Vanessa's dabbing at her eyes, still recovering from a laughing fit caused by a story Pete's after telling about Ross making a right fool of himself in front of some girl he was showing off for up at the cattle auctions.
"Poor Ross," she manages. "How did he-" The pub door opens and she lets out a squeal, forgetting all about her response to Pete.
Rhona's eyes land on her and her face lights up. "Ness!"
Vanessa jumps off her barstool and rounds the bar, throwing herself at her best friend and wrapping her up in a hug. When they'd been arranging this visit, she'd been slightly concerned that the lingering awkwardness that had settled over the pair of them after her big confession would still be there. But she needn't have worried. Seeing Rhona brings her nothing but joy, and Rhona hugs her just as tightly as she always had.
They separate, and Rhona holds her at arm's length and looking her over.
"My God, Ness, you look amazing," she says, and Vanessa flushes. She squeezes Vanessa's biceps. "And where the hell did these come from?"
"Dunno," Vanessa says, shrugging, although she's not above a little bit of preening. "That's what you get from living on a farm, lugging hay bales and bags of feed around all day I s'pose."
"Well, country life agrees with you, let me tell you." Rhona shakes her head with a soft smile. "It's really good to see you, Ness. I've missed you. It's been too long."
"I've missed you too," Vanessa tells her.
And while it's true, it's not in that same suffocating way she thought she would. When they'd parted ways after they graduated, Vanessa thought she might never get over her feelings for Rhona. At the time, they felt so big and all-consuming that she'd assumed they'd always be there, regardless of whether she moved on or not. She was wrong.
Rhona looks over her shoulder, casting her eyes around the pub. "So, where's the famous Charity, then?"
Vanessa ducks her head, smiling. "She's up at the farm. You'll meet her later."
"Oh my God," Rhona says, eyes wide. "You're smitten, aren't you? I mean, I thought you were on the phone, but seeing it in person confirms it."
"Hmmm, maybe a bit." Off Rhona's look, she relents. "Okay, maybe more than a bit." She flushes again because she knows she's wearing a daft smile, but she can't help it. "I love her, Rhona. Like, properly love her. I've never met anyone like her. She's amazing."
If she's not mistaken, she can see a tiny bit of hurt pass over Rhona's eyes as she speaks. As well it might. Even without the mess of her complicated feelings thrown in, Rhona's used to being the most important person in Vanessa's life. She's the first person who was every really there when Vanessa needed her. Her parents were always useless and she never had any siblings. Rhona had become her whole world when they met.
"Good," Rhona says, with a nod. "I'm so glad you're happy. And I can't wait to meet her."
"Oh, speaking of meeting people," Vanessa says, taking Rhona by the arm and dragging her to the other end of the bar where Pete's supping his pint quietly. "This is Pete. Pete, this is Rhona that I've been telling you about."
Pete sets his glass down and holds out his hand for Rhona to shake. "So you're the one that got our Ness into all them scrapes at uni, are you?"
Gasping indignantly as she shakes his hand, Rhona laughs. "Uh, no, I think you'll find it was the other way around."
"She's lying," Vanessa tells him, nudging Rhona till she sits down on the barstool Vanessa previously vacated. "Pete works up at the farm. He's an invaluable member of the team."
"Aww, that's nice," Pete says. "Charity just usually introduces me as 'the help'."
"Charming," Rhona says, but she's smiling.
Vanessa looks at her watch and winces. "Listen, Rhona, I hate to do this to you, but I've got a couple of things to do for work before I head home. So why don't you and Pete stay here and grab a bit of lunch-" Pete's eyes grow wide and panicked and he shakes his head from behind Rhona. Rhona's also looking at her like she wants to murder her. Vanessa ignores them both. "-and then maybe he can give you a little tour of the village."
"Tour of the village?" Pete asks. "She's already seen the pub. What's left? David's shop?"
"There's the village hall. And the cricket pavillion!" Vanessa protests, as she gathers up her bag. "Anyway, once you've done that, Pete can direct you up to ours and we'll all have tea together after you're settled in."
