One Under (A Porthkennack novel)
This title is part of the Porthkennack universe.
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London Underground worker Mal Thomas is staying in Porthkennack to recover from a traumatic experience. Getting more bad news from home is the last straw—until big, blond museum curator Jory Roscarrock steps up to offer some comfort.
As a doctor of English literature, Jory should be in a prestigious post at a top university. But a youthful indiscretion led him to abandon academia to come back to his hometown, Porthkennack, and the controlling family he’s never really felt a part of. He’s delighted to find a kindred spirit in Mal.
But Jory’s family hurt Mal’s best friend deeply, and while Jory is desperate to repair the damage, his own mistakes threaten to keep him and Mal apart. Meanwhile, Mal is torn between his feelings for Jory and his duty to his friend—and his fears that a failed relationship could be more than his shattered confidence can take. Jory must convince Mal it’s worth risking everything for their love.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The phone rang, shockingly loud in the hush of the almost-deserted naval museum. Especially seeing as the lone young man who’d been mooching around the exhibits had set his ringtone to . . . well, Jory couldn’t have named the song or the artist, but it was something modern and rappy, and seemed to be largely about Yo Momma.
It cut off as the young man answered the call. “’Sup?”
He listened for a minute, then spoke again. “Aw, Mum, no. Not Hermione. You’re sure?” The tone was completely different from the one he’d used only minutes ago when speaking to Jory—“Two pounds? You serious? How do they even pay your wages? I mean, no offence, mate, but it ain’t like you got punters queuing up down the street”—and not in a good way.
Then, it had been light. Carefree. Gently mocking. It had seemed to imply a cheeky grin and a wink might not be out of the question. Not that Jory was in any position to judge how accurate that was, given he’d slipped into his usual habit of blushing and staring at his feet when confronted with anything vaguely resembling flirtation. He’d probably only imagined the flirtation. And now . . . Now the tone promised only troubled frowns, with a small but not insignificant possibility of tears. Jory glanced up from his desk, and a sympathetic pang shot through his chest. The man looked devastated.
There was a pause. Jory tried not to stare too overtly while still appearing alert and available should any assistance be required. It wasn’t just because the visitor was so good-looking, although if he was entirely honest with himself, Jory might have shifted his chair around earlier to ensure a better view of those cut-off jeans and, more to the point, what was in them.
Now he felt guilt stricken for ogling the poor man in the face of his obvious distress.
“Why didn’t you tell me she was ill? I could’ve come back. You should’ve told me. I could’ve been there for her when . . .when it happened. Ah, shit.” The young man sagged against the wall, his free hand raking through his light-brown hair, narrowly missing The Wreck of the Troilus. Not that the painting would be any great loss had he knocked it clean off the wall and let the artwork go the way of its subject.
“Yeah. No. Yeah, I’m fine. Mum, I’m fine. It’s just . . . it’s Hermione, you know? We’ve been through a lot together, me and her, and now she’s . . . No, I’m good. I’m fine. You’ll do right by her, yeah? Proper burial? Yeah, yeah, I know. Yeah, love you too.”
He hung up, shoved his phone back in his pocket, and scrubbed his face with both hands. There was a loud sniff.
Unable to carry on as a passive witness—it wasn’t like there was anyone else around to offer comfort—Jory scrambled to his feet. “Are you okay? Sorry. Stupid question. I mean, is there anything I can do? I’m so sorry about . . . I couldn’t help overhearing . . .Tea. I could make you some tea?” He stepped out from behind the desk, hoping to appear more approachable, and came within a whisker of bumping into the bust of Admiral Quick whose twice-broken nose jutted out a bit too far for comfort in the narrow space.
“Nah, I’m good, I . . .” The young man cast his gaze around the room. Whatever he was looking for, he didn’t seem to find it in the cases of nautical antiques on display. His shoulders sagged once again. “Shit. Yeah. Cheers, mate. That’d be magic.”
