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"It's starting to look promising out there; will you be fishing this afternoon, then, John?"
John smiled up at the waitress who'd just brought him his lunch. Katy was a sweet girl, but for all that she'd been born and brought up on the island, she didn't have an eye for the weather. The clouds scudding across a deep-blue sky were bringing more rain, and although that wouldn't stop him from fishing, the wind carrying them would make putting out to sea difficult.
"Not today, no." He picked up his knife and fork and prodded at three miniature carrots on the edge of his plate, looking even smaller next to the pile of chips and the generous piece of homemade chicken and vegetable pie. "Did these shrink when you cooked them, lassie?"
Katy giggled, tossing her head so that her long ponytail of dark-brown hair swung jauntily. "It's her idea, is that. Thinks the tourists appreciate a bit of style. It's that nouvelle cuisine."
John sighed. Stella Duncan was a fine woman, and she'd done wonders turning a small, dingy shop selling ice cream and postcards into a well-lit, airy tourist trap with a thriving restaurant attached, but sometimes she got just a little too ambitious. John recalled the night he'd strolled into the Eilean Bay Restaurant and Bar, wanting nothing more than a ham sandwich and a pint of bitter, only to find that it was Caribbean Night and the menu consisted of searingly spicy food with sticky fruit cocktails made from--as far as he could gather from one cautious--tinned pineapple juice and one hell of a lot of rum in place of a decent ale. He pushed the carrots aside in mute protest and reached for the bottle of ketchup before Stellacame out of the kitchen and whisked it away for being too common.
"The ferry's coming in," Katy remarked, hitching her hip onto the table and staring out the large window with the air of one who has nothing to do. John started to count silently. He'd reached four when Stella appeared in the doorway and gave the back of Katy's head a fierce glare which fifty years had honed to a weapon.
"And is it a holiday you're wanting, Katy? A long holiday with nothing to do but twiddle your thumbs because you're out of work?"
Katy jerked upright, green eyes wide with appeal, and turned to face her employer. "A holiday? No, Mrs. Duncan! And I wasn't--I was just making sure John--Mr. McIntyre, I mean, had everything he needed."
Stella studied her in grim silence and then sniffed disbelievingly. Katy hurried past her, head down, and Stella winked at John, her thin face lightening, before following Katy back into the spotless kitchen.
John chuckled, shook his head, and applied himself to his food, staring out at the choppy sea as he ate it. The ferry was making its ponderous way across the wide channel separating Traighshee from the mainland, skirting around the smaller island of Iona to the west and stopping there to drop off passengers before reappearing and heading for the dock at Eilean Bay. John, who amongst other things ran an informal taxi service, timed the last mouthful to coincide with the first passenger off the ferry, and stood, leaving a generous tip for poor Katy, and a plate empty of all but the carrots.
He made his way into the gift shop, which had a small sign in the window saying "McIntyre's Taxi. Enquire Within"--Stella was his auntie's cousin, and family helped family. So far all the passengers had been locals. There was young Jim Cameron, back from visiting his gran in Oban; and the Holloways, laden with art supplies to be transformed into paintings; and pots for Stella to sell as authentic island crafts, although the pair of them were English, with strong Midland accents even an American tourist couldn't mistake for a Highland lilt.
As he watched, the final passenger disembarked, and John smiled, scenting a fare. Hadn't seen that one before. Even from a distance of a few hundred yards, the man stood out, the battered brown leather jacket and jeans he wore doing nothing to disguise the fact that he was clearly a visitor. In fact, they emphasized it. John was wearing jeans himself, but they were stained white with salt-water and decorated with the odd splotch of oil as he'd spent the morning tinkering with the engine of his boat. This man's jeans were clean, dark and well-fitting, and his leather jacket, no matter how worn, marked him as a visitor. John, like most men his age on the island, owned a suit for funerals, an oilskin for bad weather, and spent the rest of the time in a shirt and a thick sweater, shedding or adding layers as the seasons changed.
