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Brogan's Promise: Book Three of The Mackintoshes and McLarens by Suzan Tisdale (1)

Chapter One

Brogan Mackintosh was a sensible, logical thinking man. Whenever possible, he tried to see the good in people and all situations. It could also be said he was as honorable as he was generous -- the kind of man who would give you the tunic off his back if you needed it. There was naught he wouldn’t do for the downtrodden or poor creatures of this earth.

Never, in the whole of his adult life, did he regret being such a man.

Until now.

“Ye want me to do what?” He could not have been more surprised had the sun risen in the west that morn.

He sat at a long trestle table in the newly finished tower — a tower he had helped build with his own two hands. Across from him sat his sister-by-law, Rose Mackintosh, and two auld women he had met less than a quarter of an hour ago. Rose was a pretty, wee woman, whom he had always admired, adored, and respected.

Until now.

“Ye act as though I have just asked ye to kill the king,” Rose replied.

To his way of thinking, the request was just as difficult, just as insane as killing the king. Nay, killing the king would have been easier.

He sat in dumbfounded silence as he tried to wrap understand her entreaty.

“She be a fine woman, m’laird,” the old woman named Gertie said. She was seventy if she was a day. A short round woman with light blue eyes and hair the color of the blade of his sword.

“I do no’ doubt that she is,” Brogan said.

He was cut off from saying more by the one named Tilda, the mirror image of Gertie, save for her dark blue eyes and missing upper teeth. “Ye will ne’er find a lass more beautiful.” With the missing teeth, she had a very distinct lisp whenever she spoke.

“Aye, as beautiful as the Highlands in springtime, I says,” added Gertie as she looked at her friend.

“Aye, as beautiful as that. And kind! Och, m’laird, ye’ll ne’er meet one as kind!”

“Or as givin’,” added Gertie.

“Or as givin’,” agreed Tilda, adding a nod of her silver-gray noggin.

At a loss for words, Brogan could only stare at the three women before him. Not a one of them understood the difficulty of their request.

Rose was studying him closely, undoubtedly looking for signs his resolve was waning. “Brogan, ye have been alone for far too long,” she said. Her tone was soft and filled with warmth.

Brogan knew her intentions were sincere, born out of a sense of familial devotion. But really! Marriage? To a woman he’d never once laid eyes on? How could she ask such a thing when she knew how much he still loved and mourned the loss of his first wife?

“M’laird,” Gertie said, drawing his attention away from Rose. “We ken we be askin’ much of ye, me and Tilda. But we ask because we love our lady verra much.”

“Aye, we do,” Tilda agreed.

“If she be forced to marry that foul Frenchman, well, ’twill mean the end of our clan and the end of our lady,” Gertie said. Her tone was forlorn, sorrowful and matched the sadness he saw in her eyes.

“Aye,” Tilda said. “He beat his last wife to death, ye ken.”

Gertie looked at her friend. “All because she gave him a daughter and no’ a son.”

“He be a bloody son of a whore if e’er there was one,” Tilda said.

Brogan had heard enough. “Certainly, there be someone in yer clan who would be willin’ to marry yer lady.”

Gertie and Tilda exchanged conspiratorial glances with Rose before Gertie addressed his assertion. “Well, ye see, there might be a man or two willin’ to do such ...”

He sensed a but coming.

“Ye see, she needs a strong man, m’laird,” Tilda offered.

“Aye, a strong man,” Gertie said.

“Are ye sayin’ the men of yer clan are weak?” Brogan asked with a quirked brow.

Both women shook their heads, aghast at the notion. “Nay, m’laird!”

Brogan had had enough. Pushing away from the table, he glowered at Rose. “I shall have to politely decline,” he said. Bowing to the three women, he bid them all a gruff good day, and quit the tower.

“Och!” cried Tilda. “Our poor lady! Now, she will be forced to marry the Frenchman!”

Gertie, the more devious-minded of the two, looked at Rose.

“Nay, all be no’ lost yet,” Rose said with a smile.

“What do ye mean, m’lady?” Tilda asked.

Gertie smiled deviously. “We need to introduce them.”

