Read Once Upon A Highland Christmas Online

Authors: Sue-Ellen Welfonder

Tags: #Highland Warriors, #Highlanders, #Historical Romance, #Paranormal Romance, #Romance, #Scotland, #Scotland Highland, #Scottish Highland, #Warrior

Once Upon A Highland Christmas

BOOK: Once Upon A Highland Christmas
4.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads
Once Upon A Highland Christmas
Scandalous Scots [0.50]
Sue-Ellen Welfonder
Forever Yours (2013)
Rating:
****
Tags:
Highland Warriors, Highlanders, Historical Romance, Paranormal Romance, Romance, Scotland, Scotland Highland, Scottish Highland, Warrior

ONCE UPON A HIGHLAND CHRISTMAS...

Warrior Grim Mackintosh understands why his friend Archibald MacNab has decreed there be no trace of Christmas in his castle. After a devastating attack destroyed everything-and everyone-in Archie's life, he prefers to stew in his own misery until the holiday passes. But Duncreag has seen enough tragedy. Grim decides to throw a grand Yuletide feast, one that the bards will sing about for years to come, one that will remind his laird how beloved he is. He can't do it alone, though.
Grim needs an accomplice...

There's nothing Breena O'Doherty won't do for Archie, so she's thrilled to help Grim with his plan. Yet she has a Christmas wish all her own-to win Grim's heart-and this might be her only chance to make it come true. As Breena and Grim work together to bring the joy of the season to the cold, gloomy castle and to the heart of the cantankerous chieftain, an undeniable passion ignites between them.
But when a shocking secret about Breena's past comes to light, threatening everything she holds dear, will it ruin Christmas in Duncreag forevermore?

Once Upon a Highland Christmas

Sue-Ellen Welfonder

New York     Boston

In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected]. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

With all my heart for Leah Weller, dear and longtime friend, fellow nature girl, champion of needy animals, old soul, and lover of all things medieval and Scottish. Leah and I go way back, right to Devil in a Kilt days. She’s shared my path since then. In truth, we’ve walked tandem even before that and surely will again, someday.

For very special reasons, this story simply had to be hers. She knows why.

Merry Christmas, Lady Leah. With Highland love from Grim.

Acknowledgments

As a Christmas baby, I’ve always been fond of the festive season. Perhaps the timing of my birthday also gave me my extraordinary appreciation of all the traditional holiday accompaniments: cold and snow, frosty nights graced by a dazzle of wintry stars. The heady scent of pine and the heartwarming delight of a roaring fire while the chill wind races through the night.

My spirit soars in December and I know many people share my love of the season. I’m also aware that my readers share my passion for Scotland. So along with this novella comes my special Christmas wish that every reader yearning to visit the Highlands will be able to make the trip soon. For those readers who have already been to Scotland, I’m wishing that you soon enjoy a return trip.

I know well the deep longing to be there again.

That desire was with me through the writing of Grim and Breena’s story. By spending time with them, I was also able to be in Scotland for Christmas. I hope you’ll enjoy the holidays at Duncreag Castle, deep in a very special corner of the Highlands.

I’d like to express special thanks to my best friend and agent, Roberta Brown. She’s my stalwart in a sometimes crazy world and she keeps me going when I’d turn back and not continue the journey. She’s the best and her friendship shines brighter than the stars mentioned in this story.

As always, for my very handsome husband, Manfred, who is all my heroes rolled into one and then some. I do not want to know where I’d be without him.

And my precious Jack Russell terrier, Em, who has accompanied me through every book I’ve written. He’s the love of my life and was the best Christmas present I ever received. I hope he knows how much I love him.

Once Upon a Highland Christmas…

In the hills and glens of Scotland’s most rugged bounds, the clans brightened winter darkness with blazing log fires, well-flaming torches, and the golden glow of fine wax candles. Proud Highlanders would tell you that this was the most glorious corner of the world and that fierce, wild weather only made it better. To be sure, they knew how to live with the cold, and how to make merry.

Christmas was a joyous occasion.

The frosty nights provided a reason for kith and kin to gather in crowded great halls where festive lights and noisy revels welcomed one and all. Honeyed mead and hot spiced ale warmed gullets and spirits alike. And the feasting was a sight to behold, each holly-draped table decked with scrumptious fare, every delicacy imaginable.

