Maggie Conway shares the first chapter of her new novel.
Eva Harris wasn’t spying, not exactly. It was more a case of taking a healthy interest in her new neighbours. She’d almost jumped for joy when the removal van had pulled up earlier. During the afternoon she’d taken several breaks from her painting, lingering at the window with mugs of tea, hoping to catch a glimpse of whoever had moved in.
It must have been one of the most efficient removals ever – the van appeared to have come and gone in record time and apart from the removal men Eva hadn’t seen anyone. Even now all was quiet, a sleek black car in the driveway the only evidence anyone had moved in.
Eva hated not having neighbours. She found the silence from next door unsettling. The house – known affectionately as Mac’s place – had lain empty, ever since Moira and Donald MacKenzie had decided to sell up and cruise around the world before moving into a bungalow to accommodate Donald’s arthritis. Tempted as she was to rush round to welcome her new neighbours, she held off. She knew moving day could be hectic and it was probably better to give whoever it was time to settle in.
From where she stood at a bedroom window on her first floor, Eva looked out onto the harbour and beyond that to the expanse of sea. Even now in October, St Andrews was a beautiful place to live. Being close to the university, Eva was used to seeing students coming and going along the cobbled streets. Tonight though, everyone was huddled up against the rain, hurrying to wherever they had to go.
Turning from the window, Eva rested her hands on her hips and admired the silky finish of the duck egg blue wall she had just painted. Listening to the radio as the rain lashed against the window, she’d been happy to be indoors today and even happier that she had managed to paint the whole room despite all her neighbour-spotting activity.
Eva loved running her small guest house and even though visitors came to St Andrews all year round, she closed during the winter months. This gave her time to take care of any maintenance and freshen up the rooms. But more importantly it gave her time to be with her son Jamie and it let them have the house to themselves without guests.
Looking at the time she realized he should be home by now, even allowing for his football after school. She pulled her phone from the back pocket of her dungarees but there were no messages from him. She resisted the urge to phone and check where he was.
Eva was convinced when she gave birth to Jamie a worry bead had been planted in her brain at the same time. Whatever the stage – teething, feeding, learning to read or to cross the road safely – Eva was always capable of imagining the worst-case scenario and only her constant vigilance prevented disaster. Each milestone brought its joys of course but also a new set of anxieties for Eva. Jamie was almost twelve now; the teenage years were looming large and the thought terrified her.
Starting high school had been a big change not just for Jamie but Eva too. With his new routine and all the after-school activities, she knew she had to give him a bit of independence but she’d been holding the reins of motherhood so tightly for so long it was difficult to let go. She wondered if she should phone Heather to see if she’d heard from Fraser. She could bet wherever Fraser was, Jamie would be two steps away.
When Jamie had come home after his first day at primary school and announced he had a new best friend called Fraser, Eva was more than relieved to meet his mum, Heather. Like their sons, their friendship had been instant and enduring. When Eva had admitted to her excessive – bordering neurotic – worrying, Heather had taken it in her stride. To this day Eva had never seen her friend stressed despite having three boisterous sons.
Heather had seen most things at least once and over the years Eva had called upon her expertise several times. When Jamie got his finger stuck in a bottle, kept bringing home bugs, or had decided jumping off furniture was fun, Heather reassured her that was what boys did. The only thing Heather hadn’t managed to bestow on Eva was the ability to relax, at least not without alcohol being involved. Eva loved spending time at her friend’s chaotic home but never knew if it was because of the easy atmosphere or because of her friend’s willingness to produce a bottle of wine at any time for any reason.
No, she wouldn’t phone Heather. She’d only remind her – again – they were lucky living in a small safe community, they’d agreed the boys were old enough to walk home from high school themselves, and they’d be home soon.
Swallowing the familiar tug of anxiety in her stomach, Eva took a deep breath and started tidying up. She placed the lid back on the paint pot, put the brushes in a jar of water, and went over in her head what she still had to do. Tomorrow she could start to put the furniture back in place and then give everything a good clean.
Eva was using a small ceramic seahorse sculpture as her inspiration to give the room a coastal feel. A couple of patterned navy cushions for the armchair and a beautiful driftwood mirror she’d found in a craft shop would provide the finishing touches.
She’d certainly come a long way in the seven years since she’d taken over West Sands guest house. When she’d moved in, the existing rooms were functional but drab. At school the only subject Eva had ever really enjoyed was art and she had discovered a real passion for interiors and decorating. Realizing she had a choice to either pay someone to do the work or learn how to do itself, she chose the latter.
