Later that same week, Vanessa's finishing off tending to the horses. She wipes her hands on her jeans as she heads out of the stable, but her eye is caught by two figures off to the side of the barn; it's Charity and Zoe Tate. They're standing closer together than Vanessa would like, and Charity's head is bent towards Zoe, like she's listening intently. There's an ugly jolt of jealousy that twists at her stomach and she swallows it down, knowing it's unwarranted. Whatever they're talking about, it's not an intimate chat. Charity's got her arms crossed and her mouth is set in a straight line. There's tension in her body, but she's not dismissing Zoe out of hand like she usually does. Whenever Zoe tries to speak to her about anything that's not directly related to the animals, Charity generally tosses out an insult or just plain tells her to get lost. But not now. It's unsettling.
She slips away before they can see her, going about the rest of her afternoon and trying not to think too much about it. But when she finishes and goes up to the big house like usual, there's something definitely not right. Charity's usually on her as soon as she comes through the door, protesting about her smelling like the animals, but kissing her nonetheless. Tonight she's just sitting at the kitchen table, nursing a glass of what looks like whisky. She doesn't look up when Vanessa enters.
"Alright?" Vanessa greets her, dropping a kiss on her hair as she goes to the sink to give herself a quick wash.
"Hmmm?" Charity finally looks up and meets her yes. "Yeah. Course. Why wouldn't I be?"
"Dunno." Vanessa shrugs, scrubbing at her nails with the nailbrush. "You just seem quieter than usual."
For a second, it looks like Charity's about to say something, but she bites her lip and shakes her head. "Just tired."
"Right." Vanessa grabs a tea towel and rubs her arms and hands, coming to sit at the table with Charity. She taps her nail on the glass. "Unusual for you to be on the hard stuff."
Charity groans. "This is exactly what I need right now, Vanessa. A flamin' nagging wife."
Flushing at the rebuke, and at the thought of being Charity's wife, Vanessa decides to just ask about what she saw. "What were you talking to Zoe about earlier?"
Green eyes flick to meet hers with the speed of a switchblade. And they're just as sharp. Charity shakes her head. "Nothing." There's a warning sitting just beneath the word, telling Vanessa not to push it.
Vanessa lifts her chin, facing the coming storm head on. "Didn't look like nothing. Looked like you were pretty interested in whatever she had to say."
"Nothing that's any of your business," Charity snaps, snatching up her glass and making the liquid slosh over the side. "How's that?"
"Listen," Vanessa says, lowering her eyes, sensing this isn't going to go down well. "I know the two of you were, you know, involved at some point and-"
"Oh, you do, do you?" Charity tilts her head. "And what's that got to do with anything?" She smirks. "Jealousy's not a good look on you, babe."
Vanessa's face burns "No, that's not-" She shakes her head. "Ever since I came here, it's been clear that you can't stand her, but today you seemed-" She sighs, deciding to take a different tack. "She asked me out, you know."
That gets Charity's attention. Her eyes widen. "Who? Zoe?"
Nodding, Vanessa clears her throat. "Yeah. Asked me out for a drink."
Charity stands, scraping her chair across the stone floor. She turns her back, moving over to the counter where the bottle of whisky is. She pours herself another drink, so Vanessa can't see her face when she next speaks. "When?"
"A while ago. Before. I mean, before you and me-."
"And you said no?" Her back's still to Vanessa, and her voice is steady, but her shoulders are too high to be natural.
"Course I said no!" Vanessa stands now too, moving closer to Charity. "I was already mad about you, wasn't I?"
Charity nods. She leaves her newly poured drink and moves to lean on the sink, looking out of the window. "She could- she could open doors for you, you know. She's got connections. She's loaded and-"
"And I don't care about any of that." Vanessa comes closer again, laying a hand on Charity's back, rubbing gently. "If I did, I'd have agreed to go out with her. I don't want to go out with her. I want you."
Still Charity doesn't look at her. Her eyes are on something in the distance when she speaks. "Vanessa, you must know you'll have to leave here at some point." Her voice is soft and low, and there's a hint of a tremor in it. "You can't stay and be my farm hand forever."
It's the first time either of them have brought this up, though it's been sitting between them since the first time they kissed. This is a summer job. It's a temporary situation. Vanessa's just qualified to do something she's wanted to do all her life. She's known all along that this would never be permanent. But, since she found out that Charity returned her feelings, she's been quite happily ignoring that fact.
"No, but, there are things we can do." Her own voice is rougher than she expected it to be. "It doesn't have to mean we-" She can't even say the words. "We can-"
"We can see each other once in a blue moon and slowly drift apart like every other idiot who tries to do a long distance relationship, you mean?" Charity asks, a hard edge to her voice that's been missing for weeks, months.
"No! We can work it out." She clutches Charity's arm, as if she's afraid someone's going to tear her away right this second. "There's vets around here, jobs that I can-"
Charity pulls away, walking over to the empty fireplace with her arms wrapped around herself. "So you can throw away your whole life, everything you'd planned, for a summer fling?"
The words sting harder than if Charity had slapped her across the face. "That's not what this is."
Charity tips her head back, looking at the ceiling. "Come on, babe. This was always just gonna be a bit of fun. You knew that when we started it up." She looks over at Vanessa, eyes more guarded and distant than she's seen in a long time. "Just a way to pass the time, yeah?"
Vanessa's shaking her head. "No it's not. That's not what it is and you know it."
Charity shrugs. "Well, I can't speak for you, but that's what it is for me."
There's a certainty in Vanessa's heart that this is a lie. She knows Charity has feelings for her that go beyond a summer fling. Or even just sex. She knows it's deeper. They've shared things, they've talked and cried and clung to each other. It's not just a summer fling. But with Charity looking at her now, like she doesn't even see her, her throat closes up and all the words she knows are stolen from her tongue.
Turning away before her tears can fall, she makes her way through the dark, old house and out into the warm summer evening. Wiping at her cheeks, she hurries round to the cottage she's hardly been back to in weeks and weeks. Without bothering to greet the boys, she heads straight for her bedroom. Once the door is closed, her tears come in earnest, accompanied by sobs that wrack her entire upper body. She throws herself onto the neatly made bed, turning her face into the pillow, and she cries.
She lies there for hours, sending the boys away when they come with offers of tea and food; the sympathy is implied. She tells them she's tired and she just fancies an early night. She knows they don't believe her. She can picture Pete, with his big concerned eyes, on the side of the door, listening to her cry. Part of her wants let him in and let him wrap his strong arms around her. Another part of her wants to just tear his clothes off and ride him until she can't think anymore. That's what her solution to everything used to be; mindless sex with men she wasn't attracted to. But she can't do that to Pete. Or to Charity. Even the thought of it makes her stomach roll and she clenches her eyes closed to try and chase away the mental image.
It's well past two and she hasn't slept a wink. She's argued with Charity in her head dozens of times over by now. Practising the speech she's going to give her about how she knows that it's not just a fling they're having. And how she can get a job in one of the nearby towns and just commute to work and come home here every night. Or, even if she does have to venture further afield, she'll have days off. People make these things work all the time. She's definitely going to argue her case when she's sure she won't just crumble. When she's brave enough.
