For all the years Iain Brodie had trained to succeed his father as the Brodie chief, he’d known this day would come—and dreaded it. The neighboring Rose keep loomed ahead, a fortress built of stone and timbers overlooking the Moray Firth. Just as it marked the northwest side of Brodie, the firth marked the northerly limits of Rose territory. Iain couldn’t see the water but the breeze carried its salty scent.
“Do ye think ye will find what ye need there?” his cousin Kenneth asked. Kenneth gazed at the keep ahead, his brow drawn down as he studied their destination.
Iain pulled his mount to a halt. It surprised him by backing up a few paces, as if it sensed his disquiet and was ready to carry him away. He urged it forward, even with Kenneth, who’d stopped to wait for him. “Even if I do, ’tis something I would rather leave for another day…or year.” He clenched his jaw. Soon he would lose his freedom, and the shackles awaited him in that keep.
“Ye’re a fine one with the lasses, aye. ’Twill be hard to give them all up,” Kenneth said and shrugged, “but ye are nearly out of time to prove yerself ready to lead the clan.”
“I dinna need a reminder,” Iain growled, the weight of responsibility settling solidly on his shoulders. He shifted in the saddle, tempted despite the cost to turn his mount aside, away from what lay ahead. He could not. He’d only delay the inevitable, longer, perhaps, than the time he had left. He’d lose everything. “Da is getting worse. He may not last another year.”
Kenneth gave him an understanding nod. “And so ye must convince him and the clan elders ye are fit to lead.”
Iain’s lips compressed into a thin line. “Damn it, did he send ye to blather on about the years I’ve wasted since my beard first grew? I’ve heard it from him—too many times.”
“I came with ye because I’ve been guarding yer back since we were weans and fought our battles with wooden swords,” Kenneth replied tightly.
Iain had to acknowledge that. He nodded. Early in his training, the younger Kenneth had mistimed swinging his wee wooden sword and hit an older and much bigger lad in the face. The lad had knocked him to the ground and started beating him. Iain, more the size of Kenneth’s attacker, had pulled the lad off, flattened him, and ended the unfair fight. Kenneth had been at his side ever since.
“And to remind ye what ye must accomplish while ye are here,” Kenneth added. His mouth twitched, whether in resignation or mirth, Iain couldn’t tell.
Kenneth knew better than anyone how stubborn Iain could be—especially about something he did not want to do. And how single-minded about something he wanted, once he had a goal in mind. For the life of him, Iain couldn’t figure a way out of this. His stubbornness had delayed this decision, but it wouldn’t save him.
“Aye.” Iain raised his voice to the wobbly pitch of an ill old man’s—his father’s to be precise. “’Tis best to have an heir of yer own on the way before I go, so ye must be wedded and bedded and settled in yer new role as husband and father.” He dropped his voice to its normal timbre. “Not that I object to the bedded part of the bargain.”
Kenneth chuckled. “I’m told the Rose lasses have grown into beauties. So ye may as well show a little enthusiasm.”
“I pray ’tis so. Any wife who warms my bed had best be pleasing of face and figure.”
“Aye, well, I dinna ken whether ’tis possible.” Iain gestured at the keep. “The last time we were here, they were three hellions, running through the bailey, shrieking.” He shuddered. “My ears are still ringing from the din.”
“Ten years have gone since then. Ye are no longer the stripling lad they ran from. I’ll wager my best horse ye willna have to chase them this time. Ye’ll have yer pick o’ the lot.”
“I’ll take that bet.” Iain flicked the reins and urged his mount into motion. “Let’s get this over with, aye?”
Kenneth didn’t bother responding, but followed Iain until the path widened out and they could ride abreast into the keep.
They passed under the portcullis without challenge. A man approached as they dismounted inside the walls. “What is yer business here?”
Iain introduced himself and Kenneth. “I’m here for the Brodie, to speak to the Rose,” he told him.
The man waved at two lads loitering by the stable. They ran up and took charge of the horses.
Iain trailed after as the man led them toward the keep’s tower. People milled about them, some carrying large sacks of grain toward the stables, others on less obvious errands.
In the middle of the bailey, one lass caught Iain’s eye. Honey blonde hair framed a winsome face that stopped his heart. Curls cascaded to the waist of a shapely body that got his heart beating again…fast, and made his fingers itch to draw her just as she looked in this moment. She stood toe-to-toe with a stocky lad half a head taller than she, and protected a puppy in her arms.
“If ye touch this pup again, ye’ll face my father’s wrath instead of mine,” she warned the lad. “Do ye hear me?”
“Ye kicked it! This wee thing, a tiny portion of yer size and weight. If ye ever do something so cruel again, I’ll teach ye what it feels like. Then I’ll have my da do the same.”
“Do ye think we should intervene?” Kenneth asked.
Iain glanced aside. Kenneth studied the bigger lad. “No one else is. I think the lass has made her point. Aye, there he goes, suitably chastened. But never fear,” Iain added and slapped Kenneth on the back, “ye could have taken him.”