“Right. Come this way. Mind the admiral, he’s a bit unsteady on his plinth.” Jory gestured for his companion to precede him into the small office behind the reception desk, which was mostly used for writing funding applications. As Jory followed him through, he caught a whiff of the young man’s aftershave, a surprisingly subtle, woodsy scent with a hint of spiced orange.
Tea. He needed to focus on the tea.
There was just enough water in the antique jug kettle for two mugs, and while it looked a bit brackish, the tea bags were cheap enough that the taste would be overpowered. Jory set it on to boil.
“Please sit down,” he said, indicating the one chair in the room, and perched on the edge of the office desk so as not to loom too oppressively. A stack of papers threatened to dive, lemming-like, to the floor. Jory shoved them hastily to safety and tried not to wince at the unmistakeable sound of something falling off the other side of the desk. He coughed. “I’m Jory, by the way.” People, even tourists, tended to have preconceptions attached to his surname, so he’d fallen into the habit of not giving it when he didn’t have to.
At least, Jory was pretty sure that was what he heard, although in that South London accent it sounded more like Mao. He blinked. “Right. Milk?”
Mal—probably—nodded. “Two sugars if you’ve got ’em.”
“Ah. Sorry. No.”
“’S okay. Trying to give it up anyhow.”
The kettle had turned itself off. Jory drowned the tea bags he’d hastily chucked into the mugs. Thank God he’d had a second one clean. Then he picked up the carton of milk, decided it would be too awkward to give it a sniff to check it hadn’t turned during the day, and settled for giving it a quick slosh around. It still seemed to be liquid, so Jory glugged a reckless amount into each mug and handed one of them over to Mal, wincing inside as he realised it was the one emblazoned with Keep Calm and Hug a Curator. Then again, the one he’d kept for himself would be even less appropriate, seeing as it had a dodo on it, and dodos were notoriously dead, which might seem a bit insensitive, and, oh God, he was going to have to say something, wasn’t he?
Jory cleared his throat and forced himself to look at Mal, who had both hands wrapped around his mug. “I, er, I gather you had some bad news. A . . . bereavement?”
Mal nodded. Then he sniffed. “Ah, sod it. I dunno why it’s hit me so hard.” He seemed to flinch. “I just wish I could’ve been there, you know? But she had a good life.”
“She was quite old?” Jory asked hopefully.
Oh God. That was awful. Far worse than Jory had thought. Whatever the relationship, to lose a child so early— Common sense, which had been banging on the windows for a while now, finally broke through to settle, panting, in the hallway of his mind. “Hermione, yes? She was your . . .?”
“Pet rat. Had her since she was a baby.”
“Oh, thank God for that.” Heat rose in Jory’s treacherous cheeks as he took in Mal’s hurt look. “I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to belittle your loss. Pets can be very . . . Would you like a biscuit?”
Mal ignored the question. “People have the wrong idea about rats. They’re really intelligent. And affectionate. Clean, too.”
His tone had changed from devastated to defensive, which Jory supposed could be seen as an improvement. “I’m sure they are,” he lied. “I just meant . . . I thought you were talking about a person. A child.”
“Oh. No. Yeah, I guess . . . Right. Nah, she’d lived out her time and then some, Hermione had. A lot of rats only make it to two.” Mal stared at the wall for a moment. Jory wondered what he saw. The Sailors’ Knots calendar wasn’t that fascinating, at least not this month. Clove hitches didn’t have a lot in the way of creative flare.
Mal gave himself a little shake, and pasted on a clearly fake smile. “You gotta be thinking I got you to make me this tea under false pretences, yeah?”
“No, of course not.” Jory grabbed the plastic tub of biscuits and thrust it at Mal. “Please have one. They’re good. I baked them.”
Predictably, Mal’s eyes widened. “Yeah? No offence, mate, but you don’t look the sort to put on a pinny and do the old British Bake Off bit.”
And that, right there, was why Jory never mentioned his surname. He got quite enough of people making assumptions about him based on his appearance. “What do I look the sort for?”
“Cornwall isn’t particularly noted for its forests. Not logging ones, anyway.”
