We parted ways with Breathnach, the General taking his half of the dead birds, and went on our way to the small cottage. About halfway back, on a steep, rocky slope, I lost my footing on a slippery rock. The whole of the island’s rock population was trying to do me in. If Fin hadn’t caught me I would have started a domino effect into the General and had us both careening into the rocks at the bottom of the trail.
“Easy, there. Watch your step,” Fin lightly scolded.
“Easy for you to say when your body isn’t throbbing,” I muttered.
“Here, let me help you,” he offered. I yelped when he swept me into his arms and clutched on his shirt with both my hands.
“I can walk!” I insisted.
The General turned around toward us. “What’s all this fuss about?” he asked us.
“Nothing, General, carry on,” Fin assured him as he stepped down the path with me in his arms.
“It’s not nothing, now put me down!” I ordered him.
“I’ll be glad to put you down once we’ve reached the cottage,” Fin replied.
“I think the lady is wanting down, Fin,” the General pointed out.
“The lady doesn’t know what’s good for her,” Fin countered.
“The lady does, too!” I argued.
“And does the lady admit she nearly crashed down the path?” he teased.
The lady opened her mouth to protest, but any denial would have been a lie. To be mature I folded my arms across my chest and glared at him. “The lady can still walk,” I sullenly insisted.
“You forget that you are my guest, and I am obliged to assist you whenever I can,” Fin reminded me.
“You don’t have to be so gallant about it. . .” I grumbled.
The General followed behind us and shook his head. “Just like a woman to be in the arms of a man and wanting to be anywhere else,” he commented.
I glanced over Fin’s shoulder and scowled at him. “This woman has some pride,” I pointed out.
“And is very stubborn,” Fin added with a smile.
I opened my mouth to argue we were both stubborn, but he caught my eyes with his. I’d forgotten how beautiful they were, and a blush rose to my cheeks. I turned away and nestled deeper into his warm grasp. Being carried by a strong, handsome young man had its perks.
We only had a hundred yards distance to the cottage, and soon Fin was putting me on the couch. The General placed one of the dead fowl on the counter. “A tithe to the laird,” he explained.
“We can’t accept such a generous gift,” Fin argued, but the General shook his head.
“Nonsense. What’s one bird to me when you don’t even ask a fee for the hunting? No, I won’t accept any money, either, and if you won’t take it as a tithe then take it as a gift,” the General insisted. Just then we heard the low, long cry of an air horn. “That would be my ride, to boot. You take care of yourself, Miss, and don’t let this rascal spoil you too much.”
“I promise to try my best,” I told him.
He chuckled. “Well, that’s all one can ask when one is dealing with a Scotsman bent on doing good in the world without regard to his own health or wealth.” There sounded another horn call. “Blasted, but can’t he wait a minute for a proper goodbye!”
Fin smiled. “You’d better hurry. The captain isn’t known to wait when the afternoon winds threaten to come up.”
“All right, but I’ll be seeing you both before you leave,” the General promised, and with that warning he hurried out into the afternoon sun.
Fin shut the door behind our former guest and shook his head. “The General is a little gruff, but he means well.”
“A little?” I quipped.
Fin walked past me and over to his usual spot by the mantel in which were the coals of the dead fire. “Once must be kind when talking about a man with such good aim,” he teased. He grabbed the poker and revived the fire with a few pokes of the end.
I smiled. “Should we take him seriously about his threat to come visit us, and bar the windows and doors?”
Fin stooped and tossed a few logs onto the fire. “It won’t do any good. He’s very resourceful, and doubtless won’t stand at the door more than a minute before he finds some weakness in our defenses and walks in.”
I raised an eyebrow. “It sounds like you’ve known the General for a while. How did you meet?”
“We met about eight years ago on the very rocks where you slipped,” Fin told me. “He’d just been to the Grand House to ask permission to hunt the birds on the island when we ran into one another on the beach.”
“Was he just retired?” I guessed.
“Yes, or very nearly so, and was already tired of the civilian life. He told me he needed something to shoot at or he would forget how to aim a gun. I couldn’t let a good soldier let his skills rust, so I let him have free rein of the island so long as he didn’t hunt the deer,” Fin explained.
“What’s a little fowl among friends?” I teased him.
Fin bent down and lit his pipe in the burning fire. “Yes, and what’s a good lunch for us. I’ll get on cleaning the bird.”
“And I’ll get the vegetables cut up,” I offered. I stood, but Fin walked in front of me and pushed me back onto the couch.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort. Your place is here while I make the food,” he insisted.
I snorted. “That’s probably the only time I’ll hear a man argue that a woman’s place isn’t in the kitchen.”
Fin performed the foodly duties, and I have to admit he performed them well. When he was finished there was a feast of fowl spread on the table, and a mess of vegetables decorated on the same plate after having soaked in the juices of the bird. We set ourselves down to eat and I found the food tasted even better than it looked. When we were finished I scooted my chair back and wished for pants with a spandex waistband.
“How is your leg?” he asked me.
I moved it up and down. There was hardly any pain, and in a day I wouldn’t feel anything. “Much better,” I told him.
“Good. I thought we might take a walk to the bay in the west. It’s a sight to see on a calm day such as this,” he suggested.
“Is it very far?” I wondered.
He smiled and shook his head. “Not far at all, maybe a half hour’s walk, and there’s few enough rocks on that side of the island to call it a moor.”
I raised an eyebrow. Images of fog-covered grasslands and howling hell-hounds came to mind. “Like haunted moors?” I asked him.
He chuckled. “I’m afraid we don’t have any tales of haunting, at least not on the island. There are haunts enough on the mainland to suit the people. As for the moor, it’s just another name for a grassy, open plain.”
