Kestrel and Rory are the very best partnership in Wester Fleet’s elite Mountain Rescue Team. They’ve trusted one another with their lives for five years. They’re closer than brothers – but Rory’s feelings for his handsome, daredevil partner are far from fraternal.
He knows better than to tell Kes the truth. Climbing partnerships are a delicate balance of love and practicality, and the Fleet MRT has a strict non-fraternisation code. Rory could lose everything by a confession. And Kes is an enigma – sometimes distant, sometimes seeming to crave the very devotion Rory longs to give him.
Kes is all set to become the MRT’s next leader. He’s a shoo-in for the job, except for his impatience with amateur climbers and his inability to hold his tongue. When he and Rory are given the job of guiding two important visitors across the Fleet range, it’s a test of his tact to say the least. But nothing about this mission is as it seems, and soon Kes is facing the most terrifying challenge of his life.
Not an obvious mountain man, Rory McCall. Kes watched him unobtrusively over the top of a pint. He was hammering out the end stages of a snooker game with Donal Marsh, having to stand on his toes to make the long shots. Not short by street standards, but the only member of the team to measure up at less than six foot. Built on the light side, too. He flexed down over the table, made an unlikely cannon to pot the black, and burst out laughing. He was fresh from the showers, his T-shirt clinging to him. Kes looked away.
Whatever his problem had been out during their callout, he'd got over it fast enough. He was a good-humoured little sod, Kes would give him that. Today was the first time in five years he'd seen him seriously upset. He was cheerful and stolid, just the way Kes liked them. No oceanic depths beneath his pretty surface, but that was okay. That was all Kes wanted – someone to help work the ropes and get the job done.
He was bloody good-looking, mind, especially after three pints of Old Caledonian. Kes bit back a snort. Not what he'd meant – nobody needed beer goggles to find Ro McCall attractive. Leaning his elbows on the bar, careful to keep them out of the wet patches, Kes tried to work out what he had meant. He wasn't bothered by that neat backside, the warm brown eyes or silky cap of dark-blond hair out on the mountain slopes, although granted those assets were normally hidden by gear. Maybe the difference was that Kes was free to perceive his charms, once the scales of his sobriety had fallen away.
Not all the scales, of course. It took more than a couple of rounds to do that to Kes, and his pulse remained steady when Rory came to hitch up on the bar stool next to him. He smelled nice – clean and male, prickly with some citrussy tang of soap or shampoo – but Kes could cope with that. A good friend, was Rory. Solid through and through, and Kes had no intentions of messing with their balance. “I see you gave Airhead a good stuffing.”
Rory chuckled. “Shut up. He doesn't know you call him that, you know. And he's just at the table behind you.”
“Oops.” Kes signalled to the barman. “It's my round, Teddy. Same again for Ro and the lads at the card table, and whatever Airhead's having.”
“Bastard,” Rory told him comfortably. “Airhead – Donal's all right. I just don't want to end up winching his arse up mountains instead of yours.”
“I know. And I take your point about tact and politics, okay? I'll try to put a veneer of charm on it in future.”
“That's my lad. Don't worry, it'll be a very thin veneer. Nobody's actually gonna think you're nice.”
“That's all right, then.” Kes handed the barman a note, then slipped off his stool and took Donal's pint over to him with smiling sincerity. Returning to his place, he gave Rory a wry look. “There you go. A good start. Seriously, mate, I don't know what else I can do. I've been with the service since it was a group of volunteers working out of a hut in Port Righ. I've got the best record for survival rescues in western Scotland, and you know I'd give an arm and a leg to keep the team going. The board's got all the stats and figures. They're just gonna have to make up their minds.”
“And there's the year-end physical tomorrow. Don't forget that wee gem.”
“Oh, crap. Is that tomorrow?”
“Aye.” Rory tipped back his pint glass and drank, the delicate skin of his throat drawing Kes's unwilling gaze. “I always remember the date because I missed the first one – I'd just been recruited. I recall seeing you lot disappearing off up the indoor test wall and thinking I'd never be able to do that.”
“Are you kidding? You were a top-flight climber back then, or you'd never have got in.”
“Yeah, but you were so fast – like a rat up a drainpipe...”
