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Darling, Save the Last Dance for Me
She slumps into one of the high stools at the bar, glad to be off her feet. She lifts a hand when Tracy pouts at her from the dancefloor, holding up five fingers to indicate she just needs a short break from dancing. Seemingly placated, her sister turns back to Rhona and the guys they've been dancing with. Gay guys always flock to Tracy, which Vanessa's glad of tonight as it means Tracy's a bit preoccupied and not all that intent on throwing her at any woman that looks vaguely available.
It's not that Vanessa doesn't want to find someone, it's just that she's been around the whole 'dating' scene far too long and is tired of the lather, rinse and repeat of it all. It used to be blokes, at uni and for a while after, that she dated. Well, dated is probably an exaggeration. One or two dates is the most she ever really went on with anyone. She'd say things about high standards or not settling, but the truth was she just felt absolutely nothing for them. Rhona used to tease her for being too picky, but deep down Vanessa knew it wasn't that.
Then came the whole thing with Rhona and the admission, to other people as well as herself, that she wasn't completely straight. Since then, it's been mostly women that she's gone with. She'd kind of expected it to be different with women. That everything would fall into place and something would click in her head; that she'd find what she'd been missing before. But it hasn't. It's just the same old story, only with more crying and talking about feelings than with men.
After ordering a drink, she surveys the room and sighs. The trouble with rural life is that there's precisely one gay bar in a fifty mile radius, and it's always the same faces. She thanks the barman when he drops off her wine and pulls the glass closer, running her fingers down the stem. She looks up, sensing that someone's looking at her. Her eyes meet a pair of bright inquisitive ones at the far end of the bar. Vanessa sits up straighter; that's definitely not a face she's seen here before. The blonde woman lifts an eyebrow in acknowledgment and Vanessa smiles. Her heart starts to beat a little bit faster and she ducks her head, fighting not to blush. When she looks back up, her heart sinks; the woman's gone.
"This seat taken?"
Her head whips around and she finds herself looking into those eyes again. Green, she notices now that she's closer. And sinful. That's the first word that springs to mind. The blonde tilts her head, eyes flicking to the empty seat and back to meet Vanessa's and she realises she's been asked a question.
"Oh! No. It's not taken." She nudges the stool out a little with her foot. "All yours."
Her nerves must be evident because the woman gives a little laugh as she takes her seat and orders a gin and tonic. Vanessa takes a long sip of wine, watching the woman over the rim of her glass. Their eyes meet again and Vanessa swallows with an audible gulp, making her flush. She tries to think of something to say to cover her awkwardness and to take her mind off the weird fluttering in her belly. She never gets like this; giddy just from talking to a complete stranger. Even if that stranger looks incredible in a tailored grey suit. She clears her throat. "So, what brings you here tonight, then?" Jesus. That's maybe half a step up from 'Come here often?'.
"What? Right here? To this very spot?" That smile again. "I saw a pretty lady sitting all by herself." Vanessa blushes and looks down at her glass. "But she moved away so I sat down next to you."
Her head snaps back up just in time to catch the wink thrown her way, but she make a show of huffing indignantly. "I meant to the club, actually."
The smile falters a little and the light in those green eyes dims. "Hen do." An eyeroll. "Which I could do without, if I'm honest. So I'm hiding from the rest of them."
"Ah." Vanessa nods. She can sympathise. Hen dos are generally overrated and often a let down. "Big gay wedding is it?"
"No, unfortunately." A sigh. "It's an incredibly boring straight wedding."
Vanessa puts a hand to her chest in fake shock. "Oh, how awful." And, although everything in her is telling her differently, she feels the need to check that she's not reading the situation wrong. She's had more than her fair share of straight girls slurring apologies into her ear when she's tried to chat them up. "Just here for the music, then?"
An eyebrow goes up. "The music's terrible." Her eyes dip to Vanessa's chest and back up again. The tip of her tongue moistens her lips. "View's not bad though."
"It's pretty good from where I'm sitting an'all," Vanessa says, emboldened now. She holds out a hand. "I'm Vanessa, by the way."
The woman takes her hand and Vanessa almost falls off the stool just from the feeling of their skin touching. "Charity," she says, not bothering to shake their joined hands, just letting them hang between them.
It should be uncomfortable; gazing into a stranger's eyes while holding their hand. But strangely, it's not. "Well, it's nice to meet you, Charity." Vanessa gently withdraws her hand after what feels like forever, using it to pick up her drink to give her a moment to calm down. She places the glass back on the bar, aware that Charity's eyes are on her the whole time.
"What about you? Why you here, Vanessa?" She stretches the 's' sound out in a way that makes Vanessa's heart throb in her chest.
Vanessa throws out a careless hand, as if she's not almost having a breakdown at how attracted she is to this woman. "My sister and best mate are determined for me to pull." She rolls her eyes. "They reckon I'm in need of-" She stops short, her cheeks flushing. "Anyway... I'm just...not great at the whole pulling lark." With women, at least, she thinks to herself. She used to be able to get blokes with no bother whatsoever. Trouble was, she never particularly wanted them once she got them.
Charity's nodding, her brow scrunched up. "Yeah, I saw you on the dancefloor earlier. I can see why you'd have trouble pulling"
It takes her a fraction of a second too long to catch on and her mouth drops open. "Oi, you!" She swats at Charity's arm with the back of her hand. "My dance moves are legendary, I'll have you know." She nudges Charity's shin with the pointed toe of her shoe. "Anyway...got your attention, didn't I?"
"Oh, you definitely did that, babe." Charity leans against the back of the stool, her eyes trailing down the length of Vanessa's body. "Way you were swinging them arms around? Would've been dangerous not to pay attention."
"Uh, right, I think that's quite enough about my dancing, thank you." Vanessa narrows her eyes, quite enjoying this now. "Can't say I noticed you out there."
"Noticed me at the bar though, didn't you?" Charity asks, a slow smile spreading across her mouth. Vanessa's pretty sure that smile gets Charity just about anything she wants. But Vanessa's not quite that easy.
She shrugs, pretending to contemplate the question. "Noticed you gawping at me, maybe."
Charity laughs, and it's so sudden and genuine that it surprises them both. It's a warm, inviting sound and Vanessa longs to hear it again. Charity shakes her head and clinks her glass against Vanessa's.
"I'll drink to that."
"A vet, eh?" Charity sips her drink and nods.
"Mmmhmm." Vanessa leans in a little closer. "You an animal lover yourself?"
"Can't say I am," Charity says, watching her thumb as she swipes it through the condensation on her glass before her eyes flick up to Vanessa's. "Quite liked a vet or two in my time, though."
Anticipation bubbles in Vanessa's stomach, certain now that the flirting is headed in the right direction. "It's the mucky wellies that do it for you, yeah?"
Charity's hand abandons her glass, her fingers coming to trace patterns on the back of Vanessa's hand. The shaky intake of breath is because her fingers are cold, Vanessa tells herself. But it's not cold she feels when Charity's eyes bore into her. "Something like that."
Vanessa clears her throat. "And uh...how about you? What do you do?"
"I do a lot of things." Charity smiles, a maddeningly cocky quirk of lips that should turn Vanessa right off. It does not. "An entrepreneur, you might call me."
"Oh really?" Feeling brave, she slowly turns her hand over so that their fingers are loosely tangled. She leans in and whispers. "But wait, are we talking Richard Branson or Del Boy here?"
Charity purses her lips and narrows her eyes "Somewhere in between, I reckon."
"So this is where you've been hiding?"
They both look up, surprised by the reminder that there are other people in the club. In the world, perhaps. A brunette is heading towards them, unsteady on her feet. pointing a finger at Charity. Charity withdraws her hand, so Vanessa does likewise, feeling strangely bereft at the loss of contact.
The woman speaks again, coming to a halt between them, swaying. "You said you were going to the loo and you've been gone ages!"
"I, uh...got a bit sidetracked," Charity says, her eyes flicking to Vanessa. "I'll be there in a minute, yeah?"
The intruder turns, as if noticing Vanessa for the first time. She smiles and drapes herself along Charity's shoulders, their heads knocking together as she leans her weight on her. "She's not bothering you, is she love?"
"No," Vanessa shakes her head with a smile. "Well, it bothered me a bit when she was making fun of my dance moves, but apart from that, she's been behaving."
"Our Charity? Behaving herself?" The woman bumps her forehead against Charity's temple. "First time for everything, eh?"
Charity rolls her eyes and gives Vanessa an apologetic smile. "My cousin, Chastity."
The surprised laugh is out before she can stifle it but she covers her mouth anyway, looking between the two of them. "You're kidding. Charity and Chastity?"
"Don't even start," Charity warns her.
"S'why I go by Chas." She hiccups. "Chastity's me Sunday name."
"Your court appearance name, more like," Charity mutters, just loud enough for Vanessa to hear, but not Chas. "Anyway, you get off back to the rest of them and I'll be with you in a sec, yeah?"
"You better had be, Charity. It's your flamin'-"
"I said I was coming, didn't I?" She gives Chas a little nudge in the opposite direction and it's enough for her to teeter off. Charity scowls after her for a few seconds before turning back to Vanessa, blowing out a breath. "Listen, I'd better go and join them or they'll keep harassing me but I-" For the first time, Charity looks uncertain. Her eyes flit around, landing anywhere but on Vanessa's face, fingers twirling a beer mat over and over. "I'd like to...see you again. If...if you want."
"I'd like that," Vanessa says, nodding far too eagerly. "I'd like that a lot."
"Right, okay." A smile blooms briefly on Charity's lips; bright and relieved. "Good. I'll just, uh...d'you want to give me your number or…"
"Yeah, sure. Then you can text me or something so I've got yours."
Vanessa rattles off her number as Charity enters it on her phone. Once that's done, Charity slides her phone into her pocket and stands up. Her hands flutter around as if she's unsure of where to put them.
"Right well," Charity tilts her head. "Maybe I'll see you on the dance floor in a bit, eh?"
"Yeah." Vanessa grins, touched that Charity's clearly having trouble leaving. "Happen you might."
Charity takes a couple of steps away before turning back around and closing the distance between them. Searching Vanessa's eyes for an assurance she gets quickly, Charity leans in and brings their lips together. It's quick, and soft, and just past the point of chaste. It's like no kiss Vanessa's ever been given before. When Charity pulls away, they look at each other and Vanessa hopes Charity felt it too; the difference.
Charity's lips quirk as she backs away, her hand trailing down Vanessa's bare arm. She winks. "I'll save you a dance, kid."
Vanessa nods. "I'll look forward to it."
She gives Charity a wave as she disappears into the crowded dancefloor, realising that she never got a text so that she had Charity's number. She has no way of contacting her; it's all in Charity's court. Vanessa just has to hope she feels the same way. She barely has time to blink before Rhona and Tracy descend on her, both speaking at once.
"What are you doing?" "Why did you let her leave?" "You definitely need to go after her." "She is gorgeous."
Holding her hands up, Vanessa waits for them to shut up. "Alright, calm down the pair of you." She rolls her eyes at their expectant faces. "She's on a hen do, so she's got to socialise. But I did give her my number." She can't hide her smile. "And she said she'd save a dance for me later."
"A horizontal one, I hope," Tracy says, nudging Rhona. "She was proper eating you up with her eyes, V. From what we could see I'm surprised you didn't get pregnant just from talking to her."
"Tracy!" Rhona shakes her head and grasps Vanessa's arm. "So? What's her name? What's she like?"
"Well," Vanessa begins, her smile growing. "Her name's Charity-" She frowns as she realises she didn't even learn Charity's surname. "Her name's Charity. And she's got amazing green eyes. And she thinks I'm a terrible dancer."
"Oh. Wow." Tracy lifts her eyebrows. "She sounds like a right charmer."
"She is charming." Vanessa smiles. "And funny. And cheeky."
"And you are giddy, lady." Rhona nudges her. "I've not seen you like this about someone since that rugby player at uni. You know the one."
"Simon." Vanessa nods, wrinkling her nose. "Turned out he had horrible feet."
"Or, turned out you were a great big lezzer." Tracy grins around her straw. "One or the other."
She's about to lecture her sister on her use of labels, when her phone vibrates in her bag. She fishes it out without really thinking about it. There's a message on the screen with no name, just a mobile number. Her heart rate starts to pick up.
My cousins are dragging me off to some club that's probably gonna be full of spotty teenagers. Looks like that dance will need to wait, buttercup.
The disappointment hits her square in the chest, until she realises that if Charity wanted to ditch her, all she had to do was not get in touch. And yet she had texted and let Vanessa know what was going on. There's still hope.
Awww, that's a shame. Next time, yeah?
She adds a little sad face emoji before sending. Almost immediately she sees the three little dots indicating that Charity is replying.
I'll definitely hold you to that.
She smiles and tries to think of some way she could respond with some comment about Charity 'holding' her in another way when the dots appear again. The message follows a few seconds later.
Do me a favour, babe. If you're back on the dance floor at any point, make sure you do them exact same moves you were doing earlier. Then I won't need to worry about you pulling anyone else tonight.
She laughs in delight, shaking her head and pointedly ignoring the looks Tracy and Rhona are giving each other. She types out another message quickly and sends it.
Cheeky mare. x
An hour or so later and they're ready to call it a night. Well, Vanessa and Rhona are. Tracy complains a bit about having to leave her new group of friends, but eventually trots along behind them to the taxi rank.
Vanessa's phone starts to vibrate, and continues to do so.
"Who's ringing you at this hour?" Rhona asks, huddling into Tracy against the slight chill of the night air.
"Someone with a car, I hope." Tracy shakes her head. "Length of this bloody queue, look. Thought the whole country was unemployed and skint?"
Vanessa manages to get her phone out and nearly drops it when she sees Charity's name displayed. She quickly answers it.
"Was just about to hang up, babe. Thought you might have been tempted away by someone who wasn't stupid enough to leave you sitting in a bar on your own. In that dress."
"No, unfortunately I decided to dance some more." Vanessa walks away from Tracy and Rhona a little. "So no pulling, I'm afraid."
"What? Not even a muscle?"
Vanessa smiles. "No, smart arse. What about you? No spotty teenagers take your fancy at the young hip club?"
"God, no. Had to get out of there sharp. I could hardly breathe, the air was that thick with Lynx and hormones."
Memories of her youthful clubbing days come flooding back and she wrinkles her nose. "Lovely."
"So, uh, I thought, since it's not too late, that you might...want that dance after all?"
"Oh." Vanessa hadn't been prepared for that.
"I mean, it's fine. You don't have to. I just-"
"No. I mean. I would. Like to dance with you. Tonight." Vanessa rolls her eyes at her stilted speech. "I'm in the taxi queue, but I'll come and meet you. Where are you?"
"I'm in the bar at the Queens Hotel just up the road from that club you were in."
"Hmmm." Vanessa glances up the road. She can just about make out the hotel's sign in the dark. "I'll be there in five minutes. Have a drink waiting for me, since you abandoned me earlier."
"I will. See you in five, then."
She turns around to find Tracy and Rhona almost bouncing with anticipation. Taking her time putting her phone away, she lets them stew a little before grinning.
"I'm, uh, I'm going to meet Charity."
They both squeal loud enough to attract the attention of the rest of the people in the queue and Vanessa shushes them. Tracy grabs her in a hug, planting a wet kiss on her forehead.
"Yes! V is finally getting some v!"
"Tracy!" Vanessa tries to shove her off.
"I'm just excited for you, that's all. It's been...how long's it been?"
"Too long," Vanessa says, without thinking, causing Tracy to cackle in her ear.
Rhona nudges Tracy to the side and kisses Vanessa's cheek. "Be careful," she murmurs. "And have fun, yeah?"
"I'll try." Vanessa winks at her and waves at them. "See you both tomorrow."
"Yeah, and you better be walking like John Wayne!"
Tracy's loud comment causes a few hoots of encouragement from blokes in the taxi queue and it hurries her along the road, pulling her coat tighter around her.
She enters the Queens Hotel and shivers as the warmth hits her. She shrugs off her coat, knowing that it doesn't show off her figure at its best, and hangs it over her arm, looking for a sign to tell her where the bar is. She spots one for the loos and decides to head there instead; the end of a night of clubbing is nobody's best look.
Taking a moment to reapply her lippy and try and get some volume back in her hair just gives her time to think about what she's doing. She's no prude, not by a long shot, but it's been a while since she had a one night stand. Looking at herself in the mirror, she blows out a breath. She can almost hear her mother's voice in her ear. 'Women your age aren't supposed to have one night stands with strangers they meet in gay bars. Women your age should be settled down with a family. Like normal people.' Her mother did not take the news of her being less than straight very well at all. She needs another voice in her head and she opts for the one she hears most often; Tracy.
"Right, V," she murmurs, using her pinkie to get rid of a smudge of lipstick at the edge of her mouth. "There is a clever, funny, gorgeous woman sat in that bar waiting for you." She blots her lips on a hand towel. "Now shift your backside and go and get her."
Standing up straight, she nods. "I will."
The bar is a far classier affair than the club she's just come from. Soft piano music floats in the air and a quick glance around confirms it's being played live by a pianist in the corner. The hour is late enough that the place is almost empty. A few couples are scattered around in the darkened corners. Her eyes land on the lone figure seated at the bar and her feet start moving as if drawn by some force.
Charity turns as she approaches, their eyes meeting, and once again Vanessa's heart starts to thud in her chest. It's been years since anyone's affected her like this. Maybe she's never been affected like this. Charity's eyes slide down her body and back up and she feels them like she would a caress. She has to fight not to shiver and she puts on what she hopes is a confident smile, placing her coat and bag over the back of the stool next to Charity's.
"Need a hand to get up?"
Vanessa scowls at her playfully, getting onto the stool with no bother. "I'm fine when I've got heels on."
"Yes." Again, Charity's eyes venture south and she nods. "Yes, you are."
Blushing, Vanessa nudges Charity's leg with the toe of her shoe. "Give over."
"Your drink, madam." Charity pushes a glass towards her. "That you demanded I buy you."
Vanessa bites her lip. "Oh, thanks." She looks at the amber liquid and winces. "I'm not a big whisky drinker, really."
Charity picks up her own drink and takes a sip, watching Vanessa over the rim. "Me neither. But I'm trying to come off as suave and enigmatic." She lifts her eyebrows. "Is it working?"
Vanessa laughs. "Might've been till you said that." She picks up her glass and holds it up. "Cheers, then."
"Cheers." Charity knocks her glass against Vanessa's and they both sip their drinks. Vanessa's surprised by how smooth it is; clearly the good stuff.
"So," she begins, setting her glass down and fiddling with the corner of a cocktail napkin. "Here's me traipsing all this way to meet you and I don't even know your last name."
"I don't know yours either," Charity points out. "I just put you in my phone as 'bird from gay bar that can't dance'."
"I can bloody well dance," Vanessa scowls. "It's Woodfield, by the way. If you want to correct your phonebook, at any point."
Charity nods. "Dingle."
Vanessa's sure she's missed something. "You what?"
"Dingle." She raises her eyebrows. "My last name."
"No. Come on, just tell me." When Charity's face doesn't change, Vanessa covers her mouth. "Dingle? Seriously? Charity Dingle?"
"And what's wrong with that?"
"Nothing! Nothing...it's just...it's a very unusual name, that's all."
"Well." Charity reaches over, running her finger over the bone in Vanessa's wrist, eyes locked on Vanessa's. "I'm a very unusual person, babe."
Vanessa's eyes drop to where Charity is now tracing haphazard patterns on the back of her hand. "You'll hear no arguments from me."
"No? Now that does surprise me." Charity shifts forward on her stool, their knees bumping together. "You've argued with every other flaming thing I've said since I met you."
"That's not tr-" She catches herself, realising a fraction too late that she's walked into a trap.
Charity laughs in delight. "See? Can't help yourself, can you?"
Vanessa narrows her eyes. "Thought you invited me here for a dance?"
"Oh yeah," Charity nods before finishing the last of her drink. "We better hurry up, an' all, because Elton John over there wants to get off home." She stands and holds her hand out. "I asked him to hang on a bit."
