The journey to the registry office had been filled with excited chatter, warm laughter and the odd bout of singing as Tracy tried to lead Noah and Sarah in a verse and chorus of 'Chapel of Love', which they both resisted. It had been a happy, noisy affair.
The journey home is far more muted.
Vanessa's in the front seat of the taxi, looking out the window so she can blink back the tears that keep threatening to spill over. Sarah's on her phone, probably deleting that picture she posted earlier. Noah's eyes are on the floor of the taxi and Tracy's valiantly trying to keep her obvious seething rage hidden by playing a game of I Spy with the little ones. They've chosen 'tree' for the last three turns.
There must be a good explanation; that's what she keeps telling herself. Charity wouldn't say all those things she said earlier in the day and then just cancel out of the blue without a good reason. But then, her sensible head asks, why not just tell her the reason? Why just phone and say she's cancelling and then hang up? Why would she do that? How could she do that? She must have known how devastated Vanessa would be.
Hot tears well in her eyes again and she swallows and blinks rapidly to clear them. Now's not the time nor the place for crying. Noah and Sarah are already upset and the little ones are definitely confused and her blubbing now would only make them all worse. She presses her lips together and breathes unsteadily through her nose as they draw into Main Street. She should've been Mrs Dingle by now. She should've been Charity's wife.
"Her car's not here," Sarah comments as they pull up outside Jacob's Fold, and Tracy makes a huffing noise. Vanessa's mood darkens again; she's not even here to explain.
They trudge into the house and everyone's unsure of what to do with themselves once the door's closed except Moses and Johnny who just go and grab their toys and start playing, like nothing's wrong. Tracy's practically shaking with anger as she paces in the kitchen and Noah and Sarah are looking between Tracy and Vanessa, awkward and unsure. Vanessa sighs and takes charge of the situation.
"Trace, can you go and get the boys changed out of their outfits?" She's surprised at how steady her voice is. "And then maybe you could take them over to yours for the evening, yeah?"
She doesn't know what's going to happen when Charity gets home. If she comes home. But the boys don't deserve to be part of it. They're too young to understand.
"I'm not leaving you here by yourself," Tracy protests. "Not after-"
"She's not by herself," Noah interrupts. He nods at Sarah. "We're here."
"No, I know that, but-" Tracy looks to Vanessa. "Don't you want to, you know, talk or anything?"
"There's nothing to talk about until I've talked to Charity," Vanessa says, far more calmly than she feels. She smiles at her sister. "Please, Tracy. You'll really be helping me out by taking the boys."
For a second she thinks Tracy's going to argue, but then she rolls her eyes. "Fine. If that's what you want." She walks the few steps between them and kisses Vanessa's cheek. "You're a better woman than I am, V. That's all I'll say."
Vanessa gives her a tight smile, certain that Tracy will have plenty more to say the moment Noah and Sarah are out of earshot. "Thanks."
Tracy turns and claps her hands together. "Right, boys. Who's up for a night at auntie Tracy's then, eh?" The suggestion is met with a cheer from both boys, bringing a smile to Vanessa's face.
"Can we get pizza?" Moses asks. "And chips?"
"Oh, we'll see," Tracy tells him. "But first how about a go on the swings at the park?"
"Yeah! I can swing really high now," Johnny says, scrambling to his feet. "Char'ty pushes me really high so I can touch the sky."
A lump immediately forms in Vanessa's throat and she has to turn look out the back window, leaning on the sink to centre herself. She hears the boys and Tracy clatter up the stairs to get changed and then there's a gentle hand on her shoulder. She turns back around and her heart cracks a little more when she sees how upset Noah is.
"I'm so sorry she's done this." He shakes his head. "She always ruins everything."
"Hey," she soothes, rubbing his arm. "We don't know what's happened yet, do we? There must- there must be a good reason why she didn't come, yeah?"
"Then why didn't she just tell you what the reason is?" Noah snarls. His eyes fill with tears and he turns away, wiping at his eyes, clearly annoyed at himself for crying.
"Listen, why don't we all go upstairs and get changed?" Vanessa suggests. "Then I'll make us all a brew." She squeezes his arm and gently urges him towards the stairs. Sarah lingers, arms wrapped around her stomach and shoulders hunched.
"She really does love you, you know." Sarah shrugs. "It's well obvious."
"Yeah." Vanessa nods, trying to smile. "I know she does."
"That's why I don't understand how she could do this." Sarah's eyes are brimming with tears now. "Like, she saw what it did to mum when Joe didn't show up, and now she's done the same to you."
