Monday, July 30, 2018

Home from the Sea

In the fair weather between storms which hit the coast just days apart in 1769, a wandering balladeer strolls up to The Raven looking for his old shipmate.
It's six years since Jim Fairley came west to manage the sailors' tavern on the English coast near Exmouth. The inn is a combination of haven and prison, home and livelihood. Lately Jim is worried he'll never get out, never see the world or enjoy the adventure he hears of in sailors' and smugglers' tales -- because Jim has been lame since a childhood accident.
The last thing he imagined is that adventure, mystery, romance, danger, would walk up to his door and haul him into a maelstrom of intrigue and peril.
Handsome young Toby Trelane was looking for Charlie Chegwidden, but old Charlie has died, leaving Toby in serious trouble. As he and Jim swiftly become involved, Tobys problems become Jims.
An old mystery explodes like a storm. Before Jim learns the shocking secrets Toby has hidden for years, there'll be deception and fear, struggle and blood, in a tense Gothic tale that spans the globe without ever leaving The Raven. For Jim and Toby, life will never be the same. This gripping historical thriller and gay romance from long-time favorite Mel Keegan will be treasured by readers who loved The Deceivers and Dangerous Moonlight.

Novel length: 97,850 words
Rated: adult (18+; sex, violence)
Publication date: 2013
Publisher: DreamCraft
Price: $6.99 - ebook; $15.99 - paper
Formats: ebooks, paperback
Cover: Jade

  • Scroll down to read the first two chapters of this novel right here...

Read an excerpt... 

Chapter One 

At four in the afternoon on an April day on which winter seemed to be making a determined effort to return, The Raven was quiet as a tomb. Jim Fairley stood behind the bar, rag in one hand, pewter tankard in the other, gazing through the little square window panes at an iron-gray horizon under a sky that promised no good to seamen by nightfall. A gale was coming up. After six years of watching the same sky through this very window, Jim could read it like a book. And sometimes six years seemed closer to sixty. 

The wind was already starting to roar in the chimney, and he knew he should fetch in firewood, fill the water jugs from the big barrels under the eaves and put up the shutters. Gale or calm, The Raven would be crowded by seven, and between then and midnight he would be busy. It was not the only tavern on the road from Exmouth to Budleigh, but it was the best. Jim did not water the ale, he served full measure of rum, and he kept a table that was well respected. 

The aromas of rabbit pie and salt beef, stewing apples and figgy duff had already begun to make the mouth water. Mrs. Clitheroe was back there in the kitchen, singing to herself, talking to the old black cat and the terrier that kept down the mice and rats. The old lady had no ear for a tune and was three-quarters deaf into the bargain, with a broad Lancashire accent and a girth to be measured in yards, but there was no better cook this side of Exeter itself, and Jim had long ago realized he was lucky to have her. 

With a sigh, he set down the last of the tankards and poured a small rum for himself. The sound of cork squeaking out of bottle alerted old Fred Bailey to the possibility of a refill, and he raised his head from its pillow on his forearms, which rested on the scarred surface of the table in the chimney corner. He was the only customer at this time in the afternoon, and for every glass he paid for, he drank three. Jim gave him a wry look. Bailey replied with a gap-toothed grin and hunted through his pockets for a copper before he came swaggering up to the bar. 

In his day he had been a sailor -- a topman in the king's navy, if he was telling the truth, and Jim saw no reason to doubt him. He told stories to curdle the belly and set the hair on end, of storms at sea that almost swallowed warships, and the eerie calm in which the sea shone at midnight with its own light, while the voices of strange creatures sang out of the weird green twilight. 

He was old now, stooped, with the reputation of a rummy, but on days like this one Jim actually envied him. At least Fred Bailey had something to remember. When he had a couple of sheets in the wind and drowsed by the hearth there, his mind would be miles and years away, reliving adventures Jim could only dream about, with the kind of mates Jim had never known, and probably never would. The Raven, he decided as he poured another small rum for Bailey, was hardly the most exciting place in the world. 

Yet the tavern was his home, his business -- his prison, if he wanted to be dismal about it. He knew he had nothing to complain about, and even if he had sobbed on the shoulders of the locals, they would only have scorned him. Jim Fairley was just 26. He owned The Raven right down to the last stick of firewood and keg of rum in the cellar. He had 60 silver shillings squirreled away in a leather sack under the bar, hidden beneath a broken stone known only to himself. And he had his life -- and all four of his limbs, when he could so easily have been dead or crippled. 

His left leg irked him but it was still attached in place, it was warm and it worked well enough to get him around, so long as he did not walk too far or too fast. Today it ached a little, reminding him keenly of London chimney smoke and the rumble of coach wheels ... of his father, and more pain than a lad of fifteen years should ever have had to learn about. 

