tagRomanceBack to the Farm Ch. 03

Back to the Farm Ch. 03

byevanslily©

Melissa put a hand to her cheek and drew in a deep trembling breath. She'd called him Matt. So what? He'd persisted in calling her Lissy. Like he said, old habits died hard. But she knew it was neither the name nor the caress that had unnerved her so much. It'd been the surprisingly tender look in his eyes.

The bathroom suite was the same faded yellow she remembered from her childhood, except now the taps were solidly encrusted with lime scale and the bath ringed and pitted as a result of more than forty years of constant use and ten years without Aunt Suzie's cleaning expertise. A tattered discoloured blind hung at the frosted window, the tiled ledge filled with cans and bottles, shaving foam and aftershave. She experienced a sharp tug in the middle of her stomach. Uncle Charlie wouldn't be needing any of those things anymore.

Shoving the thought to the back of her mind she stepped up to the sink and spun on the hot tap. Then she caught sight of her reflection in the mirror above the basin and gasped. Her hair was matted flat to her scalp, her pale blue eyes a stark contrast to her mud-splattered cheeks. She plunged her sore hands beneath the stream of water, only to note with shock that the water itself was coppery brown. "Oh no," she muttered unhappily, making the connection. No electricity meant no immersion heater. No immersion heater meant no hot water.

Groaning softly, she leaned over the bath, pushed in the plug and turned on the cold tap. Then she bent to sniff at the two threadbare towels hanging from the rail. They too had once been yellow but thankfully smelt cleaner than they looked. There was a similarly coloured bathmat on the floor. Uncle Charlie had been a great believer in function over condition. It wasn't that he'd been mean. It was more that it would simply never have occurred to him to buy new soft furnishings.

With another sigh, she turned back to the bath, grimacing as she watched the water swirl into the tub. "This'll be okay," she whispered to herself encouragingly. "You can do this." But removing the dress was another matter. When dry, the fabric had shimmied across her skin. Now that it was wet it was welded to her. After several attempts she managed to peel it off, only to discover her bra was similarly saturated. Sighing, she wrapped it in one of the towels and squeezed tight, hoping it might dry enough for her to put it back on. Luckily her knickers seemed reasonably dry. Just as well, she thought ruefully. There was no way she wanted to spend time in Matt's presence without them.

Naked now and shivering, she frowned at the rising water. This would be like paddling in the sea, right? If she tentatively put in a toe, the water would feel icy. So the best thing to do would be to plunge straight in. She closed her eyes and moaned quietly. It wasn't as though she really had a choice. The mud had to be washed off. Ducking beneath the string that ran from one end of the bath to the other, serving as a makeshift clothesline, she stepped in and sat down. Then shrieked.

There was a sharp rap at the door. "You okay in there?"

She gasped, shrieked and gasped some more. "I'm--I'm f-f-fine!" she called with chattering teeth.

"You sure?" Matt sounded puzzled. "Spider in the bath or something? Want me to come and get it out?"

With a start she remembered she hadn't locked the door. "No! D-don't you dare come in!"

"All right." He was clearly amused. "Keep your hair on. Let me know when you're ready for dry clothes."

Trying to repress further exclamations, she splashed water on to her face then worked steadily downwards, whimpering as she reached her skinned and bloodied knees. The whole procedure took less than two minutes but by the time she climbed out again her skin was mottled and the water opaque with filth. Grimacing, she released the plug and wrapped herself in the second towel, rubbing vigorously in an attempt to restore her circulation. Then she swilled out the tub. "All right, I'm ready," she called tentatively, pulling the towel tightly around her. "But you'll have to close your eyes."

The door opened immediately. "I'm not looking," Matt said, eyes squeezed shut as he held out what looked suspiciously like one of Charlie's shirts and a pair of thick woolly socks.

Her heart sank. "Is that all you could find?"

Matt opened one eye and she beat a hasty retreat behind the door. "What exactly were you expecting? Come on, Charlie was a big man--the shirt will look like a dress on you. His trousers won't fit you, that's for sure."

Muttering rude words, Melissa snatched the clothes and slammed the door. She retrieved her bra from the towel, deciding with regret that it was still too damp to wear. Slinging it over the clothesline across the bath, she re-donned her knickers then slipped on the shirt. It swamped her. Charlie had indeed been a big man, as tall as Matt but probably three times as round.