She’d enrolled in a painting and decorating course at a local college for one day a week that fitted in with Jamie’s school hours and after that she’d kept going, learning with books, online courses, and a lot of trial and error. Now she was able to tackle most jobs herself and loved it so much – dreaming up colour combinations or imagining how textures might work in a room and then putting all her ideas into practice – she sometimes thought she’d missed her calling.
She liked to give each room an individual feel but it was also important to keep things fairly neutral and, above all, comfortable. The other two guest rooms wouldn’t be decorated this year, just a thorough clean and a check everything was in working order. She folded the stepladders, propped them against the wall, and clicked off the radio just in time to hear the front door bang shut.
‘Mum?’ Eva felt herself relax at the sound of her son’s voice.
‘Up here! I’ll be down in a sec.’ Wiping her hands on her dungarees Eva headed downstairs, almost being knocked down by Hamish as he hurtled down after her. The reality of having a (literally barking mad) dog was proving to be very different from the one Eva imagined when she had finally given in to Jamie’s constant pleading. Eva could think of a hundred reasons why not to get a dog but Jamie’s single reason – he wanted a dog because he didn’t have a brother or sister – trumped hers. Really, how could she refuse?
Dogs and guests weren’t necessarily an ideal mix but Eva, always on the lookout for new target markets, had an idea and one she hoped would be a sound business move. Her master plan was to become a dog-friendly guest house. With its beautiful beaches and coastal paths, St Andrews was the ideal destination for dog lovers and she could tap into that. She’d have to look into it properly before the start of next season, find out about any legal requirements and change her website and marketing so guests would know she welcomed dogs.
‘You’ll have to train the dog properly and it won’t be allowed in the kitchen,’ she’d said to Jamie for the hundredth time as they had driven to the rescue centre.
‘I promise, Mum,’ he had replied solemnly. Jamie had fallen in love on sight with the mournful eyes of a scruffy brown and white crossbreed staring at him through the bars of a cage. Eva liked that he was small and – according to the lovely lady at the rescue centre – would be easy to train. That had been four weeks ago and so far, easy wasn’t a word Eva would use.
In the hall, Eva ignored the trail of bags, jumpers, and football boots for now. Her eleven-year-old son’s tendency to go into a strop didn’t need any encouragement the minute he walked through the door. She found Jamie in the living room, his blond hair askew and long gangly limbs sprawled on the sofa with Hamish darting about ecstatically to welcome him home. Although Jamie shared Eva’s fair colouring, at times he looked so like Paul it broke her heart and all Eva wanted was to wrap her arms around him the way she had always done. But eleven was an awkward age. Sometimes still her little boy who needed reassurance but also an aspiring adult who didn’t always welcome hugs from his mum.
‘Hi, sweetheart. How was school?’ Eva asked him.
‘Fine,’ he replied using his standard response to most questions these days as he ruffled Hamish’s ears. The days of waiting at the primary school gates with other parents, swapping and verifying information before walking home while Jamie chatted non-stop already felt like a distant memory to Eva. It was early days, she reminded herself. There was so much for him to take in and he was bound to communicate more when he was ready. Overcome with excitement, Hamish suddenly leapt onto the sofa beside Jamie.
‘Off the sofa, Hamish!’ Eva yelled.
‘Mu-um! That’s not the right voice remember? You’re supposed to use a firm but calm voice,’ Jamie said, mimicking Mrs Duffy from puppy training class.
Eva grimaced apologetically. ‘You’re right, I’m sorry.’
Jamie rolled off the sofa, giggling with delight as Hamish jumped on top of him and began slobbering all over his face. ‘Hamish – yeuch!’ he cried.
Eva grinned at them, relishing the moments when getting a dog did actually make sense.
‘So, did you have a good game of football?’ Eva asked.
‘Nah, our team lost,’ Jamie sniffed.
Sports mad like his father had been – Eva always felt a disappointment for not getting excited about penalty shoot-outs or understanding offside. She’d coped with the dinosaur stage, learning the difference between a T Rex and a stegosaurus. She’d actually enjoyed mastering the techniques to build bridges and cars from Lego and she even knew every character from Star Wars. But she had never managed to grasp the intricacies of The Beautiful Game. Of course if Paul was here, they could talk football father to son, the way it should be.
