Author's note- Well, I said in the last chapter that it'd take about a week to post the epilogue, but it took me less time than expected to write it. Actually, that's probably a first for me! Here it is anyway, the final part of the story. Once again I'd like to thank everyone who has reviewed the story at some point, as it's been great to read your comments. Thanks so much!
About the sequel- Really it's not so much a sequel as a spin-off story and it'll have another character as the main one, instead of Ann. Actually, if you read the epilogue it shouldn't be too difficult to see who it's based around. That's all I'm saying for now, but I'll probably have the first chapter posted in a couple of weeks, if not sooner.
"Tea or coffee, Gotz?"
Ann didn't know why she was bothering to ask, really, as she already knew what the answer would be.
It tended to get that way when she seemed to be asking the same question day after day. She just wished the work on the house would soon be completed, so that life could return to normal. Well, as normal as it ever got anyway.
"So, what'll it be then, Gotz?" Ann repeated after he didn't reply. "Tea or Coffee? I'll just get the tea then, shall I? That's what you always have. Right?"
There was a clink as Gotz spat the nails out of his mouth and onto the hard wood flooring, giving Ann an exasperated look as he did so.
"Do you want this second-storey extension finished, or not?"
Ann didn't bother to reply to that; the answer was too obvious.
"Well if you do," the builder continued. "Stop bugging me with your silly questions."
"The tea then?"
Gotz sighed. "Yes, I suppose so."
Before she went off to fetch it, Ann stopped and gave his hair a token ruffle with the reminder that he shouldn't be so rude to paying customers. As she practically skipped off, the red-head laughed to herself when she heard Gotz grumble that she was 'an overly chirpy little thing'.
She made her way through the neater areas of the house and into Jack's - no, their - sun drenched kitchen. At the moment they were in the middle of a glorious Mineral Town summer, very much like the one her and Jack had got married in a year ago, following a two season long romance.
To some people it may have seemed as though their marriage was rushed, but as Jack pointed out at the time: "I really need to get this girl down the aisle, before anything else goes wrong!".
So here they were, Ann and Jack, finally togther. It seemed to Ann as though everything in her life was finally falling into place. She had her wonderful, funny husband, a great home, a successful farm and best of all -
"Maxie! No, you don't eat that, honey!"
Ann rushed out of the kitchen, mid-way through making the tea, to pry dog biscuits out of her mischevious young son's hand. She'd only left him alone in the lounge for the briefest of moments and already he was eating out of Buttons' bowl.
"You're unbelievable, darling, you know that?" Ann cooed, as she swung Maxie onto her hip. The baby gurgled happily and looked at his mother innocently through soft, brown eyes. Ann kissed him on his lightly freckled nose, smoothed his flaming red hair and carried him back into the kitchen.
Buttons himself trailed eagerly after the pair.
Ann grinned down at him, as she attempted to make tea and hold the baby at the same time. "Do you miss your girlfriend, boy?" she asked Buttons jokingly, referring, of course, to her collie-cross Bracken.
Much to everyone's surprise, Bracken turned out to be a great sheep herder. In fact, she'd pretty much round up anything and everything, including Maxie when he was being naughty. That was where she was right now, out in the fields with Jack.
Right one cue, the door to the farmhouse opened and the two of them arrived just in time for lunch. Bracken and Buttons immediately ran up to each other, barking in greeting. Meanwhile, Jack and Ann were a bit more affectionate about it.
Once they pulled out of the embrace Ann took a better look at her husband. "You'd better get cleaned up before we go and visit Mary and Gray after lunch," she told him after surveying his appearance.
Jack groaned. "Do I really have to?" he protested, leaning in to kiss Ann quickly.
"You won't get round me that easily!" she laughed in response, but still returned the kiss nevertheless.
After ruffling his son's hair, Jack dutifully wandered off to the bathroom taking along the cup tea for Gotz. Ann watched him dreamily for a moment, still hardly daring to believe that everthing had turned out so well. There was only one thing that she really regretted and that was that Cliff never did write to her or anyone else, for that matter. For all anyone in Mineral Town knew, he could have died. It was pretty unlikely, but not impossible. Plus it would explain why he never wrote...
Shaking her head sadly, Ann deposited Maxie into his highchair and began to make a start on the salad. To take her mind off Cliff, she chattered to her son. He wasn't the best conversationist, but was still very enthusiastic, nodding his head whenever his mother spoke.
"Are you looking forward to seeing Molly and Jennifer later, Maxie?" Nod, nod, nod.
Molly and Jennifer were Mary and Gray's twin daughters. They were just at the toddling stage and were the reason for Mary's frostiness torwards her best friend a year or so ago. As Ann later discovered the librarian was incredibly nervous about becoming a mother and for a little while would barely talk to anyone. Eventually, though, she came round and now thought her identical daughters were the best thing that ever happened to her. The young family had also manged to move out of Mary's mother's house and were currently living in a newly built cottage in South Mineral Town. It was absolutely tiny, but very pretty, with a cute garden at the front full of all different types of flowers.
When Jack returned from the bathroom, the couple ate their salad together while Maxie was given a bottle. A tired Bracken curled up under the table trying to ignore Buttons who kept pestering her to play.
"How's it going with Nutmeg?" Ann asked in concern, knowing how long her husband had worked trying to get his injured horse back to health.
Jack shrugged non-committally. "Well," he said slowly. "I don't want to get your hopes up too much, but he is doing a lot better. I think he may just be able to race in the festival this fall."
"Hey, Maxie, you'll be able to see Daddy race!" Ann told her son, excitedly. "Would you like that, honey?"
