tagRomanceBack to the Farm Ch. 10

Back to the Farm Ch. 10

byevanslily©

Sorry about the long wait. It took me a little while to get going again after passing my exam (yay!) and this was a tough chapter to write. I think there's only going to be one more though... :)

Thanks for all of your emails and comments—and for being so patient!

Lily

-x-


*

"Lissy? Lissy!"

Hearing the accelerating pace of Matt's feet crunching through the gravel, Melissa broke into a run. This wasn't happening. It couldn't be happening. This was all part of some weird and wonderful dream and any second now she'd wake up, thrashing against the bedclothes.

"Lissy, please!"

"Let her go, mate," Jason called. "For God's sake, give her some space."

Jason, the voice of reason, she marvelled, aware of Matt's footsteps slowing even as she sped up. Who'd have thought? If her head hadn't already been reeling, she might have found the notion amusing. But this wasn't funny. Not even close. No, this was a cruel, cosmic joke. After all they'd been through, after everything they'd shared, Matt had kept a secret like that from her? But Jason had known. Clearly he'd known all along.

Charlie told me on the day of Suzie's funeral.

The words slammed into her chest like knives, the wall of pressure building in her lungs at last forcing her to stagger to a halt on the driveway outside the bungalow. Suzie's funeral? Melissa closed her eyes, gasping for breath. He'd known for fourteen years?

A familiar pain rose from the pit of her stomach. It was happening again. Just as always, she'd been the last to know. Matt had known Charlie had cancer, he'd had months to prepare for his death, but she'd been left in the dark. He'd been actively involved in the preparation of Charlie's Will but she'd known nothing...

"Oh God," she whispered, opening her eyes to find herself staring at the front door through a haze of tears. Though she'd been aware Matt had attended the signing of the Will, his presence on that occasion now took on a whole new significance. Despite her surprise at being a beneficiary to half of Charlie's assets, she'd accepted Archie's explanation, that as she was Suzie's niece, Charlie had felt she should receive an equal share.

But Matt was Charlie's son.

Suddenly conscious of the weight in her hand, Melissa looked down to discover she was still clasping Matt's mobile phone. And almost before she realised she'd made a decision, she flicked it open and punched in a long ago memorised number.

*

"What are you doing?"

Though she'd heard him charging in through the front door, the sound of Matt's voice still made her jump. As usual. Biting her lip hard, she bent to haul out her suitcase from behind the ottoman and threw it on to the bed. Actions spoke louder than words.

"You're leaving?"

Melissa winced, steeling herself to ignore the dismay in his tone. "It's for the best," she muttered, flinging the lid open and beginning to stuff in the clothes she'd piled upon the bed. No time for careful folding, she reasoned. No need either. After days spent working with dust and grime, the whole lot would need washing when she got home.

"For the best?" he echoed incredulously. "Lissy!"

Though it was pointless to pretend she hadn't heard him, she tried anyway. The last thing she needed now was a fight. Just hold it together for another five minutes, she urged herself, staring at the already half-full case. Think Melissa, think... What else do you need to pack? "Toothbrush," she remembered aloud and turned to find Matt standing in the doorway, blocking her exit. "Do you mind?"

Instead of moving aside, Matt took a step backwards, planting a hand on either side of the doorframe. "This is crazy. You can't go. Not like this."

"I can't go?" For the first time, she lifted her gaze to his, a fresh surge of anger infusing her words with venom. "Why? Thought of something else you should've told me? Come on then, out with it. Get it off your chest."

"Lissy, please." Matt looked pained. "Give me a chance to explain. You don't understand..."

"Oh no, I get it," she fired back, holding up a hand. "Believe me, I get it. Now get out of my way."

In the silent stand-off that followed, Melissa feared he might actually refuse to budge. But when he sighed, his arms falling to his sides in resignation, her relief at being able to edge past him was short-lived when he followed her out into the hall.

"Do you have any idea how many times I've wanted to tell you?"

"And yet you didn't." She shook her head as she headed into the bathroom. "It must've been so tough on you."

"Yeah, it was." The immediacy of Matt's retort caught her off guard. "He told me about ten minutes before Suzie's funeral kicked off. Can you imagine what that was like? Sitting there, in a church full of people, knowing something that no one else knew—knowing something that even Suzie didn't know? Because she never knew, Liss. He never told her."

