The sound of the tires hitting the pavement smoothed out as John eased the car off the Oban ferry and onto the mainland. Nick’s stomach, touchy throughout the journey across the sea despite the size of the ferry, finally settled, and he sighed and leaned back in his seat.
The journey to Glasgow airport, where Nick’s brother, Josh, would be waiting, wasn’t a short one, but Nick didn’t care how long it was if they were driving away from the ferry, not toward it.
“All right?” John asked, reaching over to give Nick’s knee a comforting pat.
“Yeah. You’d think after all these years back and forth I’d be used to it.” Remembering, Nick opened the glove compartment and rifled around in it until he found a couple of the wrapped ginger candies he’d bought on Mull the last time they’d taken the ferry. “Want one?”
John snorted like he’d been mortally insulted, which Nick didn’t think was fair. John might have been born within sight of the sea, like most of the people living on Traighshee, but Nick, a relative newcomer in the eyes of the islanders, even after ten years, wasn’t the only one who got seasick on the ferries. There was just something about the smell of the fuel and the way they rolled. “The sea was as calm as I’ve ever seen it; why would I be needing one of those?”
“Because it’s candy and you have a sweet tooth?”
“I’d sooner have a mint.” John held out his hand before Nick could toss the spare candy back. “Oh, go on then. At least we’ll both taste the same.”
“It’s ginger, not garlic,” Nick said, but he gave it to John anyway.
John unwrapped his candy as the car in front of them accelerated and then braked sharply to let a truck join the line of vehicles making its way out onto the main road. He popped the candy deftly into his mouth. “True enough. God, will you look at the traffic? Bloody tourists.”
“Tourists that are willing to pay a pretty penny to be shown the wonders of the Scottish Isles,” Nick said, tucking his own candy into his cheek so he could talk unencumbered.
John had bought a van a couple of years back and now used it to drive said tourists around the islands -- the islands being Mull and Traighshee. He gave as many as three tours a day at the height of the season. Traighshee itself was small enough that more than a bit of walking was required, of course, especially when the group in question was interested in seeing the rockier shores on the western side of the island. The larger isle of Mull included many more tourist attractions, not the least of which was Duart Castle. Nick had now seen the castle so many times himself that it bored him nearly to tears, but John didn’t seem to mind repeating the same information again and again. As long as the tourists were genuinely interested, John’s eyes would sparkle and he’d willingly answer whatever questions they might have.
“I didn’t mean young Josh, you know,” John said after a short silence. He sounded abashed, which made Nick smother a smile. “He’s family; it’s different. I just meant -- oh, for the love of God, will you make your mind up what lane you’re in?”
The car in front was straddling both lanes when it wasn’t weaving between them, because, from what Nick could see, the driver was attempting to read a map at the same time as steer. With his stomach still queasy, he was glad that John didn’t need directions to their destination. Focusing on a map would have made his nausea return full force. Glasgow Airport was a couple of hours away, but the route was one they’d taken often enough, and as long as the M8 wasn’t at a standstill due to construction -- something Nick was philosophical about after a decade of living in Scotland -- they should be in good time to meet Josh’s flight from Atlanta, via London.
It had been seven years since Josh’s previous visit, which he’d made with his mother and stepfather. Now Josh, just turned eighteen and graduated from high school, was making the trip alone. He and Nick had been in regular contact, exchanging e-mail on a weekly basis for so long that Nick was convinced he knew as much about Josh’s life as any of the boy’s friends. They’d talked on the phone, too, although less frequently. Josh seemed to view Nick as a cross between an older, looked-up-to friend and the half brother that he actually was, and he’d been looking forward to returning to Scotland with an enthusiasm Nick associated with the young.
“You’re worried about how this is going to go,” Nick said. “The whole visit, I mean.” John hadn’t said so, not at all, but Nick could tell. He couldn’t read minds like Josh could, but he didn’t need to, not when it came to John, not after all the years they’d been together.
John finally managed to pass the car in front of them when it pulled into a lay-by. Nick was relieved that John contented himself with a pitying glance at the driver, partially hidden behind a map he’d unfolded to its fullest extent. They joined the traffic heading south toward the A85, John driving with a casual expertise. Traffic, even rush-hour traffic, was more predictable than the sheep that wandered nonchalantly over the island roads; Nick’s own reflexes had been honed by more than a few close encounters.
“Worried? No,” John answered finally. “Just -- what’s the lad going to do
with himself? It’s not like last time when he was happy to go out fishing with me or hike around with you.” John rubbed the side of his nose, his other hand tapping restlessly against the wheel. “Especially at night. We can take him to the pub now and then, maybe, but I’m thinking his mother won’t be pleased if we send him home with a taste for whisky.”