The day was long ago, but so sharp in his memory, it could still eclipse the present. For an instant Jim actually saw the street, felt the red-hot bar of pain, before he deliberately thrust the unwelcome scenes aside. He pushed the mug across the bar toward Bailey, and then toasted Fred in the dark rum. "Your health, Master Bailey." 

"Aye, and yours, Master Fairley." Fred raised his mug and drank. "And Jim, forgive me for mentionin' it, but you look peaky." 

"I do?" Jim's brows rose, and he gave the leg a thump with one clenched fist. "It pains me sometimes." 

"When it gets cold, and the rain comes in, and the wind." Bailey pressed one hand into the small of his back. "Don't I know about it? don't us all!" He drank a little and considered Jim with a sobriety that was, in him, alarming. "You know what"s wrong with you? Young feller like you. Oh, aye." 

For one moment Jim almost choked on the mouthful of rum he had just taken, and he forced the muscles of his gullet to swallow smoothly. If old Fred had even the vaguest inkling of what was "wrong" with him, then Jim was in dead trouble. 

What was wrong with him? 

He needed a good one. A good long one, with one of the handsome young seamen who tromped along the coast every week from Plymouth to Portsmouth, leaving one ship and going to another. He needed a tasty sailor of about his own age, who would take a single look at Jim and just know, the way like knew like ... a big, healthy lad who relished a bit of the other, a bit of rough instead of fluff, before he was on his way again and back at sea in a week, no one the wiser and both of them sated enough to hang onto sanity until the next time. 

Seamen passed by every day and many stopped at The Raven. Jim was seldom short of company, and he knew he was choosy. He could have had the big Dutchman, three days ago -- but the man's breath stank of pickled herrings. He could have gone with the blue eyed French sailor the day before -- but he toyed with a knife and laughed at all the wrong remarks. He could have picked the young Scotsman with the fiery orange hair -- but he was hairy as a bear. Not that there was anything particularly amiss with hairy men, Jim allowed, but his own preference was for something a little less shaggy, with a little tan on its hull, and -- 

"Your trouble," Fred Bailey was saying with keen insight, "is, you never get out. You never do ... stuff." He belched eloquently. "You never see nothin'. You never make the acquaintance of mates and enemies." 

"I'm talking to you," Jim argued. 

"I don't count. I'm a customer." Bailey frowned at him. "You want to watch out, Master Fairley. There"s a nasty old biddy called Time, an' if you don't watch out for 'er, she'll catch you napping. You'll wake up one day an' you'll be an old rummy, like me -- well past it. There ain't a lass in all of Devon an' Dorset that'll "ave you, an' then what'll you do?" 

Jim almost chuckled. Bailey did not know it, but there was already not a lass in Devon, Dorset, or any other county who would have him, because as soon as the doors were locked and the lamps were turned down, the truth would be out before the candles. Lasses asked for services Jim did not have to give, and twice he had blamed his apparent uselessness on his injury. The leg had been his salvation. 

The truth was very different, but neither the Dorset girls nor Fred Bailey had any business knowing about it. Jim's left leg would be weak, frail, as long as he lived, but the right was strong enough to make up for it and what lay between was as virile as any man. More than some, Jim thought ruefully as he watched Bailey trying to nurse the rum in case there was no more where it came from, which could only mean his pockets were bare. Jim could either feed him rum or rabbit pie and stewed apples, and Fred knew it was food he would be getting, not grog. 

"You," he said sagely, "need to get out." He gestured with the mug. "Out of this place. See the world, while you're ..." another burp, more tenor, more resonant "...still young enough to do it." 

The worst of it was, he was absolutely right and Jim could not argue a syllable of what he had said. The Raven was his prison. But it was safe, comfortable, lucrative; and it was all that remained of his father. Jim sighed, leaned both elbows on the bar and frowned out through the tiny glass panes at a sky that was darkening gradually with clouds driven in by a threatening wind. 

He might have told Bailey that Arthur Fairley had invested every penny he had in the tavern; that he had come out from London hoping clean sea air would heal his lungs, which were rotten with the city smoke and stench. If Arthur had made the move five years sooner, the healing magic might have worked for him, but it was already too late when he bought The Raven. He was buried in the churchyard up at Budleigh, not very far from the previous owner. 

"Aye, I know," Bailey sighed, as if he had heard every word Jim had not said. "Your da were a good man -- 'e set you up, right enough, with this place ... an' 'e done good by old Charlie Chegwidden, an' all." 

"Charlie was an odd one," Jim mused. "I only knew him for two weeks, mind you. Hardly enough time to get to know him at all, before he gasped his last and Doctor Hardesty was pronouncing him dead as mutton." 

"Charlie were all right. I knew his ma, before 'im. Thirty-odd year, she owned this place, afore it come to Charlie, an' then to you." Bailey drained the mug and set it down on the bar before Jim with a certain deliberation which hinted broadly. "Aye, nothin' wrong with old Charlie." 