She turned to peer at her reflection in the mirror and frowned. Though it fell to her knees, buttoning it right up to the collar still didn't prevent it from gaping hugely at the neck. If she leaned forward without thinking, Matt would have a wonderful view, she thought wryly. Sighing, she tugged on the socks then, still shuddering with cold, used the towel to wipe up the muddy mess on the bathroom floor.

"Do you want the good news or the bad news?" Matt's voice came again.

She dumped both towels in the bath along with her dress and opened the door a crack. "First you have to promise not to laugh."

"In that case, you can't laugh at me either. Deal?"

She opened the door to discover that Matt was wearing another of Charlie's shirts. The fabric billowed balloon-like over his trousers. "Classy," she muttered, unable to repress a smirk.

"That's me. Follower of high fashion," he said dryly, candidly appraising her appearance. "I should worry. You look like Wee Willy Winky." But then his gaze reached her bleeding knees. "Hmm. Come on." He turned and walked off down the hallway.

Clutching at the top of the shirt, she limped along behind him. "So what's the bad news?"

"Oh, you already know the bad news. We have no transport, no electricity and no telephone." Matt led the way into the kitchen and motioned to her to sit down on one of the kitchen chairs before reaching up to a cupboard above the sink. He pulled down the large yellowing Tupperware box that contained the First Aid kit and dropped it on the table.

"What's the good news?" She watched him tear off the lid and rummage inside, eventually producing an aged-looking box of plasters.

"We do have Calor Gas and matches." He motioned to the stove and for the first time she noticed a bubbling saucepan of water resting on a lit gas ring. "And I've found teabags and sugar." He opened the box of plasters and peered inside. "Do you think these things have a best before date? They've probably been in this tub since we were kids." She shrugged and he passed over the box. "Oh well. Can't see how they could do any harm. I'll make some tea."

"Thanks." Still trembling a little, her fingers numb with cold, it took several attempts to remove a plaster. "What time is it?"

"Quarter past seven. But don't worry. It'll only take me about an hour to walk down to the village."

"Wh-what?"

"One of us needs to get help, Liss."

Melissa gazed at him in horror as he brought two steaming mugs of black tea to the table. He sat down in the opposite chair and grimaced back. "Don't look at me like that. I wasn't expecting you to volunteer. You haven't even got any shoes."

"No, I know but--" She threw a desperate glance towards the window. Rain was still pelting against the glass. "It's pouring down out there!"

"I'll take Charlie's umbrella. I'll be fine."

"No, you won't." Her hands shook even more as she tried in vain to open the plaster packet. As a child she'd never liked being alone in the remote farmhouse and she had no desire to be left there now. Certainly not so soon after Charlie's death, surrounded by all of his things. "You'd have to be crazy to go out in this. It's going to take you much longer than an hour to get to Ebberlea. And--" she hesitated then added in a small voice "--it'll be dark soon."

He reached across the table and took the small packet. "I'll be back before you know it," he said calmly, unwrapping the plaster and offering it back.

"But--oh!" She tried to grab the plaster but her hand wouldn't keep steady. "Sor-sorry," she got out, her eyes filling with tears. "Can't seem to st-stop shaking!"

Matt gazed at her and his eyes narrowed. "Oh, hell... You're in shock." He reached for the bag of sugar and heaped two large teaspoons into her mug.

"No, I'm not!" she protested, feeling foolish. "I'm all right--I--I'm just cold."

"Yeah, right." He gave the mug a vigorous stir then brought it around the table to her. "Drink," he said simply, pushing it into her hands.

She obeyed and immediately felt better as the hot sweet liquid slipped down her throat. He watched her closely while she drank then, to her further embarrassment, he seized the box of plasters and tended to her knees, his slender artist's fingers working deftly and gently. "Thanks," she whispered as he fastened down the last tape.

"I'll go and find you something to wear over that shirt," he said, straightening up.

"No." She forced herself to her feet. "I can do that."

Matt sighed loudly then followed as she hobbled down the hallway towards Charlie's bedroom.

The bed was neatly made, covered in a fraying white camberwick bedspread. The curtains were partly drawn, showing a row of perfectly aligned albeit dusty ornaments along the windowsill. A china bell. A tiny figurine of a ballerina. A roughly hewn clay pot, painted garishly with blue and red stripes that she'd made at primary school and given to Aunt Suzie for a birthday present. Beside the pot was a small wooden boat, the words 'Uncle Charlie' lovingly carved along the side. Ten-year-old Matt's handiwork. She swallowed. Everything ordered and in its place. As though Charlie had merely gone away on holiday for a week or two.

