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The Prodigal Wifeby Marcia Willett
"Deservedly compared to her countrywomen, Binchy and Pilcher, Willett is an equally gifted storyteller."Booklist
The Keep - that beautiful, ancient family home where the Chadwick family had lived for generations - is still a haven from the heartbreaks and storms of life. Jolyon Chadwick, a famous television presenter,/b>/b>/b>/i>
"Deservedly compared to her countrywomen, Binchy and Pilcher, Willett is an equally gifted storyteller."Booklist
The Keep - that beautiful, ancient family home where the Chadwick family had lived for generations - is still a haven from the heartbreaks and storms of life. Jolyon Chadwick, a famous television presenter, takes his new girlfriend Henrietta home meet his extended family - and also to meet Maria, the mother who deserted him and his father many years ago, now re-appeared and seeming to want forgiveness. Jolyon, however, is not in the mood for forgiveness - although his father Hal, now married to his cousin and childhood sweetheart, feels a lingering guilt about Maria and wants them all to be friends. And Henrietta, still vulnerable from the break-up of her own parents' marriage, is not sure whether she can move on.
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Read an Excerpt
The Prodigal Wife
By Marcia Willett
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Marcia Willett
All rights reserved.
The wind was rising; it plucked restlessly at the storm-weathered stone walls and breathed in the chimney. It stroked the sea's glittering moonlit surface to little peaks and rustled drily amongst the stiff broken bracken on the cliff. The row of coastguard cottages turned blank eyes to the long rollers that creamed over the sand, sinking away to a delicate salty froth at the tide's reach. A cloud slid across the moon's round bright face. On the steep, slippery, gorse-plucking cliff path, a yellow light flickered and danced and disappeared.
Drifting between uneasy sleep and wakefulness, Cordelia startled wide awake, eyes straining in the darkness. As she slipped out of bed and crossed to the window the moon rose free of the cloud, laying silver and black patterns across the floor. Out at sea, the brilliance of its shining path, fractured with light like splintered glass, cast the water on each side of it into an oily blackness. Once she would have pulled on some clothes and climbed down the steep granite staircase to the tiny cove below the cottage; now, common sense prevailed: she had a long journey to make in the morning. Yet she lingered, bewitched as she always was by the unearthly magic; watching the black swirl of the tide round the shining rocks.
Was that a figure on the path below or clouds crossing on the moon? Alert, she stared downwards into the shifting, shadowy darkness where shapes thickened and dislimned as vaporous mist drifted and clung along the cliff edge. Behind her the bedroom door swung silently open and a large pale shape loomed. Sensing a presence, glancing backwards, she muffled a tiny scream.
'McGregor, you wretch. I wish you wouldn't do that.'
The tall, gaunt deerhound padded gently to her side and she laid her hand on his rough head. They stared together into the night. To the west, beyond Stoke Point, the squat, bright-lit ferry from Plymouth edged into sight, chugging its way to Roscoff. No other light showed.
'You would have barked, wouldn't you? If anyone were out there, you would have barked. Well, you can stay here now. No more wandering round the house in the dark. On your bed. Go on.'
The great hound obeyed; collapsing quietly on to a blanket of tartan fleece, his eyes watchful, glinting. Cordelia climbed back into bed and pulled the quilt up high, smiling a secret smile; thinking about the morning. Even after thirty years as a journalist she was still excited by the prospect of journeys and new assignments, and this one promised to be fun: a drive into Gloucestershire to find an ancient soke and to interview its almost equally ancient owner – and a meeting on a narrowboat with her lover.
She slept at last but the deerhound raised his narrow head from time to time, listening. Once or twice he growled deep in his throat but Cordelia was sleeping soundly now and didn't hear him.
* * *
She woke early and was away, travelling north, by a quarter to eight. It was raining hard. McGregor reclined gracefully on the back seat of her small hatchback. He stared with regal indifference at the drenched countryside and when they turned on to the A38 at Wrangaton, heading north towards Exeter, he sighed and put his head down on his paws. Clearly the brief run on the cliff he'd had earlier was to be his ration for a while. Cordelia chatted to him between bursts of song – she needed music whilst she was driving – and noticed in the mirror that something had been caught under the rear-screen wiper. She switched it on and the fragment – a leaf? – was dragged to and fro across the window but wasn't dislodged.