Kes chuckled helplessly. “Ta.” He reached for his own pint, raised it to toast the lovely image. Then a weird spasm went through his hand, something between pain and a cramp, and he set the glass back down. “Hang on. Did you say... Are you into your sixth year?”
“As of tomorrow.”
“But that means...” Kes looked away from him, stared at the bar top, whose stained and pitted surface had become a calendar, each mark on it a sigil for months and years gone by. For days and hours – hours whose very minutes he had once counted out, sitting alone in his flat as the clock ticked up towards midnight...
“Kes? You okay?”
He jerked his head up. “Yeah. Sure.” He swept one palm across the beerstains, almost upsetting Rory's pint in the convulsive gesture of wipeout. “Teddy! Send a couple of bourbon shots over here, will you?”
“Easy, tiger. You sure you want to be washing your beer down with those?”
“You'll be washing down yours with one of them. A five-year anniversary's a big deal in this game. We should celebrate.”
“Gladly,” Rory said, eyeing the shot glasses warily as Teddy slid them down the counter top. “But how about tomorrow, once the tests are over with? Technically that's the right day, too.”
“Ah, come on. Who knows what tomorrow brings?”
“Well, I guess we could both die of strokes in the night. But I don't think we can rely on that, and short of sudden death, I do know what tomorrow brings. I'd rather not be facing it with a hangover, so – ”
Kes reached out and took his hand. As he'd anticipated, Rory went still as a startled cat. The gesture was loud and proud on the bar top, in full view of Marshie and Ted and anyone else who cared to look. But Rory didn't pull away – also as Kes had foreseen. He just stared at Kes, wide-eyed.
“Listen, Ro. I, er... I know you're gay.”
“Well, no points for detective work, mate. I introduced you to my boyfriend.”
“Yeah. I know you like Marshie, and I do too, but he's a hell of a gossip. He said you two had broken up.”
Rory shook his head. “Did he? Christ, that was months ago. I don't even remember... Yeah, I think I mentioned it to him at his birthday dinner, but...”
“I wish you'd been able to tell me.” Kes maintained his hold. He didn't keep a trace of wistfulness from his voice, and he stroked Rory's knuckles with his thumb.
“There was no big deal to it. Jim and I weren't too serious, and – well, the difference is that Marshie asked me, Kes. That’s why he got told.”
“I know. I'm sorry. I'm not good at that kind of thing, either.”
“What – conversations about other stuff than mountains? I never expected you to be. I don't understand why you're telling me this now.”
“Because Marsh told me one other thing. He said I might not have noticed, but our newest climber had a bit of a crush.”
“Your newest...” Now Rory did snatch his hand away, sharply as if he'd been burned. A painful flush stained his throat and his cheekbones. Kes swallowed hard. All this had started as a desperate leap away from his own thoughts, but Rory was bloody beautiful with outraged blood raising roses beneath his skin.
“Me?” Rory demanded. “Fuck that. I'm not sixteen years old, you arrogant... Anyway, aren't you supposed to be straight? I met your girlfriend about the same time you met Jim.”
Yes, and if she hadn't been my sister's best mate doing me a favour, that would have been fine. Kes struggled to remember her name. “Well, Rachel and I haven't seen much of each other lately either.”
“Rachel? I thought she was called Ruth.”
“Er... Yeah. Ruth. Right.”
Rory sat up straight. He tucked his hands into the pockets of his hoodie, put his head on one side and examined Kes intently. “Do you feel like telling me... just what you're playing at, Kestrel?”
Not playing. Kes was suddenly as deadly serious as he'd ever been in his life. “I told Marshie not to be stupid,” he said softly. “But I'm beginning to think I might have been the stupid one, to ignore him. To ignore you. Do you want to get out of here?”
Rory lost all his colour. He barely changed expression, but a shadow of yearning passed over him, so poignant that Kes almost got off his bar stool and took him in his arms there and then – as his mate, his staunch companion of the mountains. Almost told him to forget this whole thing if he could, and just come away with him somewhere and talk. God, Kes wanted to talk. The need was stoppered up so hard inside of him that cracks had started to tear apart the very framework of who he was meant to be. Instead he sat still. After a long moment, Rory whispered, “Bloody hell,” and reached to grab his shot glass.
“You'll come with me, then?”
Rory downed the bourbon. He eyed the glass in front of Kes, then snaked out a hand and knocked back that one too. “Yes. You know I will.”