Love at First Hate (A Porthkennack novel)
First impressions can doom second chances.
Bran Roscarrock has been living in the closet all his life. As heir to an expansive family legacy in the town of Porthkennack, old-fashioned ideals of respectability and duty were drummed into him since childhood, and he’s never dared to live—or love—openly.
Sam Ferreira, an old friend of Bran’s brother, Jory, is a disgraced academic desperate to leave his dead-end job. When Jory asks him to take over as curator of a planned exhibition on Edward of Woodstock, the fourteenth-century Black Prince, Sam leaps at the chance to do what he loves and make a fresh start.
But Bran’s funding the exhibition, and though sparks fly between the two men, they’re not all happy ones. Bran idolises Prince Edward as a hero, while Sam’s determined to present a balanced picture. With neither of them prepared to give ground, a hundred years of war seems all too possible. And if Bran finds out about Sam’s past, his future may not be bright, and their budding romance may be lost to history.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
very brief, non-detailed on-screen physical attack
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: acceptance, age gap, angst, atonement, coming out, duty, enemies to lovers, family, financial gap / class disparity, fitting in, heritage, history, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, interracial/multicultural, pining / UST, power imbalance, self-discovery / self-reflection, workplace romance
“Bye, Uncle Bran!” Gawen’s voice had finally settled into a deep baritone that was hard to credit, coming from the slight, tousle-headed figure waving by the front door. “And thank you for The Gorg—uh, the book.”
“The Gormenghast Trilogy.” Chuckling, Bran waved back from the vast distance of four feet away, having barely made it a couple of paces down the path. “You’re welcome. And don’t stay up all night reading it. School tomorrow, remember.”
“But I haven’t got any interesting lessons. It’s just English, French, and History. And double games.” Gawen’s tone made it clear what he thought of that.
Bran could empathise. But only silently. “Physical education is important for your health. And you need to pass your exams in all your subjects, not just the interesting ones.” Gawen’s mother Kirsty being something of a free spirit, this sort of gentle nagging was often left to Bran.
“I suppose.” Gawen’s mouth turned down comically. Bran managed not to laugh as he said a final farewell.
As he walked through the garden towards the road, the faint light from the open door threw eerie shadows from Kirsty’s driftwood sculptures. Bran had never managed to get used to them. He could see they were art, and good art at that, but they weren’t his kind of art. Too . . . unrestrained.
He’d stayed later than he’d planned. Kirsty had cooked, Gawen had begged, and Bran could remember being thirteen himself—wanting his father to spend time with him, and the crushing disappointment of being refused. So he’d allowed himself to be persuaded. He’d got a more-than-decent meal out of it, and all in all it’d been a definite improvement on the rest of the day. Pennock & Hardy were proving annoyingly obstinate over the Constantine Bay property, and Bran had had sharp words with a visitor to Roscarrock House. Too many of them seemed to be under the impression that “Private: No Entry” only applied to other people. Sometimes Bran hated living and working in a house that was open to the public.
Still, the house was his heritage. And Gawen’s too. For a boy who lived for maths and physics, Gawen was gratifyingly interested in Bran’s retellings of Roscarrock family history. Everyone said, of course, that that was down to Gawen’s father, but Bran liked to think he deserved at least some of the credit. After all, he’d been more of a father to the boy than his brother had for the first ten years of Gawen’s life. Jory was doing a better job of fatherhood now, though—Bran had to grant him that. He’d moved back to Porthkennack just over a year ago, and looked likely to stay for good. Bran had worried, at first, that Jory’s presence would mean Gawen would have less time for Uncle Bran, but apparently his affections were made of sterner stuff than that.
It was a warming thought, and Bran found himself smiling as he walked back through the town. The sun had set a while ago, and a soft breeze was blowing in off the sea. It brought with it the scent of brine and seaweed, and the cries of gulls as they foraged around town for the rich pickings left by careless tourists—not so many of them, this early in the season, but enough for a noticeable increase in avian activity. Bran imagined pitched battles fought over discarded bags of chips or half-eaten sandwiches, then wondered when he’d become so fanciful. Gawen’s influence, no doubt.
The direct route from Kirsty’s house led him through a quieter part of town, away from the pubs, restaurants, and amusement arcades of the centre. Bran’s shoulders relaxed. He’d never been one for raucous entertainment, even in his teens, and he couldn’t help finding it a little tacky. On the other hand, a thriving local economy was nothing to be sniffed at.
The street lamps were set farther apart here, and just ahead of him, one flickered. On, off, on—and then off for good, or so it seemed. Bran would have to report it. He fumbled in his pocket for his phone, then tried to remember how to turn on the torch app like Gawen had shown him a month or so ago. There. Bran shone the surprisingly bright light at the post, and made a note of the number.
When he switched off the light again, the darkness seemed three times as stygian. Bran was damned, though, if he was going to use a torch to get through streets he’d known all his life. The next street lamp wasn’t all that far away.
As he looked towards it, Bran saw the silhouette of a man coming towards him with unhurried tread, and tensed for a moment before firmly telling himself not to be such a child. There was something familiar about the half-seen figure, wasn’t there? Hardly surprising, of course, in Porthkennack. Bran squinted, but couldn’t make out who it was—and of course, with every step nearer, he was shrouded further in darkness.
Bran’s face, by contrast, would be faintly illumined by the glow from the far street lamp. He hated being at a disadvantage. Still, if it was an acquaintance, presumably the man would greet him verbally, and hopefully he’d recognise the voice. Bran walked on, trying not to be too obvious about examining the advancing figure. The man had his head down and his hands in his pockets. Bran frowned. Surely he knew that figure?
