Loving Scotland – Chapters 19 – 25

Yes, you read the title of the post correctly. Finally, after so long, I’ve finished Loving Scotland! Enjoy the rest of the story (and it’s even edited)! For anyone who wants the full ebook in its entirety the book will be on sale tomorrow at all my usual retailers!

Chapter 19

Fin dug into his pocket and drew out a coin. “Shall we flip for it?”

“I don’t trust the coin or the tosser,” I told him.

“Do you believe I would cheat a woman out of a comfortable bed?”

I gave him a sly smile. “No, I don’t believe you would cheat them out of a bed. I believe you would cheat a woman into sharing a bed with you.”

Fin grinned and tucked the coin back into his pocket. “You are a very astute young woman.”

“And you are a knave, good sir,” I returned as I looked over the room. “So, I guess I’ll take the pillows and blankets, and you can get the bed.”

Fin shook his head. “I couldn’t do that, not to a beautiful woman.”

“Could you do it to an ugly one?” I teased.

He strode past me and snatched a pillow and one of the top covers off the bed. “I’ll take the floor.”

A twinge of guilt touched my heart as he spread out the blanket on the floor. “Are you sure?”

“As sure as the day is long,” he assured me as he tossed the pillow onto the head.

“Speaking of long days. . .” I murmured as I plopped myself on the foot of the bed and used my feet to remove my shoes. They clattered to the floor and I let out a sigh as I wiggled my sore toes. “That was a lot of dancing.”

“You were wonderful during all of it,” he complimented me.

I eased a foot onto the floor and winced when a sharp pain shot up my leg. “I feel like I did dance for all of it.”

“Sore?” he guessed as he strode over to me.

I stretched my toes and clenched my teeth when a cramp struck my arch. “Yes,” I squeaked.

Fin knelt down and grasped my toes with such gentleness that my normally ticklish self hardly twitched. He began to massage my arches, one foot at a time. I couldn’t help but fall back onto the bed and close my eyes. A sigh escaped my lips and was followed by a chuckle from my masseuse.

I lifted my head and opened one eye. “This never leaves the room.”

“Never,” he promised.

I smiled down at him. “You’re going to make some girl really happy one day.”

He looked up at me and there was a peculiar spark in his eyes. “I hope so.”

I blushed and dropped my head back onto the bed. “You must have a half dozen women chasing you. Ophelia would be glad to have you.”

Fin chuckled. “Yes, I believe she would.”

I cast a quick look at him. “Would you want her?”

“I might,” he mused as he looked back down at my feet. “Though I’m surprised you noticed their glances.”

I drew my foot out of his gentle hold and flexed my toes. The pain was much lessened. “I couldn’t help it being your partner for that many dances. I thought the back of my head was going to burn away with their looks.” Fin crawled across the floor and stretched himself over the blanket. There was that twinge of guilt again. “You know, we might be able to share the bed. It’s not really that small.”

Fin tucked his arms under his head and closed his eyes. “Have you thought about settling down?”

I blinked at him. “Settling down? You mean for bed?”

A bittersweet smile slipped onto his lips. “Goodnight.”

I arched an eyebrow, but lay my head down. Soon my tiredness from the long day allowed me to slip into a deep slumber. It was so deep that I had vivid dreams of the room in which I slept. I wasn’t alone. A shadow stood over me. The face was cast in darkness, but the light behind them allowed me to see them bend down. A warm pair of lips brushed over mine. I let out a tiny gasp of surprise and the shadow retreated into the room.

Uninterrupted sleep was mine for the rest of the night until a cockcrow awakened me. I lay on my stomach with slumber still clinging to my eyelids. Soft beams of light glided through the curtains and lay their warm bodies on mine. I smiled and stretched my limbs out in all directions.

The door flung open and nearly hit the wall. I started up and spun around in time to watch Fin stroll into the room. He held a tray in his hands and a grin on his lips.

“Good morning!” he greeted me as he strolled to the side of the bed.

I sat up and he plopped the tray into my lap. The delicious smells of sausage and eggs wafted into my nostrils, and a glass of orange juice shimmered in the morning light.

I looked up at him. “Is this for me?”

“It can’t be for me because I’ve already had my breakfast,” he replied as he plopped himself down on the edge of the bed.

I looked at the windows. “What time is it?”

“Seven in the morning.”

I returned my attention to my server. “How long have you been up?”

He rubbed the back of his neck and sheepishly grinned at me. “Only for a few hours.”

My face fell. “I’m sorry. I should have given you the bed.”

Fin dropped his hand into his lap and his smile softened. “There’s no need to worry. I’m fine.”

I picked up the fork, but cast him a suspicious look. “You don’t look fine. Well, unless you decided to mark the bottom of your eyes with mascara.”

He looked away and chuckled. “You have a keen eye to go with your wit.”

I blushed and dropped my eyes to the tray. “So, how’s the party outside? Still going on?”

“They finished at dawn.”

“So, you got to see the finish,” I mused as I stabbed a bit of egg.

“More or less,” he admitted as he leaned his shoulder against the head of the bed. “There were only a few of the dancers left and they staggered to bed as I was walking outside.”

I chewed on some food and my eyes widened. “This is really good.”

Fin smiled. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“I hope you didn’t wake anyone to get this made,” I mused as I took another bite. “I don’t want to trouble anyone.”

“No one was troubled by it,” Fin assured me.

There was something in his voice that made me pause, but the food was so delicious that I ate all of it down to the grease on the bottom. Fin took the empty plate and stood, but paused and looked out the window.

I leaned to the side and tried to spot what he was looking at. “Do you see something?”

A smile curled onto his lips. “Merely My Host surveying the night’s romp.”

My curiosity was piqued and I joined him at the window. Craig stood in the middle of what looked like ground-zero for a tornado strike. Streamers and the remains of balloons, both unpopped and the flat remains of the combusted, lay about him. Chairs were scattered about the place and more than one discarded tie lay over their backs. The banquet table was empty, but the cloth was so dirty that I could tell where each bowl had sat. Our host had bags under his eyes the size of satchels and he ran his hand through his hair as he shook his head.

Fin set the tray down and snatched my bag of clothes before he took my hand. “Let’s see how he is.”

I snorted, but let him lead me out of the room. “I think we can tell that from the window.”

