Once Upon a Highland Christmas – Sue-Ellen Welfonder

The Great Hall at Duncreag Castle Scottish Highlands Winter 1398 T he Christmas thief was the wrong man. Breena O’ Doherty was too stunned to blink as she stared across the night-darkened hall at the surprising culprit. The hour might be late, but sleep hadn’t dulled her wits. Besides, there could be no mistaking Grim Mackintosh, Duncreag’s captain of the guards. Huge and powerfully built, he stood head and shoulders over other men. Even through the shadows, she recognized him. Until this moment, she’d secretly admired and even desired him, though it wasn’t her place. As a village lass from Ireland, unable to claim noble birth, she was only here at Duncreag because Ralla the Victorious and his band of raiders had captured her and brought her with them to Scotland. If Grim hadn’t ridden from a neighboring glen to oust the invaders, the gods only knew what might have come of her. That Archie MacNab had allowed her to stay on at his castle would never have happened if Grim and his men hadn’t rid Duncreag of the marauders. Her own home in Ireland had been destroyed, the village burned and all inhabitants slain. She wouldn’t have had anywhere to go. So she had always looked on Grim kindly. Until this moment. Now, Grim only shocked her.

That he was guilty of ridding Duncreag of its already meager holiday decorations was clear. Any fool could see the long strand of beribboned ivy trailing from his belt. But only she knew the ivy had been part of the high table’s centerpiece. She knew that because she’d placed it there that morning. Christmas was only days away. Brightening the hall and slipping little bits of cheer throughout the castle mattered to her. It was a season of hope and miracles, after all. She missed the festive celebrations she’d enjoyed in Ireland. She’d seen how Yuletide wonders could happen, lifting spirits and healing hearts. Duncreag needed Christmas.

Truth be told, so did she. And so she frowned at the now-empty high table. The beribboned ivy should be there still. It would be if not for the man across the hall. He just wasn’t who she’d expected. She’d been sure Archie MacNab was responsible. The old laird had been her prime suspect. She could see him sneaking into the hall at night, gathering the bits of cheer she took such care to set upon tables or drape on the walls. Then she’d imagined him slipping out again, his arms laden and his feet silent as he absconded with her holly and ivy, and even the white-berried balls of mistletoe. Archie hadn’t smiled once since the start of the festive season.

He’d even vowed there’d be no celebration at Duncreag. Now… Breena bit her lip, her brow pleating as she watched Grim. Disappointment welled inside her and her breath caught, trapped in her lungs. Not wanting to believe her eyes, she leaned closer to the wall hanging she was hiding behind. She narrowed her gaze to see better, peering harder through the tiny rip in the tapestry. Only a few torches were lit and the hearth fire was nearly gone, the peat and wood ash giving off little more than a ruddy glow. A fine haze of smoke hung in the air and the shadows were deep. Gloom filled the cold, empty hall and the darkness was thick, lending a cloak of stealth to anyone desiring to remain unseen. A man, it would seem, like Grim Mackintosh. The big Highland warrior knelt beside the Cailleach Nollaigh, a large chunk of wood cut from an oak tree and fondly called the Old Christmas Wife because it’d been carved to resemble a crone.

Some folk preferred the term Yule Log. Either way, it represented the cold and dark of winter. The log was tossed onto the Christmas Eve fire so that its burning would triumph over the bleakness. As soon as the flames danced, bright golden light filled the hall and warmth spread hope and cheer. Candles were lit at the hearth and carried in a procession to grace each table. Voices were raised in song, joyous and grateful. It was an ancient and well-loved practice to bring good fortune to the clan and castle in the coming year. Few holiday traditions were more sacred. Grim didn’t seem to care. Breena stood frozen behind the tapestry, unable to move as he bent over the log, glowering at the oaken crone visage as if he hadn’t carved her himself only the day before.

He’d been pleased when he’d finished, brushing his hands in obvious satisfaction and declaring the old woman’s image as near to life as he could make her. True, Archie should have done the handiwork. Such was aye a chieftain’s honor. But the old laird had spirited himself away, pretending he wasn’t aware that Grim and others had carried a huge stump of finest oak into his hall. Grim had no choice but to carve the Cailleach Nollaigh. And hadn’t everyone praised his skill? Yet now he glared as if the Old Christmas Wife had sprouted horns. Breena also frowned, but for entirely different reasons. As captain of Duncreag’s garrison, Grim was wearing a mail shirt, and the steely links gleamed like stars in the hall’s dim light. Worse, their sheen drew attention to the broad set of his powerful shoulders. A huge, well-muscled brute of a man, he also had an endearing air of being slightly mussed despite his fierce reputation and tough, roughened edge.