There's a soft knock at the window and Vanessa physically jumps at the unexpected noise. With her heart racing, she sits up, craning her neck to see who's outside her window in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Her eyes land on a head of tousled blonde hair and she relaxes. She gets up and moves to the window. Charity's standing with her hands shoved in her back pockets. Her eyes are puffy and red. Vanessa opens the window and leans on the sill. Their position means she's looking down at Charity for once.
"Did I wake you?" Charity asks.
"Wasn't asleep." Vanessa sniffs. "What's up?"
Charity sighs. "I'm sorry about earlier, okay. I shouldn't have said what I did."
Nodding, Vanessa tilts her head. "Why did you, then?"
"Zoe flamin' Tate had got inside my head." She rolls her eyes. "When you saw us talking earlier, she was telling me about a mate of hers who's starting up this big fancy veterinary centre in Dorset. She said it would be a great opportunity for you and that she could set up an interview with him."
Vanessa frowns. "And why'd she tell you and not me?"
Throwing her hands up, Charity shrugs. "Because she's twisted, babe. Always playing with people like they're her little toys." She moves closer, resting her hand on the windowsill, just short of touching Vanessa's arm. "I'm pretty sure she wanted to see if I was enough of a selfish cow not to mention it to you."
Vanessa nods slowly, as it starts to make sense. "So she could tell me later and drop in that you already knew and hadn't said anything?"
Charity huffs. "Wouldn't put it past her." She shrugs. "So. Now I've told you."
Shaking her head, Vanessa moves her hand to cover Charity's. "I don't want to go to Dorset, Charity. It's too far."
"And I don't want you to look back in a year or two and decide I held you back from doing something with your life." She turns her hand over gripping Vanessa's fingers. "You need to get out there, kid. Make your mark. You're brilliant and I can't keep you hidden away here forever. You'll end up hating me for it." There are tears shining in Charity's eyes. "And I couldn't stand it if you hated me."
Reaching out, she cups Charity's cheek, stroking with her thumb. She shakes her head. "I could never hate you. And this is my choice, Charity. You're not forcing me to do anything. I don't want to move that far away. I want to be near you. I want to see where this goes."
Charity sighs, shifting closer until her forehead is touching Vanessa's. "You need to think about this more. Promise me you'll think about it. Don't just decide now, and don't just decide based on us, yeah?"
Letting her eyes drift closed, Vanessa nods, her nose rubbing against Charity's. "I promise."
But her mind's made up.
Charity sighs. "So, you coming back ho-" She catches herself. "Up to the big house?"
After pressing a kiss to Charity's cheek, Vanessa looks over her shoulder and then back again with a cheeky smile. "You could come in here for a change."
Charity goes up on her tiptoes and eyes the bed with suspicion. "We'll never both fit in that tiny bed."
Vanessa lifts her eyebrows. "It'll be fun trying, though, won't it?"
Laughing softly, Charity shakes her head. "Fine. Stand back." She hoists herself up on the window sill.
"What are you doing, you daft cow?" Vanessa hisses. "We've got a door!"
"Well, I'm here now," Charity grumbles, accepting Vanessa's hand so that she doesn't fall flat on her face as she clambers over. "Anyway, bit more romantic this way, isn't it? Climbing in windows for a secret night of passion."
"Bit more like a serial killer, you mean?" Vanessa says, making sure Charity's on solid ground before letting go of her hand. "And I don't know how secret it'll be if you're as loud as you usually are."
Charity gasps. "Hark at you! You're hardly quiet yourself, lady."
Vanessa laughs as Charity grabs her by the waist and pulls her close. Their lips meet gently at first, and then with more insistence as Charity walks her backwards to the bed. The backs of her thighs hit it and she sits down, ending their kiss abruptly. Scooting back, she tugs on Charity's hips, encouraging her to climb on. When Charity tries to lay her back, they both have to twist so as not to hit the wall and they giggle as they arrange themselves on the far too small surface.
"Maybe you were right," Vanessa confesses, lifting her head to kiss Charity's chin. "This bed is too small."
Charity hums as she dips to press kisses just below Vanessa's ear. "We'll make it work," she whispers. "I like a challenge."
And they do. And they only fall out of the bed once.
Things are better after that, more like they were before. Until the day Pete finds her in the stables and tells her that Charity needs her up at the house urgently. She drops what she's doing and hurries up there. There's a car she doesn't recognise in the drive and she makes her way inside.
"Charity?" she calls out.
"In the kitchen."
She heads through, somewhat relieved to hear that Charity's voice sounds normal; not worried or panicked. She wonders if maybe it's a lunch or something that Charity's had Marlon make for the pair of them as a treat. But when she gets into the kitchen, she's surprised to see a bloke she's never laid eyes on before sat at the table with Charity, drinking a brew. He's a bit older than they are, maybe in his mid-thirties. He's what Vanessa's mother would describe as 'portly', with red cheeks and dark eyes that crinkle at the edges when he smiles.
"Oh," Vanessa's eyes flit between the pair of them. "I didn't know we were expecting visitors."
The man stands up and holds out his hand. "Jim Herriot." She frowns and he rolls his eyes. "I know. Don't get me started on the ribbing I got at uni for that."
She shakes his hand, smiling tentatively. "Vanessa Woodfield." She looks at Charity again, quirking her eyebrows in question.
"Jim's Zoe's mate," Charity explains, not quite meeting Vanessa's eyes. She stands and goes over to the kettle, speaking with her back to both of them. "You know the one I told you about? The one setting up the practice in Dorset?"
Vanessa's stomach goes cold; this whole thing is a set up. She takes a step backwards. "Up here visiting Zoe, are you?"
"Well, not quite," Jim says, his warm smile fading a little. "I was in the area doing some interviews and Zoe called me to say that you might be interested in one of the positions we've got going. Said you were not long graduated. We're dead keen to nurture new talent, you see, so I said I'd stop by and-" He rubs the back of his neck, glancing at Charity. "I was sort of under the impression that you knew I was coming, if I'm honest."
"No, Jim, I wasn't." Vanessa glares at Charity's back. "Someone's misled you there."
"Right." He nods. "So you wouldn't be interested in-"
"Yes, she is interested," Charity says, bringing another cup of tea to the table and setting it down. She looks meaningfully at the seat nearest to Vanessa. "Babe, why don't you sit and have a chat, eh? What harm can it do?"
"I don't want to waste this nice man's time, Charity," Vanessa says, through gritted teeth.
"Listen, there's obviously been some sort of misunderstanding," Jim says. "So, I'll get out of your hair and-"
Charity all but shoves Vanessa into the chair and slides the brew over to her. "You promised you'd consider this properly, Vanessa. Now's your chance." Charity turns and smiles at Jim. "She's all yours."
With that, she leaves them alone, staring awkwardly at each other. Jim slowly sits back down, on the very edge of the kitchen chair, like he might need to escape. He looks in the direction Charity left in and then leans closer to Vanessa.
"Uh, I hope I'm not overstepping here, but your boss is a little...odd."
"That's one word for her," Vanessa mutters. Feeling sorry for this poor bloke who's been inserted into a situation he didn't ask for, she relents. "Look, Charity thinks I'm missing a big opportunity by not entertaining the idea of coming to work with you, and I've told her that I don't want to move that far away from her." She catches herself. "Here. Far away from here."
