tagRomanceBack to the Farm Ch. 01

Back to the Farm Ch. 01

byevanslily©

Melissa's gaze travelled once again to the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes late. This was getting ridiculous, she thought, glancing across to the desk where the solicitor's receptionist sat typing at a keyboard, her perfectly coiffed white hair slightly squashed by an audio headset. Replacing the dog-eared copy of Woman's Weekly upon a pile of similarly ancient magazines Melissa rose to her feet. "Excuse me?"

The white-haired lady looked up, clearly annoyed by the interruption. She slid the headset down so that it dangled around her neck, somehow managing to frown with her eyes despite her mouth curving into a polite smile. "Yes?"

"Will Mr Barrington be much longer?" Long-experienced at dealing with delays and excuses, Melissa knew it was best to keep her tone friendly but firm. "My appointment was at five o'clock. I understand he must be busy but--"

"Oh!" The receptionist's expression cleared. "I'm sorry. I assumed you knew. Mr Barrington's ready. We're just waiting for Mr McKenzie to arrive. He phoned a few moments before you arrived to say he was running a little late. He should be here soon."

"Wh-what? " Her stomach gave an unexpected lurch. "Mr McKenzie?" Please God, no... "You mean, Matt McKenzie?"

"That's right, dear. You didn't know he was coming?" The receptionist looked up again and her smile suddenly broadened as she looked beyond Melissa towards the door.

"No. I thought he--I'd heard he was abroad. China--or--or..." It was proving impossible to quell her rising sense of panic. "Hong Kong or somewhere like that--"

"Singapore actually."

At the sound of the wry male voice, Melissa inhaled sharply then stopped breathing altogether. Rooted to the spot, she couldn't turn to acknowledge the tall man who'd arrived beside her at the counter.

"Sorry I'm late." He dropped a briefcase to the floor, narrowly missing her right foot. "The plane was delayed at Changi but luckily I found a cabbie at Heathrow who was willing to break a few land speed records." There was a pause. "Hello, Lissy."

Melissa opened her mouth to speak but no sound came out, hot colour surging into her cheeks as she felt his appraising glance.

"It's been a long time."

No kidding, Melissa thought grimly, still unable to move. It'd been more than fourteen years. But before she could gather herself enough to respond she heard a door open.

"Matt! I thought I heard you. So glad you could make it after all."

Heart thudding in her ears, she managed to look up at last. A much shorter, rather stout man was striding towards them, his right arm outstretched. Charlie's solicitor, she supposed.

"How are you, my boy?"

The two men shook hands then to her astonishment, clapped each other on the back like old friends. "I'm fine," Matt said. "Just a pity we couldn't be meeting again in happier circumstances."

"Indeed." She felt a gentle touch on her arm. "And you must be Miss Barton. I'm Archibald Barrington. We spoke on the phone."

"Oh, please." Forcing herself to smile, she lifted her head to find herself gazing directly into the little man's inquiring grey eyes as she clasped his hand. "It's Melissa. Do call me Melissa, Mr Barrington."

He smiled back amiably. "I will, so long as you call me Archie. Would you believe, my wife Mary and I--" he nodded towards the receptionist "--went to school with your uncle. Such a wonderful chap. He'll be greatly missed." He sighed, exchanging glances with Mary who also sighed, then gestured towards the open door. "Shall we?"

Still unable to look at Matt, Melissa allowed herself to be ushered into the solicitor's inner sanctum. As she moved towards a battered brown leather armchair she couldn't help glancing around. Although twice the size of her own office, this room seemed cramped, the desk squeezed between huge grey filing cabinets and bookcases crammed with folders.

"Please--do sit down." Archie settled himself behind the desk and retrieved a buff coloured wallet from a teetering pile. "This shouldn't take long."

"I daresay it won't." Melissa heard the wobble in her voice and hated herself for sounding so nervous. She perched on the edge of her seat, aware of Matt dropping rather less elegantly into the adjacent chair. "Uncle Charlie seems to have left rather detailed instructions about everything else."

"Yes, indeed." Archie's expression was soft. "He was quite determined to put everything in order before he died. But then he was that sort of chap."