* * *

Rose knew her husband hated leaving their keep — what there was of it. ’Twas a work in progress with only one tower completely finished. The main keep, which would house a gathering room, a study for Ian, and fifteen bedchambers, was only partially built. This fine spring day, Ian and his men were working feverishly to finish enclosing the outside of their future home. If it were finished by winter, ‘twould be a miracle.

Knowing her husband as she did — his penchant for working from dawn to dusk and his strong dislike of shopping — played to Rose’s advantage this day. ’Twas less than a sennight since Brogan had politely refused to marry a woman desperately in need of a good, strong husband.

Knowing men as she did, she had to believe that Brogan was no different than all the rest. Lust and desire could be grand motivators. In most instances, Rose was not the meddling sort. However, she felt sorry for her brother-by-law and felt motivated to help him see that which he refused; he was lonely. He needed to move on with his life.

Thus, when there was a mysterious and sudden need for flour and other sundries, which required an immediate trip to Camhanaich - a small village a few hours north and east of their lands. Ian all too happily volunteered his unwitting brother to go in his stead. Brogan had as much of a liking for shopping as his brother, which was to say, he detested it. But adoring his sister-by-law, and being the kind, generous man that he was, agreed to act as her escort.

They took ten Mackintosh men with them, all well-trained and armed to the teeth. After the events of more than a year ago, when Rose had been kidnapped and held for ransom by Rutger Bowie — may he continue to burn in hell — Ian spared no expense at keeping the love of his life safe.

Brogan, as most men were, was completely oblivious and had not an inkling of what lay ahead for him.

They left before he had a chance to break his fast, for Rose insisted they needed to leave before all the ‘good flour’ was gone. Brogan’s knowledge of such things was nonexistent; therefore, he was forced to believe her.

With her son, John, a sweet boy of nearly one, in the good and capable hands of two Mackintosh women, they set off for Camhanaich just after dawn. Intentionally, she nearly talked Brogan’s ears off on the two-hour journey. ’Twas a purposeful ploy to frustrate and annoy so that by the time they reached the town, he would be all too eager to leave her to her shopping.

Unfortunately, being the honorable man that he was, he refused to leave her side. “If anythin’ happened to ye, Ian would kill me.”

On to a different plan, she decided. She intentionally took her time, lingering at each merchant stall. Just enough to annoy her brother-by-law.

“Brogan,” she said as she was poring through fabrics at the wooler’s stall, “I may be a while. If ye would like to, go on ahead and mayhap get a meat pie? I be certain I shall be safe with the rest of Ian’s guards,” she said with a nod in their direction.

’Twas after noontime and Brogan had not eaten so much as a crumb of bread since last eve. Starved, tired of his sister-by-law’s incessant chatting and need to look at every item at every stall — none of which had yet to contain an ounce of the desperately needed flour — he could not wait to be away from her. He gave a few quick instructions to the men before leaving Rose in their capable hands.

Rose smiled an all-knowing smile as she watched her brother-by-law all but run away.

* * *

Lord, how he hated large crowds.

Were he not so hungry, Brogan would have declined Rose’s suggestion. Instead, he would have politely insisted they hurry on with purchasing the ‘good flour’ and get back to their keep. He knew his pleas would fall on stubborn, deaf ears.

Making his way through the crowded street, he caught the scent of meat pies and freshly baked bread wafting through the air. His stomach growled and his mouth watered as he politely pushed his way through, motivated solely by hunger. Thankfully, he found the meat pie maker, made his purchase, and stepped away. The second pie was just as delicious as the first, both eaten in quick succession as he stood next to the stone wall of the ale house.

Though he was quite thirsty and the temptation to step inside and purchase just one ale was quite strong, he knew he could not. Just one would lead to a second will not hurt, which in turn would lead him to drinking an entire barrel. He had fought too hard and too long three years ago to become the sober man he was today. After the death of his wife, he had fallen so far into the abyss of drunkenness he nearly died. Had it not been for his parents — more specifically his father — chances were he would be rotting in the earth at this very moment.

