A patchwork of green and yellow stretches out on either side of the winding road as her little car trundles along. There's no other traffic in sight and Vanessa allows her eyes to roam over the bright landscape, picking out the odd animal or tree here and there. She feels a bit like she's in the opening sequence of Postman Pat; endless snaking roads through infinite greenery, taking her deep into the Dales. It's where she wants to be. Far away from everything and everyone she knows. Time and space to get her head clear and decide what to do with herself.
She snorts. Newly qualified after five years of study and she still doesn't know where she wants her life to go.
Her mates are all off starting their careers in practices they'd made connections with during placements, volunteering or just networking. She did all that too. Even had a couple of offers of jobs when she qualified. But the idea of sticking around the same old places filled her with dread. She loves animals, and she wants to be a vet, she knows that for sure. But there were too many memories tied to her time at uni. To the people at uni. To the person she'd tried to be. She needs to get away from all of it so that she can try to find out who she actually is.
Rhona thought she was daft, of course. And, more than once, Vanessa's mother had bemoaned the fact that Vanessa wasn't more like Rhona. Sensible Rhona who'd set herself up with a sensible job and a sensible bloke.
Only there was nothing sensible about the way Vanessa felt about Rhona. She'd told her, once, how she felt. That she couldn't stop thinking about her. That she didn't feel like a mate was supposed to feel. That she thought about kissing her, holding her. That she loved her.
And Rhona had laughed at her. Called her a drunken idiot and kissed her on the cheek.
Good one, Ness. You've had more blokes than I've had hot dinners.
And they never spoke about it again.
That laugh still comes to her in low moments. It wasn't cruel, or mocking. It was just-
Like Vanessa had suggested something so beyond the realm of possibility that it was laughable.
After that, Vanessa had tried to stop feeling that way. She went out with even more blokes, trying to find the one who could chase away the ache in her stomach whenever she thought about Rhona. It's not like she's gay or anything. She's been with tons of men. Rhona is just, was just, an aberration. She just mistook loving a really close friend for being in love, that's all. She's never been in love before, really, so she's got no frame of reference and everything just got jumbled up.
She just needs to get her head sorted. And getting away from everybody and avoiding making life decisions for a few months is definitely the right thing for her.
So, much to her mother's displeasure, she'd packed up her student digs into her old Beetle and set off for the Yorkshire Dales. She's planned as far as finding farm work to keep her going for the summer, then she'll decide what she wants. She loves being around farms. The hard work and routine of farm life really appeal to her right now. Something to occupy her mind with that's not exams or expectations. Or Rhona bloody Goskirk.
There's a sign up ahead and she strains her eyes until the lettering comes into focus.
She smiles. Definitely Postman Pat territory. She follows the road into what is clearly a tiny village, looking out for signs of life. There's a shop, a garage and a pub. Of those three, the pub's going to be her best bet for getting a feel for the place, so she pulls into the car park and shuts off the engine. She gets out and stretches her back and legs, stiff from driving for so long. Grabbing her handbag from the passenger seat and quickly checking she doesn't look like a complete disaster in the wing mirror, she heads inside.
It's a traditional country pub. Lots of dark, polished wood and an unlit open fireplace. A blackboard lists several lunchtime specials and a few people are eating meals at the tables. Vanessa's stomach rumbles.
"Can I help you, pet?" Vanessa turns to find a friendly looking lady in maybe her late fifties leaning on the bar and smiling. "I've not seen you round here before and you're looking a bit lost."
Returning her smile, Vanessa nods. "Yeah, I was just-" Deciding it's not very polite to enquire about work without buying anything, she slides onto one of the stools at the bar. "I'll take a Diet Coke, please."
"Coming up." The barmaid lifts a glass and starts to fill it. "D'you want to look at a menu?"
Vanessa's about to say no when her stomach makes itself heard again. She flushes and nods. "Thanks."
The barmaid's warm eyes dance with amusement. "Yeah, I think you'd better before your tummy eats itself."
Her drink is set down in front of her and a menu swiftly follows. She's trying to decide between a toastie and a jacket potato when a yell from some room through the back makes her jump.
"Diane! Where's the Salt and Vinegar? We definitely got some in the delivery yesterday."
The barmaid - Diane - rolls her eyes at Vanessa. "Voice of an angel, that one. I better go and help her."
She heads through the back and Vanessa finally decides what she wants for lunch. Well, what she really wants is one of those great ruddy plates of steak pie, but the demands of her final year at uni didn't leave a lot of time for earning, so she'll need to stick with the cheaper options for now.