The newcomer was carrying a large suitcase and had a heavy bag slung across his shoulders. From here, John could see something wrapped around the man's left wrist, and he frowned. If the man had hurt himself, he'd not be here for the fishing or the climbing--not that Traighshee had anything like the Cuillins, but there were some challenging climbs on the single mountain, Ben Dearg, that reared up, heather-clad at its base, from the centre of the island. Ben Dearg had been mist-shrouded at sunrise when John had woken, and that, more than anything, had told him that the weather would be chancy.
The man got closer, and John's eyes narrowed with an interest he hoped he could keep from showing on his face. It wasn't curiosity that drove John now, but a strong, visceral attraction, the kind of reaction that bypassed sense, because it really wasn't sensible to be standing there with his cock half-hard and his heart pounding. Not when he knew nothing more about the man than what he'd gleaned from a glance or two.
John took a breath that was supposed to calm him down and didn't do much because he couldn't drag his eyes away from the stranger. The longer he looked, the more his mind had to work with. The man walked toward him, his head tilting back to follow the swoop of a seagull diving down to snatch at a scrap of food on the road, exposing the strong, clean line of his profile.
It had been too long and lonely a winter, that was all, but John didn't think he'd be the only one viewing him with approval. The visitor was good-looking by anyone's standards, with dark, straight hair. He was taller than John by an inch or two, and with a runner's build to him. He looked tired though, and as the clouds split and the warm May sunshine poured through the gap, illuminating him, John saw that his first impression, of a man in his mid-twenties, had been a little off. The man looked to be about thirty, like John, and the green eyes squinting against the sun were shadowed with fatigue.
The shop door opened and John abandoned his pretended study of a dubious oil painting of Segrith Bay at sunset, awash with lurid red, and watched the man walk in and go to the counter. Stella's arrival, as she came bustling out to greet him, allowed John the chance to get himself under control, for which he was grateful. He was going to have to speak to the man in a moment and he had no wish to make a fool of himself tripping over his tongue.
The stranger exchanged a few words with Stella, his voice low enough that John was unable to tell where he was from. Stella studied his face with a mixture of curiosity and concern that John wasn't used to seeing--fine a woman as she was, and people on the island tended to add that phrase whenever she was spoken of, Stella wasn't known for being soft-hearted.
She was nodding now, and a moment later her eyes moved over and met John's as the man turned to look in his direction as well. "Fare for you, John," Stella said, raising her voice enough so that it carried across the room to where John was standing. "This fella's going to Rossneath House and needs a ride."
John walked over to greet the man, extending his hand automatically. It was taken briefly in a strong clasp and his smile was returned just as fleetingly, dropping off the man's face as though it was too much effort to keep it there. John had seen men look like that before, coming back from three days and nights fishing on the trawlers with sleep a fond memory by the time their feet were back on land.
"You'll be kin to old Ian then, will you?" John asked, barely troubling to make it a question.
Rossneath House had stood empty for two years now, its owner dying slowly in a nursing home on the mainland. His choice--there were plenty who would've taken care of him, but the old man was stubborn and preferred, he said, the charity of strangers to the pity of friends. John hadn't known Ian Kelley well; he'd kept himself to himself, as much as was possible on an island where gossip was less a character flaw than a hobby, but he'd liked him well enough. Ian had had a sister, two decades younger than him, born late enough to have been spoiled by parents who'd never thought they'd be blessed with children again. A bonnie girl, with just this man's dark hair and green eyes, she'd left the island as soon as she could, and broken her parents' hearts doing it.
Not that John blamed her. Fiona Kelley had left before he was born, but she wasn't the first teenager to go, and she hadn't been the last. There wasn't a lot to keep a youngster on the island, and from the odd photograph of her that he'd seen in his mother's album, her skirts flying as she danced at a ceilidh, she'd been one of the restless ones. Her feet had danced her all the way to America, there to die of cancer four years before her older brother was laid to rest in the churchyard he'd been able to see from his bedroom window, green graves and white stones marking the places where the peaty soil had been disturbed for the dead to sleep comfortably.