Cordelia switched it off, hummed a bar or two of 'Every Time We Say Goodbye' with Ella Fitzgerald and thought about the soke and its elderly owner, who was clearly thrilled at the prospect of being written up for Country Illustrated. She'd spoken to him on the telephone and he sounded an absolute sweetie. She did a quick mental check-up: had she remembered to pack the spare batteries for her tape recorder? She pulled off at the Sedgemoor service station and got out so as to give McGregor a run. Whilst he paced elegantly along the hedge line, Cordelia removed the small square of sodden paper from behind the windscreen wiper. It almost came apart in her fingers but she could see patches of bright colour and she tried to smooth it flat on the bonnet of the car, squeezing out the moisture, puzzled as to how it could have become wedged. She guessed that it might be an advertisement, tucked there by somebody in the supermarket car park, but she was surprised that she hadn't noticed it before. The rain had done its work and it was impossible, now, to guess at what it had been. She scrumpled the fragment and put it into her pocket. The rain had stopped and gleams of watery light slipped between the rags of cloud that were blown before the south-westerly wind. She opened the door for McGregor to scramble on to the back seat and then went to get a mocha and a pain au chocolat.
Angus phoned just after she'd turned off the M5 at Junction 13 and was heading towards Stroud. She pulled in at the side of the road and picked up her mobile.
'Where are you?' she asked. 'Have the boys gone?'
'Yes, they're safely en route. Don't worry. The coast is clear. I'm on my way to Tewkesbury, hoping to moor up overnight in the marina. You've got the map?'
'Yes. I'll phone when I've finished at the soke. I've no idea how long it might take. Did they love the narrowboat?'
'It was a huge success. We've all agreed that we want to do it again. Speak later then? Good luck.'
She drove on through Stroud and into the lanes that led to Frampton Parva, stopping once or twice to check the directions. As she turned into the lane signposted to the village she saw the soke at once and pulled on to the verge under the hedge. It stood across the fields at the end of its own drive; golden stone, three storeys high, mullion windows, and, only a few yards further along the lane, a tiny, beautiful church. The combination of church and house was quite perfect and she wondered if the photographer had spotted it.
Cordelia let McGregor out, knowing that he might have to wait in the car for some while, and stood enjoying the scene and the warm sunshine. Now she could see two figures moving outside the soke: one gesticulating, the other slung about with equipment. So the photographer had arrived; she hoped it was Will Goddard. She liked working with Will. She put her hands into her pockets and her fingers came into contact with the ball of paper. She took it out and tried to flatten it into some kind of identifiable shape. It was drier now and she could just make out a picture. It looked like a poorly photocopied photograph; two people in an imposing doorway, at the top of some steps – a hotel, perhaps? – turning towards each other. She half recognized the embroidered denim jacket as her own, but why should it be? Cordelia turned it over to see if there might be some clue on the back of the paper. There had been something written there but the ink was smudged and illegible. She folded the paper more carefully this time and dropped it back into her pocket.
McGregor came loping towards her and she coaxed him into the car with the promise of a biscuit and settled him again. She checked her bag: tape recorder, notebook, pencil; ran her eye over a list of questions to refresh her memory and drove down to the gateway of Charteris Soke.
Three hours later, on the narrowboat, while Angus made tea, she described the soke: the courtroom with its beautiful judge's seat set within an ancient, barred window, the carved stone fireplace with its coat of arms, and the secret door to the tower, which had once been a fortified treasury; and its charming owner whose family had lived there for centuries.
Presently she stretched and looked about her appreciatively.
'This is fun,' she said. 'And we've got all day tomorrow to ourselves. What bliss.'
'I thought we'd go upriver to Pershore,' he said. 'Let's hope McGregor likes being a water-gypsy. Does Henrietta know where you are? How is she acclimatizing to house-sitting on the Quantocks after her busy life nannying in London?'
Cordelia made a face. 'With difficulty. My poor daughter is in shock but coping.'
'I know you told me about it on the phone but I've lost the plot a bit. What exactly happened?'
'Oh, it's just so sad. Susan and Iain–that's the couple Henrietta works for – have split up. Apparently Iain's been having an affair for ages and poor Susan hadn't the least suspicion until he said he was leaving. It's been a frightful shock for everyone. Well, Susan's parents were planning to go to New Zealand to see their other daughter and they decided that the best thing was simply to take Susan and the children with them to give everyone a breathing space. They all went off last week.'
'And where does the cottage on the Quantocks come in?'
