Back to the Farm Ch. 12byevanslily©
I know, no one's more surprised than me that you didn't have to wait longer for this... :) Chapter 13 should be up next week. Thank you so much for all your comments and emails. You guys are great!
As they drove along in silence, Melissa found herself uncomfortably reminded of their first outing to the farm back in April. Had it only been months? Because it felt more like years, she thought, for once allowing the buried memories to flood her consciousness and realising with a jolt she was no longer the naïve girl she'd been back then.
Only as they left the streets of Mickleton behind did she dare to risk a sidelong glance at Matt, deciding he too seemed different. Not older, exactly, but that boyish demeanour had all but disappeared, the contours of his face harder somehow. And he was thinner as well, she noticed with a rush of consternation. Thinner and tired-looking, the dark circles beneath his eyes apparent now she was looking more closely.
"How are things in Singapore?" she ventured at last, hating the unsteadiness in her voice. "Do you have to go back?"
"Nope." Matt flexed his fingers on the steering wheel before flashing her a quick smile. "We're done, thank God. I'm done. And that's the last time I'll ever have to do anything like that too. From here on in, I'm staying local. I told Greg and Kate I'd want out of the partnership if I carried on having to spend months abroad."
Melissa's breath seemed to catch in her throat. "How did they take that?"
"Much better than I was expecting. In fact, it turns out they've been waiting for me to say it for a while. So we're going to invite a couple of the juniors to step into the breach, dangle the promise of becoming a partner if they're up to scratch. Everyone seems happy about it." He sent her a rather more rueful smile. "Now I'm starting to wish I'd said something months ago."
She couldn't help wondering what might've happened if he had. Would things have turned out differently if they hadn't been seven thousand miles apart? "There's enough work for you to do locally?"
"More than enough. Mostly smaller projects, it's true, but to be honest, I like smaller projects. I've proved I can play with the big boys. Now I feel like taking it easier for a while. Have some more time for me. Who knows, I might even start doing a bit of painting again."
"You should," she insisted, grateful for the neutral topic. "You're good. People would buy your pictures, I know they would."
He shot her another amused look. "Nice of you to say so. But I think I'll just do it for me for now. Get back into practice."
Melissa nodded, gazing down into her lap, painfully aware it was only a matter of time before their conversation moved into more difficult areas. She watched her fingers lacing and unlacing around her handbag, the rhythmical movement oddly soothing. "I enrolled in a pottery class," she admitted. "Nothing major," she rushed on as he greeted her words with approval, "just at an intermediate level. Like you, I'm pretty out of practice. But maybe one day, I could think about doing that ceramics degree..." She trailed off, biting her lip.
Maybe one day? Who was she kidding?
She felt rather than saw the warmth of Matt's gaze. "I think you should," he said simply. "And sooner rather than later. Next year even."
"Maybe." She tried to sound as positive as possible. "I guess I'll have to see how it goes."
"Liss—if it's a question of money..."
Here we go, she thought, watching her knuckles turn white. "It's not about the money."
"Are you sure? Because however you feel about it, Charlie meant for you to have your share of the farm. He didn't leave it to you out of guilt, or whatever else you've told yourself. It was because he loved you, because you were Suzie's niece, because—"
"It's not about the money, okay?" she cut in, lifting her head to glare at him. "That's not the only reason. There are other reasons. Not everything in this world comes down to money."
"No, but it bloody helps," Matt flashed back. "And I'm willing to bet that you not having enough money is the biggest reason you won't do something that'd change your life."
"Oh you are, are you?" Heat seared her cheeks. "Tell you what then, why don't you bet my share on that being the biggest reason? Winner takes all, Matt. That should settle it once and for all."
He shot her an exasperated look. "Liss—will you just get it into your thick head—I'm never going to take your share, okay? Not in a million years. You can kick up as big a fuss as you like, but I'm never going to give up. Oh—for fuck's sake!" Matt gave a growl of frustration, slamming his foot on the brakes as the car ahead of them lurched to an unexpected halt. "Make up your mind where you're going, will you?" he muttered, hitting the horn as the errant driver eventually began indicating left and pulled into a partially hidden side lane.
