Seducing the Highlander – Michele Sinclair

He was definitely caught. And unfortunately not in just any trap. This fiendish one held no escape. That he had not seen the blatant plot as it gradually ensnared him was humiliating enough, but that he was a McTiernay caught by a Schellden was a derision he would suffer for several years—if not decades. Craig’s heated blue gaze darted to the curvaceous figure across from him. Far from apologetic, two large hazel eyes glared at him, finding no joy in the situation. Instead, the dark green depths flickered with accusations as the melted gold specks shimmered with fury. And who could blame her? Meriel correctly believed herself to be just as caught as he. Looking at her loosely clasped hands and slightly arched eyebrow, she appeared to be in a moderately composed state. Most of the crowd surrounding them no doubt believed Meriel indifferent to their situation, for Laird Schellden’s daughter had always been a difficult person to read. People’s attention usually focused on her twin sister—who never left a question in anyone’s mind as to her emotional state. It was one of myriad characteristics that proved that while both women looked alike, in personality they certainly were not. Meriel exhibited a limited number of emotions, but that did not mean those were the only ones she felt. She was a master at hiding her thoughts behind a facade of naïveté born from genuine sweetness and reserve, but Craig McTiernay knew exactly what angry thoughts his best friend was thinking. In her mind, he was the dolt behind their current predicament.

Meriel had warned him to be careful less than two days ago. She had suspected her sister would use the chaos in the household, preparing for the feast and taking care of visiting neighbors, to make one last attempt. For while most of the Schellden clan had given up trying to prove that the feelings he and Meriel had for one another went far beyond that of friendship, a select few—namely his twin brother’s new wife—had not. Craig should have been more guarded, but never had he dreamed that two of his sisters-in-law would join forces and resort to such subterfuge to support their false beliefs! Needing to look his accusers in the eye, Craig turned his head slightly to the left and glared at the two regal women standing at the head table near the Great Hall’s large hearth. His newest sister-inlaw, Raelynd, was practically beaming with satisfaction. At least his brother Crevan, who was standing next to her, had the decency to look at least somewhat apologetic about his wife’s obvious handiwork. Laurel’s expression, on the other hand, was more reserved, but he knew she too was involved. Only she possessed the extraordinary level of finesse that had been required to ensnare him and Meriel so publicly. For years, the sword dance was an event commonly held at celebrations, but the simple dance had grown into something of a unique rivalry between the Schellden and McTiernay clans. Craig remembered the night the fun pastime had evolved into a game of endurance.

The music had started and several of both clans’ finest soldiers pounded the floor to the quick beat of the music, deftly hopping among the quarters made by crossing two broadswords. By the end of the lively song, only one McTiernay and one Schellden remained, and both had refused to stop. After that night, the sword dance continued until someone was proclaimed the champion. That was until Craig’s eldest brother, Conor, married Laurel. One year, Laurel decided to join the men, having failed to understand that the ritual was for men and only men. Conor, still not quite savvy to Laurel’s ability to twist almost any situation to her design, tried to explain that women were not physically able to compete. That night the McTiernay men learned many things: McTiernay women were not nearly as sweet and fragile as they looked, and underestimating Laurel could be perilous to a man’s pride. Laurel had quickly challenged the men participating in the dance, stating that Highland women played the game of endurance every day by cooking, cleaning, and raising their young. And then she proved it, forcing the tradition to evolve again. Now the battle was between men and women, to prove which group had more stamina; a custom that had made its way to the Schellden clan last year, when Raelynd and Meriel spent several weeks visiting the McTiernay home.

A fact Craig deeply regretted forgetting tonight when he had entered the Schellden Great Hall after successfully winning a game of horseshoes. Seeing the broadswords had been laid out, he had eagerly joined the growing number of people participating. Having felt the humiliation created by Laurel’s first and surprisingly successful attempt at the dance, Craig had vowed never to be outlasted by a woman again. And he hadn’t. When the song ended, he was always among the few men who were still on their feet. Tonight, however, the goal had changed significantly, unbeknownst to him. “Just do it already,” Meriel hissed, recapturing his attention. She had somehow moved to stand right in front of him. She was far from short, but she still had to crane her neck to look at him when standing this close. “And make it really good so that when it doesn’t work, all questions about us will be silenced, not for tonight, but forever.

