I FELT THE TINGLING, heated sensation of someone watching me.
Turning to see who it was, my heart skipped an uneasy beat as our eyes met across the crowded room. I quickly looked away, shaken by the unnerving connection. With some difficulty, I could name the emotions he stirred in me with that one, brief glance. Fascination, caution and, more than any other: fear.
He was standing at the entrance of the grand hallway of his family’s manor, flanked by his two brothers. Every pair of eyes at the well-attended gathering couldn’t help but stare. They were big, imposing men. With their brazen silhouettes dramatically backlit by torchlight, they commanded attention. Laird Knox Mackenzie, the largest of the three, was known for his well-trained army and his formidable leadership. Wilkie Mackenzie was said to be more lighthearted in nature, and possessed a near-legendary handsomeness that found many women gasping at his sudden appearance now.
But it was this third brother—Kade Mackenzie—who captured my attention most of all. He was equally as tall as his black-haired brothers, but slimmer, and somehow more lithe—almost catlike—in his movements. His long hair was a deep shade of dark brown that caught the gold light of the dancing fire he stood next to, giving him a subtle halo and the aura of a dangerous rogue angel.
All three men looked wholly in control of the scene, a confidence that might have stemmed from their skills with the sword as well as their ownership of some of the richest, most bountiful agricultural lands in all the Highlands. And while Laird Mackenzie and Wilkie gave a distinct impression of being at ease in their own skin, there was a wandering restlessness to Kade that not only entranced me, but also raised the tiny hairs on my arms in silent, spellbound alarm.
I took comfort from the close presence and incessant gossip of my four sisters and two cousins. “There he is,” said my sister Maisie, clutching my arm. “It’s Wilkie. Lord above, he’s magnificent. None of you are even to speak to him. Not until our marriage is secured beyond doubt. Even then, you’re to keep your distance. He’s mine.”
Maisie had claimed Wilkie for herself months ago, after he had once visited our manor. Whether he agreed to the match or not was yet to be determined.
“Aye, Maisie,” responded Clementine, my eldest sister. “We’re all aware of your designs on him. You speak of nothing else.”
“You can help yourselves to his brothers,” Maisie allowed.
“Who would dare approach them?” said Bonnie, my younger cousin, eyeing the Mackenzies with trepidation and something akin to awe. “They’re so intimidating. Laird Mackenzie is displeasingly gruff, I’ve heard it said. Look at the size of him. And Kade, well, his reputation speaks for itself. He’s as wild as they come.”
“Luckily for you, then,” Maisie replied, “there are many other men in attendance tonight.”
It was true. The Mackenzie clan was hosting, among others, the Macintoshes and Munros, whose highest-ranking family was pleasingly populated by a number of rowdy, good-looking bachelors. My sisters and cousins were pink-cheeked, primped and plumped into their best and most revealingly cut gowns, and more than ready for the occasion.
I, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to return to our guest chambers and retire for the night. Or to flee, or do something completely unexpected of me. I willed myself not to let my thoughts return, once again, to Caleb, the only boy who had ever shown me kindness, lost to me now. It had been a fortnight since Caleb had asked for my hand in marriage, only to be promptly banished