Just now, Breena noted his knack for looking slightly crumpled more than ever, for the soft glow of the dying fire glinted in his thick, dark hair, revealing that he must’ve recently stood in the wind, or shoved a hand through the strands, bringing disorder to his unbound, shoulder-length mane. Breena bit her lip harder, annoyed that even now, knowing he was the Christmas thief, just looking at him across the darkened hall set off a flurry of excited stirrings deep in the lowest part of her belly. Grim always did that to her, much as she knew such feelings weren’t wise. The big warrior wasn’t just too far above her in station. He scarce noticed her. She never tired of looking at him, though, often standing in the shadows of a door arch or the lee of a wall, to watch him train Duncreag’s younger lads how to fight. Grim was a master at swordcraft, making it look so easy to swing a blade. Above all, he was a sight to behold when he wielded his huge Norse war ax, a weapon he usually wore strapped across his back. Breena shivered each time she saw him practice with the ax, its bright head slicing the air in a whir of arcing silver as if bolts of lightning raced down from the heavens to leap from his fingers. Yet she’d seen those same fingers rub the ears of the castle dogs.

Or give the oldest amongst them the best beefy tidbits, because—as he once told her—the aged beasts had aching hips and wobbly legs. Some had milky eyes and couldn’t see properly. So they couldn’t compete with the stronger, younger whelps as they leaped to the fore, clamoring for the choicest treats. Grim made sure the elder beasts feasted as was their due. He had a heart for animals. And he’d captured Breena’s heart… She even thought his beard rings were wildly masculine. Delicious chills swept her each time she remembered how he’d told her the silver rings he wore braided into his beard were fashioned by his own hand of steel from the swords of slain enemies. That he honored the fiercest and bravest of such foes by making the rings from their weapons. So, he’d assured her, their proud spirits never died. Their souls lived on to meet him in comradely kinship when he later joined them in the Otherworld.

How could she have been so wrong about him? Silently vowing to never make such a mistake again, she leaned closer into the back of the wall hanging and pressed one eye to the spy slit. To her horror, a dirk now glittered in Grim’s hand. She watched as he raised the blade above the Cailleach Nollaigh, clearly bent on gouging into the hallowed wood, ruining the hag’s features. Breena couldn’t believe his wickedness. Or that the tapestry’s dust and a loose thread tickled her nose so mightily that she sneezed. Mortified, she clapped a hand to her lips. Across the hall, Grim stood, shoving his dirk back beneath his belt as he did so. He turned her way, his unusual smoke-gray eyes honing in on the tapestry. Breena’s breath caught at the determination in his gaze. She’d always found his eyes compelling, his lashes exceptionally thick.

His dark hair swung loose about his shoulders, the strands gleaming in the dim torchlight. His beard rings also glinted, and the silver Thor’s hammer at his throat. Grim was pagan. And just now he looked earthy and bold enough to eat her alive. Her heart hammering wildly, Breena flattened herself against the cold stone of the wall. Grim started forward, his strides slow, sure, and bringing him ever closer. “Dinnae think I cannae see you, lassie.” His voice was rich and smooth, deeply burred and lowered intimately enough to send heat to her face. She refused to think about what it did to other places. Nor was there time for any such foolish contemplation, for he was almost upon her.

She could hear his steady, measured footsteps approaching. Much more disturbing, she caught a hint of his manly scent of musk and leather, crisp, cold air, and just a trace of peat smoke, the whole made more intoxicating by a distinct dash of sandalwood and some exceptionally pleasing spice she couldn’t identify. No man smelled as good. Nor had any other ever made her pulse race so crazily. She was hot all over now, her entire body aflame. And that although inside, she felt so chilled by his betrayal. She was in a terrible state, confused, infuriated, disillusioned, and wildly excited, at once. She didn’t like it. She was also sure she could feel his stare through the woven thickness of the tapestry, as if his intensity pierced the cloth, pinning her in place, searing her straight to the roots of her soul. Then he was right in front of her.