As the lad stalked off, head down, and despite Kenneth’s growl at his comment, Iain couldn’t stop staring at the lass.
Even in anger, her voice had pleased him. Now that the confrontation was over, she bent her head and murmured sweetly to the puppy in her arms. Her beauty stunned him. Iain wondered how she’d sound murmuring his name. In his bed. He wanted to approach and discover who she was, but once her gaze swept over him and Kenneth, she turned away and ducked into the stable.
Their guide had marched on and Iain dared not be left behind. He saw the sow at his feet just in time to avoid falling over it. He’d come here to make a good impression and bring home a bridal contract, not to toss up the skirts of the first lovely lass he encountered—or wind up sprawled in the mud because he couldn’t take his gaze from her. But seeing her improved his mood. If she was any example of the lasses this clan could produce—beautiful and kind—his future suddenly looked better than he’d hoped.
Their guide left them in the keep’s great hall and stepped through a doorway into what must be the laird’s solar. In moments, he returned.
“The Rose is occupied with important clan matters at the moment, but he offers ye his hospitality. He’ll greet ye this evening. In the meantime, I’m to see ye settled.”
Mary Anne Rose’s needle missed the spot she aimed for and she dropped her embroidery in her lap with a sigh. Worrying about her and her sisters’ imminent fate made her fingers tremble. Even after a few deep breaths to calm her nerves, she could not form the tiny perfect stitches she’d intended to decorate the neckline of this dress. She glanced around the ladies’ solar. Her youngest sister, Mary Catherine, and five other lasses sat with her near the sunny window, heads bent, eyes focused on their needlework as they gossiped. They had no idea how her stomach roiled.
“They’re both so tall and handsome,” one lass exclaimed, then giggled. “I hope they’re not already wedded.”
The strangers who had arrived that morning had been the subject of unceasing speculation since Annie joined Cat and the other ladies at their needlework. But she was certain she knew the men’s purpose. Three days ago, her father had received a missive proposing the marriage of the Brodie heir to a Rose daughter. He’d told Annie and Cat about it only an hour ago, forced into it, she assumed, by the strangers’ arrival. If one of these strangers was the Brodie heir, the negotiations could be underway right now.
“Ye’d best mind yerself,” another lass admonished the first. “They’re here to see the laird, no’ to tickle ye.”
“The laird can do with them what he will during the day,” the first replied, never lifting her gaze from her stitching. “I’ll keep the bigger one to myself at night. Ye can have his friend, if ye like,” she added with a grin.
Tittered laughter followed that comment, Cat’s high-pitched giggle included.
Annie exchanged a warning glance with her sister, and tried to ignore their chatter. Their father didn’t want the news of the Brodie’s proposal to spread until he had a chance to tell their oldest sister, Mary Elizabeth, known simply as Mary, when she returned from Inverness in a few days.
Da hadn’t said which of his three daughters he planned to offer, only that he expected one of them would be betrothed—and soon. But who? And how would Mary feel when she returned home to this news? Though it was customary, Annie doubted Da would betroth his eldest, even if it ruined her chances ever to wed. Mary had served as his chatelaine since their mother died of a fever five years before, and he had made no offers for a new wife who could take over those duties. As next eldest, Annie expected he would have his eye on her to make this match with the Brodie heir. Father was eager to strengthen the clan’s alliances. And once he established this alliance, he’d be just as eager to secure others.
She had no illusions. Now or later, she’d be bartered away for the sake of Clan Rose. But she wasn’t ready. Rose was her home. Who would help Mary? And who would keep Cat out of trouble? Yet what choice did she have? If she fought her father too hard this time, he’d use Cat to make the alliance. The thought of her fifteen-year-old, younger sister forced to wed a much older warrior set her stomach to turning over even faster.
She could sit still no longer. Between her disquiet and the ache in her leg, she needed to move, and she needed some air. She dropped her needlework in a basket and stood. “I’m going for a walk,” she announced, heedless of whether any tongues stopped wagging or any gazes lifted from their work to watch her leave.
She intended to get out of the keep, perhaps to visit the puppies in the stable, but unfamiliar male voices echoed up the stairs from the great hall. The two strangers, no doubt. She crept down the circular stone steps until she could see them. Dread made her belly clench. Brodies. Who else would visit Rose now?
They stood near the hearth, away from the servants preparing the hall for the evening meal, speaking in low tones, and occasionally laughing. Both were well dressed, tall, muscular, and heartbreakingly handsome. Was the older one the Brodie heir? The touch of russet in his dark hair had caught her eye in the bailey when they arrived. She’d been too preoccupied berating the blacksmith’s apprentice, then comforting the crying pup, to give him her full attention. But the glimpse she’d gotten had made her breath catch. He looked to be a few years older than she, the other nearer her age. As he listened to his companion, the grin flitting across his face revealed laugh-lines, telling her he was probably good-natured. The relaxed set of his shoulders and the loose-jointed gestures punctuating his conversation added to his amiable appeal. But she expected the two young men were friends as well as emissaries for their laird. How he behaved in familiar company did not necessarily mean he’d treat anyone else the same.