I snorted and gathered up the dishes. “Sounds like just the place I want to be right now.”
We cleaned up the dishes and in ten minutes started on our walk. Fin was right when he said there were fewer rocks in that direction, and fewer hills. The path we followed was a smooth grass trail that wound its way leisurely through small groves of trees and shrubs.
I stopped to pick a “So how long has your family had the island?” I asked him.
“Fourteen generations, with me being the fifteenth,” he told me.
“So did your ancestors win it in a card game?” I teased.
He chuckled. “No, nothing quite that tame. My ancestors took it from the retreating Norse and kept themselves quiet during the warring years before the English came.”
The grassy trail started a gradual incline to the crest of a small brae. “Must have been kind of exciting,” I mused.
“And very dangerous,” he added. He reached the top of the brae a few steps ahead of my puffing and aching body. Fin turned and gestured to the expanse before him. “But it was worth it for a view such as this.”
I came to stand by his side and cast my eyes on the bay. It was a sight to behold with its calm, blue waters surrounded on two sides by piles large boulders. The rocks made a thin stretch that wrapped around the far left and right sides of the bay, and nearly touched each other far out in the sea. The waves from the sea crashed against the natural barriers, but couldn’t break the gentle rocking of the bay waters. The sun sparkled across the water, and the reflections of the clouds drifted along the surface.
The shadows of fish darted among the small rocks and bright green foliage that waved under the water. A sandy white beach sat fifty feet below our feet with its myriad of shells and colored rocks tempting a curious traveler to have a look at them. The sands stretched out for a good half mile along the edge of the bay, and were twenty yards wide from the edge of the grassy bottom of the brae to the edge of the water.
Fin’s quiet voice broke the soothing silence. “What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered.
He grasped my hand in his and pulled me gently toward the path that led down to the beach. “Then let’s have a closer look.”
“Sure,” I gladly agreed.
He led me down to the white sands, but I hesitated to step from the grass to the grains. “Something wrong?” he asked me.
My eyes swept over the perfect sand where no human footprint marred the natural beauty. “I think it’s too pretty to step on,” I told him.
He chuckled. “I think it’s the sand that’s honored today, but you must try the water.”
A thought came to my head, and I broke from his hold and lifted one foot. “One second.” I slipped off my shoes and socks, and gingerly took a step onto the sand. It was as soft as down, and the grains flowed over my pale feet and swallowed them as though they were one and the same. I laughed and wiggled my toes. “This is amazing!”
Fin looked straight at my face and the corners of his lips curled up in a soft smile. “Quite amazing.”
I blushed and looked out on the water. “Is the water very cold?” I asked him.
He turned his attention away from me and to the water. “On the contrary, some months it’s nearly as warm as a bathtub.”
“We’ll see if it’s as warm as the baths I take,” I returned. I walked across the smooth, sinking sand. The grains with their damp earth beneath them made for a small bounciness beneath them, and before I could stop myself I was laughing and hopping forward from one foot to the other to feel that bounce spring me from the sinking sands.
Fin matched me step-for-step, and my natural urge for competition accepted his challenge. I broke into a run for the water that lay fifteen yards off. Fin’s shoes slipped on the sand, but he kept up with his longer legs and we both crashed into the waves at the same time. I tossed my shoes with the socks tucked in them onto the beach and splashed Fin with my hands. He returned the favor with equal gusto, and our laughing and splashing echoed across the bay.
After a few minutes I stumbled back to the beach and collapsed onto the sand. I was soaked to my bones and my skin glistened with the warm, clear water. Fin sat himself down beside me and was equally aglow. His dark hair was slicked back and his eyes twinkled with life and mischief. He would have looked handsome if, you know, I was looking for a boyfriend.
Fin lifted one edge of his shirt and rung it out. The water fell like a crystal waterfall. “You have a wicked paddle when it comes to splashing someone,” Fin commented.
I snorted and rung out my own shirt. “You’re one to talk.”
“I accept the amendment,” he replied. He took hold of his shirt and I was entranced as he pulled it over his head and off his body. The sun shone off his smooth, pale skin and revealed well-sculptured muscles. Not too big and not too small. He could lift me, but not a truck. He looked to me and caught me staring a little too long and appreciatively at his body. I blushed and whipped my face away. “What is your opinion now of the water?” he asked me.
“I-it’s okay,” I stuttered.
“Well, now that we can’t get ourselves any more wet would you like to go for a swim?” he continued.
I looked out on the deep, glistening water and my face paled. “I can’t really swim,” I admitted.
“I would be glad to teach you,” he offered.
I grabbed my shoes and stuffed my feet into them. “No, it’s fine. Some people are meant to swim and some people are meant to be an anchor. I’m one of the anchor people.”
“Perhaps another time,” he persisted.
I picked up a plain, smooth rock and admired its dull gray color. “Yeah, maybe, but about that dinner tonight.” One of my smooth transitions into a completely different topic. “What time is it?”
“Supper is generally served at seven,” he replied.
I cringed. “That late? No wonder British people take their tea time seriously. It’s the only thing keeping them from turning to cannibalism.”
Fin chuckled. “Something like that, but what do you say to more exploring before we return to the cottage? There’s light enough left to travel to the south end.”
“That shouldn’t take too long. I mean, isn’t that only a few miles off?” I asked him.
“Yes, but there’s many sights to see that are worth seeing. So many that I still find myself surprised by the rugged beauty of the place.” He stood and offered his hand to me. “Will you come with me?”
“Um, sure.” I ignored his hand and helped myself up.
He dropped his hand and nodded down the beach in the southerly direction. “We’ll follow the shore and I’ll show you where my ancestors lived.”