Never Kiss a Highlander – Michele Sinclair

“Woman, did you not hear that?” Conor groaned as his wife ignored the muffled thump of the tower door closing. Laurel ignored the question and continued to let her fingers explore the dark hairs of her husband’s upper chest. She nibbled on his ear, ignoring the distinct sound of sluggish footsteps coming up the stairwell. Conor curled his fingers around her upper arms to push her away, but his body refused to comply any further. Forcing Laurel to stop her sensual assault was not an option—it was an impossibility. After nearly ten years of marriage, he still found her to be the most beguiling creature he had ever come across and remained just as incapable of resisting her charms as he had on the day they met. Laurel pressed her lips against the warmth of his cheek and then slowly leaned back. She tossed a lock of her pale gold hair over her shoulder and feigned an evil glare. “My hearing is just fine,” she whispered softly as she ran her slim finger along the line of his jaw, “and trust me when I say that if you call me ‘woman’ one more time, yours won’t be.” Conor cocked a dark eyebrow and grinned at her. “Meaning what?” he challenged for provoking Laurel never got old . if anything, her unpredictable reactions over the years had made their relationship only more enjoyable. Laurel’s storm-colored eyes sparkled as they peered momentarily into his misty gray ones.

Putting her cheek against his, she purred, “I mean that I’ll be forced to bring you back to your senses, my love, and the ringing in your ears afterward might affect your hearing for a while.” Then she tilted her head and recommenced her sensual assault, trailing promise-filled kisses along his jawline. Biting back another moan, Conor clinched his fists in her hair, fighting his inclination to ignore the approaching footsteps and resume his own seductive caresses. Her pale skin beckoned to be touched and he was tempted to send an angry shout-out for whoever it was to go away. The odd command would secure his immediate wish to be alone with his wife. Unfortunately, based on previous experience, it would also instigate relentless gossip. By sunset, every clansman within miles would know of his and Laurel’s latest place to rendezvous. And a secret spot that is permeated with giggles and obvious avoidance tended to spoil the fun. “Laird?” The deep voice echoed in the stairwell. Whoever it was had paused just as Laurel nipped his neck causing Conor to groan loudly with need. The interloper cleared his throat and called out, “Laird? Are you well?” “Mo chreach!” Conor muttered under his breath, suddenly recognizing the voice. “Aye! I’m coming down!” he shouted, hoping to buy some time to pull himself away from Laurel’s ministrations and gather a semblance of self-control. “No need, Laird, I’m almost there.” The unwelcome reply held an undisguised hint of a chuckle. “Damn it, Laurel!” Conor hissed. “It’s Hamish and you don’t have any clothes on!” Laurel shrugged her shoulders and lightly dragged her fingers up his bare thigh. “You’ve lost most of yours as well,” she whispered before slipping off his lap to search for her shift and bliaut, which were buried somewhere amidst all the piles of material.

Wearing only his leine, Conor was about to rise and quickly don his kilt when Laurel stood in front of him and pointed to his seat. He glanced down and realized he was sitting on the very garments she was looking for. He knew he should rise and give them to her, but he could only stare at his wife. She was everything a man could desire in a woman and every time he saw her stripped of all clothing that attempted to hide her beauty, it took his breath away. Tall and delicate-looking with ivory skin and long wavy pale gold hair, she looked like an angel. Feeling himself growing hard once again, Conor decided to order Hamish to leave—immediately. To hell with the gossip. He and Laurel would just have to find another secret place to meet. Unfortunately, he made the decision a second too late. The door cracked open and Laurel immediately dove behind several barrels that were piled high with materials, blankets and other clothing supplies. * * * Hamish paused outside the entrance for several seconds before rattling the door in hopes that he had given his laird and lady enough time to prepare themselves for his entrance. He had come up the stairs at a painfully slow pace while intentionally making enough noise so that regardless of what state they were in, they should have been ready to receive him. Any other day, Hamish would have turned around and left upon hearing the muffled sounds as he had started his ascent up the stairwell. It had been impossible to understand anything Conor was saying, but his laird’s tone had been both heated and laced with passion. The combination was a clear indication that he was not alone.