She would have liked to study the men at greater length. Especially the one she suspected was the heir. But she dared not—the last turn of the stairway left her too exposed. If they chanced to look her way, they would see her. She could not get past them, and she did not want them to notice her. The Brodies’ arrival might presage disaster for her. Resigned to retreating the way she had come, she straightened just as the one with the russet in his hair turned his head toward her. When his gaze met hers, the same arc of awareness that had stolen her breath in the bailey made her gasp. Too late to escape his notice, she pivoted and ran up the stairs, ignoring his call for her to stop, to come back.
She wouldn’t be able to hide for long. When her father called, and she knew he would, she would have to face him—and those men. But for now, she just couldn’t cope with what their presence meant for her, for her sisters, and for the life she’d always known.
Iain paused at the entry to the great hall, surprised there were no women seated at the high table, and annoyed he couldn’t find the enticing lass he’d seen in the bailey and again on the stairs anywhere in the hall. “Do they fear we’ll steal a lass right out of the great hall?” he whispered to Kenneth as they awaited the laird’s arrival. Where were the Rose daughters?
Kenneth’s forehead creased as he looked from one side of the room to the other. “’Tis odd,” he muttered. Then he fell silent.
The Rose laird entered the hall. “Well met,” he called out when he noticed them. He welcomed them to his home as he escorted them to the high table.
A man just past his prime, James Rose had the build of a seasoned warrior and the carriage of a man accustomed to having his orders followed. The Rose’s sandy hair was cropped close to his head, silver glinting at his temples. Silver in his close-trimmed beard also framed his mouth. Iain judged him to be within a handful of years of his father’s age, but in much better health.
As they took seats, in a lower tone, the Rose added, “We’ll no’ discuss the purpose of yer visit in front of the clan. No’ until we’ve had a chance to speak in private,” and grinned as if he’d just made a jest.
Bemused, Iain could only acquiesce. He’d reserve judgement until after speaking with the Rose laird. “As ye wish.” He returned the Rose’s smile and Kenneth nodded in solidarity with Iain.
During dinner, more women joined the men at the lower tables. But James Rose’s daughters remained absent—as did the lass Iain most wanted to see. He began to believe that she was certainly one of them.
The Rose boasted about his clan’s resources and complained about the feud between the Duke of Albany and the Lord of the Isles. “No telling when they will go from bandying words to fighting,” he opined.
When he finally paused for breath, Iain managed to say, “My father sends his regards and regrets he is too unwell to travel, even for this important venture.”
The Rose’s gaze dropped, and he rolled his cup between two gnarled hands. “I’m sorry to hear that. When I received the Brodie’s missive, I looked forward to sharing a dram with him by the fire.
Iain nodded, surprised at the regret he heard in the man’s voice. Had James Rose and his father been friends long ago? “Thank ye. I’ll convey your regard when I return. He’ll be glad to hear of it.”
“Perhaps there will be an occasion that will bring me to Brodie,” Rose offered with a glance at Iain. “Now, tell me about yer plans for Brodie once ye become laird.”
To business, then. Iain had expected this question, just not right away. “As ye might imagine, ’tis something I’ve been reluctant to spend much time considering,” he replied, but when he saw a crease start to form between the Rose’s brows, he hurried to explain, “but given my father’s illness, I’ve had little choice. He and I have spoken at length about his wishes for the clan, going forward.” Iain lowered his voice and added, “We both believe alliances such as the one we hope to make with Clan Rose are an important part of Clan Brodie’s future.”
“Come, let’s continue this discussion in my solar,” Rose invited. They had finished eating. As they left the table, another man followed. He took up a position by the door.
Iain approved of the prudence exhibited by having someone stand watch while they met with the laird. They were not known here. Kenneth took a seat on Iain’s far side and crossed his arms, signaling his purpose here to observe but not to interfere. His position, Iain noted, allowed him to see both James Rose and his man at the door.
The Rose poured drams of whisky and handed a glass to each of them, then poured one for himself. His guard did not get one. “Slainte!” he said, and raised the glass in toast. “May our business be concluded to the satisfaction of both.”
What about the satisfaction of the daughter involved? Iain kept a grimace from his face. His situation did not allow him the luxury of such concerns, so he let the Rose’s comment slide as he took the ceremonial sip.
The Rose continued, “What ye said in the hall is sound. Especially given the current discord. Clan Rose welcomes the opportunity—and whether this one is successful or not, we can find reason to create others—for closer ties with Brodie and our other neighbors. We dinna care to be caught between the Crown and the Isles with no one at our back.”
“Brodie agrees,” Iain told him, relieved to hear the Rose echo his father’s plan to bring together neighboring clans to address their common concern. “This alliance will be well-timed, though I regret the need bringing us to it.”