“I wouldn’t be pleased either.” Nick flipped the candy across his tongue to the other cheek. “Yeah, I don’t know. He seems to think there’ll be a million things to do, but maybe you’re right. Sitting on the couch watching the fireplace is going to seem pretty boring to a kid who’s used to malls and movie theaters.” He smiled to himself. “On the other hand, I seem to remember you saying the same things to me when I first came here.”
John gave him a quick, mischievous glance, before his expression cleared. “Aye, but you made your own entertainment, didn’t you? I seem to remember the couch being involved, too, now you mention it.”
“It still is.” Letting his head fall back against the headrest, Nick rolled the window down half an inch or so, just enough to let some fresh air in. “Josh is a good sport, but somehow I don’t think watching us make out would be a fun evening’s entertainment.”
John chuckled. “I wasn’t planning on scarring him for life that way, don’t worry. From the way Michael tells it, he’s only got to start kissing Sheila and one of his kids will be pretending to throw up a minute later. I was the same at their age, mind; I thought anyone over forty was dead below the waist.”
“It’s not necessarily a bad idea to disabuse them of that notion,” Nick said in the fake British accent he adopted on occasion. John gave him a sour look, and he laughed. “What?”
“You know what.” John managed to combine navigating a roundabout with delivering a swift, if gentle, punch to Nick’s arm. “Behave, or I’ll feed Josh haggis for breakfast and tell him it was your idea.”
“You will not
.” Nick rubbed his arm and affected a wounded air. “Poor Josh. Coming all this way to see us, not even in the car yet, and you’re already threatening him.”
The road ahead of them cleared, and the sun obligingly appeared from behind a high wisp of cloud. Scotland in June -- if one overlooked the midges, which Nick tried to do as much as possible -- if it wasn’t raining, was a pretty good place to be, and even if the outskirts of Oban couldn’t match Traighshee as far as scenery went, the air streaming through the window was salt-scented and pleasantly cool.
“From what I remember of him, he’s not the sort to get scared easily,” John said. “When we were out after mackerel and that storm blew up and near as dammit overturned us, he just clung to the side of the boat, his eyes shining, and told me it was better than any ride at Disney World.”
“That sounds more like ‘has a death wish’ than ‘doesn’t scare easily.’ We’d better hope it’s not the former or it’s going to be an interesting visit.” Nick frowned thoughtfully. “Maybe he’d like to climb Ben Mor. If he gets bored, we can always offer it as a suggestion. I mean, it might seem a little more exciting than Ben Dearg.”
John made a noncommittal sound, concentrating on the road.
“Do you think Caitrin would be willing to show him around? She’d know what the young people do these days, at least. Although from what I’ve seen, it’s mostly hanging around at the pub.”
“If she’s forgotten him dropping fish guts down the back of her T-shirt, I’m sure she will.” John’s mouth quirked in a small grin. “It’s only been seven years, though, so I wouldn’t put money on it.”
Caitrin was John’s sister Janet’s oldest child, who was about the same age as Josh. They’d spent a fair amount of time together on his last visit, along with Caitrin’s younger brother, Murray -- it had been nice for Josh to have other children close to his own age to play with, even if Caitrin had been alternately charmed and annoyed by him.
“I’ve sort of gotten the impression that girls can have long memories,” Nick admitted. John was one of the few people he’d ever have dared to say that to; he knew John would understand that his impressions of women in general, at least until he’d come to Traighshee, had been fairly limited.
“They can hold a grudge, too,” John said unhelpfully. “I wouldn’t like to be in Josh’s shoes if they’re down at the dock when the fishing boats come in and the smell brings it all back to her.” He pursed his lips. “Of course, she’s been brought up to be polite to visitors, but Josh would probably count as family, and you know what she’s like with me, the cheeky brat.”
The fondness in John’s voice robbed the words of their bite. He was closer to Caitrin than any of his other nieces and nephews, sympathizing with her ambitions in a way her mother never could. For Janet, Traighshee was all the home she’d ever wanted, and Caitrin’s restlessness and talk of leaving once she turned eighteen in July had led to some increasingly heated arguments.
Janet would have understood and approved of Caitrin leaving the island to go to university. Nick knew she and her husband Alistair would have willingly helped out with the student loans required, but Caitrin was adamant that she didn’t want more school. She wanted to travel and see the world, and with all a teenager’s optimism, she waved aside trivialities like a savings account that held only a few hundred pounds with an airy hand, saying that she’d find a job doing something, anything, as long as it wasn’t here.
The last argument between Janet and Caitrin had resulted in Nick walking downstairs one morning, yawning and dressed only in an entirely inadequate T-shirt, to find Caitrin asleep on the couch. She’d stormed out the night before and headed for her Uncle John the way she had since childhood for any disaster from a skinned knee to the death of her pet rabbit.