And now it looked like Fiona's son, Ian's nephew, had come to the island to look over his inheritance. John shrugged to himself. He'd see the place, be on the next ferry out, and it'd be put up for sale within the week most probably. Not that anyone would buy it, with the state the housing market on Traighshee was in. Philosophically resigned to yet another building on the island being abandoned for the gales to tear down, the rain to wash clean, and the sheep to wander through what remained, John waited for the man to speak and confirm what was less a guess than a certainty.
"He was my uncle," the man said. His eyes, John decided, were unsettling; not because of anything in particular about them, but because of the way they didn't stay still. They flitted from one thing to another as if the man were nervous. Not that it was any of John's business if he was.
"I don't want to delay you, but I was hoping for a few minutes to sit down." The dark haired man straightened, the creak of his leather jacket making it clear that it had been in his possession for some time. Turning to Stella, he asked, "I don't suppose there's any chance I could get an espresso?"
The look of disdain that swept across Stella's features was there and gone quickly enough that John doubted the newcomer had seen it. She didn't make any attempt to hide it from her voice, though. "You'd be not supposing right," she said. "We've got coffee and tea. Even some of that herbal stuff without caffeine, although I can't see why anyone would bother. It's not a proper cup of tea when it's made with grass clippings."
The man lifted his right hand and shifted the strap of the bag across his shoulder as if it were too heavy. His left hand, the one that was wrapped up, was braced at his hip. "Coffee would be fine, thank you," he said. To John, "Can I buy you a cup? If you don't mind waiting, that is?"
John shook his head. "No hurry--I've nowhere else to be this afternoon. Thanks," he added, nodding at Stella.
The man looked as if he'd be the better for something warming him, and although it wasn't too early for whiskey--it was never too early for that--coffee would probably do the job of keeping him awake a little better. And he'd be lucky to find anything in the cupboards at Rossneath House. When Ian Kelley had left, a deputation of women had gone in, stripping it of perishables and cleaning it, sighing sadly as they worked. They hadn't gone back since, though, and even if respect had kept the windows from being smashed, two years of dust would be lying thickly over the rooms of the rambling stone house.
Stella gave him a glare that he unerringly traced back to the disdained carrots, but waved at a table by the window. "Sit down then and I'll bring them over."
The man bent to pick up his case, but John stopped him. "Och, it'll be in no one's way there. Sit down, man; you look all in."
"Thanks," the man said, his American accent briefly fading as his shoulders slumped. He followed John to the table Stella had indicated and pulled out a chair, sinking down onto it with his bandaged wrist in his lap. He glanced up at John. "Do you know the house?"
"I know all the houses on the island," John said simply. "You'll be wanting to see it, but I'm thinking once seen you won't want to stop there, so I don't mind waiting until you've looked your fill and then bringing you back here. This early in the season, it's easy enough to get rooms. There's a hotel and half-a-dozen boarding houses; take your pick." The man opened his mouth to speak, but before he could reply John clucked his tongue. "I'm sitting here talking and I never told you my name. John McIntyre. Pleased to make your acquaintance." He waited expectantly for the man to introduce himself, sternly quelling the impulse to reach out and offer his hand again. He could still feel, though it had surely to be his imagination, the faint warmth of that fleeting handclasp against his palm.
"Nick Kelley," the man said, not offering his hand either. There were little lines around his eyes that seemed to indicate that he hadn't been sleeping for a lot longer than it had taken for him to travel here from the states.
"Sorry--you're the first person I've really talked to for a couple of days. I'm probably kind of disjointed." He frowned. "Is it really that bad? I mean, I know it's been basically abandoned for a couple of years, since Uncle Ian went into the nursing home, but..."
He stopped as Stella came over to the table with a tray holding two cups of coffee and a plate of biscuits. "Here you are," she said, setting the things out. Her eyes narrowed shrewdly. "Hurt your arm, did you?"