“Do ye mean to say ye regret the proposed marriage?” Rose asked, his tone—and his brown-eyed stare—suddenly too even.
Iain realized his statement had been misconstrued. He couldn’t decide if James Rose the father or James Rose the laird challenged him. Not that the distinction mattered. “Nay, no’ at all,” he lied. “I refer to the need for allies against the factions on either side of us. Only that.” At least that much was true. Trouble between the Duke of Albany, the Lord of the Isles and closer to home, the Earl of Ross, made trustworthy allies a must.
“Right. Good enough.” The older man paused and sipped his whisky, then continued, “I think ye’ll do. So, let’s get to it. Ye are here for a bride, and I have three daughters to betroth for the good of the clan.” The Rose raised a hand and counted off on his fingers. “The eldest, Mary, should by rights wed first, but since her mother died, she’s served me well as my chatelaine, and since I’ve yet to find a suitable bride of my own, I’m no’ eager to lose her.”
Iain waited, letting the older man run his options through his mind.
“Anne is next, then Catherine. Both would make a good match. Anne should be the one we discuss, but she’s no’ eager for marriage. Catherine is young and eager for everything. So ye see my dilemma.”
“I believe so.” Iain nodded, but he didn’t see at all. Though it might not be fair, as laird and as their father, he could choose which daughter to put forward, and the lass would have no say in the matter.
The Rose sat back and stared into his whisky cup for a long moment.
While he pondered, Iain fought not to fidget. No matter what he thought about his purpose, here at Rose, he was the Brodie, and he had an important, if unwelcome, job to do. He couldn’t let the Rose chief’s hesitation unnerve him.
“I’m prepared, therefore, to offer ye the hospitality of Rose,” his host finally said. “Ye must stay a few days, meet Anne and Catherine, and decide which one ye will offer for. Then, if we can work out the details, ye’ll be happier for making yer own choice.”
Iain nodded, intrigued. He hadn’t expected the Rose to be so accommodating. Two, possibly three, lasses to woo? This could get interesting. But he kept his speculation off his face. “’Tis unusual to allow a suitor so much freedom, but the arrangement pleases me. I hope I will find favor with one of yer daughters. Kenneth and I are pleased to accept your hospitality, and I’m grateful for your willingness to consider Brodie’s offer.”
“That’s settled, then. In private, you may call me James.” He tossed back the contents of his glass and poured more. “Tell me what other news ye have from Brodie.”
He offered the bottle to Iain, who could not be so impolite as to refuse, so he poured, then passed the bottle to Kenneth. Clearly, James was done talking about his daughters, but not ready to end the conversation.
Iain settled in for a long night.
As Annie marched up the center aisle to her mount, the stable boy laid the saddle over Belle’s back. Annie needed to ride. She handled the rest of the tack while he secured the girth. She’d tossed and turned all night, dreading what the day would bring. Da had ordered her and Cat to take their meal in their rooms last night. He hadn’t wanted the Brodies to meet them yet, not until he’d had a chance to take their measure and decide if the alliance they proposed would suit his plans. And if, he’d added after a hesitation, the man would be a good match for one of his lasses.
Annie appreciated his belated consideration, though she knew he cared little for what she or either of her sisters might want. The Rose would decide for all of them, as was his right and his duty to the clan. Theirs was to obey and to secure alliances. And that made Annie’s jaw clench.
It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t she have been born a man? She waved the lad away and tugged the girth under Belle’s belly, using the strength of her frustration to pull it tight enough. Men had all the power. They made all the decisions. Belle stamped a hoof, and Annie realized she was still tugging at the girth. “Sorry,” she told her and moved to her head to rub her nose.
“Do ye always talk to animals?” came a deep voice from behind her.
Startled, she whirled and found herself facing the Brodie who made her breath catch. No stable boy, this. He was all man, and now that she saw him up close, she knew she’d been right to be apprehensive yesterday when she saw him and his companion arrive. He had an air of seductive power his smile only enhanced. Add to that the strength and silence of movement of a seasoned warrior, and she couldn’t help being impressed. His height exceeded her own by the width of his broad hand, and his dark hair, inky in the dimness of the stable’s interior, fell in loose waves to his shoulders. He wore riding clothes, a leather jerkin, and plaid over a saffron shirt whose sleeves bulged with muscle when he lifted a hand to stroke Belle’s neck. Snug leather trews accentuated the length and well-muscled strength of his legs.
God, he took her breath away. She needed a moment to gather her wits and remind herself she had no interest in this man, or any other. Yet she feared she lacked the defenses a prudent woman would need against a man like him. Her heart beat as fast as a captive bird’s. In the confines of the stable and this man’s overpowering presence, she felt just as caged. So she backed up a pace, letting Belle’s long nose shield her face from his view, though it did little to shield the rest of him from hers.