The hall was as quiet as a graveyard at midnight as we tiptoed downstairs. The many scattered empty bottles glistened in the early morning light, and we had a maze of chairs to go through to reach our host.

Craig looked up at our coming and managed a smile, but immediately winced. He clutched his head and shut his eyes. “What hit me?”

“The fifth drinking contest, I think,” Fin informed him as he looked about the ruins of the yard. “And the second pint of your best rum.”

Craig’s eyes shot open and his mouth drooped a little. “My best?” Fin nodded, and Craig’s face fell. “What a man does for his children. . .”

Fin clapped him on the back and the burly man nearly tumbled forward. “We do our best and hope they do the same by us.”

Craig caught himself and straightened to grin back at Fin. “Aye, that’s the truth. You must be thinking about having children yourself, Laird of Eilean Dubhan. Perhaps you’ll be stretching out the line soon?”

“Perhaps I will,” Fin mused, and I noticed his eyes flickered in my direction, or maybe it was just my imagination. “But before that happens I’ll be visiting my nan.”

Craig grinned. “What a fine voice, but what a spitfire! Reminds me why my own dad didn’t court her for very long, not after what she did to him.”

I arched an eyebrow. “What’d she do to him?”

Craig chuckled. “Threw him through a window after she caught him giving eyes at my mum. He had the scars to his dying day, but he always made sure to tell the story to everyone he met. Had a good laugh about it. But where are my manners?” He gestured to the house. “Won’t you two be having a bit to eat?”

Fin grinned as he bowed his head. “Your pots and fridge have already provided us with ample food.”

Craig frowned. “They have? With everyone still asleep?” He narrowed his eyes at Fin and a sly smile curled onto his face. “You little bugger. Took things into your own hands again, didn’t you? Wanted to feed your lady friend here a feast, eh?”

Fin bowed his head. “Your very delicious bacon was much appreciated.”

Craig burst into laughter. “You cheeky bugger! Off with you now before I cook you with your bacon!” Fin gave me a wink and jerked his head toward the front of the house. He scooted along and I turned to follow, but Craig’s voice gave me pause. “And little lady?” I half-turned to find his smile softened and his eyes twinkling. He tapped the side of his nose. “I hope to be seeing you again, and if’n ya ever need my house for yer own special occasion it’ll be here.”

I blushed, but managed to bow my head before I hurried after Fin. Craig was left behind, but I carried his words with me in my ringing ears.

Chapter 20

I caught up to Fin who had waited for me at the front of the house. As I reached him he looked up at the house and a soft smile flickered across his lips. “It’s a nice place, isn’t it?”

I lifted my gaze to the elegant home. The front porch was covered in streams and the winner of the bride bouquet toss had, in their drunken stupor, left the bouquet on the steps. “It certainly has a lot of life.”

Fin picked up the bouquet and turned the flowers over in his hand. His voice was so quiet I almost missed his words. “Life enough to live here?”

I blinked at him. “Come again?”

He shook his head and tossed the flowers back onto the steps. “Nothing.” Fin turned to me with his usual bright, mischievous smile. “Let’s go return Nana’s dress.”

“And shoes,” I added as I looked down at myself. “I really should have changed before I went to bed last night.”

“Mary won’t mind,” he assured me as he led me down the road.

Birds swooped and chirped about us as we passed the empty yards and roads. Shouts and calls came from the docks where the luckiest of the fisherman had already returned with their day’s catch. We soon reached Nana’s house and found the old woman herself in her rocker on the porch.

She tried to suppress a smile as we walked up, but she couldn’t hide the sparkle in her eyes. “So, you’re finally back to return my dress.”

“And shoes,” Fin added as he gestured down at the aforementioned attire. “And not a scuff on them.”

Nana wagged a finger at him. “I’ll bet that’s not for your lack of trying, you young scamp.”

Fin grinned. “Well, we did dance a lot.”

I wiggled my feet inside the shoes and winced. “I have the blisters to prove it.”

Mary came out and Nana looked over her shoulder at her helper. “Show Miss Conroy up to the room.”

I shook my head. “That’s alright, I know the way.”

Mary smiled. “Then you can leave the clothes on the bed.”

I scampered past them and up the stairs, but I couldn’t help but overhear Nana’s words to Fin. “So, has she said yes or are you waiting for this old woman to die before you give her any more grandchildren?”

My cheeks were as hot as irons as I slipped into the room with the bag of clothes in my hand. I shut the door behind myself, but rather than go over to the bed I leaned against the entrance. Nana’s words echoed in my head and I couldn’t dampen the blush on my face.

I frowned at myself as scolding thoughts flashed through my mind. What are you thinking? You didn’t come here to get married! It’s just a vacation! You hardly know the guy! He hardly knows you! It just wouldn’t work out!

Why not?

I slumped harder against the door and shook my head. “Because fairy tales just don’t happen. . .”

I shuffled over to the bed and slipped into my old clothes. The borrowed dress was carefully draped on the bed and I left the shoes on the floor beneath the hem. I walked over to the door and grasped the knob, but paused and looked over my shoulder. The light shimmered off the beautiful dress, an ancient heirloom that held memories of a family’s past, and now mine. I couldn’t help but feel a little ownership of the dress, a little bit that I was leaving something of me behind.

I sighed. “Leave it behind, Beth.”

I slipped out of the room and rejoined the others on the porch. Fin sat on the steps, but stood at my coming. His eyes showed an emotion I couldn’t quite read, but it almost looked like regret.

“Now off with you two and don’t dawdle!” Nana insisted as she waved her hand toward the docks. “My bones are telling me a storm’s coming.”

I walked over to her and pressed a light kiss on her forehead. “Thank you.”

Her cheeks resembled mine earlier as she blinked up at me. “For what?”

“For making last night really special for me.”

Nana stared at me with soft eyes before she shook off her surprise and turned her face away. “Enough of that now! Go on! Git or I’ll be stuck putting you up for Lord knows how long!”

Her rough words couldn’t fool me, but Fin and I went on our way with Mary waving at us. The road gravel crunched beneath our feet as we walked down the road towards the main part of the town.

Fin didn’t look at me as he spoke. “We’ll have to hurry if we want to beat Nana’s storm.”

I blinked at him. “But the docks are only just down the hill.”

“We have to go to the store first. We came here for groceries, remember?”