At her slip, Jim's eyebrows go up. "Ah. I see."
"What do you see?" Vanessa asks. Years of denying her own feelings automatically put her on the defensive.
Jim takes a sip from his cup, looking over the rim at her. He sets the tea down and leans his elbow on the table. "When I was at uni, I did a placement on a farm up near the border." His eyes are somewhere over her right shoulder as he reminisces. "There was this big, strapping Scottish lad who was there for the summer an'all. Beautiful, he was. The reddest hair you've ever seen, and freckles big as footballs." He makes a circle with his thumb and forefinger to indicate how big they were. "I thought he was-" He stops and shakes his head. "Well, I'm sure you get the picture."
As he talks, Vanessa finds herself leaning closer to him, pulled in by the genuine happiness the story seems to give him. "And was he-" She lifts her eyebrows. "Did the two of you, uh-"
"Oh, we got up to all sorts round the back of that cowshed," Jim says, with a laugh. "Learned quite a bit on that placement, I have to say. And not all about cows, mind." He smiles softly. "Made a lot of nice memories that summer."
Vanessa shifts in her seat, shoving her hands underneath her thighs. "And I suppose you're going to tell me that's what I should be doing? Chalking this up to experience? Leaving it behind and getting on with my life?"
Jim sits back in his chair and sighs. "What I'm saying, Vanessa, is that I still wonder what might have been." He shrugs. "Maybe big Robbie from Roxburgh was the love of my life. We'll never know."
"So," Vanessa draws the word out in question. "You're saying I should stay here? With Charity?"
"I'm saying it's your choice to make," Jim tells her, kindly. "Don't let anyone make it for you. Whether they've got your best interests at heart or not. You make the best decision for you, love."
Tears well in Vanessa's eyes; that's not something she's ever done. Her decisions have always been based on what she should be doing. What her mother regarded as the right thing to do. Until she made the snap decision to come here for the summer. That was the first time she'd stepped outside the norm. And she'd kept doing it. And it felt great.
"I will, Jim," she says. "Thank you."
He nods and picks his tea up again. "But, since I'm here, we might as well have a chat about your experience, eh?" He winks. "Doesn't hurt to keep some doors open, just in case."
They spend the next hour or so in easy conversation. Vanessa had planned to give minimal answers so that he wouldn't feel compelled to offer her a job at the end of it. Unfortunately, her instinctive need to please rushes to the fore and she finds herself answering his questions honestly and fully, laying out all of the experience she had gained over her time at uni, her volunteer work and her summer jobs. When Jim glances at the clock on the wall and exclaims at the time that's passed, they both get up and Jim gets himself sorted to leave.
She walks him to the door and he turns when they reach the step.
"You know I have to offer you a job, don't you?" he says, his tone verging on apologetic. "I'd love to have you on board down at my place. You're just the type of person we're looking for."
She smiles up at him. "That's really sweet," she nods. "But I have to say no. I can't spend my life wondering if I gave up something wonderful."
"I get that," he says. He opens his arms. "Can I give you a hug?"
"Course!" She throws her arms around his neck. "Thank you. You really helped me get my head straight."
"There's a first time for everything, I suppose," he says, pulling away with a wink. He holds onto her hand, squeezing it. "I'm sorry we won't be working together, but I'm thrilled you're making the right choice for you."
From the corner of her eye, she sees movement off towards the stables; Charity's lurking by the door, trying to look like she's not watching them. She goes up on her tiptoes and presses a kiss to his cheek.
He takes a card out of his pocket and hands it over. "And if you ever need a job, or even if you're just in my neck of the woods for a visit, give me a call. We'll grab a cuppa and a chat."
"Will do. Thanks again." She slips the card into her back pocket, stepping with him as he heads to his car. He winks and waves at her as he reverses and turns, beeping his horn as he trundles down the access road. She stands waving until she can't see his car anymore.
"That all looked very cosy," Charity remarks from behind her. There's too much sarcasm in her tone for Vanessa's liking. Especially after what she'd done. She spins around and finds Charity stood with her arms crossed.
"You're the one that invited him here," Vanessa points out. "And now you're mardy that I liked him? You're not jealous, are you?"
"Oh, as if," Charity protests with a roll of her eyes. "He was camper than a row of pink tents." She lifts her eyebrows in question. "How did the interview go? Took you long enough."
Vanessa shakes her head, laughing incredulously at Charity's attitude. "You had no right to go behind my back and bring him here. I take it you and Zoe got your heads together and arranged this, yeah?"
"Oh, Vanessa, stop making it out to be something it's not." Charity sighs. "I knew you weren't gonna give this opportunity a single thought. So I did something about it for you." She shrugs. "You're welcome, by the way."
"I'm welc-" Vanessa's almost spluttering with rage. "How dare you think you can make decisions about my life? How dare you think you know what I need or should do better than I do?"
"Because I don't want to be the thing you regret, okay?" Charity's eyes are blazing. "I've had enough regrets in my own life to know that, six months down the line, you'd be wishing you bit that bloke's hand off."
"You don't know that," Vanessa tells her, shaking her head. "You can't know that."
"Did he offer you the job?" Charity asks, ignoring Vanessa's fury.
"That's none of your business," Vanessa says. "Despite what you seem to think."
"He did, then," Charity nods, and for just a second, her mask slips and Vanessa sees the sadness behind her eyes. "Good. What was your answer?"
Vanessa clenches her teeth, reluctant to have this conversation while she's still so angry. "I told him I didn't want it. I told him I was staying here."
Charity throws her hands up. "Just like I said! You've not even given this a second's thought!"
"I have." Vanessa crosses her arms. "I've already told you I don't want to go to Dorset."
Letting her head fall back, Charity glares at the sky. "Vanessa, you're being handed a great opportunity on a plate. Things like this don't happen every day, you know. You can't put your life on hold for me."
"I'm not putting my life on hold," Vanessa protests. "And even if I was, I'd be doing it for me." Vanessa's eyes sting. "I'm not a little girl, Charity. I can make my own decisions."
When Charity meets her eyes, there's a blankness to them that makes Vanessa's stomach hurt. Charity crosses her arms and tilts her head. "Well, how about I make this one easy for you?" Charity hesitates, just slightly, but then pushes on. "You're fired."
"What?" Vanessa takes a step back. "You're not- you can't-"
"I can. And I just did." Charity presses her lips together. "I'll give you a week's wages in lieu of notice so you can get yourself in order. After that, you'll need to find some other way to make money." She nods to the house. "So you better go and phone big Jimbo back and tell him you'll take his job."
There are tears streaming down Vanessa's cheeks now and she has no way to stop them. She shakes her head. "Why are you doing this? Why are you pushing me away when you know what we've got is-"
"Is what Vanessa?" Charity tilts her head. "Love? Is that what you're going to tell me now? That you love me?"
Yes, Vanessa's heart shouts.
"I'm the first woman you've been with," Charity says. "You've finally let yourself feel the things you were afraid to feel before, and that's making you think that you'll never meet anybody like me again."
"I won't," Vanessa insists. "I don't want to meet anyone else."
