Seven McTiernay brothers, each a highlander born to protect Scotland and her people, warriors known for their quick wits and quicker broadswords. The third brother, Cole, stared death in the face when he was only a boy. . .
Now Cole McTeirnay is a man. And though he resists them in every way, he has responsibilities. The wild northern Highlands need a laird who can guide them to peace. Cole has the army strong enough to accomplish this task. What he doesn't have is the desireto be a leader among men. . .
And so he is sent off on a fool's errand: a mission to retrieve something from the very Englishmen Cole has spent his life hating. When he finds that the ‘something' is a wild hellion, he balks, determined to make the return to Scotland as hard on her as it was for him to set foot on English soil. But though English herself, Ellenor intrigues him with her fierce spirit, and Cole's heart, deeply locked away for so long, may be vulnerable at last. . .
Praise for Michele Sinclair
"Sinclair. . .carries readers into the hearts and minds of her hero and heroine." Romantic Times on To Wed a Highlander
"Sensual and humorous, a winning combination that everyone can enjoy." Hannah Howell, New York Times bestselling author on The Highlander's Bride
About the Author
An award-winning romance writer, Michele Sinclair's books carry readers to the historical highlands of Scotland where romance dwells in strong, vibrant, even at times humorous characters. A working mom during the week and a soccer/tennis mom on the weekend, when Michele isn’t having fun with her two children, she plies her creativity with salty snacks and Dr. Pepper® plus occasional paw input from their lively, affectionate, yet fearless five pound Maltese. Read more at www.michelesinclair.com.
Read an Excerpt
Fàire Creachann Keep, off Loch Shieldaig, 1311
Cole McTiernay leaned back in the worn chair and outstretched his long legs, crossing them at the ankles. He stared out one of the few windows in the keep that had not been broken by years of wear and neglect. Clouds had begun to thicken around the Highland mountains of Torridon, and with each minute that passed, their humid masses sank just a little lower down the rugged primeval slopes. It had yet to start raining, but drops would begin to fall any moment. The unusually cold and damp spring weather had done little to help the moods of those in the room — including his own.
As choices go, it should have been a simple one and Cole was baffled why it wasn't. Newly formed clans needed chieftains and chieftains needed an army, financial means, and the ability to make difficult decisions. All of which he possessed and Lonnagan did not. Those differences alone should have dictated who would be laird.
But not for these stubborn people.
When he had been approached to lead the nomadic clans of the northern Highlands, he had halfheartedly agreed. His men and their families desired a home and he, too, was restless and needed a change. Then word had come that another was being considered. And after ten days of endless discussions, Cole was no longer confident he was going to be the one selected. Even more surprising, he wasn't sure whether he would be disappointed or relieved.
Heavy footsteps came up from behind. Controlled and methodical, they could only belong to one man — his older brother. Cole craned his head, gave a slight nod in acknowledgment, and then returned his gaze out the window to the lapping waters of the sea. "Made a decision?"
"No," Conor grunted, not even trying to hide his frustration, "and you know why."
Cole sighed and bobbed his head slightly. "I'm leaving in the morning."
"None too soon. You and Dugan haven't been making things easier."
"He's easily provoked," Cole replied with a slight shrug.
Conor wanted to throttle his younger brother. The man had perfected the persona of one who was detached and unconcerned about the plights of others, but it wasn't true. One only had to look into his eyes to see the sorrow Cole carried. An ache brought about from profound sadness. But Cole never would allow anyone to look long enough, deep enough, to see anything but indifference. Until he learned how to drop his guard, share his thoughts, and allow someone to grow close to him, his pain would never heal.
Cole McTiernay was the third of seven brothers, and all could be exasperatingly stubborn when they wanted to be, but Cole was famous for his obstinacy, especially when it came to his hatred of all things English. Over the years, Conor and his brothers had tried to get him to open up. But each time they pushed, Cole would emotionally retract, burying himself behind some distant, impenetrable wall. Eventually, he and his brothers had stopped trying.
Conor often wondered if that had been a mistake. Did they give up too soon? Or had they been wise to back off in fear of pushing their brother away altogether? Cole was an incredible soldier, a superb strategist, and a worthy leader, but as a man, he was hollow inside. He lacked something ... something that made one want to face a new day. Conor had hoped this opportunity would give Cole the drive missing from his life, but after the heated discussions that had taken place the past couple of days, his brother acted as if he cared even less about the possibility of becoming laird than he had before.
"It's been a lousy week," Conor mumbled, looking for another chair.
"It's been a lousy two weeks," Cole corrected. "You were lucky and missed the first half."
"So mocking Dugan, trying to make him look like a fool, was your way to perk things up?"
"Dugan is a fool. I just exposed it for all to see."
All seven McTiernays had a dry sense of humor, but Cole was a master at sarcasm. He could deliver clever yet slicing remarks with such a straight face, it was hard to tell if he was serious or just amusing himself. In today's case, it mattered little, for the damage had been done. "Dugan's not the fool you make him out to be."
Cole shrugged. "If he wasn't, then it shouldn't have been so easy to make him sound like one."