They were only a few feet from one another when, perversely, the faulty street lamp sparked back into life. Pale light fell across them both, making Bran blink as much in surprise as in the sudden brightness.
The man looked up. “You.” It was a vicious snarl borne on alcoholic fumes. “Bastard!”
Eyes wide, Bran drew in a breath—and then a fist drove into his stomach and all breath fled, leaving only a tight knot of pain.
He stumbled. Struggled not to fall.
Then his head exploded in agony, and the darkness was absolute.
“You sure this is right?” It was followed by an earsplitting belch.
Sam managed not to sigh out loud. Or wince at the reek of beer as he bent down to go over the bill for table eight. “You had the banquet meal for four and up, yeah? And there’s seven of you. So that’s that total.” He underlined it in pen.
“What’s all that other guff, then? How come you charged us for all them other meals?” The guy who’d apparently been designated the mathematician of the group frowned. He was a big, beefy bloke in his early twenties, and Christ knew why he’d got the honours given his total lack of comprehension of simple addition.
“That’s because three of you wanted chips with it, and then the gentleman over there”—Sam pointed to the biggest bloke at the table, currently swaying worryingly in his seat—“decided he didn’t like curry and he wanted an omelette instead. And then there’s drinks.”
“We never had all them lagers. You sure you didn’t get the number wrong?”
“Wrote them all down as you ordered them,” Sam said patiently.
“Yeah, but you could’ve made a mistake. Wrote it down wrong.”
I have a PhD. In medieval history. Which you probably can’t even spell right now. “Trust me, I didn’t make a mistake. I’ll show you the chits if you like.”
“Nah, don’t bother.” Maths Genius raised his head to address his mates. “You lot of wankers are a bunch of bloody pissheads.”
“I only had water,” Omelette Guy complained.
“Water?” One of his mates burst out laughing. “You fucking poofter.”
Maths Genius pushed back his chair so suddenly he almost knocked Sam flying, and stood up to bang on the table. “You leave him alone, you wanker.”
“And mind your fucking language!” one of the others yelled out, to raucous laughter.
“Don’t feel well,” Omelette Guy mumbled, swaying some more.
Bloody hell. “Cash or credit card?” Sam tried to keep them on track.
“Oi, lads, who’s got cash?” Maths Genius bellowed.
There was a chorus of, “Dunno,” “Let me check,” “Who’s had my wallet?” and “Cashpoint wasn’t working.”
“Yes, it fucking was,” Maths Genius answered to the last one. “I got mine out all right.”
Someone cackled. “You got it out in the restaurant? You filthy bugger.”
“Takes one to know one, mate,” someone else said. “I saw you dipping your wick in—”
“Credit card, then?” Sam raised his voice, desperate to be heard. Omelette Guy had gone a horrible yellowy-grey colour. “And you can settle up with your mates when you get out of here?”
“Oi, hang about, hang about,” Maths Genius grumbled. “Give us a minute, here. Or do you not want a bloody tip?”
Give them a minute? Didn’t they have beds to go to? It was nearly 1 a.m., and Sam was this close to telling them where to shove their tips, if he hadn’t needed the money so badly. “Sorry. But I think your mate needs some fresh air.” He nodded at Omelette Guy.
The two lads either side of Omelette Guy seemed to notice for the first time that he wasn’t looking too good. One pushed his chair so far away he banged into a girl in platform heels just getting up from a nearby table. “Whoops—sorry, love.”
“Bloody hell, mate, you watch what you’re doing,” she squawked, tottering. “I nearly ended up in your lap.”
He leered. “You can sit in my lap anytime, gorgeous.”
“Oi, watch it, chum, she’s with me.” Heels Girl’s boyfriend puffed his chest out.
Chair Guy got to his feet.
Sam really wished he wasn’t on his own upstairs tonight.
Then one of the other lads from table eight showed a bit more fellow feeling—not to mention total obliviousness to the threatening atmosphere—by patting Omelette Guy on the shoulder. “You all right, Rob? You’re not gonna chuck, are you?”
Omelette Guy gagged.
Sam’s heart stopped.
Chair Guy jumped three feet away. “Oi, watch it, I got new trainers on.”
Heels Girl and her bloke scuttled away.
Sam met Rob’s mate’s eye. “Think we’d better get him outside.” Taking an arm each, they hauled the big guy out of his seat and, sweating, down the narrow stairs, past the queue still waiting for takeaway, and out onto the street.
Where he finally hurled. Massively.
At least it was outside. Thank God for small mercies. Sam looked down and realised with a sinking heart he’d caught some splatter. He’d have to clean that off in the loos. Luckily one thing this place wasn’t short of was disinfectant.
“Rob, you big girl!” A shout in his ear alerted Sam to the rest of the group stumbling out of the restaurant.
Shit. Had they paid? It’d be coming out of his wages if they did a runner. “Uh, guys, did you settle the bill?”
Maths Genius clapped him on the back. “Don’t worry. Even left you a tip, cos Pete reckoned it’d be racist if we didn’t, you being a Paki and all. Oi, you are a Paki, right? Or have you just been at the spray tan?”
“Tel, you tosser, you can’t call him a Paki.”
“Yeah, but not when I was talking to him. Sorry, mate.” He gave Sam an apologetic smile. “Pig-shit ignorant, some people are. You have a good night.”
Finally, finally they left, walking off unsteadily down the street. Sam breathed a sigh of relief, and headed back into the restaurant to clean himself up.
“Sam?” his boss called. “Why haven’t you got the mop out? We can’t have that mess out there putting people off.”
“Sorry, Al, doing it now.” Sam sighed and got moving. “They did pay, right?” he couldn’t help asking.
