Off the Wild Coast of Brittany

Off the Wild Coast of Brittany

by Juliet Blackwell

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Overview

An unforgettable story of resilience and resistance set during WWII and present-day France on a secluded island off the coast of Brittany

Natalie Morgen made a name for herself with a memoir about overcoming her harsh childhood after finding a new life in Paris. After falling in love with a classically trained chef, they moved together to his ancestral home, a tiny fishing village off the coast of Brittany.

But then Francois-Xavier breaks things off with her without warning, leaving her flat broke and in the middle of renovating the guesthouse they planned to open for business. Natalie's already struggling when her sister, Alex, shows up unannounced. The sisters form an unlikely partnership to save the guesthouse, reluctantly admitting their secrets to each other as they begin to heal the scars of their shared past.

But the property harbors hidden stories of its own. During World War II, every man of fighting age on the island fled to England to join the Free French forces. The women and children were left on their own...until three hundred German troops took up residence, living side-by-side with the French women on the tiny island for the next several years.

When Natalie and Alex unearth an old cookbook in a hidden cupboard, they find handwritten recipes that reveal old secrets. With the help of locals, the Morgen sisters begin to unravel the relationship between Violette, a young islander whose family ran the guesthouse during WWII, and Rainier, a German military customs official with a devastating secret of his own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593097854
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/09/2021
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 59,674
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Juliet Blackwell is the pseudonym for the New York Times bestselling author of Letters from Paris and The Paris Key. In addition to writing the beloved Witchcraft Mystery series and the Haunted Home Renovation series, she also coauthored the Agatha Award-nominated Art Lover's Mystery series with her sister.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

 

Natalie

 

And we're off, to continue our adventure on the ële de Feme,

 

renovating a historic guesthouse and opening a gourmet restaurant!

 

Because when you grab life with both hands and hold on tight,

 

you never know where it might lead:

 

perhaps even to a rocky island off the Wild Coast of Brittany.

 

Stay tuned. . . . This tale is not over.

 

-last line of the international bestseller Pourquoi Pas?

A Memoir of Life, Love, and Food by Natalie Morgen

 

Things are not going according to plan.

 

Natalie Morgen sat at a little metal café table on the stone terrace outside her guesthouse, watching the latest herd of tourists surge off the ferry.

 

An aroma of anise rose from her glass, melding with the smoke from her cigarette and the scent of the sea: a mélange of dead things and salt, of the abundant seaweed and muck that marred the shallows during low tide. Island sounds wafted over on the ocean breezes: the histrionic seagulls squabbling over a bucket of scraps Lo•c had tossed out the back door of Pouce Cafß, the rhythmic lapping of the waves in the snug harbor, the murmurs of visitors enjoying lunch at outdoor tables, the occasional clacking of a pßtanque ball hitting its mark.

 

Natalie imagined the newly arrived tourists mistook her for a native sipping her glass of pastis-though most of the actual natives preferred beer or hard cider-and enjoying a sunny day on the beautiful island.

 

And sitting here like this, Natalie could almost convince herself that life was good. That everything was going according to her carefully thought-out plan. Lounging on the terrace of her ancient guesthouse, its rusted iron gates still secured with a heavy steel chain because the Bag-Noz was not yet open to guests even though accommodations were well-nigh impossible to come by on the ële de Feme during tourist season.

 

Bobox strutted by, clucking in contentment. The fluffy white hen had come with the house and had made herself a little nest in the shed. Ridiculously long snowy white feathers on the top of her head quivered and swayed with every confident step, reminding Natalie of stylish Parisian ladies in photographs of yore, parading along the Champs-Élysßes in their feathered chapeaux.

 

Paris. What had Audrey Hepburn said? "Paris is always a good idea"? Maybe for Audrey-she was rich and beautiful. Absentmindedly scratching at a mosquito bite, Natalie realized she was clenching her jaw, willed herself to relax, took another sip of pastis, and turned her attention back to the ferry passengers.

 

Trying to get their bearings, the newcomers weren't talking much as they staggered along the walkway that hugged the thick stone seawall. Some carried inflatables and beach toys; others clutched scraps of paper with instructions directing them to their rented guesthouses or to the Ar-Men, the only hotel on the island. It must have been a rough crossing: Most of the children and more than a few of the adults were decidedly green around the gills. A storm had thrashed the region yesterday, and though to the unpracticed eye the sea today appeared calm, Natalie had lived on the island long enough to have learned a few things from the locals, such as how to read the water.

 

Or, at the very least, when to ask a local to read the water for her.

 

Even after a storm appeared to have passed, waves lingered and surged. The swells rippled out and down, the awesome energy of the sea needing time to settle, to balance, to find its footing once again, lulling sailors and landlubbers alike into a false sense of security only to slam them with choppy water if they dared venture too soon onto open sea.

