I followed Fin down the path to the wooden front door where he knocked. There were soft footsteps on the other side and in a moment the door opened. A woman of about fifty stood on the other side. She had keen eyes that lacked the cunning of a knave, but held a bottomless possibility of kindness. Her clothes were simple but clean, and she wore an apron over them that was covered in flour. At the corners of her mouth was an ever-present smile waiting to be freed, and her gray-speckled brown hair was pulled back in a tight bun.
“A fine morning to you, Mrs. Breathnach,” Fin greeted her.
Her eyes widened. She flung open the door with a bright smile on her face. “Finlay MacLennan! The captain told my husband you were here, but I couldn’t believe you wouldn’t be a-visiting without writing before ya come,” she commented.
“I didn’t? I must have forgotten,” he replied in a fake shocked voice.
She playfully scowled at him and wagged a threatening finger at him. “You’re a mischievous one, and ya always have been, Finlay MacLennan. Why, do you remember-”
“Mrs. Breathnach, I bring a guest,” Fin interrupted her as he gestured to me.
Mrs. Breathnach turned and her eyes opened wide in surprise. “My goodness, but it’s a woman friend, and a very pretty one, at that!” she exclaimed. She snatched my hands up and gave them a friendly squeeze to compliment her smile. “I heartily welcome ya to Eilean Dubhan, miss, and hope to see much of ya in the future.”
“I’m only staying here for a week,” I replied.
“Just a week? What a pity! Ah’m sure my laird will bring ya back soon enough,” she consoled me.
“Bring me back?” I repeated.
“Aye. It’s fine time my laird settles down with a woman, and such as you are would fit the Great House quite nicely,” she complimented.
My cheeks blushed crimson. She thought I was his fiancee! “I-I’m not who you think I am. We’re only just friends,” I protested.
“We met only yesterday, Mrs. Breathnach,” Fin explained.
Mrs. Breathnach didn’t lose a beat in her premature congratulations. “Does love need a time when it can blossom from the heart?” she argued.
“Maybe if it hasn’t been watered,” I pointed out.
She laughed and pressed my hands. “Some wit about you, there is, but now come along inside and rest yourselves. Ah want to hear about your time in London, Fin,” she added.
We stepped inside to find the cottage much like our own, but with a more homely feel. There was warm bread cooking in the stove and dried herbs hung from the ceiling in the kitchen. The couch was covered in hand-woven quilts and a warm fire crackled in the hearth.
Mrs. Breathnach gestured to the couch and a few wooden rocking chairs close by the fire. “Make yourselves at home. My husband should be-” At that moment the door opened behind us and a man of fifty stepped inside.
He was solidly built with a fine dark mustache and short hair slicked back. His attire was simple with a speck here and there of dirt and clinging weeds. He had a friendly twinkle in his eyes and a confident gait to his walk.
His eyes swept over us and he smiled at Fin. “A good morning to you, my laird. The Captain warned us to be expecting you.” The men shook hands warmly and Mr. Breathnach invited us to the couch where we sat down. He took one of the rocking chairs.
“Not hunting with him today?” Fin asked the fellow.
“Not yet. Ah promised Anna Ah would chop some wood for the stove,” he explained.
“And fetch it inside,” his wife playfully reminded him.
He chuckled. “And fetch it inside,” he agreed as he stood.
“Were you needing some help?” Fin offered.
“If ya won’t be minding, my laird, but Ah don’t want to be keeping you and yer lady friend waiting,” Mr. Breathnach hesitated.
“Nonsense. We’ll be quick about it,” Fin assured him.
I jumped up to help, but Anna called from the kitchen. “If your lady friend isn’t minding, Ah could use another hand in the kitchen,” she called to us.
“I-I don’t know if I’d be very useful,” I stuttered.
“Nonsense. Mrs. Breathnach is as good a teacher as any, and we’ll soon be back,” Fin assured me. Mr. Breathnach and he stepped outside, and I stepped into the small kitchen.
“Do ya know anything about kneading bread?” Anna asked me.
“Um, only that it needs to be done,” I replied. My city life meant I’d only seen it done in pizzerias and bakeries.
“Then Ah will show ya how it’s done,” Anna tisked and showed me how to knead. While I needed Anna cut, chopped, sliced, and diced vegetables better than any infomercial chef. She also talked. “How did ya come to meet the laird?” she wondered.
“We met on the train yesterday to Glasgow. I was supposed to meet somebody there, but they never showed up so I went with him,” I told her.
“You’re a bold one to be setting off with a man ya just met,” she complimented. At least, I think it was a compliment. Now that I thought about it again it didn’t seem like such a smart move. “And what were ya doing going to Glasgow, if ya don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m on vacation. My boss thought it’d be good for me,” I replied.
This women had a way of disarming all my usual paranoid-induced mental traps. Maybe it was the smile, or her quaint, honest way of speaking. Thank goodness this woman didn’t go into marketing. She would have ruled the world. Though maybe that explained how I ended up on the island. Fin must have taken lessons from her, and he was a star pupil.