He could have gone into the ale house and purchased a cider. But experience taught him that a man of his size and stature ordering cider, led to being taunted and ridiculed. The taunts and ridicule he could deal with. But nearly always, someone would challenge his manhood or call him a coward. It never ended well for the drunkard. A brawl would always ensue. And Brogan, being the sober man he was, would always win.

So thirsty as he was, he decided to stay outside and take his time returning to Rose. She was probably still looking at silks and wools. ‘Twould be hours before they left this awful place overrun with people.

He decided, instead, to walk along the street, alone with his thoughts. ’Twas not often he had time to himself, so busy were they with building the keep and ensuring the clan was safe. Mayhap, he would find a quiet spot somewhere in this town, where he could sit and think without being interrupted. He had been here only once before, last autumn, and again with Rose.

Rose.

She was a good woman, with a good heart. His brother Ian loved her with all that he was. There were times when Brogan envied him. Ian had everything Brogan had at one time wanted. A wife, a child, a loving home. But fate intervened and took his sweet wife before he even had time to get her with child.

God, how he had loved Anna. She was much like Rose in many respects. Good and generous she had been. Not a day had gone by that she had not made him laugh, usually over something innocuous, and betimes, off-color.

He knew Rose had only good intentions in her heart when she had suggested he marry the Mactavish woman. But four years ago, he swore he would never marry again — even though he had promised his sweet Anna he would. The pain he had endured at losing her had nearly killed him. He refused to tempt fate a second time.

So he remained unmarried. And alone.

Brogan refused even to seek the comfort of bar wenches or whores. Not because he did not have any physical needs or desires. On the contrary, he had both. However, he refused the comfort of women because he felt he would be dishonoring the memory of his wife.

Down the street he went, passing by one merchant stall after another. ’Twas a nice spring day, with the sun shining brightly and just enough of a breeze to help take away some of the foul smells lingering in the street.

He was just passing by an alehouse, when someone stumbled and fell into him. Startled, he caught her before she could fall to the ground.

“Och!” she exclaimed as he was setting her onto her own feet. “I be terribly sorry!”

’Tis odd, at times, how God works. Or mayhap ’twas fate, or the stars had aligned perfectly. No matter what had caused the woman to stumble into him, Brogan would never be the same man after. He just didn’t know it yet.

She was one of the most magnificent women he’d ever laid eyes on. Gloriously rich, auburn hair hung in riotous waves across her shoulders. A perfectly oval face framed big, green eyes, the color of emeralds. Auburn lashes, a straight nose, and full, pink lips; God’s teeth, she was beautiful. A long moment passed before he realized she had stolen his breath away.

Someone bumped into her again, causing her to let out a yelp of surprise and cling to him even tighter.

They stood, these two oblivious souls, staring into one another’s eyes while the rest of the world passed by. Brogan found it next to impossible to tear his eyes away from hers.

Another bump against her back, jostled him out of his current state of awe. Had he not been as tall and strong as he was, they would have both fallen to the ground.

“Gertie!” the auburn-haired woman exclaimed as she turned away from Brogan. “Stop that!”

Brogan blinked. His brow furrowed at the recognition of the name Gertie.

“Sorry, m’lady,” came a scratchy voice he recognized from a sennight ago. “It be awful crowded here today.”

Brogan finally tore his eyes away from the stunning woman in his arms. Standing next to her were Gertie and Tilda. Though they feigned innocence and refused to look at him, he knew better. Gertie was rocking back and forth on her heels, whistling as if she were as innocent as a newly born babe. Tilda was picking imaginary lint from her dark green shawl.

Stunned, he stood like a fool, looking at the old women and back to the woman he was still clinging to, and back again.

“Och!” Gertie finally exclaimed, as if she had just now realized ’twas he who had saved her lady from falling flat on her face. “’Tis ye! How be ye this fine day, Brogan Mackintosh?”

His stunned expression evaporated in the blink of an eye as he replaced it with a cold, hard stare. A stare that would have sent a grown man to quaking in his boots.

“Och! Ye be right,” Tilda exclaimed as if she too, were only now realizing who he was.

Brogan glowered at her as a tic began to form in his lower jaw.