"No?" Jim stirred, and just as deliberately swept Bailey's mug up with his own, and plunged both into the pail of water to wash them. "Two whole weeks, after my father bought this place, he sits at the windows. Either here in the taproom or upstairs in his bedchamber. Just sits and looks out, staring at the sea, or at the path, like he's waiting for somebody or something. Never says a word. Never tells me what he's waiting for, or who. And then he falls on his face on the floor, right there, and I'm sending a lad to run for the doctor. It would have been quicker to send for the undertaker." 

"Well, watchin' don't make a man queer," Bailey protested. "Charlie were a seaman, like me, 'sept 'e were in merchantmen an' me, I were king's navy, thirty long year. Could be, 'e were just watchin' the ocean, wantin' to go back to days that'll never come again." His voice was rich with nostalgia. "Last time Charlie shipped out, I were in port meself. Charlie went out on the Rose of Gloucester, out of Plymouth. By God, that ship were bloody notorious! But Charlie were lucky enough to be off 'er afore trouble struck. As I recall, 'is old ma took the coach down, an' kissed 'im goodbye on the dock, like she thought she'd never see 'im again." 

For some moments Bailey was silent and Jim sorted through piles of ancient, dusty memories until he remembered Charlie Chegwidden"s stories in useful detail. "She didn't," he said with a trace of wry humor. 

"Didn't what?" Bailey yawned, issuing a draft of rum fumes. 

"See him again." Jim stooped to retrieve the mugs and polishing rag. "The way Charlie told it, he wandered on home -- oh, about eight years ago, would it be? -- and his old ma was on her deathbed. She lived three weeks after he got back to The Raven, but she never woke up, never actually set eyes on him, before they took her up to the churchyard and did the necessary." 

"Is that a fact, now?" Bailey seemed surprised. "Well, by God, I never knew that. I were at sea, meself, when the old lady passed away, an' only learned of it when I got me boots back on dry land an' came by for a pint. On 'er deathbed, you say?" 

"That's how Charlie told it." Jim's hands could polish tankards all by themselves, they had been doing it so long. He was intent on the memories of Chegwidden -- weatherworn and probably not nearly as old as he had seemed, sitting at the window on the seaward side of the hearth, gazing out, watching for something or someone who never arrived. 

When he sold The Raven to Arthur Fairley, he had only one request, and it was not so strange. He was too sick and too tired to manage the tavern, but he would sell it for a low price, if the new owner would give him a clean bed and three squares a day, for as long as he still drew breath, and then see him decently buried at the end. 

In fact, Jim's father knew nothing at all about running a tavern, and Charlie was invaluable in those two short weeks. He would not let the new owner be cheated on the price of ale and rum, and he convinced Mrs. Clitheroe to stay on and cook. 

The churchyard in Budleigh was a busy place, Jim thought darkly. Old Nell Chegwidden was there, with Charlie right beside her; and Arthur Fairley lay on the low hillside under the big chestnut tree, where an empty space was reserved for his son. 

And may it stay empty, Jim prayed fervently, for many years to come! He had even less desire to join his father than he had to linger in The Raven for the rest of his days, waiting for the big, handsome seamen to tromp up the path, buy a jar of rum, exchange knowing glances and winks with the proprietor, and follow him upstairs for an hour of -- 

"And another thing," Fred Bailey burped. "You need to get yourself a lass, afore too late. You know what folks in these parts sez about you." 

"What do they say? That I'm a eunuch?" Jim guessed. 

"Well, mebbe somethin' like that," Bailey muttered. 

"And mebbe they'd be something like right." With a soft curse, Jim slapped his leg. "A lass, interested in the likes of me? It's already too late, Fred. It was too late for me when I was fifteen years old. Don't believe me? Go'n talk to Molly Hutchins. She'd be glad to tell you how much use I am in the dark." 

The experience still stung. Four years ago, Molly had cornered him -- a fresh, pretty girl of seventeen, looking for a likely husband. The scene ended in tears of disappointment and even a gentle kind of pity, when Molly convinced herself Jim was incapable due to old, old injuries. She mourned her own loss and his imagined plight for at least two days before she set her sights on a locksmith from Exmouth, and Jim was off the hook -- chagrined, relieved, embarrassed, but at liberty. 

The mournful look on Bailey"s seamed, walnut-brown face almost made him regret telling the lie, but honesty might have been much worse. True enough, Bailey was an old seaman, but he had never looked at Jim and known. Not like the big Dutchman with the herring breath, whose hands were everywhere and who did not want to take no for an answer until Jim bit him hard enough to draw blood, and told him to bugger off, and not come back unless he had eaten nothing but rose petals, drunk nothing but spring water, for three days. 

