Morbid curiosity made me look forward to the boat ride, and we met the skipper in the garden outside the quaint cottage.
“Do you have your reply, my laird?” he asked of the island’s owner.
Fin smiled and tapped his temple with a finger. “I do, Captain, but I’ll be sending it over myself. Have you room enough for two castaways in search of a clothing shop?”
The captain wrinkled his nose. “The room, aye, but the clothing-” He paused and shook his head. “You won’t find anything good in these parts, my laird.”
Rather than show disappointment, Fin laughed. “Glad to hear it. Now if you’ll take us ashore we’ll see what we can find.”
A dark shadow passed over the captain’s brow before he turned away, his shoulders stiff and a twitch to his nose. “Aye, my laird. . .”
“I don’t want to be too much trouble,” I whispered to him as we followed the salty sailor down to the landing.
He shook his head. “No trouble at all. There’s a clothing shop just in town.”
I looked from the ragged back of the captain’s coat to the laird. “But the captain just said-”
Fin pressed a finger to his lips and jerked his head toward the captain before he winked at me. I understood the hint to remain quiet in the presence of the captain, but my curiosity was piqued. This was only my second boat ride across the harbor, and now that I was settled this time I enjoyed the view.
The coast of the mainland was a mix of rugged rocks dotted with a few short beaches. Gulls flew overhead and screamed their complaints about the day’s catch. A few boats were moored along the long docks, but most of the places were empty, signifying that the fishermen hadn’t yet returned from their daily trolling.
Something in the distance caught my attention, and I leaned over the side of the boat for a good look. A few children dotted the sandy coast with buckets in one hand and sticks in the other. Their heads were bowed and their eyes were focused on the ground. Occasionally they would pause and dig into the sand, sometimes stooping and others times proceeding on their way.
A mischievous wave rocked the boat and my hands that held tight against the side of the boat slipped on the slick top. I nearly toppled over into the dark, deep water, but Fin wrapped his arms around me and pulled me back. My heart was pounding so loudly I wondered where the parade was.
“You sure you won’t want a swimming lesson?” he teased.
“Just let me slip my heart back into my chest and I’ll answer that,” I returned as I plopped myself onto the boat’s bench.
Fin sat down beside me and wrapped his arm around my quivering shoulders. The warmth soothed my frayed nerves, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.
I instead nodded at the children. “What are they doing?”
“Digging for clams,” he told me as we neared the coast. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a taste of some of those tonight.”
Captain McAllister docked the ship at the port and Fin helped me out. I was quick to draw my hand out of his, especially when several old ladies, seated at a convenient bench near the docks, spotted us. They put their gray heads together and whispered a few words.
“How well does everyone know you?” I asked my native guide.
He flashed me his mischievous grin. “Many knew me in my younger days.”
I folded my arms over my chest and smiled. “I bet you were hard to forget even then.”
“There were a few vegetable beds raided by me and a few of the boys,” he admitted as he led me into the downtown.
Shops lined both sides and advertised wares of all kinds, from antique furniture to the fresh catch of the morning. One look at the mussels made my still-queasy stomach flip.
One shop I didn’t see was a clothing store. “Are you sure the clothing store is still in business?” I asked him.
“It’s not far off,” Fin promised.
We walked halfway down the main street before he turned us off into a narrow road. The shops were replaced by whitewashed houses with plain but neat lawns. Some even had ancient picket fences and rustic gates that protected flagstone paths. One of the houses had a small but elegant front porch, and rather than a gate there was an archway made of thick black metal. Two rose bushes flanked the arch and climbed up to meet at the top.
Fin walked first under the arch, but I paused and took a look at the roses. “These look like the ones your mom planted,” I told him.
He paused on the stone walk and half-turned to me with a soft smile. “That’s because they’re the twins to it.”
I looked over the two-floor home and back to him. “Then who lives here?”
Fin grinned. “You’ll see.”
I reluctantly followed him up the walk and onto the porch. He rapped on the door with his knuckles and I heard a pair of feet shuffle to the entrance. The door was opened by a woman somewhere past sixty with a kind smile and soft brown eyes. She wore a simple flowered dress and slippers, and her gray hair was pulled back in a tight, efficient bun. A few puffs of flour covered the front of her dress and the tips of her fingers.
Fin bowed his head to the woman. “Good morning, Miss MacLain. Is Miss Ella home?”
Miss MacLain’s eyes widened and a squeal erupted from her cracked lips. “Mr. Fin! You’re home!” She leapt at him with more agility than I would have given her and wrapped him in a tight hug.
Fin extracted himself, though not without some loss of air, and smiled at the old woman. “It’s good to see you, too. I was wondering if Miss Ella could take a quick order today, if she’s home.”
Miss MacLain nodded. “She’s home, but she won’t be taking visitors today, my laird.”
Fin arched an eyebrow. “Is she not feeling well?”
“Let them in before they catch their death of cold!” a female voice shouted from a back room.
MacLain sighed, but there was a smile on her lips as she stepped to one side and opened the door wider. “Come in.”
Fin led me into a small but cozy entrance hall. The stairs to the second floor were in front of us, and on either side were doorways that led into the small wings of the house. Fin’s feet took him into the room on the right where I discovered an elegant parlor made up in the elegant style of the beginning of the last century. Everything looked so wonderfully preserved that I stopped on the threshold, reluctant to step on the fine carpet.
Fin walked over to an old woman seated in a rock by one of the windows. She was about eighty with shocking white hair that cascaded down over her shoulders to her waist. The woman wore a simple print dress that showed off her slim figure.
She opened her arms and he gave her a hug before she drew him to arm’s length. “About time you came to see this old woman.”