“Uh . . . fisherman, then? Hauling in nets and stuff? Yeah, I could see that. Fits with the theme, dunnit?” Mal waved a hand around vaguely.
“This is a naval museum. Not a fishing one.”
“Same difference, innit? It’s all sea stuff.” Mal grinned suddenly, this one seeming genuine. “You know, you’re like if Tintin and Captain Haddock had a kid together.”
Jory stared. “That’s possibly the most horrifying thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
It wasn’t, actually, even close, but it got him a laugh. “You wanna get out more, mate. So are you a local, then? Cos you don’t sound like it.”
“Public school from the age of seven tends to do that to you.” Jory said it lightly. It was an old wound now.
“Yeah? How come you ain’t in Westminster running the country with all the other Old Etonians, then?”
“There are other public schools. And . . . it’s complicated. Family issues.”
Mal nodded, like that made perfect sense to him.
“You’re here on holiday?” Jory rushed on.
“Kind of.” Mal’s smile was twisted. “Work issues. I’m staying at the Sea Bell—me mate’s little sister is the barmaid there. Tasha, you know her?”
“I . . . don’t tend to drink in pubs.” Jory had seen her around, though. A pretty girl with pale tan skin and extravagantly bushy brown afro hair. Mrs. Quick, who volunteered at the museum in the off season and liked to keep abreast of things all year round, had pointed Tasha out to him as one of her previous guests at the B&B. She’d given a strong hint that her hospitality had been instrumental in getting the girl to relocate to Porthkennack.
“You really need to get out more.” Mal finally took a biscuit and bit into it. “Hey, these are great,” he said with his mouth full. “Cinnamon, right?”
Jory nodded, distracted by waiting for a shower of crumbs that never came.
Mal looked pleased and swallowed. “So I was thinking, you ought to come down the pub tonight. Let me buy you a drink to say cheers and all.” Again, there was a vague hand wave. Presumably this one was referring to the tea, biscuits, and sympathy, rather than the naval museum as a whole.
“I— There’s no need.”
“Yeah, there is.” Mal gazed at him sorrowfully. “You wouldn’t leave a bloke to drink alone the day his rat died, would you?”
It wasn’t a dilemma Jory had ever been faced with before. “I . . . No. Of course not.”
“Brill. See you at the Sea Bell at seven, then?” Without waiting for an answer, Mal stood up and grabbed a couple more biscuits from the tub, flashing a smile in Jory’s direction. “Couple for the road.”
He winked. Then he was gone.
He hadn’t drunk his tea. Jory took a cautious sip from his own mug and realised why. The milk had, in fact, turned.
Ye gods, that was awful.
The high from a successful pickup—or a successful invite to the pub at any rate, which was almost the same thing—lasted all of thirty seconds after Mal stepped out of the dusty air of the naval museum and into the bright sunlight.
Hermione. He was fucking well going to miss her. She’d been the best rat a bloke could have. The best. And yeah, he still had Rose the Third and Luna from her last litter, but it wasn’t the same with them. They were great rats, course they were, but him and Hermione, they’d been through so much together. He’d cried on her fur that night after—
Shit. Not gonna think about that. Mal got down to the road, and wondered which way to go. Back to the Sea Bell? Tasha was pretty good at knowing when a bloke needed a hug. And it was literally the ideal place to get a stiff drink to toast Hermione.
Trouble was, Tasha wouldn’t stop at the hug and the drink. She’d want to know what was wrong, and Mal wasn’t sure he could handle talking about it. Not yet. Not without blubbing like a baby, and no way was he going to do that in front of his best mate’s little sis.
He turned towards the cliffs instead, making his way down the lane and then onto the footpath over the grassy clifftop. It was quiet up here, except for the gusting of the wind, the crashing of the waves on the rocks below, and the screaming of the seagulls . . . Actually, come to think of it, it was bloody noisy up here, but they were quiet sounds. Like, non-people sounds. You didn’t get those in London. Mal liked a bit of his own company, every now and then, which was one reason he hadn’t wanted to stay in customer service . . .
Mal shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. Nope. Not thinking about work. Think about . . . Think about Jory, instead. Yeah, that’d do.
