Back to the Farm Ch. 02byevanslily©
"You gave him my address?" Gemma gave Melissa an incredulous look. "Are you mad? What's wrong with giving him your address?"
"Everything," Melissa wailed. "I don't want him to know where I really live."
"Why not? Okay, it's small—"
"It's tiny. It doesn't even deserve to call itself a studio flat."
"Yes, but it's all yours." Her best friend smiled. "At least you've can say you own something. This place is beautiful," she waved an arm around the luxurious flat "but it's rented. It'll never belong to us. I'd love to be able to put down some roots, buy a place of our own, get a mortgage—" Gemma pulled a face. "God, listen to me. Get a mortgage." She sighed. "But Steve won't even discuss it. I told him last week that if we got divorced, I'd get half of nothing."
"Get divorced?" Melissa frowned. "What are you talking about? You two are okay, aren't you?"
Gemma flapped a dismissive hand, her smile returning. "Oh God yes, of course we are. I just wish he wasn't away so much. I know the money's great, but I've kind of had enough of it all now. And maybe if he had a normal job..." She cast a downwards glance at her abdomen.
"I know." Melissa winced in sympathy. Her friend had been trying to get pregnant for nearly a year now, but her husband worked on the oilrigs and was often away for weeks at a time. It was time to lighten the mood. "So when's he back?" she asked, even though she knew exactly when Steve would return. This was a game they played on a daily basis.
She grinned. "Two weeks, three days, two hours and, ooh—" Gemma consulted her watch "—seventeen minutes. I can't wait." Her grin widened. "Phone sex just isn't the same."
"Not as terrible as you. You're going to let this Matthew bloke think that you live here."
Melissa pulled a face. "I just don't want him knowing what a failure I am."
"Oh, don't start that again. You're not a failure, Melissa." Gemma dropped gracefully on to the white leather sofa, curling her long legs beneath her. "Yes, you're too bloody smart to do the job you do but then again, you're bloody wonderful at it. The homeless of Mickleton salute you."
Melissa sat beside her, trying to repress a grimace as she took a sip of Gemma's incredibly strong coffee. "Yeah, well, I've had a lot of experience," she mumbled. "And the truth is I'm too scared to go for another job."
"Rubbish. You don't want another job. You love the one you've got. It's just a pity the money's crap. I think you ought to try asking Jonathan for a pay rise again. He'd be lost without you and he knows it."
"What's the point?" Melissa remembered the last time she'd tried dropping hints to their amiable but budget-constrained office manager. He'd spent over an hour explaining in intricate and confusing detail exactly why the Board couldn't offer her any more money. That he frequently had a fight on his hands to even keep a branch of the association open in Mickleton. Eventually, he'd managed to negotiate an additional five days annual leave for her but, as she could never afford to go on holiday, that hadn't proved particularly helpful. "It's just not worth the effort."
Gemma tossed her long blonde hair back over her shoulder. "Tell him you've had an offer you can't refuse. Make out you've found yourself a new job."
"I couldn't do that." Melissa sighed. "Jonathan gave me a job—"
"—when no one else would," Gemma finished on a sigh. "I know all that. But you hold the office together and he knows it. You're his Girl Friday. No one else would do what you do for the money. If you were to apply for a job in another housing association—"
"They'd take one look at my lack of qualifications and laugh me out the door. No one's going to take me on."
"Of course they would." Gemma frowned. "With all your experience? They'd be crazy not to." Then she tilted her head on one side. "You could always fake your qualifications. I've done that before."
Melissa shot her a reprimanding glance. "I don't tell lies."
"You managed to tell that cousin of yours you live here. That was a lie."
She winced at the reminder. "Matthew McKenzie is not my cousin. My Aunt was married to his Uncle. We're not related."
"Oh, really?" Gemma's gaze narrowed with interest. "Is he married?"
"Don't even think about it. I'm not interested."
"Got a girlfriend?"
"I didn't ask. I don't want to know. I don't care. I hate him." Melissa put down her mug on the glass-topped table then put her head in her hands and groaned. "Why couldn't he have stayed in Singapore? I don't need this. I don't want to have to be around him."
"You hate him?" Her friend leaned forward, eyes bright with curiosity. "Why? Didn't you tell me you spent every summer with this guy when you were kids?"
