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Animals and children tell the truth, they never lie
She's finalising some paperwork with Rhona when she hears the door open. Her eyes flick to the clock and a smile blooms on her face. Rhona nudges her.
"It's so sweet how happy you get to see him," she notes with a grin. "At uni, I never pictured you with kids at all. But here you are with a wife and two point four kids and you're as happy as Larry."
"Uh, I have a partner and we have four kids between us, thank you very much." Vanessa fake scowls at Rhona as she makes her way out into reception. She turns just in time to see the furtive exchange of something shiny and purple between Noah and Pearl, which is quickly slipped into his pocket. She raises an eyebrow. "Was that a Dairy Milk?"
Noah looks to Pearl. "Uh "
"Oh, Vanessa, you wouldn't grudge a growing boy a little bit of chocolate, would you?" Pearl puts a hand on Noah's arm. "He'll need energy after he finishes his shift!"
He's started coming in a couple of times a week and cleaning out the cages for a few quid. Charity couldn't quite believe it when he first volunteered to do it and predicted he'd give it up within a week. But it's been a couple of months now, and he dutifully shows up and does a great job. He's good with the animals too. And Pearl has taken a real shine to him, which is lovely.
Vanessa rolls her eyes. "Fine. But try and keep it for after your dinner, eh?" She knows it won't make a blind bit of difference to whether he eats his dinner or not. She's seen horses with smaller appetites. But she's pleased that she's at least made an attempt at sensible parenting. "Oh, and I get a square." She winks at him.
"Deal." Noah grins at her and she gets the same glowy feeling inside as she does whenever Johnny says a new word or playgroup tells her that he built a really tall tower. She can understand Rhona's surprise at her settling into playing happy families quite so easily. Before she fell pregnant with Johnny, she'd never have been able to picture a life where she had a teenage stepson. "Should I go and get started?"
"Yeah, go for it. Your overall's hanging up through there." His overall is one of Vanessa's old green lab-coats. They'd tried him with one of Paddy's but it had made him look like he was drowning in fabric, so he settled for Vanessa's with only minimal grumbling. "Go and get set up and I'll be through in a sec to tell you what needs doing."
He heads through to the back where the animal pens are, greeting Rhona on his way. Vanessa points at Pearl. "Stop plying him with chocolate, okay? I'm supposed to be his favourite here."
Pearl tuts as she returns to her seat. "I don't think you have anything to worry about on that front; the boy worships you." She starts typing, her focus on the screen rather than Vanessa. "Of course, with the upbringing he's had, it's no wonder he's latched onto the first normal parental figure in his life so fast."
Vanessa's eyebrows shoot up and she presses her lips together. Pearl's been getting better about not making comments like that about Charity, but she occasionally slips. And, in fairness, Vanessa probably agrees with her to some degree. Still she taps her foot and crosses her arms, waiting. It takes a few seconds, but Pearl looks up, sheepish.
"Uh huh. You always are, Pearl." Vanessa shakes her head as she walks away.
She's become accustomed to hearing people make throwaway comments about Charity, but it still bothers her. Yes, Charity has made some very bad decisions in her life, but she wasn't handed the best set of circumstances in the first place and most of what's happened to her is directly related to her start in life. Being thrown out of her own home at thirteen; pregnant and alone. Vanessa was in her late-thirties when she got pregnant and she could not imagine going through that as a child. It's a testament to Charity's strength of character that she's got her life together at all. And Vanessa loves that about her.
Rhona's voice carries through from the pens. "-so do the two hamsters and the guinea pig first. Then there's the two cats over there."
Vanessa stops in the doorway, leaning her shoulder against it as Rhona gives Noah his instructions. His face is solemn and he nods to show he's understood. Vanessa is overcome with a sudden sweep of love for this boy who, despite an unsettled childhood, is good and kind and polite and helpful wherever he can be. She wants to ruffle his hair and kiss his cheek, but he's far too grown-up for that, and he's here to do a job. She clears her throat and he turns to her with a smile, which she returns.
"Just give one of us a yell before you do Nibbles, yeah?" Vanessa puts in. "She's an old lady and can be a bit particular about who she lets handle her."
"Cool. That all that's in?" Noah asks, pulling on his rubber gloves.
"Oh, there's that little...lizard thingie," Vanessa says, pointing to one of the vivariums and wrinkling her nose. "I'd just leave it for now though."
"She does know the proper names, by the way," Rhona tells Noah, leaning in like she's sharing a confidence with him. "She just doesn't like reptiles."
"Didn't think vets would be allowed to not like any animals," Noah says.
"It's not that I don't like them, exactly" Vanessa protests. "It's just I prefer, you know, furry things. Warm things. Things with a bit of heft."
"She once told me she'd rather stick her hand up a cow's' bum than deal with a reptile," Rhona says, bumping Vanessa's hip with her own as she leaves. "So take from that what you will."
Noah's whole face wrinkles and it makes Vanessa laugh out loud. "Don't you stand there judging me, Noah Dingle!"
He shrugs, laughing a little himself. "Whatever floats your boat, Ness."