Nick looked startled, as if he'd forgotten. "Yes." He pulled his cup toward him, curling his hand around it. "But it's almost healed now."
Stella seemed about to ask for more details, but Nick lifted his cup and began to take careful sips from it, his gaze focused on the table. John didn't get the impression that he was being deliberately rude; the man was just too tired to think about more than one thing at a time. He tried to catch Stella's eye to give her a casual yet meaningful look, signaling her to leave the man be, but it wasn't needed. The jangle of the door bell heralded new customers--a father and his young son from Edinburgh who'd been on the island fishing for the past week--and Stella turned and walked toward them, her hand poised to ruffle the boy's bright-red curls as she did every time she saw the poor wee lad.
"It's furnished," John said, finally answering Nick's question. "And you'll still have water and power, but there's not a crumb of edible food in the place, the sheets will be damp, and you'll be fair choking on the dust." He took a sip of his own drink and then reached for a biscuit, dunking the ginger nut into his coffee before popping it into his mouth. "Are you that set on staying there then?" Which was a tactful way of asking the man his plans, if ever there was one, John reflected.
"Yes," Nick said, drinking more of his coffee with his eyes closed. "I'll get the place cleaned up. I don't suppose you know if there's a phone?" Something in his voice had changed, making it colder, more distant.
John shrugged off the small rebuff, settling back in his chair and reminding himself that the man was tired. "Aye, there is. Of course there is." He took another biscuit and bit into it hard after adding dryly, "Or did you think we used smoke signals up here?"
"I thought that was Native Americans," Nick murmured, bringing his other hand up and wrapping it around the cup too, as if for warmth. With his elbow propped on the table, John could see that it was Nick's wrist, and not his hand, that had been injured. He couldn't help but wonder how it had happened, but he didn't see that there was much point in prying. It wasn't likely the man would stay on Traighshee, after all. "I haven't slept for ... well ... Let's just say it won't matter what condition the house is in, because I won't be noticing."
"There's a food shop over the way. Want to stop in there before we leave and get some supplies?"
"Actually, yeah, if you wouldn't mind." Nick drank some more coffee and sighed. He stared down into the cup. "I've only seen pictures of the house. My mother kept them in an album that I wasn't allowed to look at unless she was sitting with me. She and my uncle ... they didn't get along. She used to say..." He blinked. "Is there anyone who'd be willing to help me with the house, do you think? I can do some of it myself, but I'm not all that handy at anything more than the basics, and if I can stay--" Nick stopped, cleared his throat, and started again. "If I decide to stay, I'll probably need to hire someone to give me a hand."
The leisurely pace of the island life, where there was always tomorrow to start a job, meant that Nick's request had John blinking at him in surprise. The man hadn't even seen the house properly and he was after changing it? Well, now. But it sounded as if he was planning to be around for a while. John linked his hands under the table, rubbing his thumb across the palm of his right hand as he thought about spending time with this man, working with him. It'd mean staying off the sea, but the money would probably be better and more reliable.
Nick looked at him, and John gave up trying to find reasons to convince himself that what he'd decided to do the moment Nick had finished speaking was the sensible course of action. It wasn't. It wasn't sensible at all to put himself in a situation where the attraction he was feeling might increase, but he had to trust that he could keep Nick from guessing how he felt about him. At the moment he was feeling a combination of protectiveness, because the man looked exhausted, and a slightly less noble desire to hear that cool, drawling voice say his name for the first time. John was starting to feel split in two; he sounded calm and businesslike as far as he could tell, but he felt anything but calm inside.
There wasn't any way that this could work. It was a huge risk and he really should just back off now. Take the man to Rossneath and drive away.
Nick raised his eyebrows, a faint, polite smile on his face, and John stopped pretending that walking away was an option. Not until he'd seen what the man looked like smiling properly, the wariness gone from his face.