” Craig’s eyes widened at the notion, for he had originally planned to give her only a quick brotherly peck. But Meriel’s idea was a rather brilliant one. And what could it hurt? It was not as if they really did like each other and feared the emotional sparks a genuine kiss might cause. They were just friends! Aye, he had thought about kissing her over the past year. Slim and delicate-looking, Meriel was a beautiful woman. But he had always known that the moment their relationship became anything more, the things he cherished the most—her friendship and honesty, qualities that made her so important to him—would be in jeopardy. Besides, desire was not prompting their current situation. So maybe he wasn’t caught in a trap. Perhaps he and Meriel had been handed an opportunity to finally lay persistent rumors to rest. Not to mention that he had heard from more than one source that Meriel, while not free with her body, was an excellent kisser.

As her best friend, was it not time he found out? Meriel felt her jaw drop when she heard her sister, Raelynd, announce that the last woman and man standing would be rewarded with a kiss—from each other. Now that she was married, Raelynd had a penchant for seeing love everywhere. And tonight, their father, who had cosseted them as children, had indulged another of her sister’s whims. Meriel knew she should have deserted the dance right then, but she had still believed Craig to be in the courtyard playing horseshoes. Moreover, it had been some time since she had been kissed, and the idea of possibly meeting someone new to pass the time with was more than a little appealing. Then she saw both women and men dropping out, feigning exhaustion, at an alarming rate. The reason why dawned on her just as the second-to-last woman ended her supposed attempt. Meriel immediately halted but it was too late. She was already the last woman standing. Her eyes scanned the few men still competing and spotted Craig near the back, grinning his irresistible smile at the crowd—completely clueless.

Mentally she implored him to look her way so that she could give him a signal to stop and prevent her sister’s attempt at matchmaking. But to no avail. Nearly everyone else in the room was staring in her direction, but Craig? No. He was too busy applauding himself for his stamina. Only when the song ended and people clapped him on his back with congratulations, explaining once again the nature of the award, did his expression reflect one of true understanding. Meriel watched as Craig briefly studied her and then shifted his gaze to the real culprit—her sister. However, Meriel suspected that Laurel might also have been involved. Raelynd was more than capable of coming up with an idea such as this, but its execution? That needed a more experienced hand. Someone who could imperceptibly move throughout tonight’s crowd, influencing people without Meriel or Craig becoming wise that something was being planned. And only one person present had those skills—Lady Laurel McTiernay.

Meriel inwardly grimaced. Her sister and Laurel had finally succeeded, and now she was stuck, forced to do the one thing she had promised herself to never do—kiss her best friend. Oh, she could refuse, but if she did, in her sister’s and most of the clans’ minds such a reaction would only prove that Craig and she did feel something for each other and much more than they claimed. It would not be just difficult, but near impossible to change their minds. No, they were destined to kiss this evening, but fate in the form of her meddlesome sister had not dictated what kind. Would the crowd see a sweet, brief touch upon the lips? Or something that would shock them all? Having decided a few years ago that while for many reasons marriage was not something she was interested in, Meriel was not about to periodically forsake the pleasant diversions men offered. She knew Craig to be of similar opinion about marriage, but being tall, dark haired, with bright blue eyes that sparkled with enormous charm, she also suspected that the rumors of his activities with the ladies were based more on fact than fiction. It was therefore not an unnatural leap to assume he was a good kisser. Had she not entered tonight’s competition with a certain goal? As the winner, she was entitled to a kiss. Fortunately for her, Craig understood her cryptic message that she wanted more than just the expected peck on the lips and he seemed to agree.

She had only wanted some passion, something to remind her that she was a woman and an attractive one. However, the moment Craig’s fingers buried themselves in the softness of her hair, Meriel knew that no number of encounters she had had with other men had prepared her for what was about to happen. True to her request that he embrace her in a way that would end all rumors, Craig pulled her close and then twirled her in his arms so that she was practically lying in his hands, depending solely on his strength to keep her from falling. Determined to be just as dramatic in her pursuit to end speculation about them, Meriel let her arms steal around his neck and returned the embrace with a surge of fictitious enthusiasm. His tongue slowly began to trace her lips and instinctively she opened her mouth to welcome him in, glad to realize she had been right—Craig was a good kisser. A very good one. He invaded the sweet, vulnerable warmth behind her lips with an intimate aggression that seared her senses. Her fingers clenched his shoulders, and then one of them groaned. While Meriel would have sworn it was Craig, her body was starting to respond as if it had a mind of its own. She felt as if she were hot, melting clay in his hands as they massaged her spine while his mouth drank heavily from her lips.