He didn’t really know why he’d bothered to pick up the shy museum bloke with the dodgy mugs and even dodgier milk . . . Okay, that was a lie. Mal didn’t have a type, exactly, but tall and built would pretty much do it for anyone, wouldn’t it? And yeah, he liked the contrast between the way the guy looked and the way he spoke and acted. Like he had no idea how fit he was. It was cute, the way he somehow managed to stand and sit like he was apologising for his height all the time.
Mal left the footpath and sat down on the grass overlooking the bay. Over to the right, as he glanced down, were some vicious sharp rocks jutting out to sea. His tourist map told him they’d been named after Voldemort’s mum and judging from those jagged edges, they’d probably caused almost as much trouble. On the plus side, they were dead handy for the lifeboat station. Mal couldn’t see it from this angle, but he knew it was there from walks with Tasha.
He’d been kind, too, Jory had. Mal liked that in a bloke.
And anything was better than hanging around the pub on his tod for another night with Tasha being nice to him. Christ, Dev and Kyle couldn’t get here fast enough for his liking. They’d be here in a week, staying at that cottage on the cliff that Kyle had had last summer. It was only a short distance from Roscarrock House, so they could lean out of the window and shout Fuck you up the hill anytime they wanted. Although Dev kept saying he was well over all the shit that had happened last year.
If he’d said it a few less times, Mal might even have believed it.
He squinted along the cliff and could make out the big house up on the high point at the other end of the bay from where he was standing. He’d visited yesterday, basically cos he was a nosy sod but also cos he liked a bit of history. Always had. He’d been the one member of the family who’d actually enjoyed it when Mum dragged them round to yet another ancient pile when him and Morgan were little. Later, when Morgs was old enough to put her foot down, it’d just been him and Mum. Well, fair dues, his dad’s shifts hadn’t always allowed him to come along.
Mum would like this place, he’d thought as he traipsed round the place with a load of other tourists, keeping an eye out in vain for anyone who looked vaguely like the old ancestral portraits. The family must keep out of the way on days when it was open to the public. Mum had offered to come down here with him, but Mal was a big boy. He didn’t need his hand held, and more to the point, Morgan was the size of the bloody Gherkin and about ready to pop her first sprog. She needed Mum with her.
It’d given him an idea, anyway, visiting Roscarrock House. Something to do while he was here. Take his mind off things. Mal had overheard one of the volunteer guides talking about Mary Roscarrock, and it’d rung a bell, so he’d stayed to earwig. It was when the old bloke mentioned she’d been a bit of a goer that he twigged—Kyle had said something a while back about her being his great-great-whatever-grandma or -aunt or whatever. Allegedly. And okay, Roscarrock might be a four-letter word round him and Dev’s, but Mal still reckoned Dev would probably be glad to find out more about her.
Maybe it’d even help him. Show him the family weren’t all straitlaced snobs, that kind of thing.
And Mal owed Dev and Kyle. They’d been fucking great to him since . . . since he’d had to take time off work, and hadn’t been coping too well on his own. They’d let him camp out at theirs as long as he wanted, no problem, despite how it must’ve cockblocked them something chronic, and then Dev had set it all up so Mal could come down and stay here with Tasha.
It’d be good to have something to tell them when they got here.
So he’d stayed to listen while the old bloke went on about Mary Roscarrock from the early sixteen hundreds.
“She was a very spirited young lady,” the guide had said. “It’s said she was disowned by the family for some misdeed, the details of which have been lost to time.”
That alone made Mal glad he’d stayed. After the crap that family had given Dev . . . Yeah, anyone disowned by them was definitely worth knowing about.
“Was she up the duff?” he butted in.
The guide glared at him over the tops of his glasses, which were the wire-rimmed sort and made him look like a pissed-off professor. “The details of which have been lost to time,” he repeated pointedly.
Mal wondered where the naughty step was, and if he should go and sit on it now or wait to be told.
