did care about Jacque, but only as far as it affected Amy. ‘The business is putting pressure on your relationship?’

‘Along with other things,’ Amy said. ‘But, yes, money is tight to the point that Jacque sold his house and is using the flat above the store when he’s not staying at my place.’

‘Don’t lend him money,’ Sarah warned.

‘You don’t pay me enough to lend money.’

True. ‘I think what Sarah is saying is that Jacque is a big boy—’

‘And certainly old enough,’ Sarah took over. ‘If he hasn’t figured out how to keep his business solvent by now, he’s not going to. You can’t let his cash-flow problems become yours.’

‘But these cash-flow problems, as you call them, were caused by Kip Fargo,’ Amy said. ‘Which does make them mine, like it or not.’

Amy had dated Kip, the wealthy head of Fargo Investments, during an earlier ‘rough patch’ with Jacque. Kip being dead now, I probably shouldn’t speak ill of him.

But I had Sarah for that.

‘Kip Fargo,’ she repeated. ‘If that wart on the behind of Brookhills’ financial community was still alive, I’d pop him.’

I frowned. ‘Disgusting, but I do understand the sentiment.’

A realtor by trade, Sarah had sold Kingston Realty when she partnered with me in Uncommon Grounds. The proceeds of the sale had been invested with Fargo Investments, and when both it and Kip himself went belly up, she’d lost most of it.

Profit margins on coffee not being what they were on real estate, I often wondered if she regretted her decision to give up the business to throw in with me.

‘I curse the day I sold the realty.’

No need to wonder any longer. ‘I noticed Schultz’s is shortening its hours,’ I said to Amy. ‘Is that for cost-cutting?’

‘If so, it’s stupid,’ Sarah muttered, still smarting.

‘Why is it stupid?’ Amy was frowning now. ‘Uncommon Grounds has limited hours on weekends.’

‘That’s because the trains don’t run as often.’ Office workers and shoppers heading downtown made for busy weekdays in the depot, but fewer trains on weekends naturally meant fewer customers.

‘Which is why we shouldn’t open on Sunday at all,’ Sarah said. ‘But Maggy doesn’t have the heart to disappoint the old farts from Brookhills Manor.’
Brookhills Manor was the retirement home down the street. ‘Those old farts are steady customers.’

‘Until they die.’ Sarah was rubbing her chin. ‘But I do think it’s a bad idea for Schultz’s to reduce hours with Bright and Natural Foods entering the market.’
Amy sniffed. ‘Bright and Natural is not competition.’

‘I wouldn’t discount Jamie Bright,’ Sarah said. ‘He’s a savvy guy. Not to mention a little cutthroat.’ Jamie was the founder of Bright and Natural Foods, a growing national chain of organic grocery stores.

‘You know him?’ I asked, surprised.

‘Of course,’ Sarah said. ‘He grew up here.’

‘Then why is Brookhills going to be his fiftieth store rather than his first?’ I asked. ‘I can’t believe you didn’t try to sell him a property when he started out.’

‘Oh, she did,’ Amy said. ‘Schultz’s.’

Oh, my. This could get interesting. ‘When was this?’

‘Maybe fifteen years ago,’ Sarah said.

‘Jacque outbid him,’ Amy said, although she would have been thirteen at the time.

I glanced at her and she shrugged. ‘Jacque told me.’

‘It’s true,’ Sarah said. ‘Jamie was just starting out, so Jacque had the deeper pockets then. Now, Jamie could probably buy and sell the Frenchie ten times over.’

Amy’s bottom lip jutted out. ‘But I bet he doesn’t inspire the kind of loyalty that Jacque does from his employees.’

‘Jacque?’ Had I heard right?

‘Sure, look at Becky Ronstadt.’

‘The two-hundred-year-old cashier?’ Sarah was grinning. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if Becky was the one who painted “Oui Suck” on the front window of Schultz’s last week. O-U-I, not W-E, of course.’

‘That’s pretty funny,’ I said, and then sobered in response to Amy’s scowl. ‘But if Jacque is cutting hours, it follows that employees are going to be upset. Especially long-term, perennially grouchy employees like Becky.’

Amy glanced out the front window and lowered her voice. ‘I do know something interesting about Jamie Bright, but you can’t tell anybody.’

‘Who would I tell?’ I asked. ‘Sarah is already here, and Tien is on vacation in Iceland.’ Tien Romano made all of the delicacies we sold at Uncommon Grounds and also ran a catering business out of our commercial kitchen.

‘Don’t tell Jacque I told you.’ Amy glanced around again, as if the man was going to jump out from behind the condiment cart. ‘But Jamie Bright made Jacque an offer.’

‘Bright and Natural wants to buy Schultz’s?’ Sarah asked, just to make sure she’d heard right.


I was almost afraid to ask. ‘And what did Jacque say?’

‘That Jamie could stick it.’

Or steeek eeet, I imagined. ‘You didn’t suggest he consider it?’

‘Of course not,’ Amy said, a little testy again. ‘Schultz’s is an icon in Brookhills. An institution.’

‘I suppose that’s why Jamie wants it,’ I said, trying to reason through the big fish wanting to eat the little fish. Besides, of course, that it could. ‘Instant credibility in the market.’

‘And maybe revenge,’ Sarah pointed out. ‘Maybe Jamie wants payback for Jacque buying the location out from under his nose.’

‘But it’s going to cost him a lot more now than it would have fifteen years ago, even adjusted for inflation,’ I said. ‘Jacque has vastly improved the place.’

‘Nice.’ Amy flashed me a smile. ‘Did that hurt?’

‘A little,’ I admitted.

