‘Not really. I just saw a deer shot right in front of my eyes.’
His jaw twitched but he didn’t look surprised. ‘Whereabouts?’
‘On the path on the way to the cliffs, about twenty minutes from here. It was a man with dark hair, in his thirties I think. He had an old dog with him, it looked like a wolf with grey fur, and—’
‘Milo,’ Henry said, sighing.
Claire thought of what Holly had said. ‘Holly’s uncle?’
‘Yes, my wife’s bloody idiot of a brother. I told you that family is cuckoo.’
She peered towards Holly. ‘I don’t want to cause a family argument. I just think he needs to be a bit more aware of how terrifying it can be, having a gun pointed at you.’
‘Oh, he’ll be made aware, all right.’ He peered at the clock. ‘Do you want to freshen up? Then I have one hell of an afternoon planned for you.’
Claire forced herself to smile. She really didn’t want to be here. She wanted to be back home, saving her marriage. ‘Great, see you in twenty minutes.’
She turned away but not before she caught sight of her brown eyes reflected back at her in a nearby mirror. She thought of the hopelessness she’d seen in the deer’s eyes before it tumbled down the bank.
Claire picked up the pint of sweet cider she’d just ordered and settled back into the plump sofa, staring out of the window beside her towards the darkening valley and blanket of trees below. Her room overlooked the same scene a floor above. It was all cream carpets, mahogany furniture and plush red chairs, just like the bar she was sitting in. It felt too plush and romantic for just her. She yearned for Ben to be here. She’d told him she wouldn’t go when they’d got home from that dreadful drive, but he’d insisted. She’d even suggested to him that he join her. Her company forbade partners from attending trips but this was a special circumstance. But again, he refused. He’d clearly made his mind up and it should have shocked Claire to the core. But the truth was, she wasn’t surprised. She’d been in denial and now it was all unravelling.
So instead of Ben being her dinner partner, she’d had to endure Henry all afternoon and over dinner too. Only he could draw what would usually be an hour’s tour into four hours. And now she was sat here alone, belly full of Exmoor’s finest lamb, head already woozy from the few sips she’d had of her cider. She checked her phone, not that it was much use considering there was no reception here. When Henry had said the place was remote, he’d meant it.
She caught sight of the notepad she’d brought. She needed a distraction. Maybe she could start work on that travel memoir she’d always wanted to write? Except when she opened it, the blank page mocked her. She swirled a pattern in the margins, flowers tangled around the punctured holes like ivy, then wrote the word ‘Exmoor’ and her name, then a line – A watercolour of grey …
A gust of cold air wrapped itself around her, lifting the corners of her notepad. She looked up to see the man who’d shot the deer walk in, dark hair whipping about his head, the ash from the cigarette he was holding dancing towards her. Under the light of the bar, his brown eyes looked almost gold, his lips very red. He appeared younger close up, taller too. He was wearing what he’d had on earlier: black jeans tucked into green wellies, a typical farmer’s wax jacket. She had to admit he was very attractive – what her friend Jodie would describe as a ‘dasher’, all legs, rugged features and windswept hair. That didn’t detract from the fact he’d nearly killed her.
A man prowled in behind him. He looked a little like Milo but older, thinner, with hair a shade lighter than his. His brother? He hunched his shoulders and narrowed his eyes as he scanned the pub. Behind him, the feral-looking dog she had seen earlier slinked in. Now she could see it close up, she recognised some Irish wolfhound in it, maybe a touch of German shepherd too. He looked quite a few years older than Archie, his back legs a bit rickety.
Milo stubbed his cigarette out on the wall as he passed her, bringing with him the smell of grass and bonfires. He stared at Claire then looked down at her notepad. She slammed it shut, trying to look suitably indignant. He frowned slightly then strolled to the bar as Claire peeked at him under her eyelashes, taking in how short his hair was at the back, a contrast to his long fringe.
As his dog passed, Archie let out a low threatening growl. The dog paused, surveying Archie with startling blue eyes. Milo tapped two fingers on his thigh and his dog bounced to his side, pressing his face close to his owner’s leg.
Henry walked in from the restaurant with a thin, dark-haired woman – his wife, Claire presumed, and Milo and this other guy’s sister. She strolled up to her brothers as Henry disappeared behind the bar. Claire could see the similarities between the three of them. Same long, sinewy limbs; same brown feline eyes; same distinctive bone structure. She thought of what Henry had said earlier about them being ‘cuckoo’. She wondered what he meant by that. They certainly gave off a certain energy, the atmosphere in the bar charged in their presence.
