Glengarry, Scotland, 1601
"Ye're just a lass. Ye cannae jump," said her brother with a smirk. "We ne'er should have let ye come with us in the first place."
Colin never knew when to keep his opinions to himself, and this was clearly one of those times. He continued to taunt her when she wanted nothing more than to strangle him with her bare hands. Family or not, he was an idiot. And worse yet, he scolded her in front of her cousins. Not that this matter was any of their concern.
John stood in his braies and then leapt from the giant rock above. When her cousin plunged into the pond, water droplets sprayed the top of Sybella's head. The heat was unbearable. All she wanted to do was swim, while Colin clearly was trying to make something out of nothing.
Angus laughed and turned to Colin. "If Sybella insists on jumping, let the wee lass jump."
Wee lass, my arse, she thought. She was just shy of her sixteenth birthday, and there was no reason she couldn't do anything her brother or her annoying cousins could do. Why should they get to have all the fun?
Colin shook his head and ran his hand through his wet hair. "Ye donna come down exactly right and ye will break your neck. Ye know Father would give me a thrashing if I didnae watch over ye. And I told ye, ye shouldnae do something because someone else does it. Ye're only a lass. Ye could be hurt."
Sybella threw back her head and placed her hands on her hips. "Only a lass? Because ye have th-th-that...thing hanging between your legs doesnae make ye a man, Colin MacKenzie."
Her cousins chuckled while Colin's voice rang with command-or so he thought. "Ella, I am nae going to tell ye again. Enough of this foolishness."
Her brother was in for an awakening. Her father was not a man to back down from a fight, and after all, she had her father's blood, did she not?
Sybella whipped off her boots and hastily tossed them aside. She hefted her skirts over her head, sporting her brother's old trews and tunic underneath. She threw her dress to the ground, and Colin stood before her with his hands placed on his hips.
"I give ye fair warning, Sister. Donna even think upon it. Ye can swim, but ye arenae going up there."
"'Tis so unfair, Colin. Ye, Angus, and John did it." There was defiance in her tone as well as a subtle challenge.
Colin rolled his eyes. "I have had enough. Angus and John," he called over his shoulder, gesturing for them to depart.
Her eyes lit up in surprise. "Ye cannae yet leave. I didnae even swim."
"Then mayhap next time ye will think twice before ye follow us." Colin glowered at her and then turned away.
Her brother might be four years her senior, but the dolt was not her father. She learned a long time ago that she did not have to take orders from him. She glanced over at her cousins and brother as they paid her no heed.
Sybella dashed along the outer boulders of the waterfall and climbed undetected. As she nearly reached the top, her foot slipped and her heart leapt in her throat. The waterfall was a lot higher than she'd realized.
"Sybella, ye stay put! I am coming! Donna move!" ordered Colin.
And that was the problem with her brother-always barking orders and telling her what to do. She found perverse pleasure in openly defying him. She stood at the edge, cool water lapping against her feet. A warm breeze blew her hair. She tossed her head and eyed Colin with cold triumph. She could do this and once and for all prove she was his equal. She paused, her eyes widening, and she shook her head, puzzled. What did they think they were doing? She continued to watch the fools in awe.
Colin ascended to her left and Angus to her right, while John stood with his mouth agape. She wouldn't give the men an opportunity to catch her and would only accept one way down-unescorted.
Sybella used all her strength to jump clear of the rocky ledge. She was headed dead center into the shimmering pool. It would be a perfect landing, and despite Colin's worries, he would be impressed.
She hit the water with a loud splash that was immediately silenced as she descended into the pond's cooling depths. Her tunic lifted and wrapped around her head and arms as she tried to pull it down. It was so tight and heavy. She tugged on it again, but it refused to budge. The cloth swathed her hands and arms, tying them so close together that she could not maneuver to the surface. Fear knotted inside her as she made several attempts to calm her racing heart. She had almost given up hope when something exploded beside her and tiny bubbles rushed to the surface.
Her brother grabbed her waist and kicked up from the bottom of the pool. When his strong arms pushed her to the surface, Sybella involuntarily gulped for air and received a rush of water into her lungs. As soon as her head had cleared the water, John ran into the pond and scooped her into his arms.
She needed air.
John lowered her to the ground and Colin bent her over, pounding her back. "God's teeth, Sybella, breathe," said Colin.
As she gasped for breath, a mouthful of water escaped her and she coughed uncontrollably. She placed her hand over her chest, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I would have done it had my tunic nae tangled," she said, not noticing the tremor in her voice.