"Well, dead sorry I am about that, lad," Bailey said with all due sympathy. "So, you, uh, you "ad a lass afore bein" fifteen?" 

"No," Jim said darkly. There had been a few lads, he thought with acid humor, but no lasses. Not then, and not later. Of this he kept silent. 

Bailey's eyes widened. "Then you're ..." 

"A virgin?" Jim choked back a ribald snort. In fact, in a way it was perfectly true. 

"Um ... aye." Bailey fidgeted in exquisite discomfort of his own making. "an' I'm right sorry about that, an' all. But it don't change the other." 

"What other?" Jim was still thinking about the Dutchman, wondering what the odds were that he might be hunting for roses in April. 

"You need to git. Out," Bailey told him. "an' aye, I know you buried your da a long time ago, an' I know this place is "is legacy ... but yon door"s goin" to start lookin" like a coffin lid if you don't get out an' feel the wind in your face, afore your bones start to rust up like mine." He shoved himself away from the bar and took a few unsteady steps toward that very door. "Gotta piss. Be back." 

"Rabbit pie, and apples," Jim promised with a faint, indulgent smile as he watched Bailey make his way out and around in the direction of the stable and coach house, which were ten yards east of the tavern. The building stood a scant dozen yards above the beach, so close, gulls often clustered around the door to sun themselves and when the wind blew hard out of the south, the floor could be sandy. 

Today the south wind whipped inside as Bailey opened the door, and it smelt of the sea, cool and clean on Jim's face. He breathed it in, savored it, and relished the idea that the same wind blew over the Canary Islands, the Azores, the Leeward Islands, Jamaica, Barbados. 

The names were alchemy, sorcery, and Jim knew how right Fred Bailey was. He was 26, and for more than six of those years he had stood at this bar, polishing tankards, pouring ale and rum, counting coins, watching out for customs men from the Exeter and listening for rumors of smugglers on the coast who might be carrying brandy and treats from France -- 

Watching out for fine-looking seamen who enjoyed a good one ... a good long one, with a jar of ale first and a sound sleep after, and not a word said to a soul. 

This was what Jim needed most, he hold himself as he stacked the tankards in preparation for the evening trade. Mrs. Clitheroe was frying onions now, and Jim's belly growled. A voyage into exotic waters might have been grand; a roll in bed with a handsome lad would have been just as welcome, but first he needed to get to work. The firewood was unlikely to haul itself inside and he must make up the hearth, fill the water jugs and then batten down the shutters before the wind rose any further. 

With a soft curse he came around the bar, strong on his right leg, weak on the left, which gave him a limp which had dogged him since he was not much more than a child. But he was lucky to be alive, and quite intelligent enough to know it. His gloves were stuffed into the pockets of the coat that hung with his hat on the peg by the window. He fetched them out, pulled them on and opened the door to the teasing, tormenting sea wind. 

Chapter Two 

The storm went through before dawn, leaving torn thatch, broken windows, a few trees down and a lot of seaweed dumped on the beach. The mountains of wrack would be stinking in a few days, if local farmers did not gather it up and dig it into the potato fields. Along with cow and horse dung it grew fine vegetables, and since learning how potatoes were grown, Jim had always found it easier to eat them when he knew they were raised on seaweed. 

The Raven suffered no more damage than a shutter that came loose in the wind, and he was hammering up fresh timber, with a mouth still full of nails, when he heard footsteps behind him. They were coming up the path which stretched back to Plymouth in the west and wound on, following the line of the shore, till it reached Portsmouth in the east. 

The footsteps stopped behind him and he said, muffled around the nails, "Just wait there, friend, I'll be done in a minute." 

"Take your time, I'm in no hurry." 

The voice was tenor and soft, the accent rich with the sounds of far off places. Jim felt a shiver race the length of his spine and hesitated in the act of striking the last half dozen nails. He twisted his head to look over his shoulder, but he was squinting directly into the morning sun and caught only an impression of a tall, rangy figure in a dark coat, a man with long hair, a hump on his shoulder and some kind of beast at his left side. 

With an impatient grunt, he finished with the nails and threw down the hammer. "Done, thank God," he muttered as the stranger came on around to the door, beside which the shutter had broken lose near the end of the storm. The light was in his face now, and Jim found himself looking up a hand"s span into wide, clear eyes, some shade between blue and violet and silver. They were framed by long hair the color of a hayfield in August, just before the last cut of the season was made; and the hump on the man's back turned into the round shape of the belly of the mandolin he carried on a strap across his chest. He was thirty at least, perhaps a few years more, if Jim was any judge -- not so very much older than Jim himself -- and when he smiled, he showed a full set of nice, white teeth. 

The beast at his left side was a black spaniel who looked up at Jim as if she expected something of him. Jim dusted off his hands and offered the right to the stranger. "Now, you're not from these parts. I"ve never seen you on this path, and I"ve been here years. You ... I"d remember." 

