The walk back was much easier and even with our delicious burdens we were at the cottage in half the time. I moved to go inside, but Fin nodded at the corner of the house. “Without the electricity we had better put these in the root cellar,” he instructed me. He led me around the far side of the cottage where I noticed a small door sitting at an angle in the ground beside the foundation. Fin lifted the door and showed a large hole where he packed away most of the meat and the basket of vegetables, leaving some for me to hold.
We carried our treasures inside where Fin started a roaring fire and cooked the grouse. I tried to mimic Anna’s impressive feat with veggies, but ended up with as many peels of skin on my fingers as the carrots.
Fin came up behind me and glanced down at the nicks and cuts on my fingers. “Would you like some help?” he offered.
“If you don’t I may bleed to death,” I returned.
He gently took the knife from my hand and his fingers lingered longer on mine than was needed. I hurriedly stepped away and allowed him free rein of the kitchen sink and counter. In a few short minutes he had the veggies peeled, and the potatoes wrapped in tinfoil to heat in the fire. Half an hour later and we had a feast that we dug into like ravenous coyotes after a day of chasing roadrunners.
I set down my plate, patted the bulge that was my stomach, and sighed. “That was delicious,” I complimented the chef.
Fin smiled and doused the fire with water from his glass. “A feast fit for a laird of the islands,” he agreed.
I smiled. “So everything we ate was grown and raised on the island?” I guessed.
“Aye,” he replied.
“So did you grow up here?” I wondered.
“Aye, in this cottage.” He glanced up at the thatched roof and smiled. “There’s many a fine memory for me here. Climbing the brae to the ruins, fishing in the coves, and hunting the birds for my mother to cook.”
I frowned. “But what about the Great House? Why didn’t you live there?” I asked him.
“The Great House was in great disrepair. It was only after I inherited Eilean Dubhan and rented the island that the castle was rebuilt,” he told me.
“That must have cost quite a bit of money,” I mused.
“Not really. Part of the rent went to repairing the castle.” Fin chuckled to himself. “One of the renters got carried away and even built a swimming pond near the castle.”
“Swimming pool,” he rephrased.
That brought back memories of my near-miss last night on the boat. “What’s wrong with that? Maybe they didn’t want to be swept out in the tide,” I suggested.
“That may be, but the castle is along the shores of a small loch, and the waves there wouldn’t take a child,” he explained.
“A loch? Do you have your own Nessy?” I teased.
“No, but we do have some fine salmon fishing, and if we’re wanting more than grouse for meat we will have to try our luck,” he told me.
I furrowed my face. “I’ve never been fishing before,” I admitted.
“Never?” he wondered.
I snorted. “No, never, and don’t be so surprised. I grew up in New York City, and the only place to catch some good fish was in the zoo aquarium.”
“Then I shall have to teach you,” he offered.
I wrinkled my nose. “But fish stink,” I protested.
He chuckled. “That can’t be helped, but you may forget the smell when you reel in your first catch,” he encouraged me.
“Maybe I’ll try watching you and see how I like it,” I suggested.
“I would be honored to have you as a companion,” he replied.
“But you said you wanted to visit the Great House. Do we do that before or after we catch Nessy?” I wondered.
“Before. Such a catch would be difficult to carry to the Great House and then home to the cottage,” he teasingly pointed out.
“Then off we go to see these rich people.” I paused and furrowed my brow. “What were their names?”
“The family name is Ferguson. They’ve rented the House before, but it was many years ago,” he told me.
I snorted. “You’re not that old that you started renting the house that long ago,” I argued.
“No, not so old, but they were one of the first to take to the Great House. They’re a family of good stock, or so they tell me,” he replied with a mischievous smile on his face. It told me the Ferguson family was willing to blow their own trumpet just to hear themselves.
“Any daughters trying to woo you?” I teased.
“They have a daughter a touch younger than yourself, and she does seem to be rather fond of me,” he answered.
