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'Hello, pickle!' Mike scooped Sophie up into his arms and whirled her round, their laughter ringing round the yard and echoing off the old stone walls of the barn, bringing a lump to her throat.
These two adored each other, and now both their faces were lit up with a joy so infectious Fran couldn't help but smile.
'How's my favourite girl today?' he asked, hugging her tight and looking down into her beaming face.
'I'm fine Daddy, where's Fran? I've got something really special to show her Fran! Look!' she yelled, catching sight of her and waving madly.
She wriggled out of his arms, running across and throwing herself at Fran. She caught her little stepdaughter, hugging her close and laughing, kissing her bright, rosy cheek and holding out her hand for the little box Sophie was thrusting at her eagerly.
'It's a modelI made it at school!' she confided in a stage whisper. 'It's Daddy milking a cowsee, here's Amber, and this is Daddy, and this is the cluster '
She pointed underneath the misshapen reddish blob that could just conceivably have been a cow, and there was a thing like a mangled grey spider stuck on her underside. She supposed if the blob could be Amber, then the spider could be a milking machine cluster. Why not? And as for Mike !
'I'm going to give it to him for his birthday,' she went on, still whispering loud enough to wake the dead. 'We've got to wrap it. Have you got paper?'
Fran smiled and put the lid back on the box. 'I'm sure we've got paper,' she whispered back. 'It's lovely. Well done, darling. I'm sure he'll be really pleased.'
A flicker of doubt passed over Sophie's earnest little face. 'Do you think so? Amber was really hard to make.'
'I'm sure, but you've done it beautifully. He'll be so pleased. He loves everything you make for him. It makes him feel really special.'
Sophie brightened, her confidence restored, and whirling round she ran back to her beloved father and grabbed his hand. 'I want to go and see the cows Oh, Brodie!' she said, breaking away again and dropping to her knees to cuddle the delighted collie who was lying on her back, grinning hideously and wagging her tail fit to break it. 'Hello, Brodie,' she crooned, bending right down and letting the dog wash her face with meticulous attention.
'Sophie, you mustn't let her do that!' Kirsten protested, but Sophie ignored her mother, laughing and hugging the dog while Brodie licked and licked and licked for England.
'Yeah, not your face, it's not a good idea,' Mike chipped in, backing Kirsten up simply because he just did. It was one of the many things Fran loved about him, the way he defended Sophie's mother's decisions to their daughter even if he didn't agree, and then discussed it with her rationally when Sophie wasn't around.
The fact that Brodie washed his face whenever it was in reach was neither here nor there! Now he held out his hand to Sophie and pulled her to her feetand out of range of Brodie's tonguewith a grin.
'Come on, scamp, say goodbye to your mum and then let's go and see the cows. I'm sure they've missed you.'
Missed the treats, no doubt, because the six-year-old always seemed to have her little pockets bulging with pellets of feed, and she'd happily give it to them despite the cows' slippery noses and rough, rasping tongues. Nothing fazed her, and she was deliriously happy trailing round after her father and 'helping' him.
'Fran?' Sophie said, holding out her hand expectantly after they'd waved Kirsten off, but she shook her head. This was their time, precious and special to both of them, and she wouldn't intrude.
'I've got to make supper,' she said with a smile. 'You go with your father and say goodnight to the cows. I'll see you both soon.' And with a little wave she watched them head off towards the field where the cows were grazing, Mike shortening his stride to accommodate his little sprite, Sophie skipping and dancing beside him, chattering nineteen to the dozen while her pale blonde bunches bobbed and curled and flicked around her head.
They went round the corner out of sight, Brodie at their heels, and with a soft sigh Fran went back inside, the little cardboard box containing Mike's present in her hand. She opened the lid and stared down at the little lumps of modelling clay so carefully and lovingly squashed into shape, and her eyes filled. He was so lucky to have her. So very, very lucky.
If only it could happen to them.
They'd come so closetwice now.
It often happened, she'd been told. Miscarriages were common, and her first, three years agowell, that had just been one of those things, they'd said. It probably wouldn't happen again.
And it hadn't, of course, because she hadn't conceived again, and so they'd undergone endless intrusive and humiliating tests, all of which had proved nothing except that there wasn't any obvious reason why they hadn't had a baby yet.
So they'd gone through the difficult and challenging process of a cycle of IVF, and she'd become pregnant, and then, just like before, she'd lost it.
Not unusual, they were told again, especially with IVF, possibly because the embryos weren't always as perfect as they might be with a normally conceived embryo, and this, it seemed, was probably what had happened to theirs.
All very logical, but she didn't feel logical about it, because there was nothing wrong with either of them, they just hadn't managed to make a healthy baby yet, and it was tearing her apart.
Looking on the bright side, they hadn't made an unhealthy one either, so if that was why the embryos had both failed, maybe it was for the best.
Whatever the reason, she'd lost the embryos, and she wasn't sure she had the strength to go through it again. If she had another miscarriage.
And, anyway, they still had Sophie coming to visit them and bringing so much sunshine into their lives. OK, it wasn't like having her own child, but Sophie was gorgeous, and she loved her to bits. Was it greedy to want more?