“I can see your slippers.” His words only proved what she knew. “If you’re after spying on a man, Breena, be certain all of you is hidden. Wall hangings that end above the floor give a fine view of feet and ankles. Next time-” “There won’t be one, for I’ve seen enough.” Breena nipped out from behind the tapestry to glare at him. For good measure, she set her hands on her hips and tossed her head. “Though I’m surprised you know my name.” “I know much about you.” He didn’t seem fazed by her anger.

He also reached to lift a curl of her hair, rubbing it between his fingers. “I also ken that maids with tresses like flame have tempers and often act before they think.” “I have reason to be wroth.” Breena snatched the beribboned ivy from beneath his belt and thrust it at him, accusingly. “You’re removing my decorations and”—she flashed a look across the hall at the Yule log—“you were about to defile the Old Christmas Wife.” “Was I, now?” He cocked a brow. “You were.” Breena looped the strand of ivy around her own belt. “You can’t deny it. I saw you.

” “You observed me doing something, aye.” He angled his head, his beard rings clacking with the movement. “Do you aye believe what you see? Have you no’ learned that all isn’t as it seems in this world?” “I know someone is ridding the hall of every bit of greenery I set about.” She narrowed her eyes, hoping to make him feel guilty. “I’m not the only one to notice. The poor kitchen laddies fear a bogle is responsible. Heaven knows Duncreag has seen enough tragedy in recent years for a whole army of ghosts to float about its walls.” “No spirit is stealing your Yuletide frippery, Lady Breena.” He regarded her in a way that made her want to squirm, and not because of the nature of their conversation. “Think you I am no’ troubled by the actions of a sad-hearted old man?” Brenna blinked, his admission surprising her.

“You believe Archie is doing it?” “Who else?” “You’re the one who had my ivy dangling from your belt.” “That proves the ivy was in my possession, no more.” A slow smile started at the corner of his mouth and spread until it was highly distracting. “I found the ivy in the passageway.” He glanced over his shoulder at the hall’s darkened entry arch. “I meant to return it to the high table.” “When, after you damaged the Old Christmas Wife?” Breena’s chin came up. She wanted to believe him, but she’d caught him in the act. “I saw the dirk in your hand, the look on your face. You were furious.

” “So I was.” He set his hands on her hips, his grip firm as if he worried she’d bolt if he didn’t keep her before him. “But no’ because some crazed fury had me wanting to ruin the crone I’d spent hours working on, aiming to make her as lifelike as I could.” “She was perfect.” “So I thought.” Breena was keenly aware of his big strong hands at her waist, his splayed fingers and how their warmth reached her despite the cloth of her gown. His touch felt good, even thrilling. So much so that delicious shivers rippled through her. She had to struggle against sighing with pleasure. But he wasn’t holding her because he desired her.

She knew why he was in the hall and why he didn’t want her watching him. There was nothing wrong with her eyesight. He had been about to defile the Cailleach Nollaigh. She knew what she’d seen. So she kept her chin raised, not hiding her suspicion. “If you were so pleased with the carving, why were you about to ruin her?” “You think that was my intent?” Disappointment flickered across his face. Breena hesitated. He leaned in, so close that his lips brushed her ear. “I told you no’ all is as it seems. Mayhap that is different in your Ireland.

But I have been there, lass, and dinnae believe that is so.” “I thought we were speaking of the Yule Log.” Breena pulled back, not wanting to talk of her home. Inishowen, Donegal, all of Ireland was gone to her. She could never return, for nothing of her village remained. Her family was lost, her parents and even her much-loved aunt and uncle, all dead. She’d only been spared because Ralla and his men wanted to sell her as a slave. They’d planned to do so after they’d settled into Duncreag. Now they were gone, too, praise the gods. And she was here.

Alone with Grim in Duncreag’s great hall, and much too aware of the way his breath teased her skin. How his soft, husky voice flowed through her, making her uncomfortable. Any moment he’d notice the blush heating her cheeks, guess how attracted she was to him. And that was to be avoided at all costs. She had her pride. She didn’t wish to go moony-eyed over a man who scarce knew she existed. Wasn’t his face all stony again? The gray gaze he held so steady on her as unreadable as the steel links of his gleaming mail shirt? “My home is no more and it pains me to think of it. I miss Ireland, see you?” She spoke quickly, not caring if he heard the regret in her voice. “I would know why you were —” “At the Cailleach Nollaigh, aye? And”—his eyes warmed a bit then, a faint smile curving his lips—“with a blade in my hand.” “I did wonder.

