Back to the Farm Ch. 14byevanslily©
Here it is, the final chapter. There were definitely times when I thought I wasn't going to finish this one (I have a feeling many of you reading this were thinking the same!). The fact that I made it to the end is due in no small part to all those of you who cared to leave me comments and send emails - thank you so much for them all.
But extra special thanks have to go to my good friend Tory del Ricoh for putting up with my incessant ranting, and to my girl Katie, without whom none of this would be written. Rwy'n dy garu di... :)
It was getting colder now, Melissa decided, rubbing her hands together before attempting to stack up the plates discarded by the coffee shop's most recent customers. Still, that was to be expected, given they were nearing the end of November. Not that the change in the weather appeared to have deterred anyone from visiting the gallery—far from it. With discerning shoppers seeking out unusual Christmas presents, it'd been one of their busiest Saturdays yet.
Taking a moment to ensure the crockery she'd piled on to the tray was secure, she straightened up, blowing the hair from her forehead. Then, with a deftness born from long experience, she balanced the tray on one arm, used her free hand to scoop up four empty milkshake glasses and headed for the kitchen.
"Hey!" Gemma gave her a severe look as she shouldered open the swing door. "What do you think you're doing? You know you shouldn't be doing that. Come on, give it here." And hurrying to intercept her path, she took the tray and slid it on to the countertop. "I'm cooking scones," she added accusingly. "You said you'd stay in the gallery."
Melissa groaned, ducking out of Gemma's reach before she could take the glasses and headed for the dishwasher. "Will you stop fussing? Besides, I could smell the scones out there—" she nodded her head back towards the door "—and I'm absolutely fine with it, okay? You really think I'd be here if I wasn't?"
She could feel Gemma's reproachful gaze boring into her back as she bent over the machine. "Great, and what am I supposed to tell your husband when he asks me if you're doing too much? We had a deal, Melissa McKenzie. Me, kitchen and coffee shop. You, gallery and gift shop."
"You tell him—" Whoops, maybe opening the door hadn't been a good idea. She paused to hold her breath as a cloud of steam, vaguely smelling of chlorine, cleared away from her face "Tell him that I'm allowed to decide what I can and what I can't do. I'm pregnant, Gem. I'm not sick."
"Not yet, you're not," Gemma said grimly. "And that thing's halfway through a cycle, by the way."
She rolled her eyes, closed the dishwasher door and planted the glasses on the draining board. "But it's different this time," she said, turning around. "Honestly. When I was ten weeks pregnant with Grace, I couldn't even get up. I used to lie in bed all day holding a bucket under my chin."
"Ooh." Gemma's disapproval evaporated. "Maybe you're having a boy."
"Maybe." She smoothed a hand over her tummy. "I've been wondering about that. Though it could just be because I started taking the medication earlier this time. Anyway." She looked around the kitchen. "Anything I can do to help in here?"
"No," Gemma retorted without missing a beat. "As you can see—" she gestured towards the clear countertops "—it's pretty much all done. And even if it wasn't, I wouldn't be letting you do it."
Melissa sighed. "Fine," she conceded. "Well, it's all quiet out there. I've got a feeling we might be done for the day."
As they exchanged glances, she watched the tension leaving her friend's shoulders. Though neither of them were afraid of hard work, days like the one they'd just had could be tough. It was rapidly reaching the point where they'd be forced to take on another pair of hands, if only to cover the lunchtime rush.
"How's it going with you-know-who?"
"It's okay, you don't need to speak in code. They haven't come back from that walk yet." Melissa smiled. "Yeah, things are going well. But then they always do these days. It's all a lot different now. When I think back to how things used to be..."
"Personality bypass, huh?" Gemma leaned against the countertop, brushing flour from her apron. "Just think, you never used to be able to do anything right. And now look at you, Golden Girl."
"Ah, it's not so much me but Grace who's the Golden Girl," Melissa corrected, amused. "Grace does everything right."
"They dote on each other, don't they? You know, my son's nose is really out of joint. He's missing his girlfriend. He's used to being the centre of your daughter's universe."
Melissa grinned. It was true that Grace and Jack were generally inseparable. "I know. She's not even four years old and she knows how to keep a boy dangling. I swear she doesn't get that from me."
