Back to the Farm Ch. 11byevanslily©
Yep, I know. It's been a long wait and I wish I had a better excuse than 'I've found it hard to write lately'. If I say there are 3 more chapters to follow this one, will you all forgive me? I thought I'd be able to wrap this thing up much more quickly, but as usual, the story knew better. So here's Chapter 11, and Chapter 12 should be up next week. Thanks so much for bearing with me.
"Oh!" Melissa gasped as a fairy cake, replete with single lit candle was deposited on to the table in front of her. "Thank you! But I thought I said not to make a fuss?"
Gemma gave the hovering waiter a thumb's up sign. "And I told you that we should make a fuss. It's not every day you turn thirty, girl."
"Should we sing?" the waiter suggested mischievously.
"Oh God, no!" Melissa exclaimed, waving her hands in horror. "Please, no!"
Laughing, Gemma shook her head. "She'd never speak to me again," she explained as he began clearing their discarded dishes. "Oh wait—could you leave this one?" She motioned to her own plate, upon which a small mountain of French fries remained. "Thanks."
"You're actually going to eat those?" Melissa asked when he'd gone, sending her friend a dubious look. There was a reason Gemma managed to maintain her tiny sylph-like figure—she hardly ever ate large meals.
"Nope." Gemma gave her a cherubic smile, pushing the plate across the table. "You are. I know you want to."
"A-ah. Don't." She held up a reproving finger. "Don't even think about saying, "Oh but Gemma, I mustn't", okay? You only had a sandwich. Just look at you. Where've all your curves gone?" Melissa could feel herself colouring beneath the intensity of Gemma's scrutiny. "Are you ever going to start gaining weight again?"
"I am gaining weight," she protested, self-consciously tugging her baggy shirt down over the front of her trousers.
Gemma narrowed her gaze. "Doesn't look much like it. You're still all skin and bone. I can't tell you how good it is to see you eating again. Have you any idea how worried I've been?"
"Okay, okay." Grimacing, Melissa reached for one of the French fries and bit it in half. "Happy now?"
"Getting there." She gave a curt nod. "Now blow out your candle and make a wish."
"God, you're bossy today." But Melissa was smiling as she looked down at the tiny flame. "What should I wish for?"
"A more considerate boss?" Gemma suggested promptly. "I can't believe Jonathan didn't come out with us this lunchtime. He could've closed the office for an hour, surely?"
"Oh..." Melissa frowned. "You know what he's like. Stickler for the rules and all that. Abbey Thorn doesn't close for lunch—"
"Never has, never will," Gemma finished with her in chorus. "I know all that. But it's not like the Regional Manager's ever likely to find out. He could bend the rules just this once."
"He'd only be sat here worrying," Melissa tried to reason. "Besides, he told us we could take as long as we wanted. That's pretty considerate. And he's been great about all the time I've had to have off."
She gave a soft snort. "So he ought to be. Before this summer, you hadn't had a sick day in seven years."
"Yeah, well. I've more than made up for that now, haven't I?"
Gemma groaned. "Talk about loyalty. What is it with you two? You won't hear a word said against him, will you?"
With good reason, Melissa thought. But then her friend knew nothing of that fateful evening back in July. She didn't know that Jonathan had found her in her office, doubled-up on the floor. She didn't know that he'd been the one to take her to the hospital, that he'd been the one to stay by her side for the whole of that first horrendous night. And she still had no clue that while she and Steve had been holidaying in the Caribbean, it'd been Jonathan and his wife Joanna who'd been there for her during the dark days that followed, providing Melissa with virtually her only contact with the outside world.
So no, as far as she was concerned, she couldn't ask for a more considerate boss. Besides, there were other things she needed. Better things. And after closing her eyes briefly, she blew out the candle.
"Yay!" Gemma cheered softly. "I don't suppose I can ask you what you actually wished for, can I?"
"Absolutely not." She tapped her nose. "Can't come true if I tell you, can it?"
"Hmm." Gemma pretended to look offended before her gaze turned quizzical. "So did he send you a birthday card?"
"You know damn well who."
Melissa did. She shook her head with a sigh. "No. But I wasn't really expecting him to. He hasn't sent me a card in years, why would he start now?" She tried hard to sound breezy, but to be truthful, she'd been disappointed.
"So you've heard nothing from Matt at all then?"
"No." Did she have to rub it in?
"Is he still in Singapore?"