“What a surprise it is to be seein’ ye here this day!” Tilda said with a wide, happy smile.

If he spoke a word now, he knew he would say something he might later — decades later — regret.

“Ye know him?” Mairghread asked rather perplexed.

“We have met, aye,” Gertie replied. “When he came to the keep last year to purchase horses.”

She lied.

Right to her lady’s face.

Mairghread turned her attention back to Brogan. “I fear I do no’ remember ye,” she said, her voice but a whisper and her eyes filled with something akin to regret. Brogan found her response odd, if not a bit intriguing.

I would have remembered ye, he thought to himself.

“Come along, m’lady,” Gertie said as she pulled on Mairghread’s arm. “We still need to purchase flour, remember?”

Brogan’s jaw dropped. Flour?

Aye, he knew then he’d been set up to meet Mairghread Mactavish. And there wasn’t a doubt in his mind that Rose was involved. Up to her pretty little neck.

* * *

For the remainder of the day, Brogan remained silent, refusing to speak to Rose. He met every one of her questions and all her chatting with a cold-as-ice glower and even colder silence. After some time, she realized she was going to get nowhere with her brother-by-law and gave up trying. Even the men who travelled with them could tell he was in a black mood. Unlike Rose, they left him alone.

’Twas nearing the evening meal by the time they returned to the keep. Not quite ready yet to give up his frustration, he saw to it that Rose and the other guards were well within the walls of the keep before he left. One of the warriors had the audacity to ask where Brogan was off to. His reply was nothing more than a clenched jaw and a near murderous glare.

He had no real destination in mind. He simply needed to be away and alone. ’Twas doubtful he would be able to make it through the evening meal without saying something to Rose that would injure her tender feelings. Even if it was well-deserved.

Though he’d already ridden his mount to Camhanaich and back, they hadn’t ridden fast or hard. Still, he was never a man to be cruel to anything, least of all a horse. So he kept a slow, unhurried pace.

Brogan took his mount south of the keep, along the little stream that ran through their lands. It led him away from all the construction and daily chaos that was the Mackintosh and McLaren clan.

The farther away he rode, the more at peace he began to feel. The sun still shone brightly against the pale blue sky. The spring grass danced in the cool breeze as birds flew noiselessly high above. The gentle sound of water rippling across stones and pebbles was just what he needed to calm his frayed nerves.

Then he thought of Mairghread.

The woman was beautiful. Damned beautiful.

He hadn’t been so physically drawn to a woman since his sweet Anna had died.

But Mairghread? The moment he looked into those emerald green eyes, he felt an instant, visceral reaction. A need, a deep-seated need to keep touching her, to press his lips against the tender flesh at her neck and not stop. ’Twas as profound as a kick in his gut and nearly as painful.

Aye, Brogan had much to think about as he crossed the little stream.

What would his sweet Anna say to him? He shrugged for he already knew the answer. “Do no’ leave yerself alone in this world, Brogan Mackintosh. Do no’ keep yer heart or yer life fer a dead woman.”

Those had been her exact words less than a sennight before she died.

That had been four years ago.

Aye, he had promised her he would not mourn her all the rest of his days, but the promise had been a lie. She had been so tremendously ill — with the wasting disease that took her from a beautiful vibrant woman to nothing more than skin and bones in less than two months — that he could have denied her nothing. Not even her simple request not to mourn her long. But his love for her had been so great. Anna and their love for one another had such a profound impact on him as a man, he could do nothing else but grieve and lament her loss. And drink.

Anna was everything good and right in his world. She was everything to him. Without her, he felt less. Less a man. Less alive. Less everything.

Losing her had left a tremendous, yawning wound to the very marrow of his soul. Brogan started drinking the day she died and did not put the bottle down for more than a full year. No matter how much he drank, he could not rid himself of the pain and loneliness he felt with her loss.

A dull throb began to pulse at the base of his neck. He pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. Stretching his arms wide, he turned his head from side to side, his bones cracking loudly with the motion.

“Ye be an auld man, ye fool,” he said aloud. Only his horse had heard him. “Yer bones crack and groan far too much for a man of only four and thirty.” The horse had no opinion. Instead, he chose to lower his head and nibble at the grass.

