Back to the Farm Ch. 07byevanslily©
Okay, so Chapter 7 didn't follow quite as quickly as I hoped. Is it even worth apologising? :-) Oh well. This is an extra long chapter and I hope that that in some way makes up for the delay. And hey, I passed my last exam--there won't be another until the end of September...
Thank you so much for all your emails and comments. You guys are great.
What a Wonderful World by Bob Thiele (using the pseudonym George Douglas) and George David Weiss, first recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1967
Settling back in her seat, Melissa gave a groan of pleasure as the wonderfully cool air blasted across her face. "O-o-oh. Maybe I'll just sleep here in your car tonight," she sighed, closing her eyes and tipping her head back against the headrest. "That'd be okay, wouldn't it? In fact--" Her next breath turned into a yawn. "I think--I could sleep--right no-ow-ow..."
She heard Matt laugh. "Sure. I'll just leave you out on the drive with the engine running. It's not like there are any neighbours to annoy. Might upset the odd owl, that's all. Though it wouldn't exactly be environmentally friendly."
"No, I s'pose not. Oh well." She heaved another sigh. "Maybe it won't be so hot later on."
"I wouldn't count on that. I heard the weather forecast on the radio earlier. Looks like we're in for one hell of a storm this evening."
Melissa re-opened her eyes. "A storm?"
"You can't be surprised. It's getting pretty humid already."
"Oh I know, but..." Biting her lip, she turned to look out of the window, the countryside passing by in a dizzying blur of green.
"Melissa Barton." Matt gave a low whistle. "Don't tell me you're still afraid of thunderstorms as well?"
She bristled at the amusement in his tone. "No," she said, squaring her shoulders. "Of course not. That'd be really silly."
"Oh God, you are." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Matt shake his head slightly. "Liss, there's nothing to be scared about."
"Really?" Forgetting she'd just claimed not to be afraid, she swung around to glare at him. "No, of course not. Just the possibility of being struck by a gazillion volts of electricity, that's all. What's scary about that?"
He grinned. "Because thousands of people have been struck by lightning inside their homes, right? It happens all the time. Sweetheart, we'll batten down the hatches. I won't let it get you, okay?"
"Oh shut up," she mumbled, rolling her eyes when he chuckled. "So it's an irrational fear. I can't help it."
"How on earth do you manage, living on your own? Scared of the dark, scared of thunderstorms... Though I s'pose--"
"I'm not that scared!"
"--living at Barrington Heights, it probably doesn't seem so bad." Matt didn't acknowledge her indignant interruption. "I guess there are people around most of the time, right? It looks a great place to live. You've done well for yourself, getting a flat there."
Melissa's mouth went dry. Did he know? "It's lovely," she agreed, keeping her tone neutral as she stole a glance at his face. Once again, Matt's expression gave nothing away. What the hell was going on in his head?
What the hell was going on in hers?
She couldn't seem to stop reliving that kiss in the tree-house, the scene replaying in her mind over and over again. The feel of his soft lips on hers, the warmth of his body, the smell of his aftershave, the sound of the leaves rustling in the breeze. And being so close to him now wasn't helping at all.
But it didn't mean anything, she reminded herself for perhaps the hundredth time. It hadn't meant anything the last time he'd kissed her, that night they'd been stranded at the farm. No, once again, he'd just acted on impulse, that was all. And she'd... She'd kissed him back. Why in the world had she done that?
Though maybe she should've taken the opportunity to tell him the truth about Barrington Heights, she mused, realising she'd already let the ideal moment pass. It was becoming difficult to remember why she'd thought it was a good idea to pretend she lived in Gemma's flat. Worse still, the longer her deception continued, the harder it was going to be to confess.
It was almost six o'clock when they pulled into the car park of what was clearly a converted chapel, the sign outside proclaiming the building home to GKM Associates. Having experienced a blissful thirty minutes of air-conditioned comfort, Melissa found getting out of the car akin to stepping into an oven.
"Don't worry," Matt said, sending her a sympathetic glance as he produced a key and unlocked the entrance door. "It's always cooler in here too. Which is great when the weather's like this. Not so great when there's three inches of snow outside."
But once inside she forgot all about being hot, realising that previously, she'd never fully appreciated the meaning of jaw-dropping. "Wow," she breathed, as he led her through the entrance hall into what must have once been part of the main chapel, now an open plan office, complete with vaulted ceiling, exposed timbers and opposite, three Gothic stained and leaded windows. "This is beautiful."