Charity comes closer and cups her face, wiping at her cheeks with her thumbs. "You are amazing, Vanessa. Women will be queuing up to go out with you. Nice, normal women who'll treat you well and who haven't got more baggage than the carousel at Heathrow."
In spite of herself, Vanessa laughs. "I don't want normal," she says. "I want you. You make me laugh. I'm happier when I catch sight of you coming across a field." She grabs Charity's hand and places it on her chest. "My heart it...it beats a bit faster."
Charity's thumb strokes across the skin of her chest and for a moment she thinks she's won her round. "It's just new, babe," she whispers. "That's all. It's new and it's exciting, but it'll fade." She briefly leans her forehead against Vanessa's. "It always does."
"It doesn't have to, though!" Vanessa grasps Charity's arms, afraid to let her go. "We can make it work. I know we can."
Pressing her lips into a thin line, Charity shakes her head. "We can't." She pushes Vanessa away, stepping back out of her reach. "Go to Dorset, Ness. Go and live your life. You'll soon forget all about me."
When she turns to leave, Vanessa's almost sure she sees a tear escaping from her eye. But then she's gone and Vanessa's left in the yard. She's never felt more alone.
She's been face down on her bed in the cottage since she got back, sobbing into her pillow. There's a knock on her door and she ignores it. But her crying must be loud enough to genuinely alarm the boys, because after a few seconds, she hears the door opening. Quickly turning on her side, she faces the wall, rubbing at her face. The bed dips and a large hand lands on her calf, rubbing gently.
"You alright?" Pete asks.
"Oh yeah, fine and dandy, me." She sniffs and looks over at him. His warm blue eyes are kind and it's enough for her to dissolve again. She sits up and throws herself at him, burying her face into his neck.
"Lucky get. I knew I should've come in first," Ross comments from where he's leaning against the door. She hiccups out a laugh and holds Pete tighter. He strokes her back and mumbles awkwardly comforting words until she's got herself sorted enough to sit up on her own.
"What's she told you?" she asks, looking to Ross. He'll give her an honest answer.
"That you've got a new job in some fancy place down south," Ross says with a shrug. "Way she was talking, I thought you might be a bit happier about it than this."
"She didn't tell you she sacked me, then?" Vanessa says, standing and moving over to look at herself in the mirror. She looks a right state. Plucking a tissue out of a box, she blows her nose.
"Sacked you?" Pete asks. "Why the hell did she do that?"
Vanessa shrugs and blows out a breath, looking at herself in the mirror. "Because she thinks this job in Dorset is a great opportunity for me and she doesn't want me sticking around here just because of, you know, me and her."
"That's actually pretty noble for Charity," Ross says, he nods at Pete. "Look, our Pete's getting all misty eyed at how romantic it all is."
"Shut up, you," Pete says, getting to his feet.
"I'm not the one who was sobbing at My Best Friend's Wedding, am I?" Ross continues, squawking when Pete shoves him out of the room.
"I said shut it." Pete slams the door and turns his attention to Vanessa, taking her by the shoulders. "How do you feel about all this?"
She lifts her shoulders and lets them drop. "Doesn't matter, does it?"
"Course it matters!" Pete says. "You've got to, I dunno, tell her how you feel, or-"
"I have done, Pete," she interrupts, before he can go on. "She knows how I feel about her. She knows I want to stay here and see where things go between us. But she's insisting that it's just a fling and that I'll regret staying."
"A fling?" Pete barks a laugh. "I've seen Charity have flings, and this isn't how it looks, believe me."
"Well, she's made her mind up. And mine for me." Vanessa sniffs again, wiping at her nose. "She doesn't want me to stay."
"I'm gonna talk to her," Pete says. "Maybe she just needs to hear it from somebody else."
She catches his arm as he passes, tugging him to a halt, shaking her head. "Please don't. She'll only think I've put you up to it. And it won't make her change her mind."
Pete's big frame deflates, his shoulders hanging low. "I hate seeing you like this," he confesses. "You're like this little ball of sunshine that came into all our lives and made everything brighter. And I know Charity feels the same way about you as you do her. I know it."
That's the thing, though; Vanessa knows it too. She's seen it in the way Charity looks at her in a way she doesn't look at anyone else. She's felt it in the tenderness of her fingers when they caress her. It pours out of her when they're twisted together beneath sweaty sheets, unable to get close enough to one another. She knows how Charity feels.
"Yeah, well, it's not enough." Her voice cracks and she lifts a hand to cover her mouth, incredulous that she has any tears left to cry. Pete sighs and gathers her into his arms, holding her and rocking her back and forth, telling her everything will work out in the end.
She wishes she could believe him.
The next morning, Charity's nowhere to be found. The horses have all been seen to by the time Vanessa and the boys get up, so Charity's obviously been on the go for hours before heading out to God knows where in the pick-up. Vanessa goes through the morning milking barely registering what's she's doing. Ross comes up to her when they're finishing up, shaking his head.
"You're a better man than me," he says. "If she'd binned me the way she did you, I'd have been out of here last night."
Vanessa frowns. "She said she'd give me a week's notice."
"Yeah, that means she'll pay you a week's wages," Ross says. "Doesn't mean you actually have to stay and work the week." He bumps her shoulder with his. "Get yourself out of here, kid. Don't give her the satisfaction of seeing you like this."
"I don't think she feels any satisfaction," Vanessa says, automatically defending Charity. "She's just-" She sighs. "She's just trying to do what she thinks is right by me. I know that."
He nods. "Like I said, that's a big thing for Charity. She's usually a selfish cow." He holds his hands up when she glares at him. "What? I'm only telling the truth! She must really like you if she's not cooking up some scam to keep you here forever."
"She doesn't need to," Vanessa says with a shrug. "I want to stay."
"Maybe if you go, it'll show her what she's missing?" He bats his eyelashes. "I've left a few girls pining for me over the years. I bet half the girls in Manchester tell stories about what might have been."
"Or about how they had a lucky escape?" She smiles at his fake hurt, even as her throat goes tight.
She's going to miss this idiot, she realises. She'd been so focused on missing Charity that she forgot she'd be leaving Ross and Pete behind an'all. And Paddy and Chas and all the other people in the village she's come to know and like. It's the first place that's really felt like it could be a home. Growing up, after her dad left, her house never felt much like a home. It was a place she ate and slept and did her homework, but that was about it. At uni she was shifted around to different halls and then flats, never settling with any group of people for long. But Emmerdale felt like it fit her, right from the beginning.
Patting Ross's arm, she sniffs. "I've got to go and make a phonecall." And before she can make another show of herself, she heads out of the barn and up to the big house.
Her hand is surprisingly steady as she punches the numbers from Jim's card into the phone in Charity's kitchen. It rings a couple of times and then Jim picks up with a friendly greeting.
"Hi, Jim? It's, uh, it's Vanessa Woodfield."
"Vanessa! I didn't expect to hear from you this soon," he says. "What can I do you for?"
She swallows, closing her eyes. "I'd, uh, I'd like to take you up on the offer of that job. If it's still going, that is."
There's a pause and she knows he's weighing up what her acceptance means. She hopes to God he doesn't offer her any sympathy right now, because she's not sure she's got the energy to cry any more tears.
"Job's yours if you want it," Jim says. "This is...quite a change of heart." He clicks his tongue. "Sorry, that was a terrible choice of words."
