A Riviera Retreat- Jennifer Bohnet (Digital Sample)

Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘A Riviera Retreat’ by Jennifer Bohnet.

A Riviera Retreat

Jennifer Bohnet

PROLOGUE

A restless Amy Martin wandered alone through Belle Vue Villa one Sunday afternoon in late March, lost deep in her memories and regrets. Today, the fifth anniversary of the opening of ‘Bell Vue Retreat’, was bittersweet in so many ways. She opened the kitchen door and stood on the terrace looking out over the garden towards the Mediterranean Sea glinting in the afternoon sunshine in the distance. Situated high up in the hills behind Cannes, Belle Vue Villa, one of the smaller belle époque villas along the coast, had enviable views overlooking the sea and over to the Esterel Mountains.

Standing there, Amy sniffed the air and looked around her appreciatively. The perfume from the several mimosa trees in the garden wafted past her, courtesy of the gentle onshore breeze. Amy thought, not for the first time, how life could surprise you with its endless unexpected twists and turns. Some bad. Some good.

The death of Aunt Tasha, her mother Fleur’s older sister, had been so sad, but leaving her Belle Vue had been a wonderful surprise – and something of a lifesaver. The two siblings had remained close throughout their lives, but whilst Fleur had stayed near to home when she married, Tasha had followed the love of her life to France and embraced everything that country had to offer. Amy remembered countless family summers spent in Belle Vue Villa, listening to the two sisters reminiscing about their eccentric childhood in the wilds of Somerset.

Fleur had been devastated by her sister’s early death, telling Amy she’d always known that the villa was to be left to her because a childless Tasha had adored her. ‘It’s just that none of us expected it to happen so soon,’ she’d cried.

Walking alone into the hauntingly silent villa the day the notaire had handed her the keys, knowing it was now hers, Amy had failed to stop the tears flowing. Tears of sorrow but also of guilt. She’d seen so little of Tasha in the last few years. They’d talked regularly and Fleur had kept her up to date with Tasha’s news and later her illness, but Amy had rarely visited. Pressure of work had been her prime excuse, although sadly not the full truth. The guilt that had flooded her body after that last hospital visit to see Tasha had been painful. The fact that Belle Vue had enabled her to escape her old life and create a new one for herself gave her an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. Knowing it was the direct result of Aunt Tasha dying though was the hardest thing to bear and accept. A true bittersweet inheritance.

Tasha had run Belle Vue Villa as a successful auberge after Francois, her husband, had died and Amy knew that the villa would have to continue to earn its keep for her in the future. Rather than having holidaymakers turn up willy-nilly looking for a bed, Amy decided to focus on offering short retreats for writers and painters throughout the year. That way she’d always know how busy she’d be – with the added bonus of not having to worry about unexpected or unwanted strangers knocking on the door at all times of the day or night.

Lots of Tasha’s guests had left comments in the visitor’s book over the years, saying how special the house felt; how serene the atmosphere around the place was; several had said the villa was definitely a little French paradise. Amy had vowed to herself that she would do her utmost to keep the lovely ambiance that Tasha had masterfully created in and around the villa, while she endeavoured to put her own stamp on the place.

Five years on, Amy knew she could feel proud of what she’d achieved at Belle Vue. The auberge was now a popular venue as a retreat for artists and writers and it was her guests who left compliments in the visitor’s book and were returning time and time again. One particular writer had returned four times last year, saying she wrote more in a week when staying there than she wrote in a month at home. Amy knew Tasha would be proud and thrilled for her at the way the retreat had found its place in a niche market and taken off so well.

Turning back into the kitchen, Amy picked up the photo of her aunt that stood on the dresser and gently touched it. She owed Tasha so much. Thoughtfully, she replaced the photo. But how to show that gratitude? Tasha had always drummed into her the notion ‘it’s easy to take, but you must always, always give back too’. Amy knew that if Tasha had still been alive, she’d have wholeheartedly endorsed the current ‘do a random act of kindness for a stranger’ memes that seemed to appear every day on social media.

Amy smiled, remembering how Tasha had thoroughly embraced social media, joining groups, signing up for causes and having hundreds of friends on Facebook. Amy also knew her grateful act of ‘paying it back’ was long overdue, but despite thinking about it for weeks, months, not a single idea had surfaced. Nothing she thought of seemed grateful enough.

She glanced at the kitchen clock. A little early, but she’d open the bottle of wine she’d bought especially for today and leave it to breathe for a while. Opening a bottle of wine and silently toasting Tasha while watching the DVD of the film Enchanted April was a ritual that always finished off this particular day for Amy. Tasha had introduced her to the film and together they had watched it countless times.

As the credits rolled at the end of the film, Amy switched off the DVD, poured the last of the wine into her glass and opened her laptop, her head spinning not only from the wine she’d drunk but also with the perfect idea of how to give something back. To finally thank the universe for her good fortune.

Like the film she’d just watched, where an advertisement drew four women together, all strangers to each other, for a holiday in an Italian castle in the 1920s, her random act of kindness would begin with an advertisement too. Not in a newspaper but on twenty-first century social media.

Are you a woman who longs to spend time in retreat? Or simply in need of a holiday?

Answer the following question: Who wrote the book Enchanted April, and in less than one hundred words say which character you identify with most and why you need to win a holiday (June 6–16) at a retreat in the countryside behind the French Riviera. Travel expenses not included but low-cost flights are available to Nice. Transport to and from the airport will be arranged. Please note the date of the holiday on offer is NOT changeable or transferable.

Competition closes midnight the 31st of this month. Three lucky winners will be notified by email within one week of the competition closing.