Thrown forward by the inertia, Melissa carefully readjusted the seatbelt across her lap and wriggled back into her seat, aware she was trembling, her heart thumping more wildly than ever. Matt drove on as though nothing had happened, eyes fixed firmly on the road now, the silence that had fallen between them becoming deafening.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled at last.
"Really?" Matt's response was a challenge, the edge of sarcasm clearly audible.
She swallowed, wishing she hadn't spoken. "I should've called you."
"Damn right you should." But as they pulled up at a set of traffic lights, the look he gave her was much gentler. "Then again, I should've just hoicked you out of Gemma's living room that day."
"You knew I was there?"
His eyes grew warmer. "You know I knew you were there."
There was no use in denying it. "Why didn't you hoick me out?" she asked, her voice rather small.
"Why didn't you call?" he countered.
"I was too fucking mad with you."
Matt's lips twitched. "Well, there you go, there's your answer," he said, heaving a sigh. "I was fucking mad with you too. Even more so when you didn't call. I was so sure you would. I really didn't think you'd let me go without knowing more about Charlie being my father."
"What's to know?" She shrugged. "I didn't particularly want to hear all the lurid details, thank you very much. It's simple enough, surely? Your mother and Charlie had an affair and conceived a child, end of story."
"Yeah, pretty straightforward, you're right," he said lightly, switching his attention back to the road as the lights turned green. "Except it was nothing like that at all."
"Oh really? How could it be anything different?"
"Well, for a start, it wasn't an affair."
"It was a one-night stand?" She regarded him with cynicism. "That's all right then, that's completely different."
He said nothing, instead putting his foot to the floor as they approached a stretch of dual carriageway and allowing the roar of the engine to express his obvious frustration. Only after they'd overtaken three lorries and a tractor did he drop back into the nearside lane. "It wasn't a one-night stand either," he said at last. "At least, I don't think you could call it that."
"So what would you call it?" Unnerved by the demonstration of speed, Melissa's voice wobbled.
"Oh Liss..." Matt shot her an apologetic glance, reaching for her hand. "I'm sorry, I'm being a jerk." And when his warm fingers closed over her much chillier ones, much more than heat travelled up her arm. It was the contact she'd craved for months, the connection between them beyond physical, almost electric.
"Let me have another stab at this, okay? Hear me out? Because I really think you need to know what happened. The thing is..." He exhaled noisily. "Well, there are a few things I don't think you know."
"So what else is new?" she muttered, cringing when he grunted in mock exasperation. "Sorry," she added hurriedly.
He released another sigh. "You know that Charlie and Suzie couldn't have children, right?"
"Oh God. Did your mother offer to be a surrogate or something? Is that it? And it all went wrong. Once you were born, she couldn't bring herself to give you—"
She subsided immediately, clapping her free hand to her mouth.
"The bit I don't think you know is that Suzie did actually manage to get pregnant."
He was right, she hadn't known that. An icy tingle rippled down her spine, her hand falling away from her face and sliding instinctively beneath her handbag. "She lost the baby?"
"She lost six in three years."
Melissa gazed at the road ahead, the thought alone almost too much to bear. All these years she'd had no clue, having merely assumed that one or the other—and latterly she'd assumed it must've been Suzie—was infertile, when the whole time her aunt had endured heartbreak after heartbreak. "Why didn't I know?" she whispered at last. "Why did no one tell me?"
"They gave up trying long before you were born." Matt's fingers tightened around hers. "It was just something they decided not to talk about. I don't think many people knew. I didn't know until Charlie told me."
She blinked back tears. "And he told you all that when he told you—when he told you everything else, at Suzie's funeral?"
"Yep." There was a harsher note to his voice now. "It was quite a day."
For the first time, Melissa appreciated how hard a day it must've been. The memory of Charlie's funeral still fresh in her mind, it was difficult to imagine how Matt, eighteen years old at the time of Suzie's death, had coped with the enormity of Charlie's confession in the midst of his own considerable grief. Suzie had been more of a mother to him than Ruth had ever been.
"I'd never seen Charlie in such a mess," Matt continued, sounding calmer now. "I think the guilt might've killed him there and then if he hadn't confessed to someone. You see, he never told Suzie. He said she had no idea. Although..." He hesitated, his thumb brushing over the back of her hand. "Looking back, I'm not so sure she didn't have an inkling, the way she looked at me sometimes."