“So what am I to do?” he asked God as he looked up at the clear sky.

It appeared God was no more interested in having a discussion with him than his horse was. Puffing out his cheeks, he let loose a quick breath, and gave a tug on the reins. The horse snickered once before complying.

Together, they walked leisurely across the open field. His thoughts kept turning back to Mairghread Mactavish. Their meeting had lasted only a few moments, but ’twas still far too long to suit him. He blamed the three she-devils: Rose, Gertie, and Tilda.

Had they not interfered with this ridiculous notion that he of all people marry the fair Mairghread, he wouldn’t be feeling as low as horse dung on the bottom of a poor man’s boot. He would not now be wandering aimlessly along the countryside, tired and hungry and confused. Nor would he be struggling with thoughts and memories that were best left in the past.

But alas, they had. The she-devils.

“Even if Rose be right — and I am no’ admittin’ to anythin’ — it still be no’ her place to interfere,” he spoke to his horse as if he were an auld friend. “’Tis my life we be speakin’ of, ye ken? Nohers.”

Mayhap he had been living in the past for too long. Mayhap it was time to start thinking about his future. “It still does no’ give her the right to do what she did,” he said. “Even if it be the right time, it should be left to me to decide who my bride should be, aye?”

The horse snickered once and gave a great shake of his head, as if to disagree.

“What do ye ken?” Brogan said dismissively.

Across the small glen was a small thicket of trees. Brogan tossed the reins over the neck of his horse to allow the animal a little freedom to roam and graze. While the animal ignored him, Brogan picked a tree to lean against. Sliding down the trunk until he was seated comfortably on the grass, he stretched one long leg out and tossed his wrist over a raised knee.

He sat for a long while, struggling with his thoughts and feelings. ’Twas a heated debate betwixt heart and mind.

While he understood ’twas high time he left the past behind him, his heart was not quite as ready to give it up. His chest tightened when he thought of his sweet Anna. To this very day, it did not seem fair nor right that such a sweet, giving lass had died so young. As far as he was concerned, the world would have been much better off with a woman like her in it instead of a man such as he.

Or the kind of man he had been before he met her.

Nay, he was not the same man he had once been. Just as he was not the same after meeting her, after falling so hopelessly in love with her, he was also not the same since losing her. Some might believe a man incapable of change, but Brogan knew better.

Was he ready to move on? Was he ready to take another wife, to start a new life, mayhap be blessed with a bairn or two? Could he leave the memory of Anna behind and begin anew?

His heart ached still with missing her. He was not quite ready yet to let go. But now, he was willing at least to think about it. ’Twas a step in the right direction.

* * *

Brogan had slept out of doors under a canopy of sparkling stars with only his horse and his confused heart for company. Although he had come to the conclusion it might be time for him to move on with his life, he felt no better for it.

He walked his horse, rather than rode it, back to the keep, just after the break of dawn. Morning dew clung to everything around him. By the time he walked through the gate, his boots and trews were damp with it.

As was typical, everyone was already up and about. Several women were cooking over open fires whilst others were readying the long trestle tables inside the large gathering tent for the morning meal. He passed by a small group of men who were readying teams of horses to be used in the quarry. Other men were lined up to take bannocks and sausage with them, to eat as they headed either to fell trees in the forest or to work in the deep pits of the rock quarry. Children giggled happily as they chased one another around the encampment. All in all, ’twas as fine a morning as any.

So why did he feel such a strong sense of mourning?

He led his horse to the stables. The stable master, an older man named Ennis, volunteered to tend to his mount. Brogan politely declined his offer and tended to the animal himself.

He took his time rubbing the hobby down, making sure he had plenty of food and water. He ignored his own growling belly to take the time to clean the bridle and bit. Aye, he knew he was delaying the inevitable, like a child finds every conceivable delay when it is time to bathe or sleep.

Finally, his need to eat outweighed his desire to avoid Rose and Ian. He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand, took a deep breath, and left the stables.