'That's where Susan's parents live. Maggie and Roger. There was no room for Henrietta at the daughter's house in New Zealand, you see, so she's gone down to look after the dogs and the old ponies while they're all away. I've sent her a text and told her I'll be home on Sunday night. And no, I haven't told her I'm here with you – but you knew that. She'll expect me to be in a B & B. That's what I usually do.'
'You'll have to tell her one day, especially now that I've moved down to Dartmouth,' Angus said – and grimaced at her exasperated expression. 'OK, OK. I promise not to mention it again. Not this weekend, anyway. I thought we'd have supper at the White Bear. Then we'll get away early in the morning and I'll cook breakfast somewhere upriver.'
'Sounds wonderful,' Cordelia said. 'Look, d'you mind if I just make a few notes while today's all still so fresh in my mind? Then I can put the soke out of my head and relax, and we'll take McGregor for a walk along the towpath.'CHAPTER 2
Henrietta recognized the voice at once, though this morning the message was a different one.
'Hi, Roger. It's me again. It's ten o'clock on Tuesday morning. I might pop in later today on my way down from Bristol. Round about four o'clock. Sorry I keep missing you.'
Instinctively she glanced at her watch: just after eleven.
'It's your fault he keeps missing us, whoever he is,' she told the dogs, who had subsided into furry golden heaps on the cold slates. 'He always phones when we're out for a walk.'
Their feathery tails wagged with polite indifference and Juno, mother and grandmother of the other two retrievers, heaved herself to her feet so as to drink lavishly from the large bowl of water beside the dresser. The kitchen door stood open to the warm September sunshine and a delightful confusion of rich colour: pinky mauve Japanese anemones, crimson and purple Michaelmas daisies, scarlet montbretia all grouped together and dusted by the powdery sunlight. Henrietta made coffee and carried it to the little wooden chair outside the door. She felt that something significant was about to happen: there was a kind of magic in the soft golden glow that overlaid this small court; an expectant, hushed waiting in the deep rural silence. Juno came out to sit beside her, leaning against the chair, and Henrietta slid her arm around the furry neck and laid her cheek on the top of Juno's head.
'You miss them all, don't you?' she murmured sympathetically. 'Well, so do I, but we might as well get used to it.'
They sat quietly together, Henrietta sipping her coffee and wondering about the voice on the answering machine, whilst Juno's heavy head rested against her knee. The first message had been waiting for her just a few hours after Roger and Maggie had left for London on the first leg of their journey nearly a week ago. To distract the dogs from their departure she'd driven them off through the narrow lanes towards Crowcombe, up to the Great Wood, and taken them for a walk on Robin Upright's Hill where she could look out across Bridgwater Bay. When she'd returned to the cottage, the green light on the answerphone had been flashing. She'd hurried to it, fearful that there had been some kind of problem; that the train had been delayed and they'd failed to meet up with Susan and the children.
'Hi, Roger, it's Joe. Thanks for looking out the books for me. I'll be coming your way soon. Love to Maggie.'
There had been no instructions about Joe's books, although a carrier bag stood on the chest in the hall. She'd glanced inside and seen that it did indeed contain books: books about boats and harbours. Well, that wasn't surprising given that Roger was a retired naval officer with a very wide knowledge of old sailing boats.
But who was this Joe? Henrietta had the oddest feeling that she knew him; that she recognized his voice – she'd even imagined that she'd met him and that they'd talked. Now, sitting in the sun with Juno stretched out at her feet, she could visualize him: tall, with fair hair, hands sketching shapes in the air as he talked. But where and when? She pulled her long thick plait over one shoulder and twiddled the end, drawing it through her fingers. It occurred to her that he might be a member of one of the naval families with whom she was connected by the network of married quarters, naval hirings and boarding schools. Clearly he was on familiar terms with Roger and Maggie. A new thought, that he also might be of their generation, gave rise to a sudden and quite disproportionate sense of disappointment. Of course she could dial 1471, get his number – unless it was withheld, telephone this Joe and tell him Roger was away but she'd found a bag of books that might be for him. Perhaps she simply wanted to enjoy the mystery for a little longer: to allow her imagination to weave amusing scenarios which distracted from her present problems.
His voice sounded young, she told herself firmly. And that image of him talking, explaining something to her, was the image of a young man. Yet, if they'd met, how could she have forgotten his name? She finished her coffee with mixed emotions: excitement, apprehension, curiosity.
'Get a grip,' she told herself. 'He's probably a boring old fart with a passion for tea clippers.'