"She loved you," Melissa put in gently.
He nodded. "She loved us both. And she loved Charlie too. The irony is, I'm certain she'd have forgiven him if he'd only told her the truth. I know you probably think there's no excuse for what happened, but in the circumstances..." Once again, he left the sentence unfinished. "Charlie was a good man, Liss," he said eventually. "He made one mistake in twenty-five years of marriage."
She bit her lip, aware of how many black thoughts she'd harboured over the summer. But deep down, she'd always recognised the reality of the situation. Somehow it'd seemed easier to stay mad at Charlie than deal with her true feelings. "And that mistake...?" she prompted.
He drew in another deep breath. "My mother was there when Suzie had that last miscarriage. Apparently, she used to stay with Charlie and Suzie quite often in those days. She didn't particularly like being stranded out in South Africa when my father went away on business and as you know, he used to be away a lot. The first few times she went with him, but I don't think it was all that much fun for her, endless meetings in endless hotels. So after a bit, she'd fly back to the UK instead and spend a couple of weeks here."
"She actually chose to stay at the farm?" She gave him a dubious look. "This is Aunt Ruth we're talking about?"
Matt managed a smile. "You have to remember that back then, it would've felt more like home to her. Dad grew up there after all, even if I do find that hard to believe sometimes."
It certainly was hard to believe they'd both been farmer's sons. The two brothers couldn't have been more dissimilar. Roger, the eldest, was a money-hungry, go-getting entrepreneur, and Charlie—well, Charlie's idea of wealth was to have all his family together under the same roof. So long as he had enough to get by, Charlie rarely gave fiscal matters a thought.
"But as you know, my parents didn't have the most harmonious marriage in the world. I actually got my mother to admit once that she knew she should never have married my father. She settled for second best."
"Second best?" Melissa echoed. "Why, who did she really want to...? Oh." The penny dropped. "She wanted Charlie?"
He nodded. "Right from the moment she met him. Apparently, when she and her family moved to Ebberlea when she was fifteen, Charlie was one of the few people who made an effort to make her feel welcome, make her feel part of things. You know what it's like at that age, it can be pretty tough to fit in when you're the new kid in town. But Charlie being Charlie, he took her under his wing, introduced her to everyone. Unfortunately for my mother though, he was already going out with Suzie. He never had eyes for anyone else."
"So she decided to go for Uncle Roger instead?" She pulled a face. "Not being funny Matt, but he must've been a pretty poor substitute. Did that man ever smile?"
He sent her an amused look. "Not often, no. But he was extremely good at making money and that was important to my mother. Having come from a family where money was tight, I think she fell in love with the idea of never having to struggle again."
"All very well," Melissa pondered, "but even if I had all the money in the world, I don't think I'd be happy if I didn't actually love the man I was with."
"No. I don't think she was happy." Matt paused. "Especially seeing as he told her right from the start he never wanted to have any children."
His words resonated through Melissa like a bell. "I see," she said slowly, once again transported back in time to a candlelit kitchen on a very chilly night in April, a night where she'd been party to a very similar conversation. "Don't tell me. She thought she might be the woman who changed his mind?"
Matt's lips twisted. It was obvious he remembered too. "I guess she did. But after five years of marriage, I think she finally realised she wasn't going to manage that. So if she wanted a baby, her getting pregnant would have to look like an accident."
"What are you saying?" She gave him a sceptical look. "She persuaded Charlie to be a sperm donor?"
"Not exactly—no, not at all," he corrected. "Truth is, I'm just the result of a drunken fumble." He hesitated. "Which happened the night Suzie lost that last baby."
It took a moment for his words to penetrate. "You mean," she faltered, "while Suzie was in hospital...?"
"They came home, cracked open a bottle of Scotch and woke up in bed together the next morning, yep."
Matt sent her a sympathetic glance. He knew only too well how it sounded. It'd taken him some time to come to terms with the idea that Charlie could be capable of such a thing. But there had been extenuating circumstances. "The thing is," he said gently, "Aunt Suzie'd actually got through the first three months for once. They dared to hope everything would be all right. But obviously..." He shrugged. "Charlie said he decided there and then that that was the last time they'd even try to get pregnant. It was just too horrendous, too much of a nightmare to watch her going through that over and over again."