“Didn’t she become a pirate?” The woman who’d spoken was a wiry old girl with grey hair and pale but sharp blue eyes. She reminded Mal of the husky one of his neighbours had owned when he was a kid.
His ears pricked right up. A pirate in the family? Dev’d be well chuffed to hear about that.
The guide nodded. “Oh, yes. You might say she learned the trade at her father’s knee—Sir John, who built this house in which we now stand, sailed with Sir Francis Drake on the Golden Hind. Came home with a fortune in Spanish gold.”
Mal frowned and tried to remember his history books. “Wasn’t he supposed to be a hero? Drake, I mean. Saved us from the Spanish Armada, and all that.”
“To the English he was a hero, yes.” The prof gave him a slightly more approving look. “To the Spanish, whose ships Drake captured and stripped of all their treasures, he was nothing but a pirate, for all he was sponsored by the crown. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the constant attacks by English privateers, King Philip might never have sent the Armada to invade England.”
“Huh. So what about Mary Roscarrock?”
“She became captain of her own ship, crewed by men—and women too, or so they say—from down in the village.”
“What, so Lady Mary from the manor goes down to the village and is all ‘I say, you chaps, one is going to become a pirate, what larks, who’s with me?’ and they all go ‘Yeah, why not, we ain’t got nothing on today’?”
The husky lady laughed, and so did a few other people who’d stopped to listen in. The prof seemed to thaw a bit—Mal reckoned it’d made the old boy’s day to get this big an audience. Now he had them, it’d probably take one of those cannons they had out on the lawn to get him to stop talking. “Ah, but you forget how close-knit communities were in those days—and with no welfare state, the poor relied on the kindness of their landlords. Plenty of those villagers would have had very recent memories of Mary Roscarrock herself helping their families or friends out in times of need. And, of course, attitudes to the laws of the realm were, ah, we’ll call it pragmatic, shall we? There’s many a family kept food on the table by a bit of smuggling on the side, or wrecking—although it’s never been proven ships were deliberately lured onto the rocks around here, needless to say.” He tapped the side of his nose with a wicked smile.
Mal found himself grinning back. “Bet the rest of the family were dead chuffed. You got any more information about her? She sounds well cool.” He could see her now, dressed up in men’s clothes, a pistol in each hand—if they’d had pistols in them days. Maybe just a cutlass—and forcing some rich entitled bastard to walk the plank.
“There’s a book,” the guide said dismissively. “Romantic codswallop, if you want my view. All about her running off to be with one of the village lads, too lowborn for the family’s taste.”
Mal had picked up a copy of The Beautiful Buccaneer in what passed for a gift shop anyhow, and had read a couple of chapters since then. He kind of liked it, but it was pretty clear the author hadn’t been aiming for historical accuracy. Lots of corsets and heaving bosoms, which Mal didn’t have a problem with, but he was fairly sure posh young ladies who’d persuaded their brothers to give them a quick fencing lesson one afternoon weren’t actually able to fight off ten hardened swordsmen at once, all while sailing a ship single-handed cos the crew had gone and got themselves captured again.
The old boy’s parting suggestion had been a trip down to the naval museum and a poke around in their local history archive, which was why Mal had headed there today. Not that he’d made it very far before getting that phone call from Mum . . .
Ah, sod it. Sometimes you just needed a hug even if it meant you’d have to talk about stuff.
Mal got up and took the lane back to the Sea Bell.
* * * * * * *
Tasha was on her own behind the bar when he got back, so Mal didn’t go straight over to speak to her. He could wait until her boss had come back from the cellar or the gents’ or wherever the hell he’d got to. Jago Andrewartha was a slow-moving old bastard who ruled over the pub like he was King Arthur himself, which must make the locals on their barstools his knights.
Mal had a little snigger at the thought of that lot on horseback, armour gleaming in the sun. For his eleventh birthday, his mum had taken them down to Hever Castle to watch the jousting. His sister had whinged on about it being boring and stupid and why couldn’t she have spent the day with her boyfriend instead, but Mal had loved it. He’d wanted to try it himself, but Mum and Dad hadn’t had the money for horse riding lessons even if they’d been able to find anywhere local that did them. And anyway, round where he lived, poncing about like you reckoned you were posh could get the shit kicked out of you if anyone heard about it, so it was probably just as well.