Fin knelt on one knee in front of her and grinned. “You sure you want me here?”
She leaned forward and gave him a squint of one sharp eye untouched by age. “That depends.”
He arched an eyebrow. “On what?”
She poked his chest with one thin, bony finger. “On whether or not you plan to steal all my dresses this time, or leave me a few.”
Fin burst out laughing before he shook his head. “I don’t plan on it, Nana Ella, but if I do I can promise you they’ll go to a good cause.”
She lifted her keen gaze to me. “This young woman, I assume, is that cause?”
“It may be a lost one,” I quipped as I looked down at myself. “I don’t think my waistline would let me fit into one of the dresses you wear.”
Ella snorted. “It’s not one of my made ones I was talking about. This rapscallion-” She nodded at Fin, “-once stole my whole wardrobe and passed out all my dresses to the neighborhood boys.”
“But I kept your Sunday best for myself,” he reminded her.
She leaned back and nodded. “Aye, and you were needing that to cover your behind after I was through with you.”
Fin winced and rubbed his backside. “I suppose I deserved that.”
“And more,” she agreed with a confirmed nod before her smile returned. “Now what’s this I hear about you needing a dress?”
He nodded at me. “Miss Conroy here is in need of a dress for the event this evening.”
“Well, why didn’t you be telling me that sooner?” she scolded him as she pushed him away and held her hands out to me. “Come here and let me take a look at you.”
I shook my head. “I really couldn’t ask you-”
“You’re not asking, but you’ll have it anyway,” Ella insisted as she beckoned to me. “Now come along here.”
“There’s no use arguing,” Fin warned me as he stood and stepped back. “Nana Ella always wins.”
“It doesn’t mean I have to go quietly,” I quipped, but I walked up to the ancient woman.
She spun me around and looked me over before she glanced at the door. “Mary? Mary!”
Miss MacLain appeared in the doorway. “Yes, Miss Ella?”
“Get me that nice yellow dress, the one with the low cut and narrow hips,” she instructed her. Mary turned to leave, but Ella called her back. “Wait a moment! Get out the best crystal for my guests, and the whiskey.”
Mary’s face fell. “But remember what the doctor said-”
Ella wrinkled her nose. “Bah! There’s nothing the matter with me that a good nip of whiskey wouldn’t fix, now off with you! And remember that dress!”
Mary frowned, but bowed her head and scurried off. Fin stepped up to his grandmother and arched an eyebrow. “Is something wrong?”
She waved him off. “Don’t give me that face! It’s the same thing that’s been wrong with me for eighty-four years, and no doctor is going to be about fixing it so they want me to be miserable for whatever time I have left.” She met Fin’s worried eyes and grasped his hands. “And that’s many years left, my dear Fin, so don’t you go worrying about me. I don’t need two Marys to fuss over me.”
Fin leaned down and pecked a kiss on her cheek. “You’ll live forever, Nana.”
Ella’s sharp, mischievous eyes settled on me. “Long enough to see a happy day for you, I hope.”
I couldn’t help but blush a little. “I-I’m just visiting here for a while. For my vacation,” I assured her.
Ella returned her attention to Fin. “If that’s true then don’t let her get away. I’ve known many a girl in my day, but few women, and I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of them women.”
Fin gave her a wink. “I’ll be sure to do something about it.”
I had to suppress my amusement at the double-teaming. They certainly were related. “Don’t I get a say in this?”
“That depends on what you have to say,” Fin teased as Mary returned with the glasses.
Ella rubbed her wizened old hands together before she poured generous quantities into the glasses. She caught the disapproving look from Mary and waved her hand at the young woman. “Go and fetch the dress, girl!” Mary nodded and hurried away.
“She only means best,” Fin pointed out as Ella handed us each a glass.
Ella took a sip and smacked her lips. “Aye, and I’d be lost without her, but don’t go telling her that and blowing her mind up with pride, young Fin.”
I gingerly touched my lips to the drink and found the alcohol to be smooth, but strong. Too strong. I was overcome with a coughing fit and set my glass down before the bemused old woman.
“She’s in need of practice,” Ella mused.
Fin’s eyes sparkled as he watched me recover from my fit. “We’ll see if there’s enough time to give her more.”
“Not today,” I choked out as I cleared my throat of the last of the strong stuff.
Mary returned, and she held a long light-yellow dress in her hand with a matching broad-rimmed hat in the other. A white silk waistband hung over the hanger. “This is it, isn’t it, Miss Ella?”
Ella looked it over and nodded. “Aye, but let me have a good look at them.” Mary hurried over and Ella set her glass down to inspect the cloth with her fingers. “Just as I thought. A little too big.”
“Can you fix it?” Fin teased.
Ella gave him a sideways glance that would have melted lesser men. She stabbed a finger at the door. “Wanty bolt.”
Fin grinned and held his hands up in front of him. “I was-”
“Wanty bolt, and don’t be coming back in an ower, then you’ll see if Ah can fix it,” she insisted.
Fin bowed his head. “Thank you, Nana. You don’t know what this means to me.”
“Bah,” she mumbled, but the sparkle in her eyes showed her pleasure.
Fin and I stepped out onto the porch with Mary at our heals. She grasped the edge of the door and smiled at us. “It does me heart good to see her in such spirits.”
“Keep her away from the rest of the spirits until the work is done,” Fin teased as he led me down the steps.
Mary laughed and waved at us. “I will, Mr. Fin, and see you soon!” She closed the door and we walked to the archway.
Fin offered me his arm and a smile. “It seems we have some time to ourselves. What say I offer you a show of the place?”
I gestured to the road while skillfully ignoring the arm. “Lead the way.”