Melissa found she couldn't turn around. The very idea of Charlie having an affair was unthinkable. That he'd had an affair with Ruth, of all people. His brother's wife. Suddenly she couldn't decide which was worse, Matt keeping the secret all these years, or Charlie not being the man she thought he was. "Well there's a surprise," she murmured, voicing the ironic thought that promptly dropped into her head. "Like father, like son."

But the moment she spoke the words, she realised their bitter truth and as the shock of understanding rippled through her anew, she swept up her toiletries and hurried back to the bedroom, ignoring Matt's pleas for her to wait. Better not to stop and think. Better to keep moving, keep packing. Not much longer now.

"We're going to have to talk about this sooner or later."

"Matt!" He'd followed her again? "For God's sake..." She groaned, covering her face with her hands. "Don't you get it? I don't want to talk about it, okay? There's nothing to talk about."

"Look." Matt's tone was softer now, conciliatory. "I know you're angry. I don't blame you, I'd be angry too."

"Angry?" Inexplicably, Melissa wanted to laugh. "I'm angry, is that what I'm feeling? Well hey, thanks for pointing that out. I'd never have figured that out on my own."

"Lissy..."

"No!" Lowering her hands, she leaned across the bed to pick up her hairbrush and tucked it into the side of the case before slamming down the lid and zipping it closed. "I don't want to hear it, okay? I just want to get out of here. Away from here." Away from you, she added silently.

"But there are still things we need to do. Things we need to decide."

"Wrong." She straightened up again, swinging the suitcase off the bed and down to the floor. "There are things you need to decide, that's all." And once again, the reality of those words cut deep as she took one last glance around the bedroom, at the wardrobe, the dressing table, the faded navy blue curtains. At the rumpled bed they'd shared...

"I need to decide?"

"Oh come on, Matt." At the note of bewilderment in his voice Melissa finally managed to laugh, but it sounded harsh even to her own ears. "Let's stop pretending that any of this was ever really mine."

"What?"

But before she could elaborate, a car horn tooted loudly. Maybe it was better not to elaborate. "That'll be for me," she said with forced brightness as Matt crossed the room to peer out of the window. "Sorry to leave you in the lurch and all that, but there's only really the loft to clear now. Shouldn't take too long. Maybe Jason could help you."

"You called a taxi?"

"Yes." When he turned back to look at her, Melissa felt an unexpectedly sharp tug in her chest at the shock in his expression. "I—I hope you don't mind, I used your phone. I thought it'd be best to—to just go. Actually—that's why—why I came out to find you. I almost forgot." With trembling fingers, she reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out his mobile. "Mike called, then Paula. You need to call them back. I don't think things went too well at that meeting."

Despite herself, she flinched in sympathy when Matt swore under his breath. "I'm sorry. I know you were really hoping that—that—" She trailed off, unsure what to say. And not trusting herself to reach towards him, reluctant to risk any contact, she placed the mobile on the bed. "I'd better go."

His hand fell on her shoulder before she managed to take a single step towards the door. "Please? Don't do this."

She swallowed, new tears perilously near. "I have to. I've been stupid enough already."

"You weren't stupid. All of this is my fault, okay? All of it. I should've told you a long time ago. But does it really have to change anything? This place." He made a sweeping gesture around the room with his other hand. "He left it to us both, Liss. It's half yours."

"But it isn't, is it?" Tugging free, she rounded on him, another layer of realisation dawning. "That's what your mother meant, isn't it? At the funeral. That's why she wanted you to contest the Will."

"Liss—"

"Oh my God." She stared at him open-mouthed, the knot in her stomach tightening as another piece of the puzzle slotted into place. "No wonder she... Oh God."

"You know that would never have happened. Charlie wanted you to inherit this place."

"Why?" she spat, temper re-flaring. "So that he could stop feeling guilty? So that he could somehow make it up to Suzie?"

"No!" He blew out an agitated sigh. "That's not why we did it."

"We?"

Too late, Matt seemed to realise what he'd said. "Fuck," he muttered, brushing a hand through his hair. "That didn't come out right. Look, Charlie was worried about you, okay? What with your mother's accident, you having to leave college before you finished your degree, not being able to land yourself the greatest of jobs..."

"So you told him it'd be okay if he left half of everything to me." Melissa had been thinking aloud but one glance at Matt's face was enough to confirm her guess was spot on. "Oh God." Her heart plummeted. "That's exactly how it was, isn't it? He actually asked you if it was okay first, didn't he?"