Rats were his thing, not horses. Grief for Hermione slammed into him again. Shit. Maybe he wasn’t in the mood for company after all—
“Mal!” Tasha yelled out, waving at him. She held up a pint glass with a clear question in her eye. Half the Round Table had turned to look, like they hadn’t just seen him at lunchtime—seriously, didn’t some of these old codgers have homes to go to?—so there was nothing for it but to nod at Tasha and head on up to the bar.
She was already pulling him a pint of Rattler Cyder, which Mal had tried on his first night here and decided he liked better than the local beer. Plus, it had to be healthier, didn’t it? It had proper Cornish apples in. Hermione had liked apples . . .
“You all right, babe?” Tasha asked.
Jago loomed up behind her like he’d come from nowhere. He’d been in the cellar, then. “You’ve got a face on you like a wet weekend,” he rumbled before Mal could answer.
“So? He don’t have to be all happy-smiley if he don’t wanna.” Tasha gave her boss a pointed look.
Fuck, Mal was sick of this. “Had some bad news from home,” he said shortly.
“Sorry to hear that.” Jago gave him a nod and moved deliberately to the other end of the bar, where the locals were clustered.
Tasha leaned on the bar, her eyes wide. “What’s up?”
“Mum called. Hermione’s died.”
“That’s one of your rats, innit? Oh, babe. Come here.” She leaned even further and gave him a hug. It’d have been a lot more comforting if they hadn’t had the bar between them, but then again, Mal could feel tears pricking at his eyes already. Shit.
“’S all right. ’M all right.” He pulled back and tried to smile. “Hey, I met a bloke at the museum. He’s coming here tonight.”
“You don’t hang about, do you? What’s he like? Fit?”
“Not bad. Tall. Blond. Got a beard. Sorta geeky.”
“That your type these days?”
Mal shrugged. “Haven’t got a type, have I? I’m an equal-opportunities lover.”
“Everyone’s got a type.”
“Yeah? What’s yours?”
Tasha made a face. “Bastards, mostly.”
“Yeah? What about you and Ceri? Been wondering about you two for, like, years.”
“We ain’t known her years. Not even one. And we’re mates, that’s all, you got that? Now are you gonna drink that drink, or just sit and watch the bubbles all night?”
Mal could take a hint. She’d been a bit touchy about Ceri lately—something to do with her going off to work abroad for six weeks with her college mates when term ended, Mal reckoned. “Gimme some dry roasted to go with it?”
“They’ll make your breath stink, they will.” She still handed over the bag of nuts. “Make sure you clean your teeth before you snog Tall, Blond, and Geeky.”
Tasha gave him the finger, then went to serve a customer with a smile like butter wouldn’t melt.
Seven o’clock. At the Sea Bell. That was what Jory had agreed to—or at least, he hadn’t managed to say a definite no, so he should probably go, shouldn’t he? It would be rude not to.
Stepping out of the museum at ten past five and locking the door behind him, Jory considered his options. The obvious thing to do would be to walk home, grab something to eat, maybe have a shower and change his clothes . . .
No. God, no. He was reading too much into a simple invitation for a drink. This wasn’t a date.
Is it? Jory wondered as he took the path along the cliffs. The museum was only half an hour’s walk from Roscarrock House, so he never drove unless the rain was coming down in torrents and sometimes not even then. Today the weather was glorious, with hardly a cloud in the endless blue sky and the sea breeze taking the edge off the lingering heat of the day. It promised a warm, pleasant evening, which, given they were only a week or two past midsummer, would last for hours. Below him, the beach stretched out, golden and inviting. On another day, Jory might have gone for a swim—might even have called Kirsty and asked if Gawen would like to come to the beach for some father-son time, although today being Sunday, he’d probably been out with his mother already. Time was too tight today if he wanted to arrive punctually for his date.