Nevertheless, she decided that she'd drive into Bicknoller after lunch and buy something special for tea – a delicious sponge perhaps. Luckily Roger had a very large stock of alcohol, though she'd get a lemon in case Joe liked a gin and tonic. She wondered what she could rustle up for supper ...
'Honestly!' she cried aloud in vexation. 'What are you doing?'
Juno struggled up, alarmed by the sudden cry, and Henrietta stroked her head remorsefully.
'Sorry,' she said. 'Sorry, Juno. I'm losing it. That's what comes of having nothing to do. I'm missing the children, and Susan dashing in and out, and all the usual dramas.'
Another thought occurred to her. Gently pushing Juno's bulk to one side, Henrietta got up and went into the house. She hesitated for a moment before replaying the message, and then she found her mobile and dialled her mother's number.
Two telephone calls before she'd even got to her desk, which was covered with computer printouts, articles snipped from newspapers and journals, reference books. Wandering between the kitchen and the study, mug of coffee in hand, she was just getting the first sentence of her piece into her head: 'Charteris Soke in Frampton Parva is the only house of its kind known to exist this far south.' Pause there. Was she absolutely certain that this was true? Well, that could be thoroughly checked later. Now. Should it be 'delightful Charteris Soke'? Or 'charming Charteris Soke'? Either adjective seemed overused; dull. Anyway, follow that with a bit about what a soke actually is. Cordelia riffled about for a relevant piece of paper, checked the dictionary definition of soke or soc: the right to hold a local court; or the territory under the jurisdiction of a particular court. She studied the photographs of the little ancient manor house – the shape of the piece was gradually forming – and then her mobile phone shrieked again in the bowels of the kitchen and she put down the coffee mug and ran out into the passage, finally snatching the phone up from beneath the pile of newspapers on the kitchen table.
Excerpted from The Prodigal Wife by Marcia Willett. Copyright © 2009 Marcia Willett. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
Born in Somerset, in the west country of England, Marcia Willett was the youngest of five girls. Her family was unconventional and musical, but Marcia chose to train as a ballet dancer. Unfortunately her body did not develop with the classical proportions demanded by the Royal Ballet, so she studied to be a ballet teacher. Her first husband was a naval officer in the submarine service, with whom she had a son, Charles, now married and a clergyman. Her second husband, Rodney, himself a writer and broadcaster, encouraged Marcia to write novels. The Prodigal Wife is her eleventh book to be published in the United States by Thomas Dunne Books.
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Marcia Willet's latest book, The Prodigal Wife, will not disappoint her many fans. The story centers around Jolyon Chadwick, a newly famous television personality. Handsome and charming he nevertheless suffers a lack of confidence as a consequence of his mother's ill treatment and ultimate abandonment. Now his mother is back, stirring up the past, just when he has finally found a girlfriend who loves and understands him. Marcia Willet combines interesting and realistically drawn characters who you can't help but like with gorgeous depictions of the sea and country side. The plot is unique with romantic twists and a mystery with a surprise ending. Everything comes together for an entertaining, easy read.
Renowned TV gardening show host Jolyon accompanied by his beloved girlfriend Henrietta returns to the family estate the Keep that has been owned and occupied by Chadwicks for several generations, to celebrate a birthday with family. However, he is unaware that his mother, whom has not seen in about fifteen years, has come to the Keep to spend quality time with him. Jo's father Henry and his stepmother Fliss worry how he will react to seeing the woman who abandoned him. Maria feels alone since her spouse Adam died. She wants to make amends with her son as spending Christmas alone for the first time weighs heavy on her. Although Hal is receptive and Fliss kind, Jo refuses to believe his mother wants to end their estrangement; instead he assumes Maria wants a piece of his fame. Hal feels guilty for his role in the break-up as he never emotionally moved beyond his Fliss even after he was married to Maria and Henrietta struggles with the end of her parents' marriage. Although constantly rejected by her son, Maria refuses to quit trying as she knows she failed Jo. The latest Chadwick Family Chronicle (see Looking Forward, Holding On and Winning Through) is an engaging entry that focuses on Jo and Maria as the latter tries to atone for the hurt she caused to the former. The story line is character driven as the Chadwick family look back to events already showcased in the previous entries, but with new perspective especially at Maria who came across as an uncaring rat whenever mentioned in the earlier tales. Although the Christmas Tree ending provides some closure, it feels more of a set up for book five rather than a clean climax. Still fans of the saga will relish this fine entry. Harriet Klausner