“I only talk to animals when I have something to apologize for,” she finally managed to say. Getting the words out helped her gather her courage. She took a breath and stepped clear of Belle. “Ye are one of the Brodies who arrived yesterday, aye?”
“I am Iain Brodie. The man with me is Kenneth, my cousin. Ye are one of the Rose sisters, are ye no’?”
She saw no advantage in denying it, so she nodded. This was the heir who needed a wife? Her pulse kicked up.
“I saw ye with the puppy when we arrived.”
Again, she couldn’t deny it, so she nodded. He’d noticed her. The thought made a pleasant tingle chase across her chest.
“’Twas a brave and kind thing ye did.”
He thought her kind and brave? Annie placed a hand against Belle’s neck, unsure how to react to his compliment.
Belle tossed her head.
“Soon, lass.” She patted Belle’s neck, certain her horse sensed the bees buzzing along her veins. She took a breath to calm them. “I willna allow an innocent creature to be harmed,” she said. “The puppy was only being a puppy.”
“And the lad a bully. Ye were right to chastise him.” Iain took a step closer and held out a hand.
For a moment, Annie couldn’t decide whether to duck farther behind her horse or step forward to meet him. The timber of his voice vibrated along all her nerve endings. The kindness of his tone and words disarmed her. Gathering her will, she ducked around Belle’s nose and stepped forward.
He bowed over her hand, then straightened. “I’m sorry we had nay chance to meet when I saw ye on the stair yestereve.”
Annie blushed at the memory of getting caught spying on this man.
“Or at dinner. Though I now understand why the Rose didn’t want us to meet his lovely daughters then. I’d be protective of ye, too.”
“Thank ye, Iain Brodie.”
“I must also admit to the hope yer name is no’ Mary, because yer father has denied her and said I may consider only his two younger daughters—yet ye are too beautiful to ignore.”
Annie’s heart seized. As she expected, her father had decided the Brodie might choose between her and Cat. She shouldn’t be surprised, but still, the urge to cry, or scream, or beat her fists against poor, innocent Belle’s side nearly overcame her. And even though the Brodie heir was not the grizzled elder she’d pictured in her worried imaginings, she could not condemn Catherine so young to become any man’s wife. She was trapped.
She consoled herself that Iain Brodie was handsome and well-spoken enough to be tempting—if she was of a mind to be tempted. Which she most certainly was not.
“Sorry,” she told him, then forced a chuckle. “I seem to be saying that a lot. Anyway, I am Mary.” Mary Anne, not Mary Elizabeth, but he didn’t need to know that, not yet. Not if it gave her and her sisters a chance to plan how to get rid of him.
His face lost some of its pull on her as his smile fell away. Then he gamely brought it back. She gave him points for making the effort to hide his disappointment. He was polite as well as kind and damnably attractive.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Perhaps I should no’ admit this, but when I saw ye, in the bailey when we first arrived, ye took my heart from my chest. I suppose I must only hope yer sisters are as lovely as ye.”
He was going to make her melt. His flattery sounded sincere. Warmth spread all through her and she knew she must be blushing a furious red. “They are,” she assured him when she found her voice. “Much more than I.”
“I look forward to meeting them, then, though I wonder how I will be able to choose another after meeting ye.” He paused and frowned.
As his gaze tightened on her, even his frown made him more attractive.
“But I’m being rude. Ye are about to ride out. Would ye care for company?”
Annie tangled her fingers in Belle’s mane and hung on, fearing her knees would not support her if he kept looking at her that way. “I…uh…” She wanted to say no, but as long as he thought she was Mary and not available to him, he might be less intent on wooing her and therefore more open regarding what he revealed about himself. Maybe she could find out something that would help her convince her father to refuse the Brodie’s offer of marriage, and find another way to make the alliance he craved. “I’d enjoy yer companionship.”
He readied his horse easily, the saddle no burden as he lifted it, his movements precise and practiced. When he shifted to the horse’s head, he spoke softly and stroked its nose as he finished getting it ready to ride.
Annie’s heart melted a little to see him treat the animal as a friend and not just a means of conveyance. She turned away, determined not to let him get inside her defenses.
As she walked Belle to the mounting block she normally used, he approached.
“Let me assist ye,” he told her. He made a step for her foot from his hands and lifted her effortlessly onto Belle’s back, then held Belle’s head while Annie settled herself.
“Aren’t ye a beauty,” he murmured.
Annie’s head snapped up before she realized he had spoken to Belle.
Then he looked at her. “Ready to go?”
Their hands brushed as he offered the reins, making a tingle run up her arm. Her breath caught in her chest again when he smiled. She nodded, unable to speak.
A moment later, his muscled thighs and nicely rounded arse flexed as he swung onto his mount.
She reminded herself a wife spent her life under her husband’s rule. And she did not wish to be any man’s property. Why was she responding so strongly to this one? She really should insist a groom accompany them, but Iain had already left her behind. She took a steadying breath, then followed him out of the stable. They rode side-by-side across the bailey and through the gate.