Laurel was with him. No two people fought or loved each other as much as Conor and his wife Laurel—although Hamish had to admit some of Conor’s younger brothers came close with their own wives. Though deeply in love, Laird and Lady McTiernay were both stubborn and headstrong. Each refused to let their strong emotions for the other make them ever appear submissive. And Hamish knew the depth of their love better than most, for he had witnessed their relationship since the beginning. He had seen it spark and how that ember had only grown into a constant fire, which burned between them. It was a relationship not to be envied but emulated. And while Hamish had for many years longed to find someone with whom he could share a deep connection and commitment, the debacle of his last attempt left his heart incapable of such emotion. He felt nothing. And the numbness that had consumed him for the past several months was not going away anytime soon. Not a single one of the multiple beauties the McTiernay wives had pushed into his path during the recent festivities leading up to Epiphany had created even a spark of a physical, emotional, or mental reaction. Hamish knew deep down he was no longer capable of love. And strangely, he accepted it. For others, especially McTiernays, love was a wondrous thing to be sought and coveted. For him, the emotion equaled misery.

A fact he should have accepted years ago with the betrayal of his first love. It had left him with only one honorable choice—to leave his home and all his birthrights, never to return. Now the very man who had stolen her heart was insisting he return. It was not the first time his younger brother had made such a request, but Hamish vowed it would be the last. His heart neither sought nor wanted revenge. But after twelve years, it was time for his brother to leave what happened in the past and move on like he had. Unfortunately, it had become obvious that could not be accomplished until all involved parties once again came face-to-face with one another. Hamish would have preferred to delay the meeting until summer, for he had no desire to travel to the northern edge of Scotland in January, the coldest and wettest time of year. But the nature of his brother’s request made such a delay impossible. Robert might be willing to risk innocent lives, but Hamish was not. He had not thought ever to see the men and women of his clan again, but he had still considered himself to be a MacBrieve. Clan loyalty required his return to help—this one time. However, once he was ensured of their safety, it would be up to the clansmen and women to require their leader and clan chief—his brother—to act on their behalf. Hamish would have fulfilled any obligation to them. Hamish started to push the handle of the door and heard Laurel’s teasing voice followed by some scuffling.

He closed his eyes and momentarily wondered if he would ever again crave a woman’s touch. Months ago, after years of narrowly missing his chance at finding love, Hamish thought he had finally found love with not only a stunning woman, but someone who also felt the same in return. Instead, he discovered he had almost pledged himself to a female whose internal depravity matched that of her external beauty. Since then, he had not sought nor returned the attentions of the fairer sex. His energies, once split between his duties and finding a wife and settling down, now were solely focused on his responsibilities as one of the famed elite guards for one of the biggest, most powerful clans in Scotland. He trained with his fellow guards and then taught the newer recruits until exhaustion overtook him. It was not the life he always thought he would have, but it was a good one. And it gave his heart one thing it craved—peace. Hamish took a deep breath and opened the door. Thankfully, he saw only Conor, though somewhat disheveled, sitting on a backless cross-frame chair with various fabric items piled around him. One of the more fanciful ones was draped across his lap. It was an odd sight, seeing his laird sitting in the middle of the tower room where Lady McTiernay stored anything textile related. “Gabh mo leisgeul,” Hamish said, semi-apologizing for what he knew to be less-than-welcome entry. Conor looked up from pretending to examine the expensive gold material he was fingering. “Thig a-steach,” he answered, offering Hamish to come in farther.