Melissa nodded, not moving her hands. "Mum couldn't afford to take the time off work so Aunt Suzie and Uncle Charlie had me to stay every year until I was fifteen. And Matt's parents were usually away in some far-flung country—Matt's father was a hotshot businessman, always making some deal or another. They settled in South Africa in the end. Anyway, Matt got sent to boarding school and then spent summer holidays at the farm."
"Poor kid." Gemma sounded outraged. "Kind of makes you wonder why they had a child if they couldn't be bothered to look after him."
Melissa looked up, biting her lip. "I know. He always tried to be laid back about it, but I know he wished things were different. Mum and me—we didn't have much but we had each other..." Her voice trailed off, yet another stab of grief twisting through her stomach.
Gemma's glance was sympathetic. "So you and Matt didn't get on."
"Oh no, we got on fine. We did everything together. Charlie and Suzie gave us jobs to do around the farm, well, it wasn't exactly a farm in the truest sense of the word. It was a proper farm when Charlie's parents had it, but when they died, they left it to Charlie and his brother Roger—Matt's Dad." She pulled a face. "Roger made it clear he didn't want anything to do with the place, so he got Charlie to pay him his share of the inheritance by making him sell off quite a few of the fields. Anyway," she shrugged, "it was still a smallholding and there was plenty to do. There were chickens to feed and we had goats and a cow and grew fruit and vegetables and made jam. It was a wonderful place for kids."
Melissa felt wistful, her eyes closing at the memory. "There was so much space. The orchard, the paddock, a great big barn... We used to spend hours playing hide and seek or going on picnics. And then when I was about six—Matt would've been eight—Charlie built us a huge tree house in the oak tree in the back garden."
Gemma held up a hand. "Wait a minute. Is that the tree house in that gorgeous watercolour that hangs in your hallway?"
She hesitated. "Yes," she admitted reluctantly. "Matt painted that. He gave it to me for my fourteenth birthday."
Her friend narrowed her eyes. "Let me get this straight. You hate this guy, but you've still got the picture he painted for you."
"It's of the tree house," she protested weakly. "It brings back happy memories."
"Hmm." Gemma looked unconvinced.
"Of all those summers at the farm. They were wonderful." Melissa felt a pang of nostalgia. "Charlie and Suzie made a huge fuss of us. They didn't have any kids of their own. I found out years later they couldn't. So they spoilt us rotten."
"And you and Matt were good friends back then?" Gemma frowned as Melissa nodded. "So what went wrong?"
She grimaced. "It's complicated."
"Don't tell me." Gemma gave her a shrewd look. "He took your virginity and everything got a bit weird?"
"No!" Melissa gasped, appalled. "Oh my God! No! I can't believe you just said that."
"You should see your face!" Gemma laughed delightedly. "Okay, so he didn't, but you wanted him to be the one who did, right? You wanted more than friendship but he didn't. Is that it?"
"Everything's about sex with you, isn't it?" she groaned, covering her eyes again. If Gemma ever discovered the truth about her sex life she'd never hear the end of it.
"So you two falling out had nothing to do with being attracted to each other?" her friend persisted. "I don't believe you. You said you hate him. Everyone knows you can't hate someone if you don't love 'em first."
Melissa grimaced. "All right, all right!" Gemma could be scarily perceptive. "When I was fourteen, nearly fifteen, Matt and I—" She paused, feeling an odd ache in her chest at the memory. "We kissed and he told me he loved me. The night before I was due to go back home."
Gemma's smile was triumphant. "I knew it. He broke your heart. What happened?"
"I don't really know. I wrote to him a few times but he never wrote back." Melissa shrugged, still finding the recollection painful after all these years. "So that was that."
"You gave up on him? Just like that? You're kidding me. Are you telling me you never actually asked him why he didn't write back?"
Melissa smiled sadly. "Oh Gemma, it's obvious why he didn't write back. He realised he'd made a huge mistake, that's all."
She snorted in surprise. "How do you work that out?"
"Come on, Gemma! His parents were loaded. He went to a posh private school. And he was a good-looking bloke. He could've had any girl he wanted. Why would he choose me when he could pick a girl with impeccable parentage and all the right connections?"
"Would you listen to yourself? You sound like a Victorian novel. So you came from a one-parent family. So what?"
"So everything. I don't know why you're making such a big deal out of this. It just wasn't meant to be, that's all."
"Hmm." Gemma narrowed her eyes. "I still can't believe you never asked him why. Where's your self-respect, girl?"