Melissa pulled a face. "What's with the twenty questions? I don't know. How the hell would I know?"
Gemma shrugged. "Just wondered whether you'd seen Jason again, that's all."
"No, just that once." But much to her surprise, Jason had sent a card. And surely he wouldn't have had a clue when her birthday was unless he'd spoken to Matt. The idea of them discussing the date suddenly made her feel queasy. "Can we talk about something else?"
She nodded, her eyes softening. "Sorry. How about dessert? Sticky toffee pudding?"
"What?" Startled into laughter, Melissa looked from Gemma to the pile of fries then back to her friend. "You have to be kidding. I'm not even going to manage these. Besides." She nudged at the plate holding her mini birthday cake. "I've got this. Not that I could eat it right now. I'll wrap it up and take it back to the office."
"You're a bloody workaholic," Gemma grumbled as Melissa reached for an unused paper napkin and began unfolding it. "You didn't even take a day off for your birthday."
"Oh, because taking a day off would've been so much fun," she retorted, sarcasm dripping from every word. "Sitting at home in my flat staring at the four walls. Funnily enough, it didn't appeal. I've done enough of that just lately as it is."
"I'd have taken a day off too. We could've gone shopping."
"With the money you inherited from Charlie, of course." As Melissa scowled, Gemma fixed her with a knowing look. "You're never going to spend any of it, are you?"
She sighed but said nothing, wrapping her fairy cake into a neat parcel. There might come a time when she'd have no choice but to spend it, but for now, she'd done as Jason suggested and put it all in the bank.
"Want another drink before we go back?"
Much to Melissa's relief, it didn't seem that Gemma was going to pursue what had become one of her favourite arguments. She eyed her empty glass. "Actually, yes. What the hell. I'll have another lemonade."
"Lemonade?" Gemma feigned disgust. "Liss, you're thirty years old. Live a little!"
Laughing, she shook her head. "I've got to work this afternoon, remember? I'll need a clear head."
An evil grin split her friend's face as she pushed back her chair. "Come to think of it, you will. Got Tracey Peters booked in for you at three o'clock. Apparently, not only is she expecting again, but her second eldest daughter's expecting too. She's hoping we'll be able to find them all a bigger house."
"What?" Melissa gave an involuntary groan. "But it's my birthday!"
"Told you. Should've taken the day off," was Gemma's cheery parting shot as she headed towards the bar.
Melissa sighed, absently selecting another chip and taking a bite before realising it really wouldn't be a good idea to eat any more. Despite being much better, she couldn't afford to push her luck. She looked at the fries and then across at Gemma, who, blonde hair to the fore, had easily managed to infiltrate the throng of male customers waiting at the bar. Just as she was deliberating whether to dispose of the evidence in her handbag, the same waiter who'd brought the fairy cake passed the table. After making an unspoken acknowledgement of Melissa's desperate hand gesture, he swept the plate away with a smile.
When Gemma returned bearing two half-pint glasses, she laughed in surprise. "What? I don't believe it. You're drinking lemonade too?"
Sliding back into her seat, Gemma grimaced. "So?"
"So—" Melissa sent her a suspicious glance "—it's Friday lunchtime, we're out at the pub, and you haven't had so much as a glass of wine."
Gemma looked all-innocence. "I can hardly have a drink if the birthday girl's not drinking, now can I?"
"Never stopped you before."
Gemma stuck out her tongue. "My husband's coming home, remember?"
That made sense, Melissa thought, amused. Of course, Gemma's night would probably end in drunken debauchery anyway, if her tales about what usually happened on Steve's first night back from the rigs were to be believed. And Melissa had no reason to disbelieve her, though to be honest, she couldn't help being a tiny bit envious now that her libido had recovered along with her appetite. "So you won't be getting into work on time for quite a while then?" she teased. "Say, three weeks maybe?"
"Actually..." Gemma hesitated. "He's not going back in three weeks."
Extending a manicured finger, she drew a line through the condensation on her glass. "He's not going back at all."
"Gemma!" Melissa regarded her with consternation. "Why not? Has something happened? Did he lose his job? Or did he just decide—?"
"Whoa!" Gemma began to laugh. "Now who's playing twenty questions?"
Confident her friend wouldn't be able to resist spilling the beans, Melissa made a show of putting a finger to her lips and waited. Her patience was rewarded almost immediately.
"We always said he wouldn't work on the rigs for ever. Just long enough to get some money behind us, enough to buy a house, get settled—"
"You're going to buy a house?"