Vanessa takes the offered hand and slides off the stool, a spike of excitement shooting through her at the thought of being in Charity's arms. "And he just agreed? At the end of his shift on a Saturday night?"
Charity leads her out onto the tiny, empty dancefloor that's near the piano, and Vanessa sees her nod at the pianist. He nods back, and the tune transitions from slow, lazy jazz to something a little more upbeat.
"I can be very persuasive when I want to be." She finds herself being twirled underneath Charity's arm before coming to rest against her, their joined hands pressing against Charity's chest.
She looks up into green eyes that she feels like she knows so well already and swallows at their intensity. "I don't doubt that for a second." Vanessa's free hand moves to Charity's waist as they begin to move together, Charity's other arm drapes loosely around her shoulders. The melody kicks in and Vanessa smiles as she recognises the tune that Charity's clearly requested; 'Save the Last Dance for Me'.
"Smooth," she murmurs.
Charity winks. "I thought so."
Vanessa smiles and lays her head on Charity's shoulder, closing her eyes. There should be a little voice at the back of her head telling her that this is ridiculous. That she shouldn't feel like she's meant to be with this woman she met barely three hours ago. But it's strangely absent and she slips her arm further around Charity's waist, pulling her closer
"You're not too bad, actually." Charity murmurs. "When you've got someone leading, at least."
"See?" Vanessa lifts her head and smiles. "Regular Ginger Rogers, me."
"I wouldn't go that far." Charity's eyes fall to her lips and Vanessa doesn't bother waiting for her to decide. She tilts her head, going up on her toes and meeting Charity in a kiss that's as sweet as the first one they shared, but deeper and more tender. Charity's eyes are still closed when Vanessa pulls back. "You are a much better kisser than you are a dancer, I'll give you that."
"Considering what you've said about my dancing, I don't really think that's much of a compliment."
"Well, I meant it as one."
There's a sincerity to Charity's voice that sounds foreign, after all the joking back and forth, and it makes Vanessa's stomach feel funny. She nods. "Okay."
Charity nods too, her eyes flitting away to some point over Vanessa's shoulder. "So, I was thinking." Her eyes meet Vanessa's for the briefest of seconds before bouncing away again and settling on their joined hands, still resting against her chest. "You'll never get a taxi. All the clubs will be emptying round about now and the queues will be a nightmare."
Even though she expected the night to go in this direction, it still makes her heart beat faster, thudding in her ears before calming down. "That's true, yeah." She widens her eyes in fake worry. "What do you suggest I do instead?"
Charity shrugs. "Stop here if you like."
Vanessa hides a smile, creasing up her brow and tilting her head to consider the suggestion. "D'you think I'd be able to get a room at this hour?"
It takes a second but Charity catches on that she's teasing and it smooths out the slight worry lines between her eyebrows. Her hand slides to Vanessa's lower back and she leans in close to her ear. "I've got a room." The whispered words make Vanessa shiver.
"Have you, now?" Vanessa raises an eyebrow. "Are you propositioning me, Ms Dingle?"
"S'pose I am." Charity drags her knuckles over Vanessa's cheek and follows them with her lips, barely brushing the skin. She pulls back and all previous signs of amusement are gone. "Stay. Please."
She lifts her hand to Charity's neck, urging her down into another kiss as the last few notes of the song play out. She pulls away enough to whisper against warm lips. "Okay."
Charity grins and bumps her forehead against Vanessa's.
The following morning, awareness comes to Vanessa slowly. She knows something's different but her brain won't quite tell her what it is. But when a hand snakes across her bare belly and pulls her back against a warm body, she remembers. And she smiles, covering the arm with her own.
"Morning." Charity's voice is rough at the edges from sleep and it makes Vanessa's whole body tingle. If Vanessa had been a bit younger and more fanciful, she might have said the night before was magical. She's no stranger to sex, but everything they'd done together had felt like it was a level above that, elevated somehow by whatever connection they'd forged so quickly in that bar. It was amazing.
She turns over, shoving down the voluminous hotel pillows and propping her head up on her hand so she can see Charity's eyes. "So...last night was…"
Charity grins. "Yeah. It was."
"I hope you don't think that I-" Vanessa looks down, scraping her nail over the smooth sheet. "This isn't something I do. Not anymore, at least. And not for a while. I mean, it's not like I'm out every weekend picking up hot girls in bars or anything and I-"
"I know, Vanessa." Charity smiles, touching her forefinger to Vanessa's nose. Her eyebrow creeps up. "You think I'm hot, then?"
"You know you're hot, Charity," Vanessa says.
"Course I do, babe. Was just checking you agreed." She lifts her head, straining her neck to kiss the edge of Vanessa's mouth before dropping it back to the pillow. She catches a strand of Vanessa's hair and twirls it around her finger. Vanessa's eyes trail down Charity's chest, settling on two birthmarks that she remembers fondly from the previous night. She runs her thumb over them, her fingers framing Charity's breast. A low, gruff sounds comes from Charity's throat. "You thinking about starting round two?"
"Two? Must be at least round six." Vanessa smiles, her cheeks growing warm at the memory. "I lost count after you-"
A loud ringing interrupts and Charity sighs, turning to retrieve her phone from the bedside table. "Chas," she tells Vanessa as she answers the call. "What do you want? It's the middle of the night."
Vanessa rolls over and grabs her own phone to check the time. It's definitely not the middle of the night. It's after eleven. She turns back to find Charity with a hand over her eyes.
"What time is it at again? Can't we put it off until-" She frowns. "Yeah, alright Chas, chill your boots. I'll meet you there." She disconnects the call and chucks her phone further down the bed, keeping her eyes covered. "I'm late for some flamin' last minute dress fitting or summat."
Smiling, Vanessa kisses her cheek. "Families, eh? You'd better not get in their bad books. I'll let you get on." She throws the covers back on her side of the bed and swings her legs around so she's sitting on the edge. Before she can stand, a hand runs down her back, fingers dancing along the base of her spine. She shivers.
"I want to see you again." Vanessa looks over her shoulder just as Charity gets to her knees and presses herself against Vanessa's back. It's all Vanessa can do not to make a noise when all that flesh meets her own. Charity kisses her neck. "I've got a whole load of family and wedding stuff over the next couple of days. But after that, yeah?"
Vanessa reaches up and tangles her fingers in Charity's hair, turning so their noses bump against one another. "I'd really like that." She smiles. "My turn to buy the drinks, so maybe we can go somewhere a little less posh."
Charity's lips turn up against her cheek. "Wherever you want, babe." Charity's hand is sliding down her belly, getting dangerously close to the point of no return when Vanessa catches it and halts its progress.
"Much as I'd like to let you keep going, aren't you already late?"
"Yeah, I am." Teeth graze her shoulder and she hisses. "So what's another half an hour, yeah?"
Vanessa knows she should protest, but when Charity's lips make contact with the spot just below her ear, she sighs and releases her hand.
"I'm really flaming late now!" Charity's in front of the mirror, trying to get her hair into some kind of presentable state. Her trousers are undone and hanging loosely around her hips, her blouse buttoned up wrong. The sight of her makes Vanessa smile; she knows she's the reason behind that disarray and it warms something deep inside of her.
"And whose fault is that?" Vanessa struggles to pull her tights up, and decides to abandon that idea, shoving them in her handbag instead. "I told you not to start anything." She stands and tugs at her dress, trying to make it look like it wasn't just lying in a crumpled heap on the floor of a hotel room.
Charity flashes a smile over her shoulder. "Yeah, well, never been very good at being told what to do, me."
"Why doesn't that come as a shock?" Vanessa gathers up her coat and bag, slipping into her shoes. "Well, I best be off, then."
Setting down the hairbrush she'd been using, Charity turns, doing up her trousers as she follows Vanessa to the door of the room. "I'll call you, yeah? We can set something up for next week."
"I'll look forward to it." She opens the door and steps out into the corridor, turning to smile at Charity. "Hope everything goes smoothly with the wedding."
Charity rolls her eyes. "In my family? Unlikely. But thanks." She sighs. "I'll just be glad when it's over and done with."
Vanessa nods. "Okay. Well...bye, then."
She turns to leave, but her arm is caught and she's pulled back around, her lips meeting Charity's more on instinct than anything else.
Charity pulls back and smiles. "Bye."
Vanessa feels daft at the blush that covers her face, but she answers in the same whisper. "Bye."
She had to field cries of 'dirty stop-out' and requests for all the sordid details when she got home, of course. But Tracy and Rhona do seem genuinely pleased that she's found someone who apparently meets her overly high standards.
It's been a couple of days since they parted company and aside from a few flirty texts and one brief phonecall from the loos at some rehearsal dinner Charity was being forced to attend the previous night, there hasn't been much contact between them. And Vanessa's surprised at how she can miss someone she's barely spent any time with.
She stands by the window, cradling a cup of coffee that's long since dropped below an acceptable drinking temperature. The morning was bright and crisp when she nipped over to the shop to get milk, but the sun is warm on her face through the glass and she decides it might be nice to take a walk. It'll occupy her mind for a bit, stop her looking at her phone every two seconds and being disappointed when there's nothing from Charity.
It's just past two when she's walking up Main Street. She smiles at Eric as he passes on the opposite side of the road with Cheryl and her attention is drawn to two white wedding cars sitting outside the church. She hadn't heard anyone was getting married. The doors to the church open and she crosses over the road to watch. She's a bit of a sucker for weddings, if she's honest. Perhaps because she never expected to have one herself.
Harriet comes out of the church, followed by a gaggle of bridesmaids, nudging each other and chatting away. One of them looks familiar and it takes Vanessa a minute or two to figure out why; it's Charity's cousin Chas from the other night. She perks up as she scans the other bridesmaids, expecting to find Charity among them, but she's not. Her stomach starts to roll uncomfortably.
A cheer goes up when the bride and groom step through the doors. All noise fades away as blood rushes to Vanessa's ears when she finds herself looking into familiar green eyes. The last thing she sees before she turns and starts running is Charity's smile falling.
She doesn't stop running until she's at her front door. Her hand's shaking so badly that she can't get the key in the lock and she ends up banging her fist on the door, trying to keep her emotions under control until she's at least in the house. Finally the door is opened and Tracy's there, frowning.
"V? What's wr-"
She shoves past her sister and runs up the stairs, ignoring Tracy shouting her name. Throwing herself on the bed, she buries her face into a pillow and sobs.
It takes Tracy a good hour of coaxing and cajoling to get her out of her bedroom and down the stairs. Tracy pours wine for the pair of them as Vanessa explains her discovery from earlier in as few words as she can manage, because every single one of them feels like she's stabbing herself in the chest.
Tracy comes over to the couch with two full glasses and hands her one, blowing out a breath as she takes a seat. "What a total bitch."
There's an immediate and urgent need to defend Charity that swells in Vanessa's chest and she's not even sure where it comes from or why. She's known this woman a few days. Spent one night with her and exchanged a few texts. They're not star-crossed lovers or childhood sweethearts. She has no reason to feel any loyalty or attachment to Charity. And still she has to bite her lip to stop herself from finding some excuse for her behaviour so that her sister won't think badly of her.
"Yeah," she finally manages, lifting the glass to her mouth. The smell of the wine attacks her nostrils, taking her back to sitting at that bar, Charity sliding in to the seat next to her with that smile on her face. She wrinkles her nose and sets the glass down on the table untouched.
"I mean, I get that people want to have a laugh and a flirt on their hen do, yeah? I can maybe even forgive a bit of a snog." Tracy shakes her head. "But she led you on, V. Big time."
Vanessa nods, picking at a piece of skin beside her thumbnail. The thing is, though, that she's convinced she didn't imagine the connection they had. Yeah, sure, she fancied Charity immediately and for the first time in ages had actually wanted to prolong a conversation with a random stranger. But it wasn't one-sided, she's sure of it. Charity could've just left and never called her. She could've not texted back after their night together. But she was the one who'd wanted to see Vanessa again. She'd said so.
"I…" She shakes her head. "I thought it was real, you know?" Meeting her sister's eyes, she tries to smile. "It felt like...like all that stuff you read about in books and see in films. Like I just knew something was different with her. That she was different."
Tracy nods and squeezes her knee. "I know you did. You haven't stopped talking about her since." She tilts her head. "At least you found out now, eh? Better now than months down the line when you'd really fallen for her."
"Yeah. I s'pose." As she agrees, she knows in her heart that she'd have taken those few months of being with Charity, even if it meant a bigger heartache at the end of it all. She sighs. "Guess that's tha-"
Her phone buzzes on the table and she glances over at it out of habit, not really caring who's on the other end right now. But when she sees the name on the display, she snatches it up to get a closer look, in case her eyes are betraying her. But sure enough the name is there, clear as day. Charity Dingle.
"You have got to be kidding," she mutters.
"It's never her." Tracy leans over her shoulder and snorts. "Well, I've seen some brass necks in my time. Give it here."
Vanessa presses the phone to her chest. "What? No!"
Tracy holds out her hand. "I've got a few things I'd like to say to her, that's all. And then I'm gonna block her number, because I know you won't do it."
Jumping over the back of the couch to get away from Tracy's grabby hands, Vanessa shakes her head. "I think I'm old enough to do my own talking don't you?" She answers the call, annoyance at this audacity has taken over from her previous melancholy. "Tell me you aren't calling me from your wedding reception." Her voice isn't even shaking. She's quite proud of herself.
Charity sucks in a breath on the other end of the line before she speaks. "Listen, it's not ideal, I know."
A hollow laugh erupts from Vanessa's mouth at the description. "Not i-bloody-deal?"
Tracy's up and standing in front of her, eyebrows raised. "Not ideal? Is that what she just said? The cheeky-"
Vanessa waves her away and turns around as Charity speaks again.
"No, I know...I...look, there's a pub just up from the church. What's it called...the Sheep Dip or summat."
Gritting her teeth, Vanessa resists the urge to provide the information that the pub is in fact a few doors down from her house. "The Woolpack."
"That's the one. Meet me round the side of it in five minutes and I'll explain."
"Explain what?" Tears spring to Vanessa's eyes and she swallows hard to keep herself from crying. "Explain why you led me on? Gave me your number and said you wanted to see me again when you were marrying someone else two days later?"
"Yes, that. I'll explain all of that. Please, Vanessa." Vanessa's eyes close when Charity says her name, her stomach flipping like it had that first time. "Please."
She should absolutely not go. She should tell Charity to get stuffed and then delete her number and never think about her again.
"Fine," she hears herself saying instead. "I'll be there in five minutes." She ends the call before Charity can say anything further and purposefully doesn't look at Tracy as she goes to pull her shoes on.
"You're not actually going to meet her?"
Sighing, Vanessa remains facing the opposite way. "She wants a chance to...explain."
Tracy grabs her shoulder and turns her around. The incredulous expression she's wearing should be what Vanessa's feeling too. "And you think she deserves that, do you? After lying to you?"
"She never lied." Vanessa shakes her head when Tracy scoffs. "No, she didn't. She told me about the wedding she just-"
"Never told you she was the flamin' bride." Tracy laughs. "Pretty big thing to leave out, yeah?"
"I-" She closes her eyes. "I just want to see her, Trace. I had all these things in my head that I was going to get to do with her and now...now I'm not. So I just need to say goodbye, okay?"
Tracy looks at her for a long time and then pulls her into a hug. "I'm sorry."
Vanessa lets out a slow breath against Tracy's shoulder, holding her tight. "Yeah. Me too."
She makes the short walk to the pub, her stomach growing heavier with every step, and sure enough, Charity's leaning against the wall, tapping her phone on her chin. When she catches sight of Vanessa, she pushes herself upright and walks towards her. Vanessa's eyes trail down the white wedding gown, it's fitted and simple and painfully beautiful. Her eyes come up to meet Charity's and she's got the sense not to be smiling, at least. Vanessa stops a few feet away, glad when Charity takes the hint and does the same. Vanessa raises her eyebrows.
Charity shrugs. "When I said I wanted to see you again, this wasn't quite what I had in mind, babe."
Vanessa sighs. "Look, if you're just going to be flippant about it-"
"No, no I'm sorry." Charity reaches out, but stops short of touching her. "I just...I'm nervous and I…" She looks down at her feet.
She looks at the top of Charity's head and forces out the words she needs to say. "So, that hen do that you didn't want to be on...you didn't happen to mention it was your own."
"Well, yeah." Charity looks back up and rolls her eyes. "That would've been a bit of a crap chat up line wouldn't it?"
Vanessa throws her hands in the air. "Why were you chatting me up at all?"
"Because it was my hen do! It was just supposed to be a bit of harmless fun! I didn't expect-" Charity stops, pressing her lips together.
Hope sparks in Vanessa's chest and she fights it down, but can't stop herself from asking. "Didn't expect what?"
"I didn't expect to like you, did I?" Charity sighs. "I just thought I'd sit and have a drink with you and we'd have some banter, maybe a bit of a snog, and that'd be that."
"Except you didn't stop at a snog, did you? I really thought-" Vanessa stops and shakes her head. It should make her feel better that she was right, that it's not one-sided. But all it really serves to do is remind her that it can go nowhere. She sighs. "Well, whatever. Chalk it up to a bit of fun eh? Last hoorah and all that." She turns to walk away but Charity grabs her elbow, turning her back around. She's shaking her head, frowning.
"That's not all it was, and you know it." She takes hold of both of Vanessa's arms. "Don't you think if that's all it was that I'd have left well alone? Why would I want to see you again? To make things complicated for myself?"
"I honestly don't know, Charity." Vanessa shrugs out of Charity's hold, weary now.
"Because you're...you're-" Charity tips her head back and looks at the sky. "There's something about you. You're funny...and gorgeous...and you don't take any shit...and you're-"
"And none of that matters because you're married." Vanessa knows her eyes are full of tears and she doesn't care. She lifts her shoulders and lets them drop. "And that's that. And we never need to see each other again." She swallows. "Goodbye Charity."
Mustering all the dignity she can, she turns and starts to walk away, determined not to break down until she gets home.
"That might be difficult, babe, since I'm moving to Emmerdale."
She stops walking, hoping that she's heard wrong. She turns to face Charity. "Tell me that's some kind of sick joke."
But she knows even before Charity responds that it's not. "'Fraid not. Home Farm, it's called. It's just up over-"
"I know where it is." She shakes her head. "I can't believe this. This is...this is-"
"Fate?" Charity suggests with a half smile that irritates Vanessa to no end.
"Bullshit, is what it is." She steps closer to Charity, trying to ignore the way the heady smell of her perfume reminds of her of having her nose pressed to Charity's neck while confident fingers moved inside her. "I am not getting into some sordid affair with a married woman, okay? So whatever notions you're entertaining right now, you can just forget them." She's breathing heavily. "We're done."
There's a moment between them where she thinks Charity will agree, but then she smirks and takes a step forward, into Vanessa's personal space. Their torsos brush and Vanessa's breath is stolen by the simple touch. Charity bends her neck, her head tilting so the tips of their noses are touching. Vanessa knows she could step away, could end this intoxication, but she doesn't. And when Charity speaks, it's barely more than an exhalation against Vanessa's lips.
"No, we're not."
Their lips meet in the softest of kisses, almost just resting against each other. Charity's hands take hold of her hips before sliding around to her lower back, her own hands coming to land on Charity's shoulders. Tears spill down Vanessa's cheeks at what could have been, because she's fairly certain nothing's ever going to feel this perfect again. She takes a moment to soak in the memory, and then turns her face, breaking the kiss.
"You're married," she whispers, forcing herself to look into Charity's eyes, surprised when she finds a sadness there that she hasn't noticed before.
"Not everyone gets married for true love, buttercup." One side of her mouth quirks. "Real life's a bit more complicated than fairy tales."
Vanessa shakes her head, stepping back out of Charity's hold. "Then let me simplify things for you. This?" She points between the two of them. "This is never happening again. Now go and enjoy your wedding. I'm sure your husband is wondering where you are."
She turns and walks away again, not stopping this time when Charity calls her name. She doesn't bother to wipe the tears dripping off her chin.