"I never got the chance to ask him why, all right?" Melissa sighed. "I didn't see him again until the following July. When I got to the farm I found out he'd asked if his friend Jason could stay for the summer." She grimaced. "It was awful. Between them, they made my life a living hell."
She hadn't allowed herself to recall that summer for years. Nervous about facing Matt again, she'd made the decision not to go to the farm at all. But Aunt Suzie had been devastated when she'd telephoned to explain she'd be staying at home. "I know you're growing up fast but I look forward to you both being here," she'd said, sounding suspiciously close to tears. "Please—it means the world to me. Just this one last time." She was later to discover Suzie had known for sure it would be the last time. Six months later cancer had claimed her life, just as it was to later claim Charlie's.
On arriving at the farm, Melissa was taken aback to find an unfamiliar lanky teenager stretched out on the settee beside Matt. "Jason's parents are going through a rough time at the moment so he's staying here with us," Charlie had said heartily, by way of introduction. "I'm sure you'll all get along famously."
But as soon as Charlie left the living room, Jason had fixed her with a long hard stare. "Good God," he'd said with a sneer. "You never said she was a carrot top, Matt. She's bloody ugly."
Startled, she'd turned to Matt for reassurance and was horrified to find him laughing. She'd fled before either of them could see her tears. But that had just been the beginning. Jason taunted her relentlessly the entire summer, always careful to be polite and courteous whenever Suzie and Charlie were around, then launching into a tirade of abuse the moment they were gone.
"What a git," Gemma said feelingly, when Melissa finished telling the tale. "And Matt never came to your defence?"
"No." She shook her head. "He seemed to find it all hilarious. It was like he'd had a total personality bypass."
Melissa smiled at the vehemence in her tone. Solidarity of the sisterhood. "And I've not spoken to him since. Well, until today."
Gemma shot her a disbelieving stare. "Are you telling me you've never had any of this out with him?"
"Would you? I just wanted to forget it all. " She heaved a sigh. "The last time I saw him was at Suzie's funeral the following Christmas. And if anything, that was even worse. He couldn't bring himself to speak to me at all."
"Shame. After being bosom buddies for all those years," Gemma ruminated. "So what was he like today?"
Unexpectedly, Melissa found herself remembering the warm brush of Matt's lips on her cheek. "Well, surprisingly nice in the end." She bit her lip. "Considering I gave him such a hard time."
Gemma narrowed her eyes. "Oh, you did the right thing, hon. Sounds like he deserved everything he got." Then she paused, still frowning slightly. "But don't you think it's a bit odd that he's being nice now? After all this time? Hmm." She shot her friend a knowing look. "Maybe you should watch out. Maybe he's up to something."
"This is ridiculous," Melissa muttered, tugging off the blouse and throwing it across the rapidly growing heap of discarded garments on the sofa. "There has to be something I can wear." With a frustrated groan, she reached into the wardrobe, the hangers screeching on the rail as she rifled through her remaining clothes. Too old... too frumpy...too small... Then her hand stilled upon a simple V-necked white summer dress.
She hung the dress on the door and regarded it critically. She'd bought it in an end of season sale last September but had never worn it; there hadn't been a day hot enough since. Though today wasn't exactly warm either. It was the second week in April but the weather didn't seem to know it was spring. A glance at her watch galvanised her decision. Teamed with her olive green cardigan, it would have to do.
When she arrived at Gemma's front door twenty minutes later her friend eyed her up and down, a mischievous smile curving her lips. "I thought you said you weren't interested in this guy."
"Right." Her friend nodded sagely. "Didn't you look in a mirror before leaving home? Oh, I forgot—you don't have a mirror, do you? God, I wish I had a cleavage."
"What?" Melissa shot her a horrified glance before gazing down at herself. "It's not that revealing, is it?"
"Relax, you look great." Gemma ushered her inside, propelling her towards the full-length mirror halfway down the corridor. "See?"
Melissa frowned as she regarded her reflection. There was rather more flesh on display than she'd realised. "Are you sure? Oh, this was a bad idea!" She groaned deeply, tugging her cardigan more closely around her. "I couldn't find anything to wear other than my work suits and jeans. And it's not like you're going to be able to lend me anything, are you? You're two sizes smaller than me."
"Melissa, I'd kill to have a figure like yours. Look at me." Gemma joined her at the mirror and pouted, putting her hands on her hips and twisting from side to side. "No bum, no boobs. Whereas you are definitely all woman."
