There was a ringing in my ears until I realized it was only Ophelia letting out piercing shrieks of fright. “Is she dead? Is she dead?” she repeated over and over.
A pair of strong arms caught me up and lifted me onto the top of my traitorous boulder. I glanced up into Fin’s pale face. “Easy there. Don’t try to move,” he commanded me.
“Believe me, that isn’t on my to-do list,” I grunted.
He looked me over. “Where are you hurt?”
“In my arms and legs, and my pride,” I replied.
Fin pulled up my pants and swept his hands over my legs. Though his fingers were gentle I still winced when he brushed over the aspiring bruises on the back of my legs. “Nothing broken. Can you walk?”
My wobbly legs told me walking was likely, but climbing wasn’t a good idea unless I wanted to make the intimate acquaintance of the ground. “I think so, but I don’t think I can get up the cliffs,” I told him.
“I’ll carry you to the field,” he offered.
“You really don’t-hey!” He hardly waited for my reply before he swept me into his arms. I clutched onto him as he made his way over the slippery rocks and returned us to sandy ground. “I can walk!” I protested.
“And I will gladly watch when you give a demonstration, but on the field,” he countered.
We strode past Ophelia who looked envious of my position, and I of hers. Fin walked up the cliff path as sure-footed as a goat and his arms never once wavered in their hold of me. We reached the field and I expected to be released from my pleasant prison, but he hurried across the grass toward the Grand House.
“We’re on the field now,” I reminded him.
“Yes, she can get down,” Ophelia chimed in. I doubted we would ever agree on anything else.
“Yes, but the house isn’t far,” Fin argued.
We were there in a minute and the doors were open to welcome us. Fin swept us inside with Ophelia following close behind, and he led us into the large living room with its roaring fire. Mrs. Ferguson sat on the couch covered in her quilts and Mr. Ferguson stood by the large front windows that held a grand view of the meadow. They turned on our entering and Mrs. Ferguson jumped to her feet with a gasp.
“What’s happened?” she asked us.
“Merely a fall on the rocks. Nothing to worry about,” Fin assured her. He set me down in the spot Mrs. Ferguson had just vacated. I was glad for the heat.
“On the rocks? What was she doing there?” Mr. Ferguson spoke up.
“Fetching crab traps, but the rocks fetched her,” Ophelia replied. Her joke was so funny everyone forgot to laugh.
“That was a very stupid thing to do. Those rocks are no place to be jumping around,” Ferguson scolded me.
While they discussed my jumping abilities Fin wrapped me in a blanket and stirred the fire. He paused on Ferguson’s proclamation and turned to the older gentleman. “I’m afraid I’m to blame,” Fin spoke up. “I encouraged the excursion, and must take part of the fault.”
Ferguson scoffed. “Don’t you blame yourself, Fin. Everyone’s responsible for themselves.” Fin turned back to the fire and I caught a glimpse of pursed lips and disbelieving eyes.
Any further conversation was saved by the bell, or rather the chime of an old clock in the foyer. “Oh dear, it’s time for our morning family walk,” Mrs. Ferguson spoke up. She glanced between her husband and Fin. “Did you want us to stay and keep you two company?” Ophelia looked as eager to stay as I was for her to go.
“Nonsense. They’ll be fine without us,” Mr. Ferguson argued.
“I’m fine, really. You can go without us. It is for family, after all,” I agreed.
“See? They’ll be fine. Besides, that boy of yours needs to stop moping in his room once or twice a day,” Ferguson insisted.
Mrs. Ferguson frowned. “He’s delicate, and the island air is hard on him,” she protested.
“I’m feeling a little faint after watching Elizabeth fall. Could I stay here?” Ophelia pleaded.
“Certainly not. You’re made of tougher stuff than that,” her father replied. She pressed her lips together in a pout and plopped herself onto an arm of the couch.