"Would you?" The man's shake was firm, dry. "And you're right, it has to be ten years since I was here, and you weren't at The Raven when I slept here for a night or three. I'm Toby Trelane." His eyes were almost mauve as he looked down at Jim across the little difference in their height. 

And for just a moment Jim was so sure he saw the flicker of recognition, he caught his breath. Like usually knew like. Not always, but almost, and often enough for Jim's heart to skip in his chest and then race. He cleared his throat and held onto Toby Trelane's hand several seconds too long. 

"Jim Fairley. What can I do for you?" 

"You can tell me where to find the owner," Toby began. 

Jim tapped his chest with one thumb. "You're looking at him." 

"No, Charlie Chegwidden I need to see." Then Toby checked as he saw some shadow pass across Jim's face. "What?" 

"The most you're going to see of Charlie is a headstone," Jim told him with a nod in the direction of the churchyard. "They planted him not much under six years ago. Goddamnit, did he owe you money?" 

"Money?" Toby backed off a pace. His shoulders seemed to slump for a moment before he unslung the mandolin and leaned against the wall under the thatched eaves. "Not exactly. Not money, anyway, but ... well, damn. You're not just too late, you're too late by years." 

And it was dire news, Jim saw. "He did owe you money, didn't he?" he guessed. "Or something as good as. You came here depending on what he had to give you?" 

The remarkable eyes narrowed in the morning sun, and Toby breathed a long sigh. "Let's just say, life would have been a bloody sight easier if old Charlie'd been sitting on the bench there, smoking that poisonous pipe of his, like he always swore he'd be when we ... when I got back here." 

"You took too long," Jim said thoughtfully. "Going by the stories he told, he arrived here about eight years ago, just in time to watch them bury his mother, and he ran The Raven till my father bought it from him." 

Toby's brows rose, creasing his forehead. "He sold the tavern? You mean he -- he sold it and walked away?" He seemed astonished, even appalled. 

"Sold it," Jim affirmed, "but he didn't walk. He stayed right here till the day he died, which was about two weeks after me and my father took over." He frowned up at Toby. "You want to walk over to the churchyard? They buried him properly, with his name on a stone, and the parson said all the right words. Damn, he wasn't your kith and kin was he?" 

But Toby made negative gestures. "No, he wasn't my uncle, if that's what you're thinking. But we were on the same vessel, and..." 

And if anything Fred Bailey said had a grain of truth in it, shipmates were even closer than kin. Jim stooped for the hammer and leftover nails, and beckoned Toby toward the door. "Come and have a jar. You'll feel better with a rum inside you." It was close enough to luncheon for his own belly to be hoping for food, and as Toby and the spaniel stepped inside he asked, "You hungry? There's pie and pudding left from last night." 

"Starving," Toby admitted as he retrieved the mandolin and set it down again carefully, just inside the door, where it would neither be sat on nor fallen over. "I"ve walked over from Exmouth, and I didn"t get any breakfast! Can Bess have a dish of water?" 

The spaniel wagged her tail as she heard her name, and Jim was seduced in an instant. "She can have a dish of ale, if she likes it." 

"She likes it, but she gets drunk. Water"ll do," Toby decided. 

"And a slice of rabbit pie," Jim added. "And yourself --?" 

"Pie sounds grand." Toby was swinging off his gray coat, and threw it onto a nearby chair. He glanced once around the tavern, and then back at Jim. "You haven't changed anything." 

"What would I change, and why would I bother?" Jim stepped behind the bar and poured two mugs of brown ale before he went on into the kitchen to rummage for plates, bowls, spoons. He raised his voice so Toby would hear as he said, "My father changed nothing after Charlie departed, and the place reminds me of my old dad, so I keep it as it is." 

"Then, your father's ...?" Toby was at the door, looking into the kitchen, which Mrs. Clitheroe had left clean and tiny enough to pass muster at a butler"s inspection. 

"My father's also in the churchyard, with Charlie and his ma." Jim thrust platters and dishes at Toby, and gestured at the tall pitcher of water. 

He watched as Toby brimmed a dish for the spaniel. The man had fine, long-fingered hands and they were not battered, like those of a seaman, nor scarred like a soldier"s hands, nor blue with gunpowder embedded under the skin, like the hands of a naval gunner. They were the hands of a musician, and Jim could easily imagine them playing another kind of music on his own skin. 

The thought inspired a shiver and he stepped back out of the way as Toby set down the bowl. Bess lapped noisily, messily, and Toby scratched behind her ears. Jim felt a rush of heat in his cheeks, and covered the moment of vulnerability with activity. He pushed rabbit pie and plum pudding at Toby, and fetched his own, and Bess"s. 