We can't just leave it like that. You're going to have to speak to me at some point. Once I'm in and sorted at Home Farm I'll give you a call, yeah? x
Vanessa. Please. Pick up the phone. x
So, you're just going to ignore me? That's not going to work forever, babe. I'm pretty hard to ignore ;)
Sorry, that was inappropriate. Will you just pick up the phone when I ring you? We need to talk.
We live in the same place. You can't avoid me forever. There's only like seven other people in this village.
I'd love to hear your voice right now, babe. x
Vanessa, this is daft. Just pick up your phone. Please?
Look, I know you're reading these. There's an easy way to not have to see them. Block my number.
Vanessa scrolls back through the string of messages, all unanswered, but each one read multiple times. She flicks to Charity's contact details, pulling up the option to block her number. Her thumb hovers over the button and she closes her eyes and exits the menu. She hates herself for being so weak, for not being able to take the simple step that would end the contact.
She types one word in response to Charity's latest message.
There's a slight pause, then she sees Charity typing again.
Then that's all I need to know, babe. x
Vanessa sighs and hurls her phone onto the couch.
A couple of weeks later, she's at work and just about to take her lab coat off when Pearl comes in with a folder and drops it on the table. Vanessa frowns. "I've no more appointments today."
"We've had a walk-in. New patient," Pearl says, her mouth pinched and tight, but eyes dancing. That usually means there's gossip to be had, but Vanessa's too tired for it today. She's tired often at the moment.
"Well, give it to Rhona or Paddy. I've been up since God knows when and I'm off home for a well deserved-"
Pearl cuts her off. "I offered her an appointment with Paddy, but she insisted on seeing you." She leans in closer to Vanessa. "And who am I to say no to the new lady of the manor."
"Charity?" Vanessa barks the name before she can stop herself and she grimaces when she sees the glee in Pearl's eyes.
"The very same." Pearl pats at the ends of her hair, dipping her head to look over the top of her glasses at Vanessa. "Quite adamant that it had to be you, she was."
"Was she, now?" She's as she picks up the folder and flicks it open to the registration form. She scans over it and looks up at Pearl. "Under 'Breed' it says 'Big grey bugger'." She looks again. "And under 'Sex' it says 'Yes please'."
Pearl shrugs. "I'm not paid enough to check that the clients can fill in a simple form. You can sort it out with her during the appointment." She turns to leave. "And you should see what she's put under 'Neutered?'"
Vanessa looks down quickly and blushes bright red just as Pearl calls out "Ms Woodfield will see you now."
"No, Pearl, I-" She trails off when Charity appears in the doorway with an Irish Wolfhound on a leash at her side. Vanessa's heart judders in her chest at the sight of her. Dressed in a pair of jeans and a navy shirt, Vanessa's not sure she's ever seen someone look so effortlessly beautiful. She clenches her teeth as Charity closes the door behind her. Vanessa looks at the file in her hands so that she won't have to look at Charity.
"Look, Vanessa, I-"
She can't listen to anything Charity has to say. Just hearing her voice has made all of her insides turn to mush. She needs to keep this encounter businesslike. "This your dog, is it?"
Charity sighs. "That's right, yeah. This is my Monty." She rubs the dog's head.
Moving over to the examination table, Vanessa lays down the file and pulls a new pair of gloves out of the box. "Thought you weren't much of an animal person?"
"Well, dogs are fine. I meant, you know, cows and that. Big things that smell terrible and can trample you to death."
Vanessa snaps on her gloves and comes to kneel in front of the dog, even though she's certain there's nothing wrong with him. She strokes his head and he leans into her hand when she scratches his ear. "And what seems to be the problem with Monty?"
"He's, uh...he's really sad."
Vanessa's head snaps up and she meets Charity's eyes. "Sad?"
"Yeah." Charity nods, the edges of her mouth turning down in an exaggerated sad face. "He did something stupid and now the lady dog-"
Charity seems taken aback by this and her eyes drop to the floor. "Well, there's no need for name calling, Vanessa."
Vanessa rolls her eyes. "A lady dog is a bitch." She nods for Charity to continue. "Go on. Tell me more about how stupid Monty is."
"Well, I never said he was stupid." Charity shifts from foot to foot, her shoulders hunching over. "I said he did a stupid thing. Which is different."
Vanessa stands back up and crosses her arms. "I think I'll be the judge of that. Since I'm the vet and everything."
"Right, well...he did a stupid thing and now this lady he likes thinks he's an idiot." Charity looks at her with big, doleful eyes. "And he wants to fix it."
"Well, if the thing he did was chatting up this lady a couple of days before he got married to someone else, then I'm afraid there's no cure for that level of stupidity."
Monty, clearly bored of this conversation, lies down with a huff at their feet. "Thanks for nothing," Charity hisses at him.
Vaness sighs. "Whose dog is this, Charity?"
Rolling her eyes, Charity's shoulders slump. "He's my uncle's dog. I borrowed him."
"Why on ear-"
"Because I wanted to see you, alright?" Charity snaps. "You won't answer my calls, you don't reply to my texts...I...I just wanted to see you."
"Why?" Vanessa's voice is a whisper. She shakes her head. "You're married, Charity. And I've already told you I'm not going to be your bit on the side. So all you're doing here...all the texts and calls and...and this-" She gestures between the two of them. "-is just making it harder for both of us." She laughs and rolls her eyes. "Well, mostly for me because you've got your husband to go home to."
"And you think we can just leave it, do you?" Charity moves closer, only a step away from Vanessa. "What's between us? You think we can just ignore it and it'll go away?"
Vanessa can feel her body being drawn towards Charity's and she shakes her head, stepping away. She moves to the door of the examination room and lays a shaking hand on the handle, meeting Charity's eyes.
"We can try." She opens the door and stands aside. "Goodbye, Charity."
To her surprise, and a little to her disappointment, Charity nods and makes a clicking noise to get Monty up and moving. She stops in front of Vanessa, meeting her eyes briefly before looking at the ground. "I am really sorry, you know? About all of this...mess. I know it's my doing and I'm sorry."
Shaking her head, Vanessa swallows, aware that Pearl will be listening to every word they say. "Then why not just drop it?" she whispers. "Just leave me alone to get on with my life?"
Charity looks at her again and Vanessa feels like, for a moment, she might be seeing the real Charity, without artifice or bravado. And when Charity's answer comes in a matching whisper, Vanessa might almost believe it.
"Because I can't."
A few days pass and Charity keeps up her steady stream of text messages. Only she's stopped writing them as if she expects Vanessa to respond. They're more conversational now, like Charity's just chattering away in her ear, giving her thoughts on whatever's going on. It would make Vanessa smile, if it didn't break her heart.
They don't see each other again until Vanessa's up at Butler's Farm, inspecting Moira's flock for a suspected outbreak of sheep scab. A voice floats over the fence from a nearby footpath.
"Hey! Glorious day, isn't it? Kind of a frosty, crispy...wintry morning!"
Vanessa's head drops back and she looks at the sky and lets out a breath, turning to face the owner of the voice, who is leaning on a fence post and grinning at her. "What are you doing here, Charity?"
"What? Is it against the law to be out for a walk?" Charity clicks her tongue. "I'm a country person now, Vanessa. I'm out appreciating...you know, trees and stuff."
"Course you are." Vanessa gestures to the rolling fields around them. "And in all this space, you just happened to be walking right by me, did you?"
Charity rolls her eyes. "Okay, so the air isn't the only thing that's frosty, then."
Turning back to the sheep, Vanessa continues with her task, not looking at Charity as she speaks. "What do you want from me, Charity?"
"I just...I wanted to…" An exasperated sigh. "I can't stop thinking about you, alright?"
"That so? Funny, I haven't given you a second thought."
There's a pause. "What, really?" Vanessa clenches her teeth at how that slight little wobble in Charity's voice can make her chest hurt. But the next word quickly pushes that away. "Liar."
Sighing, she releases the sheep she's checking and turns back around, scowling at Charity. "Well, I'm trying not to think about you, but it's bloody hard with you texting me and popping up every two seconds."
"You'd still be thinking about me, babe. I'm just giving you the added bonus of seeing my face." She flutters her eyelashes in a way that should be obnoxious, but just makes the edges of Vanessa's lips want to turn up. She shakes her head instead.
"That's your plan, is it? To keep turning up in the hope that one day I'll just give in and we'll start a torrid affair?"
Charity tilts her head. "I'm quite surprised that you think I've got a plan for any of this." She leans forward, pressing against the wire fence, eyes wide. "Tell me more about how torrid this affair's going to be though. Detailed as you like. Go."
Again, Charity's attempt at humour only serves to send a streak of melancholy through Vanessa. It reminds her how easy it is to talk to Charity and good they could be together; going for wintry walks, holding hands and making each other laugh with daft jokes.
"I'm sure you've got your own thoughts about what it would be like," she manages.
Charity nods. "I do. Loads of thoughts." She winks. "I could demonstrate a few of them if you like."
"Is this fun for you?" Vanessa snaps. "Torturing me like this?"
Charity's face falls and Vanessa clamps down on the urge to apologise. When Charity speaks, her voice is soft. "I...I'm not-" She shakes her head. "Honestly, that's not what I'm doing, babe. I promise."
"What then? Because I can't see what you're getting out of this other than some perverse amusem-"
"I'm getting to see you." Charity looks as shocked as Vanessa, but she shakes her head and keeps going. "Do you really think I'm just here to wind you up? Do you think that when I was eyeing you up in that club that I thought for a second we'd end up here?"
"And where's 'here', Charity?" Vanessa throws her hands up. "We're not anywhere. We're not anything and we can't ever be anything."
"Yeah, so you keep saying, babe." Charity's eyebrows lift. "But you still haven't blocked my number. You didn't just keep working when I called out to you just now." She smiles. "You want to be around me as much as I want to be around you."
Vanessa lets out a brittle laugh. "And that's why it hurts so much." She meets Charity's eyes and watches as understanding dulls them. "Don't you see? You're hurting me by doing this. Yes, I want to be around you, but I can't be with you the way I want to be and it hurts."
Charity steps away from the fence, shoving her hands deep into her coat pockets. She nods. "Right. Well...I...never thought about it like that."
"If we were both single, then I'd absolutely want to see where this could go." She swallows and wills her voice not to shake. "But we're not both single. And I'm far too old to be someone's bit on the side or dirty secret, okay?" Bile rises in her throat as she thinks of the Rhona situation. "I've tried that and I didn't like it."
Charity nods, eyes still downcast. "Right...well. I'll stop." She lifts her head, but doesn't meet Vanessa's eyes, choosing instead to examine the landscape over her shoulder. "And it looks like you've got company, so I should...I'll go."
Vanessa turns to see what Charity's talking about and spots Moira striding across the field from the direction of the farmhouse. She sighs and takes a few steps closer to where Charity's standing.
"I...I think this is the only way to stop it hurting. It's for the best." She laughs a little. "That's what I'm telling myself, at least."
Charity nods, finally looking at her again. "Okay." She smiles and it's the saddest thing Vanessa's ever seen. "I'll...see you around the village then? Maybe?"
"Yeah. Course." Vanessa nods and tries to smile like her heart isn't cracking in two. "Like you said, it's a tiny place."
"Right. Well. Bye, babe."
Vanessa's eyes are hot with tears, but she manages to keep them in check. "Bye."
"Bye." Charity turns and starts walking away, but not before Vanessa spots a shimmer over her eyes that makes her throat throb. She watches her get smaller and smaller until Moira arrives by her shoulder, holding up a flask with a smile.
"Thought you might like a cuppa."
She nods and sniffs, shifting her attention to the closest sheep, catching it and wrestling it into a position where she can inspect its skin as Moira pours tea into two plastic cups.
"So." She holds one of them out to Vanessa once she releases the animal. "That looked like an important conversation."
Vanessa sips her tea, making a noise somewhere in her throat, unsure if her voice will work properly yet.
Moira nods, sipping her own tea, eyes fixed on some cows in the next field. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"No!" Vanessa bites her lip, immediately contrite. "Sorry, Moira. I didn't mean to snap at you. I just-...I've got Tracy and Rhona giving me earache about it already."
"That's fine." Moira smiles and bumps her shoulder. "Well...whatever's going on, I'm sure you'll figure it out."
"You're a sensible woman, Vanessa." Moira tilts her head. "Well, most of the time. You'll do what you need to do with...whatever this is."
Vanessa sighs. "I bloody hope so."
"-and so Paddy, somehow, got his head stuck in the arm of the dining room chair trying to show Leo...well, I'm not even sure what he was-."
Vanessa forces herself to focus on the story Rhona's telling her. She came out this evening to stop herself from thinking about Charity bloody Dingle constantly. But whenever Rhona's speaking, Vanessa finds her thoughts wandering off in the very direction she's pointedly trying to avoid.
"Oh, Paddy," Vanessa says, with an affectionate roll of her eyes, hoping that's an appropriate response to whatever Rhona just said. She nods to Rhona's empty glass. "Another?"
Rhona presses her lips together. "Oh, go on then. Might as well make the most of my night of freedom, eh?"
"Exactly." Vanessa picks up their empties and heads to the bar, ordering a couple of pints from Diane and getting her phone out while she's waiting. She happens to look up from scrolling through Facebook when the door at the far end opens. A spike of regret shoots through her when her eyes lock with familiar green ones and all the air goes out of the room. Charity nods her head in greeting and Vanessa does the same.
Charity's blocking the door and someone nudges her, quite roughly, from behind to get her moving again. And that's when he walks in. Vanessa sucks air in through her nose at the sight of him. She hasn't seen him apart from on his wedding day, and she never took much note of him then, truth be told. She appraises him now. He's handsome enough, she supposes, but there's something about his face she doesn't like. There's a harshness to the lines of his brow and no warmth in his eyes. Vanessa hates him instantly.
Diane brings her drinks over and she fumbles with her purse, trying to get the right money out quickly so that she can get away. Charity and Declan are leaning on the opposite end of the bar and she doesn't want to look at them a second longer than she needs to. She gives Diane a nods of thanks, shoving her purse under her arm and picking up the two pint glasses. The beer sloshes over the sides and drips onto her hands in her haste to get back to her seat.
Before she's even sat down, Rhona's whipped out a packet of baby wipes and is offering her one for her hands.
"You alright?" Rhona asks, her voice low.
Vanessa offers her a bright smile and a shrug as she wipes off her hands. "Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"
"Ness." Rhona's expression very clearly indicates that she's not buying the act.
She sighs. "Look, just...leave it, okay? This is my local and I'm out having a drink with my friend."
"Oh, I know. I wasn't suggesting we leave or anything." Rhona picks up her glass and takes a swig. "I just...it must be hard for you, is all I'm saying."
"Better to face it head on than avoid it though. It'll only get harder." She takes a long drink. "We'll go after this one though, yeah?"
Rhona nods. "Sounds like a plan."
Vanessa manages not to look over at Charity while they carry on their conversation. Their pints are finished more quickly than any of the others they've had this evening and soon they're both shrugging into their jackets. It's then that she notices Declan's voice growing louder. She can't quite pick out what he's saying, but whatever it is, it's not very nice. She can feel her body tense up. Men talking down to women has always been a bit of a touchy point for her. During a late night discussion with Tracy over a couple of bottles of wine, she'd come to the conclusion that it stems from sitting in her room listening to her parents argue. Her dad would always resort to talking down to her mum, condescending to her. It makes Vanessa's blood boil.
Rhona grabs Vanessa's arm and holds on.
Vanessa widens her eyes. "What?"
"Don't give me the innocent act," Rhona murmurs. "I can hear you grinding your teeth from here."
"Oh, don't be so fucking stupid, Charity."
There's no mistaking what was said that time, and Vanessa moves to approach Charity and Declan's table. Rhona yanks her back, shaking her head.
"Don't get involved, Ness."
Vanessa sighs and pulls her arm out of Rhona's hold. "Too late for that."
She strides over to where they're sitting. Declan's still talking, but Charity looks up when Vanessa draws near, and the panic on her face would be comical under another set of circumstances. Vanessa stops and waits until Declan looks at her. His eyes drift down her body and she fights the urge to shudder.
"Yes? Can I help you?"
"Yeah, you can." Vanessa inclines her head to Charity. "You can stop talking to her like she's something you trod in."
Declan barks out a laugh, clearly not expecting that. His lip twists into a sneer. "I'll talk to my wife however I like."
"Vanessa, leave it," Charity widens her eyes and shakes her head. She lays her hand on Declan's arm. "C'mon, let's go home." He shakes her off. Vanessa frowns, planting her hands on her hips.
"You've barely been married two months," she continues. "You should be treating her like a flamin' princess."
Declan stands up, towering over Vanessa, who stands her ground, staring him down. She can feel Rhona tugging on her arm and Diane has come out from behind the bar. Charity stands too, moving behind Declan and shaking her head at Vanessa.
"Look," Declan begins, bending forward so that he's in Vanessa's space. "I have no idea who you are or why you're sticking your nose into my business."
The statement throws Vanessa. He has no idea who she is. She is of such little consequence to him that he doesn't even know of her existence. Whereas his existence is ruining her whole life.
"I'm-" She pauses. Who is she in this situation?
"She's...just someone I know. A friend," Charity cuts in, taking Declan's hand and placing her other hand on his shoulder, trying to placate him. "Leave it, babe. Let's go home, yeah? We've got much better Scotch up there anyway."
Diane raises an eyebrow at Vanessa. "Pity about the company," she mutters.
For a moment, Vanessa thinks that Declan might refuse, that he'll shake Charity off again. And then Vanessa will really have to put her money where her mouth is. But after a few more seconds of intense glaring, he nods.
"Fine." He looks at Diane and Rhona, and back to Vanessa. "You can go back to your little Neighbourhood Watch meeting. Find somewhere else to stick your nose."
Charity's already gathered up their jackets and urges Declan out of the pub by the hand. She glances over her shoulder, meeting Vanessa's eyes. Vanessa's struck by what she sees there. It's not gratitude, or even irritation. It's fear.
The door closes behind them and Diane blows out a breath. "Well, he's a proper charmer, isn't he?"
She heads back behind the bar and Rhona moves closer to Vanessa. "You need to back off, Ness," she warns. "She's trouble and you don't need any part of it. She's not worth it."
Vanessa shakes her head. "Yes, she is."
She can't relax when she gets home from the pub. That look in Charity's eyes as she was leaving has unsettled her and she needs to speak to her. She needs to check that she's okay. Checking her phone every ten seconds is making her worse, so she does the only thing she can think of. She texts Charity.
Call me. Please.
It's the first time she's invited contact since she stumbled upon Charity's wedding. She scrolls back up through the one-sided conversation, stopping when she reaches her own messages; back before everything went to shit. She stares at the phone, willing Charity to text back or the phone to ring. So when it does, she almost drops it in fright before answering the call.
"Don't do that again, okay?" Charity's voice is hushed and it makes Vanessa more uneasy. "I mean, it was all very chivalrous and that, but please do not do it again. I don't want you on his radar."
Vanessa scoffs. "Oh, so you're allowed to chase me all over the county, making eyes at me and texting me at all hours. But if I decide to stop some pr-" She stops herself from saying the word she wants to. "-someone from treating you like dirt, that's overstepping, is it?"
"Like I said, babe, it was very noble and heroic of you, and I definitely needed a change of knickers when I got home, but don't put yourself in harm's way for me again. Got it?"
Vanessa frowns at the wording Charity chose. "Harm's w-"
"Anyway, I was phoning to see if you wanted to meet me for a drink. Since we're friends and everything. That's what friends do with each other. So I'm told."
"Seriously?" Vanessa's head is spinning from the abrupt change of topic. "You want to be my friend?"
"Well, you've made it clear I'm not getting to be anything else, so we might as well try this, yeah?" She hears Charity suck in a breath. "I just-...I like being around you. And we're going to be bumping into each other every five minutes in this postage stamp sized village, so we can try to make it a bit less weird and awkward than it was earlier."
Vanessa's hit with a compulsion to ask Charity if she's just trying to firm up the 'friends' cover story for her hubby, but she pushes it down. Charity's right. If they're going to be living in the village, they really need to try and develop some kind of relationship that's workable and that doesn't involve Vanessa's heart going into overdrive every time they meet. And, if she's honest with herself, she just wants to spend time with Charity too. Even if it hurts.