She sniffs and nods. "Yeah, the heart's still the same," she confirms. "But I...don't have a job here anymore, so-"
"Oh, love." Jim's voice is soft and she looks to the ceiling to try and stop the tears from falling. "If it's any consolation, it really does seem like she's trying to look out for your best interests."
"Yeah," Vanessa says. "So she keeps telling me."
"Well, you can start whenever you want. We could use a spare pair of hands, or six, right now. With all the set up and trying to get things in order for the opening." He sounds like he's trying to keep his voice light for her. She's not sure if it helps or makes things worse. "And you're welcome to stay with me till you find yourself a place. I'm rattling around in a big house all on my lonesome. And you know I don't swing your way so you wouldn't have to worry about that side of things."
She lets out a laugh that sounds more like a sob. "Thanks, Jim. That's really kind of you. I just have to get a few things sorted out at this end and then I'll call you back to make arrangements if that's okay?"
"Course, love," he tells her. "You do what you need to and we'll look forward to welcoming you into our mad little family down here."
They say their goodbyes and she hangs up the phone, taking a minute to centre herself.
"You took the job, then?"
She spins around at the sound of Charity's voice. She didn't hear her come in and she has no idea how long she's been stood there, listening. She lifts her chin, determined to be strong. "You didn't leave me with much choice, did you?"
Expecting a snappy comeback, she's surprised when Charity just nods. "I know you're annoyed now, but you'll look back and be grateful I did this."
"You know, I'm really fed up of you telling me how I'm going to feel about things," Vanessa says. "For all you know, I'll go down there and I'll hate every second of it."
"Maybe," Charity admits. "But at least you'll be out there. Not stuck here in some tiny village with the first girl who paid you a bit of attention."
Vanessa recoils, stung. "Is that really what you think?" she whispers. "That I'm so desperate for someone to like me that I'll just cling on to the first person who comes along?"
Pushing herself away from the doorframe, Charity approaches her, but stops a good few feet away. "How will you ever know if you don't go and try something else?"
She wants to scream at Charity. She wants to take her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. She wants to tell her that she's let blokes paw at her and grind into her for years because she was looking for something even close to what they've found together. She nods.
"I'll be out of your hair tomorrow," she says, her voice strangely strong. "I've got to get some stuff together and say some goodbyes. If that's okay with you."
"Course it is, babe," Charity says, with a half smile. "Take your time."
And that's it, apparently. That's all she's got to say about Vanessa moving to the other end of the country. Vanessa nods and moves around Charity to head out of the kitchen.
She stops and turns, surprised that Charity spoke again. "Yeah?"
Charity's jaw works and then she bites her lip, shaking her head. "Nothing."
The lead in Vanessa's heart drags it a bit further down in her chest, sitting heavily on top of her stomach. "Fine."
With her head high, she leaves Charity alone in the kitchen.
She spends the rest of the morning packing up her stuff. She leaves the suitcase and boxes sitting in her bedroom ready to go into her car the following morning. She tries not to think about how she'll be on the move again, with the sum total of her possessions barely filling her boot.
Jumping in her car, she heads down to the village. There's a couple of people she wants to say goodbye to. She parks outside the vets and heads up the path. Pearl's at the desk reading a People's Friend when she gets in and she smiles at the sight.
"Hi Pearl," she says, getting her attention. "Paddy in?"
"Yes, he's through the back," Pearl says, trying to make out like she was busy with some paperwork. "D'you want me to get him for you."
"Uh, yeah, if he's not busy," Vanessa says, clearing her throat that's already clogging with emotion. Everything's 'the last time'. She shouldn't give a stuff that this is 'the last time' she'll catch Pearl skiving.
"Paddy!" Pearl yells, giving Vanessa a fright. "Visitor!"
Paddy comes through from the examining room and smiles brightly when he sees her. "This is a surprise," he says. "We've barely seen you recently. Thought Charity was holding you prisoner up there."
She swallows and tries to return his smile. "Not quite," she tells him. "I'm, uh, actually moving on. Got a job down in Dorset and I start at the beginning of next week, so, yeah." She shrugs. "I didn't want to leave without saying goodbye."
"Wow," Paddy says, his smile gone. "Well, I mean, that's great, obviously. For you, I mean. With, you know, the job and that." He shakes himself, pasting on a smile. "No, it's brilliant. Honestly." He darts forward and pulls her into a hug, crushing her against his chest. Just as quickly, he lets her go, adjusting his glasses. "Sorry. Didn't mean to be inappropriate."
"You're fine, Paddy," she says with a smile. She'll miss his awkward bumbling. "I wanted to say thank you for letting me in on some of the procedures and that up at the farm. It's been really great seeing both sides of things."
He nods and looks at the floor. "You know, if we'd been able to afford it, I'd have offered you a job here." He smiles at her. "Maybe you'll come back and we'll be flourishing and we'll be able to take you on, eh?"
"Yeah," she chokes out. "Maybe." She clears her throat and blinks back tears, going in and giving him another hug. "I have to uh-" She points to the door. "Bye." With a final wave at Paddy and Pearl, she blindly shoves the door open and stumbles out into the light. She blows out a shaky breath. If that's how hard it was with Paddy, how's it going to be with Ross and Pete? She closes her eyes, unwilling to even imagine saying goodbye to Charity.
"Vanessa!" The plummy voice goes right through her and she grits her teeth. Opening her eyes, she sees Zoe getting out of her car in the drive. She smiles as she approaches. "Jim called earlier to let me know you'd taken him up on the offer of a job." She grasps Vanessa's forearm and squeezes. "I'm so happy for you. This is such a wonderful opportunity for you when you're just starting out. Congratulations."
Vanessa nods, removing her arm from Zoe's hold. She doesn't say anything in response, still unsure if her voice will work properly. Zoe tilts her head, lowering her eyebrows.
"You seem upset, Vanessa." She moves closer and Vanessa steps back. Zoe looks at her with that smug smile that makes Vanessa feel about twelve. "Listen, if you're concerned about having to leave behind certain connections you've made here, I wouldn't worry. You've definitely made the right choice." She leans in, as if sharing a confidence. "It's best you don't get in any deeper than you already are. Things never work out with that sort of person and you'd be-"
"'That sort of person'?" Vanessa spits. "Who? Charity? And what sort of person is she?"
Zoe appears taken aback that Vanessa has challenged her. "Well, I'm sure you know what I mean. Her past is-"
"Is her business," Vanessa interrupts. "Not mine, and certainly not yours." She's angry now. Angry at this whole situation, which was engineered by this person stood in front of her. She shakes her head. "Charity is the most amazing person I've ever met. She's caring, and loyal, and funny, and clever, and strong." She looks Zoe up and down. "Which is more than I can say for you."
"Look, darling," Zoe says, dropping her friendly facade. "You're not the first person to fall under Charity Dingle's spell and you won't be the last. I'm only trying to save you from that car crash and get you a good start in your career. Is that so terrible?"
"I really wish people round here would stop thinking they know better than I do what's best for me," Vanessa rants. "Whatever you said to Charity has twisted her up inside and made her push me away. And I don't know if it's because you want her for yourself-" Zoe scoffs and rolls her eyes. "-or if you just don't want her to be happy with anyone else, but whichever it is, you better back off, lady." She advances on Zoe now. "She deserves to get on and live her life without smug bitches like you interfering in it, trying to keep her down. She's amazing. She's wonderful. And she's a million times better than the likes of you."