“And how are ya enjoying yerself?” she asked me.
“I haven’t seen too much of the island yet,” I answered.
“And my laird? Have ya seen enough of him?” she wondered.
There went those red alarms on my cheeks. I thought about dabbing them with flour, but decided against it. I might have had loaves of breading rising on my warm cheeks. “He’s nice,” I admitted.
“And handsome,” she added. “He was a fine-looking young man, and will make a fine husband to a woman.” She paused in her mutilation of the vegetables and scrutinized my face. “Are you married, miss?”
“Only to my job,” I told her.
She blinked and tilted her head to one side. “And is that a faithful husband?” she wondered.
I snorted. “It’s very demanding,” I replied.
“And does it honor ya in sickness and health?” she persisted.
I cringed. “Well, not so much in the sickness part,” I admitted. My sick-leave was great, but being sick at work was about as much fun as listening to a CD filled with the musical raptures of nails on chalkboard.
“Then a fine husband that makes. Ah imagine he don’t even give you presents on your birthday,” she mused.
By the time the men came back with their arms full of firewood my arms were about to fall off. I’d kneaded the life out of a single loaf, but still Anna took it from me and finished the job before she put it in a pan and into the oven. The men stacked the firewood near the stove and tromped over to the couch where Fin lit his ever-present pipe.
“A good storm we had last night,” he commented.
“Aye. We had a gale of a wind from a southwesterly a few weeks ago that dropped some dead trees Ah been eyeing for some time,” Mr. Breathnach told him.
“Then the wind did the work for you,” Fin joked.
Breathnach chuckled. “Aye, it did.”
I followed Anna into the sitting room and she stood behind her husband while I awkwardly stood near the couch. “Aren’t ya forgetting about the General? He’ll be expecting ya on Fox Brae,” she reminded him.
“That’s fine,” Fin spoke up as he rose from the couch. “We should be going. We haven’t had our breakfast yet.”
“What? No breakfast, and no lunch packed?” Mrs. Breathnach gasped.
“I’m afraid the Lower House is quite ill stocked,” he informed her.
She whipped her head to her husband. “Husband, mind you fetch some of our best grouse for the laird and his lady friend, and Ah’ll be getting some vegetables from the garden,” she added.
Fin smiled. “What would we be doing without you, Mrs. Breathnach?” he chuckled.
“You’d be half-starving yourselves, but Ah feel Ah am to blame. Ah should ‘ave made sure the pantry was full before ya came. If ya had given me warning Ah would have done as much for ya,” Mrs. Breathnach scolded him.
Fin chuckled. “You have me there, Mrs. Breathnach. I’m a terrible guest.”
“Guest! On yer own island? Don’t be saying as much, my laird. The only guests be the people at the Great House,” Anna argued.
“Aye, and if ya don’t mind my saying, the family pretends themselves to be the lairds and ladies of the island,” Mr. Breathnach spoke up.
“Do they? I’m sure they don’t mean that,” Fin commented.
“Perhaps they do, perhaps they don’t, but you’ll see them soon enough. Aye, you’ll see them. The husband takes walks from one end of the island ta the other,” Mr. Breathnach told us.
Fin smiled and shook his head. “What a pity,” he replied.
“Pity? It seems like a great island to walk across,” I wondered.
“Yes, but there are better things to do on Eilean Dubhan,” Fin argued.
“And much better things to do right now than be talking the hours away while your lady friend is starving,” Anna reminded us. She gently pushed her husband to his feet and toward the door. “Now you be getting the grouse from the shack and Ah’ll be getting the vegetables.”
“Yes, ma dear,” he agreed with a smile, and he was out the door fetching our food. Mrs. Breathnach followed him, and in a few minutes the pair returned with apron and arms full of vegetables and a pair of dead grouse slung over Mr. Breathnach’s shoulder. “These ought to do for ya.”
“Perfectly. We only plan to stay a week or so,” Fin agreed as he took the grouse.
Mrs. Breathnach deposited the vegetables into a hand-woven basket and handed the bunch to me. I could see potatoes and carrots, and any manner of root with a few cucumbers and other hardy above-ground vegetables.
“Mind you wash them well before eating, and don’t be afraid of eating the skins of the potatoes. They’re nice and healthy for you,” she advised me. Healthy for you. The words that scared all little kids out of eating their veggies.
“We’re much obliged for your hospitality,” Fin thanked them.
“We’re the ones that should be thanking you, my laird,” Anna objected.
“Aye, now will you be needing any help with those things?” Mr. Breathnach wondered.
“No, I think we’ll make it just fine. It’s a nice brae walk down from here,” Fin replied as we stepped out into the yard.
“What does ‘brae’ mean?” I asked them.
“In the Gaelic it means hill or hillside. There’s many of both on the island,” Fin explained.
Anna gently pushed us down the path back to our cottage. “Now off with ya before the lady starts swooning for all the wrong reasons,” she insisted.
“And mind you come see us again, my laird. The General will be wanting more company with his shooting,” Mr. Breathnach called from the door.
“I will,” Fin promised, and off we went back to our little home.