“Where would ye like to go?”
His voice coated her insides, sweet honey touched with something hot, lighting a pleasant heat in her belly like the peppers cook had gotten at market. She had to stop reacting to him like she hadn’t eaten in a week.
She tapped the bow and arrows tied to Belle’s side. “I hunt along the edge of the glen where the birds congregate. Cook wants a brace for dinner.”
Iain nodded and flashed his heart-stopping smile. “Let’s go, then.”
He let her lead. She knew it was only sensible, because he didn’t know the way to her favorite hunting ground, but she appreciated the consideration, nonetheless. Most men of her acquaintance would have charged off in whatever general direction she indicated, heedless of her knowledge and experience. It was just one more perfect thing about Iain Brodie—and it made her furious.
Iain kept up his end of the conversation, even though his heart lodged somewhere in his belly. Why had he encountered her first, and why had she pierced his defenses like a broadsword to the gut? Until he’d seen her impressive ire directed at the larger lad in protection of the wee hound, he hadn’t expected any prospective bride could entice him as she did. Yet this was Mary, the daughter James Rose refused to consider for marriage to Brodie. Damn it.
All those other lasses he’d charmed were just prelude to meeting Mary Rose.
Her sisters might be more beautiful, as she claimed, but he doubted that could be possible. Her hair was a silken, honey-colored fall, her skin, cream touched with berry on her cheeks and lips. Her eyes, when she wasn’t hiding them from him, were the color of the midday sky on a bright summer day.
And he soon discovered she was as deadly with her bow as she was beautiful. Fitting for a Brodie laird’s wife, since the Brodie crest displayed a fist holding arrows. Unless he discovered her sisters had an equal skill with the bow, hers must be a sign she was the daughter meant for Brodie.
And since when had he gotten so poetic? He’d never had any difficulty bedding and dismissing a lass. How had he become so smitten with the one lass he could not have? He didn’t yet know how he would convince her father to let him marry this daughter rather than one of the others. But he would do it.
On the ride out, he contented himself by listening to her talk about the area they passed through, the types of birds she hunted, the puppies in the stable.
“How did ye come to prefer riding Belle?” he asked. He enjoyed hearing her talk about her animals, and her actions made it clear she favored this horse.
“Belle saved my life,” she declared, patting the horse’s neck, “about three years ago.”
Her words aroused Iain’s protective instincts. He found he did not like the idea of this lass in danger. “How?”
“I’d wandered too far from the keep and thought I’d found a shortcut home, but came to a burn. With the spring rains, it ran deeper and faster than I kenned. Belle did her best to get across, but in the middle, the current plucked me off the saddle and swept me away. I got tangled in a downed tree. I thought I’d drown, but Belle came after me.” She bent forward and stroked the horse’s neck.
Despite wanting to know what happened, Iain found himself staring at her hand, imagining it stroking his neck, his shoulder, his belly.
“I managed to grab her mane and hold on,” the lass continued. “She pulled me out and the water pushed me onto her back.”
Iain forced himself to meet her gaze. “Thank the saints.”
“Belle dragged me out of the water. Since that day, she’s been mine. No one else is allowed to ride her.”
“She’s an impressive horse,” Iain told her, studying Belle’s lines, her markings, the length of her mane and tail, and committing them to memory. Her story gave him an idea.
“What about ye?” Mary asked. “Do ye have many horses and dogs at Brodie?”
“Aye,” he answered with a smile. “And coos and a few cats as well. Ye love puppies. I’d wager ye’d love kittens as much or more.”
She returned his smile and arched an eyebrow. “Apparently, ye do.”
“Aye. Ye’ve never held one?”
“Nay, we’ve none here. I dinna ken why no’.”
“They’re wee and soft and more…limber…than a dog. Kittens play and tumble about. When they’re worn out, they just collapse and drop off to sleep wherever they happen to be. Sometimes they purr, and ye willna be able to resist. ’Tis the most pleasing little rumble ye’ve ever heard.” Save the groan of satisfaction a lass could make when she’d been properly pleasured, but he had sense enough not to mention his familiarity with that sound.
“Ach, ye make me wish to hold one right now.”
She asked him about Brodie, and he answered as best he could, painting, he hoped, an attractive picture of the clan—and himself—and keeping his father’s disappointment in him to himself. There would be time enough for that later. On the ride back to the Rose keep, he turned the conversation back to her.
“I understand,” he told her, “ye have run yer father’s keep these five years past. What do you most enjoy?”
“Besides hunting now and again?”
She smiled, but Iain noticed a crease between her eyebrows. What about his question worried her? He held his tongue, waiting for her to elaborate.
“All the usual things, I suppose,” she continued, her gaze on the tree line they rode along. “Surely ye’ve been aware of the chatelaine’s duties at Brodie. Ours canna be so different.”
“Enlighten me,” he urged.
“Well, let me see. I keep track of the food stores, of course.”
