Keeping Him in Cornwall
This free chapter is from my story in the charity Heart2Heart anthology where each story revolves around a dating app.
Dad always said that dairy farmers don’t need alarm clocks, not when the cows wake us early. These days, the farm is mine, and the few cows I’ve kept don’t wake me. My arm injury doesn’t wake me either now all of my car-crash cuts and bruises are close to healed. There’s only one other reason to jerk from a dead sleep.
My little brother perches on the edge of my bed. “Stefan? You awake?”
I guess little isn’t the right label for Lukas these days. He’s easily as tall as my six feet, if not quite as broad, but that’s what years of farm work will do to a body compared to studying medicine at uni. He might almost be a doctor, but he’s still a teasing arsehole. It’s too early to wake to a grin that only ever spells trouble for me.
“Wakey, wakey, Sleeping Beauty.” Lukas immediately delivers bad news. “I’m leaving.”
“What?” I blink up at him. “Now? Why?”
“So you can have some quality alone time with Marc.”
“No.” I lever myself up. My elbow doesn’t scream like it first had when Lukas brought home his best friend to help while I was healing. The rest of my brain lurches at the thought of being left alone with someone I once had a near-miss kiss with.
A near-miss kiss?
I would have done a lot more than that with him, if he hadn’t been my younger brother's best friend.
I clutch my covers. “Lukas Luxton, don’t you fucking dare leave me alone with him for the day.”
And here’s proof that something else Dad always said was right: there’s no way Lukas can be a full Luxton. He must have the blood of Cornish pixies running through his veins, he so loves to meddle. His butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth expression barely hides it. “Okay, okay, Stef. I’m not leaving you alone with Marc today.” He slips off the edge of my bed and sidles away before making a full confession. “I’m actually leaving you alone with him for the next few weeks.”
He darts out of my room without offering more of an explanation, so I struggle out of bed and, before I know it, I’m involved in a game of chase across the top floor of the farmhouse we both grew up in. It’s a flashback to us as kids, not two grown men now both in their twenties. Lukas laughs the same way as when he was five and I was ten. His cackle only cuts off when I almost slip on the glossy magazine cover of a Farmers Weekly.
Lukas catches me, and forget what I said about him not being a Luxton born and bred. When he stops me from breaking my fall with my injured arm, I don’t see a teasing Cornish pixie. I see Dad, strong and steady, catching me like he did so often.
Lukas won’t let me fall either, even though he’s a slimline Luxton edition and I’m Dad’s thicker version. “Steady,” he says in another echo of a man we both miss. Lukas draws me to the window to study my arm, sober as he checks me over. And for all that he’s a complete wanker of a little brother, he’ll make a brilliant doctor.
He tests my range of motion, checking almost healed cuts and tracking the last of bruising that had been deep red and purple when he returned from uni with a surprise extra volunteer to share my workload. “No heavy lifting for another week,” he murmurs. Then he explains why he’s leaving me with the one man I can’t trust myself around. “About Marc… I’ve been putting off leaving in case you still needed both of us to help. Now you don’t.” He cites my farmhand for his decision. “John says one extra pair of hands to help him is enough now you’re back to light duties, and this is my last chance…”
“To spend some time with the lovely Lisa this summer?” The sun’s risen enough that I get to see the mention of his girlfriend soften his sharp, pixie edges.
“Yes.” He gnaws at his lip before meeting my eyes. “It’s lucky you crashed your car right at the start of the summer break. Once I start clinical medicine, I won’t get any long breaks. It’ll be nonstop.” He checks my range of motion once more. “Like farming is non-stop too. That’s why I’m leaving Marc here. He’ll make sure you don’t overdo it and roll another Land Rover.”
“I didn’t roll it on purpose. I took evasive action.” My gaze strays out the window to the road in the far distance, a ribbon that weaves like the farm does between wild moorland and the Atlantic. It glints sea green below the cliffs I almost rolled down. “Tourists. Always looking at the view instead of at the road.”