Matt pulled back the bedcovers. "Doesn't look as though anyone's slept in this bed. The sheets are clean."

She crossed the room and tugged at the gilt handle on the gloss-painted wardrobe door. With a squeal, the door opened and she found herself staring at a tightly packed rail full of her Uncle's clothes.

"Found anything?" Matt stepped past her and reached into the wardrobe. "Here, this should do the job." He retrieved an enormous beige and brown woolly cardigan and held it up ready for her to slide in an arm. "Put this on."

But she didn't move. Couldn't move. The cardigan had been one of Charlie's favourites. She'd seen him wear it a hundred times. Now he'd never wear it again. He was dead. It was a simple, inescapable, horrifying truth. Who was she trying to kid? He wasn't on holiday. He wouldn't be coming back. Ever.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Matt throw the cardigan on the bed. And then, before she had a chance to resist, before she had a chance to protest, he gathered her to him. His arms wrapped around her back, anchoring her so securely it felt as though his whole body was pressed against hers, the intense rush of heat warming her more effectively than any cardigan ever could. And as he held her, his cheek resting against her hair, she discovered she had no desire to protest or resist. Though it had been years, being back in Matt's arms suddenly seemed so familiar, so comforting she found herself leaning into him, her eyes closing, her mind dropping into neutral.

"You smell of Charlie," she whispered, inhaling deeply. Pipe tobacco mixed with laundry powder and a splash of Old Spice.

"So do you. I think it's the shirts." His breath tickled her ear. "You're freezing." He rubbed her back gently and she shivered as if to prove his point. "How did you get so cold?"

"No hot water."

There was a pause as Matt processed this information. "You mean you washed all that mud off with cold water?" He chuckled softly. "Hell, no wonder you yelled."

"It must be getting dark." Melissa didn't dare open her eyes to see for herself. Opening her eyes would mean having to deal with reality. Dealing with reality would mean confronting the fact that Matt McKenzie was holding her so closely she could feel every ripple of the layer of hard muscle covering his abdomen. Dealing with reality would also mean confronting the fact he was about to leave her alone in the bungalow while he went to fetch help.

"Yep." It didn't sound as though he was any keener to confront reality than she was.

"Matt?"

"Mmm?"

"It's still raining and it's nearly dark. Maybe you shouldn't go out again." She hesitated, unable to believe what she was about to suggest. "The Vicar's meeting us here at ten o'clock tomorrow. Maybe--maybe we should just stay here?"

"Stay here?"

Her eyes shot open at the astonishment in his voice. Disorientated by the dim light, she pushed herself out of his embrace and took an unsteady step backwards. "Yes. Why not? The Vicar will have a car, right? Probably a mobile phone too. And this way you don't have to go out and get soaked."

There was a silence while Matt considered her suggestion. "Let me get this straight," he said at last, folding his arms. "You'd rather stay here with me--even though you hate me--than have to stay here on your own?"

She glared at him angrily. "Hey, I'm not scared of being on my own."

"I never said you were." He lifted a dismissive hand. "Look, it's a good idea. I'm not complaining."

"It makes sense, that's all. There's probably something we can eat in one of the kitchen cupboards." She swept up the cardigan and wriggled into it, a fresh burst of essence of Charlie flooding her senses. "And we've got a bed." Heat swooped into her face as she realised what she'd said. We've got a bed? "Probably more than one bed," she gabbled hastily. "Maybe we could clear one of the other bedrooms."

"Lissy." There was undisguised amusement in Matt's tone.

"There has to be another bed." Embarrassed, Melissa shot out of the room and pushed at the door to the second bedroom across the hall, the bedroom that had been Matt's when they were younger. "It's probably buried under a mountain of junk but we could clear it out." Meeting resistance, she shoved hard with her shoulder. "Going to have to do that sooner or later. Might as well start now."

"Lissy--"

"It's stuck." Puzzled, she leaned her entire body weight against the door. There was a low rumble followed by a deafening crash. And then the door swung open and she fell headlong into the room with it.