“Of course they did. But I don’t think they were impressed with your service. They left a very small tip. You’ll have to do better than that in future.”
And there, in a nutshell, was the story of his life.
A woman’s voice. Soft and competent. It reminded him of Bea.
Bran wished she’d leave him alone. His head ached terribly, and he was nauseous. Had he been drinking?
“Mr. Roscarrock? Are you with us again?”
Bran blinked his eyes until they focussed on a middle-aged female face wearing a concerned frown. “What?” It came out sounding rusty, as well as brusque.
“You’ve had a bump on the head, Mr. Roscarrock. Do you remember what happened?”
His thoughts were like slurry. He’d . . . been visiting his nephew, hadn’t he? “Gawen?”
“Is that your partner? Someone you’d like us to contact?”
“No.” Bran struggled to order his brain. Why did they think that? But no. It was just a . . . thing. Reaction. Because he’d said a male name. But how could they know—did they know? “Bea . . . My sister. My twin.” It seemed important to add that, although once he’d said it, Bran was no longer sure why.
“She’s been informed, and she’s on her way.”
Bran blinked at her. “Where?”
“You’re in the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro. You were brought here by ambulance.”
Ambulance? Had there been an accident? “Why?”
“You’ve had a bump on the head. Do you remember?” It was said with endless patience. How many times had she asked him this already?
“What happened? Is Gawen all right?” Bran struggled to sit up, but a vicious, sawing pain in his chest felled him almost before he’d moved.
Gentle hands eased him back down. “It’s all right. Nobody else was hurt.”
“What happened?” he asked again.
“You were found lying unconscious in a Porthkennack street.”
Hot shame at the indignity tightened Bran’s chest, causing a physical pain. To make matters worse, he heard himself make a sound that was unmistakeably a whimper. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he’d been lying in the street like a drunkard.
But it didn’t make sense. Why couldn’t he remember? He’d been at Kirsty’s, talking to Gawen about . . . he wasn’t sure what. Schoolwork? Family history? He couldn’t remember leaving.
“Mr. Roscarrock? Do you need some more pain relief?” Her voice had the patient emphasis of someone who’d said it at least once before.
“No.” He didn’t need to be coddled.
“Well, if you’re sure. But don’t try to move; you’ve got a couple of cracked ribs. Just try to rest now, and your sister will be here soon. Let me know if you’re too uncomfortable, and we’ll see what we can do to make you feel better.”
Bran did as she said. It wasn’t like he had any other option. He lay there and blinked at his surroundings. A hospital room—yes, she’d said he was in hospital. At least it was a private room. Wasn’t that unusual? Perhaps Bea had insisted.
Bea. He wanted her desperately. She’d make sense of everything. She always did.
* * * * * * *
Bran wasn’t sure how long it was after that when Bea arrived, but at least his thoughts were no longer swimming through treacle. She looked stressed. Probably hadn’t appreciated having to drive all the way out to Truro at such a late hour. Not that Bran could see a clock, but the sky outside the window was pitch-black. He had an uneasy idea he’d lost time again.
“Bran,” she said, then stopped, her lips tight. Her nostrils flared as she took a deep breath. “Who did this?”
“I . . .” He was appalled to realise it hadn’t occurred to him to wonder about it. “It was an accident?”
“They told me you were mugged. Your wallet was stolen. If you hadn’t been recognised by the people who found you . . .” She stopped again, blinking. “I wouldn’t even have known you were here.”
“Bea?” Bran hated feeling so helpless to comfort her.
“You’re all I have,” she said fiercely. “So we are going to find out who did this, and they’re going to pay.”
She sat down in the chair beside the bed, and extended a cool hand to cup his face as if he were a child. The touch was unaccustomed, and he almost flinched, but stopped himself in time. It wasn’t unwelcome. Neither was seeing her so fierce on his behalf, but right now he felt completely unequal to thoughts of vengeance. His wretched uncertainty about himself, about anything, was overwhelming. “They said I had cracked ribs?”
Bea nodded. “Broken. That’s what they told me. It means the same thing, anyway. Just that calling them cracked sounds as if it’s not so serious. They think you hit your head on the wall as you fell. And then that bastard kicked you. Do you remember any of it?”
Bran made to shake his head, and immediately regretted it. “No.”
“We’ll find out. Don’t you worry.”
* * * * * * *
The policewoman who came to talk to him the next day looked around Jory’s age. Her dark, curly hair was cropped aggressively short at the sides and a little longer on top, probably an attempt to counteract the soft prettiness of her face, with her light-brown skin, large, dark eyes, and full lips. She was vaguely familiar—someone Bran had seen around town, but had never spoken to.
Bran’s head still ached horribly, and it hurt to breathe too deeply but, his mind having cleared from the mental sludge of last night, he was by now so bored he was actually glad to see her.
“Mr. Roscarrock? I’m Constable Sally Peters. Do you feel up to answering a few questions?” Her voice was jarring—not the warm, West Country burr he’d expected, but something more like Essex with a faint echo of Jamaica.
“You’re not local?” he found himself asking in surprise. “I’m sorry. That was rude.”
She shook her head. “Don’t worry. I get that every time I open my mouth. I was born and bred in Chingford. Moved down here when I got married.”
He glanced automatically at her left hand, which was bare.
She caught his glance, and smiled. “Stayed when I got divorced. You know you’re the one who’s supposed to be answering the questions, right?”
“Then you should probably ask them.” It came across as brusque, he was aware. But he already knew this was a waste of time. “Although I’ll tell you now, I can’t remember a single thing about what happened to me.”
She pulled out a notebook and pen. “Let’s start with your movements yesterday. You live in Roscarrock House, up on the promontory at Big Guns Cove?”
