Darach McNaughton peered through his windscreen at the snow falling in thick flakes around him. The window of his sister’s café appeared dark and unwelcoming.
He grumbled to himself. “Where the hell is she?” He fished in his pocket for his phone. “Damn!”
Another place with no signal. He’d have to change providers, if he could find one that worked. Maggie would know. Once more he wondered why he’d chosen to come back to the Northeast Coast of Scotland. This didn’t happen in Glasgow. And, oh yes, he’d returned to the back of beyond because of his most recent case and because of his bastard of a cheating boyfriend.
He squinted at the window again, attempting to see if there was a light under the kitchen door—nope. Maybe the weather had made her decide to go home early. Darach thought about his home—the farm he’d grown up on with his parents, brother and sister. Other than his brother, they would all be there waiting for him, his family, staring at him with questioning eyes, speculating as to why he’d turned down a promotion in Glasgow to come back to his home town. He couldn’t tell them. He couldn’t tell them about the final straw, of the dead woman beaten to death by her violent husband while her child had watched, or how useless he’d felt at being unable to prevent it from happening. How she’d gone back time and time again like a moth to a flame, despite the help he’d offered her. Yet another victim he’d been unable to save. He couldn’t deal with it anymore. He’d had twelve years on the force in Glasgow and had spent the majority of them with Mitch, the boyfriend he’d found in bed with someone else the day he’d come home early after finding Jenny’s body. He’d offered his resignation from the force, but his boss, Gina McKinnley, had suggested the transfer. He’d left Glasgow and that cheating bastard behind him.
He climbed out of the four-wheel-drive Skoda he’d splashed his cash on—glad he had with the current weather conditions—and trudged through the now settling snow to the door. The note stuck there simply said, GONE HOME. Well, that answered his question. A loud plaintiff meow interrupted his thoughts. Turning, he saw a large brown cat walking up and down on the wall behind him, snowflakes sticking to its fur.
“Stupid puss. Why aren’t you home in front of a roaring fire in weather like this?” He didn’t like leaving the animal as it continued to meow at him.
“I don’t speak cat.” He brushed the flakes from the animal’s head and it nudged his palm.
“Here, Princess. Here puss.” The voice sounded as if it was coming from behind the end house.
“Is that you? You look like a princess with your beautiful collar. Let’s see if you have a name on your tag.” He reached and pulled her studded pink collar around. The heart-shaped tag declared her name.
“So you are Princess, and it sounds like your owner is trying to find you.” He picked her up and clutched her to his chest. She showed no signs of objecting to him. “Looks like I’m taking you home.”
The voice still echoed from along the road. A single-story house stood at the northern end of the linear village, which was basically one street, separated from his sister’s café by a small car park and a playground. One somewhat ineffective street lamp illuminated his way as he trudged the one hundred yards or so to the house. The front door was shut, but he could see a light from within. The shouting continued, so Darach opened the gate and made his way down the path between the garage and the house to the back. When he turned the corner, light flooded onto the snow-covered garden from the open door.
“She’s here,” he shouted in warning of his presence. “I found her down the street and thought I’d bring her when I heard you calling.” He stopped at the sight of the young man sitting in a wheelchair at the back door. Princess struggled in his arms and he let her go. She jumped down and scampered past her owner and into the house.
The young man in front of him certainly didn’t fit the image of the person he’d been expecting. Darach guessed he was in his early twenties. His bleached blond hair was shaved at the sides but longer on top. Thin and pale, he wore only a long T-shirt with tattered jeans. His arms and neck displayed tattoos, which Darach imagined continued over the rest of his body. He stared, taking in the sight of him until his brain finally switched on.
“You’d better get inside. It’s bloody cold out here and you’re not exactly dressed for this weather. Are you all right? Do you need anything?”
The young man scowled at him.
Shit! Now I sound like a patronizing git. Just because he’s in a wheelchair doesn’t make him useless.
“I’m fine. Thank you for bringing Princess. She does have a habit of roaming and picking up strangers.”
Darach held out his hand. “I’m Darach McNaughton.”
The cat’s owner didn’t take his hand or give his name. Darach shifted uneasily and pushed his hand back into his pocket.
“She’s a beautiful cat and huge as well,” he said, knowing he should have been gone by now, but somehow not wanting to leave.
“She’s a Norwegian Forest cat. They grow big and are perfectly at home in the snow. I need to go back in now. You’re right, it is cold. Thank you for bringing her.” He wheeled his chair back, ready to close the door.
“Right then, I’ll see you around.”
The door closed, and Darach heard the man speaking, no doubt admonishing the cat. He brushed the snow from his coat and made his way back to his car.
The track to his childhood home, with its fresh covering of snow, provided a bumpy ride in the dark. Eventually, he turned a corner and the farm appeared out of the gloom, its lights showing through the blizzard conditions. To the side of the main house, now the residence of his sister, brother-in-law and nephew, lay several outbuildings and the newly constructed bungalow where his parents now lived. The front door opened as he pulled up the handbrake. His sister, Maggie, stood framed in the doorway. He grabbed his overnight bag from the seat and climbed out of the car. Sprinting, he wasted no time getting to the door and out of the snow blowing around him. Dogs barked in the background.
“Get in here,” his sister said, stepping back. “You saw the note, then.”