"Okay." She drags the word out, as if she's still mulling it over. "I suppose a couple of drinks couldn't hurt. As friends."
"Brilliant!" From Charity's voice, Vanessa would guess that she was expecting her suggestion to be rejected. "Okay...well, how you fixed for this weekend?"
"Ummm." She knows fine well that she has nothing planned for the weekend. "I could do Friday night if that suits you?"
"Friday's great. That's...yeah, that's good. Just a couple of friends going out for a drink, eh?"
"Yeah." Vanessa sighs. "Can't wait."
"You could try and sounds a bit more enthusiastic, babe."
"I'm said I'd go, didn't I?" Vanessa pinches the bridge of her nose. "You'll have to make do with that for now."
"I'll take it."
Maybe going back to the club where they met was a mistake. They'd both been adamant they shouldn't go to the Woolpack, and there was an unspoken agreement that bumping into people they know probably wouldn't be ideal. So they end up back at Hotten's solitary gay bar. And all Vanessa can think about is the last time they were here.
Vanessa had deliberately dressed down for the evening. Normally she'd have put on a nice frock for a Friday night, but she went for jeans and a v-necked jumper. It didn't stop Charity's eyes from roaming over her body when she turned up at Tug Ghyll for them to get a taxi together. She'd scolded Charity for the low whistle she'd let out, but as she was doing so, her own treacherous eyes had taken a journey into the plunging neckline of Charity's blouse. And, of course, Charity had teased her for the whole taxi journey about it.
Now they're sat at the bar, a few drinks in, and the conversation is growing a little easier. It was stilted at first, with Vanessa's shutting down all of Charity's attempts at flirting with her. But, slowly, they're stumbling towards something approaching this elusive friendship they both claimed to want. There's no doubt that there's still something between them, something Vanessa's never felt with anyone. Now they just have to learn how to shape it into a relationship they can take forward.
Charity finishes off her drink. "Right, well, I need to go to the loo."
Vanessa nods. "I'll get us another round in, shall I?"
"Yeah, great, babe." Charity slips off her stool and leans in close. "See how well I'm behaving? I didn't even accuse you of trying to get me drunk to have your wicked way with me!"
Vanessa rolls her eyes and shoves Charity's shoulder. "Go and pee."
Getting the barman's attention, Vanessa orders another round and pays for the drinks. She's just sipping her own when a voice comes from beside her. "Any tips on how to get served round here?"
She turns to find a woman standing there. A brunette with close cropped hair and warm eyes, probably in her early fifties. She's wearing jeans and a suit jacket.
"Oh, it's a nightmare sometimes, isn't it?" Vanessa says, with a smile. "I recommend ordering a double round. Saves time in the long run."
The woman smiles and holds out her hand. "I'm Jane. Just moved to Hotten from Manchester for work and thought I'd better get to know the local haunts."
Vanessa's stomach sinks as they shake hands, but she rolls her eyes and plays along. "Such as they are, eh?"
This lady is going to start chatting her up, she just knows it. And while that might not be a terrible thing, Vanessa's just not into it right now. Not into anyone right now, apart from the one person she shouldn't be. She tries desperately to think of something polite to say to put the woman off.
"So, I noticed you were sitting with someone before...is she your girlfriend or-"
An arm slides around her shoulders. "Wife, actually." Vanessa cringes as Charity squeezes her against her, murmuring against her ear, more than loud enough for Jane to hear. "Can't leave you on your own for two minutes without someone trying it on, can I darling?" She turns to Jane, leaning in as if she's sharing a confidence. "Dr Hook were totally right. It is hard when you're in love with a beautiful woman. Especially when she wears tops as low cut as this one does."
Vanessa's still reeling from the close contact and it takes her a second to catch up with what's been said. "Charity!"
Jane holds up her hands. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"
"It's fine," Vanessa interrupts, with a tight smile. "No harm done, eh?"
With a self-conscious nod, Jane retreats to a position further down the bar, finally getting the attention of the bloke serving. Charity's arm is still around her shoulders and she shrugs it off, turning to glare at her.
"Well, that was uncalled for."
"Uncalled for?" Charity sits down heavily, picking up her drink and taking a sip. "You're joking aren't you?"
"No, I'm not, actually. I can handle myself. I don't need you coming along and making lewd remarks and embarrassing folk."
Charity stares at her, eyes growing hard. "Oh, so you wanted kd Lang to chat you up, then?"
"And what if I did?" Vanessa's really irritated now. The nerve of this woman. She tips the remainder of her drink down her throat and slams the glass on the bar. "You don't get to decide who I speak to, Charity. You don't get to scupper any chance I might have of actually finding someone and then go home to your husband."
When she stops speaking, she's breathing heavily. Charity throws her hands up and stands.
"Listen, I don't want to cramp your style, babe." She nods down the bar. "Didn't realise it was Grab a Granny night. I'll leave you to it."
Vanessa sighs. "Charity-"
But Charity's already got her jacket on and grabs her bag off the bar. "I'll see you around, babe."
And then she's gone and Vanessa's alone. She contemplates going after her, but she can't bring herself to do it. She can't deny a part of her was thrilled that Charity was jealous of that other woman. Part of her feels wanted and special that Charity doesn't want other people to chat her up. But another, much larger part, just feels royally pissed off that Charity thinks she has the right to dictate how Vanessa chooses to live her life.
After a bit of thought, she decides that she won't follow Charity. She'll stay out and see where the night takes her. Maybe she'll even pluck up the courage to go and speak to Jane again, to apologise for Charity's behaviour and her lies. She flags down the barman and orders another drink.
She leaves ten minutes later without speaking to anyone.
The following day, she's deliberately avoiding looking at her phone and its lack of messages from Charity so she heads to the cafe to get herself a coffee. She spots her Dad and Tracy at a table and joins them once she's put her order in.
Her dad's looking far more happy than is usual for a Sunday morning, and that's not always a good sign.
She takes off her jacket and inclines her head at him, addressing Tracy as she sits down. "What's up with him?"
Tracy rolls her eyes. "Oh, ignore him. He's all smug 'cause he's got a hot date."
"Oh God, who with?" She wrinkles her nose. "Not that woman from the gym again? The one who could crack walnuts with her thighs?"
"Terri? No." He gets a faraway look on his face. "Although that wasn't the only thing she could do with her thighs, let me tell you."
"Excuse me while I vomit," Tracy puts in, offering her dad a sweet smile when he frowns at her, offended. "So, you gonna tell us who it's with?"
He grins like a schoolboy. "You know that new woman up at Home Farm?"
Tracy chokes on her muffin and Vanessa can't even focus enough to hit her on the back because she's concentrating on not dropping the mug of coffee Brenda just handed her. Frank looks between the two of them, confused. She hadn't mentioned Charity to him, thankfully, before she found out about the wedding. So he has no clue that she's basically been in a living nightmare for the past couple of months.
"The woman from Home Farm?" Vanessa asks. "Seriously?"
"Yes." Frank nods. "Megan. Megan Macey. She moved in there with her brother and his wife a few weeks ago. Am I missing something here?"
Vanessa feels lightheaded from the relief that floods her. Tracy's finally managed to swallow what was in her mouth and is shaking her head.
"No, dad. No, you're not missing anything." She nudges Vanessa. "I hope you enjoy yourself on your date."
Vanessa conjures up a smile from somewhere and nods along. "Yeah. Absolutely."
Great. That's all she needs; more connections to Charity. Knowing her luck, her dad will end up marrying this woman and her and Charity will end up as bridesmaids. She slouches in her seat and fishes in her pocket for her phone. Still no word from Charity.
She's not making contact first. She's absolutely not making the first move. Not after the way Charity carried on.
Sighing, she steals half of her dad's pain au chocolat to see if it'll make her feel better.
Two days pass with no word at all from Charity. Vanessa's almost caved and texted her on a number of occasions, even going so far as to type out a message a few times. But she's stopped herself. She's got to keep some shred of dignity.
Tracy's out for the evening with some friends, so Vanessa's pottering around the house, trying to keep her mind occupied. She's halfway through clearing out one of the kitchen drawers when the doorbell rings. She gets up and dusts her hands on her jeans, thinking it might be Rhona, or maybe her dad.
She doesn't, for one minute, consider that it will be Charity. So when she opens the door to find her standing there, she physically takes a step backwards.
"Wow." Charity raises her eyebrows and shoves her hands in her back pockets. "I wasn't expecting you to welcome me with open arms, babe, but I didn't think you'd recoil in horror either."
"What are you doing here?"
"I'm visiting you. S'what friends do, innit?" When Vanessa makes no reply, Charity nods over her shoulder to the house. "Gonna invite me in?"
Vanessa stands aside, letting Charity enter. As she does, the slightly sour smell of alcohol hits Vanessa's nose. She sighs, closing the door and following Charity into the living room. She's standing in the middle of the room, looking around.
"Nice house." She nods. "Very cosy. And very yellow."
"I like yellow," Vanessa says, folding her arms over her chest.
Charity looks over at her and smiles. "I like you."
Vanessa rolls her eyes. "How much have you had to drink, Charity?"
Charity laughs, shaking her head. "Just enough to make me brave." She meets Vanessa's eyes long enough for Vanessa to see that they're clear. "I'm not here for some drunken fumble, if that's what you're worried about, babe."
"I wasn't, that's not what I-"
"So," Charity interrupts, sweeping both arms out to the sides. "Gonna give me the grand tour or what?"
"The grand tour?" Vanessa laughs and points over Charity's shoulder. "Kitchen." She points between them. "Living room." To the ceiling. "Bedrooms."
Charity lifts an eyebrow. "Not getting to see up there, then?"
"That's fair enough."
"It's not exactly Home Farm, but it's-"
"S'much nicer than Home Farm." Charity shakes her head, moving over to examine the pictures on the wall. "That's like some bloody big museum or something. Or tomb."
"My heart bleeds," Vanessa says with a roll of her eyes. "You stopping long enough for a brew? Or are you gonna get stroppy and leave and then not speak to me for days?"
Charity spins around to look at her, eyes narrowed, ready to refute that claim, no doubt. Vanessa lifts an eyebrow in challenge, crossing her arms, and Charity's shoulders sag.
"Look, I didn't like seeing that slapper coming on to you the other night, alright?" Charity's eyes close briefly, brow scrunching up, like she's trying to rid herself of the sight. "Had her mucky paws all over you, didn't she?"
"Okay, one," Vanessa holds up a finger. "I don't think either of us can call her a slapper since we don't know anything about her. And two, she never touched me once beyond a handshake. It was you that came back from the loo and practically groped me in front of her."
"I didn't like seeing her with you. Like that."
"Well, maybe you've had a little glimpse into how I feel all the time, eh?"
Charity shakes her head. "It's not the same thing."
"No, you're right there. Because I never did anything with that woman. I left about ten minutes after you did." She clenches her teeth at the relief she watches bloom in Charity's eyes. "Whereas I know for a fact that he...that he gets to put his hands on you and I-"
Charity lets out a brittle laugh. "Oh yeah, he does that alright."
Vanessa frowns. "What's that mea-"
"Weren't you making a brew?" Charity says, cutting her off and shrugging out of her jacket.
Vanessa clenches her teeth at Charity's obvious desire to change the subject. "Yeah...take a seat. I'll bring it over."
While she's setting out the cups and waiting for the kettle to boil, she watches Charity surreptitiously. She's sitting on the couch, head tipped back, looking at the ceiling. She looks more tired than Vanessa's ever seen her. No, not tired. Defeated.
She sorts the tea and carries two mugs over to the couch. Charity doesn't even acknowledge her when she stops beside her, so she nudges her knee with her own, surprised when she jumps. Vanessa holds out one of the mugs. "Here."
"Ta, babe." As she's reaching out to take it, Charity's sleeve creeps up a little and Vanessa catches sight of darkened skin on her wrist. She frowns, lifting the mug out of reach. "Oi!"
"Charity, what the hell's that?"
"What's wh-" Charity follows her line of sight and quickly yanks her sleeve down, covering most of the bruise. "Nothing. I...must've bumped it or something."
Vanessa sets both mugs down on the table and kneels next to Charity's legs, gently taking her wrist in her hand and sliding the sleeve up. She's holding on loosely enough that Charity could pull away if she wanted, but she doesn't. The bruise is bright purple, it's new. But there's yellowing around it, as if it's covering other, older marks. Vanessa runs her fingertips over the blemish, shaking her head.
"Did he do this to you?" She looks up into Charity's eyes. "Charity?"
Charity shrugs. "His bark's worse than his bite, most of the time. Believe me, babe, I've had much worse in my life."
Vanessa pushes up from the floor and sits beside Charity, still cradling her arm in both hands. "But you deserve better."
"Do I?" Charity smiles, but there's a cruel edge to it, making it sharp and pointed. "And how do you work that one out, then? You don't know anything about me. So how can you possibly know what I deserve or I don't?"
The truth of the statement hits Vanessa in the chest. She really doesn't know anything about Charity beyond the few confidences they whispered to each other that first night. She shakes her head. "I know you don't deserve to be treated like this. You don't deserve to be shouted at, hurt. No-one does."
"And what if I give as good as I get, eh?" Charity pulls her arm away. "You can't think I'm some cowering little battered wife, surely?"
"So why the hell did you marry him? If the two of you are up there screaming at each other till he leaves marks on your body?" Vanessa shakes her head. "That's not...that can't be what you want."
"Oh, want's a funny thing, cupcake." Charity's voice wavers just slightly. "When you're thrown out on your neck at thirteen, you want for a lot of things. And you learn pretty quickly that you don't turn down a marriage proposal from a rich bloke with a big house."
"Thirteen?" Charity's eyes widen, like she hadn't meant to let that detail slip. "Your parents threw you out when you were thirteen? Where did you go? What did you do?"
Charity shakes her head, pushing herself to her feet. "Forget I said any of that." She picks up her jacket from the back of the couch. "I have to go. I shouldn't have come."
Catching Charity's uninjured wrist, Vanessa stands too. "No. No, you don't have to go. Just...just stay here. I won't ask you about any of it."
"I said I have to go," Charity tries to pull away and Vanessa holds on, shaking her head. Charity's eyes darken, it's like watching a crystal form, become hard. "Go on, V, squeeze just a little bit more and I'll have a matching set."
Vanessa lets go immediately, backing up a few steps and Charity almost seems surprised. "I'm not him," Vanessa whispers. "Y-you can leave if you want to, of course you can. I'm nothing like him. I'd never hurt you like-"
"That's what they all say, Vanessa, at the beginning," Charity snaps. She approaches Vanessa, backing her towards the spars of the staircase. "D'you think I've never had people promise to take care of me? To keep me safe and never hurt me? At least Declan's upfront about how much of a prick he is."
"And that's what you want for yourself is it?" Vanessa presses. "A prick who knocks seven bells out of you whenever he feels like it?"
"I've already told you, he doesn't do it for nothing." Charity's face is close enough to her own now that she can feel her breath, quick staccato bursts of warmth against her cheek. "I'm not whoever it is you think I am, Vanessa."
"Or maybe you're not whoever it is you think you are," Vanessa challenges. "I don't care what you think you've done that makes this the only life you can have. It's not. You can walk away from him and-"
"And what? Move in here? Be with you? Until you find out that I'm not what you want after all?" She looks down, shaking her head. "I'm fine where I am. My arrangement with Declan is-"
"Arrangement?" Vanessa gently cups Charity's face and urges her to look back up. "That's not...that's not how people talk about relationships they want to be in, Charity."
"Well, as I've said to you before, some people don't get married because they've found true love," Charity says. She sounds tired, weary even. "Some people just…" She trails a finger down Vanessa's cheek and smiles. "I need to go."
Vanessa pulls her in and brings their lips together, swallowing the noise of surprise Charity makes before she melts into the embrace. Charity's arms slide around her waist, tugging her closer. It's like that first kiss, that first night together, everything comes alive and Vanessa feels something settle in her chest, a completeness, a rightness that she's never had in her life.
A hand gently pushes her face back and Vanessa's smile drops when she sees the hardness still there in Charity's eyes.
"Pity kiss, yeah?"
Vanessa reels back, her brow creased. "What? No!"
"Oh give over, Vanessa." Charity rolls her eyes. "You've pushed me away for months, but the minute you hear about poor little homeless Charity whose husband knocks her about a bit, you're all over me?" She steps away from Vanessa, grabbing her jacket and yanking it on while Vanessa tries to catch up with what's going on.
"Charity, that's not what that was."
"Course not." Charity turns to face her, expressionless. She shrugs. "Just decided your little moral stance about affairs doesn't matter anymore then?"
"Eh?" Vanessa shakes her head. "You're the one who's been at me since we met to...to...whatever it was you wanted me to do! Telling me you can't stop thinking about me! Getting jealous of people talking to me!"
"And you weren't interested. Not until you spotted a little pity project." Charity turns and marches to the front door with Vanessa trailing behind her. "You can't save me, Vanessa."
"I don't pity you! My God, Charity...I just…" She manages to get between Charity and the door, holding up her hands in surrender. "I can't stop thinking about you either, okay? I thought you were happy. I thought you were in love with Declan. I thought that's why you married him. That's why I pushed you away, you bloody idiot." She tries to blink away the tears burning her eyes but they spill over anyway and she looks down, wiping at her cheeks.
Charity lifts her face back up and uses her thumbs to get rid of her tears. Her eyes are soft again, warm and kind and it makes Vanessa's heart beat faster to see them that way.
"Yeah?" Charity's voice is rough and low.
"Yeah," Vanessa says, turning her face to kiss the tip of Charity's thumb. "I...I thought you were just messing around with me."
Charity's nose brushes against her own, a soft laugh breathed out against her skin. "Believe me, babe, if I was just looking to mess around, I'd pick someone who'd cause me a lot less trouble than you."
Vanessa's eyes close as Charity's lips trace a line up her neck to her ear. "I hate seeing him treat you the way he does," she murmurs. She reaches up and touches Charity's wrist, fingers dancing over the bone. "I hate that he hurts you."
"Shhhhhh," Charity breathes into her ear. "Don't talk about him now. Don't think about him. Let's just focus on me and you. Okay?"
She dips her head and kisses Vanessa so deeply she feels the tug of it low in her stomach.
Charity pulls away much too soon, drawing back to look into Vanessa's eyes with a soft smile. "How about you give me the rest of that tour now, eh?" She nods until Vanessa nods along with her, almost hypnotised. "'Kay."
Vanessa kisses her way up Charity's back, enjoying the tang of sweat when she licks between her shoulderblades. Charity's body arches into her almost involuntarily, undulating like a cat being stroked. She collapses on top of her, laughing at Charity's exaggerated groan at the extra weight.
"D'you want me to move?" Vanessa murmurs.
Charity pats the bed a few times until she locates Vanessa's hand and she tangles their fingers together. "Don't you dare." Dragging Vanessa's hand to her lips, she kisses her knuckles and smiles against them. "You're like a little hot water bottle."
Vanessa slaps her bare hip. "Thanks for that description of my sex appeal."
Charity laughs and bites Vanessa's finger gently. "Oh, you've got no worries there, babe. That was even better than I remembered. And believe me, I've been remembering on a regular basis."
Vanessa hides her smile. "Filthy mare."
"You're saying you've not been thinking about me when you've been having a bit of a fiddle?"
Sighing, Vanessa presses her nose to the back of Charity's neck. "Not a flaming minute has passed since I first laid eyes on you that I haven't been thinking about you."
She feels Charity move beneath her, trying to turn over, so she leans to the side to let her, reclaiming her place on top of her once she's on her back. She knows she's coming off as clingy, but she just wants to be touching as much of Charity's skin as she can. Charity doesn't seem perturbed by the closeness, her hands running up and down Vanessa's back. A kiss is pressed to her cheek and she lifts her head, meeting concerned green eyes.
