Kintyre Peninsula, Scotland
Samhuinn—October 31, 1453
HE COULDN’T TAKE his eyes off her.
The saints be damned, he tried. He’d told himself he would eat, drink, and dance around the Samhuinn bonfire like everyone else. He wouldn’t look for her, wouldn’t wrestle with his desire to talk to her. Instead, he’d pretend she didn’t exist.
But as soon as he climbed the hill a few furlongs from his brother’s broch, Kerr’s gaze had searched for Rose MacAlister, and then when it had seized upon her, there was no letting go.
She walked through the crowd, a basket of soul cakes in her arms, bestowing delicious treats baked with honey and currants to the revelers. Dressed as one of the Sidhe this eve, a fae maid with pointed ears and ivy wreathed through her hair, Rose was even lovelier than usual.
Kerr took every detail in. The way her kirtle hugged the lush curves of that strong, magnificent body as she moved, the bloom to her soft cheeks, and the gleam of her long walnut tresses in the glow of the fire. He noted the way her pine-green eyes gleamed with good humor as she bestowed smiles too, on the elderly folk and bairns.
But she had no smile for him. No warmth.
Earlier, when she’d brought her basket before his family, her expression had cooled. She wasn’t fond of the Mackays, that much was evident. After all, the laird had struck off her father’s hand in the summer, after Graham MacAlister had been caught thieving cattle—yet again.
Aye, she disliked Iver for the punishment he’d dealt her father, yet she’d kept her ire in check as the chieftain helped himself to a soul cake. He was her laird, after all.
Nonetheless, she didn’t bother hiding her disdain for Kerr. After his brothers had taken cakes, Kerr had reached out to help himself, but Rose deliberately turned away and walked off.
His cheeks still burned from the humiliation of it.
Standing on the edge of the revelry, he downed his second cup of wassail and gathered his courage.
He was done yearning for this woman. He needed to stop staring at Rose like some love-struck fool and approach her.
The air needed to be cleared between them—this evening.
Rose had just emptied her basket of cakes and was standing alone for the moment, hands wrapped around a cup of mulled cider as she watched the dancing flames of the bonfire.
Kerr’s stomach clenched.
It has to be now.
Casting his own empty cup aside, he strode through the crowd, past where Iver and his wife, Bonnie, were laughing together, past where his brother Lennox was locked in a passionate embrace with his wife, Davina. A few yards away, the youngest of his brothers, Brodie, was watching the dancing around the fire, his face shrouded by a ram’s skull. The guise was unnerving, and the black cloak that hung from his shoulders made his brother look like one of Lucifer’s messengers.
A couple of lasses nearby were whispering together and darting Brodie flirtatious glances. Clearly, his grim guise didn’t put either of them off. Brodie never seemed to make any effort to attract women, yet they clustered around him nonetheless, like wasps to honey.
But Kerr’s attention didn’t remain on any of his three brothers. Instead, it fixed upon the comely woman standing just a few feet away.
She hadn’t seen his approach, and he needed to reach her side before she did.
A man’s voice roused Rose from her introspection.
After emptying her basket of cakes, she was enjoying watching the flames and listening to the laughter of revelers holding hands as they danced around the fire. However, someone had just intruded upon her peace.
Turning, her gaze alighted upon a tall man clad in close-fitting seal-skin breeches and vest, a cloak of the same material hanging from his shoulders.
Kerr Mackay, Captain of the Dun Ugadale Guard, had dressed as a selkie for Samhuinn this year.
And although she couldn’t stand the man—that the sight of him made her stomach curdle—she had to admit that the guise was a striking one that highlighted his tall, strong body and proud bone structure. Piercing blue eyes settled upon her, and the firelight shone on pale-blond hair that fell in shaggy waves around his face, brushing his shoulders.
Rose took a smart step backward, her heart lurching into her throat. What the devil was Captain Mackay doing approaching her? He knew she despised him.
But before she could flee, he moved closer, a hand closing over her forearm. His grip was gentle, yet firm, and for a moment she stilled, shocked that he’d dare touch her.
“Please, Rose,” he said, his voice roughening. “I must speak to ye.”
Her gaze narrowed. “I have nothing to say to ye,” she said, her voice clipped.
A nerve ticked in his cheek, yet he didn’t release her. “Why?” he challenged. “I have done nothing to ye.”
“What?” she choked. “My father has been humiliated, crippled, because of ye.”
The captain’s throat bobbed. “That was his doing, lass, not mine.”
A red veil descended, heat flushing across Rose’s chest. “Ye have persecuted my family of late, Captain. Ye seek to make an example of us.”
It was true, the Dun Ugadale Guard had tangled with her father and brothers a few times over the last couple of years. Rose wasn’t a fool. She knew the men of her family could be difficult, and the souring of relations between them and the MacDonalds who lived locally had worsened things. Yet Kerr Mackay had taken to visiting their farm regularly, to questioning her father and brothers over every crime that occurred in the area.
It was Kerr who’d arrested her father that fateful day, who’d dragged him before the laird so that he could strike off his right hand.
“That isn’t the truth,” he growled, his grip on her arm tightening just a fraction. “I’m simply trying to keep the peace. Yer father and brothers are constantly stirring up trouble. Why don’t ye keep a leash on them?”
Her heart started to pound in her ears. “What do ye expect me to do?” she bit out, glaring at him. She was tall and barely had to lift her chin to hold his gaze. “I’m one woman in a household of men.” After her mother had died, a winter earlier, Rose toiled twice as hard to look after her father and two elder brothers.
His nostrils flared, and he took a step closer.
She inhaled the scent of clove and leather, mixed with the warm masculine smell of his skin. It was a pleasant smell, although when she realized she was dragging it into her lungs, her spine snapped straight, fire igniting in her belly.
Curse him, he was standing too near. “Let me go,” she ordered between gritted teeth.
The anger in his eyes banked. “I don’t want to argue with ye, Rose,” he said, his voice hoarse now. “That’s not why I approached ye.”
“Why then?” she demanded, her gaze fusing with his.
He stared down at her before clearing his throat. “I don’t want us to be enemies, lass. For a long while, I have admired ye … have wanted to woo ye. Can we not put all this unpleasantness behind us and start again?”
Rose’s lips parted, her breath rushing out of her.
Had she heard correctly? Surely not. The heat smoldering in her belly blazed high, catching fire in her veins.
The arrogance of the man.
Teeth clenched, she stepped back then and twisted her arm so that he released her. He let her go easily though, his gaze never leaving her face. His expression was solemn, his gaze expectant. He actually thought she might consider such a proposal.
Anger beat like a hunting drum in her chest. Thanks to Captain Mackay, her father couldn’t work the fields like he used to; instead, he drank away the last of their coin, his mood bleak. His despair had made her brothers wilder and more argumentative than usual. Her family was on the brink of destitution. They’d barely made their last rent to the laird and would likely forfeit the next. The man before her was a thorn in her family’s side. How dare he pursue her?
“Goats shall sprout wings and fly before I’d let ye anywhere near me,” she said, her voice low and fierce. He flinched, yet she didn’t care. “Go to the devil, Mackay.”
Trembling from the force of her rage she turned then and stalked off into the crowd without a backward glance.
Copyright 2023, Jayne Castel
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