Completely winded for the second time in half an hour, she heard Matt shout with laughter. "Sweetheart, you're going to have some stunning bruises tomorrow. Is the idea of sharing a bed with me really that terrifying? 'Cause it's not like it'd be the first time. How many times did you crawl into my bed when we were kids? Hundreds of times. Aunt Suzie used to joke it was hardly worth you having your own bed. But you know what? You needn't worry. I'll sleep on the settee."

Melissa was too breathless to reply. In fact, if she could have found enough breath she would probably have wept. She looked up and saw towers of boxes, blocking all but a chink of light from the window. Other battered cartons had spewed their contents across the floor as they'd fallen. Books. Swathes of fabric. Plastic bottles. Goodness only knew how Charlie had managed to pile up so many boxes so close to the door. And if there was a bed in the room it was buried beneath dozens more.

Matt stopped laughing and crouched beside her. "Lissy?"

"My name is Melissa," she whispered with all the dignity she could muster.

"Thank God. For a moment there I thought you were seriously hurt." He eased her up, propping her against the doorjamb before turning around to view the carnage for himself. "Something tells me it's going to take quite a while to clear this place up. We're going to need a skip. Possibly two. I'll have a word with Jason."

She shot him a horrified glance.

"Oops." Matt grimaced and stood up. "Something tells me I should fetch you another nice mug of hot sweet tea. Don't move. I'll be back in a second."

Dismay fuelling her strength, she heaved herself upright and padded after him to the kitchen, wincing with every step. "Jason?"

Ignoring her, Matt peered out of the window at the darkening sky as he refilled the saucepan with water. "We're going to need to find some candles soon."

But Melissa wasn't about to let him change the subject. "The same Jason?"

He shrugged, conceding defeat. "Yes, the same Jason. He's been a good friend."

She stared at the back of his head, still breathless, her heart thudding painfully in her chest. "Well that explains why you're still defending him." Pushing past him, she opened the cupboard next to the back door and bent down to retrieve an old ice cream tub, stifling a sob of pain. "Candles," she said, quickly straightening up and slapping them on the worktop in front of him.

"Look, he's a building contractor. We've worked together quite a bit over the years. In fact--" Matt finished lighting the stove and turned around. "Oh hell, there's no good time to tell you this. I s'pose you should know that Charlie and I were working on--" Then he stopped abruptly, frowning slightly. "Are you okay? You're swaying."

Hardly hearing his words, Melissa made a grab for the edge of the worktop in an attempt to steady herself. "I'm all--all right--oh..." she heard herself say, her voice sounding oddly far away. Black dots began dancing in front of her eyes, a roaring noise in her ears.

"I told you not to get up." Matt seized her tightly around the waist and walked her backwards until she felt the seat of chair pressing against the back of her knees. "Sit," he said firmly, pushing her down and pressing her head between her knees.

"I'm a-all right," she managed shakily.

"Like hell you are."

"It's not--it's not--because of Jason." Melissa knew she sounded hysterical but she needed him to believe her. Needed to convince herself. She forced her head back up. "I'm n-not scared of him."

"What?" Matt knelt beside her, studying her with an intensity that made her nervous. "This isn't good," he said with a sigh. "You nearly passed out and now you're talking gibberish. Is this still shock or did you hit your head when you fell just now?"

She shook her head. "I'm okay--stop fussing," she muttered, hoping she would feel better in another minute. At lease she didn't feel quite so dizzy now.

"When did you last eat?"

She frowned, irked by his continuing concern. But then she remembered she'd skipped lunch. One of her appointments had overrun and there hadn't been time. She'd made do with what she could salvage from the crumbling cereal bar she'd found at the bottom of her handbag.

"Right." Matt read her guilty expression in one glance. "Let's see what there is."

"I'm okay," she repeated, as much to persuade herself as him. She watched him move straight to the tall cupboard beside the fridge freezer and rummage inside. It occurred to her they both knew this kitchen as though it were their own.

"Hmm. There's a tin of baked beans. Tinned peas. Tuna--not sure about that one--looks like it's been here for decades. Unopened packet of pasta. That seems to be about it--oh, hang on--there's soup."

"What flavour?"

Matt turned and pulled a face. "You won't want it. Mushroom."

She grimaced. He was right, she didn't. Neither of them had ever liked mushrooms. "I suppose we could do something with the pasta. Put the beans with it."

He brightened. "Haven't had that since I left university. Better with grated cheese though." They both regarded the fridge. "I wonder how long the electricity's been off?"

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