"Not much I haven't turned my hand to," John replied. He jerked his head at their surroundings. "Helped Stella to convert this place, if you want a reference."
"Aye," Stella nodded It didn't surprise John at all that she'd been listening in on their conversation--any hint of an outsider trying to settle on the island piqued curiosity like little else could. "Trustworthy, and as you can see, he does a fine job."
"It's very nice." It sounded as if Nick were answering automatically. Then, to John, "I'm sure we can work something out. I'm not in a hurry to do anything more than get the place livable again, so I can work around whatever ... schedule, you have." There was what seemed to be a hint of condescension in his voice.
John laughed, refusing to be ruffled. Or hurt. Off-islanders, they were all the same. "Schedule? No. There may be disadvantages to living up here, but that's not one of them. The tides are all that stop me from doing what I want, when I want. But don't be too fast to spend your money; for all you know the place will need no more than a scrubbing brush." He stood up, snagging a final biscuit. "And in that case, I'll be after introducing you to my sister, Janet."
Nick stood up as well, adjusting the strap on the bag that was still slung over his shoulder and had been resting on the chair beside him while they'd been sitting. "You're very optimistic." Which was, John thought, less rude than telling him he was mad, although it seemed fairly clear that that was what Nick was thinking.
"Don't forget your case," Stella said, as they stopped at the counter so that Nick could pay. "John, you take it for him, that's a good lad."
"No, it's fine." Nick picked up his suitcase. "I've carried it all this way. I can take it a little further."
John hesitated, but not for long. Nick was clinging onto the suitcase as if it was holding him up, not the other way around. "My car's just outside anyway," he said, more to placate Stella, who was frowning at him, than to reassure Nick. "We'll just put your gear in there, and then I'll walk with you to the shop." There was no way that Nick would be able to carry everything he'd need with an injured wrist, but to stave off the refusal of help that he was sure was hovering on the man's lips, John added, "I'm fresh out of tea bags myself, as it happens."
Nick nodded and gave Stella a polite smile before heading towards the door, reaching out with his left hand and giving the brightly polished brass doorknob a sharp twist before hissing under his breath in pain and cradling his wrist to him, dropping the suitcase to the floor.
Stella had already disappeared into the restaurant area to deal with the order from the Edinburgh man, but John was still careful not to sound too concerned as he joined Nick at the door. "Always been a wee bit stiff, has that door. There's a knack to it." He gave Nick a sidelong glance, noting his pallor. "If you want, I can maybe get what you'll need while you wait in the car? Bread, milk and the like?"
"I'm fine," Nick snapped "It's just ... I'm fine." He did, however, let John open the door for him before he picked up the suitcase again.
Fortunately, the car really was just outside, and Nick seemed willing to accept John's help in putting both bags into the trunk. He still seemed pale as they started toward the food shop, his wrist still held carefully against his chest as if he was protecting it from being jarred further.
After a moment, Nick glanced sideways at John, seeming to understand that an explanation of some sort would be polite. "I broke it about three months ago. There was a plate and screws in there. They had a hell of a time putting it back together." His smile was strained. "The bandage is more to remind me to be careful with it than anything else. Although you can see how well that works."
"It's not surprising you don't like being reminded to be careful. I'd be the same myself, I shouldn't wonder." They reached the village shop and John made sure he got to the door first, without making it obvious, lengthening his stride a little.
The shop wasn't too busy; the children were still in school, which meant that the narrow aisle in front of the comics section was easier to navigate than it was at the weekend. John gave the shopkeeper a pleasant smile and murmured, "How are you, George?" He didn't like the man; George Dunn would sell you the air you breathed if he could, the tight-fisted old sod, but John preferred to keep his feelings to himself. He'd had a lot of practice at that.
The shop was--just--big enough to mean that there was a choice of cart or basket. John pulled out a cart and murmured casually, "I'll push it, you throw stuff in. Well, maybe not the eggs. And don't let me forget my tea bags. My mother comes visiting on Wednesdays, and if I can't give her a cup of tea after her walk up the hill, I'll never hear the last of it."
