Two new families arrive in the village of Summerstoke and they couldn’t be more different. Oliver Merfield, grandson of old Mrs Merfield at the Manor, is the newly elected MP for the area. His wife, the lovely Juliet Peters, is a soap star and a compulsive flirt.
Richard Garnett is a local newspaper editor, desperate to improve his circulation figures and save his job. His wife, lonely neglected mother-of-two, Isabelle Garnett, is an artist who has lost her inspiration.
The only thing the two women have in common is their horror at having to move into a village, away from all the conveniences and action of city life.
Their husbands seem set on a collision course. Manipulated by the unscrupulous Hugh Lester, a local landowner, Richard Garnett pursues a course of action which could result in the public disgrace of Oliver Merfield, while his wife, Veronica schemes to close the village shop.
Add to this mix a sulky wildchild teenager in the shape of Jamie Merfield, son of Juliet and Oliver; Charlie Tucker, a reformed Cassanova who feeds the village’s appetite for gossip; the four elderly ladies at Summerstoke Manor, a formidable match for anyone; and the village shop, which sits at the heart of the village, dispensing advice and plenty of juicy gossip.
As the days grow colder, passions grow warmer and before the year is out, Veronica and Hugh Lester both meet their comeuppance in a most satisfactory way, Juliet and Isabelle and Jamie have to discover if their hearts really are in the country, and in the right hands, and Oliver has to fight the battle of his political life to survive, and all because of the village shop.
“Whoa, Sultan, whoa, steady boy, steady.” The rider astride the tallblack stallion brought his nervous mount to a standstill as a car swept passed them without slowing down on the country road that led out of the village of Summerstoke.
“Ignorant bastard!” Hugh Lester glared with disdainful superiority after the offending vehicle before urging his horse forward towards the bridge spanning the river.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning and Hugh, as was his wont, had been roaming the countryside around the village for a couple of hours. He was in a high good humour. Not only was he happiest - if a man like Hugh could ever be described as happy - when he was mounted on his horse or his wife, but he had seen enough of the shabby condition of the farm, in the middle of the Summerstoke valley, to convince him that it wouldn’t be long before its owners would succumb to pressure and accept his offer.
Hugh owned the other farm in the village – Summerstoke Farm - and he was rich and successful. From the very beginning he’d learned to play the subsidy game and ruthlessly milk his land for all it was worth. His first love was horses and he and his wife Veronica had added to their wealth and prestige by running a livery stables. But ever restless, he wanted to expand and more than anything else, he wanted to open a stud. Stud’s attracted money and class and Hugh and Veronica were attracted to money and class, and the power that went with that combination.
However there was a slight snag to Hugh’s ambition - they needed more land, and land, available land, was in short supply.
The village of Summerstoke where the Lesters lived, sat on the side of a hill leading down to the River Summer. Hugh’s land was on the village side, the Tucker family of Marsh farm owned the pastures on the other side, and the only other landowners of note were the Merfield sisters of Summerstoke Manor - a trio of elderly freaks, in Hugh’s opinion. Too old to farm themselves, their juicy pastures were leased by the Tuckers.
After his ride that morning, the way forward became clear to Hugh: if he could persuade the Merfields to sell their land, Marsh Farm would cease to be viable as a dairy farm and then, he was sure, he’d be able to get it for a song.
The church bells started to ring out as Sultan started up the High Street and Hugh, sitting high above the rest of the world, felt very good indeed. The odd passer-by, walking back from the village shop with Sunday newspapers tucked under their arms and swinging pints of milk, cast admiring glances in his direction. Hugh preened himself. He looked good and he knew it. On horseback the disadvantage of only being five foot six was hidden, and although he was nearly fifty, he had a good figure, a full head of wavy black hair, strong features and piercing blue eyes.
When he had reached the age of eighteen and realised he would not grow any taller, he’d nearly despaired. But then he discovered on horseback he could look down on the rest of the world, and when he’d made a sufficient packet of money, the world did not look down on him.
Nearing the lych-gate of St Stephens, his spirits lifted still further. It couldn’t be better. The small congregation was leaving the church and walking down the path, he could see the Merfield crones accompanied by a much younger man and by the tall, lugubrious figure of the vicar.