“And hold the keys to the larder, the alehouse, and so forth. Keep the tally of the crofters, what they produce, and what they owe their laird.”
“That’s a heavy responsibility. Yer father has made it plain he depends upon ye.”
“Thank ye. He does.”
“And do ye never wish to marry?”
She stayed silent a long time. They passed through the Rose keep’s gate before she answered, “Perhaps. Someday.” She glanced aside at him and pursed her lips. “I dinna wish to make ye think ye are no’ an attractive suitor. Ye are.”
Iain smiled. If she thought him attractive, he’d already won half his battle.
“But,” she continued, “’tis no’ a good time for me to leave my father’s house. Ye understand, of course.”
The hell he did. James Rose would be well served to find his own wife to run his keep. If Iain must take a wife—and he must if he hoped to succeed his father—Iain wanted James’s daughter. This daughter. “Of course.” Aye, she found him attractive. But. She was loyal to her father. He could not gainsay her loyalty. Only now he needed to figure out how to sway it to him. And soon.
At the kitchen door, she dismounted and took the birds in hand. “Ye must excuse me. Cook is waiting for these.”
“I understand, and I thank ye. I enjoyed yer company.”
She hesitated a moment and turned back to him. “And I yers,” she answered with a shy smile.
Maybe he could hope, after all.
Iain had told Kenneth to meet him in the walled garden. They’d be able to talk there, and Iain would have enough sunlight to start a drawing he hoped would help him woo Mary. He’d sketched a rough outline in charcoal by the time Kenneth joined him.
“Nice,” Kenneth remarked, glancing over the page in the leather-bound book Iain had on his lap. “But no’ yer usual sort of subject.”
Iain nodded, acknowledging the truth of Kenneth’s observation. Structures fascinated Iain, whether part of the Brodie keep’s walls or the mathematical arrangement of a flower’s petals. He had a remarkable ability to recall every feature.
Only after a battle did his subject matter change. Then, while his blood still boiled and before exhaustion took him, he drew the bare body of his latest romantic conquest, reclined and beckoning or reaching for him. Not that he needed help remembering his lovers. Immersing himself in depicting a lass’s lush curves took his mind from the blood and gore of battle. He sometimes found visions of the men he’d had to kill faded away and did not taint his sleep.
Iain kept his more intimate studies private, though none showed a woman’s face. He could think of no one who would understand why he drew them.
Kenneth referred to his sketches of the keep and its gardens. Even those irritated his father, who, despite respecting Iain’s prowess with a sword, saw drawing buildings and flowers as a woman’s pastime, not a warriors—or a laird’s.
This garden full of blossoms called to him, especially the roses. They were planted in groups by shades and colors, and climbed the walls, the roses interspersed with other flowers Iain could not name. A few would be perfect subjects for the colored chalks he’d recently received from Brussels. But he hadn’t invited Kenneth here to discuss his pastime.
“I’ve a problem,” he said as Kenneth settled on the ground beside him and placed a cup of ale at his knee. “I’ve met the oldest daughter, Mary, and she’s the one I want. She was the one with the puppy—“
“Aye, I saw her. A lovely lass. Sharp tongue, though,” Kenneth added with a sidelong glance at Iain.
Iain ignored the barb. “I can’t get her out of my mind.” He closed his sketchbook and shifted to face Kenneth. “I dinna need to meet her sisters.”
“How can ye say that? Ye only saw her from a distance.”
“Nay. I also saw her on the stair yesterday. And this morning, she was already in the stable when I arrived. We went riding. Alone. Nothing she said or did has dissuaded me.”
“Alone? Ye risk much. Do you think to force her father to agree to the match?”
Iain gripped his charcoal stick tighter. “Nay. But maybe I can change his mind. After he tried to drown us in whisky last night, I seem to recall we left on good terms.”
“He invited ye to call him James, so I’d say so.”
“Aye, he did.”
“I hope yer wits are sharper than they were last eve.” Kenneth gestured toward the garden’s gate. “You can start to persuade him now. Here he comes, with a lass—another of the daughters, or I miss my guess.”
Iain winced and nodded, then tucked the charcoal out of sight in his shirt. “Indeed.”
James Rose approached with a younger, fairer-haired version of her oldest sister. He paused long enough to allow the Brodies to gain their feet and incline their heads in greeting, then spoke. “Well met, though I didna expect to see ye in here as we passed by the gate. I’d like to introduce to ye my youngest daughter, Catherine.”
“I’m pleased to meet ye,” she said and followed her words with a girlish giggle.
Iain kept his gaze away from Kenneth, who would read his dismay, and bowed over her hand. “I am delighted to meet ye,” he answered, then forced a smile. Mary had been wrong. Her sister did not approach Mary’s beauty, much less exceed it. Iain judged, even before she giggled, this daughter was too young to interest him. The giggle sealed his opinion against her. He turned his attention to James. “Ye have an exceptional garden. We are fortunate to be able to spend a few minutes enjoying it.”
