In Search of Saints

Mitch is on a last-ditch drive to save his career with the Scottish Institute of Archaeology. His ex-lover Lewis has stolen his research into the legendary Pictish saints, mystical pre-Celtic statues hidden somewhere on mist-wreathed Dove Island. Now Mitch is tearing out to the coast in the hope of reaching the saints before his treacherous ex can stake a claim.

At Mitch’s side is his devoted assistant, Owen. Owen adores Mitch, but he’s the quiet, loyal type. Despite himself, Mitch is still dazzled by memories of flamboyant Lewis. He’s in danger of destroying his newfound happiness with Owen – and, as the race for the saints intensifies, he’s losing perspective. Will Mitch learn how to appreciate the love of a good man before he plunges himself and Owen too far into the deadly mysteries of Dove Island?

Excerpt

I was treating my new lover like dirt. I knew it, but I couldn't seem to stop. Rain lashed the windshield, and I knocked Owen’s hand aside as he reached to wipe steam off the glass. “For fuck's sake! That just makes it worse.”

He sat back obediently. For the hundredth time I wished he'd snarl back at me. What would Lewis have said? Drive blind and crash, then, smartarse. Actually, with Lewis I'd be lucky if I got to drive at all...

“Are you going to tell me, then?”

 

The glass steamed up. I rolled down the window and cold air blasted in, redolent of peat and heather. “Tell you what?”

 

“It's been a month since you lost the grant. Why are we out here today?”

 

I gunned the Ford's big boy-racer engine. She was twenty years old and a hopeless high-miler, but she had a heart of gold, even if I had to tear it out of her to prove it. “I told you, didn't I?”

“No. You just blew into my office at eight o'clock this morning and told me we had to get to Dove Island before Lewis Ward. Full excavation kit, or as much as would fit into this banger.”

 

He was right. The rest had just been fireworks inside of my own head, static and sparks. The month that had gone by since my beautiful ex had stolen my research on Dove Island and passed it off as his own had done nothing to calm me down. “The licences to dig just came through. I saw it on the website. If Lew's coming out here, he's coming today.”

 

A huge silver four-by-four lurched over the next blind summit, dead in my path. Owen grabbed the wheel. He bore it down and we left the road in a thunder of bodywork and jouncing rubber. I stamped on the brakes. After five seconds of butt-clenching terror, the tyres found purchase in the slippery bracken and peat, and we skidded to a halt.

 

I snapped off the engine. A quiet descended – the kind you only ever hear in world's-edge places like this one I'd suddenly discovered, the Escort still rocking and creaking on its brink. I scrambled out. Not five yards beyond the point where we'd come to rest, the land fell away. A tumble of pine and rock plunged down and down until it met the sweep of slate-green sea loch. Somewhere above me a raven chuckled. Scraps of mist drifted over the treetops like lonely ghosts, blindly seeking others on the far side of the bay. I wrapped my arms around myself, suddenly chilled to the bone.

 

“Mitchell?”

 

I raised my head. Owen had got out too, and was standing on the far side of the granite headland we'd almost just sailed off, Thelma and Louise in a rusted Ford Escort whose gigantic spoiler would in no way have aided our flight. The four-by-four was nowhere to be seen. Probably the driver had never noticed us at all.

“What?”

“Is this the place?”

I surveyed the rain-swept vista. Out beyond the bay, the waters of Loch Ailsa met the Atlantic in a pale sheen. At the end of a spit of tawny sand, Dove Castle was dreaming, afloat on its mist-draped rocks, crumbling stronghold of Highland chieftains now vanished as surely as the cloud-ghosts being blown to rags in the onshore wind. “Yes,” I said dully. “This is it.”

“Then you can stop driving like a bloody nutcase. That was them. They've beaten us here.”

I straightened up. Owen's back was to me, the set of his shoulders unreadable. I went to stand beside him and followed his gaze down towards the beach. There in the tiny car park, gleaming among extravagantly flowering rhododendrons, a huge silver Range Rover was drawing up. She stopped, and four kids in smart waterproofs jumped promptly out. After them came the driver. He too was hooded and oilskinned, but I'd have known him anywhere, at any distance. He took up his customary central position and began ordering his students about, his gestures eloquent.