To want a child of their own who would come home from school bubbling with excitement and giving them some little blob of modelling clay to treasure?
She dragged in a breath, pressing her fist against the little knot of pain in her chest. Not now. She couldn't think about it now. Blinking hard, she put the little box in a safe place, opened the fridge and started pulling things out.
Supper. Practicalities. Forget the rest.
Just like the funny, amazing little present, she had to put her feelings in a box and put the lid on and put them all away.
It was the only way to survive.
They were sitting at the kitchen table.
Mike had finished milking on Saturday morning and he was hurrying back to join them for breakfast. Glancing through the window, expecting to see them cooking, he was surprised to see them seated side by side, Sophie's untamed blonde curls close to Fran's sleek, dark hair, and he could hear them laughing.
They were busy wrapping something that could well have been the little box Sophie had been brandishing yesterday so, instead of kicking off his boots and going in, Mike opened the door a crack to give them warning and said, 'Just going over to the shop to make sure everything's OK. Anything you need?'
'Daddy, go away, you can't see!' Sophie shrieked, plastering herself over the table.
'I'm not looking, I've got my eyes shut,' he said, squashing a grin and screwing his eyes up tight. 'Want anything, Frankie?'
'Bacon?' she said, a smile in her voice. 'I thought we could have a nice cooked breakfast if you've finished milking.'
'OK. I'll be five minutes.' That should give them long enough to wrap whatever it was, he thought with the smile still tugging at his mouth.
He went out, leaving Brodie behind to fuss over Sophie, and had a quick chat to his sister-in-law, Sarah, in the farm shop. She was just about to open up, and she threw him a smile as he went in.
'Hiya. How are you? Looking forward to tomorrow?'
'Whatgetting older, you mean? I can't wait.' He chuckled and picked out a packet of local dry-cured bacon. 'I've been sent to fetch breakfast,' he told her. 'You OK here? Need anything?'
'More blue cheese from the store, when you've got time. It's gone really well this week and we've only got half a wheel left.'
'I'll drop it in later,' he promised.
'Oh, and eggs? We've had a run on themmust be all those desperate women in Penhally making you a birthday cake in the hope of tempting you away from Fran!'
He chuckled again. 'Hardly. But I'll get Sophie on it right after breakfast. She likes collecting the eggs. We'll do it in the next hour or so, OK?'
'Fine. See you later.'
He sauntered back, whistling cheerfully so they could hear him coming and get the present out of the way, and when he opened the door a crack and called through it, Sophie dashed over and opened it, her eyes twinkling mischievously.
'We're all finished. You can come in now,' she said
primly, and he tweaked one of her curls and hugged her against his side.
'I'm glad to hear it. Give this to Fran, could you, sweetheart?'
She skipped across the kitchen with the bacon in her hand. Fran turned and met his eyes over her head, and they shared a smile.
'Here,' Sophie announced, handing it over, then sat down on the floor next to Brodie and sang, 'Bacon, bacon, bacon, we're having bacon! Do you want some?'
'Of course she does but she's not allowed,' Mike reminded her.
'Not even just a teeny, tiny, weeny little bit?'
'Not even a sniff.'
'Oh. Never mind, Brodie,' she said comfortingly, and cuddled the dog, who promptly rolled over and sprawled right in front of Fran.
'Come on, guys, out of the way,' she said patiently, and they decamped to the far end, Sophie propped up against the wall, Brodie propped up against her, both watching the bacon intently.
'Time to wash your hands,' Mike reminded her, washing his own and laying the table while Fran finished the cooking. He made a pot of coffee, poured some juice for Sophie and they settled down to eat.
Well, he and Fran did. Sophie couldn't even eat quietly, humming and jiggling while she ate, making appreciative noises and pretending that she wasn't sneaking bits of food down to Brodie, clamped firmly to her side.
'Brodie, go and lie down,' he said, and the dog, crestfallen, went and flopped apparently casually in a pool of sunshine and watched Sophie's every move.
Poor old thing. She adored Sophie, loving every moment of her visits, and she'd wander around like a lost soul after she'd gone, looking for her.
She wasn't allowed in the bedrooms but somehow, when Sophie was here, she seemed to find her way out of the kitchen door and up the stairs to the foot of her bed, and there she slept, one eye on the door and grinning manically every time they went in to tuck Sophie up, rolling onto her back and wiggling her tail, her melting amber eyes beseeching.
And getting away with it, because Sophie adored her and he couldn't see any harm in it, so they turned a blind eye, even to the point where they'd bathe Brodie before Sophie's visits. She'd been in there last night, and Mike had no doubt she'd be in there tonight, but he didn't care. Kirsten didn't approve, but she'd made her choice and she'd chosen to leave, and he'd moved on.
He'd met Fran four years ago when she'd come back to the village; they'd fallen in love on sight and were blissfully happy.
Or they had been.
If only they could crack this baby thing.
He put their plates in the dishwasher, bent and kissed Fran on the forehead and ushered Sophie towards the door. 'We've got to pick up eggs and take some cheese to the shop. Want to join us?'
Fran shook her head and smiled. 'I've got things to do. You go and have fun,' she told him, but the smile didn't go all the way to her eyes, and in their depths was something he couldn't bear.