Melissa swallowed hard. There it was again--that now familiar hard lump at the back of her throat. Charlie had known he was dying. He'd known for six months that lung cancer was going to kill him. But she hadn't. She hadn't even suspected he was ill. Tears pricked the back of her eyes. "The funeral's arranged for next Friday," she said quickly, determined not to lose her fragile grip on control. "Two o'clock, at St Mary's Church--in Ebberlea of course. The vicar's name is Michael Wright. I've made an appointment to meet him on Wednesday morning to go through the eulogy and the hymns and readings. Though--" Steeling herself, she finally braved a glance at Matt. "I suppose you'd probably like--" The words caught in her throat as his stony gaze met hers. Those oh-so-familiar chocolate brown eyes, once so full of mischief and laughter, now held no trace of a smile.

"To be there?" His tone was icy. "Well, yes, I would actually, thank you."

She felt her face flood with colour again. "Look," she said, biting her lip. "I--I didn't think--I wasn't sure you'd be able to make it."

His expression hardened further. "You seriously thought I'd miss Charlie's funeral?"

"No!" It took considerable effort on Melissa's part to maintain eye contact. "But I wasn't sure you'd be able to get back in time--well, not in time to help make any arrangements."

Despite herself, she found herself drinking in his appearance. His face and what she could see of his neck above his shirt and jacket were lightly tanned, the ends of his dark brown hair curling into his neck as though a trip to the barber was long overdue. But otherwise, his clear-cut features appeared much the same as they had when he was a teenager. He certainly didn't look his thirty-one years, only the tension in his face betraying travel-induced fatigue.

"But now that you're here--of course--you'll want to--you'll..." It was hopeless. Quite unable to bear his open animosity, her voice died and she had to look away.

After a moment of deafening silence, Archie coughed politely. "You're both aware that the funeral is prepaid? So cost isn't a consideration."

Melissa was relieved to be able to shift her focus back to the solicitor. "Yes, so you said in your letter," she said, striving for a more cheery tone. "Trust Charlie to do that. He planned the whole thing. Everything. The music to be played when they carry in the coffin, the precise order of service, the readings, the hymns--he even wrote down the names of the tunes so that we'd choose exactly the right ones. Oh, and he requested that no one should wear black. No black suits, no black ties. The brighter the colours, the better." Aware of sounding more hysterical than cheery, she forced a short laugh, then on catching Matt's eye again, rather wished she hadn't.

Archie was nodding sagely. "Jolly good idea. I'm all for that. And as for planning everything, I know he wanted to make it as easy on you as possible." He opened the wallet and pulled out a sheaf of papers. "And I'm glad you're both here today as it makes things rather easier for me. There's a few forms to sign I'm afraid. Probate, etcetera."

"Of course." She experienced another, more muted spasm of pain. It had been two years since her mother died but sometimes it seemed like only yesterday that she'd signed a similar set of forms in another solicitor's office across town.

Archie was still speaking. "Obviously, we'll leave the formal reading of Charlie's will until after the funeral," he said, pushing a paper across the table and passing her a pen. "But I can tell you now that it's very straightforward. In a nutshell, his estate is to be equally divided between the two of you."

The pen slipped from her grasp. "What?"

"You seem surprised." Archie smiled. "To whom were you expecting he'd leave his money?"

Still reeling from the shock, she stared at him. "Well, Matthew of course." She shot a bewildered look at the man sitting silently beside her. "Charlie was his uncle. I'm not a blood relative."

"Yes but you were his wife's niece," the solicitor explained patiently. "And even though Suzie passed away some years ago Charlie considered the farm still belonged to them both and therefore in the event of his death that it should be passed to you as Suzie's heir and, of course, to Matt. That's right, isn't it Matt? That's what was agreed that day?" She watched as Matt nodded his confirmation then felt Archie press the pen back into her hand. "Just there please--on the dotted line," he prompted, pointing to the bottom of the form.

Automatically, she began to sign only to stop midway through her first name as Archie's words registered. "'That day?'" she repeated, lifting her head. "What day?"

"The day Charlie made his will." Archie frowned and hastily took a glance at his watch. "Sorry, Melissa, I don't mean to hurry you but my wife will be most upset if I'm late tonight. Golf club dinner you see."

"You were here?" She turned to Matt, this time feeling no apprehension. "You were here when Charlie made his will?" A chill grabbed at her heart as he nodded again. "And when--exactly--was that?"

"Miss Barton, please." Archie motioned again to the page before her but his anxious tone confirmed her suspicion he'd inadvertently revealed more than he'd intended.

"Matthew?" she persisted. "When?"