I hadn’t remembered, but I let him lead him down the gentle slope to the main street. People now walked the streets with bags in hand and smiles on their faces, but more than one pair of eyes looked up at the sky. I followed suit, but could only see a clear blue that stretched off into the distance.

“Do you really think there’s a storm coming?” I asked my guide.

“Nana’s not wrong about those things.”

We fetched the groceries and came out of the store with our arms full of bags. A cold wind brew past me and the sun vanished for a moment, forcing my eyes upward. The once-blue sky was now dotted with clouds, and a wall of darkness peeked over the horizon. Nana’s storm was coming.

We hurried down the hill and soon clomped onto the dock boards. The captain met us at his boat and helped us pile the groceries into the bottom. “Good thing you bought so much,” he mused as he gave pause to study the increasingly black sky. “Looks like we’re in for a long storm.”

“How long?” Fin wondered as he hopped into the boat and offered me his hand.

Captain McAllister furrowed his majestic brow. “Could be a few days, or maybe even a week.”

At that moment I took Fin’s hand and stepped down only to lose my balance and stumble against his chest. I looked up with my mouth slightly agape. “That long?”

The captain nodded. “Aye. Tis a terrible storm a-coming and it won’t let up until she’s done what she wants.”

I looked up at Fin who met my eyes. “Should we be going to the island?”

“Don’t you want to?” he returned.

I dropped my gaze to the bottom of the boat and bit my lower lip. “I don’t know. . .” To be trapped on the island with Fin, or to remain here where others could interrupt us.

“Well, ya better be deciding!” Captain McAllister insisted as a rough wind knocked into us. The boat rocked for a moment on the rough seas before the waters calmed. “It’s now or never!”

Fin’s quiet voice broke through the frantic thoughts in my head. “What do you say, Beth?”

I sighed. “I suppose we’ll go.”

Fin studied me for a moment before he nodded at the captain. We took our seats among the groceries and the captain spirited us across the rocking waves to the island. Breathnach met us at the island dock and caught the boat’s rope.

“I wasn’t sure you’d make it before the storm,” he mused as he held tight while we unloaded our goods.

Fin paused long enough to look up. “It looks like we don’t have much time.” He glanced over at McAllister. “You’re welcome to stay with us, captain, and ride out the storm in the cottage.”

The captain shook his head. “Thanks for the offer, My Laird, but I’d best be taking my ship back to the mainland and dragging her onto the beach. She might wreck on these rocks here.”

We were soon unloaded and waved goodbye to McAllister before he disappeared into the increasing gloom. Breathnach picked up half the bags as another cold wind pulled at our clothes. “We’d best be heading away ourselves.”

Chapter 21

We hurried up the path, but we weren’t fast enough to outrun the raindrops that splashed our faces and tickled my nose. The wind picked up and kept up as it clawed at our clothes and tried to trip us up. By the time we reached the cottage the droplets had morphed into a downpour and we were all soaking wet.

Breathnach set his bundles on the floor inside the doorway and let us through before he tipped his dripping hat at us. “If that’s all you’ll be needing me for then I’ll be heading back to the missus.”

Fin clapped Breathnach’s hand into a hearty shake and smiled. “We’re much obliged for the help, and don’t forget to not dance.”

Breathnach laughed before he disappeared into the downpour. Fin went about grabbed the perishables as I furrowed my brow. “‘Dance?’”

“Dancing in the rain is supposed to bring out the fae folk,” Fin explained as he carried a few bags over to the fridge. “If they like your dancing then they’re supposed to give you riches beyond your wildest dreams.”

“And if they don’t like your dancing?”

“Bad dancers are usually found at the bottom of cliffs.”

I arched an eyebrow. “So if that’s true then how does anyone know that’s what happened to them?”

Fin paused in the unpacking and winked at me. “Not all bad dancers are bad runners.”

I snorted and returned to work. We soon finished, and at the last storing of a box of cereal I turned to the front window that looked out on the garden. The rain came down in smooth, gentle sheets and little streams of water flowed off the roof.

Fin and I were still soaked to the skin, and I turned to my loft to find him standing behind me. He offered me his hand and his mischievous smile. “Care to dance?”

“And tempt the fairies?” I reminded him.

“I’m very fast.”

“And I’m very wet already,” I quipped as I set my hand atop his and pushed his arm down. “And a little cold.”

“I can fix both of those,” he promised as he slipped past me and over to the fireplace.

He had a warm fire in the time it took for me to remove my soggy shoes. “By the looks of my shoes I swam that last half mile,” I mused as I looked about for the nearest wall to lean against and remove my equally soaked socks.

Fin stood and turned to me. “Sit down on the couch.”

I looked down at myself and winced. “I think I’d set the world record for soaking cushions.”

Fin strode over to a small cupboard at the back of the cottage and drew out a couple of large blankets. He tossed all but one over the back of the couch and spread the other out over the cushions. He grinned at me as he swept his hand over the blanket. “Your throne awaits.”

I snorted and plopped myself down. Fin was at my feet in a moment and grabbed the top of one of my socks with one hand while the other cupped the bottom of my feet. Big mistake. Well, not for him. A laugh of forced delight escaped my lips.

Fin paused and lifted his eyes to me. They were full of mischief. “You’re not ticklish, are you, Miss Conroy?”

I glared back at him. “And if I was you’re too much of a gentleman to take advantage of a woman, aren’t you, Laird of Eilean Dubhan?”

His grin turned rakish. My eyes widened and I tried to yank my foot away, but it was too late. His grasp was too strong and he started tickling the sole of my foot. My only savior was my wet sock, but my ticklishness was too powerful for me to stop writhing on the cushions.

“Uncle!” I shouted as I felt the last bit of air escape my exhausted lungs. “Mercy! Anything!”

Fin stopped and I slumped deeper onto the cushions. My breathing was harsh, and I hated to admit it, but it sounded a little ragged, too. Fin looked up at me and the smile died on his lips. “Let’s get you out of those clothes.”

I held up my hand. “I can do this. You stoke that fire.”

He reluctantly turned away and threw another log into the flames. I peeled out of my wet clothes and snatched a few blankets from the back of the couch. In a few moments I was a mass of coziness, but something lurked in the back of my throat and nose that I didn’t like.

“Get some sleep,” Fin advised as he stood and walked toward the kitchen. “I’ll get some food ready.”