"I know she doesn't." Gemma crossed the kitchen as the cooker timer started to beep. "She's got your looks and Matt's personality. Something tells me neither of you'll get much sleep once she hits her teens. "
"Hey!" Melissa protested, laughing. But as Gemma opened the oven door and the smell of baking intensified tenfold, it became clear it might be better to retreat to the gallery after all. "I'm going to make a start on cashing up," she said hastily, already backing towards the door. "See you in a bit."
Was it weird to feel relief at being nauseous? Probably. Melissa pulled a face as she walked across to the sales counter. But after being horribly ill for much of her last pregnancy, it didn't seem right to be let off so lightly. Back then, she'd told herself that feeling sick was a good sign, that the baby was fine, even if she wasn't.
Hesitating before she opened the till, she pressed her fingers to her lower abdomen and dipped her chin to her chest. "Hey you," she murmured. "You are all right in there, aren't you?"
Of course he was. Grinning, she cast a quick glance around, grateful there was no one to witness her folly. "Just checking," she added. "'Cos I want you to know how much Daddy and Mummy—"
She froze mid-sentence as she heard the latch lifting, her head jerking up in time to see a face peering around the huge barn door.
"Hi. Is it too late for Dad and I to come in and take a look around?"
"Oh!" Melissa bit back a self-conscious giggle. "No, not at all. Please," she beckoned to them, "do come on in."
"Great! We thought maybe you were closed already." Detecting an accent—Australian maybe?—Melissa watched as the young woman came in, closely followed by her father. "I bet you'll be closing soon though, won't you?"
"Not quite yet." Had she seen this couple before? There was something strangely familiar about them. "We're open until five but if you need a bit longer, do say. It's not a problem." And it wasn't really. In the past, some of the gallery's biggest sales had taken place in the five minutes before closing time. Melissa knew there was no guarantee this pair would turn out to be purchasers, but you never could tell.
"You know, we really weren't expecting to find a gallery here," the woman called conversationally, her father already wandering off to examine the paintings lining the far wall. "How long have you been open?"
Yep, definitely Australian, Melissa decided, sending her a friendly glance. "Oh, a couple of years now."
"Really? Oh..." She tilted her head back to look up at the ceiling. "Wow. Would you just look at all those exposed beams? Whoever did this barn conversion did a fantastic job."
Used to this reaction, Melissa nonetheless experienced an inner glow of pride. And a chatty customer, her favourite kind. She'd learned to live with visitors who looked around in stony silence but it was lovely when someone appeared genuinely enthusiastic. "That would be my husband."
"You did the conversion yourselves?" She looked impressed.
"Well, I didn't do very much." Melissa grinned. "My husband's an architect—and his best friend's a builder. They did pretty much all of it between them."
"Fabulous venue for a gallery."
"Thanks." Melissa's grin widened. "But actually, we never had any intention of having one here. We only finished the conversion because my husband's friend was getting married—" okay, it hadn't been a wedding, it'd been Jason and Martin's Civil Partnership Ceremony, but there was no need to get into the nitty gritty with a stranger "—and he joked that maybe he could have the service here."
"Really?" Pushing down the hood of her anorak, she loosened long blonde curls with her fingers before moving towards the racks of pottery and shelves laden with handmade wooden children's toys, decorative knick-knacks and jewellery. "Then how did all this come about?"
"Mums and Tots."
Melissa laughed, enjoying the confusion on the woman's face. "A few years ago, there was huge influx of newcomers into the village. They built a lot of new houses just up the road, you see, The Mums and Tots group used to meet at the village hall, but what with all the new babies, the place just wasn't big enough. So we volunteered to have it here."
In fact, she and Gemma had ended up running the group and everything had evolved from there. It had been Jason's suggestion to display a few of Matt's paintings. Dubious at first, Matt had been astonished when they all sold to local mothers within days. As word spread, Melissa joked there probably wasn't a home in the village that didn't have an original Matt McKenzie hanging on the wall. Keeping up with demand proved to be a huge challenge though, and as Matt was still spending a large proportion of his time working as an architect, offering to exhibit the work of other local artists seemed a natural progression.