He let out a relieved breath when he did not see Ian or Rose about. With a thankful heart, he happily took a trencher of food from one of the cooks and headed into the large tent. The tent was used as the clan’s gathering room, until the rest of the keep could be built. Upon entering, he quickly perused the tables. No sign of Rose or Ian, which induced him to sigh in relief once more.

Mayhap this eve, he told himself as he took a seat at one of the tables. Mayhap he would pull Ian aside and ask for his guidance and advice.

Purposefully, he sat in the darkest corner with his back to the entrance. He hadn’t taken his first bite yet when Rose sat down beside him. He shuddered and wondered if God was playing a cruel jest.

“Are ye through bein’ angry with me?” she asked with a quirked brow.

“That depends,” he answered drolly as he pulled off a hunk of brown bread. “Are ye done interferin’ in me love life?” He popped the bread into his mouth.

Rose gave him a side-long glance. “I do no’ ken why ye were so upset.”

He chewed and swallowed before answering. “Because me life is me own, Rose.”

Anger flared behind her bright eyes as she stood up from the table. “Then ye best start livin’ it, Brogan Mackintosh. Else ye’ll wake up some day and find yerself an auld man who is all alone in this world. And ye’ll have no one to blame but yerself.”

With grace reminiscent of a queen, Rose left him alone to simmer and think.

* * *

For reasons he could not begin to understand let alone explain to anyone, Brogan became angry. The more he thought on it, the angrier he became. So much so that he found he was unable now, to break his fast.

Mayhap his anger was born because he hadn’t had a decent meal in two days. Mayhap ’twas because he had slept out of doors the night before.

Or mayhap, just mayhap, ’twas Rose’s I know what is best for you attitude. Or more likely than not, ’twas the fact that she was right which he found so irksome. Either way, he pushed his trencher away, jumped to his feet and went in search of his sister-by-law.

He was fully prepared to give the woman a piece of his mind. I will marry when I decide the time is right! I will choose me own wife, thank ye verra kindly!

How on earth did his brother stand to be married to such a meddlesome woman?

It took a bit of searching and asking around before he learned that Rose was in her cottage, tending to her son. He knocked once, rather harshly. She had barely gotten out the words, “come in” before he shoved the door open.

He took only one step inside, seething mad. “’Tis my decision to make, Rose.”

Pretending she had no idea to what he was referring, she lifted one fine brow lifted. “And what decision be that?” she asked before turning her attention back to her son. John was naked and cooing up at his mum as she changed his nappy and clothing.

Brogan growled deep in his throat. Aye, she was a meddlesome pain in his arse. But she was still his brother’s wife. Without uttering a word, he turned around and slammed the door behind him.

He stood just a few steps away from the little cottage, his frustration building. Later, with a good deal of hindsight, he would realize he should have walked away. But he didn’t. Instead, he turned around and threw open the door again. “Ye may be me brother’s wife, but that does no’ give ye the right to interfere in me life, Rose.”

He gave her no opportunity to respond. Once again, he spun around abruptly and slammed the door behind him.

’Twas all he could do to keep from yelling at the top of his lungs. His hands, clenched tightly into fists, fair shook with his anger. He thought back to the day before when he had met Mairghread. Aye she was a beautiful woman. But to have the three she-devils lie to his face and force a meeting betwixt them? Nay, ’twas as wrong a thing as any.

Once again, he spun around and went back into the cottage. Rose was now sitting in a chair by the fire, nursing her son. Brogan did not care about the impropriety. “Ye lied to me and ye lied to Ian. ’Twas deceit and trickery ye used to get me to meet Mairghread Mactavish! Did ye think I would take one look at her and change me mind?”

Rose rolled her eyes. “Would ye have agreed to a meetin’ with her had I asked nicely?”

Realizing he was on the precipice of losing his temper completely, he left again.

Lingering outside the door of his brother’s cottage, Brogan fumed. “Would ye have agreed to a meetin’ with her had I asked nicely?” Of course he wouldn’t have! But that did not make her actions right or just.

And what of Mairghread? He could not be married to a woman who would be party to such a scheme, no matter how beautiful he found her to be. Was she in on the deception? ’Twas a good question, he supposed. So he marched back into the cottage. “Did Mairghread know about yer game?” he asked. His tone was harsh, his words clipped.