The door opened again and Holly bounded in. She was wearing a blue taffeta dress that seemed a little childish for her age, the sleeves too short, the edges frayed. She whirled around the pub before Milo’s brother grabbed her arm and reprimanded her, making her pretty eyes fill with tears. Milo frowned and placed his hand on his brother’s arm, whispering something to him. His brother relaxed slightly and pinched Holly’s cheek playfully as she looked down at her feet, biting her lip. Claire’s heart went out to her and she shot her a quick smile. Holly’s face lit up and she smiled back at her. But then Milo’s brother glanced towards Claire and glared at her. She quickly looked away.
Yes, there was something a bit off about that family.
Henry handed a pint over to Milo who held his gaze with a long, cold stare before strolling towards a table in the corner, his brother and niece joining him. Milo sunk into a chair, taking a sip of his beer, his eyes drilling into Claire’s over the top of his glass as his brother knocked half his pint back, slamming it on the table and wiping his mouth. Claire turned away again, taking several gulps of cider in quick succession, panicking as she felt the bubbles working their way back up her throat and towards her nose. She coughed into her hand. Milo smiled to himself and she felt a stab of annoyance.
Henry caught her eye and strode towards her, crouching down beside her table. ‘Sorry I can’t join you, we’re short on staff tonight.’
‘Oh, it’s fine, I’m quite happy sitting here, taking it all in.’ Claire peered towards Milo and his brother. ‘Is that your wife’s two brothers?’
Henry followed her gaze and rolled his eyes. ‘Yes, the infamous James brothers, Milo the Mystery Man and Dale the Deranged.’
‘Screw loose,’ Henry said, making circles with his finger over his temple. ‘Came back from fighting in the Falklands one sandwich short of a picnic.’
‘He’s a soldier?’
‘Was a soldier, until he spent a few months in a mental institute. I told you that family is nuts, something runs through those veins of theirs, a connection gone wrong in their set up. My wife Jen’s the only one who’s normal. You know their grandfather shot himself?’
Claire followed his gaze towards Dale who was clenching and unclenching his jaw as he stared into the distance. ‘That must have been very hard for Dale, being in the Falklands.’
‘We all go through tough times. Don’t turn us half-mad, do they?’ Henry leaned closer, lowering his voice. ‘I talked to Milo about how upset you were. I also told him he won’t be paid for that deer he shot.’
Claire thought of the red notices she’d seen on the drive down, the smoke on the horizon, the rotting stench as dozens of herds were culled. She’d even written about BSE, or Mad Cow Disease as it was known, for her magazine after many of the UK’s farm attractions had closed to tourists, the disease not only killing cattle but also being linked to vCJD, a brain condition in humans. But tourism was the least of the farm world’s problems. The worldwide ban on all British beef exports the year before was crippling them.
‘No, Henry, please,’ Claire said. ‘Farmers need all the money they can get with this BSE crisis.’
‘The farm’s problems started way before all this BSE nonsense! Thank God I came along and bought this inn off the family, otherwise there’d be no money left.’ He raised his voice as he spoke. Milo’s brother turned to look at Henry before sliding his gaze to Claire, the anger visible on his face.
She stood up. ‘I’m going to call it a night, Henry, it’s been a long day.’
‘But it’s only eight!’
‘I’m very tired.’ She manoeuvred out from behind the table. ‘Don’t say anything else to your brother-in-law, all right? And please, don’t dock his pay.’
Claire looked him in the eye. ‘Really, Henry. I’ll see you at lunch tomorrow as planned. I want to explore the area a bit in the morning then we can discuss what you have planned for the rest of my stay.’
She found herself taking one last look at Milo, who was now laughing at something Holly had said, then walked out of the bar, Archie trotting after her. As she reached the staircase, she heard footsteps behind her. She turned, thinking it was Henry then froze when she realised it was Milo.
Archie jumped up at his legs, tail wagging erratically.
Traitor, Claire thought.
‘I’m sorry about what happened earlier,’ he said. His voice was deep with a slight West Country twang. ‘Henry said you were upset.’
‘I think the deer was more upset,’ Claire said.
‘It was a red stag actually.’
Claire rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, that makes it better then.’
‘It does when it’s been trampling all over our crops and killing endangered wildlife,’ he said with a raised eyebrow.
She felt her face flush. She wasn’t qualified to have an argument about this. ‘Just be more careful in the future. I didn’t expect to have a gun pointed at me on my first day here.’
Archie whined, scrabbling his paws at Milo’s jeans. Milo leaned down, running his hand over Archie’s back. Then he peered up at Claire from under his fringe, his eyes sinking into hers. ‘Sorry, I’m being an idiot. I actually hate hunting.’
‘Then maybe you should consider a career change.’
‘It’s not as easy as that.’