Or not, as the case might be, although Mal had definitely seemed to be flirting. He’d winked. Who actually did that these days? Or any days, come to that?
So it might be a date.
Then again, Mal had just suffered a bereavement. Perhaps he hadn’t been thinking clearly. Simply going through the motions. Perhaps he was one of those people who flirted with everyone. For all Jory knew, Mal might be straight as an arrow.
But he’d winked. Did straight men wink at other men?
He could ask his brother . . . Except that no, he really, really couldn’t. Bran wouldn’t be at all pleased about him having a date. Especially with a man. Maybe he could get away with asking the question, and not mentioning the invitation to the pub?
Because of course Bran wouldn’t smell anything remotely rodent-like about Jory mentioning he’d been winked at, and then disappearing out for the evening.
Bugger it. He’d just have to play it by ear. Right, well, a quick shower wouldn’t hurt in any case. His sister, Bea, had sniffed the air when she got home from work one evening a week or so back and accused Jory of smelling of museum, which she’d informed him meant dust and dead things.
They didn’t even have any dead things in the naval museum, but better safe than sorry.
As the path got steeper leading up to Big Guns Cove, Jory found his pace increasing, the exertion helping to calm his nerves. Silly of him. Mal was obviously a tourist, so he wouldn’t be here long in any case.
Long enough, perhaps, a sly voice that came directly from his id whispered in his mind.
Roscarrock House had been closed to visitors today, so there were no last stragglers to weave his way around as Jory made it through the gates, which was how he liked it. He didn’t know how Bran could stand working from home while strangers poked and pried through the rooms open to them, laughing at the family portraits and occasionally speculating loudly on Great-uncle Lochrin’s paternity. And Jory’s, come to that, when they got to the photographs.
Every time he came back, Jory had to get used to it all again. Perhaps after a year or two of living here full-time, he wouldn’t even notice, as Bran seemed not to. And Bea, for that matter, although Jory had always found it impossible to tell what Bea thought about anything.
Jory managed to avoid Bran on his way to the bathroom. Bran had a way of making Jory feel like he should be asking permission to go out, which had perhaps been reasonable when he was seventeen and they were newly orphaned, but was a little ridiculous now he was thirty-two years old.
Showered and changed into jeans and a polo shirt Kirsty had once complimented him on, Jory headed down to the kitchen.
There was something about being back in Porthkennack that gave him an appetite. Maybe it was the sea air, or maybe it was just the association with childhood and big family dinners. At any rate, Jory was starving, so he dumped a generous portion of pasta into a pan and set it on to boil. There was half a jar of sauce in the fridge, and enough ham and vegetables to pad it out a bit. Plenty for one person. He’d given up trying to persuade Bran and Bea they should all eat together, even one day a week. Their schedules never seemed to match—Bea in particular was always home late from the office, or off at some social event that was more about business than pleasure, like today. He had a strong suspicion that she didn’t much like eating in company. Maybe she was worried about looking too human.
Jory gave his wrist a mental slap. He wasn’t being fair. And it was time to put the sauce on.
Halfway through his meal, it occurred to Jory that the pub most likely served food. Would Mal be planning to eat?
He’d said, Come for a drink, but maybe he’d meant with the option of dinner afterwards? Oh hell. Why did life have to be so impossibly complicated? Making a snap decision to hedge his bets, Jory put down his fork and shoved an upturned plate over the rest of his meal. He could always microwave it later.
Then he jammed his feet into his trainers, checked his reflection in the hall mirror for sauce splatters, and set off out, all without having bumped into Bran, miracle of miracles.
The Sea Bell was down a country lane, not far from St. Ia’s church. Jory hadn’t been there in years. In fact, the last time he’d had a pint in there had probably been over a decade ago, back when he was a student home from uni for the summer. He hadn’t remembered it as being quite so . . . unwelcoming. And that was just the exterior. There were no baskets of flowers hanging outside to entice the tourists, and no blackboards advertising quiz nights or football matches or whatever else went on in pubs these days. Just the pub sign itself, a painted rendition of a ship’s bell, creaking gently as it swung in the breeze. The salt-laden air had wrought havoc on the paint, which was starting to peel—as was the sober green paint on the doors and windows.