She narrows her eyes at him and jabs her finger at the cages. "Get to work, you!"
"Aye, aye, captain." The salute and the cheeky wink he gives her remind her so much of his mother, it's a little spooky. She just shakes her head and leaves him to it.
A little over an hour later, he emerges looking proud of himself, with Rhona by his side. Vanessa raises her eyebrows. "All done?"
"All done," Rhona confirms. "Passed my inspection with flying colours."
"Oooooh," Vanessa widens her eyes. "That's well impressive. She's got much higher standards than me." He rolls his eyes, but his cheeks flush a little and he can't hide his pleased smile. "Well, Pearl, pay the man."
Pearl makes a show of opening the till and taking out a tenner and a fiver and handing them over. "Don't spend it all at once!" she tells him as she hands the money over.
"I won't. Thanks." He makes sure to look at each of them in turn to convey his gratitude.
"Thank you," Rhona says. "You've saved us a lot of time these past few weeks. We don't need to bicker over whose turn it is to clean out the pens."
"Cool," he nods, pulling on his blazer and picking up his bag.
"I'll see you at home in a bit, okay?" Vanessa tells him as she walks him to the door.
"Yeah." He pauses in the doorway, turning back to face Vanessa, his brows drawn together. "Mum was talking about-" He winces. "-cooking tea tonight."
Vanessa sucks a breath in through her teeth. "Oh. That's not good." She thinks for a moment. "D'you fancy a pizza?"
His face lights up and he nods. "Yeah, ace!"
"Right. Well, you get on home and say to your mum that I don't want her working her fingers to the bone making dinner after having the little ones by herself all afternoon. Tell her I'm treating us all to pizza."
"I think she'll know that's sarcasm," Noah notes.
"She will," Vanessa agrees with a wink. "But that's fine, as long as she knows it was me that said it and not you."
"Cool. Don't be long. I'm starving!" He takes off at a run, turning briefly to wave back at her. She lifts her hand to wave and smiles as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the chocolate Pearl had given him.
"Little sod," she mutters. "I wanted a bit of that."
She leaves about half an hour after Noah does, and makes her way home in the early evening air, enjoying the last of the warmth from the sun. Heading up the path to Tug Ghyll, she can feel any stresses of the day drop away and she opens the door with a broad smile. The sight she finds inside only serves to make it brighter.
Charity is seated on the floor, back against the couch, doing some colouring in on the coffee table. Johnny and Moses are on either side of her, both intent on their own pictures. Johnny is trying his best to keep to the lines, whereas Moses is sweeping huge blocks of colour across his picture, not bothering in the slightest about the confines of the lines.
"Hiya." All three heads pop up.
"Mummy! We're colouring." Johnny tells her, holding up his picture. "I'm doing a cat."
"So I see," Vanessa says, dropping a kiss on Moses' head as she slides in to take a seat on the couch behind Charity, a leg on either side of her shoulders. She leans down to kiss Johnny's head as he returns to his task.
"Mine's a monster," Moses tells her, holding up his own book. The picture is not a monster, but Moses' scribblings do lend it a monstrous feel, so she nods a smiles.
"It's really scary."
Charity tips her head backwards so she's looking up at Vanessa and Vanessa can't resist leaning down to meet her lips in a brief kiss.
"And what are you colouring, Charity?" Vanessa asks, her voice teasing. Footsteps thunder down the stairs; Noah has clearly heard the door and is keen to get his pizza ordered.
"Never mind what I'm colouring," Charity says, scowling, although she is leaning into Vanessa's hand that's gently scratching at her scalp. "What's this I hear about your lack of faith in my cooking skills?"
Vanessa sighs. "See, the thing is babe, I'm a scientist. And we tend to need to see evidence of things before we believe they exist?"
Charity's indignant gasp is drowned out by Noah's grunt of surprise. "You're a scientist?"
Vanessa looks over at him. "Uh, yeah. I studied Veterinary Science."
He breaks into a grin. "I never thought of you as a scientist. That's so weird."
"What? Did you think all scientists were weird little men in labs with mad hair?" Vanessa asks.
"Well, anyone who's seen you in the morning knows you've got the mad hair bit down, babe," Charity says, looking up at Vanessa again, wearing a far too innocent smile. Vanessa tweaks her nose in retaliation.
"D'you think I could maybe be a vet?" Noah asks. "D'you have to be dead brainy?"
"Uh, you have met Paddy, right?" Charity's tone is mocking, but there's a look on her face that lets Vanessa know she's happy about Noah's question. She can relate; her chest feels like it's going to burst with pride.
"Why don't we talk about it over pizza, yeah? Since you were starving earlier?" Vanessa suggests, reaching into the pocket of her jeans and passing her phone to Charity. "There, you wanted to make dinner tonight. You can do the honours."
Charity offers her a fake smile, but she takes the phone and gathers the order. As she makes the call, her free hand drops to wrap around Vanessa's ankle, thumb running up underneath her jeans to brush over her skin. And Vanessa wonders if it's possible to feel happier than she does in this instant.
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