Caireoch Castle, 1316
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
caught by a
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,
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
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-in-law, 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
a good kisser. A
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
. Her friend—her
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
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
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
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
and nothing more.”