By the end of the following year, the gallery had become something of a minor tourist attraction. So when Abbey Thorn Housing Association finally followed through with its oft repeated threat to close the Mickleton branch, Melissa and Gemma opened a coffee shop. It had been an instant hit with visitors and locals, the residents of Ebberlea delighted to have somewhere other than the pub to go for lunch.
"Ah, right." The woman nodded when Melissa finished her explanation. "Dad said Ebberlea had grown a fair bit. He lived here for a while, you know. Before he moved Down Under."
"Really?" Glancing across at the woman's father, Melissa saw he'd turned to listen.
"Years and years ago. But that's one of the reasons we came in here," she said cheerfully. "Isn't it Dad?" she added, lifting her voice. "You've actually been here before, haven't you?"
"A very long time ago," he called back, strolling back towards them. "When this place was still a farm."
Melissa felt as though someone had prodded her awake. "That was a while ago."
"More than thirty years. Funny to come back, after all this time. Actually..."
Oh God, yet another person who didn't know. Why did she always have to be the one to break the bad news?
"I don't suppose you know what happened to the old boy that used to live here, do you? Charlie, his name was."
Repressing a sigh, she pushed the till drawer closed. "I'm afraid he died a few years ago," she said, moving out from behind the counter.
"No, I wish I was." But Melissa found the glance which passed between father and daughter rather unsettling. Was something else going on here? "Lung cancer," she continued, monitoring their reactions. "It was all very sudden."
"Well, stone me." The man blew out a noisy breath. "I told him that bloody pipe'd kill him. Suzie must've been devastated."
Oh, great. Just great...
Melissa chewed her lower lip then shook her head. "Actually, I'm afraid that erm... Suzie—"
"No way." To her relief, he guessed without her having to spell it out. "Suzie passed away too?"
"Several years before Charlie, I'm afraid." She paused, more curious than ever when the pair exchanged another look. "Did you know them well?"
"Oh..." The woman's father swept a hand through his hair. "I hadn't seen him for years, of course. But yes, back then, I knew them both really well. I did some work here, you see. Well, a lot of work, actually. Over at the bungalow. Re-wiring, mostly."
"Re-wiring?" Melissa echoed.
Because that couldn't be what he'd said. She must've misheard. Misunderstood...
"Yeah," the woman said, putting a hand on her father's arm. "Dad used to be an electrician. Re-wired the whole farmhouse, didn't you?"
"Right." There seemed little else Melissa could say, an odd burning sensation rising through her chest, making it difficult to breathe.
"But I expect it's all been done again since then," he said, clearly making an attempt to lighten the mood. "I noticed someone'd done up the place as we came in. I daresay they had to strip things right back to basics."
"Yes." Melissa realised she was trembling. "Er—actually," she put in quickly, "would you excuse me, just for a second? Feel free to carry on looking round. I just need to..." Oh God, what could she say? "Check on something. In the kitchen." And swivelling on her heel, she took off at something approaching a run.
"Oh!" Up to her wrists in flour now, Gemma looked understandably startled as she crashed through the swing doors. "You okay?"
Melissa lurched to a halt beside her and planted both hands on the countertop, the granite cool beneath her palms. "Fine."
"Really?" Casting her a dubious look, her friend continued to knead the batch of dough in the huge mixing bowl in front of her. "Are you going to be sick?"
"No. I'm—I'm all right." She lowered her head, attempting to focus all her attention on what ought to be the simple matter of inhaling and exhaling.
"Sure? Because if you're going to be sick—" Gemma nodded towards the rack of cooling scones in front of Melissa "—I really ought to move those."
"Gemma!" Still panting slightly, she straightened up. "I'm fine, okay? It's just..." She trailed off, glancing back towards the gallery.
"What? Hey." Gemma's gaze narrowed, her voice softening. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Huh." Melissa rubbed at her forehead, a wry smile tugging at the corner of her lips. "Maybe I have."
But already she found herself in motion again, drawn like a ball on the end of a piece of elastic. "It's okay," she called as she reached the door. "Don't worry."
The air noticeably cooler outside, Melissa simply stood still for a moment, allowing the vast open space to work its magic. Even on the busiest of days, something about the church-like interior of the old hay barn never failed to calm and soothe. During its conversion, Matt had insisted on maintaining what he called 'the integrity of the building'. Back then, she hadn't really understood what he meant, but now it was obvious, the character and charm of the original structure continuing to shine, an accrual of thousands upon thousands of minute details, from the grain of the timber to the texture of the exposed brickwork.
