In a few minutes we sat on one side of the square garden. The plot was small enough that with ours legs stretched out toward one another we nearly touched feet. The weeds were green and had thick stalks. They pulled out of the ground as easily as late-risers pulled themselves out of bed in the morning. I tugged and yanked, and in a half hour my hands were sore and blistered. The garden gloves protected me from the thistle and other sharp points, but nothing could protect me from my wimpy, inexperienced fingers.
I sighed and leaned back. The sun was still high in the clear sky and a few cloud wisps slipped by overhead. “This isn’t as easy as I was hoping,” I commented. Fin smiled and continued his excavation of the garden. I leaned toward him and frowned. “How can you always be so happy? It’s enough to drive a person crazy.”
“Am I? I hadn’t realized it,” he mused.
“Yes, you are. I think I’ve only seen you frown twice, and one of those was when I was frowning because I’d injured myself in my own stupidity.” I waggled my leg for added effect.
“I suppose it’s because I’ve never been one to treat life as a chore. It’s more like an adventure to me,” he told me.
I resumed my weed pulling. He was getting too far ahead of me to please my natural competitiveness. “Well, it’s maddening, and slightly contagious,” I scolded him. He chuckled, and I paused in my pulling and glared at him. “There you go again!”
Fin suppressed his smile, but the corners of his mouth twitched upward. “I’ll be careful not to smile as often in the future.”
“I didn’t say you should quit smiling, I’m just saying you should treat life more seriously,” I countered.
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Is that how you treat life?”
“Yes, and a lot of other stuff,” I replied. I focused hard on a tough weed and avoided his beautiful eyes-I mean, his piercing eyes.
“Such as?” he wondered.
“Well, take this garden.” I swept my hand over the weed-choked area. “It needs to be done, and if tea time comes before it’s done then I’ll work through tea time.”
“You’re quite dedicated to your work,” he mused.
I shrugged and continued the pulling. “It’s really all I have.”
“Is it all you want?” he asked me.
“Well, I don’t plan on doing anything else,” I replied.
“That doesn’t answer my question,” he countered.
I sat up and reached farther into the garden closer to the center. Neither of us were doing a great job cleaning the space between us. “Life doesn’t really care what I want. It just gives me stuff and I have to make the best of it,” I philosophically answered.
Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed him lean toward me while he picked his weeds. “That’s a very practical way to look at the world,” he commented.
I hardly paid attention to the devastation I wrought on the weeds as our conversation distracted my thoughts. “I guess I’m just a boring, practical person,” I defended myself.
“You don’t mean that,” he returned.
“Of course I-” My burrowing through the weeds and his slow slide toward me meant our hands caught each other among the annoying plants. Our fingers entwined and that damn blush reappeared on my face. His hand wrapped firmly around mind, but I gave a panicked yank and freed myself from his grasp. “M-maybe it is time to go in. I think the sun’s making me tired.” I climbed to my feet and hurried to the arbor, where I paused and turned.
Fin was just standing, and he brushed himself off with that damned smile on his face. In the sunlight his face gave off an angelic glow and the light glistened off his perfectly combed hair. He was tall, but not so tall that I couldn’t kiss him with much trouble. He was unconventionally handsome with his firm, square chin and low brow, but handsome nonetheless.
I shook myself from my daze when he joined me beside the arbor. “You’re quite right. We wouldn’t want to tire ourselves before the dinner,” he agreed.
Fin led me inside the quaint, comfortable cottage, and I spent the rest of the afternoon doing my best to politely ignore him. I found a good book on the shelves at the back wall and occupied myself until it started to get dark. It was a good thing I conserved my energy because the late hour of the dinner had my stomach growling like a grizzly for sustenance.
At six Fin came in from the outside and shook the dampness from his shoulders. “We should be heading to the Great House early. Mr. Ferguson expects his guests to be there in time for a long chat.”
I shut my book and stood. “Anything in particular I should wear?”
Fin looked me up and down, and then smiled and shook his head. “No, you’re perfect the way you are. Mrs. Ferguson intimated this was an informal supper.”
“So no dresses or penguin suits?” I mused.
He gave a nod. “That’s right, but you might want to put on a heavy coat. There’s a wind coming off the sea and it makes for a cold walk.”
I attired myself in my coat and we set out for the Grand House. The darkness obscured my vision and made the unfamiliar path almost impossible for me to follow and not trip. The rocks were shapes of black against the darker black night, and there wasn’t a light except the stars to show me the way. The song of the birds was muted, and all one heard was the far-off sound of the waves of the sea as they crashed against the rocks on the north end of the island.
Fin led me along slowly, but still I often fell behind. One of the times I fell behind was at a rough patch of boulders with clumps of grass that twitched in the slight breeze. I stumbled on a smaller brethren to the boulders and fell forward. A shadow swooped around the boulder in front of me and caught me in their arms. I was so startled I let out a scream and beat my fists against my attacker.
There came from the stranger a familiar chuckle. I squinted and leaned toward them. In the dim starlight I realized Fin held me in his arms. “You’re lucky I don’t carry,” I told him.
“And you’re fortunate I happen to have caught you. Your spill would have had a rather unpleasant ending,” he countered.
I pulled myself from his warm arms and straightened my jacket. “No worse than the one I took earlier.”
“I’m afraid quite a bit worse,” he argued. He lit a match and knelt down where I would have landed. Tucked beneath one lip of the large boulder was a secret nook. The opening was half-covered by grass and nearly impossible to see in the dark unless you knew where to look. “The rains wash the dirt from around the stones and make these holes,” he explained.
“Is every part of this island trying to kill me?” I quipped.
He chuckled and extinguished his light. “I hope I’m an exception to that.”
I mischievously glared at him. “I don’t know, you keep leading me into these messes.”
“Then I promise I will always lead you out,” he swore.
I turned my head and my eyes swept over the dark area around us. “I don’t know if you can lead me out of this mess. It’s so dark out here I can’t tell my left hand from my right. Couldn’t we have grabbed a flashlight before we left?”
“It must have slipped my mind, but I will lead you to the Grand House.” He grasped my hand and pulled me up the slope of rocks.
His hand was as warm as my cheeks as we walked past shadows and over brae. My heart thumped quickly as I thought about this handsome man who guided me through this almost mystical land of shadows. I admired his confidence and bearing, even when it opposed my own. If only a laird could fall in-no. I couldn’t think that. Those thoughts weren’t practical. I needed to get back to work in a week and give my boss a talking-to about setting me up for a vacation with a no-show. This dream would eventually fade, and so would these silly notions in my head. I just needed to wait the week out and I’d be free of them.
We reached the top of the last brae and looked out on the field in front of the Great House. The grand structure stood against the starlight that covered the sky with twinkling lights. The grass was a sea of black, but at the gravel path in front of the door to the house were squat torches. They burned nearly as brightly as the lit windows.
“What do you think?” he asked me.
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered.
He chuckled. “I thought you’d like it.” He leaned forward and squinted. “It seems they’re eager for us to arrive.”
“You mean for you to arrive,” I corrected him. “Remember I’m practically a stranger to them, and I have this feeling Ophelia would like to see me on the other side of the sea. Or maybe in it.”
“I don’t know about that, but the Ferguson’s keep a good table and Mr. Ferguson never wastes a chance to grant his guests every kind of beer they desire,” he returned.
I shrugged. “I don’t really drink alcohol.”
He chuckled and tugged me toward the house. “Then this will be the rare occasion where you do.”