” “Come, and I’ll show you.” He led her across the hall with a purposeful stride that warned her that whatever they’d find would prove her wrong. He stopped beside the hearth, frowned down at the Yule Log. “Perhaps you can guess what I was about to do?” “Mercy!” Breena’s eyes rounded as she stared at the Old Christmas Wife. Only the heavy oaken log no longer resembled a crone. The stump now looked like a big-bearded, bulbous-nosed man. Breena clapped a hand to her breast, tearing her gaze from the monstrosity that was Duncreag’s Yule Log. She blinked in confusion at Grim. “Whatever is that?” She looked at it again, horrified. Worse, she now detected a slight familiarity about the reworked carving.

“Dear heavens!” She gripped Grim’s arm, her gaze still on the ruined Yule log. “That’s the face of Greer MacGregor, one of Archie’s worst enemies.” “Indeed.” Grim nudged the log with his booted toe. “I’ve been keeping an eye on the laird of late, same as you, it would seem. Archie crept in here earlier and tried to drag the stump out of the hall. When he couldn’t, he knelt and drew his dirk, undoing the Yule log’s magic by turning the crone’s likeness into a man.” “One he can’t abide.” Breena was shocked. Grim shrugged.

“At least he hasn’t entirely lost his sense of humor, or his skill at woodcarving. It’s a relief to see his hand is steadier than it appears when he sits at the high table of an e’en, hardly able to cut his meat or lift an ale cup to his lips.” “You think he’s faking his frailty?” The thought had never occurred to Breena. “It’s possible.” Grim hooked his thumbs in his sword belt. “Sorrow and loneliness can do strange things to a man. Could be he’s looking for sympathy and too proud to ask, or show appreciation when it’s given to him.” Breena felt her face warm, aware that she was guilty of coddling the old chieftain. She served at Duncreag as a housekeeper of sorts, an unspoken seneschal. But Archie treated her more like a daughter.

She did care for him, and greatly. “Is that why you didn’t confront him?” She looked at Grim, sure of it. “To keep from embarrassing him if he knew you’d seen what he’d done?” “Aye, well…” Grim shrugged again, looking uncomfortable himself. But then one corner of his mouth lifted in a way that did funny things to Breena’s belly. She forgot all about the Yule Log and even the strand of beribboned ivy at her belt. She only saw the big rugged warrior standing so near to her that she could hardly breathe for how fast her heart was racing. Limned by the red glow of the hearth’s dying embers, Grim looked fiercer than ever. So magnificent that her knees weakened. Indeed, his raw, powerful masculinity seared her, heating her entire body as if the hearth fire still blazed and she’d leapt right into the flames. He was that awe inspiring.

No bonnie lad, but a man. He looked at her intently, as if he knew her thoughts, every wicked, impossible notion whirling through her mind. Breena stepped back, dusted her skirts. “You were going to fix the carving, weren’t you?” It was all she could think to say. “You meant to turn it back into an old woman before anyone could guess what Archie had done.” “That was one of my reasons, aye.” He raised a hand then, silencing her, as he glanced toward the hall’s shadowed door arch. Breena followed his gaze, alarm sweeping her when she heard what had drawn his attention: slow, shuffling footsteps and the telltale tap-tapping of a crummock, a tall, crook-headed Highland walking stick. Archie was coming. “Oh, no!” She glanced about, but it was too late to escape.

“He’ll see us and know we’ve been watching him.” “See us, he will, aye.” Grim didn’t sound concerned. “But he’ll no’ think we’re in here because of him.” “Of course, he will.” Breena felt awful. The last thing she wanted was to shame the old man. “Dinnae look so stricken, lass.” Grim stepped closer and cupped her face in his hands. He leaned down, spoke against her ear.

“He’ll no’ suspect a thing.” Breena wasn’t so sure. “Why not?” “Because”—Grim straightened, slid a telling glance upward at the ball of mistletoe above their heads—“I’m about to kiss you.”

.

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