"Ness, I don't think-" Vanessa cuts her off with a kiss to the cheek and a grin.
"Enjoy yourselves!" She says brightly, heading for the exit and trying not to laugh at their twin panicked expressions.
Chas catches her eye and beckons her closer. "You're getting to be right devious, lady." She shakes her head with a smile. "Our Charity's rubbing off on you."
"She is," Vanessa says. "Because I was about to reply with something filthy just now." Chas laughs. "Anyway, them two will get on like a house on fire, I know it." She rolls her eyes. "But give them their lunch on me. I'll settle up with you later."
"Will do," Chas says. "Good to see she's not totally corrupted you yet."
"Not yet," Vanessa winks. "See you later."
She heads out and continues up to the vets' to get her car. Not long after Vanessa'd decided to stick around, Zoe Tate was hospitalised after a very traumatic incident involving a fire at the church. Apparently she'd been struggling with her mental health for years. Even Charity had been sympathetic when it all came out. In the end, Zoe decided she needed a fresh start, and she sold her share of the surgery to Paddy and moved to New Zealand.
Paddy'd hired Vanessa immediately and they'd talked about the possibility of her buying into the business one day, when she'd saved enough. Charity'd offered to buy her a stake, but she'd declined. She's never been someone to be handed things on a plate, even though Charity thinks she's spoiled. She'd rather work for it and earn it herself.
The short drive to Holdgate passes in a blur of blue sky and green fields and before long, she's parking just behind the pick-up in the drive. Ross is just heading up from the cottage, looking very dressed up for this time in the day. She waves at him as she gets out of the car and he comes over, fiddling with the cuff of his dress shirt.
"Where you off to all dolled up?" Vanessa asks. "Bit early for a hot date i'n't it?"
"We're off into Leeds to see some show or other." He rolls his eyes. "We're grabbing dinner first so we need to get a jump on the traffic."
Vanessa lifts her eyebrows at all the 'we-ing'. "Still seeing her, then?" She clicks her tongue. "Sounds like it's getting serious if she's managed to get you to the theatre." Auction antics aside, Ross has been seeing the same girl for a few months now. None of them have met her, but Ross actually seems to really like her. He won't even tell them her name, but Pete reckons she's a policewoman of all things.
"Yeah, well, I don't mind a bit of the old culture now and then," Ross says, adjusting his collar. "And it's not serious. You know me, love. I don't do serious."
"Yeah, yeah," Vanessa grins. "I believe you." She wrinkles her nose. "Even if you're wearing enough aftershave to burn my nostrils."
"Shut up," he says, pink tinging his cheeks. He nods to the paddock behind the cottage. "Ms Stroppy-Knickers is over there, if you're wondering."
"Oi." She bats his shoulder with the back of her hand. "That's the love of my life you're talking about."
"Oh, sorry, I meant Ms Stroppy-Knickers Junior." He glances at his watch and then swoops in and kisses Vanessa's cheek. "I'm off. Tell Pete if you're mate's hot, I've bagsied her."
"Give over," she calls after him as he jogs off to the car he shares with Pete. "Have a good night! Behave!"
He grins and revs the engine, shooting off down the access road. Vanessa shakes her head and heads down to the paddock Ross had indicated. She slows and then stops when she spots what's happening. Charity's in the field, with her back against the wooden gate, leaning on her elbows watching as Lennox obediently trots around in a circle, held on longe line by her daughter, who's grinning wider than Vanessa's ever seen.
Debbie had turned up on their doorstep a few months back, with a picture of a teenaged Charity and a million questions. A scrappy, spiky little thing, always ready with a scowl or a smart comeback; there was no denying she was Charity's kid. Or Cain's, though he denied any responsibility for her to begin with. Charity had done her best to cope with the situation, but it was very tense for a long while.
