"Oh, Papa, you're home! We thought you were never coming back!" Rowena threw her arms around her father's waist. The uninhibited gesture knocked the cap from her head to unleash a cascade of wheaten curls.
Her father's arms did not move to encircle her. He sat stiffly in her embrace. She lifted her face, aware of a silence broken only by the thump of a log shifting on the fire. Her father did not meet her eyes, and for one disturbing moment, she thought she saw his lower lip tremble.
She followed his gaze. Her brothers stood lined up before the hearth in the most orderly manner she had ever seen.
Bathed in the light of the flickering fire, the stranger stepped out of the shadows. Rowena raised her eyes. From where she knelt, it was as if she was peering up from the bottom of a deep well to meet the eyes of the man who towered over her. His level gaze sent a bolt of raw fear through her, riveting her to the floor as if she stared into the face of death itself. A long moment passed before she could pull her gaze away.
"Papa?" she breathed, patting his cool, trembling hand.
He stroked her hair, his eyes distant. "Rowena, I believe 'twould be fitting for you to step outside till we have concluded our dealings."
"You made no mention of a daughter, Fordyce." The stranger's gaze traveled between father and child.
Papa's arms curved around Rowena's shoulders like a shield. The stranger's mocking laughter echoed through the hall. Only Rowena heard Papa's muttered curse as he realized what he had betrayed.
"Your interest is in my sons," Papa hissed, a tiny vein in his temple beginning to throb.
"But your interest is not. That much is apparent."
The man advanced and Rowena rose, knowing instinctively that she did not want to be on her knees at this stranger's feet. She stood without flinching to face the wrought links of the silver chain mail that crossed the man's chest. From broad shoulders to booted feet, his garments were as black as the eyes that regarded her with frank scrutiny. She returned his perusal with arms crossed in front of her.
A closer look revealed his eyes were not black, but a deep, velvety brown. Their opacity rendered them inscrutable, but alive with intelligence. Heavy, arched brows added a mocking humor that gave Rowena the impression she was being laughed at, although his expression did not waver. His sable hair was neatly cut, but an errant waviness warned of easy rebellion. His well-formed features were saved from prettiness by an edge of rugged masculinity enhanced by his sheer size. The thought flitted through Rowena's mind that he might be handsome if his face was not set in such ruthless lines.
He reached down and lifted a strand of her hair as if hypnotized by its brightness. The velvet tendril curled around his fingers at the caress.
Rowena's hand slipped beneath her tunic, but before she could bring her knife up to strike, her wrist was twisted in a fierce grip that sent the blade clattering to the stones. She bit her lip to keep from crying out. The man loosed her.
"She has more fire than the rest of you combined." The stranger strode back to the hearth. "I'll take her."