 

Sounds like a metaphor for life. Natalie made a mental note to post this, or some poetic version of it, on her social media accounts. She should post some photos as well. It had been a while. Too long. She had a lot of followers to keep happy.

 

Her readers loved the snapshots of Natalie's life on an island off Brittany's C™te Sauvage, or "Wild Coast," where she was renovating an ancient guesthouse with the proceeds from her bestselling memoir. In fact, some of the new arrivals lurching off the ferry might well be women of a certain age who had read Natalie's inspirational tome about finding love and self-fulfillment through the art of French cooking, and had decided to come to the ële de Feme in search of love and self-fulfillment themselves.

 

But as Natalie had learned, in a most painful way, the ële de Feme was still an ”le-an island-which meant that if you didn't bring it with you, you weren't likely to find it here.

 

How could she explain that her Prince Charming-le prince charmant-the man she had fallen head over heels for, the reason she had come to Brittany in the first place, had turned out to be a lying, cheating, spendthrift schmuck who left her high and dry in the middle of their guesthouse renovation?

 

Even his name was annoying. Franois-Xavier. Being French, he insisted she say his entire name, every time: Fran-swah Ex-ah-vee-ay. A full six syllables. Six. She once made the mistake of addressing him simply as Franois and he accused her of calling him by another man's name. A classic case of psychological transference, she thought with grim humor, knowing what she now knew.

 

Franois-Xavier claimed it was an American thing to give people nicknames. He was forever blaming her quirks on Natalie's being American, but in this case it might have been true. In college Natalie's roommate had introduced herself as Anastasia-a mere four syllables-and everyone on their hall immediately shortened it to Ana. Natalie had fought her entire childhood against being called Nat because it sounded like the bug, which her sister Alex insisted she was: Nat-the-Gnat, small and annoying, bouncing around ineffectually, her head in the clouds, endlessly searching for some unspecified thing. Natalie had tried to retaliate by calling Alex "Al," but in that irksome way of smug elder sisters, Alex had embraced the name, stomping around the family compound, singing at the top of her lungs, loudly and proudly, the old Paul Simon song "You Can Call Me Al."

 

Which wasn't fair. Nobody wrote songs about gnats.

 

Natalie never managed to outmaneuver her four older sisters, and Alex, the closest to her in age, had been by far the most difficult.

 

Anyway. Franois-Xavier. She supposed two names suited a man with two faces. Still . . . that gorgeous face flashed in her mind: the sloping, intensely blue eyes; the sensual, full lips; the hint of dark golden whiskers glistening along his strong jaw. The way he looked at her as if she were not merely desirable but that he had waited a lifetime to meet her, that he was ready to share his life with her, wanted to create a family with her right here on his native island, where they would play pßtanque in the sunshine, drink apßro curled up in front of the hearth, and cook together, transforming classic ingredients into sumptuous dinners through the dedicated application of traditional French techniques. And then they would linger for hours over elaborate meals with friends and extended family and guesthouse visitors.

 

That was the plan.

 

At the moment her cupboard contained half a box of crackers, an open bag of dry-roasted peanuts, and a single fragrant cantaloupe well on its way to rotten. Natalie had forgotten to put an order in with the mainland store that shipped to the island, so today's ferry brought no bundle of supplies with her name on it. She supposed she could buy something from the island's small but well-stocked "general store" that primarily served the tourists, but if she did, then the shop's owner, Severine Menou, would know Natalie's business, which meant soon everyone on the island would know Natalie's business.

 

Better to do what she usually did these days: eat the ample menu du jour at Milo's café, blaming it on her torn-up kitchen, and stick to peanuts and stale crackers-and plenty of pastis-the rest of the time.

 

Franois-Xavier would be appalled.

 

What was she going to do?

 

Keep your head down and the pretense up. At least until she figured out her next steps. She had told everyone that Franois-Xavier was on a business trip to Paris, scouting for kitchen help for the gourmet restaurant they were supposed to be opening in the large dining room of the Bag-Noz Guesthouse. No one was surprised; he traveled to Paris frequently, after all.

 

This time, though, Franois-Xavier had no intention of coming back. How long would it be until people started asking questions? Also, the construction workers hadn't shown up this week and Natalie was afraid to ask why. It might be because today was le quinze aožt, a national holiday. Or just because it was August, and a lot of French people took the entire month off for vacation.

 

Or maybe the workers hadn't shown up because Natalie hadn't paid her latest round of bills. When he left, Franois-Xavier siphoned off the majority of their shared bank account, leaving her to get by on a few hundred euros and maxed-out credit cards until she received a check from her publisher for the book under contract, a follow-up to Pourquoi Pas?