“I’m fine,” I insisted as I gazed lazily into the fire. The wood crackled and snapped, sending little dreamy sparks over the floor of the hearth.

Fin slapped the back of his hand on my forehead. I glared up at him. “Did you have to-”

“Yes, now hold still,” he instructed before he waited a moment. His frown deepened as he removed his hand. “You have a little bit of a fever already.”

“It’s just the fire,” I murmured as I bundled myself deeper into the blankets.

Fin wasn’t convinced, but he continued his journey to the kitchen. The darkness outside the window and the soft patter of raindrops on the roof lulled me to a warm, comfortable haze of consciousness.

A sharp pinch startled me out of my restfulness. I whipped my head up and found myself stretched across the couch. Fin stood over me with a steaming bowl in one hand and the other guilty one hovering over my arm.

“Time to wake up and eat some food,” he sing-songed.

I sat up and glared at him. “I wasn’t asleep.”

“You didn’t move much.”

“I was resting.”

“And you snored a little.”

I wrinkled my nose. “It was my sinuses acting up.”

Fin was still grinning when he set the bowl on the table in front of me. “I’d like to inform your sinuses that it’s nearly night and you need to eat.”

I blinked at him before I whipped my head toward the windows. The darkness had deepened and the rain had nearly stopped. The wind, however, rattled the panes and knocked the branches of the rose bush against the side of the cottage. “Really?”

Fin scooted the table closer to me and held out the spoon. “Really.”

I accepted the spoon, but my eyes remained on the window. “So, is the storm dying?”

Fin lifted his gaze to the panes and shook his head. “Not any time soon. This is just a lull before the rain returns.”

I dipped my spoon into the bowl and came up with a familiar scent. “Clam chowder?”

Fin returned his attention to me. “You don’t like it?”

I shook my head. “No, I love it, I just don’t remember us buying it earlier.”

He grinned. “You could say I just ‘brewed’ the soup together.”

I snorted and took a bite. It was hot, but I enjoyed the feeling as it slid down my throat. “I think you ‘hashed’ it up.”

Fin laughed as he stood. “I think I’m going to need a better thesaurus if I’m going to stand up against you, even when you’re sick.”

“I’ll be just fine in the morning,” I insisted as I took another sip.

Fin stooped in front of the fire and tossed another log into the unceasingly hungry flames. “Sick or not, we may be cooped up in here for a few days.”

I wrapped my free hand in the blankets and lifted the bowl in my palm so I could lay back against the couch. “So, what do the Scottish do when it rains for this long?”

He took up the poker and prodded the fire. Little sparks flitted out of the flames and floated onto the hearth. Their brilliance illuminated the room with speckles of light that danced around us. “Tell stories around the fire mostly, or play games.”

I looked down at myself and snorted. “I don’t think I’m up for the games, so what about the stories?”

Fin smiled. “I’m a little rusty with my stories.”

I arched an eyebrow at him. “Well, what about yours then?”

He paused in his prodding and blinked at me. “Mine?”

I nodded. “Yeah. You’ve got all of this-” I used my spoon to gesture to the cottage, “-but it sounds like you’re not around much. Is it too expensive to live here?”

Fin sat back onto his rear and shrugged. “I could afford to, but there’s really nothing to keep me here.”

“But what about all your friends and acquaintances? I mean, you know everybody around here.”

A bitter smile slipped onto his lips. The look didn’t suit him. “They make for a fine time, but nothing to root me to this spot.” One of the logs fell into the flames and cast its sparks up into the air. Their shadows danced over Fin’s face and obscured his features, but I swore I caught him looking at me. “But maybe someday I’ll find it.”

I dropped my eyes to my bowl and stirred the contents. “Fin, I. . .I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up such a sensitive subject.”

Fin laughed, but there was a lot of mirth missing from it. “Don’t worry about it.” He replaced the poker and stood. “Just set the bowl on the table when you’re done. I’ll sleep upstairs tonight. Goodnight.”

“‘Night,” I replied as he passed behind the couch and climbed up the ladder.

I ate my bowl in the quiet of the cottage. There was a groan from the bed upstairs and then silence. My mind, however, buzzed with thoughts. Most of them were lost in the fog created by my fever, but one stood out.

Did I love Fin?

Chapter 22

I couldn’t answer that question, at least not on an empty stomach and not with a fever. The rest of the soup was soon scarfed down and I stretched myself over the couch cushions. Sleep returned to me and I didn’t stir until the sound of sizzling bacon woke me.

I sat up and my head scolded me for such quick movement with a massive headache. It felt like bell chimes rattled around in my brain. I clutched my head and winced.

Fin stood in the kitchen in front of the stove, but happened to glance over at me. “Good morning.” His good humor slipped off with a quick examination of my face. “You should lie down for the day.”

I glanced at the window. There was a light pattering of rain against the panes. “I don’t think I have a choice.”

“It rained most of the night,” Fin confirmed as he lifted the bacon onto a plate already filled with hash browns and a small stack of pancakes. He walked over to me and set the plate on the coffee table. “That should tide you over until I get back.”

My pulse quickened and livened up my otherwise pale cheeks. “You’re leaving?”

“Only for a little while,” he assured me with a gentle smile. “We seem to have developed a problem overnight that I can’t fix on my own.”

“A problem?” I repeated before I heard a droplet hit a water surface.

The sound wasn’t unusual during rain, but what was unusual was it came from inside the cottage. I searched the room and found the problem in the corner near the front door. A pan sat on the floor and a drop of water fell from above into its belly. I followed the course of water and noticed a wet spot in the ceiling.

“There’s another two in the kitchen, and they’re getting bigger,” Fin revealed as strode over to the door and opened the entrance. He grabbed the handle of the pan and emptied the water into the wet world before closing the door and replacing the pan. I’ll go see Breathnach and ask him if anything can be done from inside the cottage.”

Though the door had only been opened for a moment, a chill air floated into the cottage and wafted over me. I bundled the blankets closer about my shoulders and glanced at the fire. Tall flames danced in the hearth, and a fresh stack of wood sat close by.

As though Fin could hear my thoughts, he spoke up again as he slipped into a heavy raincoat. “I shouldn’t be too long, and there’s a soup in the fridge if you need it. I made it just this morning, and you only need to heat it.”

A little warmth of appreciation heated my aching body. “You didn’t have to go to the trouble.”