Lukas snorts. “You sound like Dad.”
Maybe I do, but my brother’s next stare is much more like our mother’s, seeing right through me. “I’m not only leaving to spend a few days with Lisa. I’m doing it for Marc. It’s time you sorted your shit out with him. More than time, Stef. You still like him.”
That isn’t a question.
What he states next isn’t either.
“And he still likes you, even though you’re the most boring man on the planet.” He dodges my punch, laughing. “You are boring, Stef. It’s no wonder you’re still single.”
I pull away, heading for the door, until Lukas says, “And yet Marc describes you as his benchmark.”
That stops me dead.
I turn back.
“Benchmark. Bar. Scale.” Lukas nods. “Apparently you’re all of those to him.”
“No.” I can’t be.
Lukas holds his hands up, laughing. “Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just saying what he let slip.”
“Which was?” I flashback three years to that one and only time Marc and I came close to crossing a line. One that Lukas probably wouldn’t find half so funny because it’s one thing knowing your best friend has a crush on your older brother but it’s a whole other to find they’ve fucked and made things awkward. Which is why I stopped Marc before that could happen.
It could have ruined a friendship that started in childhood when Marc’s family first holidayed at our campsite. He and Lukas got along so well, Marc ended up staying with us every summer. Years later, it feels like he’s been around forever. Turning him down had been worth it to preserve his friendship with my brother.
Besides, Marc had been barely eighteen when we’d kissed, and back then I’d felt… Well, I’d felt a whole lot older than twenty-three. Twenty-three? I’d felt a fucking hundred. A lot like Atlas as well, only the weight I carried was farm shaped instead of a globe.
Marc and I wouldn’t have lasted. Not when I’m tied to this land and his real life is in the city. Besides, my brother had already lost someone important that year. No way would I cost him the one other person my whole family thinks is special, me included. Because Marc was special to me. Still is.
Lukas can’t possibly know my line of thinking, but he points to the barn and I see what he’s noticed. Marc sits half in shadow on a bale of straw, his hair an auburn beacon so much brighter than our dark brown. “You want to know what he let slip to me about why you’re his benchmark?”
I can’t help nodding, even though hearing why feels as dangerous as my Land Rover flipping all over again, the edge of the cliff right there through its smashed window.
“Because apparently you set his bar high once. Now he’s using that same bar for all his next decisions, like where he’ll live and work when he leaves London.”
That grabs my attention. “He’s relocating?”
Lukas nods. “He isn’t the kid who used to stay here every summer, Stef. He’s almost twenty-two and he knows what he wants. He’s sorted his professional decisions. Now he’s found a tool to help him with more personal ones. He’s doing that right now, see?”
All I can see is that Marc scrolls on his phone, oblivious to us watching.
I also notice that he smiles as my dad’s dog, Jess, leans against his legs. Marc stops scrolling to stroke ears I know feel like velvet. Her muzzle too, which is almost all white. He’s gentle with her before putting his phone away and getting back to work. Marc hefts the bale he sat on, lifting it in a way he couldn’t have managed so easily the year he tried to kiss me. Now he shoulders it with no trouble, another reminder that he isn’t the kid I remember. He’s around the same age I was back when I learned to carry that farm-shaped weight.
Those years have gone in no time, which my brother also mentions.
“He’s old enough to search online for what he wants.”
I snap back to the present. “What?”
“That’s what he was just doing, Stef. Using an app to find someone now that he’s decided to relocate to Cornwall.”
“An app?” I parrot as if I haven’t installed and deleted Grindr enough times to know that anonymous bangs only leave me lonely.
“Keep up, will you, slowcoach?” Lukas gives me a wry look before grabbing his suitcase. He bumps it downstairs, still talking as I follow. “You’d know all this if you hadn’t spent the last few weeks avoiding being alone with him. Marc’s finished his business degree. He’s going to do his masters while working. He’s got interviews lined up in Penzance.” That’s no distance from here. “Now he’s searching online for a different kind of company.”