"Well said, love."
Vanessa spins around to find Chas standing there, grinning. Zoe mutters something under her breath that sounds like 'good riddance' and slinks into the surgery. Chas walks up the path to meet Vanessa.
"You know what's going on, then?" Vanessa asks.
"Yeah." Chas sighs. "Had our Charity crying on my shoulder a few times this week."
The confirmation that this is hurting Charity as well makes Vanessa's throat ache. "Why's she doing it, Chas?"
Chas shakes her head. She nods to the surgery door. "Because, all her life, she's had people like that telling her that she doesn't deserve to have nice things happen to her. She's had blokes tell her she's worthless, including her own father." She squeezes Vanessa's shoulder. "And she thinks you deserve better."
"But she- I-" Vanessa finds herself unable to articulate how wrong that is.
"I know," Chas says, quietly. "I tried to tell her, but she was adamant about not keeping you here." She shakes her head. "She thinks the world of you, you know. I've never seen her like this over anyone." She winces. "Sorry, that probably doesn't help."
Vanessa sighs. "I think it does a bit," she decides. "I mean, it hurts, obviously. But it's good to know I haven't totally invented this in my head. That she does- she feels-" Wiping at her nose, she tries to smile. "Thanks, Chas. It was really nice getting to know you these past few months."
"You too, flower," Chas says, opening her arms for a hug, which Vanessa accepts. Chas squeezes her tight and whispers in her ear. "Don't give up on her, eh? You never know what the future could bring."
Nodding, Vanessa buries her face in Chas' shoulder and holds her tighter.
The boys find her later, sat on the wall outside the cottage, kicking her heels against the old stones. Ross has a crate of beer on his shoulder that he sets down next to her and jumps up to join her.
"Thought we'd give you a classy send off," he says, handing her and Pete a can each and taking one for himself. "Few cans, bit of banter. Sorted."
She smiles, opening her beer and holding it up for each of them to knock theirs against.
"Cheers." She takes a long drink, enjoying the chilled beer after sitting in the sun.
"We would've suggested a game of darts at the pub, but they've not installed that step stool yet," Pete says, leaning his hip against the wall. She slaps his shoulder, with an affronted gasp.
"We can't all be seven foot three, you know," she tells him.
"And some of us can't even be five foot three," Ross puts in, earning himself a slap as well.
"I'm gonna miss the pair of you," she admits after their laughter dies down. "You've really given me an insight into what it must be like having two big brothers."
Ross groans. "That's just what I've always wanted. A hot girl telling me I'm like a brother to her."
"Well, I take it as a compliment," Pete says with a soft smile. "And we're gonna miss you too."
"Yeah," Ross agrees. "It'll be a bugger to go back to cooking every second night instead of every third."
She laughs but it's caught inside a sob, which is followed by another and another. She sets her beer down and covers her face with both hands. "I'm sorry," she mumbles. "I didn't mean to-" Two sets of strong arms encircle her and she does her best to wrap her arms around their backs, letting herself cry.
There's a cough a little distance away and they break the hug, both boys turning away and wiping at their faces. Vanessa's eyes meet Charity's and she's struck, as she always is, by how beautiful she looks. Charity offers an apologetic smile.
"I, uh, don't want to interrupt this love fest," she says. "But I just-" She stops and swallows. "I wondered if you might want to come up and have a glass of wine with me? Just to, uh-"
"Oh," Vanessa says, glancing at the crate. "The boys were going to-"
Pete sweeps in and cuts Vanessa off, helping her down from her perch on the wall. "You go on. We'll catch up later, yeah?"
"Yeah." She nods at Charity. "Okay."
She mirrors Charity's stance, hands in the back pockets of her jeans, as they walk up to the big house in silence. They head for the kitchen, where Vanessa busies herself finding two glasses while Charity gets the wine from the fridge. Vanessa stands quietly, while Charity finds a corkscrew and opens the wine, pouring them each a glass. She puts the bottle down and hesitates.
"I'm sorry if this is, you know, making it worse," Charity says. "I just didn't want you to leave without saying goodbye."
"It's not," Vanessa assures her, even though that's a lie. Being this close to Charity, knowing that tomorrow she'll be hundreds of miles away, is torture.
Charity nods and hands her a glass, lifting the other one. "To new beginnings, eh?"
Nodding, Vanessa clinks their glasses together. "Cheers."
They sip their wine in silence until Charity breaks it.
"I am gonna miss you, you know," she says, quietly, looking into her glass. "None of this was about me wanting you to go."
Vanessa sighs. "Yeah, I know." She leans back against the counter, beside Charity, so their arms are touching.
"And I hope-" Charity's voice cracks and she clears her throat, swallowing. "I hope you won't forget this. Us. I hope you look back on it and smile. Because I will."
"Oh, Charity," Vanessa murmurs, taking both their glasses and setting them down. She moves to stand in front of Charity, taking her hands and squeezing until Charity meets her eyes. "I could never forget you." She shakes her head. "And we don't need to look back on it. We could still make a go of it. People do, don't they? We can phone, and visit, and-"
"Until you realise there's plenty better folk closer at hand in your new place?" Charity shakes her head, dropping it forward to rest against Vanessa's. "No, babe, best we just cut ties now. Easier for everyone in the long run."
"Is it?" Vanessa asks. "Because I can't see how it's going to be easy at all."
Charity sniffs. "Let's just be grateful we had this time together, eh? Something good to look back on."
"Charity," Vanessa whispers. She nudges Charity's nose with her own until their lips meet in a soft kiss.
She lets her hands slide over Charity's hips, up under her shirt, trying to imprint the softness of her skin on her memory. Charity's hands become more insistent on her own body, pulling her closer and deepening the kiss. Vanessa moans when Charity's hand cups her breast, but she pulls away from the kiss, asking a question with her eyes.
Charity presses her lips together. "One last time?"
After all the hurt and anger of the past few days, Vanessa wants to say no. She wants to preserve her dignity and walk away, showing once and for all she can make her own decisions. But the desire to be with Charity is stronger than her principles and she nods. They both need this. She slides her hand down Charity's arm and tangles their fingers together, gently tugging her towards the stairs.
They take their time that night. Touches linger, kisses melt into more kisses, tears mix on cheeks as they whisper promises and reassurances to each other. It's well into the night when she finally falls asleep in Charity's arms, spent and sad and resentful of the sun that's already starting to come up, bringing with it a future she doesn't want to arrive.
When she wakes up the next morning, later than she normally would, she's alone. It's not totally unexpected, but it still hurts. Glancing over at Charity's side of the bed, she notices there's a note and a small wrapped gift sitting on the pillow. Surprised, she pushes herself up onto her elbow and picks them up, turning so that she's sitting against the headboard with the gift in her lap.
The note is just a bit of paper ripped out of one of the many order pads that Charity's nicked from the Woolpack to jot down things to remind herself. It's folded in two, so she takes a deep breath and opens it up to find Charity's messy, looping scrawl taking up most of the page with very few words.