He hesitated. "He hated to see you struggling, Liss. He just thought—"

"Well that's great." She raised her eyes to the ceiling, mortification washing through her in a white hot wave. "I don't believe this. You saw me as a charity case."

"No! For heaven's sake." Matt reached out to take her arm but Melissa immediately ducked away. "That's not how it was, I swear. Lissy, come on. Don't be an idiot!"

"But I am an idiot." She shook her head, swiping at her face before the first tear could fall. "Such an idiot. God." And swallowing hard, she reached for her suitcase. "I've got to go."

"Lissy, please. It wasn't like that."

"Doesn't matter. Do me a favour?" she interrupted, finding herself quite unable to look at him. She couldn't bear to witness his guilt-stricken expression any longer. "Tell Archie I don't want any of it, okay?"

"What?" Matt sounded startled.

Melissa could hardly believe she'd said it either. The words had tumbled out of her mouth unbidden, without prior warning. Was this really what she wanted to do? "It's yours," she heard herself go on, feeling peculiarly as though she'd split into two people, her rational self capable only of observing in silence as her irrational self ploughed on. "All yours." She shrugged. "Just like your mother always wanted it to be."

"Lissy!" He took a step towards her, shaking his head. "Wait a minute."

"No." She held up a hand, in turn taking a step away. It was too late to backtrack now, too late to stop the runaway train carrying her further and further away from any chance of reconciliation. "I don't want it, okay? I don't want anything to do with it—anything to do with Charlie. Anything to do with you, okay? You got that?"

"Liss..."

But before he could move any nearer, before he could utter another word, Melissa grabbed her handbag from the bed, snatched up her suitcase and fled.

*

"How much?"

"Twenty-seven pounds twenty, love."

Feeling guiltier by the second, Melissa watched as Gemma peeled off three ten pound notes and handed them to the waiting taxi driver. "God, I'm so sorry," she mumbled for the third time. "I can't believe you're having to do this. I can't believe I didn't even think about how much it would cost."

"Will you stop it? Oh, keep the change," Gemma added for the benefit of the driver before slipping an arm around Melissa's shoulders. "Come on, that's what friends are for, isn't it? It doesn't matter."

"It does matter," Melissa insisted as the car roared off, leaving them standing alone in the car park. "I'm so glad you were still here. I don't know what I would've done if you weren't."

That's what happened when you didn't give yourself time to think, she thought bitterly. She'd raced outside the bungalow, almost colliding with Jason who'd been lingering by the open front door, observing the proceedings with blatant curiosity. And ignoring Matt's desperate entreaties for her to stay, she'd all but thrown herself in the taxi. It was only as the car reached the bottom of the driveway she'd remembered she had no money, her purse empty but for a handful of coins.

Horrified, she'd leaned forward and asked the cabbie if he'd mind taking her to Barrington Heights instead of the address she'd originally given. She'd watched the clock all the way to Mickleton, praying that Gemma wouldn't have left for work early and would still be at home. Only now that Gemma had paid on her behalf did it occur to Melissa she could have asked they stop off at a cash machine. "Oh God, I'm stupid," she breathed as her friend led the way to the entrance of the flats. "I'm so stupid. I'll pay you back, I swear."

"Will you just ssh? I know you will," Gemma soothed, giving her an awkward one-armed hug as they walked. "God, you're in a state. I don't think I've ever seen you like this. What the hell happened?"

She swallowed, unsure where to begin. "It's a mess," she said at last, her eyes already filling at the sympathy in Gemma's tone. "It's all such a mess."

"But I wasn't even expecting you back until tomorrow." Releasing her to unlock the front door, Gemma shot her a probing look. "Is this something to do with Matt?" When Melissa didn't reply, she frowned anxiously. "What did he do?"

Melissa gave her head another helpless shake, aware there wasn't a chance she'd be able to get through the tale without dissolving into tears.

"Okay." Clearly sensing the last thing her friend wanted to do was to break down in public, Gemma pushed her inside. "Let's get you upstairs. I haven't got any tissues but I can get you a nice cup of tea and a bog roll. And then I think you'd better tell me all about it. I'll ring Jonathan and tell him I'm going to be late in this morning. Not that he'll be surprised. I've been late in all week."

Melissa attempted a weak smile. How did Gemma get away with it? She wouldn't dream of taking such liberties. Wouldn't dare. That was the difference between working because you wanted to and working because you had to, she supposed.