When Diane returns, she's accompanied by a younger woman with long, jet-black hair who heads to the other end of the bar. Diane lifts her eyebrows. "Made up your mind yet?"
"I'll take a cheese and onion toastie, please." Vanessa hands the menu over, biting her lip. "And, if it's not too much trouble, maybe a bit of advice?"
"'S'long as it's not about your love-life, I'll give it me best shot." Diane leans her elbows on the bar.
Vanessa feels a blush creeping up her neck and she shakes her head. "No, not about...God, no. Not that I've got much of one to speak of."
"Pretty lass like you?" Diane frowns. "Thought you'd be beating them off with a stick."
"Well, that's-" Vanessa clears her throat, deciding that a change of subject is in order. "I'm looking for work for the summer and I wondered if you knew of anything going locally."
Diane sucks in a breath through her teeth and wrinkles her nose. "Not many jobs round here, pet. It's such a little village, you see." She tilts her head, obviously noticing Vanessa's shoulders slump. "What kind of work is it you're after?"
"I'd take anything, but I was looking for farm work, really."
"Oh!" Diane's eyes light up. "You might just be in luck there." She turns and beckons the younger woman over. "Chas, isn't your Charity looking for a farmhand?"
Chas comes over and stands by Vanessa, setting down the glasses she's been collecting. "Yeah, she managed to frighten another one off. Why?"
Diane nods to Vanessa and Vanessa sits up straight, trying to present a positive and professional image. "This young lady is looking for work."
Chas gives her a once over and turns to Diane, one eyebrow raised. "And you want to send her to our Charity? What's she ever done to you?" She looks back at Vanessa. "If you are in any way easily offended or have a thin skin, then turn back now."
"Oh, no, I'm not easily offended." She shakes her head and smiles. "I've worked around farms a lot. I know what's what. I can handle myself."
"I've no doubt about that, love. It's our Charity I'm wondering if you can handle." Chas rolls her eyes. "But, if you're sure, wait here."
Chas heads out into the foyer Vanessa had entered through and Diane gives her an encouraging smile. "I'll put your order in with the kitchen."
Chas comes back and hands Vanessa a handwritten flyer. "She pinned that up the other day. I haven't had any other enquiries about it so I doubt she's got anyone yet.
Farmhand wanted. Holdgate Farm.
Digs provided if required.
Skivers and posers need not apply.
Ask at bar.
"Well." Vanessa says, giving Chas a tentative smile. "Definitely to the point."
Chas grins. "That's the nicest description of her I've ever heard, to be honest."
Vanessa tilts her head. "I can't help but feel like you're trying to put me off this job. Is it...is there someone else you want to get it or-"
A hand lands on her arm and squeezes, gently. "Look, I'm mostly kidding, yeah? Our Charity is...well, she's not the easiest person in the world to get along with, and I wouldn't want you going up there expecting to find some big, jolly farmer with a bit of straw hanging out of his mouth. Charity's...her bark is worse than her bite." Chas raises her eyebrows. "Contrary to popular belief round here, she does actually have a heart tucked away somewhere." She winks. "Just doesn't let a lot of people see it."
"Okay." Vanessa nods. "I can cope with that. I can bark with the best of them, if need be."
Chas laughs at that and pats her shoulder. "Then you should be just fine. She quite likes it when someone stands up to her."
Diane deposits her toastie on the bar and her stomach growls again at the smell. She takes a bite and chews, feeling more positive than she has in a while. This might just all work out for the best.
Armed with the directions Chas gave her, Vanessa heads off to Holdgate Farm. Chas had said it was only about half a mile from the village, and she finds it easily, the big house standing out against the stunning backdrop. She drives up the access road and spots a woman lugging stuff into the back of a pick-up.
Vanessa sits with the engine turned off, watching as the woman jumps up into the bed of the truck, securing whatever it was she'd put there. She's wearing tight jeans and a pair of weathered riding boots, with a navy blue shirt tucked into her jeans. The buttons on her shirt are undone, revealing glimpses of a white camisole. If Vanessa didn't know better, she'd swear every movement the woman made was in slow motion.
Catching herself staring, Vanessa whips her head around and starts fiddling with her bag in the passenger seat. She hadn't thought to ask Chas what Charity looked like, but if this is her, then...
This was not part of Vanessa's plans when she decided to get away from everything. Trust her to find the one farm in Yorkshire run by a Greek goddess when she's trying to get her head straight. Bugger.
A loud knock against the car window makes her jump and she turns to find the woman looking at her, frowning. Vanessa opens the door, waiting for the woman to step back first, and gets out. She smiles.
The woman doesn't return it. "Can I help you?"