Darach removed his coat and shook it out at the door before turning around to hug Maggie tightly. “Yeah, I saw it.” He hung the coat on one of the hooks and brushed his jeans off, sending snow down onto the large mat. Two dogs rushed at him until Maggie shouted, and the border collies sat obediently awaiting further instructions.
“You look well, sis.”
“Unlike you. Are you sleeping?”
He knew she was right. He had bags and dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep. At least he had a week until he started work to sort out his new house and get settled in. Currently, it had the appearance of a slightly organized bombsite. Boxes were stacked on top of each other, but most remained unopened except for those containing such immediate necessities as a kettle and toaster. He’d have to buy new furniture. Currently, he was sleeping on a sofa he’d had delivered from a catalog, and it was none too comfortable. Mitch had claimed much of what they’d shared because he’d kept the tenement flat they’d owned between them. Splitting everything up had led to more arguments about who owned what, until he’d simply given in, not wanting to argue anymore. He would find time to go bed shopping and buy the biggest one available.
“I’m fine, honestly. I need to get a new bed, that’s all. Unsurprisingly, I decided to leave the last one with Mitch, seeing as I caught him screwing someone in it. I assume they’re all here.”
Maggie patted his arm and he swallowed his temper down.
“Yep. Couldn’t keep them away. Are you ready to face everyone? I’ve told them not to ask questions about Mitch, but I had to fill them in with the bare details.” He’d told Maggie what had happened between him and his ex, despite the hurt and embarrassment. Even though they’d lived apart for twelve years and she was five years older than him, they’d remained close. Their eldest sibling now lived in Australia, but Darach wouldn’t have been surprised to find out they’d organized a call on Skype to unite them all.
“Better face the music, then.”
Four expectant faces greeted him when he entered the main room. Somehow this was different from the visits he’d made twice a year—this was permanent. Now he would be able to see them all the time, be able to drop in, when his job allowed, and they’d be able to visit him too. He’d have time to babysit Bobby and take him out to places like a good uncle should. As if he’d read his mind, the six-year-old jumped up from the floor and wrapped his arms around Darach’s legs. Darach picked him up and swung him around as much as he dared, conscious of the ornaments and photo frames crammed along the mantel.
“Uncle Dar, Uncle Dar. Did you see the snow? Can we go out tomorrow on the sledges? Can we? Daddy says he’ll be too busy, but you’re not working yet, are you? Mummy said you weren’t, so can we?”
“I guess so, if you’ve been good.”
Two brown eyes fringed by long lashes stared up at him when he placed him back carefully on the floor. “I’m always good.” Bobby glanced over at his mother who hummed loudly. “Well, nearly always. I only hit Kurt because he was mean to Xander. He’s always mean and he’s a bully. I bet you’ll have to arrest him when he’s older, Uncle Dar. Can Xander come over tomorrow?”
“If he can get out and his parents say it’s okay.” Bobby and Xander had been born on the same day six years before and had been inseparable ever since. He had a sudden memory of him and Tosh when they were so young, running around the farm, getting into mischief, building dens. He supposed he’d see him around with his new husband. He wasn’t sure if his postal rounds would extend to Darach’s new house on the coast road.
His parents rose from the sofa and Darach hugged them both. His father, as strong and as vital as he’d ever been, still worked the farm he’d inherited from his father. His mother, a farmer’s daughter herself, had been one of the local vets until her recent retirement, but still kept her hand in, tending the stock on the farm when she could and when her health allowed. He loved them both, and they’d accepted him without question, even losing friends when he and Tosh had come out and Tosh’s parents had initially told their only son to leave their house. Of course, Darach’s parents had taken him in, and Tosh had remained close to them after their split and his decamping to Glasgow.
“Tsk, you’ve not been taking care of yourself, son,” his mother whispered in his ear. “I bet you haven’t been eating properly. You’re too thin for a start. Good job your father made one of his stews. Good Aberdeen Angus steak with veg and dumplings—it’ll line your stomach and help fatten you up again.”
He smiled. There was no point arguing with his mother, and his father did make great stew. His brother-in-law greeted him, arm outstretched.
“Good to see you again, Darach. Are you sure you’ve time to take him out? You’ll have boxes to open, no doubt.”
Darach grasped his hand and shook it. “It’ll be fine, Rob. I like spending time with him, and you’ll have things around the farm you could be doing with him out from under your feet.”
“There certainly are, but now it’s time to eat, so everyone at the table.”
It was like old times, all of them talking over each other, memories of Christmases past and of winters with snow covering the ground. Being on the coast, they didn’t get as much snow as inland when the air was pushed up the mountains, but when they did, it could stick around for weeks—no fun with livestock to care for, especially if the weather took a turn for the worse in lambing season. He recalled many occasions on which the whole family had been out searching for ewes caught in snow drifts. His mind wandered back to the young man with the cat.
“I met your neighbor and his cat when I was outside the café,” he said. “He seems an unlikely person to find living in a small Scottish village. Is there a story?”
Maggie gazed at him, eyebrows raised. “He arrived about two years ago, but we still don’t know much about him. Keeps himself to himself and says very little. The cat likes to visit the café, though, and charms the visitors. He’s an artist and makes the most wonderful pieces of pottery and decorated tiles, but remains something of a mystery.”
“Does the mystery have a name?”
“Yes, his name is Brice Drummond.”