Times were good and folk made merry.

Pipe and fiddle music filled halls lavishly decorated with evergreen. In some castles, lovely ladies strummed harps. Everywhere in these rugged bounds, men and women danced and sang beneath boughs of ivy and mistletoe. And always, bards stood before hearthsides, spinning wondrous tales. All ages enjoyed the gaiety.

Outside, the nights were cold and crisp, snow gently falling.

The beauty of such bright moonlit landscapes put tears in the eyes of the hardest men.

Women were too busy for such sentiment. But despite the bustle and toil, they smiled and laughed, their faces shining and their hearts full.

For the joy of the season was bountiful, and shared by everyone.

So it was sad when Yule fell out of favor with a clan famed for its celebrations.

MacNabs, they were.

And their home was Duncreag, a jewel among castles. Splendid and remote, the stronghold perched high atop jagged peaks and was ever crowned with a wreath of mist. Lofty and proud, Duncreag was well loved by Clan MacNab and always drew awe from visitors.

Folk came often in those days for the MacNabs were known for their storytelling and song. How gladly they shared a roaring fire and plentiful victuals and ale. Indeed, their larder and cellar were bottomless, aye bursting with enough feast goods to entertain an endless stream of guests.

The MacNabs’ openhanded generosity earned them many friends. And even their enemies grudgingly admitted no clan hosted a grander feast.

Yet those who soar are prone to crashing.

When the fall came, Clan MacNab suffered a mighty blow. Some say they spiraled clear down to hell’s deepest pit. Hardship and ill fortune hammered them with a vengeance. As if such troubles weren’t enough, a band of rogue warriors launched a vicious attack on Duncreag. Their leader, Ralla the Victorious, so named because he’d never lost a fight, wanted the stronghold as his own. And all because of the treasure he believed was hidden within Duncreag’s walls. The castle fell easily, but the hoard of gold was never found. Ralla’s fury was terrible and brought the loss of many MacNab loved ones. The clan’s sorrows mounted, their grief untold. Darkness descended and shadows lengthened until the clan’s gaiety was no more.

Instead of laughter, music, and song, a sad stillness cloaked the castle.

And so as days and months passed, and then a full year, it came as no surprise when it became known that Duncreag’s famed Yuletide revels weren’t to be held.

Most folk were sympathetic. But some voiced disapproval. Either way, those who said anything, did so in whispers.

That was because, regardless of opinion, everyone knew why Archibald, the aging MacNab chieftain, took such drastic measures.

And it was beneath Highland dignity to rub salt into his wounds.

No one knew how to heal them either, so folk stayed away.

Archie was left to stew in gloom as the winter nights drew in and cold, north winds rose to howl around Duncreag’s towers. The snow also deepened and the brittle air chilled everyone to the bone. Of Yule, there was no sign whatsoever, not even a sprig of holly.

Man and beast skulked about, silent as possible, for no one wished to break the brooding laird’s peace.

Nor did anyone want to risk his wrath.

Only two souls dared…

A battle-hardened warrior who believed in love for everyone except himself and the spirited lass determined to change his mind.

For the good of all, it came to pass that they set out to prove Duncreag and its cantankerous, unwilling laird deserved a festive season.

That’s when their trouble begins.

Grim, the fierce Highland warrior, might not believe in tender feelings, but he’s never tangled with a bold and beautiful lass like Breena, a onetime Irish slave girl. And Breena isn’t above using all her wiles to win the heart of the man who already holds hers.

Yet as they surrender to passion and even Grim begins to suspect he’s fallen in love, an unexpected threat rises from the past.

And it’s powerful enough to tear them apart and ruin Duncreag’s Christmases forevermore.

Chapter One

THE GREAT HALL AT DUNCREAG CASTLE

Scottish Highlands

Winter 1398

The 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.

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.

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. The way Grim’s breath teased her skin and how his soft, husky voice flowed through her made her uncomfortable.

BOOK: Once Upon A Highland Christmas
4.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

NW by Zadie Smith
The Sword of Feimhin by Frank P. Ryan
Mutation by Hardman, Kevin
Hijo de hombre by Augusto Roa Bastos
Sovereign of Stars by L. M. Ironside
Making the Cut by David Skuy
Bound: A Short Story by Alexa Grave
Duke (Aces MC Series Book 2) by Foster, Aimee-Louise