Fin adjusted the tall collar of his coat and smiled at me. “You’re worth it.” A blush warmed my cheeks and I dropped my eyes to the breakfast plate. “But I shouldn’t be gone more than two hours. Just throw a log in every half hour and you should be fine.”

He grasped the knob, but a sudden bout of panic overtook me. “Fin!”

Fin paused and looked over his shoulder at me. “Yes?”

I bit my lower lip and couldn’t meet his curious gaze. “I… just be careful out there, okay?”

He flashed me his confident, mischievous smile. “Of course-”

“I really mean it.” I chanced to look up and noticed his expression had turned as serious as mine. “Take care of yourself. I… I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Fin was quiet for a moment as he studied me. He strode over and knelt in front of me where he stretched out his hand and cupped my cheek in his palm. “I’ll come back.”

I choked on a stifled laugh. “And in one piece?”

He grinned. “You’re making a lot of demands.”

My eyes flickered over to the kitchen where no microwave could be seen. “I just don’t want to learn to use the stove to reheat my food.”

He chuckled. “Is that really why you want me to come back?”

I frowned. “Why else would I-”

Fin leaned forward and captured my lips in a gentle kiss. My eyes grew to the size of dinner plates and I didn’t have enough brainpower to do anything more than sit there like a log. He drew away from me and his face had a gentle, teasing expression. “You were saying?”

Anger wiped away my shock and I shoved him away from me. He fell back against the table and the legs scooted a few inches. “You idiot! You could get sick!”

He stood and his eyes twinkled down at me. “It was worth the risk. You take care of yourself while I’m out. I won’t be long.”

Fin left me in a mess of emotions. Half of me was angry and the other half couldn’t understand why.

“Damn him. . .” I grumbled as I grasped the folds of the blankets bundled in my lap. I twisted them in my hands and glared at the floor. “Just damn him!”

My attention settled on the plate of food and a rumble from my stomach reminded me that I had a tough cold. I snatched the plate from the table and scarfed it down like I was in the middle of an eating contest. As always, the food was delicious and I was left satisfied, at least on that front.

I set my empty plate on the table and dropped back against the couch. A frown tainted my lips which only helped to remind me of Fin’s farewell. I reached up and brushed my fingers against my lips. Warm to the touch, like the blush on my cheeks.

I dropped my hand into my lap and shut my eyes. “Get a hold of yourself, Beth!” I scolded myself. “He’s just-well, he’s just a… just a nice guy!”

You don’t really believe that, do you?

I rolled my eyes up and glared at the ceiling. “Shut up, brain.”

You know I’m telling the truth. You like him and he likes you. What do two people like that do?

“I didn’t come here to get engaged!”

Love happens all the time.

“But this isn’t some fairy tale!”

Maybe it is.

I let loose a growl of frustration and dropped sideways onto the couch cushions. My brain mumbled a few more thoughts, but I covered my head with the blankets. “I don’t want to listen to you anymore! Nothing’s happened between us, and nothing’s going to happen between us!”

So you say. . . my inner voice mused as it drifted off into foggy obscurity.

“Stupid self. . .” I mumbled as I stretched myself out on the couch and closed my eyes.

Sleep and a full stomach are some of the best medicines, and this was time was no different. When I woke up I felt much better. Well, except for the heart-attack-inducing alarm that forced me out of my sleep.

My wake-up call was a loud pounding followed by a lot of yelling. “Fin? Fin, are you in there?”

I sat up and waited for the world to stop spinning before I looked to the front door. The pounding continued, along with the pounding at the window. Outside the storm beat against the walls of the cottage and the rain came down in sheets as thick as office paperwork.

“Fin? Fin!”

My heart sank as I recognized that voice: Ophelia.

“Come on, Fin, let me in!” A moment later a shadow appeared at the dark window. Ophelia cupped her palms together against the glass and leaned her face close to the panes. Her eyes found me, cozy in my little nest, and her face took on a look of disgust. “Open the door!”

I sighed, but flung aside my covers and stood. Ophelia disappeared from the window and I made to follow her, but a glow behind me reminded me that the fire needed tending. I smiled and gave a little shrug as I sauntered over to the pile of wood and leisurely tossed a log onto the embers, rekindling them into flames.

The pounding at the door resumed. “Let me in now!”

I walked over to the entrance and opened the door. Ophelia stumbled inside and stopped a few feet from the door. Her clothes dripped with rainwater and her usually pristine hair fell about her like limp, burnt noodles. She parted the dripping strands and glared at me. “About time.”

I shut the door and shrugged. “Sorry?”

She swung around and threw droplets of water everywhere. Her face was red from both the cool wet air and her ire. “Sorry? Sorry? Is that all you can say for leaving me out there in that filthy weather to freeze to death? Or worse-” She rubbed her raw cheeks. “Ruin my beautiful complexion.”

“I was sleeping,” I told her as I sauntered past the dripping girl and plopped myself back on the couch.

Ophelia looked around. “Where’s Fin?”

For some reason her pushy question irked me. Maybe it was the questioner. “He left.”

She glared at me. “Left to where?”

I waved my hand at the window. “Out there.”

“Now you listen here-” Ophelia snapped as she peeled off her soaked raincoat and hung it near the door. She spun around on her heels and nearly broke her ankle when the slick soles spun a little too far. The woman wobbled for a bit before she recaptured her balance, but not her escaped dignity. “As Fin’s future wife I have a right to know where he is.”

I arched an eyebrow. “I didn’t even know you two were engaged.”

Ophelia cleared her throat. “Yes, well, that’s soon to come, as well. He’s just waiting for the right moment.” I must have had a look of doubt because anger flashed through her eyes. “That moment would have already come if it wasn’t for a certain someone.”

I frowned. “What’s that supposed to-” A slight coughing fit struck me.

Ophelia recoiled from my obvious signs of illness and her lips curled into a sneer. “You know what that’s supposed to mean, so don’t try to hide it!” She stalked up closer to where I sat, but stopped well short of my sickbed. “Now are you going to stop getting in my way or are you going to keep being selfish and get in the way of Fin’s happiness?”

Chapter 23

The question was so loaded it could have been responsible for the sinking of the Titanic. It also raised my blood pressure to near-boiling.

I grasped the blankets and rung them a little. “I haven’t done anything to Fin, and even if I had tried he knows what he wants and wouldn’t let anything stop him from doing it.”