 

Her jaw tightened again. Her current work in progress was meant to be all about her perfect life with her perfect French chef fiancé, and to be accompanied by a liberal smattering of recipes and mouthwatering photos of the meals she and Franois-Xavier prepared-what her agent referred to as "French food porn."

 

Natalie took a deep quaff of her pastis, let out a long sigh, and watched as Bobox scratched the ground in her incessant search for something appetizing in the sandy soil of the weed-strewn courtyard.

 

Franois-Xavier was supposed to run the kitchen, and Natalie was supposed to run the guesthouse, and it was all supposed to be beautiful.

 

But things had not gone according to plan.

 

Chapter Two

 

Alex

 

Why in the world did Nat move to such a godforsaken island?

 

The ële de Feme revealed itself coquettishly, first appearing through the ocean mist like a vague mirage, the kind that shimmered along the highways on the hottest days in the remote Northern California mountains where they had grown up.

 

Alex squinted as she tried to make out the strip of low gray land. On the map the distance between the island and the mainland didn't look that great, but she and her fellow passengers had left the dock at Audierne more than an hour ago. The bobbing ferry had headed north at first, turning to the west only as they passed the Pointe du Raz, no doubt fighting the channel's famous currents and avoiding the perilous reefs that lurked just below the surface, a vast underwater maze protecting the island. According to the travel guide-Alex always did her homework before beginning something new-the jagged rocks had brought catastrophe to legions of sailors and ships over the years. There had been 127 documented shipwrecks in this strait, and that was only since they'd started keeping track, back in the seventeenth century.

 

The danger of shipwreck explained the multitude of lighthouses on the islands and along the coastline of the channel. Perched on rocky outcroppings, the towers appeared lonely and stoic. And hauntingly beautiful.

 

Alex had also read in the travel guide that the French had two words for lighthouses: A phare was a true lighthouse, usually home to a keeper in the days before the lights were automated, while a feu-which meant "fire"-was a smaller tower with a smaller light. The mile-and-a-half-long ële de Feme was equipped with one true lighthouse on its western tip, a large feu on the easternmost point, and two smaller feux dotting the southern coast.

 

Clearly, this region was well acquainted with maritime disasters. Alex found that oddly comforting. She was a bit of a shipwreck herself, these days.

 

Alex climbed the steep set of steps, clinging to the cold metal handrails as the boat pitched sharply. She would be windblown on the open upper deck, but breathing fresh air was preferable to being stuck in the crowded, too-warm cabin below.

 

Upon boarding the ferry, Alex had needed to harness every bit of self-control not to climb onto one of the seats and order everyone to don one of the bright orange life vests stacked in a cupboard. Don't be weird, she reminded herself for the thousandth time. Act like the others. Besides, her very limited French didn't include the vocabulary for "Safety first, folks!" She had contented herself with grabbing a dozen seasickness bags from a little stand next to the first aid cabinet and making a mental note of the location of an inflatable life raft.

 

Just in case.

 

As soon as they left the shelter of the harbor, the sea had become choppy and the boat was tossed about like a child's toy, heaving this way and that, leaving its human inhabitants retching and grasping onto their molded plastic seats for dear life.

 

Alex dug through her backpack for a package of wet wipes and handed them, along with a couple of the seasickness bags, to a young father whose little girl had lost her lunch all over the front of his sweater vest and jacket.

 

She wasn't feeling all that chipper herself, but keeping busy helped. It always had.

 

Father and child taken care of for the moment, Alex made her way to a seat and kept her eyes on the horizon, gazing at a fixed point to quell the nausea.

 

But seriously. Setting aside the "why" for the moment, how had Nat even found this place?

 

Her little sister was forever bragging on social media, posting photos of herself dancing in the clubs of Budapest or shopping the open-air markets of Marrakech as she traipsed around the world "looking for herself." On her blog she posted rambling descriptions of how she spent her days learning classic French cooking, and her nights hobnobbing with chic Parisians in cinematic wine cellars and cabarets. And if all that weren't galling enough, irresponsible, carefree Nat had hit the jackpot when her memoir of finding herself and food-and love-became an international sensation, lingering at the top of the bestseller list week after exasperating week.

 

Even the title annoyed Alex. Pourquoi Pas? Seriously? There were always plenty of reasons why not.

 

But readers hadn't agreed. Which just went to show you that people today were pathetic, casting about for direction in their sad little lives.

 

Was she now doing the very same thing? Alex's stomach heaved at that thought more than the seasickness. An island off the coast of Brittany had sounded so fantastical somehow when the thought first occurred to her back in dusty Albuquerque. It had seemed as if destiny had intervened. Anyway, she didn't need forever. Just a little while, time to regroup, to make a plan. A respite from the convoluted joke that her life had become.

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