Vanessa can definitely hear that bark that Chas was talking about. "Hiya. I'm, uh, I'm looking for Charity Dingle?" She swallows. "Is that you?"
The woman crosses her arms. "Depends. What is it you're after?"
"Oh." Vanessa had expected an answer one way or another. "Well...I've come about the job. Chas in the pub said you...or...well, Charity, was taking folk on."
Green eyes drift down her body and back up, and Vanessa has to stop herself from fidgeting under the scrutiny. The woman meets her eyes again and laughs. "Look, I don't know what Chas has been telling you, but it's a farmhand I'm after, babe, not a secretary."
So it is Charity, then. "Yeah, I know." Vanessa nods, keeping in mind the bit about Charity liking people who could stick up for themselves. "She showed me your leaflet."
Charity takes a step closer to her, meaning Vanessa has to look up to hold her gaze, emphasising the difference in height between them. "And you think you're the one for the job, do you? Hefting hay bales and shunting cows around the place?"
Vanessa squares her shoulders. "And what makes me any different from you?"
A hint of smile flashes over Charity's mouth, before she adjusts it into a smirk. "Well, I'm the boss, you see. So I give out the orders, I don't do the grunt work." She shakes her head. "And I'm not gonna take on someone who looks like she'd fall over in a stiff breeze. I need a grafter."
Vanessa's mouth drops open. "And you think I can't graft?" Suddenly a summer working here isn't holding much appealt. "It's fine. Never mind. I didn't realise you were one of those farmers."
A change comes over Charity, her face hardens and she seems to get taller. "One of what farmers?"
Unfortunately, Vanessa chooses to answer. "Rich folk that buys their way into farming. Doesn't like getting their hands dirty."
Charity tilts her head, eyes . "That's a pretty big gob you've got for such a little person. Especially a little person who has no idea what she's talking about."
Vanessa presses her lips together and looks down. Her mother's always going on at her to keep her mouth shut and not just say the first thing that comes into her head. "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. I just...there's not much work going and I..." Her shoulders sag. "Sorry. I'll leave you to get on."
She goes to get back into the car and leave with her tail between her legs, but a strong hand grasps her shoulder.
Vanessa turns, hopeful. "Yeah?"
Charity's mouth twists at one side, like she's weighing something up. "I was just about to go and get one of my boys to repair a fence up in the top field." She sighs, looking Vanessa up and down again. "Tell you what. If you can do it, you've got the job."
"What? Really?" Vanessa nods, almost catching herself with the car door as she closes it. "Absolutely. Yeah, I can fix a fence. No problem. D'you mean now or…?"
"You're keen, at least. That's something." Charity strides away, towards the pick-up and Vanessa has to half run to keep up with her. She secures the back of the truck and gets in, Vanessa sliding into the passenger side a second later. The drive is mostly silent. Charity makes no conversation and Vanessa's kind of scared that if she opens her mouth, she'll say the wrong thing and scupper her chances again. So she makes do with looking out of the window at the farm. It's a nice property. Seems to be mostly grazing for cattle, but they pass a stable and there were a few chickens pecking around in the yard.
They reach the high field and Vanessa can see where the damage is in the fence. Eager to show Charity that she's not some feeble little girl, she hops out of the truck almost while it's still moving, and has got the roll of wire out of the back before Charity makes it round to join her. She hefts it over to the fence, and drops it on the ground. A toolbag lands at her feet a moment later and she quickly gets to work. Charity leans against the side of the truck, looking bored. But Vanessa's not fooled; she knows Charity's watching every move she's making. That thought causes some interesting reactions in her body, but she concentrates on quickly and efficiently removing the damaged section of wire, and replacing it, confident that she's doing a good job.
"It's beautiful out here," Vanessa murmurs, as she's finishing up, packing the tools back into the bag.
"Yeah, today maybe." Charity looks past Vanessa at the rolling fields. "It's not so beautiful when you're trying to do that in horizontal rain and gale force winds, I can tell you that."
"Thought you didn't do the grunt work," Vanessa says, offering a cheeky smile to show she's joking.
Charity smiles in return and pushes away from the truck, dusting her hands on her jeans. "We all muck in and do what needs doing, round here." She lifts her chin. "You up for that?"
Vanessa has to clench her hands into fists to keep from reaching for Charity and giving her a hug. She manages to stay still and nods, trying to give off an air of cool. "Yeah. Totally."
Something hard and sturdy bumps her shoulder from behind and she stumbles a few steps, turning to find an inquisitive cow from the next field over for a look.
"Well, hello there." She rubs the cow's head, between its ears. "Aren't you a pretty one, eh?"