Sorry babe, had to go to town early for the market. Have a blast in Dorset. Send us a postcard of the seaside. Knock 'em dead, kid.
It's short and perfunctory, and exactly what she should have expected from a goodbye from Charity. They said all they could say last night with their bodies. It's probably better this way. Not that it stops the tears from falling, of course. They've already had their last kiss. She's touched Charity for the last time. And she never knew it was the last time.
Sniffing, she turns her attention to the present. There's no tag to indicate it's for her, but it was left with the note, so she assumes it must be. She rips the paper off and her fingers make contact with worn leather. She knows what it is before she's even got the thing fully unwrapped. It's Charity's copy of The Secret Garden from the loft in the stables.
She runs her fingers over the gold embossed lettering on the cover, tracing the S and the G before turning to the inside cover. There, in much neater script, Charity's written an inscription.
Exactly the colour of the sky over the moor.
Closing her eyes, Vanessa lifts the book to her nose, inhaling the smell of it that's now associated with Charity, rather than her childhood. She knows this is meaningful and she loves it. But she'd much rather be staying here and reading it aloud to Charity as they sit out in the garden of a summer evening.
She passes the morning walking around the farm, looking at views she enjoys and saying goodbye to the animals she's come to think of as friends. She rubs Deirdre between the ears and thanks her again for being a good listener. She goes round each of the horses in turn with a bag of apples, slipping each of them a treat and a nose rub, until there's only one stall left.
With a sigh, she moves over to greet Lennox. She knows he won't take the apple from her, but she wants a word with him anyway. He turns around at the back of the stall with a harrumph when he sees it's not Charity.
"Well, hello to you too, mister," Vanessa says with a rueful smile. She leans her arms on the door and watches him. "I'm sure you'll not be too devastated to hear that I'm leaving. But I just wanted to tell you to look after Charity, yeah? You need to keep showing her how much you trust her, okay? You need to keep showing her how kind and caring you think she is, and then maybe one day she'll actually believe it." She rubs her nose and sniffs. "I wanted to stay and make her believe that somebody could love her, but I can't, so you need to do it for me. Do you hear?"
Her throat closes up and she leans her forehead on her arms, letting herself cry for her lost future. A warm blast of air on her arm makes her look up and she's shocked to find Lennox has approached her. She's even more surprised when he bumps his nose against her shoulder, as if he's comforting her. Tentatively, she reaches up and rubs his neck, and he lets her. She offers the apple with her other hand, and he delicately gobbles it up before trotting away.
"Thank you," she whispers, with a smile. "Now I know she's in good hands." She takes a deep breath, drinking in the warm, clean smell of the stables and nods as she stands up straight. "Bye Lennox."
"That's the last of it," Pete says, as he deposits the final box in the boot of her car. Ross reaches up and closes it and it feels final. She's really going.
"Right," Vanessa says, giving them the brightest smile she can manage. "This is it, then."
"We, uh, got you something," Pete says, nudging Ross, who goes and grabs a gift bag from behind the wall. "It's not much. We didn't have much time, like."
Ross holds out the gift bag. "It's whatever we could find in David's, pretty much." He shrugs. "But there's chocolate and wine, because that's what birds like when they're going through a break-up, innit?"
She laughs and takes the bag, glancing in and finding all manner of chocolate bars and two bottles of wine. "It's brilliant, thanks," she tells them, carefully jamming the gift bag between a suitcase and a box on the backseat. She looks between them, not really wanting to say goodbye, but knowing she has to. Ross rolls his eyes.
"Right, come here." He grabs her in a hug, lifting her off her feet and twirling her around. She clings to him, her face pressed into his neck, until she feels him pull away. His eyes are glassy when he does. "Me and you. Glastonbury. Next year, yeah?" She nods. "And if you happen to find a fit girlfriend in the meantime, and she needs to come with us and we all need to share a tent, that's fine too."
Groaning, she shoves at his chest. "I'll see what I can do." She turns to Pete, surprised to see tears freely running down his face. "Oh, don't," she scolds. "You'll set me off an'all!"
He grabs her in a hug, lifting her up like Ross had done. But he has no cheeky quip for her. He just squeezes her tight and sets her back on her feet and wipes his face. "Right, well, keep in touch, yeah? And drive carefully." He sniffs as she opens the driver's side door. "And Ness?" She looks over at him. "Come back and visit. We'd all love to see you. All of us."
She nods. "I will." She gets into the driver's seat and starts the engine, letting it settle down before she pulls the door closed and rolls down the window. "Behave, the pair of you. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"No promises there," Ross says, slinging an arm around Pete.
"Bye," she whispers, unable to push any more of her voice through her clogged throat. She gets the car into first gear and sets off. The boys run behind the car for a bit until they're knackered and then they stop, waving until she can't see them anymore.
She can barely see for tears by the time she's reached the end of the access road. She barely makes it half a mile before she has to pull into a lay-by and let it all out. Leaning her arms on the steering wheel, she cries. She cries for the home she felt like she'd found. She cries for the friends she knows she's made. She cries for the version of herself that she'd finally acknowledged and grown to love. The real her. She found herself in Emmerdale and part of her is terrified that she'll leave that part of her behind when she passes the village sign for the last time.
Most of all, she cries for Charity. She cries for everything they were and everything that they could have been. And they could have been something truly special. She knows it. For all Charity thinks she's not experienced enough to make informed judgements on this stuff, she knows she's never felt like this in her whole life. And she's sure she'll never feel like this again.
After a while, she gets her crying under control. She dries her face and stretches over to the back seat, grabbing a Wispa out of the bag of goodies the boys had given her. She can't have the wine, but she can bloody have the chocolate. She finishes it in about four bites and throws the crumpled wrapper on the floor, putting the car in gear again and pulling out onto the road. Her breath is still shaky in her chest, but her eyes aren't blurry anymore.
She's only a mile or so outside the village when an obnoxious beeping starts up behind her. She frowns and looks in the mirror. She almost swerves off the road when she sees it's the pick-up from the farm. It's far enough behind her that she can't quite make out who's driving, but then Ross' head and torso pop out of the passenger side window and he waves wildly at her as the driver continues to lean on the horn. The truck draws nearer and she finally sees Pete's driving. Her heart lifts into her throat when she sees Charity sat beside him, holding onto Ross's belt and giving him a right ear-bashing by the looks of it.
"Pull over, kid," Ross yells. "You're about to be in a scene from one of them romcoms our Pete pretends he doesn't like."
Vanessa's heart is hammering in her chest and she pulls over at the first opportunity, into a passing place. The truck pulls in behind her and Ross gets out, pulling Charity with him. Vanessa swallows down her nerves, and her hope, and gets out to meet them. She walks around to the back of her car, where Charity's standing awkwardly, glaring at Ross. Pete comes over to join them.
"Did-" Vanessa takes a step closer to Charity. "Did you want to say something to me?"
Charity looks up, and their eyes meet for the first time today. It's clear Charity's been crying, maybe as much as she has. But the vacant, guardedness that's been around so much lately is absent, and her eyes are clear.
"I, uh, yeah." Charity coughs, shoving her hands in her back pockets. "I-" She stops and looks over at Pete and Ross. "D'you think we could maybe have a bit of privacy for this?"