“Indeed. Please stay, then. Catherine and I are expected elsewhere. Ye will have a chance to speak at dinner,” James told her as she shifted beside him. “Until then, come along, lass.”
Iain inclined his head in acceptance.
James led his youngest out of the garden toward the stables.
Iain traded a frown with Kenneth and sat back down. “Certainly no’ that one.”
“How can ye ken? Ye just met her two minutes ago.”
“Ye saw her. She’s barely out of…whatever lassie bairns wear. And that giggle.”
“I found her charming.”
“How? Ye just met her.”
“Exactly. She’s had nay chance to dissuade me of my good opinion.”
Iain stood and shook his head at Kenneth’s grin. “And by that, ye mean the same of her eldest sister. Bollocks.” He planted his hands on his hips. “I’m going to find the middle daughter, Anne. ’Tis past time I met her. Once that’s done, I’ll have accomplished the task her father set me. Then I can figure out how to convince him to my way of thinking.”
“Go on with ye, then,” Kenneth told him and waved his hand, palm down, in a shooing gesture. “Since I’m no’ in the market for a bride, I’ll stay here and finish my ale. Good luck completing yer quest.”
Iain shook his head again and left him. Kenneth’s chuckles followed him across the garden and out the gate.
Outside, he stopped the first woman he came across. “I’m looking for Lady Anne. Do ye ken where she might be?”
“Nay, sorry, milord.” She looked him up and down, then tilted her head and met his gaze through lowered lashes. “Is there aught I can help ye with?”
Iain couldn’t miss her suggestive smile, or the way she leaned her upper body toward him, giving him a view of her ample cleavage. She was a comely enough lass. In the past, he might have taken her up on her offer and had her on her back with two or three well-chosen words. But she held no appeal, and that worried him. What had happened to him since arriving at Clan Rose? He’d never been so besotted with a lass, and certainly not so quickly. Aroused by them, aye, but never fascinated to the point of having no interest in the next lass, and the next. He shook his head and left her without another word, making his way toward the tannery. Near the entrance, he encountered a young serving girl and asked her the same question.
“Nay, milord,” she answered. “No’ since she got back from riding with ye this morning.”
Iain frowned. Surely he had misheard. “With me?”
“Aye. I saw ye both ride in, and again at the kitchen door. Annie gave some birds to Cook and went on her way. I have no’ seen her since.”
“Ye mean Lady Mary…”
“Aye, Lady Annie,” the lass replied, emphasizing the title.
The lass thought he’d chastised her for being overly familiar. But she definitely meant the lass with him, and insisted she was Anne. So his Mary thought to play with him? Iain thanked the lass and turned around, surveying the busy bailey. Several lads were training with wooden swords near the alehouse. A little past them, smoke rose from the blacksmith’s shed. Further along the way, the stable door stood open. People moved to and fro across his line of vision, but none of them were Mary. Or rather, Anne.
She thought to escape his notice by impersonating her sister? She had to know by supper, with her father making introductions at the table, her ruse would fail. So what had been her purpose? He fisted his hands as the reason came to him. Of course, to get him off guard and learn what she could about her prospective husband and laird. His offer to accompany her on her ride must have seemed like a gift from Providence. He did not like being lied to, but he could understand why she’d done it. In addition to her beauty, kindness, and skill with a bow, the lass was more clever than he’d given her credit for. He’d even the score with her later. His way.
In the meantime, he wondered about the real Mary and stopped another person to ask about her.
“Ach, the lass has gone to Inverness and won’t be back for a few more days,” the woman told him.
That nailed it. His Mary was really Anne, the middle daughter. According to her father’s wishes, she could be married. To him. His lips twitched into a brief smile of grim satisfaction. If he must marry, at least he’d found a lass very much to his liking. Now to make it happen.
You’ve Been Reading HIS HIGHLAND ROSE
Title: His Highland Rose
Series: His Highland Heart #.5
“What happens when three sisters gang up on their father to get what they want?”
Iain Brodie is a fierce warrior and passionate lover, but to prove he’s responsible enough to follow his ailing father as the clan’s chief, he must give up the lasses and find a bride—quickly. He doesn’t expect to fall for any of the Rose chief’s three daughters, but he can’t get one out of his mind—or heart—even when he discovers she is not who she claims to be.
Skilled rider and archer Annie Rose values her freedom. She doesn’t want to be anyone’s bride, not even deliciously and annoyingly sexy Iain Brodie’s. But her father wants an alliance with Iain’s clan and he’s chosen her to forge it. Unaware she could be sealing the fate she desperately wants to avoid, Annie falls under Iain’s seductive spell at the spring known in old tales as the fairy pool.
But when her father suddenly decides against their match, Annie discovers the love she never expected to find—with Iain. To win her, Iain must risk losing everything he values—the clan he was born to lead and even Annie, the woman he sees for who she truly is—his only love.
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