"This gonna be a problem is it?" Charity's voice is closer than she expected, almost directly in her ear. "You flirting with the livestock?"
Vanessa glares playfully at her before returning her attention to the cow. "Don't you listen to her, love. You're not my type."
Charity leans against the newly repaired fence, watching the interaction with interest. "You seem comfortable around animals. Grow up on a farm?"
"I'm, uh...I'm a vet, actually." Vanessa feels stupid even saying that. It feels like it's a lie. Only grown-ups who've got their lives together should get to be vets. "Just graduated, I mean. So, like, not an actual vet with a job or anything."
Perhaps for the first time since they met, she watches Charity's face betray an actual emotion; surprise.
"You're kidding." Charity frowns, like she can't get her head around this concept. "So, let me get this straight, you're a fully qualified vet and you've come here to shovel up cow shit for me and get paid a pittance?"
Vanessa sighs. "I just needed some peace, I think. Away from everyone and everything." She shrugs. "This seemed like a good place for that."
Charity nods. "Well, that's your lookout, I suppose." She nods. "You seem to know your way around a farm, and you might save me a few bob on vet bills."
"Oh, I can't-" Vanessa shakes her head. "I mean, you'd need to get your own vet out for-"
"For the big stuff, yeah, course." Charity rolls her eyes. "But you can handle some of the bits I have to get Paddy flamin' Kirk up here to deal with. He charges me through the nose for the tiniest thing."
"I'll definitely do what I can."
"S'pose you best tell me your name." Charity tilts her head. "I didn't ask before. Thought I'd better not get attached if I wasn't going to keep you."
And of course that makes Vanessa blush like an idiot. She hopes it just looks like exertion from fixing the fence. "It's, uh, Vanessa." She holds out her hand. "Vanessa Woodfield."
"Nice to meet you, Vanessa Woodfield." Charity lifts an eyebrow. "So, super vet and fence fixer extraordinaire. What other talents you got hidden away, then?"
Vanessa smiles and shrugs. "S'pose you'll have to wait and see. Can't give away all my secrets at once, can I?"
Something passes over Charity's eyes at the mention of secrets and Vanessa wishes she'd never spoken. But the look is gone quicker than it came and is replaced by a challenging smirk. "I'll look forward to that."
They pack the stuff in the back of the truck and head down to the farmhouse again. This time, Charity starts the conversation.
"So, where you staying?"
Vanessa's stomach drops. She'll never be able to afford rented accommodation. "The, uh, the advert said digs."
"Well, yeah, but I was kind of counting on a bloke, babe." Charity looks at her like she's stupid. "I've got an outhouse round the back that the boys sleep in but-"
"That'll do fine." Vanessa beams. When Charity looks at her doubtfully, she continues. "Honestly. I've been sharing halls and flats with all sorts of people for years. I can cope with a few lads."
Charity parks the truck and puts on the brake, turning slightly in her seat to look at Vanessa. She shrugs. "Well, if you're sure." Charity nods over Vanessa's shoulder. "Here come the brothers Barton now." She turns to see two young men heading across from the next field, punching each other in the arm. Charity sighs. "Honestly, they're worse than a pair of toddlers at times."
"Just typical blokes, then?" Vanessa asks, getting a smile and a nod from Charity as they get out of the truck.
As they draw closer, Vanessa can see that they're both handsome, well-built guys. Guys Vanessa should want to get to know better, but her treacherous body refuses to react as it should. As she wants it to.
"Oi, oi." The shorter of the two speaks, wiggling his eyebrows. "Who's this, then?"
"This is Vanessa." Charity glares at him. "And she's gonna be working with us. So try and behave, yeah? Don't want her frightened off before she's even started."
He laughs. "I'm not the scary one round here, boss lady."
Vanessa sticks out her hand for a handshake, to diffuse any situation that might be about to arise. "Nice to meet you."
"Ross." He takes the offered hand and lifts it to his mouth, kissing her knuckles and grinning up at her. "Charmed, I'm sure."
Great, he's one of those cocky ones. She smiles at him as genuinely as she can, but his brother nudges him out of the way, shaking his head. He looks much more friendly than the other one. A nice, down-to-earth bloke.
"It's nice to meet you, Vanessa." They shake hands and he nods to his brother. "Sorry about our kid. He goes a bit overboard around pretty girls, you know?"
She blushes at the compliment, which doesn't feel like a line, for once. "It's fine."
Ross holds his hands up. "Well, forgive me for getting excited about having a bit of totty round here, for once." Vanessa notices his eyes flicking to Charity, the words obviously meant as a barb. Charity just rolls her eyes.
