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Once Upon a Highland Christmas(3)

By:Sue-Ellen Welfonder



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.

That way, 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 and sure, smooth as a predator’s.

“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 disturbingly, 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.

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