John, Angus, and Colin shook their heads. "After ye intentionally disobey me and almost drown, those are the words which escape your lips," spat Colin, a shadow of anger spreading across his features. "'Tis a great wonder ye are a MacKenzie, ye daft lass. And that is my tunic ye wear. We will get the horses. Pull yourself together and get dressed. Meet us at the top of the ridge and donna go for another swim, Ella. I warn ye for the last time."
Sybella tried to look meek, but as her brother retreated, she couldn't help eyeing the waterfall again. If only she'd been able to strip down like the boys, she wouldn't have become tangled in Colin's tunic. As she heard footsteps behind her, she was ready to give Colin a tongue thrashing for watching her like a hawk. How typical of him not to trust her. She was so disgusted that she didn't even bother to turn around.
"I didnae go back into the water, Colin," said Sybella with impatience.
"Ye MacKenzies are naught but trouble. The last my father needs is a dead one on MacDonell lands."
Whipping her head around, Sybella came face to face with...the most handsome man she had ever seen. He wore a loose-fitting tunic and the MacDonell plaid of blue, green, black, and red. His light brown hair brushed the outlines of his broad shoulders, and wisps of dark hair curled against the V of his open shirt. She guessed he was around the same age as Colin.
Sybella pulled herself to her feet and brushed down her skirts. "We meant ye nay harm."
The man entered the glade and placed his hands upon his lean hips. "I saw ye take the leap. Ye landed right in the center. Cannae ye swim?"
"I can swim. My tunic was caught under the water and I couldnae untangle it." She shifted from foot to foot. If the MacDonell man raised an alarm that MacKenzies were on his lands, there would most definitely be a thrashing-even for Colin. Although she did not currently hold her brother in a favorable light, she would not intentionally get him in trouble. "Please accept my apologies and donna call a warning. We will nae do it again. Ye have my word."
"Stealing our cattle wasnae enough for ye MacKenzies? Now ye have to encroach on our lands?" he asked with a heavy dose of sarcasm. When Sybella played with her skirts in front of her, he gave her a slight nod. "Dè an t-ainm a tha ort?" What is your name?
"Ella." She cleared her throat. "Lady Sybella MacKenzie."
"The MacKenzie's daughter?"
"Aye. And ye are...?" she asked, lifting a brow.
"Alexander, son of Laird Dòmhnall MacDonell of Glengarry."
Sybella picked up her drying cloth and smiled. "Again, please accept my apologies." She spun on her heel and was halted by the tone in his voice.
"And where do ye think ye are going?"
She turned around slowly. "My brother waits-"
"All I have to do is shout, and my father's men will come."
Taking another step closer to the MacDonell's son, Sybella felt the color drain from her cheeks. "Please donna." If she started a battle with her father's enemy over a swim...She cringed at the mental image. Trouble would not escape her this time. "Tell me. What can I do?"
The man's eyes sparkled and he rubbed his chin, a devilish grin playing on his lips. "A kiss."
"What?" she gasped.
"Ye heard me. A kiss. One kiss from your lips and ye are free to take your leave." He waited, challenging her to go through with it.
"Surely ye jest." She flashed him a look of disdain.
"Do thoil fhèin." Suit yourself.
When he raised his hand and encircled his mouth to shout a warning, Sybella blurted out, "Fine."
Her lips were pressed shut so no other sound would burst out. If she cursed the reprehensible brute, he might go back on his word. She jumped when he quickly closed the gap between them and impaled her with his steady gaze. Her breath caught in her lungs and she merely stared, tongue-tied. She felt like a complete dolt.
Her reaction seemed to amuse him, and his mouth curved wryly. Lowering his head, he whispered, "May ye always remember a MacDonell was the first to taste your lips, Lady Sybella MacKenzie of Kintail."
His lips pressed against hers. Similar to her experience of jumping off the cliff, his kiss sent her stomach into a wild swirl.
"Sybella!" called Colin from a distance.
If her brother came back down to get her, there would be bloodshed. She pulled away slightly and took a sharp intake of breath. "Feumaidh mi falbh." I must go.
He wiped his lips with the back of his hand like she had the bloody plague. "Ne'er forget...your enemy was the first to taste ye." When the beastly man had the audacity to smirk, he broke the last thread of self-control she had managed to hold on to. MacDonell or not, she would not let herself be put down by this brute. She met his accusing eyes without flinching.
"I donna like ye, Alexander MacDonell."
"Aye, but ye will ne'er forget me," he said, then turned his back and disappeared into the trees.