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Once Upon a Highland Christmas(5)

By:Sue-Ellen Welfonder

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 speak 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 was looking 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.”