She pointed an accusing finger at him. “Then you admit you’re in love with him!”

My traitorous cheeks flushed red and I strangled my blankets. “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Even my voice was against me.

Ophelia crossed her arms over her chest and sneered at me. “Oh please. A blind man could see you’re in love with him.”

“Then a blind man is wasting his sight because I’m not in love with him!” I shot back.

She rolled her eyes. “Of course, you are! What else could you be with such a magnificent man so close to your clawed fingertips? He’s perfect, he’s wonderful, he’s-”

The door opened and Fin stepped inside with a devilish look on his face. “He’s curious who you’re talking about.”

Ophelia’s eyes lit up and her wicked step-sister expression was swept away and replaced by a bright smile. “Darling!”

Fin arched an eyebrow as he slipped out of his coat. “Um, hi, Ophelia,” he replied as he looked for a place to drape his soaked coat. Ophelia’s own coat blocked his way.

“Oh, let me hang that by the fire!” she pleaded as she scurried forward.

Fin held it out of her reach. “It’s fine. Besides, there’s nothing over there to hang it on.”

“I’ll hang it from my arm like a dutiful wife!” she suggested as she reached around for his coat.

Fin swapped hands behind his back and took a step back. “A nice offer, but to what do we owe the pleasure of your company, Miss Ophelia?”

Ophelia rolled her eyes and gave such a heavy sigh that I wondered how the cottage walls stood against the fury of her bad breath. “Fin, you don’t have to keep calling me that.” She slipped up to him and walked two of her fingers up his chest. A slight blush accented her cheeks as she batted her eyes up at him. “I mean, you and I, we have a special bond, don’t we?”

“Quite.”

His answer startled me, but I think it startled Ophelia more. She stared at him with wide eyes and her mouth slightly agape. “You agree? I mean-” She shook herself and gave him a wide, slightly goofy smile. “Of course, we do. It’s quite a personal bond, isn’t it?”

“And painful,” he added.

She blinked at him. “And what?”

He pointed down at their feet. “Your heel is digging into my foot.”

Both Ophelia and I followed his finger and a snort escaped my lips when I saw the sharp heel of her boot digging into the toes of his own shoe. Ophelia frowned and stomped backward. “Why do you always do this?”

It was Fin’s turn for confusion. “Do what?”

“Refuse to see the truth!”

“What truth is that?”

Ophelia threw her arms in the air and let loose a wild growl. She snatched her coat from the hanger and marched out of the cottage. The door was given a hardy slam for extra effect.

Fin stared at the door for a moment before he turned to me with a bemused look on his face. “I think I said something wrong.”

I snorted and dropped against the back of the couch. “I think it’s what you didn’t say that made her mad.”

“And what was that?” he wondered.

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Do you seriously not know?”

“Let’s just say I’d like your opinion on the matter,” he replied as he hung his coat on the empty hanger and strode past me to the fire.

I watched him kneel before the flickering flames and take up the poker. “She’s pretty smitten with you.”

“Many women have been,” he answered as he tossed another log into the hungry fire.

I felt a tinge of some emotion tug at my heart. Jealousy.

Shut up I scolded myself before I cleared my throat. “That many, huh?”

Fin glanced over his shoulder at me and grinned. “There have been a few memorable proposals.”

“From you or them?” I retorted.

He grinned and returned his attention to the fire. “Maybe a bit of both.”

My heart sank even further. “And they said no?”

I caught him giving me a quick, curious look with his eyes. “You’re not interested in me turning them down?”

I sat up and frowned at him. “Why would I be? I know why they turned you down.”

Fin choked on a fit of laughter before he gathered himself and leaned back so he could turn his face toward me. “You have an incredibly sharp tongue.”

“I try to sharpen it a couple of times a day,” I quipped as I wrapped a blanket around myself. “But that still doesn’t answer my question.”

He returned his attention to the fire and prodded the flames with the poker. “I seem to have forgotten the question.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “I asked you why they said no.”

Fin paused with the poker hovering over the flames. “I was young. Impetuous.”

“So not much has changed?” I teased. My humor died when I noticed his downtrodden face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t. . .I shouldn’t have said that.”

He shook his head and resumed his coal rearrangement. “There’s no need to apologize. I have an ‘impish soul,’ as Nana would so willingly tell you. I think the women saw that in me and refused my offer because of it.”

“I wouldn’t.”

The words just blurted out of my mouth. I clapped my hands over my traitorous lips, but history couldn’t be revoked. Fin half-turned to me and his expression held both curiosity and an emotion I couldn’t quite read. Was it hope? Or maybe I was being hopeful? Either way I couldn’t look at that adorable face and so I turned mine away.

There was a slight pause before I heard a soft sigh and dared a look back. Fin had his back to me and poked at the fire. “What were you two talking about?”

I blinked at him. “Who we-oh-” I glanced at the front door and the wet footprints left by our ‘guest.’ “She was just looking for you.”

He stopped poking the coals, but didn’t look at me. “Is that it?”

A traitorous blush appeared on my cheeks, but I covered it with a heavy blanket. “That’s it.”

Fin turned to me with an arched eyebrow and a slight smile lit up his face. “Is something the matter?”

I frowned. “Why?”

“Because you’re covering most of your face with a blanket.”

I sank deeper onto the cushion. “I’m cold, that’s all.”

“I should let you get some more sleep then,” Fin suggested as he stood and set the poker back in its place. “You still don’t look quite well.”

“What about Breathnach?” I wondered as I glanced out the window. Darkness seemed to cover the whole of the earth, but the rain didn’t sound so loud on the roof.

He moved over to the kitchen and snatched a carton of milk from the fridge. “He said nothing could be done until the morning. The rain should be stopped by then.” Fin looked down at the carton and frowned. “Saturday. . .”

I arched an eyebrow. “What was that?”

Fin shook himself and moved over to the cupboards. “It’s nothing. I’ll get some soup ready for you.”

A crack of thunder made me jump out of my skin. “Why that. . .” I moaned as I sank into my nest of blankets.

“Why what?” Fin asked me from the kitchen.

I shook my head. “It’s-” Another flash and I braced myself for the coming impact. It didn’t help. The thunder boomed and I couldn’t stop a yelp from escaping my lips. I ducked under the blankets and curled into a ball on the couch cushion.

