Fin led the way up the stairs, past the shack and along the white sand that lay at the feet of the tall, golden grass. The blades beat against me in rhythm with the wind as I trudged behind my guide. We meandered atop the sand dunes and tall grass for forty yards until we came to hard earth. Weeds, wild flowers, and small bushes held this domain, and our path guided us past these primitive plants lives and up a hill to a dark shadow in the distance.
The shadow was the promised house Fin had spoken about. It was a single story, thatched-roof cottage with a rough, mud-baked exterior. A few scraggly trees stood in the wild-grass yard and some bushes sat outside the door positioned on the right side of the building. There was a small paned windows on the left side of the door, and a cute stone walk led from our path to the door fifteen feet off.
The rain was abating as we reached the worn wooden door with its simple latch handle. Fin opened it and let me inside before he followed me into the dark, but dry, interior. He dropped my bags and his own on the ground beside the door and fumbled in his pocket for a moment. I heard the strike of a match and saw the faint flicker of light cupped in his hand.
Fin walked over to a small table to our left and lit an oil lamp that sat there. The lamp illuminated the small room and I had my first clear glimpse of the cottage. We stood in the main room, a long, rectangular area that stretched from the door to the left outer wall. There was a couch nearly as old as Captain McAllister, a rocking chair, and an old but clean, hand-woven rug. The far left wall was dominated by a large stone chimney with a hearth large enough to lay in if you were idiot enough to do such a thing.
To our right was a small kitchen with an even smaller dining table. Four chairs sat around it. There were no appliances, and the stove was fueled by wood. Beyond the kitchen, nestled in the far corner, was a ladder that led up to the small loft over our heads. At the far back wall opposite the front door was a rear door and a dresser and long bookshelf beside it. The shelf was filled with books, and their musty, sweet smell wafted across the room. It reminded me of my college years with its book reports and research assignments.
Fin stepped out into the living room and turned to me. The lamp lit up his features and showed me his smile expected some assessment of the place. “It’s not much, but it is dry. If you need the bathroom there’s a john behind the house,” he told me, gesturing toward the rear door.
“You mentioned a bedroom,” I reminded him.
He nodded to the ladder. “It’s the loft. There’s a small bed up there,” he revealed. I shivered and wondered if I was idiotic enough to lay down in the chimney hoping for heat. “Sit down on the couch and I’ll make a fire,” he told me, no doubt noticing the way my body quivered.
I plopped down on the couch and rubbed my wet, cold arms. Fin worked his magic on a small pile of dried wood beside the chimney, and in a moment he recreated Prometheus’ miracle by creating fire in the hearth. The flames licked at their food supply like a hungry dog and soon there was a comfortable blaze. I held my hands out to the heat and felt my skin glow. The fire also cast the room in a soft glow that chased away the shadows in all but the deepest corners.
Fin put the lamp on top of a small table that stood in front of the couch. “Didn’t you say this place had electricity?” I wondered.
“Aye, and it does, but there’s no sense using the petrol for a single night,” he pointed out. He leaned back on the floor and the firelight danced across his handsome features. I found myself mesmerized by the lively look in his eyes and the pensive expression on his face. He turned to me and I whipped my head away, but I’d been caught staring. “Where are my manners? I haven’t offered you a towel to dry yourself.” He strode over to the dresser and pulled out a pile of blankets that he offered to me.
“I’m fine,” I assured him.
“You’ll catch your death of cold if you stay in those clothes. You can change in the loft and dry yourself with one of these blankets,” he suggested.
The offer was too tempting, so I grabbed a blanket, took my clothes suitcase, and climbed the old ladder to the loft. The loft sat above the kitchen and dining area, and there was a short railing around the sides to keep someone from falling off. The firelight flickered on the thatched ceiling above me and danced across the dry straw. I changed into my night shirt and glanced over the side.
My eyes fell on Fin, half-naked and still stripping. I sat there dumbly for a moment admiring the thin but ample chest and the strong arms. Then I averted my eager eyes and lay flat against the loft floor until I was sure he was done. I peeked over the edge and was both disappointed and pleased to see he was in a pair of gray sweat pants and a white shirt. He glanced up and smiled when he noticed my lecherous gaze.
“How are you feeling now?” he asked me.
I blushed, but swallowed the lump in my throat. “Much better,” I replied. I climbed down the ladder and met him in the kitchen. He opened the cupboards and we were presented with Old Mother Hubbard’s fare of invisible food. My eyes flickered to Fin. “Please tell me you have emergency rations somewhere,” I mused.