And then, just as suddenly as the sensual onslaught began, it changed. Craig’s voracious mouth became tender, inquisitive, almost reverent. One hand moved to cup her cheek as he kissed her, long and soft and deep. The gentle embrace, if possible, was even more consuming and passionate, as his teeth lightly bit at her bottom lip before capturing her tongue and drawing it into his own mouth. It wrenched her soul. Meriel could only clutch at him, overwhelmed and aroused and unable to understand what was happening. This was Craig. Her friend—her best friend, but he was kissing her with a low, inviting passion that took her breath away. It was getting harder and harder to remember that the sparks igniting between them were part of an act to end the baseless suspicion people had of their mutual attraction. She reminded herself that she had received many kisses, but in most of those circumstances she had been the aggressor.

It had become natural, as the men too often became timid the moment they realized they were alone with Laird Schellden’s daughter. But this was different. Craig was dictating the speed and intensity of their kiss and all she could do, all she wanted to do, was get closer to him and follow his lead. Returning his bold strokes inside her mouth, Meriel knew she should signal him to end the embrace, but she could not muster the will to stop the passionate assault upon her senses. At least not yet. Until now, she had not known what had been missing from those kisses with other men. But this, being with Craig, touching him, kissing him—for the first time it felt right. The hot, tantalizing kiss suffused her body with an aching need for more. With a soft, low groan, Craig increased the urgency, and their embrace evolved again, becoming darker, more demanding, and far more blatantly erotic. No longer could she pretend she was enjoying a pleasurable activity with a friend.

Meriel was sharing a piece of herself with him, as he was with her, proved by the mutual ripple of need running through them. Suddenly she was back on her feet and the cool air on her lips shocked her into remembering that they were not alone, but in the midst of a crowd. A crowd buzzing with half whispers. “Now all in this room must agree that the kiss you just witnessed would ignite some spark of passion—if there was one,” Craig’s voice boomed, capturing everyone’s attention. He stretched his arms out wide and grinned infectiously, winning over the stunned mass. Then, with a pompous show of male superiority, he threw one arm over her shoulders and pulled Meriel firmly against his side into a hug. “And that, good women and lads, should end all doubt about what Meriel and I are to each other. We are friends and nothing more.” Feeling physically trapped, Meriel elbowed his side and gave him a forceful, angry shove. Craig immediately let her go and playfully doubled over in an exaggerated bow.

The throng of people surrounding them laughed and immediately began to dissipate, returning to whatever they had been doing before the sword dance had been called. Only then did Meriel realize Craig’s overbearing actions had been purposely done to evoke such a violent response from her. She was the one who made his speech believable. A woman in love typically did not assault the man who had just kissed her with incredible tenderness and passion. Unable to keep her eyes from following him, Meriel watched as Craig casually sauntered away from her, laughing and romping across the floor with his fellow soldiers as they headed toward the hall’s exit. Meriel should have been filled with relief. Didn’t her aggressive reaction after his hug prove that she was not in love with Craig? Didn’t his? “I must admit to being surprised. I really thought you two cared for each other.” Meriel glanced back briefly as her sister walked up to her side before returning her gaze to Craig. “We do care for each other.

” “You know how I mean. The first time Crevan kissed me like that I wanted to tear his clothes off, and I can assure you the feeling was mutual.” Raelynd waved her hand at Craig’s departing figure. “That man is not acting like someone who just experienced what looked to be an incredibly sensual kiss. But then, neither are you,” she finished, looking both perplexed and disappointed. Meriel swallowed at the implication. Fact was, she was not acting like it, but inwardly her senses were reeling. Outwardly she forced herself to appear calm, and yet she felt as if she had been ravaged, and worse—she craved more. Maybe Craig was also hiding his reaction to what happened. His overly jocular departure was atypically dramatic, even for him.

The more Meriel thought about it the more she was convinced. Craig McTiernay was definitely covering up some kind of emotional response to what had occurred between them. But what? Then again, what was hers? Meriel bit the inside of her cheek and made a decision. Until she was able to comprehend her own feelings about the kiss, she was not going to tackle the onerous work of interpreting Craig’s. Usually the man paraded his emotions for all to see and hear. The rare times he kept them private were when they were raw, undefined, and extremely personal. During those singular times, to keep people from detecting his true thoughts, Craig tended to become excessively cheerful, just like he had become tonight. Raelynd grasped her arm and swung her around. “Come. Tomorrow you can admonish me severely, but tonight we are celebrating Marymass, and soon Father will be offering the first bread.