"Hey. You okay?" Vanessa shrugs, suddenly unsure if her voice will work. Charity's hand comes up to frame her face, eyebrows lowered in worry and that causes her eyes to immediately fill and overflow. "Ness? What is it?" Charity sounds panicked now.
"Nothing. I'm fine. It's fine." She drops her face to Charity's neck, nuzzling her skin, and wills her tears to stop. Charity's arms are firm around her, a hand splayed over her lower back.
"If this is 'fine' then I'd hate to see you upset, babe." Fingers scratch at her scalp. "Have I done something?"
"No!" Vanessa turns and grabs a handful of the duvet, using it to wipe her face before she looks at Charity. "It's nothing you've done. It's just…" She sighs. She lifts a hand and traces her fingertips over Charity's features, rubbing at the worry lines above her nose with her thumb. "This is amazing. Having you here. Being able to touch you the way I want to." She sniffs and shrugs. "But I know in a little while you're going to leave and go back to him."
She feels Charity's chest lift and fall in a sigh and she closes her eyes against the inevitable irritation that's going to follow.
"Ness." Charity's voice is softer than she expected, so she opens her eyes and leans into the hand that cups her cheek. "I've told you...there's...it's complicated, okay? I'm not rushing back to him because I prefer his company to yours, believe me. I just...it's complicated."
Vanessa nods, covering Charity's hand where it rests on her face. "I know." She tries to smile. "Maybe one day you'll be able to explain it to me, yeah? To help me understand."
Charity's thumb swipes under her eye and there's a long pause before she replies, so long that Vanessa thinks she's taken a wrong step. But Charity nods.
"Yeah. Maybe one day." Charity gently urges her down until their noses brush. "But until then, how about you and me make some more memories, eh? For those long, lonely nights when we're not together?"
Vanessa smiles. "Oh, go on then."
Thoughts of Declan and how to extract Charity from whatever situation she thinks she's stuck in are banished at the first touch of their lips. Vanessa lets herself get lost in Charity one more time before they have to part.
After that night, they make a point to see each other and be seen with each other fairly regularly in the village. It reinforces the idea that they're 'friends', while giving them the opportunity to be in each other's company. It's pretty much exquisite torture for Vanessa, to be close to Charity, to laugh with her and talk to her, but not be able to touch her.
Weeks pass and they manage a couple of stolen afternoons and an evening together when Declan's away on a stag do. They haven't managed a whole night together yet. That's harder to explain away, what with Megan living at Home Farm. The feelings are worse, though, when they get to be together properly and then have to go back to the 'just friends' ruse afterwards. Sitting in the pub with Charity, she finds herself wringing her hands to keep them from reaching for her. When they hug goodbye, it's all Vanessa can do to actually let go after an appropriate length of time.
She hates it. And she kind of hates herself for allowing it to happen. But deep down, she believes that, in the end, Charity will be with her. There's no doubt in her mind or her heart that Charity wants to be. If she could only get to the bottom of whatever's keeping her with Declan, then they'll be able to work through it together. She's sure of it.
She's making a chinchilla comfortable after surgery when her phone rings. She glances at the screen, planning to ignore it and call whoever it is back when she sees Charity's name. Yanking off her gloves, she quickly answers the call with a smile.
"Hey gorgeous. What you up to?" It's totally ridiculous how a few words can totally set her mind and body at ease.
"Oh, nothing much. Just tending to a patient."
"Chinchilla, as it happens." She adjusts the dressing covering his wound. "Augustus."
There's a bark of laughter through the phone. "Augustus? You're not serious?"
"I am serious! That's his name." She smiles. "So, were you ringing for something or did you just want to hear my sexy voice?"
"There was something, actually, but now that you mention it...go on then, talk dirty to me for a bit first."
Vanessa bites her lip. "Well, I was a very dirty girl this morning."
"Now this sounds promis- oh, it's gonna be a story involving cow muck, isn't it?"
Vanessa laughs. "How did you know?"
"Lucky guess, babe." She can hear the smile in Charity's voice. "Well, now that you've put a dent in my libido, I suppose I should tell you why I called."
Vanessa looks up when Rhona enters the examination room, she holds up a finger and turns away. "Yes, absolutely, if you just give me a brief description of his condition, that would be brilliant."
"Condition? Whose cond- Oh, has someone come in the room?"
Vanessa nods, scribbling some nonsense on a piece of paper, trying to look like she's working. "Yes, that's right."
"Right. Okay then. Well, I wanted to see if you were free next Wednesday? I've got the whole day to myself and I thought we could spend it together, away from here. Like a proper date. I'll buy you dinner and everything."
Vanessa moves to the computer, clicking to the calendar. She notes that she's on call the night before, but she can cope with that if she gets to spend a whole day with Charity where they don't have to pretend. "Yes, that day works for me. You can call the receptionist and set up the specifics."
"Oh, I've to call Pearl, have I? I don't think she'd appreciate hearing the specifics of what I'm planning for you."
Charity's voice has turned low and sultry, and it's making Vanessa feel a bit funny. She glances over and catches Rhona watching her. Their eyes meet and Rhona quickly looks back down at the paperwork she's reading.
"Okay then." Her own voice sounds far too high-pitched and a little strangled, so she coughs, trying to get it back to normal. "If that was everything…"
"No, it wasn't, actually. I didn't get to tell you that I was thinking about you last night. Picturing what we'd be doing if we were together."
"Were you?" Vanessa whispers, before she can stop herself. She puts a hand to her throat, more than aware she shouldn't be prolonging this conversation with Rhona in the room. "I, well, that's-"
"Yeah, babe. I was thinking about the things I'll do to you the next time we're together. About all that skin I want to touch and kiss and lick." Vanessa inhales sharply. "You're so gorgeous when you're underneath me, Ness, all sweaty and wild."
Vanessa swallows, her knuckles turning white where she's clinging to the examination table.
"And being inside you...Jesus, talk about a religious experience. Makes me want to get on my flamin' knees. Oh, but that's a whole other subject, isn't it?"
Vanessa presses her lips together, not entirely sure that her own knees aren't about to give way.
"I...ummm...I'll have to talk to you about that later. I have to go."
Charity chuckles, low and throaty in her ear. "Looking forward to it, babe. Bye."
"Bye." Vanessa hits the button to end the call, closing her eyes and trying to get her breathing under control before she turns to face Rhona. Hoping her face isn't bright red, she turns around and up her phone, rolling her eyes. "I need to stop giving out my personal number to clients."
Rhona looks at her, hard, and purses her lips. "Or to married women."
Her stomach sinks. Not quite as discreet as she'd thought, then. "Wh-what do you-"
Shaking her head, Rhona gives her that disappointed look that Vanessa hates. "Oh, come off it Ness. I'm your oldest friend in the world. If you think for a second that I'm not aware that you're still carrying on with her, then you're mistaken."
Vanessa moves across the room and closes the door against prying ears. She leans against it, tipping her head back until it bumps against the wood.
"I can't stay away from her, Rhona. It's ridiculous, I know. But I can't."
"You can't, or you don't want to?"
Throwing her hands up, Vanessa sighs. "Both? What's the difference? I tried, I really did. But she was just...she's just…" She lets out a shaky breath. "She's amazing."
Rhona rolls her eyes. "Yeah. She's so amazing that she lied to you from the minute you met her and she's still got you dancing to her every whim."
Vanessa's already shaking her head. "No. You don't know what you're talking about. You don't know her."
"Do you?" Rhona presses. "How well can you know her, Ness? It's not like you're in a relationship with her, not a real one. How much time can you actually have spent with her?"
"Enough to know, Rhona." Vanessa pushes herself upright and moves closer to Rhona, imploring her to understand. "After five minutes in that club on that first night, I knew. Okay?"
Rhona laughs through her nose. "Love at first sight? Is that seriously what you're telling me here?"
"Call it whatever you like." Vanessa sighs. "All I know is that I've never felt like this in my life. And if that means I need to sneak around a bit to get to see her, then that's what I'll do."
Rhona still doesn't look convinced. But she nods, squeezing Vanessa's shoulder. "It's your life, Ness. Just...just don't let yourself get hurt again, okay?"
Laughing sadly, Vanessa nods. "I'll try my best."
When Wednesday morning rolls around, Vanessa's been out most of the night on a call with a distressed cow caught in a fence and she really could be doing with another couple of hours in bed. But she's made plans with Charity and she's determined not to miss the chance to spend time with her. So when she hears the horn beep, she grabs a jacket and heads out, smiling as she walks down the path.
She gets into Charity's car and resists the natural urge to lean across and kiss her. This isn't the place for that. In the village, they're friends and nothing more.
Charity smiles at her. "Alright?"
"Mmmhmm." She covers her mouth, trying to smother a yawn. "Sorry. Been up all night."
Lifting her eyebrows, Charity pulls away from the kerb. "Oh? And who were you up all night with?"
"A cow called Molly." She tilts her head. "Jealous?"
"She got to spend the whole night with you? Course I'm jealous." She shakes her head, indicating to turn onto the main road. "Lucky cow."
Vanessa laughs, squeezing Charity's leg, leaving her hand to rest there. "I'm not on the lookout for any more moody cows in my life. One's more than enough."
"Oi, lady." Charity glares at her, but it's softened when her hand comes to cover Vanessa's. "Listen, why don't you grab forty winks? I'll take us somewhere there's no danger of us bumping into anyone we know."
Vanessa sticks out her lower lip. "But I hardly get to see you as it is. I don't want to waste our time together sleeping."
Charity lifts her hand to her lips, brushing a kiss over her knuckles. "We've got the whole day, babe. And I don't want you yawning every five minutes. I might start to think my scintillating conversation is boring you."
"You sure?" Off Charity's nod, Vanessa reclines the seat and huddles down as best she can on her side, facing Charity. "Wake me in twenty minutes, yeah? I'll be right as rain."
"Will do, buttercup. Sweet dreams." Charity winks. "Make sure I'm in them."
"I'll do my best." Vanessa's eyes are already drooping and it's a relief to let them close. She smiles when a hand closes over her knee.
Charity does not keep her word and Vanessa only wakes up when the engine is switched off. She opens one eye, squinting across at Charity, who is looking at her in a way that makes Vanessa's chest feel tight and warm.
"Why didn't you wake me up?" She stretches.
"Didn't want to disturb you. You looked really peaceful." Her grin grows wider. "Drool and everything."
Vanessa quickly swipes at her cheek, but her hand comes away dry. "Shut up." She sits up, taking in their location. She doesn't recognise it.
"Where are we?"
Vanessa nods. She's heard the name, but never visited. The sea is choppy and the sky heavy and threatening above it, but it's still a beautiful place. Rough shingle looks like it gives way to sand off to the left, on the way to an impressive looking cliff. She turns to Charity and finds her eyes fixed on the horizon. She touches her hand where it rests on the gear stick, surprised when she jumps at the contact.
"It's gorgeous." Vanessa smiles and receives a nod before Charity turns back to the view. Her fingers tangle loosely with Vanessa's.
"Yeah. Yeah it is."
There's something at play here that Vanessa's not privy to, but she doesn't want to push or spoil the time they have together, so she plays it safe. "Have you been here before?"
"Hmmm?" Charity drags her eyes away from the sea and frowns. "Yeah. Not for years, though. Haven't even thought about it in years." The corner of her lips quirks. "Was you that reminded me of it earlier, actually." She nods over Vanessa's shoulder. "There's a place a bit further along called 'Cow's Mouth Cove'." She shakes her head. "I didn't set off for here, really. I was just driving and this is where we ended up."
Vanessa nods, jiggling their joined hands. "Well we best get out and do some exploring then, eh? Before the rain comes on."
They grab their jackets from the boot, bundling themselves up as best they can against the wind. Vanessa closes the boot and turns to find Charity looking at her with a soft smile.
Instead of replying, Charity tugs on Vanessa's scarf, making her stumble the couple of steps that separate them, and brings their lips together. Neither of them pushes for more from the kiss than a simple connection, an intimate moment where they can be themselves that isn't stolen.
Charity smiles when she draws back. "Nothing. Just you." She flicks the bobble on Vanessa's hat. "You have no right to look as adorable as you do in this daft hat."
Vanessa glares, pulling her hat further down over her ears. "I knitted this hat, I'll have you know."
Charity bursts out laughing. Real, infectious laughter that makes her shoulders shake. "Of course you did, buttercup." She holds her hands out to her sides, addressing the deserted beach. "She knits as well, ladies and gentlemen! Is there no end to this woman's talents?"
Shaking her head, Vanessa can't help but smile at the antics. She moves in behind Charity, grabbing her hips and pushing, getting her moving. "Remind me again why I agreed to come out with you?"
Charity takes her arm, leaning into her as they walk. "Because I make you laugh."
Vanessa presses her smile into Charity's shoulder to hide it. "Well, I do laugh at you."
Leaning down, Charity murmurs by her ear. "Because I make you scream."
Vanessa shivers and pulls on her scarf, as if it's anything to do with the wind. "That's very true." She turns so that her nose brushes Charity's. "But that's not the reason."
Charity smiles and tilts her head. "Must just like me, then."
"Yeah." Vanessa holds her arm tighter. "That must be it."
They walk for a while until Vanessa insists on buying a bag of chips from a chip shop they pass. Sharing a single bag of chips while walking gets to be awkward, so they find a bench and huddle together, eating in silence. Vanessa scrunches up the paper when they're done and gets up to shove it in a nearby bin.
"My dad used to bring me here when I was little." Vanessa turns and catches the wistful smile on Charity's lips. She sits back down beside her, linking their arms together and leaning close. "Brought me every single day the summer my mum died."
Vanessa waits for more, but nothing is forthcoming. Charity doesn't talk much about her past, although the comment about being thrown out when she was thirteen haunts Vanessa. "How old were you that summer?"
Charity shrugs, looking down at the ground. "I was only little. Just turned six, maybe?" She looks up again, into the distance. "We used to get in his old banger of a car and come down here and we'd walk all the way down the beach to the cliffs and back again. Some days he'd splash out on a box of French Fancies to take with us." Shaking her head, she lets out a bitter laugh. "That summer's the last good memory I have of him."
Again, Vanessa waits but is only greeted by silence. Vanessa squeezes her arm. "You...mentioned before...about when you were thirteen-"
Charity's head snaps around, eyes hard and guarded. "Looking for another sob story are you, V? More details of my sordid little life?" She starts to pull her arm away, but Vanessa holds on.
"No!" She sighs. "Look, Charity, I only ever want you to tell me what you want to tell me, okay?" Charity still looks like she might bolt, Vanessa can feel the tension in her muscles, so she does the only thing she can think of. She gently cups her cheek and urges her into a soft kiss. Sure enough, the tension fades as Charity melts against her. She makes sure to stay close when the kiss ends, whispering against Charity's lips. "Let's just keep walking. Okay?"
She stands and holds her hand out and is grateful when Charity takes it without question. They head back down onto the beach, through the stones and pebbles. Vanessa spots some pools nestling amongst the bigger rocks off to their right and pulls Charity in that direction. They carefully make their way over the jagged and uneven surface until they're close enough for Vanessa to lean over and peer in to see if she can spot any wildlife.
Hands grab her hips and push. She tips forward, sure she's about to plunge headfirst into the shallow water when she's yanked back against Charity.
Charity murmurs in her ear. "Saved your life.
Vanessa slaps the hands on her waist. "I nearly had a heart attack just then!" Sliding Charity's hand upwards, she presses it against her racing heart. "And you've given me a traumatic flashback to when I got shoved in a pond on a school trip."
Charity's hands tighten on her body and she smiles at how protected that makes her feel. "Who shoved you in a pond? And do you happen to have their current address so I can go and sort them out?"
Resting more of her weight back against Charity, Vanessa shakes her head. "It was a lad called Lionel Ashton."
"Lionel?" Charity laughs. "Flippin' heck. No wonder the kid was a psycho."
"Oh, he wasn't a bad lad. Not really." She smiles at the memory. "Turned out he fancied me. That was his way of getting my attention, I suppose."
A soft kiss is pressed to her jaw. "I bet you were proper cute when you were little. Well, littler."
Vanessa turns in Charity's arms, eyes narrowed. "Oi, you." She tilts her head. "Would you have shoved me in a pond? If we'd gone to school together?"
"I'd like to think I'd have been a bit more subtle about it." Charity tugs on a strand of Vanessa's hair. "Pulled your pigtails, maybe."
Vanessa smiles. "Maybe I'd have ended up snogging you at the school disco during Unchained Melody instead of Lionel, then."
Charity wrinkles her nose. "You snogged him? After him shoving you into a slimy, mucky pond?"
"Oh, I gave him a black eye right after I got out." She shrugs. "But he sort of grew on me."
"Always had dodgy taste in partners, have you?" Charity's smiling, but Vanessa's learned to recognise the insecurity in her eyes.
"I've definitely dated my fair share of weirdos over the years. What's it they say? Got to kiss a few frogs before you find your prince." She brushes her fingertips down Charity's cheek. "Or princess, in my case."
Charity ducks her head, avoiding Vanessa's eyes. "God, babe, I'm no princess. You...I'm not…" Her shoulders lift and drop. "If you knew the things I've done-"
Vanessa lifts Charity's face, waiting until their eyes meet. "I don't care what you've done or who you think you are. You…" Vanessa's voice breaks, and she swallows. "The way I feel when I'm with you? I've never felt that with anyone before." She bites her lip, eyes flitting around Charity's face. "And I think it's the same for you."
Laughing, Charity blinks away the sheen over her eyes and sniffs. "Full of yourself, aren't you?"
"Am I wrong?" Vanessa pushes.
Charity shakes her head, leaning in to press a firm kiss to Vanessa's mouth, arms tightening around her. "No." And she kisses her again. And again.
They're on their way back to the car when Vanessa stops to pick up a particularly pretty shell. It's white and smooth and perfectly intact. She's washing it in the surf, freezing her fingers off, when Charity starts speaking, unprompted.
"I got pregnant. When I was thirteen. That's why he chucked me out." Vanessa drops the shell and turns around, but Charity's eyes are trained on the horizon. Vanessa approaches, unsure if speaking will make Charity shut down again. "Said I'd brought shame on the family." Charity shakes her head, blinking too fast. "Claimed to be religious, my dad did."
Vanessa's gut burns with hatred for this man she's never met. "And throwing a pregnant thirteen year old out onto the street, that's acceptable in Christian circles, is it?"
"Oh, he waited till I'd had the kid. Took her off me and gave her to a family friend." Vanessa reaches for her hand, but Charity turns away and wraps her arms around herself. "And then he told me to sling my hook. So...now you know."
A little stung from Charity's rejection of her touch, Vanessa shoves her hands in her jacket pockets. "Where did you go?"
"Family. At first. But they all got sick of me sooner or later. Mostly sooner, because I was...well, after what happened, I was angry at the world and everyone in it."
"Of course you were." Vanessa moves closer and lays a hand on Charity's arm. "Oh my God, Charity, that's awful. I'm...I'm so sorry that happened to you. And I know that's a useless thing to say-"
"No. It's…" Charity tilts her head, searching Vanessa's eyes as if looking for some sliver of a lie. She shrugs. "It's…"
She saves Charity from having to find a description. "Your dad was supposed to look after you. It was his job to keep you safe." She squeezes Charity's arm. "Where did you go then? After your family?"
"Hostels, when I could afford it. Mates. Men." She watches Charity's jaw clench. "Shop doorways, sometimes."
"Oh, Charity." Tears are freely running down Vanessa's face now and she tries to pull Charity into her arms but she moves away.
"See? This is why I don't talk about it." She shakes her head, dislodging a couple of her own tears. "Because people look at me like you're looking at me now. Like I'm some kind of victim in need of hugs and pity."
"What? No, Charity, that's not what I-"
"Isn't it? So you don't feel sorry for the poor little wretch thrown out on the street, then?"
"Course I do. My heart breaks for her," Vanessa says, carefully. "I'm mad that she ever had to go through any of that. But I have nothing but admiration for the woman she's become."
Charity lifts shining eyes to the sky, her lip trembling. "Admiration? God. That's a new one." She meets Vanessa's eyes and there's a look of resignation in them that Vanessa hasn't seen before. "I had to do things back then, Vanessa. Things that you wouldn't admire. I had to...do whatever I could, just so I could eat or pay for a dry place to sleep."