Something touched my shoulder. I flinched and stiffened.

“It’s just me,” Fin whispered as I felt the other cushion sink under his weight.

I drew the blanket down low enough to see Fin seated beside me. His expression lacked his usual mischief, but he still smiled. “You’re afraid of thunder.”

I frowned at him. “No, I’m just-” There was another flash and crash. I shut my eyes and tensed.

A soft brush of a finger against my quivering cheek made me fling open my eyes. “There’s no need to be ashamed. You’re not the only one who’s afraid of the loud fury of the storm.”

I blinked at him. “You mean you-?”

Fin shook his head. “No.” He looked up at the window and his smile faltered a little. “My mother didn’t like thunder, either.”

My heart sank at the deep sorrow in those few words. I slithered my hand out of the blankets and grasped his hand. “I’m sorry.”

Fin bowed his head and a bitter smile replaced his gentle one. “Life begins and life ends. That’s the way of the world.”

I gave his hand a squeeze. “But it still hurts.”

A chuckle, lacking in any humor, escaped his lips. “Yes, it still hurts.”

I didn’t like that look of sorrow. It didn’t suit him. I wanted him to be happy. A devilish idea popped up in my mind. I knew just what to do, and he was distracted.

I reached up and grabbed the front of his collar. Fin’s eyes widened as he turned to face me. “What are you-”

I yanked him down and pressed my lips against his. Much was my glee when his eyes grew as wide as the flickering flames in the hearth. What I didn’t expect, however, was to enjoy it so much.

Fin wrapped his arms around me and drew us deeper into the kiss. By the time I pulled away I was out of breath and his devilish smile had returned. “You have an interesting remedy to melancholy, Miss Conroy.”

“And you can hold your breath for a long time,” I quipped as I snuggled back into my blankets and closed my eyes.

Fin chuckled, and I was relieved to hear the humor back in his voice as he stood. “A little exercise for the lungs is worth it in such a pleasurable situation, but I’ll go get your soup ready.”

I peeked an eye open and watched him return to the kitchen. A lightness had returned to his step and he hummed one of the tunes from last night. I reached up a shaking hand and brushed my fingers over my mouth. My heart thrilled at his warmth that remained on my lips and, deep down, that stupid voice chimed in.

You love him.

I couldn’t argue.

Chapter 24

A good meal returned my strength to me, but the storm had the same idea. The wind picked up and the rain pummeled the small cottage.

I watched the panes rattle at another crash and tried not to wince. Any sudden jerking would have tipped the bowl of hot soup in my lap, and I didn’t want to be a trend-setter for soup-style attire. “It sounds bad out there.”

Fin threw another log on the fire and glanced up at the window. “The storm is having its second wind, but should be over come daybreak.”

I snorted as another gust shook the glass. “Second wind. Cute.”

He flashed me his wicked grin. “Am I?”

I rolled my eyes before I set my now-empty bowl on the table. “Do you ever stop?”

“I try to keep moving,” he teased as he stood and stretched his arms over his head. He cast a quick look at the clock on the wall and his face fell. “Halfway through the day.”

I arched an eyebrow. “Is there something wrong with-” A coughing fit struck me and my body rattled with disease.

Fin hurried to my side and sat down beside me. I was grateful for his company as he rubbed my back with his palm. After a moment I managed to gather myself, but I felt weaker than before.

I pressed my hand against my tight chest and frowned. “Damn it. . .”

“You need to rest,” Fin insisted as he snatched a few more blankets.

“I’m-hey!” He’d tossed the whole pile onto me, burying me beneath warm fuzziness. I dug myself out of the blankets and glared at him. “I can take care of myself!”

“I absolutely believe you can,” Fin agreed as he stood and gave me a wink. “But right now, that isn’t necessary. Now get some sleep.” He turned away and returned to the kitchen.

It was hard to argue with someone’s back and besides, the blankets were incredibly comfortable. I snuggled down among them with a full stomach and a warm fire. It was the perfect recipe for sleep, and sleep I did.

I didn’t wake up until some annoying noise roused me. It was some sort of persistent ringing noise. I sat up and a pile of blankets slid off me. A weak bit of light streamed in through the windows, showing that a new day had begun but with a mess of clouds that still hung in the sky.

What was missing from this picture, however, was Fin. He was nowhere to be found.

The noise persisted, and I realized it came from my coat that hung near the door. I crawled out of my nest and stumbled over to the hanger. My body no longer ached, but my muscles were sore from laying for so long.

I fumbled about in my pockets before I found the culprit: my cell phone. The screen was lit up with a notice of an incoming call. My bleary eyes couldn’t make out the name, but I answered it, anyway. “Hello?”

A gruff voice answered my groggy one. “About time!”

I leaned my face away from the receiver and blinked at the phone. “Mr. Jackson?”

“Who else would it be?”

I looked around. Yep, I was still definitely in that tiny cottage located on a small, secluded island. “How are you reaching my phone?”

“Speak up! I can’t hear you!”

I put the phone back against my ear. “How are you reaching me?”

“Via satellite. Now enough with your questions. How was the vacation? Ready to come back?”

I blinked at the wall ahead of me. “Come back?”

He laughed. “Of course, or have you forgotten that your week is up?”

My heart sank. “It is?”

“Of course! It’s Saturday, or have you forgotten about that, too?” My eyes widened. Saturday. Fin had mentioned that yesterday. “Miss Conroy? Beth? Are you still there?”

I shook myself from my memories. “Y-yes, I’m still here.”

“So how have you and my old friend getting along?”

Oh, that brought back some more unpleasant memories. The phone shook in my hand as I burned a hole in the wall before me. “I wish I could tell you how we got along, but I never found your stupid friend! You didn’t give me any name or what he looked like or anything, remember? If it wasn’t for Fin taking me in then I would’ve been stranded at that train station this whole time and-”

“Wait, Fin?” Mr. Jackson interrupted me. “Finlay MacLennan?”

I started and blinked. “Aye, but how do you know him?”

“‘Aye,’ is it now?” Mr. Jackson chuckled. “A few more weeks and I bet I wouldn’t understand a word you said.”

As the old saying goes, ‘speak of the devil and he shall appear.’ The door opened and Fin himself stepped inside. The smile on his face withered a little under my blistering glare. He looked behind himself before he returned his attention to me. “It can’t be something I said, at least not today.”