"So he eased the pain by sleeping with his brother's wife?"
"It wasn't like that. It wasn't planned."
"Then how was it?"
Matt repressed a sigh, reminding himself she wasn't really trying to hold him accountable for Charlie's actions. "Look, she just happened to be staying there at the time—"
He ignored her. "Things weren't going so well with my father. She was sick of him being away so much, and by all accounts, even when he was around, he didn't spend much time with her. So she was spending more and more time at the farm."
"With Charlie. The brother she really wanted."
"With Suzie and Charlie. Liss, I really don't think it was like that. I don't think she ever had any intention of trying to steal him away."
Melissa gave a snort. "Just have his baby, then."
"She swears the thought never crossed her mind." Matt met her disbelieving glance with a wry smile. "But she wanted a baby, that's for sure. I think she got into her head that if she could only get herself pregnant, it would fix her marriage. My father would change his mind about how he felt about having children and having a baby would bring them closer together."
"Or if it didn't, at least it would give her something to love."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him cast a curious glance in her direction. "Yes. Only of course, he'd said he didn't want any babies. And he meant it."
His unexpected emphasis on the word sent a prickle of awareness down Melissa's spine. Was Matt saying that he himself hadn't meant it?
"Anyway, long story short, they left Suzie at the hospital that night, spent the evening drowning their sorrows..."
He trailed off, leaving Melissa to finish the sentence. "And the rest, as they say, is history."
"Yep." He nodded. "It's hard to say whether one or the other started it. It's funny actually—I've talked to them both about it at different times, and both blamed themselves, not the other.
"I guess it doesn't matter." She gave a slight shrug. "They both finished it."
"But it was a one time only thing, Liss. It'd never happened before and it never happened again. And as I told you, Charlie carried the guilt for ever. My mother..." Once again he hesitated and she immediately guessed why.
"Did Uncle Roger know you weren't his son?"
"I'm not sure," he admitted. "She never told him, that much I know. He wouldn't have got over hearing that. Not the proud man he was. But although they stayed together, I've often wondered if he, well... Wondered. He and I weren't exactly what you'd call close, after all. I've always supposed that's because he didn't want kids and he didn't quite know what to do with me. But it is just possible he guessed and that's why he was always so bloody distant." He sighed. "I guess we'll never know."
"No." Melissa gazed out at the road as they descended the hill into Ebberlea, not for the first time struck by the beauty of the surrounding hedgerows, the autumn leaves a riot of colour, russet reds and ochre yellows. As a child, she'd loved going to the farm at this time of year.
"I've got to have a go at painting the village from this angle," Matt said, as if he'd read her mind. "I've always meant to but somehow, I've never been here at the right time."
"It would make a great picture," she agreed, grateful for the diversion.
"A little bird tells me you've still got one of my first ever commissions hanging in your hallway."
She could feel herself blushing. "Gemma told you?"
"Nope." His smile widened.
"Oh—Jason." Melissa lifted her eyes heavenwards as realisation dawned.
"He said your place was quite..." Matt paused for effect. "Something."
"Huh." She found it impossible to repress a laugh. "Quite small is what it is."
"He was impressed actually. Reckoned you could have a career in interior design."
"Oh right. Well, who knows? Maybe one day." Unwilling to enter into another discussion about her long term job prospects, she stared out of the window as they travelled through the village, looking up at the church with its sturdy Norman tower, at the pub where landlady Jean was busy tending fading hanging baskets and at the War Memorial where she remembered standing with Matt to read the names after Charlie's funeral. But as they left Ebberlea behind, signs for roadworks appeared and temporary traffic lights soon forced them to stop. Peering out of Matt's window, she spotted the cause. "They've started developing Roper's Field already?"
"Yep." Matt also turned to look as he pulled on the handbrake. "And as you can see, the builders aren't messing about."
The cluster of houses were at various stages of completion, some half-built, others already sporting roof trusses, still others barely past the foundation phase. "They're not building as many as I thought," she confessed, surprised.