Over the months, Debbie's started visiting more often. Her foster parents are very supportive and want her to get to know Charity. And Charity, though she tries to cover it, lives for those. She's whispered confidences to Vanessa in the safety of their bedroom about how she can't believe that she had a part in making this real, little person. How could someone so perfect come from her? Whenever she does this, Vanessa tries to remind her how amazing she is. One day, she might start to believe it.
With a smile, Vanessa crosses the remaining distance between them. Charity turns to look over her shoulder, hearing her approach, and offers her a smile. "Hey babe." She purses her lips for a kiss, which Vanessa gladly provides before settling her forearms on the gate, her shoulder pressed to Charity's as they both watch Debbie work with Lennox.
"She's getting really good," Vanessa murmurs.
"It's in the genes, innit?" Charity replies.
She only says things like that when Debbie's not in earshot. They're still finding their way round each other, defining their relationship. They're not quite mother and daughter, and not quite friends. They're somewhere in the middle, and that can be muddy and perilous for everyone involved. But things are getting better. Slowly.
"Is that enough for today?" Debbie calls over. "I think he's about to start getting mardy. He's got that face on."
"Yeah, that'll do him for now," Charity tells her. "You've done brilliant today, Debs."
Debbie's shoulders tense just slightly at the affectionate abbreviation, but she doesn't say anything. She gathers up the line until she's got the horse on a short tether and starts leading him to the gate. She smiles at Vanessa as she approaches.
"Hiya. Charity said you were meeting a friend in the village," she says, and Vanessa doesn't miss Charity shifting uncomfortably. "We didn't think you'd be back till teatime."
Vanessa stands away from the gate to let Charity open it, before she moves in and rubs Lennox's neck, smiling when he bumps his nose against her shoulder.
"Yeah, well I got away earlier than I thought and I wanted to see the progress you'd made," Vanessa says. "You're getting so good with him."
Debbie looks up at Lennox, narrowing her eyes just slightly. "Sometimes I'm still not sure if he likes me or not."
Vanessa meets Charity's eyes and smiles. "Yeah, well, it's hard to tell sometimes. You've just got to keep showing him he can trust you."
Debbie nods and turns to Charity. "Have I got time to groom him before tea?" she asks.
"Yeah," Charity nods to the stables as she shuts and bolts the gate. "Go on. I'll catch up in a sec."
They both stand and watch Debbie lead Lennox up the track. Vanessa marvels at the change in the horse since she's been here. A year ago he wouldn't let anyone but Charity near him, and now he lets Debbie brush his mane and his tail like some pampered pet. It's been beautiful to watch.
Beside her, Charity sighs and shoves her hands in her back pockets. She rolls her eyes. "So, where's this mate of yours, then?" Vanessa presses her lips together to keep from smiling; Charity knows Rhona's name fine. She lifts her eyebrows hopefully. "Not stood you up, has she?"
"Charity," Vanessa scolds, playfully. "No, she hasn't. I left her in the Woolie with Pete. Told him to give her a little tour then bring her up her for tea."
"Why?" Charity tilts her head, confused. "Thought she'd come to see you? Don't you want to spend time with her while she's here?"
"Course I do," Vanessa says. "But she's staying a few days. There'll be plenty of time for us to catch up." She shrugs, unable to hide her smile. "Anyway, I think the two of them will get on great. There was a little spark between them at the pub, I'm sure of it."
"You've set them up?" Frown melting into a grin, Charity shakes her head. "You devious little madam."
"That's what Chas said," Vanessa admits. "Look, they're both really nice people and they're both single. So I thought, why not?"
"Fair enough," Charity says, reaching out to flick something off Vanessa's collar. She dusts her knuckles over her jaw, not quite meeting her eyes.
"And," Vanessa says, catching Charity's hand and lacing their fingers together. "If her and Pete hit it off, maybe you can stop being jealous, yeah?"
Charity's eyes snap up to meet hers. "I am not jealous," she scoffs. "Who said anything about jealous?"