Vanessa frowns. She hadn't even made that connection. Because it's not the same. Joe literally left Debbie at the altar, with no word and no contact. Charity called her and apologised and, yeah, okay, maybe she didn't explain exactly, but it's not the same. Although, if she's honest, she feels about as worried and confused as Debbie felt that day.
"Hey, listen," Vanessa says, putting a hand on Sarah's back. "It's not the same as that, okay? Your gran hasn't just run off never to be seen again. So don't worry. I'm sure she'll be home soon."
"Yeah, that's what mum thought an'all." Sarah sniffs."I'm never getting married." With a sigh she heaves herself towards the stairs. "Probably won't live long enough to anyway."
"Sarah!" Vanessa's still getting used to the casual way Sarah can talk about her condition. She's slowly coming to understand that it's her way of having some level of control. Pretending things are otherwise isn't healthy for anyone. But still, it's a stab in the heart every time she throws out a reminder of it.
When Sarah's out of sight, Vanessa locates her phone and checks to see if there's any messages from Charity yet. The new picture on her lock screen makes her freeze; it's the one Sarah took of them earlier. She'd sent it to Vanessa in the taxi on the way to the registry office and she'd immediately set it as her background. They look so happy, standing in each others arms in their wedding dresses on the morning of their wedding. She traces her thumb over Charity's smile. It's real, she knows it's real. There was no pretence in Charity this morning, no lies, no dishonesty. So how did it all go to hell so quickly?
She calls Charity's phone, unsurprised when it goes straight to voicemail again. Hanging up, she quickly changes the background photo to the one it was before; a picture of Charity and Johnny and Moses on the beach in Cornwall. She wishes it was as easy to reset the whole day; to pretend they hadn't stood in this room grinning in front of their brood of kids in their wedding dresses, stupidly happy for what was to come.
Glancing down at herself, she suddenly feels very stupid in her wedding dress. An unmarried bride is a sorry sight indeed. She takes the stairs two at a time, desperate to get into her bedroom and close the door. She leans against it and lets out a shaky breath, but the first thing her eyes land on is Charity's dress, strewn carelessly across the bed, like it was some blouse she'd shrugged out of after work on her way to the shower. Crossing to the bed, she runs her fingers over the fabric and lace. She remembers seeing Charity in it when they'd gone to pick their outfits, after they'd come up with this mad notion of a secret wedding. She'd never seen anyone as beautiful as Charity that day, emerging from the dressing room, a shy and hopeful smile on her face as she twirled.
"What do you think, babe?" she'd said. "I think this is the one."
And although it was ridiculous, it felt like she was talking about more than the dress. It felt like she was talking about the wedding, and the marriage, and Vanessa.
Vanessa had nodded. "This is the one."
And now it's just been tossed aside for whatever else Charity had deemed to be more important. She tries to flatten out the creases and ends up picking it up and holding it against her face, inhaling the perfume Charity had sprayed on herself earlier in the day. The tears she's been holding in for what seems like hours finally come. She'd done her best to keep it together in front of the kids, especially since none of them really know what's going on. She'd tried to paint on a smile and tell them there must be a good reason. She can't deny it anymore, though.
She's hurt. She's sad. And, worst of all, she's alone.
Pressing the dress harder to her face, she tries to muffle her sobs. There's a soft knock on the bedroom door and then it opens. She spins around, hoping it might be-
"Hey," Tracy says, quickly closing the door behind her. She approaches Vanessa, arms outstretched. "Come here."
Well, that opens another floodgate. Twice this morning, Charity had said those words to her before gathering her in her arms and holding her. And she's not here to do that now. Vanessa lets Tracy embrace her, still clinging to Charity's dress. The sobs wracking her frame feel foreign. So rarely does she give in to this type of emotion, her body needs to relearn the movements it requires every time. She's not the one who cries; she's the comforter, the protector. Her own pain is always secondary to everyone else's.
"I'm gonna kill her," Tracy mumbles into her hair. "I'm actually gonna kill her."
The words sober her and she pulls away, shaking her head. "She wouldn't have done this without a good reason, Trace. I know she wouldn't."
"A reason she couldn't give you over the phone?" Tracy asks, indignant on her behalf. "You deserve more than 'Gotta cancel, babe. Soz.'"
"That's not what she said," Vanessa protests. Although it wasn't much better than that.
"You're far too forgiving, V," Tracy says, shaking her head. "If I were you, I'd-"
"I don't want to talk about this now, Tracy," Vanessa says, holding up the hand that isn't still pressing Charity's dress to her chest. "Please, just take the boys, yeah? I need to clear my head."
Again, Tracy clearly wants to argue with her, but she rolls her eyes. "Fine. But if you need help hiding a body later, you know where I am." She winks. "I've got a shovel in the shed."
Vanessa shakes her head. "That's not funny."