“Nay, she did no’,” Rose replied. Her tone and expression were such that he had to believe her.

Some of his anger began to ease away. There was, he reckoned, no use in being so bloody angry he could bite his own sword in two. He offered Rose a curt nod before leaving. This time, he didn’t slam the door behind him, nor did he thunder away only to return a moment later.

What truly has ye so angry? he asked himself as he stood in front of the cottage. Mayhap the number of things that were angering him at the moment were too long to list. He hung his head, rested his fingertips on his hips and thought long and hard about his current situation.

What of Mairghread? If she did not know of yesterday’s deception, he had to wonder if she had any knowledge at all of the plans the three she-devils had in store for them. What if he did agree to such a union only to find out Mairghread had no interest in marrying him? What then?

If he conceded — he was not quite ready to do that yet — and she turned him down, why, the ramifications would be significant. Rose would not rest until she had him well and duly wed.

He blew out a heavy breath and went back into the cottage. Rose was still sitting in the chair, still nursing her babe. ’Twas in that moment he realized this was what he wanted. A home, a wife, and bairns. The realization left him breathless and feeling as though he’d just been kicked by a horse.

“Is Mairghread for or against this union?” he asked, grinding his teeth together.

Rose looked at him for a long moment. He could not help but wonder what nefarious deed she was plotting now.

After a long moment, she blew out a breath and said, “I do noken.”

He believed her, but felt there was something more she wasn’t telling him. He did not have to wait long to find out what that ‘something morewas.

“Mayhap ye should no’ come to the evenin’ meal,” she said, her voice soft and low, as if she’d suddenly grown quite weary. There was something in her eyes that he could not quite describe. Mayhap she was tired of arguing with him.

“And why no’?” he asked, his own anger beginning to fade.

She let out another breath before answering. “We have invited Mairghread here to sup with us. Rowan and Arline Graham and Alec and Leona Bowie will be here as well.”

Brogan’s gut tightened. “When were ye plannin’ on tellinme?”

Rose shrugged one shoulder and ignored his question. “We — Arline and Leona and me — are going to do our best to talk her out of marryin’ the frenchman.”

He scoffed at the word frenchman. “Pray, tell me, Rose, who be this frenchman?”

“Claude Courtemanche.”

Claude Courtemanche? Nay, that can no’ be. His eyes widened in horrified surprise as his heart seized. “The Frenchman,” he muttered.

* * *

Pierre Claude Courtemanche was the Frenchman. The Frenchman Gertie and Tilda had spoken of a sennight ago, when they’d first approached Brogan with their plea. Had he known then to whom they referred … aye, Brogan knew the man, knew him all too well. And he had no liking for the pompous, arrogant bastard.

The first time he had met the man had been more than ten years ago. Brogan had gone to Edinburgh with his father. They were there to welcome his eldest brother, Michael, home from Italy where he had been studying for the prior three years.

After greeting Michael, they decided to head to the nearest inn, where they would eat a good meal and consume vast amounts of ale. ’Twas at that inn where Brogan met Courtemanche for the first time.

Courtemanche had been nothing short of a whoreson. Ordering the barmaids around as if they were his personal slaves, making disparaging remarks about them, as well as Scotland as a whole.

At one point, he had pulled a young barmaid onto his lap and began to fondle her openly. She resisted vehemently, pleaded with tear-filled eyes for him to let her be — which apparently angered him. He ripped open the bodice of her dress, exposing her breasts to the all the guests in the inn and laughed.

Brogan’s father reached them first, with Michael and Brogan right behind him. John pulled the young woman out harm’s way, handing her off to Michael.

“Frenchman,” John growled as he pulled the man to his feet. “I do no’ ken how ye treat yer barmaids in France, but here, we show them a bit of kindness.”

Courtemanche scoffed and smirked. “Get your filthy Scottish hands off me,” he demanded. “I am Claude Pierre Courtemanche and I am under the protection of your king.”

John truly did not care who he was or whose protection he was under. “Under the king’s protection or God’s, I do no’ care. I suggest ye leave now, while ye still can.”