Mrs. Ferguson pulled off the blanket from her shoulders and tossed it onto the couch beside me. “Let me just fetch Josh and we can go. Now you’re sure you don’t need us?” she repeated the question to Fin.
He pulled out his pipe and lit the end with a stick beside the fire. His face was smiling, but the corners of his lips were strained. “Quite sure,” he replied.
Mrs. Ferguson smiled and glanced down at me. “Very well. I wish you a speedy recovery, Miss Conroy.”
I returned the smile. “I’m sure it will be. I’m feeling better already.” Just the thought of a nice, quiet house was enlivening.
“That’s good, now if you’ll excuse me. Josh? Josh?” she called as she scurried from the room.
“We’ll see you both when we get back,” Mr. Ferguson commented.
Fin bowed his head. “We’ll be here,” he promised.
Mr. Ferguson grabbed hold of Ophelia’s arm and partially dragged her from the room. Mrs. Ferguson’s voice drifted from the entrance hall. “Josh? Josh, whatever is the matter?”
“Don’t baby the boy, Mary. Josh! Get down here right now!” barked Ferguson.
“I’m coming!” came a shout, followed closely by the shuffling of feet down the wooden stairs.
I scrunched down beneath the high back of the couch to avoid any more notice from the family, and was relieved when I heard the front door open and close. They were gone and my world was once more at peace. I turned my attention to my sole companion.
Fin stood close to the hearth with the pipe in his mouth and his face still pale. He leaned against the mantel and directed his steady gaze on my injured form. It was unnerving. “What is it? Do I have seaweed on my face?” I asked him.
“I would like to apologize to you. I had no right asking you to climb those unfamiliar rocks,” he admitted.
I shrugged. “I wanted to do it, and it was my feet that betrayed me,” I countered.
“Still, I feel responsible,” he insisted.
“All right, feel responsible, but don’t you dare treat me with kids gloves after this,” I replied. I shifted on the cushions and frowned. “I don’t want to be treated like a glass doll or told I can’t do anything because I’m a girl. . .” I muttered.
Fin smiled and straightened. “Then I’ll treat you as you wish,” he obliged.
A wicked smile slipped onto my lips. “Does that mean I’ll be getting the princess treatment?” I teased.
He chuckled. “I’m afraid Ophelia has managed to take the whole of that,” he returned.
I rolled my eyes. Just when I’d forgotten about that pretty little rose thorn he had to remind me of her. “She’s certainly a piece of work,” I commented.
Fin turned to the fire to tap some pipe ashes into the flames. “Yes, but you mustn’t hold that against her. She has had a rather spoiled childhood.”
Speaking of the family, I heard a shout and a holler from the windows. I turned and could just make out the family meeting a pair of people from the woods. “Who’s that?” I asked Fin.
Fin strode to the windows behind me that looked out on the lawn. “It seems they’ve found the General and Breathnach.”
I gingerly stood and joined Fin at the window where we both looked on the company. Mr. Ferguson and the General were discussing something with a young man of fifteen close beside the father. “That must be Josh,” I guessed.
“It is,” Fin confirmed.
Beyond the three men were Mrs. Ferguson and Ophelia who had Breathnach trapped in conversation. The caretaker had one hand full of the necks of a few birds. Josh was admiring the gun the General carried, and he pointed at the weapon. Fin chuckled. “The lad doesn’t know the first thing about a gun, but I believe he aims to learn,” he mused.
The General looked between father and son, and Mr. Ferguson nodded his head to some agreement. Mrs. Ferguson frowned, but the General passed his gun to the eager young lad. Josh lifted the barrel and accidentally pointed it at his father, who shoved the barrel away and yelled something that wasn’t exactly words of gratitude. The three men broke away from the group and went down the slope toward the loch. They paused and the General pointed to some object away from the castle that I couldn’t make out.
“Target practice,” Fin explained.
“The Fergusons haven’t tried hunting while they’re here?” I wondered.
“No, nor any of the times before,” Fin replied.