Tracy nods, her smile fading. "Seriously, V, if you need anything, I'm here for you. God knows you've been there whenever I've needed you."
"That's me. Everybody's rock." The words taste bitter at the back of her throat and Tracy frowns so she conjures up a smile from somewhere. "Try and have fun with the boys, okay? I'll call you later."
"Promise?" Tracy asks.
Seemingly satisfied, Tracy gives her another tight hug and a kiss on the cheek before leaving her alone in the room. With a sigh, she lays Charity's dress back on the bed and starts to get out of her own. Once she's in a pair of jeans and a comfy jumper, she puts the dress back on the hanger and returns it to the far end of her side of the wardrobe. Grabbing another hanger, she moves to the bed to do the same with Charity's. It's only then that she sees that the hem of the dress is caked in dried mud. Brow creased with concern, Vanessa looks around and spots the shoes Charity had been wearing, also covered in mud.
That means she had to have gone somewhere, then come back to get changed, and gone out again. Vanessa frowns, thinking back to the two bottles of bubbly they'd managed to neck between the three of them while they were getting ready. Charity shouldn't even be driving now, never mind earlier.
Her stomach starts to churn with scenarios she hadn't even contemplated up till now; she'd been so focused on Charity leaving her at the registry office, she hadn't really thought through the possibilities of what she'd been doing instead.
She hangs the dress up beside her own, even though it'll definitely need dry-cleaned if they've any chance of using it again. Closing the wardrobe, she checks her phone again. Still nothing from Charity. She taps the phone against her lips. That saying about no news being good news definitely came from an era before everyone had mobile phones. Nowadays no news is a very definite choice.
And it's rarely a good one.
She tries to tell Noah and Sarah that she's fine and that they can go out with their mates if they want. But miraculously neither of them have anything to do and seem content to sit in the living room while Vanessa potters around, fixing a quick and easy tea for them to eat in front of the telly. None of them say much, but she can feel them watching her. It's nice, knowing they care about her this much. She'd never have believed that her and Noah would get to this place in their relationship. Not from where they started out. And there's so much of Debbie's guardedness in Sarah that she'd expected to be kept at arm's length when they all moved in here. But now here they are, sat watching a documentary about penguins because they let her pick.
The front door opens and they all turn as one to see Charity entering. She looks over at them, her eyes finding Vanessa's. She looks as devastated as Vanessa felt earlier.
"Babe," she whispers. "I am so sorry."
The relief of seeing her unharmed briefly tempers the hurt and pain and before she knows what she's even doing, she's vaulted over the back of the sofa and has gathered Charity into her arms, holding her as close as she can. She can feel the initial surprise in Charity's body before she returns the embrace just as tightly.
"Brought the heavy mob, I see?" Charity murmurs against her ear and Vanessa turns to look over her shoulder to where Noah and Sarah are standing. Arms crossed. Glaring.
"Don't make a joke of it," Noah spits. "It's not funny."
"Yeah," Sarah puts in. "Vanessa's proper gutted. How could you just not turn up like that?"
She feels Charity's body wilt against her own under their anger and, even though she knows why they feel the way they do, she wants to shield Charity from it. She turns fully to face them, leaving a hand at the small of Charity's back.
"Right, upstairs, the pair of you." Vanessa tells them. "Me and Charity need to talk."
A look of panic passes between the teenagers. .
"You're not going to break up with her again, are you?" Noah asks.
"Not that we'd blame you, if you did," Sarah interjects, with a pointed look at her grandmother.
She wants to reassure him. She wants to tell him that of course they're not going to break up again. But she needs to hear Charity's side of it, whatever that may be, and know that it's the truth. That was the agreement between them; total honesty. And if Charity lies to her now, she doesn't think there's any way forward for them. As much as that breaks her heart to even think it. She smiles at him as best she can.
"Just- just go upstairs, love. We'll talk in the morning, I promise." And whatever happens tonight, she'll keep that promise. She won't let the kids wake up and find her gone again. He looks like he's going to protest, but she tilts her head at him in a silent request for obedience. He sighs, but nods. And, with a final glare at his mother, he turns and heads up the stairs. Sarah shakes her head and follows. Vanessa feels terrible for sending them away worried, but she can't have this conversation with them there.
"You didn't say no," Charity whispers and she turns to face her again.
"Just now, when he asked if you were gonna break up with me." Charity's chin trembles. "You didn't say no."
Vanessa sighs. "Charity, I love you. And I know you love me. I believe you meant everything you said to me earlier, so I know there must be a good reason for you not showing up today."