The ladies, all around eighty, were as tall as the vicar, elegant and thin. On the rare occasions he’d been in their company, he’d felt like a stunted dwarf who’d crawled out of a fairy tale. He knew he’d feel the same way if he went to call on them with his proposal. They’d never seen him on horseback. On Sultan, he was a force to be reckoned with - they’d take notice, of that he was supremely confident.
The group had just reached an old Daimler parked alongside the lych-gate, another elderly lady at the wheel, when Hugh reined in Sultan. At the sound of the horse they were sufficiently distracted from their conversation with the vicar to look up.
“Good morning, ladies,” Hugh attempted a light, jocular note.And what a beautiful morning it is.”
The three elderly ladies regarded him silently.
“Ah yes,” the Vicar hastily filled the void, “Isn’t it, Mr Lester. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world, eh? Fine animal you’ve got there…”
Hugh ignored the vicar and addressed the eldest of the three
whose arm rested lightly on the young man’s by her side. She was a formidable old lady, dressed from top to toe in black lace, with a cadaverous face and sunken dark eyes.
“This is a fortuitous encounter, Mrs Merfield…” He smiled – an uncommon experience - till he though his face would crack.
She did not respond with any warmth. “Is it?”
“Yes” he ploughed on. “I was planning to call round to see you…”
“What on earth for?” enquired one of the other sisters, dressed, Hugh observed with distaste, as if she was half her age in some light drifty material.
He fought off a scowl. “I’ve got a proposition to put to you…”
“A proposition. Whatever next?” drawled the third sister. “I can’t imagine what that could be, can you, Elizabeth? Perhaps he wants to buy the manor. Shall we sell?”
Hugh’s attempt at a smile was replaced by a flush. Handsome as his own place, Summerstoke House, was, it was not in the same class as Summerstoke Manor and he dreamed of owning it.
He forced a laugh. “No, of course not. But I wanted to discuss your pasture land with you…”
“Yes,” Hugh blundered on, refusing to be phased by her discouraging demeanour. “This is probably not the time or place to discuss it, but I thought, seeing you here, I would put the idea to you. I need more fields for our horses, and your pastures this side of the river, so close to Summerstoke Farm, would be ideal. I know you lease them to the Tuckers, but I could offer you more, substantially more, and would be more than happy to pay a good price if you were to think of selling…”
His voice trailed away and feeling hot and desperately uncomfortable, he tried another smile, looking for some sign of encouragement in at least one of the faces staring up at him.
There was none.
Mrs Merfield’s voice was icy. “You’re right, Mr Lester. This is neither the time nor the place. Today is Sunday, a day of rest according to the teachings of the bible and we have just come from church. If you wish to discuss business with us, then I suggest you make an appointment in the usual way. Good day.”
He was dismissed.
The old lady was helped into the car by the young man and all Hugh could do was control his increasingly restless horse and try and think of a good exit line. One of the other ladies glanced up at him just before she too, took her place in the car.
“ I think you’re wasting your time, Mr Lester. It’s highly unlikely we’d take those fields away from the Tuckers. There are more important things in life than money, you know.”
The car pulled away; the young man, who had remained behind, shook hands with the vicar, nodded at Hugh, then strolled up the road in the direction of the Manor.
The vicar looking more uncomfortable than ever and poising for flight, glanced nervously in Hugh’s direction. “Well, er…good day to you, Mr Lester…”
“Who’s that?” Hugh stared after the man.
“That? Oh, he’s Mrs Merfield’s grandson. Oliver Merfield, um…a nice boy, very nice. He and his sister used to stay in the village during the school holidays. Their father is Sir Nicholas Merfield, you know, a diplomat…”
Hugh snorted contemptuously. “Well he didn’t learn anything about the art of diplomacy from his mother, did he?”
This criticism of his patroness was clearly painful to the vicar.
“Er, well, yes…she can be a little abrasive. However, Oliver is quite… quite different, er… Hopefully, we’re going to see a whole lot more of him.”
“Why’s that?” Hugh turned his cold stare on the vicar.
“ Did you not know...? He…er…he’s been chosen as the conservative’s candidate for Mendip…er… in the by-election at the end of June. He…er… may well be our next MP…”
“Another Merfield to deal with – that’s all I need!” seethed Hugh, slapping the rump of the horse with his crop and spurring him on, his face black with frustrated temper. He felt he had, quite undeservedly, lost the first round to the Merfields.
Hugh Lester was a very bad loser.