“As I’m sure you already know.”
“Must be nice, big house on the cliffs like that.” Her tone was neutral, conversational. “So you went for a walk into town?”
“I went to visit my nephew. Gawen Roscarrock.” An uneasy thought struck. “He’s thirteen, so I hope you won’t be bothering him about all this.”
She ignored the implied question. “And you saw him at the house he shares with his mum . . . Kirsty Fisher? Your brother’s ex-wife?”
“And is that a regular thing for you, going down there?”
Bran bristled at the suggestion he might not take his responsibilities seriously. “I see him frequently, yes. He’s the heir to the estate.”
The constable made a note in her book. “Always at his house?”
What an odd question. “No, of course not.”
“But when you do go down there, is it always on a Thursday night?”
“No . . .” Bran frowned in thought, having realised what she was getting at. “Well, more often than not, I suppose. He has activities he does other evenings. And Friday nights are spent with his father. And his father’s partner,” he added, because apparently Malory Thomas was now a permanent family fixture. Bran could hardly ignore his existence, much as he was an indirect reminder of unpleasant things.
“That’s Jory Roscarrock, your little brother?”
Bran snorted. It hurt his chest, and his next words came out embarrassingly strangled. “Hardly little.”
She laughed. “Yeah, I’ve met him. They had me round to speak to the kids at his school. Community-relations thing. Got a crick in my neck just talking to him.”
Bran found himself liking Constable Peters. He didn’t want to like her. He wanted to be angry and indignant, and rail at her for wasting time with trivial questions instead of getting out there to bring his assailant to justice.
“Right. So you’d quite often be walking back through town at that time on a Thursday night?”
“I suppose so. I don’t always stay for dinner.”
“But most times you do?”
Bran realised he couldn’t actually remember a time in recent months when Kirsty hadn’t offered, or he hadn’t accepted. It was unsettling, to see how much of a routine he’d fallen into without noticing. “Yes.”
“Always the same route?”
“Generally . . . yes. It’s the quickest way.”
She nodded and made a note.
“I can see where you’re going with this,” Bran said, his throat tight. “You think someone was lying in wait for me.”
“Just exploring the possibilities, sir. Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to harm you?”
Bran swallowed. Since Bea had visited him, he’d been able to think of little else. “I’m sure you’re aware a man in my position must inevitably come into conflict with other local businessmen from time to time. Purely in a commercial sense, obviously.”
“Your position as . . .?”
Bran had a strong feeling she already knew who he was, but wanted to hear how he would phrase it. “As the major local landowner in Porthkennack,” he said, careful not to sound as though he were bragging.
“Is there anyone in particular you’ve come into conflict with recently?”
“The Edes. And the Andrewarthas. They’re the only ones who’ve borne a grudge.” The only ones who’d been vocal about it, at any rate.
“What, all of them?”
“If you’re newly arrived in Porthkennack, you may not realise how clannish it is. Family feeling runs deep.”
She cocked her head. “I’ve lived in Porthkennack a few years now. And I’ve never seen any trouble coming from either of those families.”
Bran snorted. “No? Perhaps you should consider that Jago Andrewartha had the nerve to run my brother out of the Sea Bell last year, and tell him he was barred from going back. For no fault of Jory’s, I might add. And Jago was thick as thieves with Gerren Ede.”
“A tenant of mine, now deceased. His family objected to my perfectly legal actions in taking back possession of the house he was renting at the time of his death. Apparently the concept of property ownership means very little to them.”
She made another note. “Have any of them ever threatened you?”
“No, or you’d have heard about it.”
She raised her eyebrows. Perhaps he had been a little vehement. “And might there be anyone with a more personal motive to wish you harm?”
“And . . .” She flipped a page in her notebook. “You’re single?”
“No recent relationships that might have ended badly?”
“No,” he said, as firmly as he could. He was uncomfortably aware of the contrast with his previous statement. It was true enough, though. Craig and he hadn’t been in a relationship. Merely an arrangement.
“You’re sure about that?”
Christ, was she reading his mind? “Quite sure.” Bran refused to believe Craig would ever hurt him, despite the circumstances of their parting. And in any case he was miles away in Newquay.
“And your sister?”
“What about her?”
“She’s single too?”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything. But yes.”
“Just getting the full picture.” Her smile took away his irritation at the overly intrusive questions. Not for the first time, Bran wished he was able to be attracted to someone like her. Life would have been so much simpler. Happier. Women were kinder, as a rule, weren’t they?
An image of Bea flashed into his mind to give the lie to that generalization. He swallowed.
“Everything all right, sir?”
“Yes. I’m . . . just tired.” He realised how true it was as he said it, and closed his eyes.
“I’ll let you rest, then. But if you think of anything else that might identify your attacker, give me a call, okay?”
Sam knew it was going to be a bad day when he bumped into Maria in the corner shop.
His eldest sister was, like all the female members of Sam’s family, a small woman, but she made up for her size with the strength of her opinions—also like the rest of them. She was seven years older than he was and, as she liked to remind him, a proper doctor, a GP in a local practice who helped real live people instead of poking her nose into the affairs of dead ones. She had three children. Her husband, Ray, a bank manager, liked to joke they’d wanted one of each: a doctor, a lawyer, and an engineer. It was only one of the reasons Sam had never got on with him.
She had her youngest with her today. Santa was straining against the straps of her buggy—already fighting to escape her parents’ narrow view of her destiny? Her stubborn expression turned into a shy smile when she saw her uncle Sam.
Maria’s face, by contrast, settled into grim determination. “Mum’s been asking about you. She said she hasn’t seen you for weeks.”