"He's a good man. And while I agree he might not be the most tactical of soldiers ..."
Cole stiffened. "Try heedless, foolhardy ..."
"But he could make a good leader," Conor tried again. "He understands and relates to people. An ability you have yet to attempt, let alone master. Why is that, I wonder?"
Cole's jaw clenched. For nearly a week, he had been tolerating Dugan's propensity to discuss ad nauseam the most nonsensical topics. And though Cole refused to admit it out loud, he didn't believe Dugan to be unintelligent. The man had proven himself a talented soldier — even capable of being heroic. And his friendly overtures to the clan would have been exceptionally brilliant, if they had been intentional. Dugan, however, didn't have a strategic bone in his body. His friendliness, easiness with others, and almost effortless ability to gain a person's trust had been natural and unplanned.
What truly bothered Cole was the man's incredible shortsightedness. Dugan just reacted to whatever was happening directly in front of him, never considering the consequences of his statements and ideas. And for the past couple of days, Cole had been exposing that weakness time and time again. So no, he wasn't threatened by Dugan; he was just confounded at everyone's inability to recognize the depth of the man's shortcomings. Who cared if he was nice? These people needed a leader ... not a friend.
Cole twiddled his thumbs. "Dugan staying?"
Conor shook his head. "Left already. Your last barbs about his ideas of where and what should serve as the residence for these clansmen left him with little choice."
"His ideas, as you put it, were ill-conceived just as most of his other plans, and everyone who heard them, with the exception of Dugan, knows it. You say he's a good man, and he may be, but if he becomes laird of this motley group, don't be surprised if you're back here in a year trying to figure out how to clean up his mess. And when that happens, don't bother asking me to pick up the pieces, for the answer will be no."
Cole stood up and glanced at the small group of lairds sitting around a broken-down table on the far side of the room. They had assembled here almost two weeks ago to determine what to do about the northern nomadic tribes. Leaderless from either disease or war, the various clansmen had banded together informally over the years just to stay alive. Their continual raids upon neighboring clans and stock had gone from annoying to invasive and then intolerable. This gathering was a last effort to achieve peace. Many Highlanders had died in recent years securing Scotland's freedom, and while no one relished more killing, if a new laird was not agreed upon soon, more deaths were inevitable.
"After this week, I doubt anyone would be clamoring your name if that happened. And while a few of us have similar doubts about Dugan's ability to run a clan, we have none whatsoever about his desire to be here and lead these people."
Cole grunted. Was that the crux of the difficulty in deciding who should be laird? Who wanted it more? And if that was it, Cole wasn't sure how to respond. He knew he should be concerned about the outcome of the discussions, but with each passing day, he had found himself caring a little less.
He never asked for the opportunity — what some called honor — to lead the lawless, prideful bunch, nor did he ever aspire to it. But Dugan had.
Just a year younger than Cole's twenty-seven years, Dugan Lonnagan had seen a fair number of battles and had won more than his share of fights. Unlike Cole, however, Dugan had no army, no means to support one, and no money to maintain one even if he did have it. Those reasons alone had led Cole to believe the question of who should be the next laird to be simple. Yet, the past two weeks had proved it was a much more complicated selection than Cole had anticipated it would be.
It was coming down to ability versus personality.
Dugan was tall — though Cole still dwarfed him — good looking with dark sandy brown hair, and possessed an easy nature that drew people to him as if he were honey and they were flies. Conversely, Cole lacked the patience and talent for simple conversation — especially with women and children. His reticent nature prompted him to communicate in a direct style that tended to keep people away, not beckon them to his side. In short, Dugan Lonnagan was everything that Cole was not.
So whom should they choose?
Dugan was beloved by many of the clansmen, but Cole would bring with him key alliances with neighboring clans. Then again, Cole's name and battle success could also bring enemies — namely the English, while Dugan was relatively unknown to the southern enemy. And yet, nearby adversaries would discount Dugan, but fear Cole and his army.
Complicating the decision further was the concept of influence. Several Highland lairds believed Dugan could be easily manipulated to do what they wanted. Unfortunately, clans led by weak men often became unwanted burdens to their neighbors. Conversely, Cole would listen to suggestions and ideas, but he would heed only his own counsel when making decisions and compromises. And anyone who'd had doubts as to just how hardheaded and stubborn Cole could be, had learned otherwise two weeks ago when he convinced everyone to convene at Fàire Creachann. Cole had announced then that if he were to be chosen as laird, the abandoned, crumbling fortress would serve as the new clan's home. A decision incredible to many — including Dugan.
An unintelligible grumble erupted from the far side of the room. Tempers were flaring again. Conor shifted his stance and was about to return to the group when he paused. Hesitating, his silver eyes met Cole's blue ones. At thirty-seven, Conor was just ten years senior to his younger brother, but in the past few years, Cole had grown to match him in height and breadth. That and his steady gaze reminded Conor that Cole was no longer a young man in need of counseling. He was an adult and had proved it many times. If Cole wanted to walk away from the opportunity in front of him, he could do just that. Conor only wanted him to do it for the right reasons.