The man had not been joking when he said he was starving. For some time Toby Trelane was so intent on the food, he did not even notice Jim's scrutiny, though Jim took him apart bone by bone, missing nothing from the windblown tangle of the hay-colored hair to the dull, scuffed leather of boots that had seen many a mile. 

The dog was little less hungry, and Jim guessed Toby made sure Bess ate even when he was down on his luck himself. Without any doubt, he had arrived here expecting Charlie Chegwidden to have something for him, and Jim felt a pang of regret. Toby was almost certainly down to the last tuppence in his pockets, and he did not have the look of a seaman or a farmer, so work was not going to be so easy to find -- at least, not in this area. 

The thoughts preoccupied him and he did not notice the wide blue eyes on him until Toby demanded, "Did I sprout a wart on my nose?" 

"No!" Jim chuckled and ate a little. "You said you've just come over from Exmouth. From a ship?" 

"Yes." Toby took a drink. "The first time I've been back in the country for a long time." 

"But you're not a sailor," Jim observed. 

"I'm not?" The edge was off Toby's hunger now, and he divided his attention between Jim and the food. "Who says I'm not?" 

"Your hands do." Jim gestured at them. "They're not the hands of a seaman -- nor a fisherman, nor a farmer!" 

"You're sharp." Toby gave him a rueful smile. 

The kind of smile that filled a man's belly with butterflies. Jim was trying hard to see the signs, but this Toby Trelane was not so easy to read and for the moment he bided his time. Better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. If Toby were the God bothering kind, he would march away in a righteous temper; and if he were furious enough, insulted enough, he might march right to the lieutenant at the local garrison, and Jim Fairley could be looking at the inside of a prison cell. 

"So you're ... a scholar?" he guessed. 

"Balladsinger." Toby gestured at the mandolin. "I can play a madrigal, sing a hundred shanties and love songs from France, Spain, Italy, and tell the brand of stories that'll earn me dinner. And a bed," he added with a note of wry humor. "You, uh, don't have a use for a balladsinger?" 

"To entertain the kind of rummies who get falling-down drunk in here?" Jim was about to say his customers would not have known a sonnet from a psalm and Toby was wasting his time, but the morning light was just then gilding the man's face, shining on the big brass ring he wore in the lobe of his right ear, and he bit off the words. "You can try your luck, if you like," he offered. "I can't promise you a round of applause for your efforts, much less a shower of coins at your feet, but ..." He gestured at the corner between hearth and windows. "Pull up a stool, tell my old rummies a lively tale tonight, see what happens next." 

What should happen next, he thought, was a rousing cheer for the traveling storyteller, a great deal of ale swilling, and then the customers would go reeling home while the proprietor and the balladsinger would climb the steep, creaking stairs up to the little room over the kitchen where Jim had a goose feather mattress, and -- 

"I'll do that," Toby was saying. "The worst I can do is get them so bored they shout at me to shut up!" He sopped up the last gravy with a wedge of pie crust. "So Charlie stayed here till he died?" 

"He was sick when my dad and me got here," Jim told him. "Too sick to keep the tavern for his own, but smart enough to write his room and board into the bill of sale. He had a bedchamber upstairs, and he'd sit at the table there, by the window, and he'd ... watch." 

"Watch what?" Toby wondered. 

Jim's shoulders lifted in an eloquent shrug. "I used to wonder. I thought, maybe he was watching the sea. Or the path. Like he was waiting for something." Or someone. He lifted a brow at Toby. "You knew him well?" 

"As well as a young man could get to know an old man, when they were on the same ship," Toby said doubtfully. 

"But you're not a seaman," Jim protested. 

"Not now." Toby made dismissive gestures. "I was only at sea for one voyage and it was ... quite a short one, as voyages go." He pinned on a smile and answered Jim's frown with a shrug. "It came to nothing. I might still have been at sea, but Dame Fortune had her own plans for me. So Charlie was sick?" 

"Sick as a dog. Something to do with his guts, or maybe his heart, or perhaps both. We never knew. One day he just fell on his face, right there on the floor. I sent a boy to run, fast as he could, for John Hardesty, the doctor, but Charlie was stone-cold dead before the man got here and they buried him the next day." 

"Ah." Toby had switched his attention to the figgy duff and the dollop of cold custard and was chewing slowly, thoughtfully, now his hunger was mostly appeased. He looked up at Jim with a speculative expression. "He, um, he had ... things?" 

"You mean, possessions?" Jim's brows rose. "Everyone's got things." 

"Then, if his old ma was already passed over," Toby mused, "what became of his possessions?" 

It was an extremely good question, and Jim had no idea of the answer. "My father took care of all that. I never saw what happened to Charlie"s stuff, but I don't remember it being sold and nobody ever beat down the door, demanding anything to settle debts. My father would have tossed out his things, if they were trash, or we could still be using them around the place, if they were any good." He sat back with the mug of rum and cocked his head curiously at Toby. "Charlie had something belonging to you." Not a question. 

