One Under (A Porthkennack novel)
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.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:suicide
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, acceptance, angst, bullying, commitment, duty, family, fitting in, history, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, legends, marriage of convenience / fake relationship, mental illness, protection, PTSD, recovery, self-confidence, trust issues, vacation romance
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.