"Your family all lives on the island?" Nick asked, putting a tin of soup into the cart.
"I've two sisters." John was willing to talk in the hopes that it would encourage Nick to open up a little. "Both married. Andrea's the youngest; she had her second baby not two weeks ago. She lives at the top end of the island. Janet lives here in town; she's got two kids too, one of each." He smiled, because it was hard not to when he thought about his nieces and nephews. His mother adored them all but was determined not to spoil them. John, with a cheerful indifference to the consequences, indulged them as much as his sisters would allow.
"What does your father do?"
"Passed away last year," John felt the sheer unreality of it, as he always did. "They went out on the boat, he and my uncle Collum, and a storm came up. They were in sight of land when a wave took the boat and capsized it. Dad had hold of Uncle Collum by the scruff of his neck, keeping his head out of the water because Collum'd broken his collarbone, the clumsy devil."
They'd come to a halt now, side-by-side in the aisle, with Nick looking a little awkward, if sympathetic.
John sighed and reached for a tin of baked beans. "Dad got thrown against a rock. Knocked a hole in his head you could put your fist through. And then it was Collum's turn to do the hard work and get them both home the best he could." He studied the picture on the tin and then put it back on the shelf, giving Nick an apologetic smile "Sorry. You've losses of your own to bear without hearing about mine."
Nick looked shaken, but he swallowed and nodded, his good hand tightening on the edge of the cart before he moved it to touch John's hand briefly. "I--" His voice broke a bit, and he cleared his throat before trying again. "I'm sorry. It's good for me to be reminded that it's not just me. I ... I didn't know my uncle Ian. He and my mother didn't get along. I don't even know why he left the house to her, unless it was just because he didn't have anyone else to leave it to." The man seemed to be making an effort, at least, which was good. He wouldn't last long on the island if he had everyone convinced that he was just a typical American, rude and thoughtless.
John couldn't fault him for not mourning the death of a man he'd never met, but it was clear from his reaction that some bereavement was still troubling him. His mother's death, maybe? Although that was four years ago, and you'd have thought by now--
Chiding himself for being overly inquisitive, even though it was motivated by concern, John carried on walking. "He spoke of you. Not often, no, but there's a picture of you on the table in the hall that your mother must've sent him, so maybe they weren't always at odds." He gave Nick a small grin. "You're older and wearing more clothes now, which is why I didn't recognize you. You'd have been about three, and having a fine time in your bath by the looks of it."
"My mother had a tendency to take pictures like that. I think the last one she took was when I was about eight. After that, I learned to lock the bathroom door." Nick smiled a little bit, as if remembering. He stopped and looked at the shelf in front of him. "Tea bags," he said, gesturing "Which ones did you want?"
"The cheapest, but as my mother would notice, we'd better make it PG Tips instead." He took the box from Nick and put it in a separate section of the cart.
They both turned, and John attached a polite smile to his face. Moira. Hadn't taken her long to spot a new face, he thought uncharitably. They'd grown up together and she hadn't improved with age.
"Well, now, someone's stocking up." Her gaze flickered inquisitively from the shopping cart to Nick's face.
Giving in to the inevitable, John introduced them, and Moira's pale-blue eyes widened with pleasure. "You've come to live here then, Mr. Kelley?"
"That's the plan," Nick agreed.
"Well, now." Moira beamed at him, getting a strained smile in return. "We'll just have to make you feel at home then, won't we?" She edged a little closer and rested her hand on Nick's arm. John rolled his eyes without troubling to hide his feelings because Moira had forgotten he existed--something he wished she'd done a good ten years earlier--and then frowned as Nick's hand curled into a fist and he stepped back.
"I'm sure I'll like it here. But I'm really tired, and I don't want to infringe on any more of Mr. McIntyre's time than I have to, so if you'll excuse me, I'll finish up here so he can drive me out to the house."