Michael chimed in then. “And apologize to the lass fer treatin’ her so poorly.”

Courtemanche smirked and looked directly at Michael. “I think not,” he replied drolly before turning back to John. “And if you do not remove your hands from me, I shall tell your king. You will be arrested at once and hanged.”

“I do no’ take kindly to empty threats,” John told him. “Especially from someone such as ye.”

“Think you it is an empty threat?” Courtemanche challenged. “Above stairs is the king’s chamberlain, Donald MacGregor. He probably has his cock buried in one of your Scottish whores as we speak.”

John, typically a man of patience, turned purple with rage. “I will give ye one last chance to apologize to the lass and leave of your own accord,” John told him.

Another sneer from the Frenchman nearly sent John over the edge. Before he could throw the first punch, Courtemanche had removed a dirk from his belt. He might have thought he was catching John unawares, but this was not John’s first fight. Nor would it be his last.

With the flick of his wrist, John had disarmed the Frenchman and landed a hard blow to the arrogant man’s face. Blood began to spurt from his nose, which anyone with a lick of sense could see was broken.

“You son of a whore!” Courtemanche had screamed as he writhed in pain on the floor.. “I will have ye hanged for this!”

Aye, he had been in Scotland as guest of the king. But what Courtemanche could not have known was that John was also quite close to David. And Donald MacGregor was a distant cousin.

Someone had summoned Donald MacGregor when the man had first attacked the barmaid. He had come racing down the stairs and into the main room. He took one look at Courtemanche, rolled his eyes and then turned to John. “Cousin,” he said with a slight inclination of his head.

“Cousin,” John returned his greeting.

“What did he do?”

“Attacked the barmaid,” John said before returning to his seat.

“He attacked me!” Courtemanche cursed as he struggled to his feet. As he held his hand to his face, blood continued to spurt. Only one person came to his aid and he had been Courtemanche’s own man.

“He broke my nose!” He growled. “I want him hanged!”

Donald laughed, shook his head and took a seat across from John. “Who here would like to stand as witness for the Frenchman?” he asked in a loud voice.

The room was deathly silent.

“And who here would like to stand as witness for John Mackintosh?”

Everyone in the room began to line up behind and around John.

Brogan was pulled back to the here and now by his nephew’s loud burp.

“Ye jest,” he said, disbelievingly.

Rose shook her head. “Nay, Brogan, on this I do no’ jest. ’Tis true. Mairghread’s uncle left a few days ago, for France. He plans to return in a few short months, with Courtemanche. And Mairghread will be forced to marry him.”

A hundred questions raced in his mind. “Certainly, she does no’ wish to marry him.”

“I do no’ think she understands the seriousness of it,” Rose said with a sigh of resignation. “Gertie and Tilda have begged her to seek out someone else to marry. But she thinks the old women exaggerate about Courtemanche’s reputation. Simply put, she does not know the man. And for whatever reason, she seems to hold her uncle in high regard. The woman does not believe he would ever try to match her with someone as awful as we ken him to be.”

Brogan shook his head once again, as if doing so would bring more clarity to the conversation at hand. “But he is a bloody bastard,” Brogan said.

“Aye, on that, ye and I can agree. ’Tis one of the reasons I invited Mairghread here this night. Ian and I were goin’ to talk to her, to try to get her to see reason.”

He quirked a doubtful brow. “And try to convince her she should marry me.”

“Nay, Brogan. To try to convince her she should marry anyone else but Courtemanche,” Rose said as she glanced down at her now sleeping babe. “If you had no’ agreed, I would have suggested Rodrick, or one of our other men. All ’twould take is one look at the beautiful woman to get them to agree.”

Rodrick? He mused. The thought of Rodrick the Bold being married to such a beautiful woman as Mairghread was nearly laughable. Nearly.

“Then why did ye even ask me?”

“Because I thought the two of ye better suited to one another. Because I worry over ye bein’ alone all the rest of yer days,” she replied.

He realized then, that Rose’s intentions were genuinely born out of the kind regard she had for him. Although her tactics left much to be desired, he could no longer fault her for her intentions.

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