When an ambitious female artist accepts an unexpected commission at a powerful earl's country estate in 1920s England, she finds his war-torn family crumbling under the weight of long-kept secrets. From debut author Courtney Ellis comes a captivating novel about finding the courage to heal after the ravages of war. Alberta Preston accepts the commission of a lifetime when she receives an invitation from the Earl of Wakeford to spend a summer painting at His Lordship's country home, Castle Braemore. Bertie imagines her residence at the prodigious estate will finally enable her to embark on a professional career and prove her worth as an artist, regardless of her gender. Upon her arrival, however, Bertie finds the opulent Braemore and its inhabitants diminished by the Great War. The earl has been living in isolation since returning from the trenches, locked away in his rooms and hiding battle scars behind a prosthetic mask. While his younger siblings eagerly welcome Bertie into their world, she soon sees chips in that world's gilded facade. As she and the earl develop an unexpected bond, Bertie becomes deeply entangled in the pain and secrets she discovers hidden within Castle Braemore and the hearts of its residents. Threaded with hope, love, and loss, At Summer's End delivers a portrait of a noble family--and a world--changed forever by the war to end all wars.
Courtney Ellis began writing at a young age, and developed an interest in history from her grandfather's stories of World War II. After obtaining her BA in English and Creative Writing, she went on to pursue a career in publishing. She lives in New York.
1 June 1922 It didn''t take much to excite the neighbors-only a little feature in the Times accompanying a photograph of my painting, the winner of an art contest put on by the Royal British Legion. Four years on, there were still plenty of funds needing to be raised for veterans of the Great War. My painting had received first prize. I delighted in the opportunity to parade the crimson ribbon before my family, but the true victory was having my name in print. It was my name shortened, but no matter. Everyone who saw the feature would think Bertie Preston a man. Or so I hoped. For who would commission a painting from an unknown female artist? Our neighbor Mrs. Lemm would, and after seeing the article, did. My very first. On a Tuesday afternoon, I completed the portrait of her Yorkshire terrier, Duchess, and accepted annuity of four shillings, sixpence. The amount made no difference to me; I was only pleased to be paid for my work at last. It was only four shillings, sixpence, but it was four shillings, sixpence closer to a room in London and a life of my own. Unmarried at twenty-eight, one might resolve to consider oneself a sad and lonely spinster. Only I wasn''t sad, or lonely. I rather enjoyed an empty room with an easel in it. After leaving Mrs. Lemm''s house, I used my earnings to buy a bunch of peonies. It was while I was out that the earl''s letter arrived. Our maid Jane didn''t come to the door, so I set down my easel, hung my cloche on the rack, and went through to the parlor, where I was accosted by the odor of wood glue. My father had lately taken the hobby of building model boats, which he then sailed on the local pond of an afternoon. Now he sat at a table once reserved for games of bridge, painting tiny strokes on his toy boat''s hull. Painting! My father! Who, as a retired banker, was a man of numbers and not creativity. I never knew my parents to engage in the arts, which was why I''d been under their scorn since adolescence for lacking focus on anything apart from painting. Mother came through from the kitchen, where she was surely bullying our cook about the state of dinner. Neither of them had noticed my arrival, so I announced, "Peonies!" and held the bunch in Mother''s direction. "Won''t they be lovely?" Her mouth was permanently downturned, but the creases deepened at the sight of the flowers. "Oh, Bertie, you know your father''s hay fever is the devil in June. Do put them outdoors." Father peered over wire spectacles balanced on the end of his nose. "No, no bother to me, surely." "I''ll not have you bedridden over a few measly blooms. Please, Bertie?" On cue, Father sneezed. I sent my eyes skyward and trudged back to the foyer, swung the door open, and tossed the flower bunch-which I''d spent a hard-earned penny on-to the front path. How remarkable the glue odor should have no effect whatsoever on Father''s lungs. Back in the parlor, Mother leaned over his shoulder, watching him tinker. "How does Mrs. Lemm do, Bertie?" "Well," I answered. "Charming as always. I had a lovely time." I shrank to the window seat and pinched a piece of my newly chopped bob. A smudge of paint clung to my thumb, the rusty shade of a terrier''s whiskers. "So good of her to have you, wasn''t it? She knows how much you enjoy doing your paintings." Here, Mother implied I wasn''t an artist at all, but a hobbyist like my father. "Mrs. Flynn called by earlier; she''d seen the Times and wanted to have a look at the prize painting. You remember her boy John was killed on the Somme?