He smiled, watching as she gazed around the deserted room in awe. "It's not bad, is it?" he said modestly. "This was one of my first projects. Turned out quite well, I thought."
"You designed this?" She stared at him and then back at her surroundings, seeing as she turned around that not only were there other rooms leading off from the main area but that above them was a huge balcony. "What's up there?"
"My office," he said with a grin. "Well, not just my office. Greg and Kate have offices there too. Care to follow me upstairs?"
Feeling rather dazed, Melissa trailed after him. But just as they reached the bottom of the staircase, she jumped at the sound of an unfamiliar voice. "Matt? Is that you?" Looking up, she saw a blonde woman peering over the rail at the top of the stairs.
"Yes, Paula, it's me," Matt replied evenly as they began to climb. "Why are you still here? Go home before your husband rings me up again demanding to know whether we're having an affair."
"Oh ha ha," Paula retorted, lifting her gaze briefly to the ceiling in a way that made Melissa suspect the banter between them was routine. "I'm here trying to avert disaster and this is what I get." She made a show of glancing at her watch. "You took your time," she continued, giving Melissa a conspiratorial wink as they reached the top step.
"Well, I was hoping you'd have everything under control by the time I got here. Paula, this is Liss--Melissa."
"Fat chance," Paula said grimly. But her smile was warm as she met Melissa's gaze. "Nice to meet you. How are things going at the farm? Have you--?" And then her eyes narrowed abruptly. "Good God."
Startled by the intensity of Paula's scrutiny, Melissa found herself blushing. "Wh-what?" she said, managing a nervous laugh, her hand flying to her cheek. "Have I got something on my face?" And feeling rather drab and dumpy compared to the slim and immaculately made-up woman before her, she wished she'd taken the time to check her complexion in the car.
"She's the girl in the painting." Turning to Matt, Paula gave him an accusing glare. "Why didn't you tell me that before?"
Baffled, Melissa watched as Matt shrugged his shoulders. "Must've slipped my mind," he said lightly, not meeting her gaze.
"What painting?" she demanded.
"The one in his office. Here..." The other woman touched Melissa's arm then motioned to her to follow. "Let me show you."
"Later," Matt intervened, his tone unusually sharp. "I need to take care of some business." To Melissa's surprise, he sidled past them both and headed towards a door on the right. "Cup of tea might be nice," he called without glancing back.
Paula shook her head slightly, for a moment looking as bemused as Melissa felt. "Sir, yes sir," she chanted, raising her fingers to her temple in a mock salute. "I live to serve you. Anything else?"
He paused in the doorway. "Actually, yes. Could you show Lissy the plans for the farm please? She hasn't seen them yet." And shooting Paula a winning smile over his shoulder, he disappeared into his office.
"It's okay," Melissa said quickly. "You don't need to show me, he can do that later. I'm sure you want to get home. And I could make some tea, if you could just tell me where--"
Paula laughed. "Don't be daft. He already knows Greg's coming back to pick me up around seven thirty--he's been in Birmingham today. His Mum picked the kids up from school and she's not expecting us until later."
"Greg?" Melissa frowned, following her across the landing to a small but perfectly proportioned kitchenette. For some reason, she'd assumed Greg was married to Matt's other business partner, Kate. "Oh. Then..."
"Greg's my husband, yes." Paula turned, still smiling. "That thing about him accusing Matt and me of having an affair--it's a running joke. You see, Matt's got a bit of a thing for blondes."
Don't I know it? a little voice in Melissa's head said, the thought making her feel depressingly red-headed.
"And well, as you can see..." Touching a lock of her own platinum blonde hair before reaching for the kettle, Paula left the rest of the sentence hanging. "Suffice to say, nothing has ever happened, I swear."
Melissa couldn't help wondering whether she was telling the truth. When people swore something hadn't happened, didn't that usually mean it had? Something about 'the lady doth protest too much'? Then she checked herself hurriedly. Why was she worried anyway?
"Not that he's had the time lately to be interested in any woman, blonde or otherwise," Paula went on, oblivious to Melissa's scepticism. "Poor chap's been far too busy. This Singapore project's been a nightmare from the start."
"What's gone wrong now?" She'd gleaned very little from her conversation with Matt on the journey. Once again, he'd seemed reluctant to discuss the details. "Is it serious?"