"You could say that." 

"Something very valuable?" 

But Toby only shrugged and looked away, which was as evasive a gesture as Jim had ever seen. 

"Something secret, then?" he guessed. 

"Something, at any rate." Toby spooned a large chunk of pudding into his mouth, and seemed to use it as an excuse not to talk. 

"Well, I hate to disappoint you," Jim said honestly as he pushed up to his feet, "but if Charlie's stuff is still here, I have no idea what it'd be, or where. Would you recognize it, if you saw it?" 

"Oh, yes." Toby's voice was dark, heavy. "Look, I'm sorry, Jim, it was just a bit of business between Charlie and me, and I daresay it died with him. I didn't mean to bring bad news to your door." 

"You haven't." Jim had reached for the poker, which stood in the corner of the hearth with the set of fire irons, and was raking over the coals. They were smoldering low, in need of attention. "It's not your fault Charlie was sick. And I wish I could tell you I had a tavern crowd that liked a song and a story, but they're a boozy lot in here." 

"But then again," Toby argued, "you've probably never had a proper balladsinger, have you?" 

"Never had one of any description." Jim's eyes drifted over Toby's slender, rangy limbs. "Not yet, anyway." 

"Then ... I'll try my luck tonight." Toby finished the pudding in one bite and gathered up the dishes, and Bess's. "I'll wash these up, and I'll chop you some fresh firewood, and I can polish those windows." 

"You don't have to," Jim began. 

"Let me pay for luncheon before I do something honest to earn dinner," Toby said slowly. 

And Jim could have sworn he was looking over the proprietor of The Raven from the buckle shoes to the brown britches and the pale green shirt which was open at Jim's throat, showing a generous expanse of his chest. Jim could not recall having been stripped naked by a man's eyes quite so comprehensively, and his throat squeezed. 

But then Toby was moving, before Jim could make anything of the moment, and for the fifth time he smothered a curse. Toby Trelane was damnably difficult to read, and the price of making a mistake was dangerously high. It was one thing to daydream about a big, good-looking Dutchman, but quite another to breathe a word about such fancies to any man, unless you knew him better than you knew your own brother. Jim had a healthy fear of the magistrate -- the bastinado, shackles and stocks and prison walls. 

So he clenched his teeth and retreated behind the bar for the afternoon's ritual of polishing tankards while he waited for Mrs. Clitheroe to arrive and start the evening's pies and puddings. And he settled himself to watch Toby closely before he said a word or lifted a brow at him. 

The woman arrived an hour later, already singing tunelessly as she bustled in from the tavern yard in the back. She thumped down a basket of meat and vegetables and shouted through in a voice made hoarse by thirty years of smoking tobacco and sipping gin. "'Tis only me, Master Jim!" And without waiting for an answer she began to murder an old Irish tune as she slammed salt pork and potatoes into the roasting pans and raked out the hearth. 

The sound of an axe took Jim to the windows in the corner of the taproom. From there he could watch Toby work, and he whistled softly. The woodpile stood in the lee of the tavern, where the building kept out the wind and rain. It was a suntrap, and at eleven in the morning already warm enough for a man to work up an honest sweat. Toby had taken off the waistcoat and the patched cream linen shirt, and he knew how to swing an axe. He was facing Jim as he worked, keeping up a steady rhythm, and Jim watched for the pleasure of it until Mrs. Clitheroe bawled his name. 

"Master Jim, these onions is all gone black-rotten in the sack 'ere. Will I go to market for fresh uns, or will thee?" 

"I'll go," Jim offered, grateful for the opportunity to get out for a while. He made a grab for coat and hat, which hung on a peg to the right of the door, searched the pockets for coins, and found three pennies and a few assorted ha'pennies and farthings. More than enough for a sack of onions. "I'll be back in an hour, Mrs. Clitheroe." 

"Take thy time," she shouted, "I's got plenty to do afore I gets to onions. Give old Joe me best." 

She meant old Joe Flynn, the farmer from the high side of Littleham, who sold vegetables from a stall every afternoon. His wife was sick, his eight children were working the farm and the eldest sons, Christopher and William, were smuggling, running the gauntlet of the Revenue men two or three times a month. The Flynn boys would be lucky to see twenty years of age, but with work so scarce in the area and the only alternatives the army, the navy or, worse, a merchantman, their options were few. 

Shrugging into the coat, which was new just last winter and the color of a red deer, Jim rounded the corner of the tavern. Toby was still working, while Bess sat panting in a patch of shade. Jim watched the axe swing for a few moments -- watched the sun gleam on pale honey skin, and when Toby paused to take a breath he said, 

"I have to walk over to Salterton market, if you want to stroll along." 

Toby drew a sinewy forearm over his face and considered the suggestion before he shook his head. "I've just walked over from Exmouth, and I'd rather get through these jobs." 