“Shit,” I said. Then I pushed aside all thought of Lewis bloody Ward in favour of the dog I could kick. “Don't ever touch the wheel while I'm driving again. You nearly fucking killed us.”

Owen swung to face me, and his expression was anything but that of a kicked dog. His eyes were brown as rich earth: hard to read. He was an ordinary-looking guy. That was part of my problem with him. Lewis turned heads in the street. I'd felt like somebody when I was with him, like I'd tamed a white tiger to stroll by my side. I waited. Angry colour had come up under Owen's skin. Earth and roses now, then. Still ordinary. Was he finally going to give me a display?

“I know it'll be hard for you,” he said tightly, “seeing him again like this.”

I waited some more. But don't you take it out on me, any other man would have said. Not Owen, though. Never Owen. I'd yet to discover how far I could push it with him.

I turned away. My eyes were prickling, my throat sore. A moment later I felt his hand on my shoulder. He was always so warm, even on a bleak Scottish clifftop in the middle of the back of beyond. His hand moved, caressing me through my thin T-shirt.

 

I twisted round and grabbed him, pressing my face to his shoulder. He smelled of clean cotton and his morning shower, not Lewis's Arabian-garden cologne. His arms closed round me hard. He kissed my brow and the top of my skull, the scalp still sensitive beneath its recent radical crop. I'd worn my hair shoulder-length for Lewis, who'd taken great pleasure in closing his fists in its silk. Well, fuck him. Fuck everyone, for that matter. I hung on to Owen for five seconds more, allowing myself the simple comfort he was offering. Then I backed him up against the Escort's flank.

 

“Mitchell, are you kidding? Not here.”

 

“Why not here? Don't you want it?”

 

“I always want you, God help me. But we're right beside the road.”

 

“That car was the first one I've seen in an hour. Look, I've been a bitch to you all the way from Glasgow. Let me do something nice.”

 

“Tourists, Mitchell. Hikers.”

“They can just politely glance away.”

Excerpt

(Rufus has finally arrived, on a very delayed train. Drusilla - now Lady Birch, of course - has brought them a festive gift, in the form of a huge stag's skull.)

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had this.”

“What, my love?”

Archie swallowed hard. His heart was thudding in astonishment that Rufus would risk the endearment, here on the path where the yellow roses had closed over their heads in the summer, and the green leaves provided such sheltering shade. There was no concealment now, only thorns. His fingers on one hand were laced tight through Rufus’s. He had to wait before he could answer, and his words came through gritted teeth. “Waiting for someone. Long enough to wonder if they were alive or dead.”

“Oh, God.” Rufus turned to face him. He lifted his face, and Archie wouldn’t kiss him, not out here, but somehow their brows were resting together. Giles had discreetly vanished, all the noisy new arrivals briefly quenched. If the house itself had a power of protection, channelled through his transformed spirit and the watchful souls of Drusilla and Maria Nettles, they would be safe. “I’m so sorry. The railways seem to like to keep their most urgent work for the busiest time of the year, and...”

“And what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“No, not nothing.” Archie picked up and followed the glimmering threads of unease, his keys to the labyrinth of his lover’s mind. “Why else are you late?”

 

“Oh, Archie. Someone jumped in front of the train. One of the reporters who... who went into Belsen and took all the photographs, the guard said it was. Another one.”

 

Archie closed his grip tighter. He said, for want of a wiser or more consoling word, “Fuck.”

 

“Sorry. I wasn’t going to tell you.”

 

Archie gave him a gentle shake. “Why on earth not?”

 

“Because I’ve come home for Christmas. And there’s nothing festive about...”

 

“A body on the railway line. For such awful reasons.” Quickly Archie checked around. He’d learned that one glance wasn’t enough, that observers could congregate without a breath or shoe-scrape of warning. He hated his vigilance, but he’d pay the price a thousand times over if it meant he could lay a hand on his lover’s face, give him that comfort right now when he needed it, not half an hour later when – knowing Rufus – he’d have found a way to choke the trouble down. “I’m so glad you did tell me. We’re being called post-war England, you know. I read it in the Times.”

Rufus pushed his cheek against Archie’s palm. He’d closed his eyes, and the relief of the loving touch at the right moment had softened the lines of pain on his brow. “So everything’s over, is it? Shall I break out my demob suit?”

