Authors: Marcia Willett
Evie loved the house. The bright, sunny rooms looking across the river. The terraced gardens with fruit trees growing against the high stone walls. The scent of lavender at the end of a hot day.
It was a family house.
As summer beckons, Evie's family gathers once more at the beautiful old riverside house they all adore. But when Evie discovers a secret that threatens their future, a shadow falls over them all: this summer by the river could be their last together â¦
For Charlie, a visit home to see his step-mother Evie is an escape from his unhappy marriage in London. Until a chance encounter changes everything: in the space of a moment, he meets a woman by the river, falls in love, and his two worlds collide.
As Evie and Charlie struggle to keep their secrets safe, they long for the summer never to end â¦ Can the happiness of one summer last for ever?
THE LOGANBERRIES ARE
nearly over. As she picks the soft crimson fruit, sun-warmed and so easily crushed between her stained fingers, Evie can hear the warning âtck-tck-tck' of the blackbird half hidden in the ivy on the wall. She glances up at him, just able to spy a flicker of black wing and a flash of golden beak.
âI know you're there,' she says. âYou've been helping yourself, haven't you?'
She drops the berries into a wine glass, which also contains a few sweet peas, straightens up and looks out across the rooftops towards the harbour entrance where two tiny white boats seem to be slipping and sliding across the shiny blue silk of the sea, tacking this way and that in an attempt to catch the fitful breeze. The steep garden that rises up behind the old Merchant's House is built in a series of terraces, surrounded by high stone walls, warm and sheltered from strong winds. On this highest level a white-painted wrought-iron table and four chairs stand on slate flags, half screened by a low lavender hedge: a small formal area set above a watercolour wilderness of flowers and shrubs.
Evie sits down at the table, smiling with pleasure, reaching to run her fingers through the tall spikes of purple-blue lavender, breathing in its scent. Tommy loved it here, sitting with a bottle of wine open on the table, watching the traffic on the river streaming between the wooded cliffs out to sea. Privately, between themselves, she called him Tommy. Thomas David Fortescue: TDF. The Darling Fellow. His aunts always called him that: the darling fellow. They'd raised him, between the three of them, when his mother died young of cancer and his father was busy in London running the family wine import business. âIs it my turn for the darling fellow this exeat â¦ half term â¦ holiday?' As time passed, two of the aunts â one a widow, the other unmarried â moved into the Merchant's House, so that the darling fellow's life should be as undisturbed as possible, and he grew up as his nature dictated: calm, optimistic, generous. His peers called him TDF though some, remembering with fondness the aunts and happy school holidays in Dartmouth, still referred to him as âthe darling fellow'. He didn't mind â enjoyed the joke â though his first wife, Marianne, occasionally found it irritating when this had to be explained to her own friends or to newcomers to their circle. She called him Thomas. Marianne always preferred London to Dartmouth, though it was convenient to be able to invite friends down to the Merchant's House for a weekend party, for regatta, very occasionally for Christmas. With its elegant rooms, sweeping views of the river, the luminous quality of light and sense of spaciousness, it was the perfect house for celebrations.
As their son, Charlie, was growing up Marianne became busier than ever, organizing his social life, entertaining his friends. More and more Tommy found that he was travelling down to Dartmouth alone.
Sitting at the table on the terrace on this late August evening, Evie thinks of him: tall, lean, black hair, brown eyes. She first met him in the road outside the house as she climbed up the steep flights of steps from the converted boathouse that she was planning to buy. She reached the pavement, paused to catch her breath, and saw him coming out of the elegant townhouse opposite. He dropped his keys into his pocket, turned round, saw her standing there and smiled at her.
Nearly twenty-five years later, Evie begins to laugh: that smile had wreaked its very own kind of havoc. It was friendly, almost amused, as if he somehow guessed that she was in a state of great excitement. Eyebrows raised, he seemed to be challenging her to tell him about it â and so she did.
âLook,' she said, beckoning him across the street, leaning over the wall so as to point down to where the small, newly converted boathouse stood at the river's edge, poised above it, full of water-light and sunshine. âIsn't it lovely? I'm going to buy it!'
âGosh!' he said, eager as a boy â the darling fellow â entering into her joy. âGood for you! So we'll be neighbours.'
âDo you live there?' She nodded across the road towards the Merchant's House, impressed and, more than that, heart-thumpingly hopeful. He was rather nice.
âIn London mostly,' he said ruefully. âDartmouth whenever I can. My wife gets bored very quickly here, and she's not a sailor. I love it, though.'
Oh, damn, she thought. A wife. Oh, well â¦
She found that she was walking with him down the hill towards Fairfax Place.
âSo what about you?' he was asking. âI haven't seen you in the town, have I? Are you local?'
âNo, not a local,' she said. âI've been renting a house near Totnes for the last five years. I taught History at Bristol University. The Civil War was my speciality. And then I began to write a novel about it and â¦'
She hesitated, unwilling to say too much â about how successful the books were, how she'd decided to give up her job so as to concentrate on her writing â but he was looking at her even more keenly.