The reason for Charity's resignation clicks; this is where she expects to be judged, censured or ridiculed. Maybe even sent away. Like her father sent her away, and her family, and everyone else by the sounds of things. Vanessa takes a step closer to her, loosening Charity's tightly folded arms so that she can take both of her hands. Charity's eyes are wary, but hopeful, and Vanessa goes up on her toes to press a soft kiss to her lips. She waits until she feels Charity respond, and then pulls back.
Charity's brow wrinkles in confusion. "No, I'm not." She tries to withdraw her hands, but Vanessa holds on.
"Yes," Vanessa nods. "You are. Whatever you did, whatever you had to do...Charity, you got yourself through a situation a child should never have to experience. That nobody should have to experience." She swallows hard against the lump in her throat, squeezing Charity's hands. "I already thought you were wonderful before today but now...God, you're the strongest person I've ever met. And I like you even more than I did."
Charity's already shaking her head. "I just told you I had to sell myself to grotty men on the street...and you like me more for it?" She purses her lips. "Did someone drop you on your head as a baby? I mean, it'd explain the stunted growth an'all."
Vanessa laughs and takes a chance, tugging Charity forward. She sighs when Charity's arms wrap around her and she holds her tightly. "You can tell me anything, you know? No pressure. No judgement. And only what you want to tell me. But I'll listen."
She feels Charity nod her head. They stand in each other's arms for a long time. Vanessa doesn't want to be the one to let go, if Charity's willing to let herself be held. She almost misses the whispered 'Thank you' before Charity pulls back. Vanessa looks up at the sky, holding her hand out.
"I think it's starting to rain."
Charity hums in agreement and takes Vanessa's outstretched hand. "C'mon then, you. That's enough nature for one day, yeah?"
They start heading back to the car, breaking into a run when the rain starts in earnest. They fall into the seats, shrugging out of wet jackets and chucking them into the back. Charity starts the car and smiles across at her.
"We passed a little pub on the way in that does food." She tilts her head. "And I promised you dinner, didn't I, Ms Woodfield?"
It's not that long since they had chips, but Vanessa doesn't want this date to end, so she nods eagerly. "You did indeed, Ms Dingle."
They eat and talk and laugh together in a pub that makes the Woolpack look expansive. When they make it back to the car, it's getting dark and Vanessa's spirits sink a little, knowing that they're going to have to part ways soon. She allows herself a little flight of fancy, where there's no Declan and Charity would come home with her and they'd snuggle up on the couch with a bottle of red and something easy to ignore on the telly. She imagines how content she'd feel, with her legs slung over Charity's lap and their hands entwined betw-
"Oi. Earth to Vanessa."
She glances over and finds Charity look at her, concerned.
"Sorry. I was miles away."
"Yeah, you looked it." Charity's brow furrows. "You're not...are you thinking about...what I told you?"
"No." Vanessa shakes her head, feeling her cheeks grow hot, because she knows she'll need to own up to what she was actually thinking about, otherwise Charity won't believe her. "I was just-" She sighs and rolls her eyes. "-thinking how lovely it would be if you could come home with me tonight."
Charity lifts an eyebrow. "In need of a good seeing to, are you?"
"Well, I wouldn't say no...but I was just picturing a bottle of wine and a cuddle on the couch, really." She gives Charity a lopsided smile.
The lascivious grin Charity's wearing slowly fades into something softer. "Wow. You need to calm down with these outrageous fantasies, babe."
Vanessa laughs, softly. "I know. Proper perv, me."
Leaning across, Charity kisses Vanessa's cheek and starts the car. "Let's try and set something up for one night next week, okay? All the wine and cuddles you can handle."
They pass the sign that says Emmerdale is five miles away and Vanessa sighs. She needs to distract herself from the end of this tumultuous, but perfect, day. Looking over at Charity, she takes a breath, aware this might not be a popular topic of conversation.
"So...feel free to tell me to shut up, okay?"
"Oh, I will, babe. Don't you worry about that." Charity glances at her and sighs, turning back at to road. "Go on then, spit it out."
"I was just wondering...what happened to your baby. You said she was left with a family friend. Did you...did you ever see her again?"
Charity's eyes stay on the road, her mouth pressed into a hard, thin line. After a long silence, Vanessa's almost going to retract her question, tell Charity it doesn't matter and she shouldn't have asked, when Charity starts speaking.
"I did. She came looking for me when she was twelve." Charity's mouth softens into a smile at the memory and Vanessa lets out a breath. "I couldn't believe it at first. That this...this spiky, gobby, scrap of a person was someone I'd created. But it was her alright."
"Spiky and gobby." Vanessa pretends to contemplate these qualities. "And you weren't sure she was yours?"
"Very funny." Charity narrows her eyes at her and then sighs. "We're more alike than is healthy, really. Makes our relationship...rocky, you could say."
Vanessa nods, sliding her hand to Charity's thigh and giving it a squeeze.
"We're not really talking at the moment, actually." Charity bites her lip, looking both ways as she approaches a junction. "She can't stand Declan. Thinks I'm mad for marrying him."
"I like her already," Vanessa mumbles. Charity pinches her hand and she squeezes her thigh in response.
"She'd like you too, I think," Charity says, rolling her eyes. "She'd like how you don't let me away with anything."
Vanessa laughs. "What's her name?"
"Debbie." Charity's smile is wide and genuine now. "She's a mum herself, now. Got two kiddies of her own. Jack and Sarah."
"So, wait." Vanessa's grin grows. "I really have grabbed a granny, then?"
Charity's gasp is loud enough to be heard over the car and the rain. "Oh, you are so dead when I stop this car, lady."
"Yeah, yeah, big talk for a grandma."
Without warning, Charity pulls into a lay-by. Vanessa pushes herself against the passenger door, holding her hands up as Charity unbuckles her seatbelt. "I was only kidding!"
Charity rolls her eyes, unclipping Vanessa's belt before reaching over and yanking her closer by the front of her shirt. "I know. I'm just kissing you goodbye properly because I won't be able to do it once we get into that bloody village, will I?"
"Oh." Vanessa smiles as Charity kisses her nose and her cheeks. "Well, don't let me stop you."
A confident hand starts to slide up her inner thigh and Charity lifts her eyebrows in a challenge. "Still not gonna stop me?"
Vanessa catches her lower lip in her teeth, trying to stop herself from moaning. She holds Charity's eyes as she shakes her head. Charity's smile grows wicked and she leans in and gives Vanessa a kiss that tugs at the pit of her stomach.
All the while Charity's hand continues its journey.
Everything carries on in a similar vein for a couple of weeks. They see each other when they can, they call and text when they can't. It's still not ideal, but Vanessa's settling into the idea of this being her life for the moment. Since the day on the beach, Charity's become a bit more open with her, less guarded, more free. And Vanessa feels privileged to get to see that side of her.
Frank arranges a dinner for herself and Tracy to be introduced to Megan. Her dad seems fairly taken with this woman, so she forces herself to make a bit more of an effort than she normally would for a dinner at the pub. She checks her phone before she heads out, pleased to see a message from Charity.
Hope you enjoy dinner with Megan. I never have, but you might. x
She shakes her head, smiling. Another message comes in just as she's about to type a response.
PS Keep an eye out for flying monkeys. X
Vanessa laughs out loud at that one, quickly sending an answer.
You really should keep your pets in a secure environment, Charity. X
She gets a series of emojis in response that make very little sense, but convey Charity's playful annoyance. She sends a single one back. A red heart. A matching one arrives a few seconds later and Vanessa runs her thumb over it, imagining how it will be when she can say the words to Charity and hear them echoed. If that ever happens.
Sighing, Vanessa heads over to the pub to spend an evening with Declan's sister.
The meal isn't too bad. Megan seems nice enough, and her dad is clearly smitten with her. They chat back and forth about the usual 'getting to know you' stuff over dinner, but Vanessa can't help notice that Megan's knocking back the wine and that her mouth is getting looser.
They're waiting for dessert to arrive when Tracy, bless her, asks the question that kicks things into a more awkward place. "So, what was it that made you move to Emmerdale, Megan?"
"Oh, it just made sense." She gestures vaguely. "That house my brother bought is so big and we're in business together so...yeah, it made sense." She rests her elbow on the table, leaning closer to Vanessa and Tracy. "Makes it easier for me to keep an eye on that scheming wife of his an'all."
Vanessa's grip tightens so much on her glass she's afraid it will shatter. Tracy's hand lands on her thigh under the table, patting it.
"You're still not getting along any better, then?" Her dad is asking.
"Hmmph." Megan rolls her eyes. "That's like asking if someone's getting on better with a rabid pitbull."
Vanessa puts her pint down with a big more force than necessary. "Then why choose to live in the same house as her?" Her voice is tight. "If that's how you feel?"
"What's that saying? Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?" Megan sighs. "I just want to make sure my brother's not being taken for even more of a mug by that little scrubber than he already has been." She lowers her voice, leaning further across the table. "She's not good enough for him. Bit of a murky past, if you know what I mean. "
It feels like her back teeth are actually going to break, she's pressing them together so hard. Tracy's fingers are digging into her thigh, willing her to keep calm as Megan continues,.
"I've got no idea what he even sees in her." She shakes her head.
"Well, there's no rhyme or reason to who we fall in love with sometimes, is there?" Frank offers, shifting in his seat. "And I'm sure we all have things in our past that we're not proud of. And when we don't know the circumstances, it's maybe best not to judge people too harshly."
Even though her dad's clueless about this whole thing with Charity, she couldn't love him more for his response.
"Oh, no, I get that we don't get to choose who we fall in love with," Megan agrees, nodding at Frank. "But with those two it's just...I don't believe it is love. It was like a fling and then...I dunno, something happened and it got serious." She rolls her eyes. "Anyway, I'm sure it won't last. He'll see through her at some point. I mean, they've not been married a year and he already thinks she's playing away so-"
Vanessa's gut turns cold and Tracy's grip tightens on her leg. Megan sits up straight, seemingly catching herself.
"Listen, I shouldn't have said any of that." She laughs, uncomfortably. "Too much wine."
"Think nothing of it," Frank tells her, glancing at Vanessa and Tracy. "All forgotten, right girls?"
"Course," Tracy nods.
Vanessa just take a drink of her pint, watching Megan squirm over the rim of the glass. If Declan's suspicious, that could mean all kinds of trouble for Charity. And while she wants Charity and Declan to break up with all of her heart, she does not want to put Charity at any kind of risk for it to happen.
It's not much later that they put Megan in a taxi home. She stands with her dad while he waves her off, waiting for Tracy to get out of the loo.
"You're friendly with Charity, aren't you?" Frank says, as the taxi draws away.
"I am." Her heart has started thudding loudly in her ears.
"Yes. I've seen you with her a few times." He shoves his hands in his pockets, turning to face her. "You weren't happy with what Megan was saying."
She huffs. "Course I wasn't. But I...I didn't want to make a scene with your new girlfriend." She gives him a lopsided smile. "But that was nice, what you said about not judging folk."
He laughs a little. "Nobody knows that more than me, Teeny." He shifts from foot to foot and she sucks in a breath, sensing an uncomfortable conversation approaching. "Now, you don't have to tell me anything you don't want to, but...I thought perhaps I...when I saw you with Charity, there was a spark in your eyes I haven't seen before."
Oh God. If it's that obvious, they're never going to get away with keeping it hidden. She feels tears well in her eyes and she closes them turning away from her dad. An arm wraps around her shoulders and a kiss is pressed to the top of her head so she turns to press her face into his shoulder, inhaling the familiar smell of his leather jacket and aftershave.
"The heart wants what it wants, Teeny. Just be careful not to get yours broken."
She nods against him, squeezing her eyes closed and wishing she could return to a time when a hug from her dad could fix whatever was wrong in her life.
She gets home and goes straight up to her bedroom, avoiding Tracy's clear desire to have a bitching session about Megan. She texts Charity, asking her if she can talk. After a few minutes, her phone rings.
"Hey, babe. You alright?" Charity's voice is echoey, like she's in a bathroom.
"Uh, yeah...well...no, not really. I mean, I'm fine, but-"
Charity cuts into her babbling. "How about we just skip over all this stuff and tell me what's wrong, yeah?"
Blowing out a shaky breath, Vanessa nods. "Tonight, at dinner, Megan was saying stuff about you that wasn't very complimentary."
"That's no big shock, Ness. She is not my biggest f-" There's a pause. "Wait, you didn't feel the need to ride in on your white horse and defend my honour to her or anything, did you?"
"No! Well, yeah I wanted to, but I didn't do it. I'm not daft."
"That is highly debatable, babe."
"Anyroad, she was saying things about you and I was doing my best not to lamp her and then she said…" Vanessa bites her lip. "She said Declan thought you might be playing away." There's a long silence on the other end of the phone. "Charity?"
"Do you think she knows it's you?" Charity asks. "Do you think that's why she said it?"
Vanessa frowns. "No. No I think she'd had too much wine and she was just flapping her gums."
"Right. Good. That's something."
Closing her eyes, she forces out what she needs to say next. "I don't...I don't want this, us, putting you in danger. Alright? I'd never forgive myself if-"
"You're worth it, Vanessa."
As much as those words warm her chest, she shakes her head, covering her mouth. "Nothing is worth you getting hurt, okay? Not me, not anything." She swallows. "I just wish...I just want you to be safe."
Charity is silent on the other end of the phone for a long time, and Vanessa lets her be.
"Day after tomorrow, he's away on business. I'll come and see you at yours." Something about Charity's tone bothers her. She sounds resigned. Final.
"Right. I'll see you then." Charity sighs. "Maybe best if we don't call or text in the meantime, eh?"
Vanessa's chin wobbles and she swallows with difficulty. This is it. This is the beginning of the end. "Yeah, you're right, probably for the best." Her voice is rough and unsteady.
"Hey." Charity's voice is soft and caring, but it only makes her feel worse. "Don't...don't cry, babe."
She rushes to end the call. "Listen, I'll let you go now. I'll see you Monday, okay? Bye."
She barely hears Charity's response before she hangs up and flops down on her bed, sobs wracking her whole body.
Usually when she has plans to see Charity, she's counting the minutes, wishing the days away and finding every other facet of her life tedious and uninteresting. But this time, it's the opposite. She doesn't want to face what's coming. What's inevitable and has been on the horizon ever since the day she saw Charity come out of that church. It's why she fought so hard against it in the beginning. Because she knew she'd end up getting hurt. Charity made the choice to marry him. And the choice to stay with him. She was never going to choose Vanessa and whatever stories Vanessa's concocted in her head to make her believe otherwise are just that; stories.
Even in fairy tales, the princess doesn't leave the prince and his castle to run away with a peasant girl.
She'd made that observation to Tracy in one of her more maudlin moments. And then later that night, Tracy had grabbed her arm and barked a single word at her.
"The posh girl, gets out the lifeboat and leaves her rich boyfriend for little Leo down in third class."
Vanessa gaped at her. "And he died ten minutes later."
"Well...yeah." Tracy nudged her and smiled. "But only because he loved her so much he let her have the door."
"So...wait...am I the Leo in this scenario? Am I giving Charity the door and freezing to death in the sea?"
Tracy rolled her eyes then and shook her head. "Look, I'm not saying you're anybody. I'm just pointing out an example of someone leaving someone rich for someone p-...not quite as rich. For love."
"She's not gonna leave him, Trace. She'd have done it by now if she was." Vanessa sniffed and rubbed her nose. "Why are you encouraging me? You're usually calling her all sorts."
"Yeah, well…" Tracy sighed. "Maybe the romantic in me needs to believe that love conquers all sometimes."
"Sometimes, yeah." Vanessa nodded. "But not this time."
And so she finds herself on Monday evening, waiting for Charity to arrive with what feels like a ball of lead sitting in her stomach. She can't settle, so she potters about, dusting and moving things and putting them back in their original places until she hears the back door open. Wiping her palms on her jeans, she turns around and finds Charity standing in the kitchen. A greeting dies on her lips and she frowns, crossing the room and touching Charity's chin to turn her face into the light. There's a bruise on her jaw, slightly faded and covered by make-up, but clear as day.
Vanessa runs her thumb over the mark, shaking her head. "I hate him." She's never heard her own voice sound like that before; ferocious and hostile. But then, she's never felt anything this deeply before.
"Hello to you, an'all." Charity gently removes Vanessa's hand from her face, leaning in to peck her cheek. That's not enough for Vanessa, though, not when this could be the last time they're together. She wraps her arms around Charity's waist, pulling her close and burying her face in her shoulder. After a second or two, Charity returns the embrace, a hand coming to rest on the back of her head. Charity rocks her gently from side to side. "Hey. Hey, come on now. It's not that bad, and he didn't get off lightly, I can tell you."
Pulling back enough to meet Charity's eyes, Vanessa bites her lip, afraid to ask what she wants to ask. "Was...was it because of what Megan was talking about? That he's suspicious of you?"
As soon as Charity's eyes flit away from her own, she knows the answer. A wave of nausea washes over her, her stomach lurching painfully, and she pulls away from Charity, stumbling to the sink. Nerves have prevented her from eating anything all day, so nothing comes up, but she dry heaves a few times. A hand rubs her back and she straightens, steading herself on the counter as she sucks in shaky breaths.
"Ness. Babe. It's not...none of this is your fault."
She shakes her head and turns around to face Charity. "It is my fault." She wipes at her face. "If I hadn't...if I wasn't here then-"
"Then I'd be miserable," Charity interrupts. "I'd have no-one to make me laugh or tell me off." She smiles. "Or want to fight everyone who dares look at me the wrong way."
"And it was me that chased you, remember?" Charity says, sliding her hands onto Vanessa's hips and pulling her close again.
"I can't stand the thought of him laying his hands on you at the best of times...but to know I'm the cause of it?" She covers her mouth and closes her eyes as the nausea wells again.
"Hey." Charity shakes her gently and she opens her eyes. "This is my fault, okay? I couldn't stay away from you. I didn't want to stay away from you. Ness, you're the one bright spot in my life. And I'm not just talking about your impressive collection of yellow jumpers"
Vanessa laughs and sobs at that, pushing Charity a little. They both sober. "But you're ending it," Vanessa says. "Aren't you?"
It's not really a question. She's known it would end this way all along. She knew that's why Charity was coming here tonight, why she'd said they shouldn't be in touch. And it still feels like someone's shoved a broken bottle into her gut and twisted it.
"I have to, babe," Charity says, eyes wide and pleading. "It's bad enough I'm all tangled up with Declan, I can't have you caught up in it an'all. Right now he's suspicious, but he doesn't have a clue it's you, and I want it to stay that way." Charity presses her lips into a thin line and shakes her head. "I want you as far away from him as possible."
"Leave him." Vanessa swallows. "Leave him and be with me. I've never asked you to do that before, and I swore to myself I never would, that it would have to be you that decided on your own...but...please, leave him. And we can…we can go somewhere, anywhere, just the two of us. I don't care as long-"
"I can't, Vanessa." Charity shakes her head. "I've told you before, it's...it's complicated. If it was as simple as leaving him and running away with you, believe me, babe, we'd have been running a bar in Barbados months ago."
Vanessa throws her hands up in frustration, stepping away from Charity. "You keep saying this. That it's 'complicated'. But you never explain it to me." She crosses her arms over her chest. "I'm not an idiot, Charity. I'll probably understand."
Charity sighs. "It's not that you won't understand, babe. It's just...it's just stuff, okay? He could...things could get bad if I-."
"Could get bad?" Vanessa shakes her head. "Charity, he hits you. He abuses y-"
"It's not just about me, though, is it?" Charity presses her lips together, as if she hadn't meant to say that. "I just...I can't leave him, okay?"
Swallowing past the lump in her throat, Vanessa moves closer again, standing right in front of Charity, preparing to make one last appeal. "I can't give you what he can, Charity. I'm not rich...I can't-."