“I was, uh, just trying to decide on what type of, uh, fabric I should surprise Laurel with this year.” Hamish considered Conor’s obvious lie and decided to play along, but only somewhat. Crossing his arms, he used his thumb to point at the material. “Isn’t it kind of early to plan a trip to Aberdeen, especially with everyone still recovering from this year’s feasts? Normally, preparing for the journey is something you do the week before you leave.” Hamish glanced toward the window and the gray skies before adding, “And, um, April will not be here for another three months.” Conor ran his tongue along the inside of his cheek and stared Hamish in the eye. “You are right. But perhaps it was Laurel’s idea—not mine—to prepare so early.” Conor smothered a smile as he felt the heat of his wife’s pointed stare. “Be glad you have no idea of just what it takes to keep a woman happy,” he added, waving a corner of gold fabric while keeping the majority of it on his lap. “Aye,” Hamish replied with a lopsided grin that was almost completely hidden by his overgrown beard. “And you won’t know as long as you continue to grow that thing on your chin. Laurel finds it repulsive and while I normally don’t even notice how a man chooses to present himself to the world, your beard forces even my eye to wince.” Hamish began to stroke the wiry red hairs and shrugged. As beards went, his was bushy and long, but it was its unkempt nature that made it a topic of conversation.

Hamish did not care. “My ability to attract a woman no longer holds any importance to me.” Conor grimaced. “Laurel was afraid of that. The woman complained for years about your flirting, and now she moans about the lack of it these past few months. She should understand that time and the company of a good woman are all that you need.” “I don’t think any amount of time can pick up the pieces of my heart after what happened. And the last thing I need or want is being forced to be in the company of a woman—good or otherwise.” Hamish knew his tone was clipped, but he hoped it would convey that he wanted no advice on the subject. “After your cold behavior during the celebrations, I doubt that is a problem. I’d be surprised if Laurel could find even one woman willing to be in your company,” Conor murmured. He acted as if he was about to let the matter drop, when suddenly Conor leaned forward, his gray eyes intense. “Hamish, your heart may be in pieces, but those pieces mean there is hope. When I thought I lost Laurel a few years ago, my heart not only shattered, but those pieces disappeared. That is when there is no hope.

” Hamish sighed. “I understand.” Conor shook his head and sat back up. Hamish might say he did not want a woman in his bed, but he did. “You do not, but I hope you do understand someday. For then you will truly know what it means to have a sonuachar.” Hamish pursed his lips. To know what it felt like to lose a soul mate would mean a woman would have had to return even a portion of his feelings. That had yet to happen. And since he suspected he was beyond the point of emotion, he doubted it ever would. “You must have had a reason to see me other than talk of your beard and its negative effect on women,” Conor posed. “Aye. Regrettably, I just received word that I must immediately head north. One of Robert’s men has paid me another visit with an urgent request to return home. Unfortunately, this time I cannot refuse.

” That got Conor’s attention and he studied the large Highlander before him. When Hamish had joined the McTiernays, he had been young, barely twenty, and eager to prove himself. He had been shedding one life and seeking the promise of a new one. Conor had offered him that chance. Now, after twelve years, Hamish was like another brother, even though no one would ever mistake him for a McTiernay. Conor and his brothers all had dark hair and either gray or blue eyes. Hamish’s features were far different. The thick, loose waves of his auburn hair hung to almost the middle of his back and his high cheekbones caused his face to look harsh and unrelenting in battle, but when relaxed and smiling, enormous dimples softened his features. Dark lashes highlighted the unusual shade of forest green of his eyes, which had the ability to grow dark and cold like the pit of night or brighten and shine with laughter. Though tall, Hamish lacked Conor’s significant height, but his girth outsized the McTiernay laird and all his brothers. And when it came to battle, Conor had a slight advantage of speed; however, Hamish was made of granite. He knew how to wield a weapon with deadly accuracy and enormous power. His skill with bladed weapons—whether it be claymore, dirk, or halberd—was one of the reasons Conor had asked Hamish to be part of his elite guard not long after he had joined them. Finn, the McTiernay commander, had initially been cautious, as Hamish refused to assume the name McTiernay, but Conor never had any doubt. The man was not just loyal, he was also incredibly smart.