"You have always been your own man, Cole. That's probably one of the reasons I think you would be so good for these people. You would not let them and their volatile opinions get in the way of a good decision. Dugan also has much to offer, but until either of you learn to accept and grow beyond your shortcomings, these people are doomed — regardless of who is selected."
Conor laid a hand on Cole's shoulder briefly and squeezed. "One last thing, I know you plan to go directly back to your men, but would you swing by and stay with Laurel at least for a few days and make sure she is all right? Schellden has just sent word that he wants to join the discussions and the others have agreed, so it will be at least another week maybe even two, before anything is settled. And I ... I need to know she's all right."
Cole nodded. "I'll let her know what's going on," he agreed, understanding his brother's concern. His wife was nearing the end of her second pregnancy, and while this one was advancing normally, unlike her previous route to motherhood, Conor was still worried.
"Thanks. I know word would be sent if I needed to return, but I would still feel better if you were there. Laurel has a way of fooling those around her, but she's never been quite as good at conning you into doing her bidding."
Cole fought from rolling his eyes. His brother's half-English, half Scottish wife could sweet-talk the devil into a confession. And though Cole tried to remain immune to her wiles, he had found himself on more than one occasion realizing he had been duped into some activity he had had no intention of doing. And while he didn't exactly mind, it was somehow unnerving to know a woman was able to get the best of him.
Cole nudged his mount forward to the edge of the outcropping and looked across the rambling hills to the valley below. The morning sun was still low in the sky and the cool nip in the air felt almost warm compared to the frosty mornings of the Highlands. The valley below was still shaded by the hills surrounding it. Nestled in its center was a rather large tower. Wooden cottages encircled the stone structure and dotted the landscape until their numbers thickened again at the valley's edge. There, peeking out from the surrounding woods, was a small, active abbey that appeared to be the heart of the village.
Donald observed the straight back of his commander and then followed Cole's gaze. The scene looked very ordinary, and very English. "That's supposed to be Durchent Hall?"
Cole nodded once. "Aye."
"Doesn't seem like they're expecting you."
"Don't know and don't care," came Cole's short reply, knowing Donald would not take offense. He had served under him for almost four years and was as close to a friend as Cole had.
Cole still had no idea how Laurel had tricked him into making this journey. He certainly hadn't willingly agreed. In fact, he definitely remembered saying no. Several times. And yet, here he was. And all to acquire something his sister-in-law treasured very much. Cole had told her to wait for Conor, but she threw a whole bunch of nonsense at him about how it couldn't wait and how she could trust no one else. That only someone who abhorred the English could be entrusted with what he was to bring back. That alone should have warned him to refuse and mean it, but fact was he needed something to do as he waited for a decision that would dictate the course of his future. Unfortunately, procuring the mysterious treasure required a short excursion into the one place he had always refused to tread. England.
He heard Jaime catch up to them. He had asked only two of his men to ride with him, knowing that both were good in battle, levelheaded, and most of all, understood him. And what they didn't understand, they didn't try to change.
Jaime halted his mount next to Donald's. "Commander," Jaime prompted, unable to see Cole's current grimace, "do you want to stop and rest the mounts before continuing?"
"No." Like most of Cole's answers, this one was short and left no room for discussion. Before sundown, he fully intended to be back on Scottish soil. He might be forced to ride on English lands, but he refused to walk on them, eat on them, or even donate his piss to the flora. "We ride on."
The sun was high by the time the group had made its way down the series of smaller hills and into the woodland surrounding Durchent Hall. They rode until they broke free of the trees to where a massive square tower stood visually overpowering the rest of the buildings surrounding it. Cole was unimpressed.
A young boy was busy removing stone and wood from a cart, when Cole called out to him. "Find your baron and tell him that we come for what belongs to his sister."
After overcoming his shock, the boy dashed into the tower with the message. Minutes later, a different, much chubbier, and somewhat better dressed adolescent came running out, breathing heavily, stating the baron would receive them in his presence room.
Cole arched a single brow and stared at the lad. "And just who are you to speak for the baron?"
"I'm ... I'm ... the herald," the boy rasped out.
Jaime twisted the reins he was holding and leaned forward. "Tell your baron that we will be received by no Englishman. If he wishes to speak to us, we will hear his words here."
The young herald stood in stunned silence for several seconds, opening and then closing his mouth. Cole pointed to the keep's partially opened gates. "Go now, herald. Speak our words to your baron and be sure to tell him that we will be leaving before the sun reaches your trees."
The boy looked at the landscape and realized the sun would be setting below the tallest trees any minute now. He glanced back at Cole and gulped before scurrying back inside.
Fifteen minutes later, the herald returned huffing. He was red and obviously uncomfortable with his message. "My lord says that he meets with his guests only on his terms, not theirs. He bids you to join him in some drink and food."
Cole smiled and the young lad blanched. He always thought it amusing that his smile was considered more frightening than his scowl. "That is good news then, herald. For it means I no longer have any reason to stay." Then with a flick of his reins, Cole turned his mount around and headed home.
Excerpted from "Desiring The Highlander"
Copyright © 2009 C. Michele Peach.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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