Even though she knew he couldn't possibly understand her, Maxie got so enthusiastic about it that his bottle went tumbling to the floor in his eagerness. Buttons wasted no time in pouncing on it like it was a chicken - his favourite animal for chasing around the farm.
Once he'd finished his lunch, Jack whipped Maxie out of his highchair and tossed him high into the air, depsite Ann's protests that the baby had just ate. "It'll be your fault if he's sick over you," she warned, even though Maxie seemed fine and just kept giggling at his father.
Putting the baby down again, he turned to his wife. "Right, I need to check on Nutmeg before we leave, okay? Oh, and we're going to need the baby buggy, so I'll fetch that from the storage shed on my way back to the house."
As soon as her husband was gone, Ann began to clear away the dishes and wondered whether or not there was any point in trying to wrestle Maxie's bottle from Buttons. Probably not, she decided, as it seemed to have already been chewed beyond the point of repair.
Just then, the front door clicked open and, much to Ann's surprise, Jack walked back in.
"That was quick!" She started to laugh, but stopped abruptly at the look on his face.
Jack was frowning anxiously down at what appeared to be a piece of paper in his hands. Ann wandered over to him, feeling equally anxious by the sudden tense atmosphere. Even Maxie had stopped babbling in favour of watching his parents intently.
"What have you got there?" Ann asked her husband nervously. On closer inspection it seemed to be a crumpled letter, but she couldn't quite make out who it was addressed to.
"I found it in the mail box," Jack replied, the shock in his voice very clear. When he glanced up, Ann saw that he was unusally pale. "It's addressed to you."
"To me? Really?" Ann hadn't recieved a single letter at Silver-Ridge. Until now, of course.
"Yeah...I think it's from...Well, I'm not exactly sure...Anyway, I've got to deal with Nutmeg so I'll see you in a minute."
Utterly perplexed, Ann looked down at the letter Jack had pressed into her hand before rushing off. Then everything clicked into place as her heart leapt in recognition. It was Cliff's handwriting.
Soon she'd torn the envelope apart and two peices of paper fell out. The first was the main letter which Ann quickly scanned through. Words jumped out at her, such as 'doing well' and 'sorry for not writing'. It wasn't that which caught her attention, though, it was the other bit of paper.
In actual fact, it was a photograph that showed a beautiful, sunny beach. Ann felt she vaguely recognised it, but wasn't exactly sure where from.
Cliff was sat to the left of the picture looking no different from the day he departed. He was smiling too, widely and happily, which made Ann feel quite contented to know he was doing well just like her. Then, she glanced at the person sat next to her ex-boyfriend and her jaw dropped.
It was a young woman and very pretty one at that. Short, scarlet hair framed her pale face, but it was her eyes that really drew you in - they were so startlingly blue you couldn't help but stare.
Ann stared now as she tried to take it all in. Cliff and this woman - that for some odd reason she felt she knew - looked like they were a couple. He didn't have his arm around her or anything, but they were sat very close together...
When Jack re-entered the farmhouse moments later, it was to find his wife in fits of laughter.
He glanced warily at the photograph in her hand. "What's up, Ann?"
The red-head couldn't really explain her sudden outburst. Mainly because she couldn't talk through laughing, but also because it wasn't one of those things you could easily explain. She just felt an indescribable sense of happiness when she found out that Cliff was in fact alive. And by the seems of it very happy as well.
Still grinning, she lunged at Jack and threw her arms around his neck. "I love you, y'know."
"I know, and I love you too," he replied, his voice slightly muffled by her shoulder.
Ann could just tell that Jack had felt ever so slightly threatened by Cliff's letter, and was probably feeling guilty about it now. It was amazing really, she thought, how they understood each other so well.
"Hey, you'll never guess what," Jack began when the couple at last pulled apart. "I just saw Kai and Popuri at the top of the road."
"Wow, I haven't seen them since they got married! I thought they were never coming back to Mineral Town."
Jack nodded with a slight frown on his face. "Yeah, me too," he mused. "But Karen and Rick are getting married in the fall so maybe they've arrived early for the ceremony." Suddenly, he smiled excitedly, as though he'd just remembered something. "Oh and Popuri was also holding a baby!"
"Aw! How old was it?" Ann asked as she scooped her own baby out of his highchair ready to be put in the buggy.
"I dunno, Ann; babies all seem pretty similar to me. Younger than Maxie, I'd say, and wearing blue so it was probably a boy."
Maxie himself was starting to pull at Ann's hair and she struggled to lean away while keeping a hold on him at the same time. "They're so sweet at that stage, aren't they?" she said, grimacing slightly. "They don't yank your hair so much." Sighing, Ann kissed her son on the nose. "Right Jack, we'd better be off. Have you got the buggy waiting outside? I don't think I can take anymore hair pulling, little Max," she added affentionately to the baby.
Meanwhile, Jack slapped his hand to his forehead. "I forgot!" he yelped, before running off calling over his shoulder that he was, "Very, very sorry..."
Ann just chuckled as she was used to Jack getting carried away with other things and acting slightly clueless. He was perfect for her, though, she knew that much. No matter what his faults were. She just hoped Cliff's girlfriend was as perfect for him.
If only she could remember who the girl was...
A little while later it hit Ann, as she was walking with Jack and Maxie to Mary's house.
"Nami," she announced out of the blue, mentally kicking herself for not realising it sooner.
Jack who'd been talking about what to plant in the fall, just stared. "Nami seeds?" he asked, looking bemused. "What are they? And why are you laughing like that Ann? What did I say? Tell meee..."