Which was why Conor suspected Hamish knew exactly why he was sitting in the middle of a bunch of fabrics. Tossing the flimsy fabric aside and revealing his state of undress, Conor leaned forward and rested his elbows on his bare knees. “So your brother Robert has contacted you again. How many times does this make it? Three . four?” “Five,” Hamish corrected. “If you include when he told me about our father’s death.” Hamish had hoped that refusing to return for their father’s funeral would be a strong enough hint for even Robert to understand. The past had been written and nothing was going to change that. But his younger brother had refused to recognize the unstated message and within a year had sent a second entreaty for Hamish to return home. That time Hamish did not reply. A couple of years later, the herald who relayed the third request was under orders to stay until Hamish gave an answer, to which Hamish obliged—he already had a home and was glad Robert had one as well. Again two years passed before his brother decided to try again. That time he had been foolish enough to send three of his best men in an attempt to bring Hamish home using force. All three returned wounded with injuries painful enough to make it clear to Robert that if he tried such a tactic again, his soldiers would most likely rebel. His brother could send a dozen men, but such ploys would not work.

Conor twitched his lips and inhaled. “He wants you to come at this time of year? It will be a bitter journey. You could always wait for him to send a sixth plea for your company.” Hamish quirked a brow. His brother did not seek his company, but absolution. “Unfortunately, that is not an option and I’ve come to realize it would only delay the inevitable. Robert refuses to let go of the past and will not let me be free of it either until we speak.” Sitting back up, Conor shrugged. “You say Robert is your opposite in personality. And though I have never met your younger brother, I know of one characteristic you share—stubbornness.” Hamish grinned. “I’d take offense if it were not coming from a man who practices that very trait daily and is married to a woman who reinvented what it means to be obstinate.” Hamish heard the soft click of someone’s jaw snapping shut behind the barrels. Before Laurel could say anything, Hamish quickly said, “I will be returning as soon as the situation and weather permit.” Conor looked pointedly at Hamish.

“What if Robert asks you to stay? To be his commander? You and I both know that you would be a good one and have earned the opportunity to assume such responsibility.” “I have little doubt that is exactly what my brother wants,” Hamish huffed, having been told by the herald the situation he was to address. “But Robert will soon learn that being his commander is not something I desire,” he added coldly, once again wishing he could just refuse Robert for the fifth time and continue with his life. The only positive thing about his brother’s latest request was its timing. After two weeks of holiday feasts and seeing the McTiernays so happy with their wives, Hamish needed a temporary change of scenery. “You know I consider you to be a brother,” said Conor. Hamish studied the man whom he called laird but felt so much more for. “I think the same of you, Laird.” “Does the situation require any men? Perhaps you should take some with you.” Hamish exhaled and shook his head. “It’s not a McTiernay problem. If blood is to be shed, it will belong to the MacBrieves, for it was their laird who created the situation.” Conor nodded in understanding, although he was not inclined to agree. If Hamish had a problem, then it was a McTiernay problem. “My brothers and I consider you family.

Most of the men and women of this clan consider you to be one of them. You could be a McTiernay to others as well. You just need to accept the offer.” Hamish raised a brow at the veiled implication. “You do not need me to accept your name to know where my loyalty lies. However, in my father’s eyes, it would mean that I had disavowed him and my birth clan. He may be dead, but I will not dishonor him that way. I may not choose to live with the clan I was born into, but I have no wish to publically disclaim them.” Conor shook his head. “Then you are right not to take the name McTiernay, but not for the reason you just gave,” he said in a low voice that while soft, relayed the intensity he was feeling. “Claiming a clan should not be about your father, or even your birth. It shouldn’t be about anyone but yourself, for no one else is swearing that fealty. In this, I’m sure, your father would not just understand but also agree. But know, the day you change your mind, the offer is there.” Hamish swallowed as emotion threatened to overtake him.

He gave Conor a quick nod, appreciative of the man he both respected and loved. “I need to be going before the weather turns foul.” After another quick nod, he turned and headed toward the door. Just as he passed the fabricladen barrels, he added, “And before Laurel chases me out so that she can have you all to herself again.” “You knew I was here?” Laurel yelped. Hamish grabbed the door and opened it. With a shrug, he grinned at Conor and replied, “What other reason would the laird have for sitting half naked in a room full of nothing but cloth?” As Hamish closed the door, he heard a soft thump of something hitting the other side and Laurel shouting out, “Shave your beard!”


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Updated: 16 February 2021 — 13:12

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