"Oi, you. You just keep your mind on your work and your hands to yourself, yeah?" She throws an arm out to Vanessa's car. "The pair of you can help Vanessa move her stuff in, for starters."
Ross salutes and holds his hand out. "Got your keys there, love?"
"Oh, it's open." The car is so old that the locks are sometimes unreliable. "There's just a suitcase in the boot and a couple of boxes on the back seat. I can carry them mys-"
"Don't be daft." Charity cuts in. "Let these two do your heavy lifting while you get the chance. That's what they're here for."
"Gives us a chance to show off our big muscles, don't it?" Ross makes his pecs jump under his shirt, which is both disturbing and strangely hypnotic. Pete shoves him in the direction of the car.
While the boys are getting her stuff, Vanessa turns back to Charity and smiles. "Thank you for this. You didn't have to give me a chance after I was gobby to you."
"You're right, I didn't." Charity narrows her eyes. "And don't think I'll always be such a soft touch, lady. I work hard and I expect the same from my lads." She frowns. "My, uh, people."
Vanessa grins. "I've been called worse. And I won't let you down. I promise."
A slight raise of one eyebrow indicates that Charity doesn't quite believe her, but she nods over Vanessa's shoulder. "Go on. Go and get settled in. I'll see you bright and early tomorrow morning."
It's all Vanessa can do to stop herself from bouncing on the spot. She nods. "Looking forward to it."
Charity rolls her eyes. "Laying it on a bit thick there, babe. No sane person looks forward to slopping out cow sheds at daft o'clock." She points after the boys. "You better go before Ross moves you into his room. I wouldn't put it past him."
With a final smile, Vanessa practically skips after Ross and Pete to the little cottage down a lane from the main house. It's very quaint, if a little run down. She follows the boys inside and up a dark little hallway.
"S'nothing fancy," Pete says, as he opens the door. "But there's a bed and wardrobe and that."
Vanessa has to blink when she enters the room after Ross, the light from the window blinding after the dim corridor. When her eyes have adjusted, she walks to the window and looks out on an endless rolling sea of fields. Her chest loosens and she breathes in deeply through her nose, ignoring the slightly musty scent of the room.
"It's beautiful," she whispers.
"Easily pleased. That's good to know." Ross says, from behind her.
She turns and fixes him with the most unamused expression she can conjure up, but he appears not to notice. She shakes her head and shifts her attention to Pete.
"So, Charity seems dead young to have a place like this. Did her parents leave it to her or summat?"
"No, she-" Pete goes to respond, but Ross cuts him off.
"Depends who you ask, love." He wiggles his eyebrows. "Her very old, very rich husband popped his clogs and left her the farm." He winks. "If you ask her family, she's just unlucky in love. If you ask his sons, she's a money grabbing little scrubber." He holds up his hands. "I'll let you draw your own conclusions."
"Shut up, you." Pete punches Ross in the arm, earning a glare as Ross rubs the sore bit, skulking out of the room. Pete continues once he's gone. "Look, you'll hear all sorts about Charity round here, but all I'll say is that if you play fair by her, she'll play fair by you." He shrugs. "She's worked hard to keep this place going when loads of people said she couldn't. You've got to admire her for that."
Vanessa nods. "Well, I've always believed in judging people on what you see them do, not what others say they do."
Pete smiles. "Then I reckon you'll do just fine." He rubs the back of his neck. "Look, I'll leave you to settle in. It's my turn to make dinner and I was gonna do a spag bol if you're interested?"
Housemates that can cook. Result. She nods. "Sounds brilliant. I'll put some of my stuff away and then come and join you, yeah?"
Once alone, Vanessa returns to the window and is so surprised to see Charity in one of the nearby paddocks that she quickly steps back, out of sight. Chiding herself for being ridiculous, she creeps forward again, noting that all of Charity's attention is focused on the solitary horse in the field. She watches the animal approach Charity, then turn and trot away. Vanessa's seen enough animals to know this one's skittish, but the longer she watches, the closer the horse gets to Charity, who's standing still with her hand outstretched.
Eventually the horse stops bounding away and comes close enough to smell Charity's hand. Vanessa watches as Charity slowly lifts her hand, telegraphing all of her movements, and strokes the horse's muzzle. Without realising it, the scene has coaxed a smile out of Vanessa. Any lingering concern from Ross' description of Charity evaporates as she observes her with the horse. No-one who is that gentle and patient with animals can be all bad.
Turning away from the window, Vanessa looks around the simple, bare room and smiles. The summer stretches in front of her, warm and inviting and unknown.
Yeah. She thinks she's going to like it here.