Moira tittered. "Oh, he's got nothing better to do," she said dismissively. "Not when he can't go fishing, anyway. Isn't that right. John?"
John took a tight hold on his temper. "I was brought up never to contradict a lady, Moira."
She smirked, and then, as Nick moved away abruptly to study a display of homemade jam, bit her lip, turned on her heel and left with a brisk nod to John and a final, lingering look at Nick.
"And that being so, you're wrong, Moira, like always," John muttered under his breath.
"Why didn't you tell her that to her face?" Nick asked, coming back to stand at John's side.
John shook his head. "Quickest way to get rid of her. I'm not one for arguing. And I got the impression you'd be happier with her gone."
Nick stared at him for a moment and then shrugged. "She wasn't all that polite, but she seemed, I don't know ... honest, I guess."
The wheels on the cart squeaked as John gave it a shove and got it moving again. "Aye, I'll give her that," he said dryly, not bothering to share his opinion that in Moira's case honesty wasn't a virtue. Not when it was fuelled by spite.
"I'm sorry," Nick murmured. "I didn't mean to--" He gave John a look that wavered and fell, as if the effort of focusing on John's face was too much.
"It's not of any consequence at all," John said firmly. "Now, will you be wanting some of that jam for your toast or not?"
They finished the shopping in a silence that was friendly enough, broken by the odd question from Nick, who seemed more surprised to find brand names he recognized than by oddities like oatcakes, which usually had the tourists exclaiming in delight or distaste. By the time they got to the checkout, where George Dunn's eyes traveled between the two of them, alight with speculation as his bony hands dealt deftly with the groceries, Nick was a shade paler and his signature on the credit card slip was a wavering scrawl.
John would've bet his boat that they wouldn't get out of the shop without George satisfying what with him was pure nosiness, and he was right.
"I didn't know you had a friend visiting, John." A winter-cold smile creased George's thin lips as he placed John's box of tea bags inside a plastic carrier bag. "Your mother never mentioned it when she was in here earlier."
John threaded his fingers through most of the plastic bags stacked neatly on the counter, leaving Nick to take the last two in his good hand. Nick was staring at the shopkeeper, his eyes narrowing slightly.
"Is that so?" John murmured noncommittally. A soft answer might turn away wrath, but in his experience it was the one thing guaranteed to drive George mad with frustration.
"Aye. I would have thought that'd be the sort of thing she'd mention. Assuming she knew about it." George was looking at Nick with shrewd interest, his eyes flickering over to John as if gauging his reaction.
"There's nothing for her to know," Nick said smoothly, with more aplomb than John would have anticipated. "I'm new to the island. I've hired Mr. McIntyre to drive me out to my late uncle's home, and he's been gracious enough to help me with my shopping. Did you know my Uncle Ian? Ian Kelley?" Nick dropped his voice, conjuring up something reminiscent of deep sorrow. "We were very close. I ... I can't believe he's gone."
While George was still sputtering out an awkward apology, Nick and John made their exit. It wasn't until they were outside and a good dozen yards from the shop that Nick glanced sideways at John and grinned.
"The last time I saw him that flustered, a sheep had wandered down from the moor, gone into his shop, and was eating his cabbages," John observed, an answering smile spreading across his face. "If you find yourself in the Castle Arms one night, I'll buy you a pint by way of a thank you."
"He deserved it. People like him..." Nick shook his head, something dark crossing his face. "No. It's not my job to mete out justice, not even to people like him."
"No," John agreed qq uietly, losing the smile from his face as they neared the car. "It isn't. And you're right; he does more harm than I think he realizes. There's a difference between those of us who ask questions out of interest, and, aye, curiosity, because there's precious little else to amuse ourselves with, and those who ask to find ways of hurting folk." He changed the subject abruptly, not wanting to dwell on the malice behind George's behaviour. "Will you open the trunk, please, and save me setting these bags down? It isn't locked."