Nice greeting. Well, if she was going to be rude, so was he. Sam ignored his sister and focussed on his niece. “Hey, Santa-pants.” He waggled his fingers at her, and she giggled.
Then he turned to Maria. “Fancy meeting you here. What with you living the other side of town and all. A more suspicious bloke might think you were stalking him.”
“Then the more suspicious bloke should start answering his phone. Not to mention his front door. I knocked three times, you know. And rang the bell. Not ten minutes before you came in here.”
“I was out,” Sam lied, feeling guilty. He’d just assumed it was someone calling for one of his housemates.
Or, well, someone he didn’t want to see.
Maria looked him up and down. “Pyjama party, was it?”
Shit. He’d known he should’ve made the effort to put his jeans on, instead of coming out in the checked flannel lounge pants Mum had given him for Christmas. But for Christ’s sake, he’d only wanted a pint of milk for his breakfast. Seeing as one of the gits he lived with had drunk all his.
“You realise it’s nearly lunchtime.” Maria’s disapproving tone was all too familiar from when she’d tried to mother him as a child.
“So? I didn’t get off work until gone two. I’ve gotta sleep sometime.”
“I hope you’re planning to get properly dressed tomorrow. You are going to be there for Sunday lunch at Mum’s, aren’t you? You’ve missed at least three weeks. She’s doing roast lamb,” Maria added with a pointed look.
“I’ll think about it, ’kay?” Mum’s roast lamb was to die for. And the whole family knew it was his favourite. “Saturday’s my worst night, though.”
Her face softened. Very slightly. “I don’t know why you keep working there. All that education, wasted. Are you even applying for proper jobs? I don’t mean academic ones,” she said quickly. “But there must be something better you could do than clearing up after drunks.”
“Yeah, right. Cos the interview would go so well, wouldn’t it? ‘Come in, Mr. Ferreira. Oh, it’s Dr. Ferreira, is it? Tell me, why aren’t you looking for work in your field? Failure of due diligence . . .? I see.” He could hear his voice getting louder and more bitter as he went on. “Thank you, Dr. Ferreira. That’ll be all. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.’”
Santa started to grizzle, and he felt like a total bastard.
Maria glared at him. “It’s like you’ve just given up.” She bent to her daughter, speaking softly and giving her a sippy cup that stemmed the tide of tears but didn’t stop those wide, sad eyes tugging on Sam’s heartstrings.
He didn’t say anything. What was there to say?
“Now, are you coming to lunch tomorrow or not?” Maria asked briskly, having straightened up. “Mum says she’s got a load of letters for you too. Who’s writing to you at Mum’s?”
“Don’t know.” He could guess, though. Thank God he could trust Mum not to open his post. He crouched down to ruffle Santa’s thick black curls and, not incidentally, hide his face from his way-too-perceptive sister. “I’ll think about it,” he repeated.
He already knew he wouldn’t go.
* * * * * * *
He didn’t mean to, but when he got back into his room, Sam somehow found himself opening up the betting site on his mobile and having a bit of a flutter. He even won a small amount, first off. Then he lost the lot, and more. Christ, he had to stop giving in to temptation like that. It was just . . . if he got a proper win, a big one, he’d be able to wipe out all his debts. Start fresh.
Surely one day the odds would have to work in his favour?
Home at last. Bran climbed painfully out of the taxi and paid the driver, feeling exposed and vulnerable out in the fresh air for the first time since the . . . incident. Perhaps he should have let Bea pick him up from hospital after all—God knew she’d tried hard to persuade him to accept her offer. But it would have taken time out of one of the few days she didn’t work, and he was a grown man, not a child in need of a nanny.
It was a warm, bright day, the sun glinting off the sea with a painful, piercing intensity. Bran closed his eyes, but the throbbing ache remained. He’d been told the headaches might linger for a while, and to consult his doctor if they hadn’t gone away after three months.
Three months. Thank God for the peace of Roscarrock House, set high on the cliffs that bounded Mother Ivey’s Bay from Big Guns Cove, and far from the madding crowd of Porthkennack proper. At least, outside of opening hours. Bran sighed.
As he lingered by the gate, the figure of a man appeared, walking up the cliff path towards him, and Bran drew in a sharp breath. The starburst of pain in his chest was nauseating.
Inside. He had to get inside. With an unsteady hand, he opened the gate, wishing it were ten feet high and he could padlock it behind him. A dog barked, startling and reassuring him in one. A dog walker. Not his mysterious assailant from the other night.
Probably. Although it could have been anyone, couldn’t it? Bran turned to look back.
He didn’t recognise the man with his dog. A tourist, then, in all likelihood. Not anyone he knew.
Bran was still sweating, his heartbeat painfully loud in his ears, by the time he’d closed the front door behind him.
Constable Peters had made it quite clear she doubted the attack on him was random. As if he couldn’t have told as much from his injuries. Two broken ribs from a kick when he’d already been on the ground. Already unconscious, he imagined. He could have died. If they’d kicked him harder, maybe punctured a lung . . .
It was all strongly suggestive of either a personal grudge, or a hate crime. The theft of his wallet and phone had undoubtedly been an afterthought, a clumsy attempt to obscure motive.
Can you think of any reason you might be targeted for a hate crime? she’d asked.
She might as well have asked outright if he was gay. Straight white men didn’t suffer hate crimes, did they? No, he’d said.
It was possible, he supposed. Someone might have seen him in Newquay with Craig, although even there, he’d been discreet. But why, then, come after him in Porthkennack?
No. This was personal. Someone in Porthkennack hated him enough to physically assault him. It was horrendous. He’d spent years telling himself it didn’t matter whether he was liked or not, so long as he was respected. Now, just thinking about the sheer level of animosity this . . . person must have for him made him ill.
