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?
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.
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.
“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.”