But as she started towards the stairs she suddenly became conscious that Gemma had stopped dead behind her.

"You're limping," she accused.

Oh God... Was it that obvious? Melissa experienced a surge of embarrassment. "I'm—I'm fine," she muttered, trying hard to move normally. "Really."

"No, you're not."

She heard the moment the penny dropped, the slight change of inflection in Gemma's tone.

"You're walking as though you spent the entire night..." And then her voice altered again, the note of amusement vanishing to be replaced with raw concern. "Oh no. Oh God, no. That's not what—? He—he didn't...?"

"What? No!" Shocked that Gemma could even think Matt had hurt her, Melissa stared back in disbelief. "No!"

Relief flooded into Gemma's face. "Thank God for that. I'm sorry. It's just... Oh come on, what was I supposed to think? You've turned up here out of the blue—like this? Of course I was going to think the worst."

But as Melissa's eyes once again filled with tears, Gemma's gaze softened.

"Oh hon, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." She stretched out an arm as she hurried forwards, once again wrapping it around Melissa's shoulders and turning her back towards the stairs. "Let's go and put that kettle on, eh?"

*

After Melissa had finally run out of steam, Gemma regarded her in silence for several moments. Then she pursed her lips, eyes narrowing. "Poor Matt," she said quietly, reaching for her mug of tea.

"What?" Still sniffing a little, Melissa gazed at her in astonishment. Gemma siding with Matt was the last thing she'd expected. "You've got to be kidding."

She shook her head. "No, I'm not kidding. What the hell was the poor sod supposed to do? He knew damn well you'd go ballistic when you found out about Charlie being his father. And he wasn't wrong, was he? You did exactly what he was afraid you'd do."

Stung by Gemma's words, Melissa felt her swollen eyes widening. "Of course I went ballistic! Are you actually saying you think he did the right thing in not telling me?"

"No, of course not."

"Then what are you saying?" she demanded. "Bad enough that he didn't tell me in fourteen years, but he had all of this week to tell me—and I still only found out by accident!"

"I'm not saying that was right," Gemma interjected hastily. "I'm just saying I understand why he didn't, that's all. He knew how upset you'd be."

"Yeah, and he knew that if he told me there'd be no chance of getting his end away, right?" Melissa looked down at her fingers, twisting them together in agitation. "That'll be why he didn't tell me."

"For heaven's sake..." Gemma uttered a groan. "You honestly believe it was all about sex? Get a grip. Think about it. Think about everything you've just told me." She paused then leaned forward to peer up into her friend's face. "Hon, I think he's in love with you."

Melissa stared. "What?"

"He knew that telling you would bugger everything up. And it did, didn't it? He didn't stand a chance."

"No." She gave her head a vehement shake. "He's not in love with me. Matt McKenzie doesn't do falling in love."

To her frustration, Gemma rolled her eyes. "Oh really?

"Yes, really." Melissa blew out a sigh. "He told me himself, that night we got stuck at the farm when his car broke down. He said he didn't even think love existed. That it was just a myth, the stuff of fairy tales. And that he wasn't ever going to get married or have kids. Stop looking at me like that. He doesn't love me."

"He does," Gemma persisted. "And you love him."

Melissa felt an odd stabbing pain in the middle of her chest. She sighed. "Doesn't matter whether I do or whether I don't, does it?" she said wretchedly. "He didn't tell me, Gemma. What else did he forget to tell me? I'll probably find out next he's got a girlfriend out in Singapore—no, wait. Not a girlfriend." She managed a bitter laugh. "A wife. That he's married with four kids."

"I don't think so, somehow."

"I wouldn't put it past him. He's lied about everything else."

Gemma's lips twisted a little. "He wasn't lying, exactly. He just didn't tell you a couple of things. Come on, you daft cow. You're seriously going to throw it all away because he made one mistake?"

"One mistake?" Melissa shot her an incredulous glance. "Gemma, everything's been a lie. Charlie and his mother had an affair, for crying out loud. All those years, I thought Charlie was rock solid, straight as a die, someone to look up to. And all that time... " She trailed off, lost for words. None of it made any sense. The world hadn't merely spun off its axis, it had hurtled out of the solar system. "How could he have done that to Suzie?" she wailed at last. "She was so lovely. But Ruth—Ruth's a complete bitch. How could he? How could he do that?"

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