“Oh, did you finally get one of those?”

 

“Yes. I shouldn’t have, really, because they more or less shipped me home in a bucket, and I never did get to trade in my uniform for civvies at one of the centres. Still, they issued me one, and sent it care of the museum because they didn’t have my address down here. It’s rather dapper, I have to say – pinstripes, with a little waistcoat to match. I should have brought it with me. It’s just that...”

 

“It’s just that for you, it won’t ever be over. Not for you, not for the Jews, not for anyone who saw what happened in the camps. Not for me either, and that’s the good part, dear Rufus – we don’t have to hide from each other. We never have to pretend that everything’s all right.”

 

Rufus let go of an unsteady breath. Then he looked up, and gave Archie a smile of such brilliance that for a moment summer returned, and the scent of golden roses. “But the strange thing is that... knowing you feel that way, everything is all right for me, somehow. Come along, Squire Archie. You’d better introduce me to your house-load of Christmas guests.”

 

“I didn’t invite any of them, you know. They just descended. And you mustn’t call me squire, love!”

 

“I suppose you shouldn’t call me love, out here in the open, if it comes to that. Ah, if you could have seen yourself, though – standing on the doorstep surveying your domain, and all the birds flocking to you for shelter!”

 

“For Mrs Nettles’ mince pies, is more like it. Very well, then – come on in, if I’m not to be allowed half an hour with you in the bike shed first.” He took hold of Rufus’s wrist, drew his arm through his own. “We’re allowed this much, aren’t we?”

 

“Yes. We’re allowed this much.”

 

Together they made their way into the house. Archie’s whole attention had focussed on the link between them, where human warmth had made its way through tweed and cotton and was sending up bright signals to his heart. He barely noticed the new shadow falling across the hallway: stopped with a jolt when Rufus did, clamping one hand tight to his arm. “Good Lord, Archie. What’s that?”

 

Archie followed his gaze. The huge stag’s skull had been hoisted over the archway that led to the kitchen, and expertly lashed into place there, tinsel and all. “Ah. Drusilla brought us that as a kind of Christmas gift, although she doesn’t hold with new-fangled modern festivals. He’s for Yuletide, I gather. I’ve no idea how he’s ended up there so quickly – although, having said that, the house is full of able-bodied young men at the moment.”

 

“Oh, really? Who have you got? Captain Meredith must count for one.”

 

“Several, if being an adoring husband qualifies him. Billy Prescott is around here somewhere, come to show off his constable’s uniform. And then of course there’s...” Their eyes met, and they both finished out the thought in rich amusement. “There’s Giles.”

 

Stifled giggles exploded from the living room. Archie’s reflexes weren’t fast enough to pull his arm out of Rufus’s grip, and damned if he would anyway: we can have this much, Rufus had said, and Archie was ready to defend their small permissions and privileges to the death. Straight-faced and steady, he turned to the source of the noise. “Ah,” he said, as urbanely as he could manage. “Rufus, I haven’t yet had the chance to introduce you to...”

Oh, hell. He couldn’t remember their names. Worse, he couldn’t think how to define them, these glittering, silk-clad apparitions. And that was ridiculous, because if they’d been men he’d have simply said that they were Giles’s friends. Distress began to shadow the younger woman’s face, and Giles, as if receiving a silent summons, shot out of the kitchen. He edged past Archie and Rufus, smiling, and went to put an arm around her waist. “My fiancée,” he said firmly, making her beam in pleasure and relief. “And this is her sister, Greta. Ladies, this is Dr Denby, the famous archaeologist I told you about.”

“Oh,” said Loretta, “I’ve read about you in the papers, Dr Denby. Ever so interesting. Such an honour to meet you.”

 

Rufus would always have trouble with women, Archie wryly reflected. Despite his wholly restored reputation and growing fame, he brought a shy charm to introductions which inevitably bowled them over. He had let go of Archie and was stepping forward now, hand outstretched. “I’ve made your acquaintance too, in a way,” he said, and Loretta took his hand and looked as though she’d have liked to kiss it. “Yours too, Miss Lombardi. Archie and I saw you in a film, the last time we were in London. Highly...” He paused, and no-one but Archie would have detected his brief struggle for a word. “Most diverting. It’s my great pleasure to meet you both too.”