"My heart bleeds for you," Melissa muttered sarcastically, watching Gemma's reflection. "It must be so hard being pretty, skinny and blonde." She picked at a strand of her own curly red hair, sighing in frustration.
"Will you stop it? You look fantastic. Though I can't believe you're actually going to wear those."
Melissa followed Gemma's gaze down to her comfortable brown leather sandals. "Why? What's wrong with these?"
"Well nothing, if you don't mind looking like an extra from Ben Hur. Jesus Himself would've been proud of those sandals." Gemma opened a cupboard and bent down. She rummaged for a moment then emerged with a strappy pair of heels, the exact shade of Melissa's cardigan. "Here."
"I can't wear those! They're much too high."
Gemma fixed her with a stern glare. "Put them on."
Groaning, Melissa kicked off her shoes and slid her feet between the delicate straps. "You know I can't walk in heels."
"You're only going to have to walk to his car. Besides, they make you look fabulous." Gemma spun her around to face the hall mirror again. "See?"
She grimaced at herself, reluctantly noting how the additional height improved her posture. "I s'pose. But if I break my neck—"
"You won't break your neck. When's he coming?"
Melissa glanced at her wristwatch. "Any time—" They both jumped as the door buzzer sounded. "Now. Oh God, I don't want to do this, Gem."
"Too late, he's already here." Gemma leaned across to pick up the entry phone and pressed it to Melissa's ear with a meaningful glare.
"Hi. Come on up," Melissa gabbled before thrusting it back on the hook.
Gemma rolled her eyes and reached around her again, pressing the button that buzzed open the door. "Calm down, woman."
"Easy for you to say." Melissa stared at her, suddenly panic-stricken. "You open the door. I need the loo," she said, hearing Gemma's peal of laughter as she fled down the hall.
Barrington Heights. Bemused, Matt shook his head slightly as he pushed the door open into the ornately decorated entrance hall. Charlie had told him Lissy worked for a pittance and often struggled to make ends meet, yet here she was living in a two year old luxury apartment complex in the upmarket part of town. Something didn't quite add up.
Reaching the top of the thickly carpeted stairs he made his way along to the door marked number nine. But before he could lift his hand to knock, it opened. He found himself face to face with a tall attractive blonde, her long hair streaming across her shoulders in a glossy golden curtain. "Hi!" she said brightly. "You must be Matt. Come on in." He allowed himself to be ushered inside, unable to prevent himself from taking a second glance at the girl. "I'm Gemma," she said with a smile that told him she'd noticed his frank appreciation. "Melissa won't be a moment. She's in the loo."
Having heard the introductions from the sanctuary of the bathroom, Melissa repressed a groan. "Thank you, Gemma," she said sarcastically, pulling open the door. "Matthew really didn't need to know exactly where I was." He shot her a grin and she blushed immediately, feeling his eyes zoom straight to her cleavage. She attempted an icy glare. "You're late."
"What?" Matt tore his gaze away from the front of Melissa's unexpectedly low cut dress to check his watch. "Five minutes," he protested with a startled laugh. "Considering I had to take an urgent phone call just as I was leaving the office I thought I'd done quite well. I decided I didn't have time to go home and change. Just as well, apparently. I'm sorry, I didn't realise we were keeping to such a tight schedule."
He watched in amusement as she checked out his suit before casting an oddly self-conscious glance at her own attire. As her freckled cheeks flushed a delicate shade of pink he experienced a long-forgotten rush of affection. She'd always been easy to rile. "Shall we get going then?"
"You'll be needing these," Gemma said, swooping towards the hall table. She pressed a set of keys into Melissa's hand, her eyebrows rising slightly. "I'd better get going myself." For a split second, Matt thought he saw confusion in Melissa's expression as her friend moved towards the door.
"Um—yes, right. Thanks. Er, actually, we'll walk down with you."
Matt found himself shepherded back out of the flat. "Are you happy to come in my car or would you prefer to take yours?" he asked, watching Melissa tug the door closed behind them. Gemma gave what sounded suspiciously like a snort and he swung around.
"Sorry, just sneezed," she said with a grin. "Bloody hay fever."
"We'll take your car if that's okay," Melissa said quickly. "My car's being repaired. At the garage. Dodgy gears."
"Oh." Matt followed them down the stairs. "Gearbox or clutch?"
Gemma sneezed again.