I must look as dazed as when I woke up in the hospital to find Lukas back from London with no idea why.
Lukas peers into my eyes the same way once we’re at the bottom of the staircase, like he suspects I’m still concussed. He speaks very slowly. “He’s using the Heart2Heart app, Stef. The app that encourages conversations before meeting, not just hookups. That means he’s looking for a boyfriend, not a one-off. A partner, not an anonymous torso with a six-pack.” He prods my bare stomach as if he can guess the photo I used for my Grindr profile. “Only he’s struggling because he’s getting plenty of matches, but he says none meet your bloody benchmark. Not until yesterday, at least. Now there’s a potential contender, so you need to get your head out of your arse in a hurry.”
We head outside, the early morning air cool enough to make me wish I’d dressed instead of following him out in the boxers I slept in.
Lukas loads his case in his car before facing me. “What do you think I want most in the world for my best friend?” He provides his own answer. “For him to be happy. You too, you massive muppet.” He huffs out a huge sigh. “But what have I ended up with?” He goes ahead again and tells me. “With him down in the dumps for ages, and you even sadder. You should have told me. If I’d known sooner, I could have knocked your heads together.”
I freeze. “I should have told you what?”
“That you fancy the pants off each other. That you’ve both been pining for each other, you numpties. For three fucking years.” He shakes his head as if despairing, but his eyes twinkle. “He only told me about your version of Romeo and Juliet when I asked him to come back here to help you. That’s when he finally spilled that he’d stayed away because you told him you two couldn’t ever be together.”
He strikes a pose, clutching his heart as he groans, “The drama!” and I hate him. Then he says, “I would have been one hundred percent okay with you two bumping uglies,” and I snort at his grimace. “Well, maybe not one hundred percent okay because who wants that mental image?” Lukas meets my eyes. “I would have dealt with it, though, Stef. You two being together, I mean. But I’m guessing you had too much on your plate back then, didn’t you?”
“So much that you didn’t have any headspace for fun?”
Three years ago?
I shake my head. Inheriting the farm and keeping it going had been a tall enough order. Keeping our home life steady right when Lukas had important exams—the ones that got him into med school—had been another. And as for making sure Mum made it out the other side of starting over? My gaze drifts to the distance as if I can see the coastal art studio she now lives and works in, another moving on that took us years to inch through.
Headspace for fun?
Fucking around with Marc only to find out I’d cost my family another loved one would have been the opposite of fun. Because that’s what Marc is to them. And, I have to admit since his return, he still is to me—someone special I would have lost too once he got his first-time sexual fumble out of his system.
Lukas squints as if he hears that, his glance flicking to the barn. “You’ve got headspace now, Stef. Time on your hands while you’re on light duties too. So you can bloody well deal with it, and fast, because that match Marc’s found on the Heart2Heart app might not meet your benchmark, but he’s got one thing going for him.” He goes ahead and tells me. “He’s local, Stef. Cornwall’s a small place, isn’t it? Teeny-tiny. Are you ready to see Marc with someone who could have been you each time your paths cross?”
I swallow because I hadn’t ever let myself daydream of other options—of Marc living here instead of forging a path at home in London or of Lukas giving me his blessing.
It’s a lot to take in at dawn o’clock while almost naked in a farmyard.
I don’t know where to start with what he’s told me.
Lukas takes pity before leaving. He clasps my healing arm, careful around my bruises, and gives me a clue. “I know you’re the strong and silent type, but you heard me when I said you’re his benchmark, didn’t you? The bar he’s using to measure whoever that app matches with him? Were you paying attention, Stef?”
I nod. Then I nod again even harder because I might not be the best at talking, but I do know how to listen.
Lukas squeezes my arm one more time. “Then let him know that he’s your benchmark too.” He gets into his car and winds down the window. “And if you can’t think how to tell him, find a way to show him.”
You can read the rest of Keeping Him in Cornwall HERE in the Heart2Heart anthology.
It's available via Amazon/Kindle Unlimited and the proceeds help support LGBTQIA charities.