"Babe, it's not about th-"
"No, hear me out. I can't give you what he can give you." She takes Charity's hand and presses it against her chest, over her heart. "All I can give you is this." Charity looks up, tears glistening in her eyes. "And I'll give it to you gladly. All of it. It's yours."
"Ness." Charity shakes her head, her thumb strokes over Vanessa's collar bone. "Don't...I'll...I'll only end up breaking it."
"It's breaking now." Tears escape Vanessa's lashes, leaving warm trails down her cheeks and she shrugs. "Not being with you? Seeing you stay with that...that bastard and not being able to help you. That's breaking my heart."
Charity sighs. "I never thought I'd-" She threads her fingers through Vanessa's, curling them together on Vanessa's chest. "I never thought it was real, you know? The things people said about all this...this stuff. I thought they were making it up. Going along with what books and films said you should feel. Thought it was just in daft stories for little kids."
Vanessa pushes down on the excitement that flares in her belly. "And now?"
"Now?" Charity laughs softly, lifting Vanessa's hand to her mouth and kissing the back of it. "Now I'd slay any dragon, climb any tower, fight all the dwarves I had to to get to you."
Vanessa's heart is beating out of her chest, but she tilts her head, frowning. "I don't think anyone had to fight any dw-"
"Not the important part, Ness," Charity whispers.
"I know." Hot tears spill over her lashes and down her cheeks. "But it's not enough, is it?"
"It's more than enough, Vanessa," Charity whispers, fiercely. "It's enough for me to keep you away from all of this. To keep you safe."
Vanessa lifts a hand to Charity's face, fingertips tracing the lines by her eyes, down the length of her nose, memorising. "And miserable."
"You'll...you'll get over me, babe." Charity at least looks pained as she breaks Vanessa's heart further. She shrugs. "I'm nothing special."
Shaking her head, Vanessa steps back and looks into Charity's eyes. "You are amazing." She strokes Charity's cheek and then cups it, keeping Charity from looking down. "You are wonderful. And anyone who's ever made you believe differently doesn't deserve you in their life. Okay? Never forget that."
Charity holds her gaze for a moment before surging forward, catching her in a kiss. Vanessa pours herself into it, trying to sear herself into Charity's soul. Far too soon, Charity pulls away and Vanessa sees that she's not the only one crying.
"It's for the best, babe. I promise. I can't...I don't-" Charity sniffs and wipes at Vanessa's tears with her thumb. "Maybe we can-"
Vanessa silences her with a finger over her lips. "Don't." She shakes her head. "Don't make promises you can't keep. Don't say we'll be friends or that you'll figure out a way to leave him. Just...just don't. Let's make it a clean break, eh?"
Nodding, Charity looks down for a moment before meeting her eyes again. "I wish things were different."
"I know." Vanessa tries to smile. "Me too."
"And I'm sorry for-" Charity's voice hitches and Vanessa's chest tightens. "-for putting you through all of this. But I'm not sorry I met you."
Fresh tears spill down Vanessa's cheeks. "No. I'm not sorry either." It's the truth. For all it hurts, and it really, really hurts, she'd rather have had this short time with Charity than never have met her.
"I...I better go." Charity blows out a shuddering breath. "I'm just making it worse...drawing it out."
Vanessa nods and when Charity leans in to kiss her, she knows in her heart it's their last. It's too short and when Charity pulls away this time, she doesn't linger, doesn't hold Vanessa close or look into her eyes. Instead, she stumbles towards the back door, rubbing at her face. Vanessa covers her mouth, following at a slight distance. Charity yanks the door open and almost falls out into the night. Vanessa leans against the doorframe, tears still falling freely.
Turning, Charity shoves her hands in her back pockets, mascara smudged and hair glowing in the moonlight. Vanessa thinks she's never seen anyone look more beautiful.
"Well, babe...I'll see you around, yeah?" Charity winks. "Bye."
"Bye," Vanessa manages, barely more than a whisper.
Charity starts to walk backwards. "Bye."
And then she's gone and Vanessa's left alone, looking into the darkness. She closes her eyes.
She calls in sick to work the following day. She can't face people.
The thing about the end of an affair is that you can't mourn publicly. You can't do the normal things people do after a break-up. Because no-one knows. No-one knows the pain you're in or how you want to wail and cry and drink yourself into oblivion.
Rhona's not as sympathetic as she'd like, but that's not unexpected. Tracy's better about it. Despite her initial misgivings about Charity and how they got started, she did actually appreciate Vanessa's depth of feeling if nothing else. They drink wine and eat chocolate watch terrible weepy movies together on the second day she calls in sick.
Tracy's also the one who gets her out of bed on the third day, forces her into a shower, lays out an outfit for her to get into and shoves a slice of toast and travel mug of coffee into her hand before physically marching her up to the surgery.
She doesn't miss a day of work after that. But the ache in her heart remains.
It's about a week after they agree to stop seeing each other and Tracy's watching some film on the telly. Vanessa's looking at the screen, but has no idea what's going on. There's a knock on the door. Tracy looks over at her.
"You expecting anyone?"
Vanessa shakes her head and curses the hope that bubbles in her stomach and up into her chest. It does the same whenever her phone beeps with a message or a call. And it's never her. She tilts her head and scrunches up her face.
"Can you get it? If it's one of them kitchen salesmen again tell them I'm reporting them for knocking this late."
Tracy pauses the film and gets to her feet with a huff. Vanessa wills herself not to look over and feel the stab of disappointment when it's inevitably not Charity.
"Hi. Can I help you?" From Tracy's tone, it's clearly not somebody they know. Vanessa twists on the couch, leaning back, but the angle's wrong and she can't see whoever it is.
"Depends. You Vanessa?"
There's something familiar about the voice, though she doesn't recognise it.
"Tell her it's Charity's daughter and I need to speak to her."
Vanessa almost falls in her haste to get off the couch and to the door. She straightens out the jumper she's wearing and pats her hair down, rolling her eyes at herself. She bumps Tracy to the side a little.
She's not sure she'd have picked the girl on her step out as Charity's kid. She searches her features for some similarity, but beyond a killer set of cheekbones, there's not much of Charity in this young woman. There's a hardness to this girl that Charity doesn't have. Despite all she's been through, Charity has a natural charm to her that invites people in. Everything about Debbie wants to keep people out.
Debbie's eyes drift down her body and back up. "Hmm. I thought you'd be taller."
Unsure how to respond to that, Vanessa shoves Tracy further back and steps to the side. "Come in."
Debbie steps into the house and Vanessa closes the door, ignoring Tracy when she prods her in the side and widens her eyes in question. They follow Debbie into the living room.
"This is...uh, this is my sister, Tracy." Vanessa holds out a hand to indicate the other woman, as if she could have been meaning anyone else.
Debbie nods at Tracy. "I would say nice to meet you, but it's all a bit weird, this, innit?"
"It absolutely is very weird," Tracy agrees. "But I'm used to that around my big sis." She gives Vanessa an overly innocent smile. "Can I fix you a brew?"
"Uh, weren't you going up for a shower, Tracy?" Vanessa lifts both of her eyebrows and nods.
"No, I was-" Catching on, Tracy nods along with Vanessa. "Actually, yeah, yeah I was. That's exactly what I was going to do."
Tracy squeezes her hand on the way past as she heads up the stairs, leaving Vanessa and Debbie alone. Vanessa crosses her arms and watches as Debbie looks around the room.
"So...do you want a brew?" she asks, eventually.
Debbie meets her eyes and shakes her head. "No, you're alright, ta. I can't stay long."
Nodding, Vanessa tightens her arms and smiles as best she can. "So, what did you want to talk to me about?"
Shrugging, Debbie narrows her eyes. "I s'pose I just wanted to meet the person who's got my mum acting like a giddy teenager."
"She...she told you, then? About us?" Vanessa feels that little spark of hope again. She'd assumed Charity wouldn't have told anyone.
"Not at first, no." Debbie picks up a framed picture of Vanessa, Tracy and their dad from the mantelpiece. "She just kept going on about this new 'friend' she'd met." She puts the photo down and turns to Vanessa. She rolls her eyes and Vanessa's throat grows tight; there's Charity. "But it didn't take a genius to work out what was going on. My mother doesn't really have friends. I asked a couple of questions and it all came pouring out and she never stopped talking about you after that."
Vanessa clears her throat. "Then you'll know we're...we're not seeing each other anymore."
"Well, I know she's had a face like a wet weekend in Scunthorpe for the last week and a half, so I figured something must be up."
"Declan-" Vanessa derives quite a lot of pleasure from the way Debbie's nose wrinkles in distaste. "-had started to suspect something was going on. And your mum thought it was best if...if we stopped seeing each other."
Debbie shakes her head, lifting her eyes to the ceiling. "I bet she hasn't told you why she's with him, has she?"
"Not...really," Vanessa says, wondering if she's betraying Charity by having this conversation. "Just that it's complicated."
"Right, I thought so." Debbie sighs. "My daughter Sarah...she's ill. She was born with a degenerative condition and now she's got cancer."
Vanessa's hand flies to her mouth. "Oh my God! Debbie that's...I'm so sorry. Charity never said anything."
"No, she wouldn't have, because that's the complication." Debbie moves over to the armchair and takes a seat. Vanessa follows her lead and perches on the arm of the couch, facing Debbie. "See...Declan was just...I don't even know what he was. A fling, really. Someone to pass the time with." She swallows. "Until Sarah got sick. Then all mum saw was a lifeline. She needed experimental treatment that we never could have afforded and mum...well, she reckoned if things got serious with Declan, he'd pay for it. And he did. And he still is."
"And that's why she can't leave him." Vanessa presses a hand to her chest where her heart is aching for this little family that's been through so much. She shakes her head. "But why didn't she just tell me that? I'd have understood."
"I don't know if you've noticed this, but my mum isn't all that big on talking about things." Debbie shakes her head. "I told her not to shackle herself to him. That we'd get the money some other way. My gran had offered me some of it and my dad was going to try and-" She bites her lip. "Anyway, she's got this thing where she feels like she's always got to make amends. To make up for-"
"For not being around when you were little," Vanessa supplies. "Right, course."
Debbie's eyebrow creeps up her forehead. "She told you that?"
Vanessa shakes her head. "Only bits and pieces."
"Blimey." Debbie's gaze suddenly turns piercing. "Do you love her?"
Her throat goes dry and she swallows. "I don't think I should tell you that before I tell her, do you?"
Debbie nods. "He doesn't."
"Then why did he marry her?" Vanessa throws her arms up in frustration. "I can see what she's getting out of it, but what's in it for him if he doesn't love her?"
"Who knows? Convenience? Someone to parade around at his 'business' functions. Maybe he knows why she married him and enjoys the power trip?" Debbie huffs. "I got no idea what goes on in that devious head of his." Her eyes flick to Vanessa's. "You know he hits her."
Bile rises in Vanessa's throat, burning as she nods. "I'm well aware."
"And he insisted on a mega tight pre-nup. If she so much as breathes the wrong way, she gets nothing in any divorce." Debbie rolls her eyes. "Height of romance, eh?"
Vanessa blows out a breath. "I hate him."
"Yeah, join the club. Anyway, she's martyred herself enough for us." Debbie meets Vanessa's eyes again. "Her making herself miserable isn't going to give me back the thirteen years she wasn't there." She lifts her eyebrows. "So, we've both got our reasons for wanting her to leave him."
Vanessa shakes her head. "Debbie, I would never ask her to do anything that would jeopardise Sarah's health."
Debbie lifts an eyebrow. "And you think I would?"
"Well...no...no, of course-"
"I'm not that bothered about her happiness."
Vanessa thinks Debbies making a joke, but she's not sure, so it's a relief when she rolls her eyes and smiles.
"Listen, Sarah's got one treatment left in a couple of weeks. I've told mum to get out after that but she's scared Sarah will need something else down the line and we'll be back where we were. Or that he'll do something with the insurance policy and make us liable for the treatment."
Vanessa nods. "Well, that's an understandable concern."
"Course it is. Believe me, I live every minute of my life waiting for the next thing to go wrong." Debbie's eyes are shining with tears now. "But I still live it. And she should get to as well."
Nodding, Vanessa tries to smile. "Okay...so...what are you saying?"
"I came here tonight to see for myself what made you different. What it is that makes my mother blush and grin like a naughty schoolgirl whenever she talks about you." She leans closer, lowering her voice. "To see if you were worth the effort of me keeping on at her to leave him."
"And am I?" Vanessa's not sure she wants to hear the answer. Debbie's alarmingly blunt, and lacks Charity's skill at softening her blows with humour or flirting.
Debbie waits an impolite period of time before responding with a single nod. "I think you just might be." She stands up. "I'll work on her, okay?"
It hadn't even occurred to Vanessa that she wanted or needed the approval of Charity's family. But now that she has it, and she knows Debbie's of a similar mind as herself when it comes to Declan, she can't help but feel bolstered. For all she told Charity she wanted a clean break, it hasn't been clean. She's been clinging to hope, even if she didn't allow herself to consciously think about it. And now that she knows why Charity's with him, and that it's not insurmountable, that hope has only grown.
Vanessa stands too. She wants to give Debbie a hug, but she doesn't seem the hugging type, so she settles for a gentle touch on the arm. "Thanks. For coming. And explaining all this to me." She lets out a breath. "I wish your mum could've just told me herself, but it's made things a lot clearer."
Debbie nods. "She cares about you. And that's not something that happens very often." She tilts her head. "Or, at all."
A warmth suffuses Vanessa's chest that's been gone since she closed the door after Charity that night. "I care about her too."
"Good." Debbie makes a move for the front door. "She needs that. God knows not many people have."
The visit from Debbie makes her feel a little more like herself. Her smile comes easier and doesn't feel like a chore. She doesn't spend all day just thinking about getting home and going to bed. She finds that she can think of the future again without it looming like some dark, empty abyss in front of her.
Things might work out, and that's a hell of an improvement on what the situation looked like before she spoke to Debbie.
A couple of days later, she's sitting at the kitchen table, doing some paperwork she brought home, when her phone buzzes. She picks it up and notes that it's a number she doesn't know. She sighs. Bloody PPI. She declines the call and goes back to what she was doing. The phone buzzes again. Same number. She frowns and rejects it again. The next time the phone vibrates, it's a text message from that same number.
Babe, it's me. Just pick up next time, yeah?
Vanessa's heart starts thudding in her chest and her palms grow slick. Just from a few words on a screen. The phone starts ringing again and she jumps in fright, fumbling to answer it.
"Charity?" If she'd taken a second to compose herself before picking up the call, she might've been able to stop herself sounding quite so desperate and needy.
"Hey." The sound of her voice makes Vanessa's eyes fill with tears and she covers her mouth to stop any sound coming out. "Heard you had a little visitor the other night."
Vanessa nods and then rolls her eyes. "I did, yeah."
"Well, I'm sorry she turned up like that." Charity sounds genuinely annoyed. "You said you wanted nothing more to do with me and-"
"I never said that!" Vanessa's up on her feet, pacing the living room. "Charity, when did I say that?"
"A clean break, then. Whatever. What I'm saying is you don't want my relatives rocking up on your doorstep every five minutes."
Vanessa tips her head back, looking at the ceiling. "I'm glad she did come. She explained a lot of things."
"Yeah, she said." Charity huffs. "Know the whole sad story now, don't you?"
Frowning, Vanessa leans on the mantelpiece. "What do you mean? 'Sad story'? D'you not think I completely understand why you-"
"And I bet you pity me even more than before, right? Poor Charity. Sleeping with some guy so she can pay for her sick grandkid? It's like a flaming Victor Hugo novel, innit?"
"A Vic-...Charity, for God's sake." Vanessa shakes her head, wishing Charity was here so that she could look into her eyes. "I don't pity you, okay? I've never pitied you. I like you because you're...you're amazing. And strong. And funny. And clever. And stubborn. And I-" She bites her lip. That's not something to be said during an angry phone call.
Charity's silent for a bit. "Yeah...well. Just make sure none of this gets back to your Dad's girlfriend, eh?"
A gasp steals all the air from Vanessa's body. "Are you serious? You called to make sure I wasn't going to run to Megan with some gossip? That I'd put your granddaughter's health at risk in some vindictive game to split you and Declan up? That's honestly what you're saying to me?"
"You never know, do you?" Charity's voice is tight and controlled and it makes Vanessa want to scream.
Pain shoots through Vanessa's jaw and she realises she's grinding her teeth. "No? Well, maybe you just don't know me." She shakes her head. "Goodbye, Charity."
She hangs up before she can second guess herself.
Unable to settle down enough to go back to her paperwork, she busies herself with clearing out a couple of the kitchen cupboards she's been meaning to get to for ages. Her annoyance makes her far more ruthless than normal about getting rid of stuff and she fills a few bin bags quickly. She's just come back in from putting stuff out in the recycling when her phone beeps with a message. Distracted, she picks it up without thinking, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. Her stomach freezes when she sees it's from that same number.
I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that about you telling Megan. That's not what I called for and I don't ever think you'd do that.
The message eases the sting from earlier, but doesn't erase it completely. She types a reply and sends it.
So why did you call?
There's a long gap and Vanessa begins to think she won't get an answer, but then a message turns up.
I just wanted to hear your voice.
Vanessa closes her eyes, lifting her phone and pressing it against her lips, as if that will somehow bring her closer to Charity. She sighs.
So why not just say that, then?
She's aware she's pushing. Admitting the reason for the call is a big step on its own and she shouldn't really be trying to force Charity into saying more. But the needy part of her wants to know that she's not the only one finding it hard.
That's hardly a clean break, is it?
That's true. Charity's trying to give Vanessa what she asked for. She can hardly fault her for that. Even if it does result in confused, angry phone calls. She's about to respond when another message comes through.
I have to go. Take care x
He must be around. He's always got to spoil things. Vanessa closes her eyes and counts to ten so that she won't text back all of the vitriol threatening to spill out. When she's done, she types a simple message in return.
You too. x
She doesn't hear from Charity after that. She's considered calling the number a couple of times, but she chickens out. It would be unfair of her anyway. To be calling Charity up when she doesn't know what's going on at the other end. So she goes on with the day to day as best she can and tries not to constantly think about Charity. She gets no more random Dingle visitors or texts from burner phones. She goes to work, comes home, occasionally goes to the pub with Rhona or Tracy.
Her life is boring as hell.
A few weeks later she's having lunch at the pub with her Dad and Megan. They're growing closer and Vanessa is dreading the day someone suggests a family meal that involves Declan. She can stand a lot, but she's not sure she could stomach an evening of making small talk with Declan and Charity.
Frank spots Eric across the bar and excuses himself to go and talk about some antique exhibition that's coming up in Hotten. Vanessa pushes her chips around her plate with her fork.
"So, your dad says you've been pretty down lately. Last few weeks, he said."
She looks up at the unexpected observation to find Megan's sharp eyes pinning her to her chair. She shrugs and gives her a half smile.
"Just in a bit of a rut, I think."
"Mmhmm." Megan folds her arms on the table, leaning in. "Funny thing is, Charity's been exactly the same. Starting around the same time, in fact."
Vanessa knows her face is going to go red, she can feel the heat creeping up her neck. She's never been great at lying. She shoves a chip in her mouth. It's cold, but she chews it anyway to give herself a bit of thinking time. "Yeah?"
Not the greatest comeback of all time, and Megan is undeterred. "Yeah. I mean, it's hard to tell with her, what with her being a moody cow at the best of times, but she's def-"
"She's not a moody cow." The words are out before she can stop them and she sees the triumph in Megan's eyes.
"It's you, isn't it? The one she's knocking about with?" Megan's keeping her voice low, but Vanessa still glances around to make sure no-one's heard.
"It's...we're not-" Vanessa sighs. "It's over, okay? It was...it was just…" She presses her lips together, the lies refusing to come out easily. "It didn't mean anything. And it's over."
Megan nods and Vanessa notices, for the first time, the same hardness in her that she's seen in Declan.
"You know, if it was anyone else, I'd have told him already," Megan notes, taking a sip of her wine.
"So...you won't say anything, then?" Vanessa feels like she has to get this assurance. "You won't tell Declan?"