Laughing, Vanessa squeezes her hand. "Every time you mention Rhona, which you don't do by name because you're trying very hard to act like you don't give a toss about her, you roll your eyes and go all weird." She shakes her head when Charity makes some disbelieving noise in her throat. "You do." She tugs on Charity's hand until she looks in her eyes. "And you've no reason to."
"Well, if I do do that, which I don't think I do," Charity begins, her eyes on their joined hands. "Is it any wonder?" She sighs, rubbing her thumb along Vanessa's knuckles. "Is it so strange that I'd be a bit worried about this girl who you were madly in love with turning up here?"
"Charity-" Vanessa tries to interrupt, but now Charity's started, she apparently wants to keep going.
"And would it be so daft that maybe I'd be a tad concerned that this clever, beautiful woman who knows stuff about animals and who you've got loads in common with is going to be staying in our house?"
"Charity-" Vanessa tries again.
"I mean, it's not like she's the first girl who made you brave enough to actually say out loud that you might have feelings for women, is she?" Charity holds up a finger, widening her eyes. "Oh, wait, yes she is. And I don't think-"
Vanessa grasps the back of Charity's neck and pulls her into a kiss, which finally has the desired effect of shutting her up. Charity's hands move to her back, pulling her in and deepening the kiss. Vanessa lets it go on for a few more moments before pulling away, but keeping Charity close.
"Right," Vanessa says. "First things first; I was never in love with Rhona. I maybe thought I was at the time, but it wasn't anything even close to what we've got. Okay?" She waits for a tiny nod before continuing. "Secondly, I've already got a beautiful, clever woman who knows stuff about animals, haven't I?" Charity sighs, but nods again, a little more reluctantly. "And lastly, maybe my feelings for Rhona made me brave, but my feelings for you made me me."
As always, it takes a few seconds for Charity to hear the words and take them in and believe them. It doesn't take as long as it used to, but there's still something in her head that makes her doubt every positive word that's said to her. One day, Vanessa hopes it disappears completely, but until then, she'll be patient.
Finally, Charity smiles. "Well, like I said, I wasn't jealous anyway," she says, with a shrug, clearly lying.
Vanessa laughs. "Course not." She bumps their noses together. "And you'll never have to be. Okay? Not of Rhona. Not of anyone."
Rolling her eyes, Charity drops a kiss on her forehead, wrapping an arm around her neck. "Soppy cow."
"Better than a silly cow," Vanessa says, poking Charity in the side as they start to head up to the stables. "Thinking you had anything to worry about with Rhona visiting."
"Uh, yeah, okay," Charity says. "It's not like I'm in the habit of inviting my significant others' exes to stay at my house, am I? This is new territory for me."
"She's not my ex," Vanessa reminds her. "She's my friend. And you should've said something if you were so concerned about it."
"Oh, yeah, that would've gone down well, wouldn't it? You were so excited. It's been 'Rhona this' and 'Rhona that' for weeks," Charity says, with a sigh. "You'd have loved it if I came along and rained on your parade."
"Talking about how you're feeling isn't raining on my parade, Charity," Vanessa tells her. "We could've had this conversation weeks ago if I'd known how much it was bothering you."
"Fine," Charity relents. "Next time one of your previous lovers comes to visit, I'll be sure and let you how I feel about it, yeah?"
"Again, Rhona is not one of my previous lovers." Vanessa narrows her eyes. "I have no previous lovers that I'd invite here."
"And I feel pretty damn ecstatic about that," Charity murmurs, pulling her to a halt and kissing the smile that Vanessa can't prevent from crossing her lips. Charity grins at her when they part. "Come to think of it, she can't be all that bright, this Rhona, can she? I mean, she turned you down, so-" She shrugs. "Bit of an idiot, if you ask me. And I'm assuming she's not as hot as I am?"
Vanessa swats her backside. "Charity," she warns.
"Oh, come on, babe," Charity whines. "Stroke my ego just a tiny bit. And I promise I'll be on my best behaviour around your mate, yeah?"
"Fine," Vanessa relents, taking Charity's face between her hands. "You are the hottest, and most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Nobody else comes close, okay? Nobody."