Gemma smiled. "Yes, we've started looking, okay?"
"So what's he going to do for a job?"
"What he was always going to do. Go into partnership with his Dad. It's just he didn't want to do that straightaway—he wanted to be able to buy a share of the business, get some engineering experience outside the family firm first. And now, well." She shrugged. "It just seems to be the right time, that's all."
Melissa nodded, aware of Gemma's eyes on her face, as though she'd somehow expected more of a reaction. "Wow," she said hastily, trying to load the word with an appropriate amount of enthusiasm. "That's such good news. It'll be great to have him around all the time again."
"Yes, it will."
Once again, Melissa couldn't help but feel Gemma was trying to infer a greater significance to her husband's career move. But it wasn't like her to hold back, to not just come out and say whatever it was that was on her mind. Unless, of course, she feared the imminent change in circumstances. After all, her routine had been fixed for years. Three weeks with Steve, three weeks without. The thought of being together twenty-four seven might be a bittersweet prospect. She sent her friend what she hoped was a reassuring glance. "So you're never going to come into work on time again then?"
"Ha ha." But she was at least smiling now. "Maybe I'll become a lady of leisure. Maybe I'll just jack it all in."
"You can't!" Melissa stared, uncomfortably aware she was only half-joking. "What about Jonathan?"
"What about Jonathan?" Gemma's tone remained calm and measured, though her gaze was again slightly quizzical. "He'd still have you, right? The pair of you would soon lick another receptionist into shape. Just think, you could get someone who'd actually pull her weight around the place. Or his weight," she added as an afterthought, an amused flicker crossing her expression. "Ooh, now there's an idea..."
"Not interested." Melissa pulled a face. "Sworn off men, remember?"
"Oh yes, sorry. How could I forget?" She stuck out her tongue. "Tried one once, didn't like it."
"Stop it." Melissa struggled to repress a smile. "Be serious. Do you really mean it? Are you actually going to give up work?"
Gemma's own smile faded. "Not sure yet. And it wouldn't be straightway, anyway. But maybe. You know it's never been about the money, just about having something to do."
Having had this particular discussion many times, Melissa was only too aware that was true. Gemma's rate of pay was even more pitiful than her own but despite having qualifications that could've secured her a job paying four times as much, she'd chosen to stay on at the association regardless. She'd always maintained that Jonathan's laissez-faire attitude to her attendance patterns and working with her best friend was more than enough compensation for low pay. But in the circumstances, she couldn't blame her for wanting to leave."
"Well." Melissa chewed her lip. "Just promise me you'll give me plenty of notice, okay?"
"Oh." Gemma gave an adamant nod, that almost-amused glint returning to her eyes. "I promise you'll get plenty of notice. Now then." She waved at Melissa's still-full lemonade glass. "Drink up, woman, you need the sugar. You're seeing Tracey Peters in just over an hour."
Melissa sighed, reaching for her glass. "Anyone else booked in?"
"Er, a couple more, I think," she replied airily, dashing Melissa's hopes of leaving early. "Mr Smith at two and some other bloke at four."
"Some other bloke?"
Gemma grinned. "Hey, I've just admitted I'm a rotten receptionist."
Melissa couldn't help smiling. "Terrible," she agreed, raising her lemonade and indicating to Gemma she should do the same. "Here's to you," she said, clinking glasses, "the worst receptionist in the world."
"And to you, the most dedicated, underpaid housing officer in the world," Gemma said with equal solemnity. "Happy birthday, hon. Here's to your fourth decade being one hell of a lot better than the third."
"God, I hope so," Melissa muttered fervently. "I'd hate to think it could be any worse."
Better or worse, she mused, it was certainly going to be different...
"And you promise you'll call?" Tracey Peters' beady black eyes fastened upon Melissa's face like limpets to a rock. "The moment you find anything suitable—or even something that might be suitable—"
"Absolutely," Melissa interrupted, holding her office door open as wide as possible in the hope her client might finally take the hint and leave. Mindful of her four o'clock appointment, she'd made three attempts to draw discussions to a close but Tracey, who could always be relied upon to gossip for Britain, seemed hell-bent on elongating her allotted thirty minutes to a full hour. "Hope everything goes well with the ultrasound scan."
"What? Oh..." Tracey glanced down at her burgeoning stomach as though she'd forgotten all about it. "'Course it will," she said airily, patting the bulge as though it were a dog. "Not like I haven't been there, done it all before. Just glad it 'ent bloody twins again this time. One more when you've already got ten is quite enough, know what I mean?"
