The Salisbury Key

Shattered by his lover Jason’s suicide, archaeologist Dan Logan is struggling to patch his life together again. He’s desperately following up Jason’s final obsession, a secret buried deep within the military zone on Salisbury Plain. Anything is better than facing the void of his grief.

He’s convinced he’ll never love again. When unexpected help arrives in the form of a soldier named Summer Rayne, the last thing Dan could have predicted is the spark of attraction between them. And at first their relationship is fraught with so much conflict, their investigation into the circumstances of Jason’s death looks more likely to cause one of their own.


But Rayne is smart, and very kind beneath his soldierly reserve. As the mystery of the Plain begins to vortex around them, dangerous secrets emerge, and Rayne and Dan have to work closely together to protect one another and the sanctity of Jason’s memory. A wild new romance takes fire against all odds in the heat of a Salisbury summer, and the soldier and the archaeologist are only on the brink of the mystery of the legendary Salisbury Key.


I couldn’t take my eyes off the upright young soldier who had come to stand by McCade’s desk. Distant bells were ringing in my head. I could smell, for some reason, soya bacon burning on a wood-smoke fire. I remembered a sable-haired angel in a mediaeval painting, there one minute, gone beyond redemption the next time I looked. A nervous squaddie standing guard outside the Stonehenge barricade…


If the sight of me was raising any corresponding memories in Lieutenant Rayne, he wasn’t letting them show. His dark gaze was perfectly expressionless. It rested on me like obsidian, like cool water. It was exquisite and maddening—summed me up in one long look and dismissed me as irrelevant. A task to be dealt with and forgotten.


“Very well,” McCade was saying. “This will just be a preliminary survey, Doctor. It may not be viable for you to start work out there straight away. My final permission will depend upon the lieutenant’s assessment. Rayne, if you take Dr. Logan out to the south gate, I’ll have a jeep sent round for you.”

At last the cool-water gaze left mine. Rayne turned to the colonel. “Yes, sir.”


I was surprised, once out in the sunshine, that I’d recognised him. He had altered enormously, from my one glimpse of him on that Solstice night, which when I thought about it now seemed at once a century ago and only yesterday. I studied him, subtly as I could, as he steered the jeep out past the barricade and onto the plain. He was leaner—less obviously, boyishly handsome. He seemed to have come into a kind of tighter focus. To have burned something off. He still reminded me somehow of a priest, in his intent, unfaltering attention to the road ahead, his stern profile. He had a deep-laid scar across one cheekbone, and some grazing that looked recent. The sculpted mouth was the same, though, tense in its corners as if constantly forbidding itself a smile.


Okay, I was staring at him. I was astonished that anything beyond the basics of my mission could interest me, and I turned my gaze front. He drove with an odd technique, now I came to look, deftly whipping the jeep round the edges of potholes I was sure its sturdy frame could handle. I watched that for a while. The silence between us wasn’t yet awkward, because neither of us had tried to start a conversation, but it had potential. Deciding I wouldn’t be the first to break it, I unfolded the map. Six or seven miles to our destination. They were going to be long ones, at this rate.


I didn’t care. It was quite liberating. All the tiny things that normally bothered me had dropped away. I had liked to be liked, liked to flex a little seductive muscle even from the harbour of my partnership with Jase. To make sure I still had it. But today I didn’t give a damn if we travelled the length and breadth of Salisbury Plain without a sodding word.


The road became monotonous. Even a week ago, I would have loved to be driving out here, watching how the summer was baking the vast stretch of country to its pitch of saffron and gold, but now that remembered beauty was oppressive to me. Almost frightening. Helplessly I returned to my covert study of Lieutenant Rayne’s face. Dark fringe, cut short in spikes beneath his beret. Heavy-duty insignia on the sleeves of his fatigues. He’d done well for himself over the past three years. In weird contrast, that generous mouth, and eyelashes so long they split the sunlight into beautiful brushstroke shadows across his face…


He reached for a pair of sunglasses from the dashboard, and I flinched inwardly. Then I took a breath. He couldn’t have seen me.


“Not far now,” I said, losing my nerve and the game, and he replied, in a distinct, soft Hampshire accent I hadn’t caught back in the briefing room,


“Yeah. You’ve changed a lot, as well.”


I stared out through the shield. For a moment I forgot that I didn’t care about anything anymore and contemplated a rolling dive out the door and onto the turf. Then it occurred to me that he might not mean the night when I had performed my impromptu dance in front of the Stonehenge crowds. Perhaps he had seen me on a more dignified occasion, supervising a group of students or laying out the lines for a dig.


The jeep shot down a couple of hundred more yards of road, her driver still adroitly evading the potholes. Then he continued, “Cut-off jeans, spray-on T-shirt. Oh, and a pair of Captain Marsh’s handcuffs.”


“Jesus.” I folded the map up. I knew where we were now, and I felt an uncontrollable urge to wrap my arms round my chest. I’d have drawn a knee up too, if this had been three years ago and I’d been wearing kick-off trainers, not sensible boots laced tight, the better to impress McCade with my professional demeanour. I was tightly done up inside all my clothes, I realised. Tie, belt, a jacket Jase had given me almost as a joke, for those occasions when only a smart tweed with actual leather elbow patches would do. It was my attract-the-sponsors coat, when we were schmoozing for funding for a dig, something I was very good at. Way too hot for today. I said dryly, “I can’t believe you remember that.”

“It was hard to forget. You had a colleague with you that day. I heard he died.”

I waited for more. I’m sorry, perhaps, or what happened. But he left it as baldly stated as that—no more than an observation. And for once I didn’t reach reflexively for my shield. It was getting damn threadbare now anyway, as the days went by and the differences which made no difference began to wreak transformational havoc on my world. For a moment I was outraged, that he had dared to make such casual reference, where others had tiptoed, used every word but the right one. Loss. Bereavement. This sad time. Never, simply, he died. There was nothing there for me to fight. The words dropped inside of me like two stones down a well.


God. It was real. Nausea washed through me, and I said, “Yeah, he did. What the hell are you driving like that for? You’re making me travel-sick.”


“Like what?”


“Dodging every bloody pothole.”


He hadn’t been aware of it. I saw that, saw him glance at his hands as if they didn’t belong to him. A moment later a very faint flush appeared on the cheekbone I could see. He said icily, “Perhaps that’s because I spent the last three years avoiding mines in Iraq, Dr. Logan. The ones I didn’t have to stop and detonate. That’s my job—not nursemaiding academics with more brains than sense around some imaginary bloody Roman town.”


Well, that was real too. And plain enough. “Okay,” I said. “No problem. Turn around and I’ll get McCade to find somebody else to nursemaid me.”

He snorted. The faint, angry colour was still there. “Chances. I already tried to ditch you. You’re my assignment, for as long as you need me, and if you’ve any bloody decency you’ll keep it short.”


(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?”




“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.”