"Jobs you gave yourself," Jim observed. "I never asked you to cut wood, nor polish windows." 

"No, but if your local drinkers are as tone-deaf and dense as you think they are, it's an honest way to earn a crust and a place to sleep," Toby said with dust-dry humor. 

It was on the tip of Jim's tongue to tell him, there were other ways -- easier and far more pleasurable -- to secure dinner and a mattress, but he would not say it. Few men would be seduced by the suggestion of whoring for their supper; even fewer would take the remark as a jest. 

"As you will," he told Toby. "Take your time. Grab yourself a mug of ale to wet your throat when you're done here. I'll be back in an hour, in any case." He looked over Toby's long, lean body, which did not seem to own an ounce of spare flesh. "They haven't been overfeeding you, have they? Watch yourself, if you stay here for long. Mrs. Clitheroe'll have you fattened up like a piglet." 

"She likes her men round and plump?" Toby chuckled. 

"I haven't asked. She's old enough to be my grandmother -- and yours." Jim settled the tricorn on his head and gave the brim a tug as the breeze got under it. "Does Bess like a bone? I'll see what I can find." 

"She'd be grateful," Toby guessed, and leaned the haft of the axe over his left shoulder to watch as Jim made his way up onto the path which took passing seamen from port to port. 

Salterton and Budleigh nestled together, just west of the east end of the long, shallow bay. On a fine day it was a pleasant walk, and if Jim told the truth, he needed the exercise. People often watched how he favored the lame leg and assumed he needed to rest it. The opposite was true. The damned limb needed all the gentle exercise he could find for it; the more it got, the better it was, but the term "better" was relative. 

He limped. He had limped since he was a lad of fifteen, still four months shy of his sixteenth birthday. He would always limp, and that was the fact of the matter. Jim had accepted it and only noticed the gammy leg when other people, people whose opinion mattered to him, saw it. Today he noticed it keenly and one part of him wanted to try to stride out, hide the limp, while the more sensible part told him to walk the way he always did, be himself, and if Toby Trelane did not like it, then be damned to him. 

Instead, he turned his face to the sun, took a lungful of the salt sea air and steeled himself against turning back to see if Toby was still watching him, and what look might be on his face. Some people wore expressions of pity or sympathy; others were scornful. Jim did not need the former, and the latter aroused his anger faster than a mug of ale tossed in his face. 

What he wanted from Toby Trelane was just the simple acceptance of what he was, and who, and he was surprised to find a tightness in his chest, a certain flutter in his belly, as he wondered if he would get it. 

The coastal path was overgrown on both sides, rank with sea grasses and wild barley which had escaped from fields belonging to farmers like Joe Flynn. It followed the line of the bay, with the rush of the sea on his right hand as he walked east, and the sound of birds, the distant bleating of sheep, the creak of a plow and the clop of heavy horses, at his left hand. 

It seemed to Jim that he had lived his whole life in this one small place. Had it only be six years and eight months? He was nineteen when his father fled the city with lungs gone to ruin and a wife and two daughters in the ground. Two more daughters, both older than Jim, were still living in London, one married to a merchant, the other to a tanner. The last he had heard from them, he had half a dozen little nieces and nephews, and a standing invitation to come back to town and make his home with Janet or Kate, with their husbands" blessing -- 

Not, he thought, that they or their husbands had any inkling of where Jim's heart lay. He wondered how shocked they would be, if they knew he was a very long way indeed from being the eunuch they supposed; that the leg might be gammy but it was rarely painful, and he could give better than he got in one of those wrestling bouts that took place on a mattress by the light of a brass lamp ... and the last thing he desired was a wife. 

He could imagine the shock on Janet's and Kate's faces -- and the horror, perhaps even anger, on their husbands'. Once they knew the truth, he would no longer be welcome in their homes even as a guest, and in London it was infinitely harder for a man to be discreet in his affairs, even if he could make the acquaintance of seamen who knew about these things, which was doubtful. 

Here in the west, never out of sight and sound of the ocean, situated between Plymouth and Portsmouth with the sailor's path right at his door, life was a good deal easier. Safer. Jim was not about to move, even if there were times when he felt as if he was almost becoming part of the stone and thatch of The Raven. 

With a chuckle, he mocked himself and quickened his pace. The sooner he shared the time of day with Joe Flynn -- discussed the weather, inquired about the health of his wife, asked circuitously about the luck of Chris and Wills in the activities for which the Government would gladly have hanged them both -- the sooner he could get back to watching Toby Trelane, and trying to fathom if the man would accept the offer of a bit of slap and tickle, or if he would flush crimson to the roots of his straw-colored hair and make a beeline for the nearest magistrate. 

Not knowing was a nuisance. Trying to read Toby's signs was a sweet kind of torture, and Jim was going to enjoy it. 

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