âDon't tell me you're Evelyn Drake?'
She laughed at his excitement. âI am. But don't tell anyone.'
âBut I love your Civil War books,' he said. âI've read every one of them. And what's this I've heard about a television series?'
She nodded, thrilled and embarrassed in equal parts. âIt's unbelievable luck. And now an American publisher has offered me a contract for the first two books, so that's why I can afford to buy the boathouse. To be honest, I don't quite know whether I'm dreaming the whole thing.'
He studied her more closely. âHusband?' he enquired lightly. She shook her head. âAnyone special?' Another shake of the head. âSo I shan't be treading on anyone's toes if I offer to buy you a drink?'
âI must take the keys back to the estate agent and then I'd love it,' she said â and that was the beginning.
Evie raises her glass, full of loganberries and sweet peas, and silently toasts him and their years together: ten as his mistress, twelve as his wife after Marianne died. During that time they'd continued to live between the Merchant's House and the boathouse but, when the darling fellow died in Dartmouth Hospital two days after an aortic aneurysm, she'd moved back into the boathouse and let out the Merchant's House to friends who were relocating and between houses.
Now, she puts the glass on the table and looks down across the terraced garden to the house from which a figure emerges. The tenants have gone and Ben is living here whilst he is recovering from the recent breakdown of his marriage. Ben's father and Tommy were cousins and it is with Ben that she's been sharing the bottle of wine that stands on the table. He and Charlie are so alike they could be brothers: spare, tall and dark, just like Tommy. She loves them both equally.
What am I to do? she wonders, not for the first time.
Ben, who has come up through the garden to rejoin her, looks at her glass, raises his eyebrows. âNot much room for wine.'
She shakes her head and gets up. âNo more for me, darling. Will you come over to the boathouse for supper?'
âNot tonight, I've got an assignment to finish off, but thanks.' He indicates the loganberries and the sweet peas. âDo you want something to put those in?'
âI'll find something in the kitchen as I go through.'
He stoops to kiss her and she goes carefully down the zigzag of steps through the garden and into the kitchen.
The Merchant's House has never truly been home to Evie. Even when she was living there with Tommy she was too conscious of the family tradition, too aware that her tenure was merely temporary, to be able to relax and enjoy it properly. The Fortescues had always lived between Dartmouth and London but, once the aunts had died and Tommy married Marianne, the Merchant's House became less and less a family home and more and more a bolt hole. Marianne sometimes brought friends and clients down to impress them and, as boys, Charlie and Ben spent a few weeks each summer in Dartmouth, so it was at the boathouse that Evie and Tommy talked, and laughed, and learned each other's history. It wasn't an affair in the usual sense of the word, though the sex when it happened was good; there was none of the illicit thrill of it being secret to fan the flames of attraction. It was much simpler: as if they'd each found someone necessary, who filled an aching gap and made sense of life. It was something quite separate from Tommy's life in London. They were discreet, and if any of the locals guessed, nobody was telling. There had been Fortescues in Dartmouth for generations, and affection for the aunts and Tommy was still very strong and very loyal.
All the same, thinks Evie, as she puts the sweet peas and the loganberries into a little pottery bowl, it was wrong, I suppose. It's just that I can't regret it. He was so grounded. Though, given that was true, I wonder why he needed me. There was something we both lacked, I suppose, that we gave each other. We were so completely on the same wavelength â books, music, films â it was extraordinary; almost as if we had been brought up together and had a whole shared reference of knowledge and experience. It was so easy, being with him.
She suspected that Charlie guessed afterwards â once she and Tommy were married â that there was already a long-standing romantic relationship. Much later Evie was able to talk to him about it, but during those early years she kept well out of the way on the few occasions when the family were in Dartmouth.
âIt's a pity,' Tommy said once. âMarianne's a terrific scalp-hunter. She'd be utterly thrilled to have you at one of her weekend parties.'
But Evie shook her head. âNo chance. I couldn't play the part. Nor could you. And it's not fair on her or Charlie. Especially Charlie. I like the sound of Charlie.'
Charlie, like his mother, prefers London. He is happily settled there now in the family house in Kensington, running the wine import business. He was delighted when Evie and his father got married; not long married himself, a proud father, and generously disposed for everyone to be happy. He and Evie quickly adopted an easy, light-hearted relationship. Charlie would roar with laughter at her jokes and his wife would smile tightly, baffled by Evie's casual approach to life and her indifference to people's opinions or criticism.
âI can't help wondering,' Evie said to Tommy, âwhether Angela is quite the right girl for your Charlie.'
âOh, Ange is OK,' he said tolerantly. âVery sensible. She's an asset where the business is concerned. Very switched on and efficient.'
Evie made a face. âHe could get a PA with those qualifications.'
He looked thoughtful. âFunny chap, Charlie. He's got his head well and truly screwed on but he's not always quite as confident as he looks. His mother had great influence over him. Marianne thoroughly approved of Ange â we've known the family for years â and I think he's simply grown used to her. He could see that she'd be good at making sure everything runs smoothly.'