-poor lamb burst into tears." My painting, entitled Something for the Pain, had begun as a sketch I''d done whilst serving in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, stationed near the Western Front. It captured a nursing sister in her grey uniform and veil, standing with the strength of a soldier patient outside a tented ward. They''d been chatting about lice-Ever ''old a fag to one and ''eard them poppin'', Sister?-and hadn''t known I was drawing them. Drawing had been my way to cope with the horrors I saw in my wartime career. I tried to capture the lovely moments in between, the now blurred memories of friendship and warmth between nurse and soldier, between men and women stuck in the worst of what the world had seen. Perhaps I ought to have been documenting the worst of it-the pain and torn flesh and mud. But in the end, I couldn''t decide which was more important to remember, so I chose what caught my eye. One day it was the look of utter exhaustion on the face of the walking wounded, another, the beaming smile of a freckled VAD serving weak tea and dog biscuits. "I remember John," I said. "Living in London, was he not?" Mother nodded solemnly. "Left behind a wife and baby girl, God rest him." She selected an envelope from her pile and handed it to Father. "One from Violet, dear." Violet was one of my two elder sisters. Father took it eagerly, setting his paintbrush aside. We were similar, Father and I. In retirement, he worked ardently on his boats to keep busy, as I had done with the Red Cross in war. When armistice came, I hardly wished to leave my post. In peacetime, I was redundant, merely a single woman with no purpose or use. When the men returned, all were quick to forget what worth their women had. "For you, Bertie." I looked up from my thoughts. Mother held out a letter, eyes elsewhere. I stood to collect the envelope, turning it over and over as I paced the airless room. All windows were to be shut in summer months. Hay fever, of course. It was postmarked Braemore, Wiltshire. I didn''t recognize the hand, though my heart quickened all the same. For the letter was addressed to Mr. Bertie Preston. Mister. I tore open the envelope and removed a single, crisp bit of stationery. At the top was an embossed golden crest, and the words earl of wakeford, castle braemore. "Good Lord!" I blurted. Mother sighed, lifted her weary face. "Honestly, dear, you know I dislike you speaking so harshly." I ignored her, began to pace. There was absolutely no reason I should have had a letter from a nobleman. I''d never met a lord, much less an earl. Or maybe I''d nursed one? An officer, perhaps? No; I certainly would not have forgot that. I took a deep breath and read. Dear Mr. Preston, I am seeking to commission an artist for several paintings of my Wiltshire estate, Castle Braemore. As an admirer of your work, I would be delighted if you would be my guest at Braemore for the summer months to gather the inspiration necessary for your process. If you should accept the undertaking, please enclose with your response a list of materials you shall require, which will be provided upon your arrival. I eagerly await your reply. Sincerely, Wakeford My cheeks set flame. The room spun. I was not a woman who swooned-I''d been elbow deep in blood during the war and hadn''t batted an eyelash-but now I thought my knees might give out. I ran to the window and threw it open. Mother scoffed. "Bertie, what on earth-?" Father stood, scraping back his chair. "Fantastic news, everyone-Violet''s expecting a third!" I thrust my head out the window and took a gulp of summer evening air, the letter crumpled under my hand on the windowsill. Behind me, my parents embraced, delighted to be grandparents yet again. My sisters were really rather good at producing children, and with Heather widowed and me hopeless, Violet was their champion. Old news. For I had a commission! A real one! I plucked a petunia from the flower box and brought my head back indoors, shutting the window with force. When I turned, my parents had gone. I could hear Father chatting to the operator in the other room, telephoning Violet to congratulate her. The letter shook in my hands. Someone-a bloody earl!-wanted me to paint for him. For money. This had been my goal when entering the contest. But how could I ever have expected such a commission? An earl might display my paintings where his titled friends could see. It wouldn''t be long before more commissions came through and I had the income for a solo show, to submit a piece for entry in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, to rent a flat with a view of Hyde Park. Now I certainly was going to faint. I sat down in a nearby chair to save myself the fall and put the petunia under my nose to breathe the warm sweetness. I was finally on my way. Not wanting to follow up Violet
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