And yes, Jory could stand outside all evening cataloguing the depredations of time on the place, but that rather defeated the object of coming here, didn’t it? He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and pushed open the door.
The inside of the pub was rather of a piece with its exterior. A row of men of indeterminate age sat at the bar. One of them glanced around at him, stony-faced, then turned back to his pint. Jory swallowed the urge to flee. For God’s sake, it wasn’t like he was some interloper. He was Porthkennack born and bred. He was a Roscarrock, damn it.
Mal was sitting at one end of the bar chatting to the barmaid they’d spoken of earlier. Jory hesitated, not wanting to barge in, but she spotted him and said something to Mal, who turned round and gave him a wave.
Feeling slightly less awkward now, Jory walked up to him.
Mal smiled in welcome. “Good to see you, mate. Tasha, this is Jory, yeah? The bloke from the museum who made me tea and stuff. His biscuits are well tasty.” He winked again.
Oh, bloody hell. Jory tried to will himself not to blush. “I . . . Thank you. Um. Can I get you a drink?”
“They’re on me,” Tasha said firmly. “What you drinking?”
“There’s no need—”
“Don’t be daft. You took care of Mal, didn’t you?”
Mal, Jory couldn’t help but notice, was looking more and more exasperated. “Pint of cider,” he said quickly. “Please.”
“Rattler, Strongbow, or Scrumpy Jack?”
Just what he needed. Further choices. “The first,” Jory said, trying to sound decisive.
Mal grinned and held up his half-full glass. “Good innit? That’s what I’m on.”
Jory wasn’t sure what made him glance round as Tasha pulled his pint. Some kind of sixth sense that he was being watched, perhaps. A man in his sixties or so was working at the other end of the bar—at least, he was on the working side of the bar, although he was in fact perched on a stool and drinking a pint of beer. He looked vaguely familiar, and his gaze was fixed firmly on Jory.
As their eyes met, the man put down his pint and, without hurrying, got to his feet. He headed down to their end of the bar.
He wasn’t smiling.
Jory startled as Tasha put his drink in front of him with a “There you go, babe.”
“Th-thanks.” He took a gulp, hoping to steady his nerves.
“Well, well. We don’t often see the likes of you in here.” The barman’s tone was gruff and not precisely welcoming. He turned to Mal, who seemed as confused as Jory felt. “Surprised to see you drinking with him.”
“Tell you his name, did he?”
Mal frowned. “He’s Jory. Works up at the museum.”
“Actually that’s just temporary—”
“He’s a Roscarrock.” The barman said it flatly. Coldly. As if it was a bad thing. “Brother to Branok and Beaten Roscarrock.”
Jory swallowed. Everyone was staring at him now. “Ah, well, yes.” He wondered desperately what his family could have done to provoke such hostility. Jory had an idea that Bran could be a little ruthless when it came to property, but surely that was all business?
This seemed personal.
“Didn’t tell you that, did he?” the barman went on.
Mal’s face had changed, and not in a good way. “No, he didn’t.”
“You didn’t ask! I mean, we didn’t exchange surnames. W-what’s this all about?” Jory hated how his stammer came back in times of stress.
“My bruv,” Tasha snapped. “Mal’s best mate. Devan Thompson.”
Jory frowned, baffled. “Who?”
Mal pushed away from the bar and walked off a couple of paces. Then he turned back, his face hard. “Not funny, mate. Seriously, not funny.”
“I’m not trying to be—”
“Can I bar him?” Tasha asked the barman. “Can I?”
Jory just stared at them, wishing he’d never come. How the hell had it all gone so wrong so quickly? He should have stayed at home with his books and his computer. Or gone to see Kirsty and Gawen. Not accepted invitations from good-looking strangers. When had that ever ended well for him? He should go, now, but his feet seemed rooted to the spot.
“I think you’d better leave,” the barman rumbled, and that broke the spell.
This tender romance has moments of surprising emotional depth that are sure to please readers.