He couldn’t face the stairs, so he dragged himself to his study and sank into the comfortable chair by the hearth, its familiar red leather hardly more worn now than when Father had used to sit in it. Unlike the desk chair, which he’d had reupholstered twice since then.
Christ, he wanted a drink. But it was only midday, and he’d been told not to mix alcohol with the painkillers they’d given him. And in any case, he needed to get back to work. God knew how many emails would be in his inbox regarding the exhibition centre alone, and there was the Constantine Bay property dispute still to be dealt with.
He should switch on the computer and make a start on it. He would. Just a little more rest before he faced the storm.
* * * * * * *
Bran jumped badly at the sound of the back door opening and closing, the movement sending fire through his rib cage even as terror danced along his spine. Someone’s in the house.
“Bran? Are you home?” Bea’s voice.
Foolish relief making him queasy, Bran opened his mouth but couldn’t manage to get out a word before she poked her head around the door.
“There you are. How are you feeling?”
A hastily drawn breath caught in his throat, and he barely managed to stifle the reflexive cough in time. “Fine.”
“You don’t look well.” She strode into the room and stretched out a hand as if to feel his forehead, but drew it back without touching him. Perhaps his skin looked damp. Certainly he felt unpleasantly clammy. “Have you been home long?”
Bran darted his eyes to the carriage clock on the mantelpiece. It was past six. He must have been asleep. The idea was embarrassing, but not so much as the alternative: that he’d spent all those hours staring into an empty grate.
He just wished he felt in the slightest degree rested. For God’s sake, things were supposed to be getting back to normal now he was at home. But he’d felt better in hospital, with all the noise and the clatter and the determinedly cheery nurses jollying him into eating bland, institutional meals. “A few hours.”
“Do you want something to eat?”
He should, shouldn’t he? But the thought of what she was likely to offer him, some premade meal thawed in the microwave, appealed not in the least. “Some toast, maybe.”
“Well, come on, then. You’re supposed to keep mobile.” Her voice was terse. Was she angry with him?
Bran frowned but heaved himself painfully out of the chair and followed her into the kitchen, where she began opening and closing cupboards with unnecessary clatter. “Do you have to be so loud?” he snapped.
Bea turned to give him a searching look. “Your head still aches.”
It wasn’t a question, so he didn’t bother with an answer.
“I’m making you some soup. You can’t just live on toast.” She opened a tin and dumped the contents into a pan, then switched on the gas. “Here. Come and stir this.”
It was some kind of beef broth, with chunks of overcooked carrot and potato and spots of grease floating on the top. The sight turned his stomach even as the smell made it rumble. Bran suddenly wished Jory were still living with them. He’d have cooked something decent, using fresh ingredients.
Jory had visited him in hospital twice—the first time, Bran had assumed, to make sure he didn’t look too terrifyingly battered for Gawen to face, as Jory had brought the boy the very next day. Bran had braced himself for a torrent of questions and requests to see his bruises, but Gawen had been unusually subdued. Bran still wasn’t sure what that was all about. Fiercely glad his unknown assailant hadn’t left marks on his face—surely the hardest thing for concerned relatives to deal with—he’d assured them both he was fine, and would be out of bed in no time.
And he had been, hadn’t he? He was home now, and everything was back to normal.
Something hissed and spat, and Bran jerked his hand away, the wooden spoon splattering the stove top with thick droplets. His sharp intake of breath sent splinters of pain through his chest.
Bea darted to turn down the flame, and the bubbles in the soup pan subsided. “Bran?” she said sharply. “You just let it boil over?”
“I . . . I’m not hungry.” Hot and uncomfortable, he dropped the spoon on the counter and fled for his study.
Bea appeared five minutes later with a bowl of soup, a couple of slices of moderately burnt toast, and a tight-lipped expression.
Bran couldn’t meet her eye. “Thank you,” he said, and was careful to eat it all.
* * * * * * *
Bran felt worse, rather than better, the next day. On top of everything else, he seemed to be coming down with a cold, and it’d made his night even more of a misery. He’d woken up repeatedly, his ribs aching, feeling as though he were suffocating. It was almost a relief to drag his weary body out of bed.
It was a Monday, so Roscarrock House was closed to visitors, thank God. Bran wasn’t sure he could have borne strangers invading his home today.
He choked down some toast and coffee—Bea had already gone to work by the time he’d risen—then trudged to his desk and switched on his computer. His email inbox was so ridiculously full he didn’t know where to start. For God’s sake, it had been less than a week. Could nothing function without his input? Redevelopment work on the old cannery site had come to a standstill, the contractor claiming vital equipment had been stolen. How the hell had that even happened? Some of those machines weighed twenty tonnes. He should call the police and demand to know what was being done. Make it plain he expected this blatant disregard for the laws of property to be treated as a priority.
But that would leave them less time to spare on the matter of his . . . Bran attempted to swallow, his throat dry. Perhaps he’d leave them to it. Constable Peters had seemed competent enough. He took up his paperknife to make a start upon the stack of post Bea had left neatly on his desk.
He was only halfway through when the telephone rang, breaking the still of Bran’s study with its cacophony and causing his hand to slip, the paperknife jabbing painfully into his palm. Bran cursed as he glanced at the number displayed. The solicitor’s office, again. He’d call them back when he was ready, damn it. Did they have to keep bothering him? He let it ring, and put down the paperknife with a hand that wasn’t quite steady. Emails first, perhaps.