"Babe, of course there is!" Charity interrupts. "I swear, I'd never just leave-"
Placing a finger over Charity's lips, Vanessa shakes her head. "Honesty, is all I'm asking from you. It's all I've ever asked of you." She swallows, trying to wet her dry throat. There's a lot riding on this conversation. "So, right now, you're going to tell me what happened today. No hiding bits you think I won't like or bending the truth."
Charity nods, sucking in a breath through her nose. "Ryan had got himself into some scam with Graham. The pair of them have been nicking money off Kim Tate."
Vanessa's eyes widen. This is not how she thought the explanation would begin. She nods for Charity to continue.
"And when I finally got through to his phone after you'd left, it was Dawn on the other end. She'd found his phone ringing in the middle of the woods up at HOP." Charity inhales shakily. "I knew something wasn't right, so I went up there and I found him." She presses her lips together. "Graham had locked him in a hut and left him." She closes her eyes, shaking her head. "You should have seen him, Ness. He was terrified. Sobbing in my arms and-"
"Is he okay?" Vanessa cuts in. The anger she felt earlier is nothing compared to the anger she feels now. This man that her best friend is in love with, this 'kind' and 'gentle' man, had locked Ryan up alone in the middle of nowhere. "Ryan? Is he hurt?"
"No, thankfully," Charity says. "God knows what I'd have done if he'd hurt him." Tears make her eyes shine in the low light. "He was so scared. He said it made him feel vulnerable. It made him aware of his disability and I just-"
"Why couldn't you have just said this on the phone earlier?" Vanessa asks. "I'd have understood, Charity. I'd have come right back here to be with you and help. Why haven't you answered your phone all day? Or sent a text? I've been sat here thinking all sorts."
Charity throws up her arms. "I don't know, babe. I wasn't thinking straight. Ryan was upset and I was upset and I just-"
"Oh, and I wasn't upset?" Vanessa counters. "Stood in the grounds of a registry office in my wedding dress like a lemon? With no explanation as to why you weren't coming?"
Charity's eyes close briefly and she shakes her head. "I am so sorry." She sniffs and wipes at her nose. "I so wanted to marry you today. I wanted that more than anything, babe."
"Yeah," Vanessa whispers, her throat tight. "I know." She sniffs. At least now she knows Charity's safe, and Ryan's safe. She lifts her hand to Charity's cheek, wiping beneath her eye at the moisture that's collected there. "Well, there'll be other days for weddings, I suppose." She smiles at the relief that blooms in Charity's eyes. "So have you been with Ryan until now?"
"Uh, yeah." Charity sighs. "But there's more that's gone on, babe. After we-"
"Wait," Vanessa says, shaking her head. Anxiety bubbles in her stomach again, but she tugs on Charity's jacket sleeve. "Take this off. And your boots. I'll make us both a brew and then you can tell me everything, okay?"
As much as it sounds like she's not going to like whatever it is Charity has to say, at least she knows it's going to be the truth. Charity told her the truth, without hesitation. And that's all she wants.
Charity kicks off her boots and slides out of her jacket. Vanessa smiles when she sees she's wearing the cardigan she'd bought her for her birthday. She smooths her hand down Charity's stomach, enjoying the luxurious texture of the cashmere.
"This looks good on you."
"It feels amazing," Charity says, covering Vanessa's hand. "It's warm and soft." She gives her a tiny smile. "Like you."
Vanessa smiles in return and takes her hand, tugging her over to the couch. "Sit down. I'll get us that brew."
She heads over to the kitchen, surprised when Charity's arms wrap around her from behind as she fills the kettle. Charity's face is pressed into her neck, lips resting against her skin as she speaks. "I'm gutted you're not my wife."
"Yet," Vanessa says, closing her eyes and resting her head against Charity's.
"You looked gorgeous in that dress," Charity says, swaying them both gently. "So, so beautiful."
"So did you," Vanessa says, flicking the button on the kettle and turning in Charity's arms. She smiles up at her. "I can't wait to see you in it again."
Charity's eyes flit away like they always do when she's nervous. "So, you definitely still want to, then? Marry me, that is?"
Vanessa smiles. "Course I do." She shrugs. "Par for the course for us, is this. I mean, we had a bit of a shaky start with the proposal, didn't we? Took a couple of goes to get that right. Looks like it's the same with the wedding."
That brings out the first proper smile Vanessa's seen on Charity's face since she slunk in the door. She shakes her head. "I love you."
"I love you too," Vanessa says.
Charity leans in and brings their lips together, softly, surely. They part when the kettle comes to a boil and Vanessa sets about making them both a cuppa, making sure to make Charity's strong. She hands over the mug and they head over to the couch. Vanessa lifts her eyebrows. "Right. You best fill me in on the rest of your day, then."
With a sigh, Charity nods. "Okay."