Paula sighed. "It's not great. There's a problem with the quality of the materials they've used for part of the build."
Melissa longed to know more but just as she was about to ask another question a phone began ringing in the reception area behind them and Paula excused herself to answer it. By the time she returned, the kettle had boiled and yet again the moment seemed lost.
"Right." Having delivered a cup of tea to Matt, Paula beckoned Melissa to her desk. "Rather than show you the actual plans, I'll show you the three D simulations on the computer. You'll get a much better idea of what the development will look like that way." She tapped at a few keys on her computer keyboard then stood up, motioning to Melissa to sit down in front of the monitor. "Feel free to browse. You can't lose anything, I promise." And after showing her how to navigate around the screen, Paula left her to it.
Melissa had wanted to hate what she saw but instead found herself captivated. The cottage-like houses, much bigger than she'd imagined, would be in keeping with many of the houses in the village. They'd be built in the same style and from the same grey stone, the existing driveway forking into two, with four houses erected on the right branch and four on the left, the latter replacing the bungalow and barn. No two houses were identical, but thanks to the virtual reality software she discovered that the ground floors of each would be largely open plan, complete with light and airy kitchen-dining areas. Upstairs would be four spacious bedrooms.
Secretly enjoying the opportunity to play with the models, she lost all track of time as she continued to 'explore', amused to discover she could even look inside cupboards. There was no doubt about it, every detail had been beautifully conceived, she conceded at last, clicking back to the exterior view of one of the houses before selecting and holding the 'rotate' toggle.
"I like doing that too," she heard in her ear as the image spun faster and faster, the house soon swivelling through three hundred and sixty degrees at a dizzying speed. She turned just as Matt knelt beside her, finding his face mere inches from hers, his dark eyes warm with amusement. "Well. What do you think?"
Melissa was thinking she'd like to kiss him again. Startled, she tore her gaze away from his mouth and glanced at the screen. "They're--they're lovely," she managed at last. "I think I want one."
He laughed. "Well," he said thoughtfully. "If we go ahead and build them, you could have one, if you'd like. There's no reason--"
"Oh no," she protested hastily. "I couldn't do that. Not really."
Matt shrugged. "Why not?"
"Well." In her flustered state it was difficult to pin down her reasoning. "For a start, I couldn't really afford to live there. And it's too far from work."
"Of course you could afford it. When the rest of the houses are sold, money won't be a problem, will it? And it's not that far from Mickleton. It's what, twenty miles?"
"Yes, but there are only two buses a day from Mickleton to Ebberlea. The journey takes an hour and a half. I don't want to spend three hours a day--" But on seeing Matt's sudden smile, she broke off abruptly.
His smile became a grin. "Well, you'll be able to afford a new car too. And hey, maybe a few driving lessons to go with it?"
Great, now he knew she'd lied about having a car. "Matt--" Maybe this was the time to tell him that wasn't all she'd lied about. "Oh God."
"It's okay, sweetheart," he murmured, planting a kiss on her forehead before rising to his feet. "I'd kind of guessed, anyway."
"What?" Her skin burning from the touch of his lips, she forgot all about confessing. "How?"
"Call it a hunch. But it really doesn't matter. Paula?" he called, taking a few steps away from the desk. "Want me to turn off the computer?"
"No worries," she called back. "I'll do it in a minute. You two finished then?"
Matt glanced at Melissa, still smiling. "Just about."
"Good. In that case..." Paula suddenly appeared in the doorway to Matt's office. "Melissa, come and take a look."
"Paula!" Matt scowled at his assistant.
But relishing the fact that this time it was Matt who appeared ill at ease, Melissa was already striding across the hall, determined that this time he wouldn't prevent her from seeing the picture and intrigued by the smile on Paula's face. "Can't think why he doesn't want you to see this," she said as Melissa reached the door. "It's actually very good."
Melissa wasn't sure what she'd been expecting to see, but the sight of the framed canvas on the wall behind Matt's desk made her breath catch in her throat. It was a picture of the tree-house, very similar to the watercolour that hung in her own tiny hallway, only this one was three times the size and painted in oils. And unlike her own painting, this one depicted a laughing young girl, perhaps in her mid-teens, sitting on the platform between the boughs of the great oak, her hair reddish gold, eyes shining like topaz.