” Meriel let her sister guide her around to head back to the main table. “It doesn’t look like Papa is very happy.” Raelynd leaned over and whispered teasingly, “I think he was considering ways to kill Craig right before he finally let you go. But the way you and he were so indifferent afterward, it helped calm him some. Don’t worry. Just think on nothing else but this year’s harvest and all the good things that are to follow.” Meriel followed Raelynd, glad her sister took the route that avoided their father. As she sat down, she decided that Raelynd was right. Tonight she should enjoy the upcoming activities to honor the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Tomorrow, however, she would give earnest thought to what just did happen between her and Craig—if anything.

“Don’t deny it. You were part of that display of lust we just witnessed,” Conor McTiernay growled at his wife as he pointed at Meriel and his younger brother, who was quickly exiting the hall. Laurel licked her lips, refusing to look into her husband’s accusing silver eyes. “Perhaps . marginally.” Conor narrowed his mercurial gaze. His wife was doing it again. Purposefully flicking her pale gold hair behind her shoulder to catch his eye. Moistening her lips with her tongue. Taking a deep breath so that her chest swelled, giving him a delicious view—all in an effort to distract him from knowing her true focus.

And, like always, it was working. As the eldest McTiernay and chieftain of their clan, Conor had spent years studying the behavior of his people in an effort to become a better leader. He prided himself on being able to predict most of his people’s needs, anticipate their reactions to certain events, and prevent problems before they arose. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not transfer such knowledge and power to better his understanding of his own wife. He was just glad that he was starting to be able to tell when she was in the middle of a plan, and carefully extricate himself from it. He let himself enjoy the sights for a few more seconds before pushing for more information—an absolute requirement to knowing just how to avoid getting caught in whatever trap she was weaving. “And did you get the outcome you were looking for?” Laurel was not sure how to answer as she studied the scene. Craig was cleverly making his escape while Meriel was talking to her sister instead of actually paying attention to Raelynd. When Raelynd had revealed her plan to have the two winners of the sword dance kiss, Laurel was quick to realize that the idea, while ingenious, was highly improbable. Aye, Craig and Meriel were highly competitive and could honestly win without assistance, but not if they suspected a setup.

And despite Laurel’s quick intervention to persuade participating men and women to voluntarily lose, the plan had almost failed. Meriel had shrewdly grasped the situation and almost quit before the last woman could drop out. But the plan had worked, and Craig and Meriel had definitely kissed. And yet, Laurel could not discern if it had changed anything in their attitudes toward each other. The fact that the two of them were in love was not in question. Most were not sure, but Laurel had no doubts. She just was not positive whether or not a kiss, even the very long and passionate one all had witnessed tonight, would prompt two of the most stubborn people in Scotland to admit it. Not only to their families and clansmen . but to themselves. “You should feel ashamed, forcing them to prove their friendship in such a way,” Conor admonished halfheartedly.

“Why? Either way, it served their purpose. If there was more between them, then they would have been thankful for the act of kindness. If not, then Raelynd and I gave them the opportunity to end all rumors otherwise.” “I give up.” Conor sighed, grabbing a mug of ale and downing it. “Just make sure that your efforts to find and foster a love match for my brother do not affect me.” “They shouldn’t,” Laurel asserted and then added under her breath, “but no promises.” The kiss Craig and Meriel shared had practically heated up the room, confirming what Laurel already knew. Raelynd had believed her sister might be falling for Craig but was too afraid to admit her feelings. But Raelynd had been wrong.

Meriel and Craig had fallen in love long before, almost the moment they first met. Unfortunately, both of them were so savvy to the arts of recognizing love and how to avoid it, they had instinctively improvised a way to do so with each other: just pretend they felt otherwise. Deny to everyone—especially themselves—the truth. And for the last year, Laurel had not interfered, believing their feelings would either die or force them to take action. And yet a year later, nothing had changed. Laurel abhorred the idea of arranged marriages or forcing two people together, but what could it hurt to help Raelynd execute her plan? And yet, Conor’s question troubled her. Had she secured the outcome she was looking for? With any normal couple, a kiss like that would have resulted in an immediate wedding. But getting a stubborn Schellden and an obstinate McTiernay to admit their feelings for each other? That took something more. It had happened once before between Meriel’s and Craig’s siblings, Raelynd and Crevan, but both Craig and Meriel were unbelievably strong willed and stubborn. And for some reason they each felt incredibly resolute about keeping their friendship only a friendship.

If what transpired tonight did not convince either of them otherwise, Laurel was not sure any outside influence could. It would take far more than patience to change their minds. It would take a miracle.

.

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