Unable to even begin to imagine, Melissa wisely said nothing, instead plastering a broad smile to her lips. "Well, nice to see you again, Tracey. I'll give you a call just as soon as something becomes available."
To her enormous relief, the other woman nodded, gave a brief wave of farewell and waddled out of the room. And that was Tracey all over, Melissa thought, leaning against the door with a sigh. The woman always came in like a whirlwind, demanded one hundred percent attention, and then, as though someone had flipped a switch, left as abruptly as she'd arrived.
Eleven children, she mused, lowering her head and allowing herself to close her eyes, just for a moment. Not for the first time, she found herself wondering whether Tracey had heard of birth control and, supposing she had, whether there was a reason why she chose not to use it. Because surely everyone knew having unprotected sex was asking for trouble?
She smiled at the folly of her own thoughts. Okay, to have unprotected sex on a regular basis was asking for trouble. But to have unprotected sex once... That could still be classified as an accident, right?
For a split second, Melissa wondered whether she'd simply fallen asleep. It wasn't as though she hadn't heard his voice a thousand times in her dreams. He was always in her dreams.
But when a soft, sweet fragrance flooded her nostrils, a scent she immediately recognised as roses, she opened her eyes to a sea of scarlet. At first, it was all she could see, all she could smell, as though her brain wouldn't allow her to process any other information. Only after several more seconds could she distinguish between the numerous velvety blooms, see the interspersed wisps of white gypsophylia, the layers of lilac tissue paper encasing the enormous bouquet—and the hands holding the bouquet.
Funny it was possible to identify someone by their hands, Melissa thought, feeling curiously as though she really was dreaming. "Thank you."
Thank you? He'd been away for eighteen weeks—not that she'd been counting or anything—and in the whole of that time she hadn't spoken to him, had avoided having any contact with him at all, and the best she could manage was thank you?
"What are you doing here?"
Better. Not great, but better—and a question for which several layers of answers were required. Even if she couldn't wrench her gaze from the roses.
"I came to see you, of course." She could hear the pain in his voice, but it was resigned pain, as though he'd expected a fight. "Are you going to take these bloody flowers or not?"
And just like that, no doubt assisted by the brilliant hue of the blossoms beneath her nose, Melissa saw red. "Sure," she said frostily, snatching them from him. "Because you bringing me flowers makes everything better, doesn't it?"
But before he could get out another word, she swept past him, unceremoniously dropping the bouquet into the waste paper basket beside her desk. "They're lovely, thanks. Now if you don't mind, you need to go."
Oh no... Had she really just done that? Pulse racing, Melissa could feel a sickening wave of regret rising from the pit of her stomach. Even in her distress, she knew how badly she was behaving, and even more bizarrely, that she didn't want to be behaving so badly.
"I've got a four o'clock appointment. So I can't talk to you now," she carried on hastily, despite her words being in immediate conflict with her heart. "I need to—"
"Oh my God."
She heard the shock in his voice before she saw it in his posture, and as she straightened up, yanking at her shirt, finally saw it in his face, his dark eyes widening.
"Hell, Lissy. What the hell...?"
"You need to—you need to go," she muttered helplessly. "My four o'clock—"
"I'm your four o'clock. Liss..."
She recognised that look—as well she might. She'd seen it on everyone's faces just lately, that expression of stunned disbelief. "Matt—"
He shook his head, crossing the room in two strides. "Gemma told me you'd... She said you'd been ill, but—"
"You're my four o'clock?" Melissa ducked away from his outstretched arms. She couldn't let him reach her, couldn't let him hold her, even if it was what she wanted, what she longed for more than anything else in the world. "You and Gemma arranged all this?"
"Somebody had to do something."
Startled, Melissa peered around Matt to discover Gemma standing in the doorway, her arms folded.
"If we'd left it to you two, well." She lifted her eyes to the ceiling briefly. "We'd all be drawing our pensions by the time you got things sorted out for yourselves."
Melissa swallowed, painfully aware of both the intensity of Matt's dismayed gaze, and the defensive look Gemma was shooting in her direction. And not knowing what to do, what to say, it was almost a relief when the swirling sensation in her stomach developed into full blown nausea, water flooding her mouth. "I can't—I can't do this," she got out, already in motion, already half-way across the office. "I've got to—I'm going to be..."