"Is that--is that really supposed to be me?" she breathed at last. The girl looked altogether too carefree, too relaxed for it to seem possible.
From behind her, Paula gave a soft snort. "Supposed to be?" she said, the amusement evident in her voice. "Of course it is. You don't look any different at all. A little older, maybe."
Aware of Matt standing mutely at her side, Melissa found she couldn't drag her gaze from the picture. There were so many questions racing through her head, she didn't know which one to ask first--or indeed, whether she could bring herself to ask any of them.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" she heard Paula say. "Would you believe he had that hidden away for years? Greg only saw it when he helped him to move into the flat upstairs. He practically had to beg him to put it on display. And there's a whole load of other paintings up there too, probably enough for an exhibition. He's got a real talent, I think. Wasted as an architect. I--"
"That's enough." Startled by the cold note in Matt's voice, Melissa turned to him at last. He looked strangely annoyed. "It's just a hobby, that's all."
"You live upstairs?" she faltered, surprised. "Here?"
"There's a studio flat built into what used to be the bell tower," Paula said as he gave a curt nod. "It's tiny. There's barely enough room to swing a cat. God knows why--"
"Well as I haven't got a cat, that's not really a problem, is it?" Matt interrupted again, his irritation still evident. "And I don't exactly need anything any bigger. I'm never here as it is."
Melissa recognised the bitterness in his tone. She'd heard it before, the first time they'd gone to the farm after Charlie's death, when she'd asked him whether he was fed up with living out of a suitcase.
Want the truth? I'm sick of it. I should've been here . Not seven thousand miles away...
"Right." And just as suddenly, Matt's whole demeanour changed, as though he'd realised his behaviour was unacceptable. "I'm done here, I think," he said, directly addressing Paula. "Obviously, I couldn't really phone anyone--it's two am local time. But I've faxed Leong and sent an email to Yan. Oh, and I put in a call to our old friend, Mike. He wasn't best pleased--" he shot a sudden grin at Melissa "--he's in Australia and it's, ooh, around two in the morning in Perth too. But geographically, he's a bit nearer than I am right now and he owes me a favour."
"You can say that again," Paula said dryly. "He used to be a partner here," she added for Melissa's benefit. "Emigrated a couple of years back, leaving all his mess behind for us to deal with."
"Us?" Matt said, raising one eyebrow with a smile.
Paula grimaced at him. "Okay, you."
"Hence the favours he owes me." Matt seemed to have fully recovered his spirits now. "As luck would have it, he's flying out there tomorrow--or should that be later today?" He shrugged. "Anyway, he's agreed to go and see what's what. Hopefully that'll be enough to ward off catastrophe for the time being. So..." He turned to Melissa with another smile. "I don't think either of us are up to cooking this evening. How about we stop off on the way back to pick up a takeaway?"
"Oh God, I'm stuffed," Melissa said with a groan, leaning back against the settee in a vain attempt to free up some space between her stomach and her ribcage. "I really, really shouldn't have eaten all that."
"Come on," Matt said with a grin, picking up the box to show her that several pieces of pizza remained. "You ate three slices, you lightweight. You can do better than that."
"I can't." She shook her head smiling. "I truly can't. It was all the garlic bread."
"Hmm." He shot her a disbelieving look then reached for the bottle beside him on the floor. "Better wash it down with some more of this then. Give us your glass."
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask whether he intended to get her drunk but then she remembered what had happened the last time she'd asked him that. Instead, she located the tumbler she'd been using--bizarrely, despite Charlie owning the largest collection of odds and sods imaginable, they'd been unable to find any wine glasses--and obediently held it out so that Matt could pour in some more white wine. "Is it me," she began after taking a sip of the deliciously cool, crisp Pinot, "or is it even hotter now than it was earlier?"
"It's pretty warm," he agreed, refilling his own glass. "Muggy," he added with a considering smile. "I've always liked that word."
"Hot and wet," Melissa clarified without thinking and experienced a flash of mortification when Matt's smile broadened. "Humid," she went on hastily. "Clammy. That's another good word."
"Yep." She could tell he was amused. "How about 'moist'?"
Why did so many of these words have a sexual connotation? "Mmm," she answered, trying to sound non-committal. And all at once, it seemed very important to haul herself up from the floor and move towards the window. "No sign of that storm yet," she said brightly, staring out at the darkening sky. "Maybe it won't happen after all."