He winced but didn't try to look away. "The end of December," he admitted. "Just before I went out to Singapore."

December. Four months ago. As she allowed the truth to seep into her consciousness, she stared at him, strangely numb. Then at last she curled her trembling fingers around the pen and completed her name before shoving the paper along the desk to Matt.

A relieved-looking Archie placed another sheet in front of her. "And this one too--just there--and again there, please," he murmured.

The shaky scrawl bore little resemblance to her usual tidy signature but she supposed no one would know. And as soon as the last page had been signed and countersigned Archie stood up, clearly keen to end the meeting. He pressed a lumpy envelope into her hand. "The keys to the farm--perhaps you would like to look after these, Melissa?"

She nodded, clutching the packet to her chest. "Thank you."

"No, not at all. Thank you. Thank you both, so much. I appreciate you coming here today--especially you, Matt, straight from the airport. You must be very tired."

"I slept on the plane," she heard Matt reply as she stumbled to her feet. "It's been great to see you again, Archie. Will we be seeing you at the funeral?"

"Goodness me, yes. The very least Charlie deserves is a decent send off." But when Archie opened the door, he touched Melissa's arm once again. "Please let me offer my deepest condolences to you both at this very sad time." And then as she looked up, he added, rather more pointedly, "I truly am very sorry."

She understood. He was trying to apologise for having let the cat out of the bag. "Thank you," she said curtly. She stuffed the envelope into her bag and slung it across her shoulder. Then without a backward glance, she threw her black jacket over her arm and hastened out of the office.

*

"Wait." Grabbing his briefcase, Matt shot Archie a resigned smile before hurrying after Melissa. By the time he reached the vestibule she'd already burst through the outer door and was rapidly descending the steps. "Hey!"

But Melissa paid no heed, her red head bowed as she scurried into the street, walking so quickly she was almost running.

"Wonderful. I don't need this," he muttered, bounding down the steps two at a time, his long legs protesting at the sudden activity after being cooped up in a plane seat for hours. He lifted his voice again. "Lissy! I know you can hear me. Wait. We need to talk." It was impossible for her not to have heard, he reasoned, trying not to notice the blatant stares of passers by. So she had to be deliberately ignoring him. "Lissy!" he bellowed one last time then swore and broke into a sprint.

Those punishing hours in the gym were about to pay off. He weaved effortlessly through the pedestrians, managing to dodge a double buggy and hopping over a Yorkshire terrier. Just as Melissa was about to step off the kerb to cross the street he grasped the sleeve of her cream blouse. "Oi! I said wait! Don't you think there's a few things we need to discuss?" Reeling her in, he caught her hand so that she came lurching to a halt then spun her around to face him. "We've got a funeral to arrange, in case you've for--" But then he trailed off, staring at the tears streaming down her cheeks. "Oh, hell. Lissy--"

"Don't call me Lissy!" she spat, pulling away from him and swiping at her face with the back of her hand. "My name is Melissa."

"Right." Disconcerted, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a white handkerchief. "Here."

"You knew." Ignoring the offer, she stared up at him, her pale blue eyes wide with fury. "You bastard. You knew he was dying. Archie knew he was dying. Did everyone know? Was I the only person who didn't know?"

Matt grimaced. He'd warned Charlie this would be her reaction. "No, of course not. He didn't want anyone to know."

"Then why tell you?"

It was a fair question. And not one to which he could provide an easy answer. He'd understood Charlie's reasons but knew Melissa wouldn't find them acceptable. He sighed. "Look, Lissy--"

"Melissa."

He sighed. "Sorry, Melissa. Please?" He waved the handkerchief like a flag of surrender. "Let's go somewhere we can talk. The middle of Mickleton High Street really isn't the place to be having this conversation."

"I beg your pardon? Go somewhere?" She glared at him, the high spots of colour deepening on her freckled cheeks. "Oh no, I don't think so. I haven't had a conversation with you in fourteen years. If we were going to start speaking again, don't you think it should've been--oh, let's think--" she raised a mocking finger to her chin "--sometime in December?" She shook her head in disgust then turned on her heel. "See you at the funeral, Matthew."

Matt watched her walk away, an unexpected smile tugging at the corners of his lips. She'd always had the fiery temper to match those flame red curls. Even after fourteen years some things hadn't changed. But others clearly had. She was much curvier than he remembered. He allowed himself a moment to admire the view then lifted his voice. Just enough. "Melissa."