Trust Rufus to remember the womens’ faces, to pick out the one link between them. Over time, Archie had learned how close he’d come to losing him to Alice Winborne, who even in her grief had come down like a weary dove in response to his diffident kindness. Greta’s mouth had fallen open. She said, in what might have been meant as a whisper but carried clearly across the room,”Oh, my God, Lorrie. I know what you said, but I can’t possibly choose!”

 

Loretta went scarlet. She grabbed her sister’s arm. “That was a joke,” she hissed. “A joke between us, and a private one, you fool!”

Archie and Rufus watched in bewilderment as she dragged Greta to the door, then out into the hallway. Their voices faded off in a series of yelps and snarls. Giles, left behind and blushing vividly too, turned to face them. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen,” he said. He really was the pink of post-war English perfection, Archie thought, with his handsome, open face and immaculately cut motoring gear. Again over time, the memories of his emergence from the pit beneath the church had begun to seem like a dream. “I’m very fond of Greta, but the truth is that she’s travelling with us because Lorrie is so keen to help her find a husband, and... well, when I told them about the two of you, they had their little joke about which of you Greta would prefer.”

 

“Oh,” was all Archie could think of to say, and was relieved when Rufus added a slightly more articulate, “Good grief.”

 

“I know,” Giles agreed, nodding fervently. “I’d be angry with her, only I do remember how it was when... well, when I was like her. A man in his thirties has the world at his feet, if he’s talented and hardworking, which she is, in her way. An actress that age has to look around her. Most of them jump out of the business to get married, you see.”

 

Archie rubbed his brow. “And... she thought to land here?”

 

“Not seriously. It’s my fault really. I talked to them so much about you both – how kind you were, and how good. One of you a country squire, and the other getting so well known for making all those discoveries... I suppose they’ve come to think of you as what they call a catch.”

 

But I’ve already been caught. Archie didn’t know why he didn’t just say it. He hadn’t dreamed the transformation in the pit, the turning castle where his lungs had been healed by Rufus’s kiss and Gillian had turned into Giles. He was certain that Giles knew. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, keeping a tremor of laughter out of his tone, trying to imagine either himself or Rufus pairing off with such a bird of cinematic paradise. “You and your Lombardis stay here for Christmas. And perhaps you can find a way of telling Greta that, lovely though she is, she’ll find better opportunities...”

 

“Archie, look.”

 

He swung round. For a minute or so he’d been aware that Rufus’s attention had detached itself from the discussion of Greta’s hopes and dreams. Archie was used to these shifts. They happened more and more often, as Rufus healed and regained the gifts that had put him in the archaeological spotlight before his terrible war. He was standing with his hands in his pockets now, to all appearances just a quiet man at the end of a long journey, but his eyes were shining. With one hand he indicated first the great stag’s skull, just visible through the doorway to the hall, and then the painting over the fireplace – George Mount, the vast hilltop labyrinth he had discovered, now visited by historians, folklorists and historians from all over the world. He caught and held Archie’s gaze, smiling. “Look.”

 

Archie couldn’t look anywhere else. After a moment, Giles said, quietly, “Thank you, then, Squire Thorne. Dr Denby. I’ll go and help the ladies unpack.”

 

He strode away. Archie allowed himself a moment to wonder at his powerful movements, the air of sheer masculinity that had brought his polar opposites, the flickering, glittering moths, to flutter around his flame. Then he focused on Rufus. “You’ve discovered something.”

 

“Yes. Isn’t it strange? I could do this before the war, but only occasionally. Then when it all got knocked out of me, and I came to Droyton and...” His voice shook slightly. “And you put it back, you must have added something extra. Because now it happens all the time.”

 

Archie held himself stiffly back. Rufus’s gift for landscape archaeology, for picking out a site without so much as sinking a trench or turning a trowel-ful of soil, had flown them both off to all the round Earth’s imagined corners. Then he saw that Giles had carefully, lovingly closed the door behind him, and he crossed the lily-patterned carpet in four big steps and pulled him into his arms. “Rufus. Dear fellow. Thank God you’re home.”