“Times before? Not just once?” I asked him.
Fin turned towards me. “Yes. I told you they rented the castle before and a few times between now and then. Ophelia has spent the better part of her summers here. I’m told she’s to go to college this fall, and this trip may be their last trip here.”
The sound of a gun firing echoed through the house along with a shout. We turned our heads back to the scene of the crime and saw the General angrily grab his gun from Josh’s hands. The boy scowled at the intrusion, but the General pointed at something and yelled at the boy. Mr. Ferguson was full of apologies, but the General shook his head and strode away from them to Breathnach. Mrs. Ferguson and Ophelia hurried to the men, and Fin frowned.
“There’s been trouble. I must see what has happened,” Fin spoke up.
I swept aside the blankets and swung my legs over the couch. “I’ll go with you.”
“You’re better here,” he insisted.
I scowled at him and stood. “No kid gloves, if you please.”
He smiled and took my hand to help me up. “Very well.”
Fin led me to the door. We stepped outside and walked across the grass to the Ferguson family. They met us halfway.
“What seems to be the problem?” Fin asked them.
“The General objected to Josh firing at an animal in the trees, that’s all. The old chap merely overreacted,” Mr. Ferguson replied.
“I see. What animal was he shooting at?” Fin wondered.
“Just some deer or whatnot. There’s plenty of them on the mainland,” Mr. Ferguson defended his son.
Fin frowned. It was the first time I’d seen him out of sorts. “Yes, but not on Eilean Dubhan, and I would be grateful if you wouldn’t shoot at another.”
The corners of Mr. Ferguson’s lips twitched, but he smiled. “We’ll take your advice, my laird,” he returned.
Fin bowed his head. “Thank you. Now if you would excuse us we will be going.”
Ophelia stepped forward and caught his arm. “But we will be seeing you for dinner, won’t we?” she reminded him.
“Of course, but you can’t expect us to eat in these clothes,” he pointed out. I was covered in muck and dried sand from my fall, and he was covered in my covering from his carrying me to the castle.
“Of course we don’t, but should your lady friend really be leaving? She must be sore from her fall,” Mrs. Ferguson spoke up.
“I’m feeling much better,” I told her. Well enough to climb Kilimanjaro to escape this family.
“Very well,” Mrs. Ferguson acquiesced. She turned to Fin and playfully wagged her finger at him. “Dinner is at seven, so don’t be late.”
“We won’t. Good afternoon,” Fin returned.
We left the family and went over to where the General stood with Breathnach. The General wasn’t quite cooled down from the boy’s antics. “That blasted boy! Thinks he can shoot at anything he pleases!” the General yelled when we reached them.
“Ferguson told us his son tried to shoot a deer. What do you say to that, General?” Fin asked him.
“I say I pointed at a rock for him to hit. He couldn’t do no harm with that, but the bugger sees the deer and decides he wants to catch himself a prize he wouldn’t eat,” the General growled.
Fin smiled and patted him on the back of the shoulder. “No harm done, General, and a lesson learned,” he pointed out.
“Aye. I won’t be giving him my gun again,” the General agreed.
Breathnach glanced at my bruised self. “It seems yer lady friend has had an accident,” he surmised.
“Just a slip on the rocks. We were looking for your crab traps,” Fin told him.
Breathnach grimly nodded. “Ah hope it isn’t serious.”
“No, nothing too serious, but we should be getting her to the cottage to rest,” Fin replied.
“Were you wanting some company? The Captain’s set to take me back to the mainland within the hour,” the General told us.
Fin smiled. “We’re never so tired that we can’t entertain you, General. Elizabeth, why don’t you walk between us while the General leads the way? He knows these rocks as well as I,” he suggested.
The General guffawed. “Not quite that well, but well enough to get us back without trouble,” he replied.
“Sure,” I agreed. I suspected he wanted to watch over me, and to be honest I wasn’t feeling all that great. My legs were a little shaky and my arms ached.