Nick had abandoned all ideas of breakfast in bed, with a suitably grateful John expressing his appreciation of Nick’s thoughtfulness, and tiptoed back upstairs quickly. Judging from the shocked gasp and giggle that floated up to him, not quite quickly enough.
He still hadn’t completely recovered from the incident; he hadn’t walked around the house in the same state of undress since, even though it was coming up to the one time of year one could really get away with it. Any time but summer was too cold, especially first thing in the morning.
Getting to the airport took longer than Nick would have liked. They’d left early to be on the safe side, though, and ended up with an hour to kill before Josh’s flight got in. Nick was able to get a smoothie, not caring that John teased him about his “fancy American ways” as he drank it.
“I’ll point out that this is the Glasgow International Airport. If I can get it here, the argument that it’s American falls kind of flat.” Nick took another sip through the straw and grinned at John.
“Fruit’s meant to be bitten and chewed,” John said. “That glop looks like something you’d give a baby or a toothless old man, and I know you’ve got all your teeth because you bite me with them often enough.” He took a sip of his cup of coffee and glanced around him at the people passing by, most looking harried. “God, this reminds me of that ants’ nest we found in the garden last year; I put my spade through it and they boiled up, running everywhere.”
Nick knew how he felt -- too many people in too small a space, which was ridiculous considering the size of the airport and the fact that they were both used to living on an island that wasn’t much bigger than some villages. The more he thought about it, the more it made his skin crawl, just as if those ants from the previous summer were walking all over him. It was uncomfortably similar to the way it felt when he became aware of a ghost seeking his attention, although there weren’t likely to be any ghosts here at the airport. At least, he hoped not. Dealing with Josh’s arrival was enough excitement for one day.
“Maybe it’d be better if we moved over nearer to the windows.” He gestured at the large panes of glass off to their left, where there were rows of seats and plenty of other people sitting, most of them with baggage of some kind or other.
“Fine by me.” John picked up his drink, took one last gulp, and then deposited it in a recycle bin on their way to the window seats. A plane took off, the muted noise of its engines making its liftoff seem effortless, majestic. Somewhere up there in the empty blue of the sky, Josh’s plane was defying gravity, too.
Nick wondered if Josh had thought about their father while he was flying. After the time he’d spent at the crash site where his father and so many others had died, staring at the twisted metal coffin that the plane had become, he supposed he should have had a phobia about flying, but he didn’t. It had been a freak accident, no more than that, but it didn’t mean that on the rare occasions he flew he didn’t think about it.
“Do you ever miss it? The traveling, I mean?” John asked, gesturing out at the runways. “I know it wasn’t as exciting as it sounds, but you got to see places I never will.”
“Miss it?” Nick shook his head. “No, not really.” Of course, there were reasons beyond the obvious -- being able to settle somewhere so remote had meant a dramatic drop in the number of ghosts he encountered, to the point where it wasn’t uncommon now for him to go months between sightings. That alone would have been worth the loss of the nomadic existence he’d lived for so long. “I guess there was a certain freedom to not having to worry about things like household repairs or how to work a vacuum cleaner, but there were a lot of negatives that came along with it.”
“I wouldn’t like to feel I had nowhere to call home,” John said. He screwed up his face in thought, the laugh lines at the corner of his blue eyes deepening. “For all that there’ve been times I’ve wanted to leave the island so badly I could taste it.” He gave Nick a rueful smile. “That trip we took to Florida; we never did go back the way we said we would. Maybe not that exact place, but this winter, when it’s dark at three in the afternoon and the winds are howling fit to deafen you, well, maybe we can pack our bags and go somewhere warm? I’d like that.”
Nick pressed his thigh to John’s. Then, feeling like that wasn’t enough contact, he put a hand on John’s knee. He’d be the first to admit that the long, cold winters were the worst thing about living on Traighshee, and the idea of abandoning Rossneath, the house he’d inherited from his uncle, in the middle of January in favor of some place tropical was appealing even now. “We should. And we should look into it soon, book a flight, or before we know it, spring will be right around the corner and we’ll decide to wait another year. Where should we go? The Caribbean?”
John put his hand on Nick’s, and their fingers interlocked with a comforting familiarity. John’s hands were always warm and slightly roughened from seawater and work. Nick thought of them moving on his body that morning, unhurried and gentle, when they’d woken early and decided to take advantage of the last time they’d be alone for a while, and smiled. John caught the change in Nick’s mood and returned his smile with one of his own, slow and sexy.
“Anywhere hot enough for you to spend most of the time half naked would suit me. Come winter, you bundle yourself up in so many layers, by spring I’ve forgotten what you look like under the clothes.”
Jane Davitt & Alexa Snow