"What? Not even Carol Vorderman?"
They both jump at the unexpected voice and Vanessa whips around to find Rhona and Pete approaching. Rhona's grinning and Pete looks highly amused.
"Carol Vorderman?" Charity asks, looking between Rhona and Vanessa and settling on Rhona. "Care to explain?"
"Ness hasn't told you about the picture of her winning 'Rear of the Year' she cut out of the Daily Star and stuck on her wardrobe door then?" Rhona dodges the slap Vanessa aims at her shoulder and holds out her hand. "Charity, I presume? Rhona."
"Well, Rhona," Charity says, shaking her hand. "Sounds like you're the one I need to speak to to get all the juicy stories, yeah?"
"Uh, no, I don't think-" Vanessa starts, but Rhona cuts her off with a laugh.
"Oh, you have no idea," Rhona says. "And I'm sure I could be persuaded to part with one or two."
"Like I haven't got dirt on you, lady," Vanessa says, through her teeth.
"I'm not the one with a girlfriend who's dying to hear them though, am I?" Rhona taunts, in a singsong voice.
"You might be one day," Vanessa says, with a not at all subtle glance at Pete. "And when you've found someone, I'll remember this."
"Come on, babe," Charity says, draping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. "You know all my sordid little secrets. I think I'm entitled to hear about your debauched uni days, don't you?" She raises her eyebrows. "And it's not like any of them are going to be more embarrassing than the Vorderman crush, is it?"
"She was- I just-" Vanessa blows out a frustrated breath. "I just admired her, and I liked her jeans in that picture. That's all."
"Course you did," Charity pokes the end of her nose. "You keep telling yourself that."
"Right, well, is someone gonna show me to where I'm sleeping, or-"
"Pete'll show you," Vanessa says. "He'll carry your stuff up for you, won't you?"
"Uh, yeah, course." He rubs the back of his neck. "I'll take you up now, if you like."
"Brilliant, thanks," Rhona says, narrowing her eyes at Vanessa before trailing behind Pete.
Vanessa sighs and turns to look at Charity, finding her with a crease between her eyebrows. Vanessa reaches up and rubs at it with her thumb. "What's up?"
"Hmmm?" Charity shakes her head and slides her hands around Vanessa's waist, up under her shirt to sit on her skin. "No, I'm just trying to figure out what your type is. Because I was already struggling with me and Rhona, and now Vorders has been thrown into the ring an'all and I'm just-" She shrugs. "I can't work it out."
Vanessa smiles, tightening her arms around Charity's midsection and resting her head on her shoulder, listening to her heart. "I haven't got a type," she murmurs. "I don't need one. I've got you."
She feels Charity laugh against her and then a kiss is placed on her hair. "That is a very good answer."
Lifting her head, Vanessa grins. "Yeah, I thought so too."
Charity sighs, twirling Vanessa's ponytail around her finger. "I best get in there and make sure Debbie's not pleating Lennox's tail like a flamin' My Little Pony or summat." She drops a quick kiss on Vanessa's lips. "I know you want to get up to the house and see how your little scheme is working out, anyway." She looks up at one of the windows in the big house, wrinkling her nose. "Think they're at it like rabbits yet?"
"No!" Vanessa shoves her hip. "They'll just be getting to know each other. Talking."
"You vets do love to talk," Charity agrees as she heads over to the stable. "Took you ages to make a move on me."
"Made up for it since, haven't I?" Vanessa calls after her.
"More than, babe." Charity disappears into the stable with a wink and a grin.
Vanessa shakes her head with a smile as she heads up to the big house, still amazed that it's come to this. When she was pining after Rhona at uni, she'd never have believed that one day this would be her life. That she'd be happy and in love and get to live in such a beautiful setting. She'd have found it even harder to believe that she'd be looking forward to sharing a meal with her girlfriend and Rhona. And her girlfriend's daughter. Or that she'd be happily setting Rhona up with people and not feeling even the slightest twinge of jealousy.
What a difference a year makes.