Sighing, Megan leans in. "Look, I hate my brother being tied to that slapper." Vanessa bristles, but she's not in a position to cause more waves here. "But I really like your Dad, and I don't want to cause problems between us over Charity flaming Dingle." She smiles at Vanessa, but it's far from friendly. "Anyway, I'll just bide my time. Wait for the next poor sod she reels in."
Vanessa's shaking her head. "You don't know Charity. You don't know anything about her."
"Oh, but I do, love." Megan smirks. "And the only thing Charity cares about is herself." She pauses and tilts her head. "Oh, no, sorry. She also cares about money."
"Why's she been upset these past few weeks, then?" Vanessa hisses. "If she doesn't care about me?"
Megan shrugs and lifts her eyebrows. "Maybe you were good in bed and she's not getting it regularly enough now?" She looks at her watch. "Declan's away for a few days on business so she's probably tarting herself up as we speak, ready to find her next mug."
"God, you're a right piece of work," Vanessa snarls. "How do you know I won't tell my dad you've said all this to me?"
Smiling, Megan runs her finger down the stem of her wine glass. "Because if you do, I'll have nothing to lose and I'll tell Declan about what you've been up to with his wife." She shrugs. "Your call."
She stands up so quickly her chair topples and her Dad catches it before it falls all the way to the floor.
He puts his hand on her shoulder. "Teeny? You okay?"
Vanessa's eyes never leave Megan's. "I'm...not feeling too well, Dad. I'm gonna head off." She turns to smile at him as best she can. "Enjoy the rest of the afternoon, yeah?"
Frank frowns, tilting his head to try and meet her eyes, but she avoids his. "Are you sure? Do you want me to walk you home?"
"It's three doors down, Dad. I'm sure I'll make it." She pecks his cheek. "Thanks for lunch."
She practically runs out of the pub, enjoying the cool air when she reaches outside. Her blood is boiling from her confrontation with Megan, but she has no outlet for dealing with it. She needs to talk to Charity, let her know what's going on. With shaking hands, she takes out her phone and tries the number Charity had called from last. A robotic voice tells her the number does not exist and instructs her to hang up.
Tapping her phone against her chin, she considers calling Charity's own number. The fact that Charity had called her from another phone makes her wonder if Declan, in his suspicion, is somehow monitoring her calls. She doesn't want to make anything harder for Charity, so she discounts that idea.
But Megan had said Declan was away for a few days. She could nip up to Home Farm and see if Charity's in. The last time they spoke properly, Vanessa hung up the phone in anger. Every inch of Vanessa aches just to see her and talk to her and clear the air between them a bit more.
Without giving it too much thought, she gets in her car.
She draws up in front of Home Farm, the imposing building hasn't changed since the last time she was here. The previous owners had owned dogs, and the ones before that had horses. She knows her way around the back entrance and the stables pretty well, but this time she marches up to the front door and rings the bell. She rubs her hands on her jeans. She hasn't really decided what she's going to say or how she's going to approach the conversation. Adrenaline and instinct brought her here, and they'll just need to get her through it.
The door opens and Charity's eyes go so wide it would be comical if Vanessa wasn't trying to keep herself together. Charity looks over her shoulder before stepping out onto the doorstep and closing the door behind her.
"What the hell are you doing here?" she hisses, grasping Vanessa's elbow and starting to move them away from the house.
Vanessa shakes her hand off. "I'm here to-" She falters, but clears her throat and squares her shoulders. "I thought you should know that Megan knows. About us. I didn't say anything, I swear. She figured it out for herself and..."
But Charity's shaking her head, not even listening to what she's saying. "Vanessa, you have to go. Now."
Charity makes a grab for her again but she sidesteps her hand and backs up against the door. She's not prepared for it to open, though, and when she stumbles backwards, a strong hand grips her shoulder and rights her. She sees fear bloom in Charity's eyes, the same as she had that day in the Woolpack, and she doesn't have to turn around to know whose hand it is.
"So it's you, then." Declan's voice is low and close to her ear. Vanessa tries to pull away from his hold, but his grip tightens and she muffles a cry of pain. She's not going to let him know he's hurting her. "Can't say I was expecting that."
Charity's eyes are trained on his hand, but flick to Vanessa's briefly. She looks apologetic and Vanessa wants to tell her that she's fine and it's not her fault, but then Charity rolls her eyes.
"Oh, give over, babe." Charity moves towards them, her lip curling in a sneer. "As if I'd cheat on you with her."
Even though she knows it's a lie, Charity's convincing enough for it to cut straight to Vanessa's heart. She swallows through the pain in her throat and forces herself to keep looking at Charity, looking for her Charity.
"So why's she up here talking about my sister knowing about the two of you?" Declan snarls. "'About us' she said." His hand moves from her shoulder to her neck, fingers closing around it. It's not tight enough to constrict her breathing, but it is tight enough to be a threat. She brings her hands up to cover his, trying to prise it away.
"Deluded, i'n't she?" Charity rolls her eyes again, but she's close enough now that Vanessa can see sweat beading on her top lip. "I mean, I thought we were mates, but it turns out she's been harbouring this mad obsession with me for ages." She clicks her tongue. "Practically stalked me for a bit."
Although her eyes are burning with tears, Vanessa's determined not to cry. She knows this isn't true. She knows Charity's just trying to throw him off the scent. But God if it doesn't hurt to hear her say those words. He's silent for a while, but Vanessa can feel him breathing against her back, fast and deep, like he's holding in his rage. For the first time, she's genuinely frightened.
"Right," he says, eventually. "So you won't care if I do this?"
There's no time for her to react as he tightens his fingers around her throat, squeezing to the point of pain, pulling her against him so hard that she has to go up on her toes. She claws at his hand, twisting her head to try and get away.
"Stop it! Alright! Let her go!" Charity's hands join her own, gripping Declan's fingers and pulling them away. Vanessa gulps in air and wrestles out of his grip, stumbling and falling onto the drive. Gravel stings her hands and knees, but Charity's yelp of pain is enough for her to ignore it and get back on her feet. She turns to find that Declan has Charity pinned against the wall by her neck. There's blood coming from a split in her lip and she's struggling to breathe.
And it's all Vanessa's fault. If she hadn't come here, if she hadn't just taken Megan's word that Declan was away. She's put Charity at risk for no reason other than her own selfish desire to see her. She's drawn out of her thoughts by Declan's voice.
"Seriously, Charity? A fucking dyke as well as a slapper?" He's screaming right in her face. "You really are trying to cause me maximum embarrassment, aren't you?"
Vanessa looks around, desperately trying to find something that could be used as a weapon. He's so much bigger than her; there's no way that she'll be able just to take him on. But she needs him to let go of Charity.
"Why would you be embarrassed, Declan? Is it 'cause I'm so much better at pleasing your wife in bed than you are?" She doesn't even know she's planning to speak until she's said the words. It works, though. He stops choking Charity, letting her slide down the wall, gasping, and turns his attention to Vanessa. She stands firm under his fury. "Is it 'cause I give her things you never could?"
Charity's on her hands and knees behind him shaking her head, "S-stop, Ness."
"You fucking little cunt." He advances on her. "You sleep with my wife and you have the audacity to come to my home and ring the bell, bold as brass?" He shoves her and she stumbles, but her back hits her car and she stays on her feet. He's right in front of her now, and she's got no escape. She lifts her chin.
"Go on then, big man. Hit me."
He frowns at the invitation. "You think I won't?"
"Oh, I know you will." She nods over his shoulder. "I've seen the marks you've left on her." She smirks. "All of them."
He smashes his fist onto the roof of her car, right by her head. She has no idea if she flinches, but she hopes not.
"What the fuck do you think you're achieving here? Are you fucking stupid?" He grabs her arm and yanks her forward, turning to point at Charity, who's using the wall to get to her feet, spitting blood. "All she gives a toss about is money. So unless you've got more than I have, then she's never going to leave me for you. You pathetic little dyke."
"There's more to life than money," Vanessa says, wincing as his grip on her arm gets tighter. "Like I said, I give her things you never could."
"What? Like love?" he sneers like it's a dirty word. "Well, then you're definitely fucking stupid." Some of his spittle lands on her chin and she wrinkles her nose. "Because she doesn't know what love is."
She leans in close, her face almost touching his and smiles. "She does now."
There's a blurred movement in front of her eyes and then it feels like the side of her face is exploding.
The first thing she becomes aware of is the smell. It smells a bit like work, but without the underlying scent of animal. Cleanliness. Bleach.
It clicks. She's in hospital. Declan must've knocked her out.
The next thing she's aware of is a hand holding her own, a thumb rubbing over her knuckles. Hope blooms in her chest and dies just as quickly. It's probably Tracy. With monumental effort, she opens one eye and quickly shuts it again, moaning against the harsh lighting.
"Oh, it lives. Hooray!"
Both eyes open at the voice that's definitely not Tracy's. Charity's sitting on the bed by her hip, smiling down at her. There's still dried blood on her chin from where her lip was bleeding and the bruising around her neck is fresh, so at least Vanessa hasn't been in a coma for months.
"Hi," she manages, her lips cracking as they stretch into a smile.
Charity rolls her eyes and Vanessa can see they're glassy with tears. She leans down and kisses the edge of Vanessa's mouth before sitting back up and rubbing at her nose and sniffing.
"Hi yourself, Rocky." Charity shakes her head. "Has no-one thought to mention to you that you're a tiny little person? And that maybe you shouldn't go around goading huge blokes into fights?"
"Once or twice," Vanessa says. She frowns. "What happened? I mean, I take it he punched me? But then what happened?"
"Oh don't worry, Bruiser, you didn't miss much while you were unconscious." Charity looks down at their joined hands. "Just me wellying him in the head with a brick. Followed by me totally not panicking for about twenty minutes while I waited on the ambulance and the coppers to show up."
"Not panicking." Vanessa squeezes Charity's hand. "Right."
Charity meets her eyes and nods. "That is right. I mean, it's not like I sobbed into your chest or begged you to wake up or promised God all sorts of daft things if you would just be okay."
"Well, that's good." Vanessa smiles and winces at the pain in her cheek. "'Cause I know you hate all that soppy stuff."
"Bloody right, I do." Charity nods. "The police'll want your statement soon, by the way. I've given them mine. And a folder of pictures of all the other times he's hit me." She leans a little closer, widening her eyes. "And I maybe hinted at some dodgy business dealings that I'd heard snippets of and totally didn't understand." She bats her eyelashes like she's some innocent debutante.
"Course you didn't." Vanessa swallows. "So...will they lock him up?"
Charity's eyes harden, her free hand coming up to gently caress the side of Vanessa's face. "They should throw away the flamin' key. But who knows?"
Vanessa nods. "What do you want me to say to them?" Charity's brow creases in question. "The police. What do you want me to say when they ask about today?"
"Oh, right." Charity shrugs. "Well, I just told them the truth, so you probably should too or it'll look a bit weird."
"The tr-...you mean, about us? Seeing each other?" She frowns. "But...I thought...if you were at fault in a divorce, you wouldn't get any-"
"Look, I wasn't exactly thinking straight at the time, was I?" Charity snaps. "You were spark out with your face half smashed in-" Vanessa's eyes widen and she reaches up to touch her cheek. She hadn't even thought to ask about it. Charity catches her hand, shaking her head. "No, no, it's fine, honestly. Nothing's broken. But I wasn't to know that when the police were asking me stuff, was I?" She rolls her eyes. "So, yeah, I just told them the truth."
Briefly, Vanessa wonders if she's hallucinating. "But...Sarah...and the money and-"
"Sarah's fine. Her treatment's all finished and she's doing well." Charity smiles. "Me and Debs are gonna look into getting an insurance plan in place for her going forward. She'll be fine. Tough as old boots, that girl."
"Just like her granny." Vanessa smirks at Charity's outraged expression.
"Oi, less of the 'g' word, you," Charity says. She sighs, her eyes flitting from the headboard to the floor. "And as for the money...Ness, that was never…" She shakes her head and lifts her eyes to Vanessa's. "I'd have chosen you over him and his money in a heartbeat if it weren't for our Sarah. You know that, yeah?"
Tears sting Vanessa's eyes and she laughs softly. "Well, seeing as you lamped him over the head with a paving stone, had him arrested and then sat crying by my bedside waiting for me to wake up...that's a pretty good indicator of how you feel about me."
Charity lifts an eyebrow. "Yeah? Reading between the lines, are you?"
"I'm getting pretty good at cracking Charity code these days." She smiles "I reckon it means you like me."
"Not as good as you think, then." Charity's smile drops, her face growing serious. "Because it actually means that...I love you." Vanessa's breath catches in her throat at Charity's soft, but heartfelt, words. "I really, really, stupidly-" Charity rolls her eyes, but they're warm and kind and there's a hint of a smile on her lips. "-and completely love you."
"I love you too." It's hard to speak, but she pushes the words through her too tight throat. "Stupidly. Completely. Utterly. Totally." She reaches up and guides Charity's face to hers, pressing their lips together. Charity's hand comes to cup her face and they both squawk in pain at the same time, pulling away.
"Well, that could've been more romantic," Charity comments, fingers gingerly testing whether her lip has split again.
"I'm not sure it could have been," Vanessa assures her. "You're like...my slightly wounded knight in shining armour."
Charity frowns playfully. "Wait, last time I was the princess. And you were the...frog? Or...wait…was I the frog that-"
"Tracy reckons we're more like Kate and Leo in Titanic." Vanessa lets her head flop to the side. "What with you giving up all the trappings of wealth to be with little old me down in third class."
Charity gasps with such indignation that Vanessa laughs. "Well, that's a great comparison that is. He flamin' well dies right after!" She glances pointedly around the hospital room and back at Vanessa. "Not gonna die on me, are you?"
"Wasn't planning to," Vanessa says, smiling softly. "Thanks. For, you know, giving up your seat in the lifeboat."
"I didn't." Charity shakes her head. "You're the only thing that's kept me afloat these last few months."
Vanessa's cheeks fill with warmth at the compliment, but she can already feel Charity squirming with embarrassment from having said it. "Well, that was ridiculously cheesy, but we'll blame it on the near-death experience, yeah?"
"Yes. Exactly." Charity nods. "I'm probably still lightheaded from the lack of oxygen from earlier."
"So that's why you told me you loved me, is it?" Vanessa asks, lifting a cheeky eyebrow.
"No," Charity says, seriously. "But if you're worried it was, I s'pose I'll just have to tell you again tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after th-."
Vanessa presses her thumb over Charity's lips, careful to avoid the cut. She shakes her head. "I believe you."
Charity purses her lips against Vanessa's thumb and sighs. "I better go and tell someone you've woken up. A doctor or summat. Your dad and sister will probably be interested an'all."
"Oh, they're here?" Vanessa asks, wondering why it hadn't even occurred to her that they might be. She frowns. "How come they're not in here with you?" Her dad is pretty protective and Tracy's kind of a hothead in situations with heightened emotions. She can't imagine either of them leaving her side without a fight.
"Karate chopped them both in the windpipe and ran in first." Charity grins at Vanessa's narrowed eyes. "Fine. I was...there were…" She rolls her eyes. "I was...a bit upset when I got here from the cop shop, okay? Pretty much a blubbering mess. And Tracy dragged your dad out to give me some privacy to get myself together."
Vanessa smiles. "You're a big softie at heart, aren't you?"
"Only with you, kid." Charity leans down and kisses her forehead, getting off the bed and heading to the door, where she hesitates, turning to look over her shoulder. "Only with you."
"I know," Vanessa whispers. "Me too."
"They all look the same to me, trees."
Charity's forehead is creased as she regards a particularly impressive oak tree. Vanessa smiles and rolls her eyes, squeezing the hand that's holding hers. She leans in close and lifts one of Charity's massive earmuffs so she can murmur into her ear.
"Thought you were a country person now? At one with nature and all that."
Charity turns to her and wrinkles her nose so adorably that Vanessa can't help but kiss it. "I mean, it's fine. Trees are fine when they've got leaves on them. The sky's nice, when it's not tipping it down. Fields are...alright, I suppose."
"Wow, you should write this stuff down," Vanessa comments, tugging Charity to get her moving again, continuing the walk Charity had suggested and then proceeded to complain all the way through. "Bloody poetry, that is. Wordsworth better watch his back."
"If I was a poet I wouldn't write poems about trees and lonely clouds and all that rubbish." Charity lets go of her hand and takes her arm instead, huddling closer to her.
"No? What would you write poems about?" she asks, stooping to pick a snowdrop from a little clump shivering above the frosty grass. She twirls it between her fingers before offering it to Charity who takes it with a tiny smile.
She feels Charity inhale deeply against her arm. "Dunno. Love, I s'pose."
Vanessa stops walking, jerking Charity to a halt along with her. "Yeah?"
Charity rolls her eyes and shrugs. "Well, that's what 'art' is supposed to be about, isn't it? Trying to represent things it's hard to explain." She gestures to a nearby tree. "Like, how hard is it to say that's green and brown and big?" Her eyes meet Vanessa's briefly before flitting to the sky. "But finding words that get across how I feel when I touch you? That would be poetry."
Closing the space between them, Vanessa goes up on her toes to bring their lips together. "That was poetry enough for me," she whispers, cradling Charity's face as best she can in thick gloves.
Charity tilts her head. "So, I can stop working on that ode to you and your yellow coat and daft hats, then?"
Vanessa laughs and kisses her again. "No. Have it finished by my birthday."
"Done." Charity winks and kisses her nose. "Now, have you had enough of all this fresh, crispy, frosty air for one day? Because I'm starting to lose feeling in my extremities. And I know you're particularly fond of some of them."
Narrowing her eyes, Vanessa shakes her head. "Filthy cow. C'mon then. Home."
Home is Tug Ghyll. Charity'd moved in with her immediately after all the stuff at Home Farm. Things have settled down over the last few months. Declan pled guilty to GBH and domestic abuse and is serving a sentence that Vanessa thinks isn't even close to what he should have got.
Her Dad split up with Megan after he found out about what had been said at the pub the day Vanessa was hospitalised. She feels bad about that, but she wouldn't have wanted him to be with someone so horrible anyway. He'll find someone else, he always has before. She's gone back to Manchester and Home Farm is up for sale. Good riddance to the lot of them, in Vanessa's book.
Charity's divorce proceedings are underway, and during some meeting at the prison, Charity had managed to negotiate a small sum of money for herself and five years health insurance for Sarah. She wouldn't say how, but Vanessa assumes she has more information on Declan than she's letting on.
For the last few weeks, Charity's been in talks with Diane about buying the pub from her. Everything's coming together.
They get home just as the sun is starting to set. They shed their outer layers and boots at the door, and Charity dives upstairs for a wee, claiming the cold always does that to her and warning Vanessa not to say it's her age. In her absence, Vanessa goes to the fridge to see what they've got in for tea. She doesn't much fancy the look of anything.
"Will we just order a pizza for tea or something?" she calls over her shoulder when she hears Charity coming back down the stairs.
"Sure, babe, whatever you want." Charity squeezes her hips briefly, moving to get glasses from the cabinet. "Open that bottle of red, in the meantime."
Vanessa closes the fridge and rummages in the drawer for the corkscrew. Charity sets the glasses on the counter and heads back into the living room. Vanessa listens to her mutter to herself as she uncorks the wine.
"Ness? How is it I get my phone to link to the speaker thingie again?" Rolling her eyes, Vanessa inhales to respond, but Charity beats her to it. "Oh, it's okay, I've found it."
She finishes pouring the second glass when the music starts up and she laughs when she recognises the gentle bossa nova beat. Leaving the glasses for the moment, she turns to find Charity grinning at her.
You can dance, every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight.
Charity tilts her head and holds out her hand. "You dancin'?"
You can smile, every smile for the man who held your hand 'neath the pale moonlight.
She lifts an eyebrow. "You askin'?"
Charity winks. "I'm askin'."
But don't forget who's takin' you home, and in whose arms you're gonna be.
Vanessa takes the offered hand, allowing herself to be drawn into Charity's arms, resting her head on her shoulder and closing her eyes as they start to sway.
So darlin', save the last dance for me.
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