He smiled and shook his head. “I’m afraid not. If nothing is found in these cupboards then hunger will be our companion for tonight,” he told me. We searched the cupboards and came up with a box of cereal, a packet of spaghetti seasoning, and some spices. The finds sat on the kitchen table before us. “It seems we must do with cereal tonight though there’s plenty of water out of the pump at the sink,” Fin commented, indicating a small hand pump beside the sink.
“And tomorrow?” I wondered.
“Tomorrow we can fetch food from the mainland, providing the boat arrives,” he told me.
I cringed. “Not comforting. . .” I murmured.
“Perhaps food will ease your mind,” he encouraged me.
We poured our two bowls of dry cereal, honey oats, and took our feast over to the warm, cheerful fire. As I munched on my dry oats I pondered the significance of milk and if there was any cow on the island from which I could swipe milk for tomorrow’s breakfast. By the time I finished with my dry feast I was mostly full and definitely tired. My nap earlier hadn’t completely conquered the lack of sleep that morning, and I stifled a yawn.
“We should get some rest. The mornings come early here,” Fin agreed with my yawn.
I clambered back up the ladder, but paused halfway there to watch Fin prepare his bed on the couch. “There isn’t anywhere for you to sleep?” I asked him.
He looked to me with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Only the loft,” he told me.
I blushed. “I-I guess not,” I replied.
I scurried up the ladder and dove into the bed. The sheets were made from the softest sheep skin and the top quilt, showing a scene of a beach, was sewn by a careful, caring hand. The soft glow of the lamp below me was extinguished, but for a long time afterward the fire still crackled and cast its warm light on the walls and ceiling. My mind wouldn’t allow sleep to immediately come to me. Instead it forced me to ponder how I started out in a chic hotel room that morning and was now in the loft of an old cottage on an island in the Hebrides. I couldn’t explain it even to myself, but I was determined to at least enjoy myself. I was owed that much on this forced vacation.
After that determined inward speech I drifted off to a deep, calm sleep.
I was woken up by a painful blast of a bugle horn from just outside the cottage. The windows rattled and so did my brain as the bugle sounded again. I sat up with all the grace of an angry warthog and the beauty of Medusa, and peeked over the edge of the loft. Fin swung his legs over the side of the couch. There was a smile on his face as he shook his head. He stood and went over to open the door.
Another bugle blast erupted from the bugler and echoed through the single-room. An older gentleman of about sixty-five marched into the cottage with bugle in one hand and a gun in the other. He wore a dark green hunting outfit, the kind with the thick coat and slightly baggy pants, and had on the same kind of flat hat. He saluted to Fin, who saluted in return.
The old man spoke in a thick, proper English accent. “Good morning, old chum! I heard you were back and didn’t want to miss a minute’s daylight with you,” the old man told him.
“I’m flattered, General,” Fin replied. He nodded at the gun. “Hoping to get in some hunting before the cock crows?” he wondered. The hour was just after Too-Early and way before Give-Me-Five-More-Minutes.
“The grouse on the mainland have been wonderful, and I don’t know as the grouse here will be just as good, and unsullied by those tourists, too,” the general replied.
“Tourists?” Fin asked him.
“Oh, you know, the ones at the Great House. The men of the family haven’t a mind to shooting much, and the women are worse, or so I’ve been told. They hardly leave the house,” he explained. While they talked I listened and hurriedly dressed. My brush caught in my Medusa hair and I yelped. The noise was enough to catch the attention of the general. “Who’s there?” he called out.
“Easy there, general. It’s only my guest,” Fin told him.
I climbed down the ladder and smiled at the men. “Good morning,” I greeted them.
The general took off his hat and bowed to me. “Good morning. I hadn’t any idea Fin had a lady friend with him.” The general’s eyes flickered over to Fin with a teasing glint in them, who cleared his throat and gestured to me.
“General Henry Johnston, this is Miss Elizabeth Conroy. She’s staying a week with me on her vacation,” Fin introduced us.
General Johnston clasped his bugle to his waist, stepped forward, and gallantly took my hand to plant a soft kiss on my palm. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Conroy.”
“You can call me Elizabeth,” I replied.
“And you can call me General. Most everyone in these parts does,” he returned. He turned to Fin and plopped his hat back on his head. “What plans had you this fine day?” he wondered.
“I hadn’t really thought of it. We must find food at the mainland, certainly,” Fin told him.
“The Breathnachs are expecting to see you soon. The Misses has talked of nothing else but seeing you since they heard this morning from the Captain that you were come, and Mr. Breathnach, the good chap, has the island report for you,” the General informed him.
“Island report?” I repeated.
The general turned to me and nodded. “Yes. It’s the report Breathnach gives to Fin here every time he visits his island.”
I blinked. “His island?”