"Sure." John watched as Nick very carefully opened the trunk with his bad hand, moving slowly so as not to hurt himself. The little flash of triumph on Nick's face as he managed it was worth the risk John thought he'd taken in asking.
They put the bags into the back and got into the car. Nick immediately fastened his seatbelt before John had even had a chance to start the car.
John started to tell him that he didn't have to wear his seatbelt if he didn't want to; Tom Stewart, the local bobby, had started out easygoing, and ten years on the island had done nothing to change that. But something made John swallow the words and pull his own belt across his body.
"It isn't far." John started the engine, pulling away. "Maybe five miles or so. You could walk it if you'd a mind to; your uncle did, in fair weather, anyway. Come to think of it, he'd a wee car that should still be at the house. It'll need some work after sitting all this time, but if you like, I'll take a look at it for you."
"I don't drive," Nick said tightly.
John let the words hang between them, expecting more, but when Nick turned his head to stare out of the side window at nothing more interesting than the garage on the edge of town, he realized that was all he was getting. John had been driving since he was tall enough--not old enough--to see over the steering wheel. He'd never had an accident, and the one time he'd driven drunk, on his fourteenth birthday, his father had taken the skin off his arse with a belt and that'd been that. Driving was as natural as walking, as sending a line hissing out across the wind-ruffled water of the loch, as gutting a fish with a slice, a scrape and two swift chops of his knife. Didn't take much to connect a broken wrist with a car accident though, so he kept quiet as they left the village and headed along the narrow road.
"That's my place," John offered a few minutes later, by way of breaking a silence which was verging on uncomfortable. Lord knew he wasn't much of a talker himself, but Nick wrapped himself in silence as if it was all that was keeping him warm. He took his hand off the wheel and touched Nick's arm, bringing Nick's head around sharply. "See? On the hill? It was my grandparents' house, and when they'd gone, my mother decided that sooner than sell it, she'd rent it out, expecting to make a penny or two from the tourists. But I'd been wanting a place of my own, and I convinced her that tourists were chancy customers, and a weekly rent from someone she trusted was better by far."
Nick didn't say anything, but John knew that he was looking as they went past. The long drive that led up the hill to the house was winding, and John was well aware that it made the place look rather like something in a storybook--idyllic, pastoral.
He kept a careful eye on the road, driving more slowly than he normally would have. For some reason John couldn't quite put his finger on, something that went deeper than his instant attraction to Nick, he found himself fascinated by this man, wanting to know his story and unconvinced that he ever would.
Their houses lay maybe fifteen minutes apart, if one was willing to walk over heather and knew where the boggy parts were, where the ground turned soft beneath your feet, water oozing up, brown and rich, between the bright green grass, but by road it was a good two miles. When the gray stone walls of Rossneath House came into sight, John found himself sighing with relief. The man would surely have to open his mouth now. He sent the car bumping along the rough track that was all that was left of a driveway and pulled up by the front porch, although to get that little-used door open, they'd need a stick of dynamite rather than a key.
"Well, here you are," he said, turning his head to look at his passenger, mildly exasperated that not even the sight of his house had coaxed a word from Nick. His next words died on his lips.
Nick was asleep, his shoulder hunched up defensively, as if even sleep offered no refuge, his head half-turned so that John could see the clean line of his jaw through the prickle of stubble and the hollowed curve of his cheek up to the slash of a dark eyebrow.
Caught off-guard, John swallowed, close enough in the stillness that had descended when the engine had shuddered its way to rest that he could see a dozen details Nick's restlessness had hidden from him before. He'd had his ear pierced at some point; the tender flesh of the lobe was healed over, but the indentation was still there. And under the tan, his face was pale with fatigue.
John bit his lip and glanced away. He'd have liked to have looked his fill, but it didn't seem right. Not while the man was sleeping. Without undue noise, he left the car, pushing the door to without slamming it, and went around to the back door. He knew where the key was, and if it'd gone, there were plenty of ways to get in. Let the man sleep.
Posted November 7, 2010
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