‘He may think it’s worth it,’ Sarah said, ‘since Jacque is his only—’

‘Helloooo.’ A dark head poked in as the door opened, sleighbells clattering against the door’s plate-glass window. ‘Oh, good, you’re still here.’

‘Helen,’ Amy said, turning to check the time on the depot clocks arrayed over our order window. ‘Am I late for our appointment? You didn’t need to come get me.’

‘No, no, I’m the one who is running late.’ Helen stepped in, shoving a hand through her short dark hair. Colorful chunky earrings were Helen’s trademark – today’s were bright yellow – along with a slash of fuchsia lipstick. ‘Molly and I have been off visiting colleges and just got back into town this morning.’

She pulled a chair away from the next table and turned it to sit. ‘I absolutely refused to drive into the wee hours last night. Or, God forbid, let her do the same. She’s had her license for two years and already has had three accidents.’

‘And she’s still driving?’ I asked, a little horrified.

‘She wouldn’t be if it were my decision,’ Helen said. ‘But Denis is a marshmallow as far as his daughter is concerned. I couldn’t change that even if I wanted to.’

‘How old was Molly when you and Denis got married?’ Sarah asked.

‘Just turning four,’ Helen said. ‘They were living on Poplar Creek. Pretty location, but the cottage is small and even back then it wasn’t safe for bringing up a child. Luckily, I had space enough for all of us.’
She checked her watch. ‘I must run. Can you give me a half-hour, Amy?’

‘Of course.’

‘Great. Ciao, everybody.’ Her fingers waggled through the opening as the door closed.

‘I do like the woman,’ Sarah said, coming back to the table. ‘I don’t say that about everybody.’

‘You don’t say that about anybody,’ I pointed out.

‘Cruel, but true.’

Meanwhile, Amy had sunk back into her chair, seeming relieved at the temporary reprieve. ‘Do you think I should go ahead with this?’

‘Seeing Helen or dumping Jacque?’ Sarah asked. ‘I’d say thumbs-up on both, myself.’

‘Seeing Helen,’ Amy said, not rising to Sarah’s bait. ‘And yes, I know I’m being silly. Even Becky recommended her, of all people.’

‘Wait.’ I held up a hand. ‘You’re talking about the same Becky Ronstadt? The one who works at the market?’ And lives across the street from me.

‘Yes, she noticed I’d been feeling down.’

If the implication was that Sarah and I were insensitive because we hadn’t noticed, I couldn’t argue with that.

‘How does Becky know Helen? Is she seeing her, too?’ If Current Becky was Post-Therapy Becky, I had to question the therapist.

‘Helen has really helped Egbert.’

‘Egbert.’ Sarah cocked her head. ‘Becky’s sixty-four-year-old son, who still lives at home and does consulting work out of their basement?’

‘And whose mother still calls him home for dinner every night?’ I contributed.
Amy bit her lip so as not to smile. ‘Apparently, he doesn’t mind all that so much now.’

I’d say, “low bar,” but whatever gets you – or Egbert – through the day.

‘I do wonder how they’ll do next month when Becky isn’t working anymore,’ Amy continued.

‘Jacque is canning her?’ Sarah asked. ‘The man is all heart, isn’t he?’

‘Becky is retiring at the end of this month,’ Amy said. ‘She’s earned it after all these years, don’t you think?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘What does Becky think?’

‘She’s getting a lovely retirement package,’ Amy said. ‘Eight weeks, fully paid.’

Sarah gave me side-eye. ‘Notice that she’s not answering?’

‘I do,’ I said, thinking Amy could spin with the best of my old colleagues in public relations. ‘How long has Becky worked at Schultz’s?’

‘She was a cashier when Jacque bought the shop,’ Amy said. ‘But she told me she took her first job there bagging groceries when her husband walked out on them. Egbert was in first grade.’

‘Fifty-seven years,’ Sarah said, doing the math. ‘And Jacque is giving her eight weeks of severance? Big of him.’

‘I know,’ Amy admitted, her cheeks reddening. ‘But with everything else going on with Jacque, I can’t . . .’ She let it drift off.

Sarah and I exchanged looks.

‘Is it more than just the business?’ It was a guess, but our earth-mother barista usually didn’t get in this kind of funk over finances. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’


I felt myself flush. ‘I absolutely understand if—’

‘His wife.’ Amy swiveled her head my way. ‘That’s what’s coming between Jacque and me. His wife.’

I glanced uncertainly at Sarah again before returning to Amy. ‘Naomi Verdeaux is dead.’ I was as certain as if I’d seen her body. Which I had.

‘And he sure as hell can’t be pining over her,’ Sarah said. ‘They were already divorced.’

‘For years,’ I chimed in. ‘And I’m not sure he even liked her much when they were married.’

‘Yes, I know Naomi Verdeaux was Jacque’s ex-wife,’ Amy said, exasperated. ‘Though that’s probably open to question now, too, come to think of it.’

I didn’t get it. ‘What’s open to question?’

‘Her ex-ness.’

Sarah went to open her mouth, but I held up a hand. ‘Are you saying Jacque and Naomi weren’t divorced?’

‘I’m saying,’ Amy said tautly, ‘that they may not have been married.’

‘Then what’s the problem?’ Sarah asked, being logical.

‘Paulette,’ Amy said. ‘Paulette is the problem.’

‘And Paulette is?’ I led.

‘Jacque’s ex-wife in Paris,’ Sarah said, finally comprehending.

‘Only, it turns out, she’s not,’ Amy said.

‘In Paris?’ It seemed the lesser of the two evils.

‘No.’ Amy lifted her head, and a single tear traced an all-natural black mascara path down her cheek. ‘Nor is she his ex.’
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Coming soon!


French Roast, Maggy Thorsen #15,

will be available later this year.