Thank God the new exhibition centre hadn’t been targeted by the thieves. If, indeed, there were any thieves and it wasn’t just some ridiculous excuse cooked up by the contractor to explain the works falling behind schedule. Bran rested his eyes on the painting of Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, that hung upon the wall opposite the fireplace. It was an excellent copy of the nineteenth-century portrait by Burnell, showing the prince as dark-haired, dark-eyed, and determined, in armour, coronet, and heraldic colours. He’d been thrust into an adult world at an early age, as had Bran—although of course Bran’s campaigns involved far less bloodshed.
Bran could still remember first reading about the prince in a book he’d found in the library, back when he’d been a child and Jory an unruly toddler. It wasn’t, of course, the first book he’d read about knights of old, but it’d been the first book he’d found that actually explained what chivalry meant: bravery in war, courtly behaviour to ladies, and courtesy to one’s enemies. As long as they were of noble rank, of course. No one gave a damn about the peasants.
He’d been very glad he wasn’t a peasant, for all that he lived six hundred years and more after the prince’s time. His imagination had been captivated by the stories of the sixteen-year-old general who’d won campaigns in France. The Prince of Wales who’d never lived to be King of England.
It’d seemed so unfair that because Edward was known to history as the Black Prince, everyone assumed it meant he’d been wicked. He’d been brilliant—at least, in his early years. Perhaps not so much in his later years, but he’d been ill then, hadn’t he? Illness changed a person. Even at ten, Bran was well aware of that. It made them less than they were, and it changed everyone around them too. Father hadn’t been so . . . He’d been different, before Mother became ill.
It wasn’t fair, he’d thought, with a child’s keen sense of justice. Why did Jory have to come and make Mother ill?
Odd, how childish misconceptions continued to colour attitudes long after they’d been overthrown. Bran was quite aware, these days, that Jory’s birth hadn’t been the cause of Mother’s illness, and that even if it had been, it would hardly have been Jory’s fault. But still he had to watch himself for signs of lingering resentment.
Did Bea feel the same? She had when they were children. He knew that. But now he found it so hard to tell how she felt.
* * * * * * *
Twenty-Seven Years Ago
“This is Alan,” Bea said with a blush.
Bran stepped up to accept the offered handshake, wishing it wouldn’t be terribly obvious if he wiped his palm on his trousers first. He was mesmerised by a pair of deep-brown eyes that seemed to see right inside him.
Oh God, he was probably blushing as red as Bea. But he’d never known a man could be . . . there was no other word for it.
If it hadn’t been for the colour of his skin, Alan could have stepped straight out of one of those TV shows where impossibly good-looking American teenagers lived impossibly glamorous lives. He was wearing faded, well-fitting jeans Bran would bet his whole year’s allowance were designer, and a crisp polo shirt with an exclusive logo. It showed off strong, well-shaped forearms and a hint of biceps with deep-mahogany skin. His tousled hair was so black it shone.
Bran had never felt the urge to run his fingers through anyone’s hair before. It probably wouldn’t be as wonderful in reality as in his imagination—Alan almost certainly used mousse or gel or something to style it like that—but Bran wouldn’t mind finding out, even so. Alan was tall, stylish, and confident, like some of the upper-sixth-form boys at Bran’s school, only more so. He looked like he belonged on a yacht in . . . Bran almost thought the south of France, but maybe that was too establishment for someone so modern, so trendy.
So unmistakeably nonwhite, his father’s voice muttered sourly in his mind.
Bran made a rude gesture at his father. Also, of course, entirely in his mind. Father didn’t understand the modern world. He didn’t understand that things were changing, that it wasn’t all about people like us these days. Not that Father was a racist, obviously. He would never call Alan any of the offensive names Bran heard regularly thrown across the school playing fields. He tried to ignore the voice whispering in his ear that Father never used any hateful words for gay people either, but that didn’t mean anyone was left in any doubt as to how he viewed them.
“So you’re Bea’s brother?” Alan asked, flashing white, even teeth directly in Bran’s eyeline. He towered over Bea. His accent was a disappointment, though—flat and northern beneath the overlay of public school polish.
Bran was about to speak, but Bea broke in, her voice loud and excited. “Yes. This is Bran. Short for Branok.”
“Another of those Cornish names, is it? Like yours.” Alan cast a clearly approving gaze over Bea’s figure that made Bran want to punch him. And then run far, far away, although he was much too old to cry, for God’s sake.
How old was Alan, anyway? Older than their fifteen years, that was for certain. Was he even still at school?
“You’re here on holiday?” Bran forced himself to ask politely.
“Oh, didn’t Bea tell you? I’m spending the summer here with friends. Working on my surfing.” He smiled again. “Please don’t come and watch me. I must look like a right prat to a local like you, falling in the water every five minutes.”
Suddenly Bran wasn’t annoyed at him anymore. “I’m sure you’ll pick it up in the end.”
“Alan’s studying politics at Oxford,” Bea said as proudly as if she’d coached him for the entrance exams herself.
“Reading, not studying,” Alan corrected her. “And it’s PPE—philosophy, politics, and economics.”
Bea knew that, surely? “It must be fascinating, learning all about power,” she said, smiling back at Alan.
“It is. You should consider it when you’re applying for a place—unless you’ve already made your choices? I’m sure you’d have a good chance of getting in.”
“You really think so?”
Why was she being like this? Letting him patronise her, as if she were just some silly little girl?
Alan turned to Bran. “And what about you? You look more like a scientist. Or mathematician, maybe?”
“Maybe,” Bran conceded. He did like science, but it wasn’t where the money was, was it? Everyone said so. “Not engineering?” he asked, just because it was the sort of thing his teachers were always telling him to think about. He’d already discounted it himself, but he found he wanted to hear what Alan would say.
Alan stared at him for a moment, his head cocked. Bran hoped he wasn’t blushing under the scrutiny. “No. Too hands-on for you.”