As though half-expecting he wouldn't let her leave, she stopped but didn't turn around.

"Come on. I bloody miss him too. Please? Let's go to the White Flag and have a drink."

*

Melissa sipped at her Diet Coke, her fingers wrapped tightly around the ice-cold glass. She hadn't been in the White Flag for years but unlike the other bars and pubs in the town, it didn't look any different. Somehow the establishment had escaped the notice of the larger breweries; it hadn't been bedecked with fake memorabilia and there wasn't a children's play area. It was, as it had always been, a drinking man's pub. The three regulars standing at the bar had turned to give them curious stares when they'd entered but had long since returned their attention to their pints.

Matt tossed two packets of salt and vinegar crisps on the table. "Thought you might be peckish," he said, reaching for a bag as he sat down in the opposite chair. "I know I am. I haven't eaten since I got off the plane." He hesitated. "We could go out to dinner if you like."

She didn't like. "I'm sorry, I've already got plans for this evening and I don't want to be late," she replied stiffly, glancing at her watch to further corroborate the lie. "So can we just cut to the chase? What exactly did you want to talk about?"

Matt sighed, putting down the crisps. "Lissy--"

"Melissa."

"Fine--Melissa, whatever." He shook his head, a flash of impatience clouding his dark eyes. "We've got a funeral to arrange."

She frowned. "Weren't you listening? There's nothing to arrange. Charlie left very detailed instructions. Everything's already been done."

"What about after the funeral? Where's the wake?"

"Funeral tea," she corrected, irritated. "At the King's Head in Ebberlea. As I said, everything's been done."

"No, it hasn't. You said you were meeting the vicar on Wednesday to discuss the service." Matt's cool gaze unnerved her. "What time and where?"

Damn. She swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly dry. "Ten o'clock. Up at the farm." She picked up the glass and took another nervous sip.

"Right--thank you. I'll be there." Matt eyed her thoughtfully for another few seconds then leaned back and took a swig of his lager, squeezing his eyes closed as he swallowed. "God, I can't tell you how good this tastes." He released another huge sigh. "You just can't get this stuff in Singapore."

"What on earth were you doing out there anyway? Can't you get any work in the UK?"

His eyes snapped open again. "I'm working on a project for a UK-based pharmaceutical company," he said, the dignity in his tone alerting Melissa to the fact that this time she'd irritated him. "For a new regional office in Singapore. We're in the building phase now."

"Oh." Once again, she found herself wanting to look away. That stare was just too frank. Too open. "You're nearly finished then."

He shook his head. "I wish. No, I'm not finished until the whole place is built. And that's going to take about another four or five months, as long as everything goes to plan. If it doesn't..." He shrugged.

"So you'll be going back?"

He nodded. "But hopefully not for a few weeks." He took another swig of his beer and Melissa, remembering her glass of Diet Coke, took another tentative sip. "So I'll have time to help you sort through Charlie's things, if that's what you were wondering."

Melissa spluttered in shock. "Oh, no. That won't be necessary," she said hastily, trying to cover her dismay. "I'm sure I'll manage."

A smile flickered across Matt's face. "Are you kidding? When did you last go to the farm?"

"Just before Christmas. I would've gone again but he kept finding reasons to put me off. Of course, now I know why. I phoned him--or he phoned me--every couple of weeks or so." She stared at her glass, twisting it between her fingers, guilt washing over her. "But I should have gone, shouldn't I? I should've guessed. If I'd gone, I'd have known he was ill. I'd have seen..."

"He didn't want you to go." Moved by her obvious distress, Matt pried away the glass and set it on the table before closing his fingers over hers. "He didn't want you to see. He didn't want you to know. He didn't want anyone to know."

She snatched her hand away as though she'd been burned. "You knew."

He frowned. "Yes, but I only found out by accident. On Christmas Day, of all days. And he made me promise--"

"Christmas Day?" She stared at him, confused. "Wait. You went to Spain this year too?" Charlie had been spending Christmases in Benidorm for the best part of a decade. He said he'd never been able to face the prospect of Christmas at the farm without Suzie.

"He didn't go to Spain this year." Matt released a sigh. "Lissy, he--"

"Lied," she finished flatly. "Well, that's fantastic. He just pretended he was going to Spain as usual so I wouldn't find out he was dying." She put her head in her hands. "So, were you there when he called me on Christmas Day, pretending he was on the beach? Was that your idea?"

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