At first, one large hall with a kitchen, it had now been subdivided into two, this section home to the gallery, the other a fully enclosed meeting area. The coffee shop nestled beneath the most recent addition of a mezzanine level, the concave balcony luring almost all visitors upstairs at some point.
And as her gaze automatically drifted upwards, that was where she found them, father and daughter standing before the huge portrait which had once graced Matt's office at GKM Associates, now displayed on the most prominent part of the curved wall.
"How strange," she heard the woman say, a note of laughter in her voice. "It could be Amy at that age, don't you think? I mean, obviously, the hair's a bit different, but still..."
She watched as they leaned forward to take a closer look, aware now of a dull thudding in her ears as she in turn attempted to drink in their every detail. The woman, she decided now, was several younger than she, maybe slightly taller but not much. Her hair naturally blonde, the long tresses rippled across her shoulder in unruly curls, reminiscent of three-year-old Grace's golden ringlets. Inevitably though, Melissa's attention soon turned to the man at her side.
"Shelley, look." There was an urgency to his tone as he stooped slightly, pointing to the bottom right hand corner of the picture. "See that? Tell me what you think it says."
Melissa's breath caught in her throat. Show time.
And when both turned to peer down at her over the balcony rail, she forced a smile. "Everything okay?"
"These paintings," the man said after a pause. "This one of the girl in the tree-house." He waved back at the portrait they'd just been studying and the pictures either side of it. "They're all by M. McKenzie?"
She nodded, holding tightly to her smile. "That's right, yes. My husband."
"Your husband?" His arms straightened on the rail, his expression lightening. "He wouldn't happen to be related...?"
"To Charlie? Yes, of course." Melissa marvelled at her display of outward calm. But having deliberately omitted to say exactly how Matt was related, she felt a thrill of anticipation when he immediately crossed the landing to take the stairs.
"Let me get this straight," he said carefully upon reaching the bottom step. "Charlie and Suzie had a son?"
"No." Melissa understood his need for clarification, watching as his daughter followed him down. "Unfortunately, Suzie couldn't have any children. Matt's—"
"My God," he interrupted, brightening again. "Then you must mean Matthew. Ruth's little lad? But he was only a year old the last time I saw him!"
She already knew that. Ruth had told them as much that evening she'd arrived at the farm four years ago. In an attempt to salve his conscience, Jason had contacted Matt's mother to admit he'd been the one to send her Matt and Melissa's letters all those years ago. When she in turn confessed her own motivation for keeping the pair apart, Jason persuaded her it was time to tell all. Quite how he'd managed the feat, Melissa wasn't sure. But she was certain that the last time this man had seen baby Matthew had been the day after his first birthday.
"But this is great!" the woman burst out, her eyes shining as she joined them. "When you told us Charlie and Suzie had passed away, I thought we'd never be able to find—"
"Shelley!" He turned to Melissa, his benign smile betraying the fact he had no idea she knew who he was. "I'm sorry. You see, I used to know Ruth—Matthew's mother. A long time ago now."
Melissa resisted the urge to nod. "I see," she said instead.
"Not that I expect she's ever mentioned me. But the thing is, we used to be friends." He hesitated. "Good friends."
That was the understatement of the decade. They'd been more than friends; they'd been lovers. Ruth had been on the verge of leaving Roger.
"We weren't expecting we'd be able to track her down at all," Shelley put in, seemingly concerned her father was never going to get to the point. "We'd always planned to visit Ebberlea as part of this trip, but of course, after thirty odd years—thirty-five years, right Dad?" When he nodded, an icy tingle trickled down Melissa's spine. "Well, things were bound to have changed. But we were hoping we'd be able to find someone who had an address for her. And you must have, right? If you're married to her son, of course you have. Unless... Oh God."
Wondering just how much Shelley knew, Melissa still had to repress a smile when the woman stopped mid-flow, her dismayed expression almost comical. "It's all right. I'm not about to tell you that Ruth's dead too."
"Oh yes. Hale and hearty. And living right here in the village now."
"Really?" As the man looked up again, his gaze landing fully on hers for the first time, Melissa felt as though she'd been thumped in the stomach.