Bea laughed. “That’s exactly what Bran always says.”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I can read minds,” Alan said, then offered her his arm like an old-fashioned gentleman. “And I just heard you thinking you’re dying for an ice cream. Shall we?”
Bran watched them go—his sister and the tall, sophisticated stranger—and had never felt so alone.
Jory came to visit in the evening. He walked into Bran’s study wearing the concerned expression that hadn’t seemed to leave his face since the . . . incident.
The first thing he said was, “Are you sure you should be out of hospital? Shouldn’t you at least be taking it easy in bed?”
“I’m fine,” Bran snapped, then regretted it. It’d made his head throb more fiercely, and worse, he was fighting the urge to cough. Knowing it would hurt like hell if he gave in, Bran took shallow breaths in the hopes it would subside, and gripped the smooth, leather arms of his chair by the fire.
“We need to talk about the exhibition.” Jory loomed beside the mantelpiece, making Bran’s neck hurt and his headache worse when he looked at him. “I’ve spoken to Dr. Banerjee—”
“You’ve spoken to her? Why not Sanderson or Trenowden?” They were, after all, his fellow sponsors of the exhibition. Not that they’d shown any great inclination to take an active role, but in the circumstances, they could damn well step up. He’d been quite clear with them as to his vision. Surely they should be the ones to persuade Dr. Banerjee to withdraw her resignation and come back and curate the exhibition?
Jory grimaced. “They said—well, Sanderson did, and Trenowden agreed—that they didn’t think it was their place to get involved with staffing. They seemed to feel you’d made it plain they weren’t going to get any say in that sort of thing. You being the major investor and all.”
“Idiots.” Perhaps he had asserted his control over the direction of the exhibition a little too strongly, but damn it, it wasn’t all to do with money. Bran was the only one of them who actually knew the first thing about Edward of Woodstock, and it had been important they realise he wouldn’t be dictated to. He wasn’t going to let anyone turn his lifelong dream into a garish, Disney-like theme park just to maximise the profits.
“Anyway, she’s adamant she’s not coming back. She says she doesn’t need the stress.” The disapproval now showing in Jory’s expression was hardly an improvement on the concern he’d shown earlier.
Bran disliked feeling under attack from his little brother almost as much as he hated being an object of pity. He heartily wished he was at his desk. “She should grow a thicker skin, then.”
He reached for his glass of water. It seemed to take an inordinate amount of effort. Having taken a sip, which did little to calm his throat, Bran rested the glass on his lap in the hopes Jory wouldn’t notice how much his hands were shaking.
“It’s been nearly two weeks now with no curator,” Jory went on, “and if we don’t get someone in soon, the exhibition won’t be ready in time for the official opening.”
Bran was aware of all this, damn it. “I’ll deal with it in due course.”
Jory’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t look well enough to deal with anything right now.”
Bran was rapidly losing patience. “Then you’ll have to curate it.”
“You’ve done it before. That mermaid exhibition at the museum.”
“That was tiny. The Black Prince exhibition is orders of magnitude bigger. And I’ve got a full-time job now. Are you expecting me to do it in my spare time?”
“Your working day finishes at three, for God’s sake.”
“Three forty, actually. And that’s just lessons. Or did you think state school teachers didn’t bother with things like after-school clubs, or marking, or lesson plans?” Jory’s tone was one part righteous indignation to three parts sarcasm.
Bran’s head was killing him. He wished Jory would just go away. “Then take a sabbatical.”
“At this end of the school year, with no notice? Teaching doesn’t work like that. And nobody gets a sabbatical in their first year of the job.”
“Then what do you suggest we do? Cancel the opening?” Bran’s voice had risen to match his brother’s, and the strain of it tipped him over into a miserable coughing fit. He spilled his water in his lap, and spilled it again as he tried to put the glass back on the table.
Jory at least had the decency to look contrite as he took the glass from Bran’s shaking hand, and when he spoke again, it was softer. “Of course not. But we need to get on and find someone.”
“I told you. In due course.” Bran’s voice was hoarse and painful. Christ, it was cold in here.
“Why don’t you ask Jennifer Solomon to put out some feelers? She could—”
“No. It has to be someone I can trust.” Jennifer Solomon was the last person he’d ask to find him a new curator. Bran might be wrung out and exhausted, but he’d be damned if he’d let his exhibition be thrown away on some trendy historian who’d probably want to present it all from the French point of view, for God’s sake.
“I’m sure Jennifer would take your views into full consideration.” Jory leaned towards him, frowning. “Are you sure you’re okay? You look sweaty.”
“I’m fine.” Damn it. He’d set off that bloody coughing again. Bran fumbled for his handkerchief, then snatched at the one Jory pressed into his hand. He held it to his mouth through racking coughs, sick with the pain in his throat and chest.
“Bea? Bea!” Jory was shouting.
His vision blurry, Bran felt more than saw his sister come into the study.
“I think we need to call a doctor.” Jory sounded panicked. “He’s coughing up blood.”
To hell with it all. Bran wanted to tell him to stop being such an idiot, but he couldn’t stop coughing. And he was just so tired . . .
Later that night, Bran lay propped up in bed in the same hospital room as before, tethered by a cat’s cradle of lines that stripped him of all sense of bodily autonomy. He was only faintly aware of Bea’s strident voice as she told Jory to “Just get it sorted out, and don’t bother him with it anymore.”
He wondered what and who she was talking about. But not for very long.
Drug-fuelled oblivion beckoned, and Bran was only too eager to heed its call.
Word Count: ~86,000
Page Count: ~325
Cover By: Garrett Leigh
Release Date: 09/03/2018
Release Date: 09/03/2018