'No, not a local,' she said. 'I'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...'
She hesitated, unwilling to say too much—about how successful the books were, how she'd decided to give up her job so as to concentrate on her writing—but he was looking at her even more keenly.
'Don't tell me you're Evelyn Drake?'
She laughed at his excitement. 'I am. But don't tell anyone.'
'But I love your Civil War books,' he said. 'I'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. 'It'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. 'Husband?' he enquired lightly. She shook her head. 'Anyone special?' Another shake of the head. 'So I shan't be treading on anyone's toes if I offer to buy you a drink?'
'I must take the keys back to the estate agent and then I'd love it,' she said—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. 'Not much room for wine.'
She shakes her head and gets up. 'No more for me, darling. Will you come over to the boathouse for supper?'
'Not tonight, I've got an assignment to finish off, but thanks.' He indicates the loganberries and the sweet peas. 'Do you want something to put those in?'
'I'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—books, music, films—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—once she and Tommy were married—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.
'It's a pity,' Tommy said once. 'Marianne's a terrific scalp hunter. She'd be utterly thrilled to have you at one of her weekend parties.'