"I dunno, Charity," Ross says, shaking his head. "How will we know that you're telling her what you told us back at the farm?"
"What else am I going to tell her now you've dragged me all the way out here?" Charity snaps.
"I don't want you telling me anything you've had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do," Vanessa puts in.
Charity rolls her eyes. "Fine. Maybe I didn't need that much persuading, alright?"
Pete relents. "C'mon." He pats Ross' back. "Let's give them a minute, yeah?"
Ross points at Charity. "You better tell her. I'll be watching."
Sighing, Charity nods. "I will if I can get a word in edgeways with you yacking on." They both watch Pete lead Ross away to the other side of the truck, round the back of it and out of sight. Charity turns back to her with a sigh.
"What is it you want to say to me?" Vanessa asks again.
Charity takes Vanessa's hands into her own and squeezes them, looking into her eyes with all the bravado and artifice gone. She inhales deeply before she starts speaking. "I don't want you to go. I want you to stay here, with me. I know that's selfish and I know I have no right to ask, especially since I've been the one pushing you away, but I just-" She looks down between them, shaking her head. "I want you to stay."
Vanessa's heart is racing. This is everything she's wanted to hear for weeks. But she has to be sure. "Why now?" she asks. "Why wait till now to say this? Did the boys push you-"
"The boys found me in the cowshed, sobbing my eyes out," Charity says, in a rush. "And then I spilled my guts to them and next thing I know we're in a high speed car chase trying to find you." She steps closer, squeezing Vanessa's hands again. "I think I'd maybe made myself believe the stuff about this being a fling. But then, this morning, when I saw you lying next to me and knew it was the last time-" Charity's eyes fill with tears. "Well, there was no denying anything anymore."
Freeing one of her hands, Vanessa cups Charity's cheek and catches a tear with her thumb. "So what is it, if it's not a fling?" She's aware she's pushing hard, here. But she feels she deserves it, after all the hurt she's been through.
"You know what it is," Charity mumbles. "It's me wanting to wake up with you every morning. It's me wanting to bring you tea after you've been sat up all night with sick cows called Vera-"
"Deirdre," Vanessa corrects, pressing her lips together when Charity frowns.
"Vera. Deirdre. Elsie flaming Tanner. Whatever." Charity sighs and shakes her head. "I want to do all the stupid couple things with you. I want you to stay." She swallows. "I'm asking you to stay with me."
Vanessa nods and smiles. "Of course I'll stay with you. I never wanted to go in the first place, did I?"
Charity closes her eyes, eyebrows slanted in relief as she pulls Vanessa into her arms and holds her tight. "Oh, babe. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"It's alright," Vanessa assures her, pulling back enough to bring their lips together. "It's alright," she whispers between kisses.
A wolf-whistle cuts into their haze and they pull apart. Vanessa presses her smile into Charity's shoulder as Charity yells at Ross to get stuffed.
"Why don't we take your car back, yeah?" Pete offers. "We can unpack your stuff for you."
"Unpack it at the big house," Charity tells him, her cheeks flushed.
"Will do, boss," Pete says, giving Vanessa a smile.
"We're taking back the wine and chocolate," Ross tells her as he gets into the car. "Don't think you'll be needing them anymore."
"Oh, wait!" Vanessa says, slipping out of Charity's hold and darting over to her car. She climbs into the backseat, grabbing the copy of The Secret Garden off of the top of one of the boxes. She grins at the boys, leaning between the seats to kiss each of them on the head. "Right, you can go now. And thank you for doing this. It means the world to me."
"You're welcome." Pete tells her. "Glad you're sticking around, kid."
Ross doesn't even make a sarcastic comment in response, just offers her a wink and a grin as she clambers back out of the car. Pete does a three point turn and heads back the way they'd come, leaving Charity and Vanessa alone. Vanessa saunters back towards her, the book pressed to her chest.
"Well, who'd have thought it, eh? Charity Dingle, chasing me over hill and dale."
Charity lifts an eyebrow. "Feeling a bit smug, are we?"
Vanessa narrows her eyes, holding up her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. "Maybe a little bit. It's not every day an incredibly beautiful woman pursues me and begs me to stay with her."
"Uh, there was no begging, thank you," Charity protests. Off Vanessa's doubtful look, she relents. "Okay, maybe just a tiny bit."
"I did my fair share of begging you to let me stay," Vanessa concedes. "So I'd say we're about even, yeah?"
"S'pose you'll be wanting your job back," Charity asks. "For now."
"Maybe," Vanessa pretends to consider it. "Will this job come with any perks?"
"Perks?" Charity slides her hands down Vanessa's back, cupping her bum and squeezing. "Oh, there are perks."
"Hmmm," Vanessa says, tilting her head. "And it comes with bed and board, yeah?"
Charity smirks. "Bed and board." She kisses Vanessa. "And more besides."
"S'pose I'll take it, then," Vanessa says, slipping her hand behind Charity's neck to draw her into another kiss before taking her hand and dragging her over to the other side of the road, away from the truck.
She looks out across the expanse of green in front of them as Charity wraps her arms around her from behind, settling her chin on her shoulder. In the distance, she can make out Holdgate, green and luscious and shining in the sun. The trees carry just a hint of warm russet now, just on the edge of turning. The air carries a suggestion of coolness. They've reached that precarious time when summer is on the edge of falling into autumn. Vanessa breathes it all in and smiles, leaning back into Charity, enjoying the sun on her face. Charity takes the book out of her hand and flicks through it. Vanessa watches her turn the well worn pages until she finds the page she's looking for, and she starts to read aloud, her voice soft by Vanessa's ear.
Sometimes, since I've been in the garden, I've looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy, as if something were pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden - in all the places.
Vanessa smiles and turns in Charity's arms, looking up at her. "The farm's your garden, isn't it?"
Charity's eyes briefly drift over her shoulder to look in the direction of the farm. She smiles softly. "If it is, then you're my Dickon. You're the one who made me see the magic in it all, Ness." She touches the tip of her finger just beneath Vanessa's eye. "You with your eyes exactly the colour of the sky over the moor."
Vanessa laughs, feeling her cheeks flush at the familiar words. She shakes her head. "And if I helped you see the magic, it's only because you let me in." She winds her arms around Charity's neck, leaning into her. "I found myself because you let me into your secret garden."
"I think that sounded a lot more filthy than you meant it to, babe," Charity murmurs, brushing her lips over Vanessa's cheek.
"Oi," Vanessa says. "I'm trying to be, like, poetic here."
Charity draws back with a smile. "I don't need poems or fancy words, Vanessa. I've had them before and they don't mean anything." She bumps her forehead against Vanessa's. "I just need you." Laughing, Charity drops a peck on her lips. "You were so not what I was expecting when I put that notice up in the pub."
"Better than you were expecting, I hope." Vanessa asks, with a wink. "Even though you thought I looked more like a secretary than a farmhand?"
"So much better," Charity confirms, pulling Vanessa closer. "Come here."
Their lips come together, and it's such a relief that kissing Charity no longer holds within it the pain of imminent separation, but instead the promise of a future together.
For years to come, Vanessa will think back fondly on that long, hot summer. She set out from uni, not really knowing what she was looking for. She found a home. She found Charity.
And she found herself.