“Fond enough to have wedding bells in your future?” I mused.
He chuckled. “Her ears may hear the ringing, but what do you say to meeting the family? You may like them,” he suggested.
“All right.” I didn’t expect to like them, but I was curious to see this girl who was so smitten with Fin.
Fin led the way back up the trail, but at the top of the brae he took an eastward direction and guided us around the fields of heather to the far east end of the island that faced the mainland. We skirted the edge of the sea and a white-sand beach and a thin strip of tall grass separated us from the calm waters. That day would have been a good time to travel across the waters to the mainland, but we no longer had any need of food thanks to the Breathnachs.
We followed the path for two miles before it steered us westward and climbed a steep brae. The piles of moss-covered rocks returned and the yellow beach grass gave way to green grass like a thick lawn. The air was thick with the moisture off the water and I heard the crashing of waves against rocks. Trees grew up among us, thick groves of beech and elm that towered over our heads and blocked the view ahead. After a mile of the thick forest we broke through the north side and found ourselves in a large, open field of grass. Thick moss covered the rocks that dotted the ground here and there, and at the very tip of the brae stood the Great House.
It was a castle of ancient lineage, I could tell that much by the layers of moss and vines that grew on the sides like green strata. There were thick walls hewn from the stones of the island, and there was a parapet above the front part of the castle that was hidden behind the battlements. I was surprised to see there were no towers, and the walls and their corners were smoothed to round edges. The roofs were peaked with layers of brick, and the windows were tall and narrow. There were three floors to the castle with the east wing reaching up to four floors. Flat, broad chimneys stuck out of the peaked roofs.
A narrow gravel path led from the beach off in the distance on our right to the double wooden doors and turned in a circle to go back the way it came. In front of the gravel path was a lawn of flowers and short wild grass that created a wonderful carpet of green that contrasted well with the gray of the stones. There were a few trees planted here and there in the lawn, but the forest was sparse within fifty yards of the castle and the open sky dazzled with the midday sun.
To our left and a hundred yards off the slope dipped into a large clearing, and sparkling clear water told me the loch lay in that direction. The trees surrounded the loch on two sides, and I could just make out a small dock that stretched out into the calm waters on one of the open sides.
“What do you think of it?” Fin asked me.
“It’s very beautiful,” I complimented.
“I’m glad you like it. Let me show you the inside,” he requested. He walked a few yards ahead of me before he realized I wasn’t following and turned around. “Is something the matter?”
I glanced at the narrow windows and noticed that a curtain moved on the second floor. “I would hate to disturb the family,” I replied.
He chuckled. “You are the most proper young woman I have ever met, but come. They won’t mind at all. The family might even think it a treat after living here for the month without anyone else to see. They don’t speak with the Breathnachs, and only occasionally with the General.”
Fin’s assumption must not have been far off because the front doors opened and out stepped an older gentleman with a girl a few years younger than myself. Even from a distance of twenty yards I could see she was a handsome creature, and had inherited some of the looks from the gentleman at her side. She had long brown hair that swept down her back and encircled her thin face. Her brown eyes glistened with a hint of mischief and malice that made me think back to the cheerleaders in high school who would only talk to me if they had juicy gossip on their fellow pom-pom wavers.
The man at her side had the same hair, though cut short, and harder eyes. He would skin a cat to make a violin, but only if it would turn a profit. They both wore expensive outfits, his a hunting suit that was a copy of the General’s own with all the realness of a twenty-dollar Rolex. She wore a summer dress that hugged her curves and would have made her the envy of every sorority sister in the world. They were tall, the man as tall as Fin and the girl a little taller than me, and stood straight with confidence.
Fin stood by my side and leaned down toward me. “What do you think of them?” he wondered.
“I think they’re small from this distance,” I quipped.
He chuckled and put his hand on the small of my back. I blushed and quickly stepped away from his grasp. He wasn’t bothered. “Let’s go and meet them,” he suggested.