“Miss Conroy?” Mr. Jackson spoke up. “Are you there again?”

“I’m here,” I growled as I watched Fin take a seat on the nearest arm of the couch. I tried not to strangle the phone and my host, possibly at the same time. “How do you know Finlay MacLennan?”

Mr. Jackson laughed so loud that I pulled the phone away from my ear to keep from going deaf. “Finlay MacLennan is my friend!”

My eyes narrowed at Fin who smiled at me with his eyes dancing with mischief. “You’re Mr. Jackson’s friend?”

He inclined his head. “Yes, I’m his friend.”

“Why did you lie to me?” I questioned him.

He shook his head. “I never lied to you. You were so against meeting the friend of your employer that I thought it best not to tell you who I was. Think of it as an omission with the best of intentions.”

“I asked you if there was anything else you needed to tell me, and you said no!” I reminded him.

He lifted a finger. “Ah, but I never answered the question.”

“Deception is not an honest strategy!” I argued.

“Miss Conroy, are you there?” Mr. Jackson called through the receiver. “When are you returning?”

I tightened my grip on the phone and tried to tamp down the anger and feeling of betrayal that swelled up inside me. He hadn’t lied, but the deception still hurt.

“Miss Conroy?” Mr. Jackson persisted.

I pulled the phone to my ear. “You don’t have to worry about me coming back, Mr. Jackson, because I quit!”

Chapter 25

I heard Mr. Jackson take in a slight breath. “Quitting? But why?”

Tears pooled in my eyes as my burgeoning love for the man so close at hand was consumed by my anger. “Because I’m just tired of both of you! Goodbye!” I threw the phone at the couch and dashed out of the house.

“Beth!” Fin called out behind me.

His voice only made me run faster, but I brushed too close to the untamed rose bush. Its thorny branches caught on my shirt and stopped my momentum. I twisted and turned in its grasp, but the harder I struggled the more entangled I became. Droplets of water jumped off the leaves and rained down on me. My feet slipped on the muddy ground, giving me no traction.

“Let go!” I screamed.

Fin hurried out of the house and grabbed my shoulders. “Hold still.”

His calm voice soothed me, and his deft fingers worked on the branches. One-by-one the thorns were removed from my clothes and skin. When the final thorn was loosened I darted out of Fin’s delicate hands and away from the house. I’d gone only a few yards down the path when my foot tripped over something, and I tumbled to the ground.

The impact knocked the breath from me and the side of my head hit the ground. I slowly raised myself onto my arms and winced.

“Ouch. . .” I murmured.

Fin was by my side. His strong hands grasped my arms. “Go any further and you’re likely to kill yourself.”

I glanced over my shoulder. “What did I trip over?”

He nodded at a thick stick that lay over the path. My walking stick. I blinked at the traitorous piece of driftwood for a moment before an uncontrollable urge to laugh gurgled up inside me. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my middle as laughter burst from me.

Fin leaned back and watched my sudden change with an attitude of fascination mixed with concern. He probably wondered if a wedding band or a straight-jacket were in order, or perhaps both. My humor died down and I gasped for breath.

He looked me over. “You’re sure you’re fine? No broken bones or knocks on the head?”

I looked down at the ground and nodded. “I’m. . .I’m fine.”

I dropped my hand into my lap and lifted my head to him. A sheepish smile slipped onto my lips. “The island seems to be in a conspiracy to keep me here.”

Fin helped me to my feet. “Then add three to that list.”

I blinked up at him. “Three?”

He looked up and smiled at the rose bush. “My mother said the rose bush would catch a most beautiful bird for me, and I would know happiness.” His soft eyes fell back on me and he pulled me against his warm body. “And I think I’ve caught that little bird.”

Fin leaned down and captured my lips in a deep, passionate kiss. Heat flared up inside me and I couldn’t help but lean into his gentle touch. His arms wrapped around me, holding me close against his tight body.

I was forced to pull us apart when my lungs pleaded for oxygen. His eyes shimmered like stars and I could feel the warm red heat on my cheeks.

A few whispered, hesitant words passed over his lips. “Will you stay with me, Beth?”

My face fell with my heart. The anger that had raged inside of me only moments ago fled and I could feel my love for this handsome, funny man bloom again. “I-I-”

He cupped my cheek in his hand and his pleading eyes looked into mine. A lump developed in my throat. I shut my eyes against his haunting look and stood. His hand reluctantly fell away as I turned away and wrapped my arms around myself. The damp air crept into my bones, not helped by my wet and muddy clothes.

I heard his feet and soon felt his hot breath on my neck. “Please.”

I turned to him and shook my head. “I just can’t. I have a job-” His eyebrows raised a little and I couldn’t help but wince. “I need to find a job, but I have a career, a-” I paused as the sun at his back wrapped a glowing light around him. There he was, silhouetted in front of that little cottage with that teasing smile on his lips. A perfect picture, only one change.

And I took it.

I raced forward and jumped into his arms. He caught me and I buried my face into his chest. “What am I thinking? Of course, I’ll stay with you!”

He wrapped his arms around me and laughed. “And I’ll keep you, my Beth.”

“What’s this now?” a voice called out, and Breathnach sauntered down the path that joined our two houses. My heart thrilled at the thought of owning such a beautiful cottage, and such a wonderful little island. And there was the added benefit of Fin, of course, or so I’d tease him about later.

Fin grinned from ear-to-ear as he wrapped an arm around my waist and turned us toward our guest. “We’re to be married, Breathnach.”

Breathnach came up to us and his eyes twinkled at us. “Are you now? Should I go tell the Fergusons of your happy day?”

Fin glanced down at me. “Should we let him have all the fun?”

I laughed. “We’ll tell Ophelia ourselves that she needs to wear something other than white soon.”

Fin grasped my shoulders and looked down at me with his magnificent eyes. “You’ll look beautiful in white. You look beautiful in everything.”

I stood on my tiptoes and pecked a kiss on his lips. “Thank you.”

He blinked at me. “For what?”

“For taking in a stray and making her into a queen.”

He grinned. “Any time.”

And it was a very, very long time between us, filled with many happy memories, but we would never forget that first week together. Nor would I forget to thank Mr. Jackson for forcing me into vacation and into a long life of happiness. Thanks, boss.

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