‘I expected you home before now.’ Eva tried to keep her voice neutral.
‘It’s no big deal, Mum – we were just chatting a bit after the game,’ Jamie retorted, wiping an arm across his dirt-streaked face.
‘I don’t have a problem with that. But how about a text next time? Just to let me know if you’re going to be later. We agreed if you got a mobile phone you would keep in touch.’ Eva wondered how many times she had given the ‘keep in touch’ speech. Even she was fed up with the sound of her own voice saying the same thing over and over.
Their wrestling match now over, Jamie got up from the floor while Hamish, tired out by his exertions, flopped dramatically on the floor.
‘Mum?’ Jamie came and stood beside Eva, almost the same height as her now, his blue ey es fixing her with a challenging stare. ‘Have you thought about it yet?’
Eva’s heart sank. ‘Er, not properly yet.’
‘I need to let them know by next week. All my friends are going; I’ll be the only one not going,’ he pleaded, his face settling into a petulant pout.
‘I know that, but –’
‘Then why can’t I go?’ he demanded.
‘Let me think about it and I promise we’ll talk later, okay?’ She knew she was stalling. But how could she just say yes to a trip that meant her son would be hurling himself off cliffs, diving into water and God knows what else. The weekend trip, organized by his football club, might promise to be a great team-bonding adventure but the very thought of it made Eva come out in a cold sweat. And she wasn’t sure how she would cope with him being away. Apart from the odd sleepover she’d never been separated from him. Eva could almost hear Paul’s voice telling her not to worry, just to relax and let him go. But he wasn’t here now and it was all down to her.
Eva plumped up a pillow, switching to a safer topic. ‘Are you hungry?’ Jamie’s face broke into the cheeky grin she knew so well and Eva felt her heart melt. ‘Why don’t you pick up your things in the hall and go for a shower and I’ll get something ready to eat.’
‘Okay.’ He slouched off but stopped and turned at the door. ‘I meant to say – I saw a light on in Mac’s place when I was coming home.’
Eva nodded. ‘There was a removal van there earlier today. The new people have moved in.’
‘Who will it be?’
Eva smiled at how young he could suddenly sound, as if she would always have the answers. ‘I don’t know. But I guess we’d better stop calling it Mac’s place.’
Eva heard Jamie and Hamish thundering up the stairs as she went into the kitchen to heat the lasagne she had made earlier. Switching on the oven, she wondered how her new neighbours were and hoped everything was going well for whoever it was. After all, she knew how difficult moving day could be.
A cold January day, it had snowed the day Eva and Jamie moved in to West Sands guest house. It had been the day her confidence had suddenly crumbled and she questioned whether she could really do this. As she unlocked the door to their new home, Jamie was sobbing miserably with a streaming cold and Eva could have quite easily dissolved into a pool of tears herself. Suddenly it all seemed such a grown-up thing to do, move into a big house and be responsible for it all, not something a twenty-six-year-old widow with a young child could do.
After her husband Paul had died, everyone seemed to have an opinion as to what Eva should now do with her life, not least her mother. Although she had been visibly upset at Paul’s funeral – he was impossible not to like – Eva had sensed a quiet sense of satisfaction from her that it had all gone wrong just as she’d predicted.
Can Eva find love this Christmas?
Eva Harris has her hands full juggling a young son, a disobedient dog and running her thriving seaside guesthouse, so really the last thing she needs is to be distracted by her new neighbour, ridiculously handsome but arrogant Ben Matthews.
For one thing, she’s got nothing in common with the man, Ben’s a high flying lecturer at the town’s university while she barely scraped through high school, for another he’s fresh out of a relationship while Eva hasn’t been on one single date since the death of her husband, seven years ago!
She’s determined to keep her distance, but in a small town like St Andrews that’s easier said than done, and it doesn’t help that everyone, including her son Jamie, think Ben is wonderful! Breaking out of her sad but safe little bubble might be the hardest thing she’s ever had to do, but Ben might just be worth the risk…
Maggie Conway lived the first ten years of life in London before moving to Scotland. She has a degree in English Literature and spent many years dreaming of pursuing her passion for writing. A perfect day would include an early morning swim, a good coffee, a great book and a few hours spent writing before the chaos of a husband, three children, a dog and a cat begins. Having landed the role of chief dog walker, she spends far too much time roaming the streets but at least this gives her a chance to think up new storylines.