* * *

A week later on the first of the following month, Amy opened the file she’d saved all the entries in and began sorting through the replies. All sixty-five of them. Quite a respectable number, considering the details had been on Facebook for such a short time. Some entries she discarded immediately – either the answer to the question was incorrect or the writer was clearly blagging in the hope of winning a holiday. One entry even brazenly stated ‘no idea of the answers, but I need a holiday so would be very grateful to win.’

Amy printed out the rest of the entries, numbering the pages individually from one to fifty-seven as the printer threw them out into the tray. Then she tore up some paper into small pieces before numbering those too, from one to fifty-seven and placing them all in a deep cake tin with a lid and shaking it violently for several seconds. Carefully, she took the lid off, closed her eyes tightly and plucked out three random pieces of paper. When she opened her eyes and looked, she’d picked out numbers 13, 27 and 41.

Flicking through the printouts, she identified the corresponding numbers:

Number 13 was a Vicky Lewis from London.

Number 27 was a Chelsea Newman from Bristol.

Number 41 was a Matilda Richardson, also from Bristol

Opening her laptop, Amy emailed the three women to tell them the good news. Paying back her good fortune had officially started.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

Vicky Pinehill, nèe Lewis, had the house to herself for the evening. Something that was happening several times a week now the children were older and out and about living their own lives. It had been strange at first to find herself with the odd hour not spoken for – the time hers to do with as she wished. With both Tom and Suzie out working now, time to call her own had increased. Time that Anthony had already suggested she used to get more involved with the constituency, take on more of the paperwork for him – in effect become even more of a full-time politician’s wife. Of course, Vicky supported Anthony in every way she could, but she didn’t relish the thought of taking on more responsibility in his political life. Politics was his life, not hers.

Although it had to be said that Anthony himself didn’t seem that happy these days either. His initial euphoria the day he’d won his seat and promised ‘to do his best for everyone’ had gradually disappeared. Killed, Vicky suspected, by the mountain of bureaucracy he was faced with on a day to day basis. If she did take on more of the office side of things, it would free him up to concentrate fully on the things that were important to him. And leave her life still in the rut she was beginning to feel desperate to escape from.

Vicky sighed. After all the years of being a mum and a wife, surely it was her turn now? She wanted, she realised, to be Vicky Lewis again. To find the girl she’d once been. To pick up the pieces of the life she’d abandoned when she became pregnant and married Anthony. She’d enjoyed her short foray into the world of books and publishing after university, but she didn’t particularly want to go back into that world. At least not from the same angle. She’d always longed to write and she’d had this idea for a novel for ages now. Had even started to scribble sentences and scenes down in a notebook she kept hidden in her bag but there always seemed to be something more important to attend to when she had time to spare.

She searched the wooden cabinet underneath the television where they kept their collection of DVDs. A Facebook advertisement she’d seen a few days ago for a competition to win a retreat type holiday in the South of France had reminded her of one of her all time favourite films, Enchanted April. While Anthony was in Westminster this evening for a crucial vote and both the children were out, she was going to pour herself a glass of wine and lose herself in a gentle story set in a world she suspected sadly no longer existed. Bliss.

Two hours later as the closing credits faded away, Vicky sighed. Italy in the 1920s must have been wonderful. Replacing the DVD back in its case, she picked up her laptop and logged on to Facebook. Looking at the competition questions again, she briefly wondered whether it was genuine or just a con to bombard people with dodgy internet holiday sites.

The question who wrote the book was easy – Elizabeth von Arnim – rumoured to have been the lover of H. G. Wells at one time.

Which character did she identify with the most? Lady Caroline Dester was too young. Lottie Wilkins? A bit perhaps, but she didn’t have children. Mrs Fisher was too old, so it would have to be Rose who spent a lot of her time with children and did good works.

Vicky smiled to herself. Apart from two mornings a week in the local charity shop, she didn’t do good works per se, she left that to Anthony, but she’d done her child rearing duties – anyway, she had a soft spot for Miranda Richardson, the actress who played Rose, ever since her days of Queenie in Blackadder.

But as for the reason why she should win a holiday, that was difficult. The question made her feel selfish and self-indulgent. There were far more deserving people out there; people who couldn’t afford to go away; people who needed to get away. She simply wanted some time on her own to gather her thoughts and make a plan of what she wanted to do. Not necessarily for the rest of her life, but for the next few years at least.

A holiday in a retreat would give her the ideal opportunity to think things through, have time to concentrate on her writing and to decide whether or not she could actually write a novel. Shame it wasn’t in Italy like the film, but the South of France was a good substitute. And those particular days at the beginning of summer were perfect. Tom and Suzie would be busy at work and Parliament would still be sitting, so Anthony wouldn’t have much free time to miss her. It wouldn’t hurt the three of them to look after themselves for once. Maybe she’d ask Anthony’s mother to come and stay.

The fact that the competition questions were based around a favourite film must surely mean she’d be on the same wavelength as other people should she win? Which was unlikely as she’d never won anything in her life – oh wait. Once, on holiday, she’d hooked a plastic duck at a fairground to win a goldfish in a plastic bag, but her mother had vetoed accepting it as it would only die before they could get it home and into a proper bowl. She remembered howling all the way back to their holiday chalet.

Oh, blow it. She’d send an entry off in her maiden name, Vicky Lewis. The chances of her actually winning were what? Probably as high as the odds of her winning the lottery. But, and it wasn’t a big but Vicky realised, when she didn’t win, she’d find a cheap B&B somewhere on the coast and do an Agatha Christie for those ten days at the beginning of June.

 

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