A Mackenzie Clan Christmas – Jennifer Ashley

DECEMBER 1898 Mac Mackenzie paused, his paintbrush dripping, at the soft sound from the end of the corridor. The skylights in his room at the top of Kilmorgan Castle, the vast Mackenzie manor house, were dark. Mac didn’t remember night falling, but when he became deeply immersed in painting, time passed swiftly. It was also cold, his fire having died to a glow of coals. Lamps glowed softly, which meant his valet, Bellamy, must have entered and lit them. Mac pulled himself out of the painting of a Scottish landscape and restored himself to the here and now. It was mid-December, at two in the morning, and his wife and children were snugly asleep in the floors below. Mac’s brothers and their families slept in their wings of the vast house, all awaiting the celebrations at Christmas and Hogmanay. No one should be up near the studio at this hour, but that did not mean his son, Robert, hadn’t climbed restlessly out of bed to roam the halls. Or that Robert and his cousins Jamie and Alec hadn’t gathered for a stolen smoke or nip of whisky they didn’t think their fathers knew about. Mac wiped his brush and dropped it into his jar of oil of turpentine. He mopped at his hands, which never stayed clean, but didn’t bother trying to scrub off his face. Nor did he remove the kerchief that kept his hair more or less free of paint. Once he found the source of the noise, he’d return and finish the shadowing that was challenging him. He shrugged on his shirt, now noticing the cold. Painting with fervor heated his body, so he usually ended up in only his kilt and shoes. Mac stepped into the cold, silent hall. It ran narrowly before him, ending in a T— one direction led to Ian’s wing, the other to Cameron’s. He saw a flutter of white in the shadows, heard again the quiet rustle that had cut through his painting haze. “Iz?” Mac called softly. He started down the corridor. If Isabella, his darling wife, had come up to entice him to bed, he’d play along. The studio had a wide, comfortable sofa, and he could build up the fire to keep them warm while they bared more skin .

Another flutter, then silence. Mac began to grin. Isabella had a teasing streak, and when she turned playful, life became splendid. Mac’s blood warmed, and he forgot all about painting. “Izzy, love.” He started after her, anticipation building. What game would she play this time? And how would Mac turn the tables, as he loved to do? He reached the split in the corridor. Stairs led down from here to the floors below, or he could turn to one of his brothers’ wings. Years ago, the sons and daughters of the Mackenzies had slept in nurseries on these top floors, but they had long since moved to larger bedchambers below. That fact was in one way sad, but then again, the older children would be marrying in a few short years, and nurseries would fill again. Mac’s adopted daughter, Aimee, was nineteen now, and so beautiful. Which was very worrying. Mac found himself snarling like a bear at gentlemen she danced with at the balls Isabella had carefully selected since Aimee’s debut. An icy draft poured over him as he tried to decide which way to turn. The wind cut, making him shiver. Who had left a blasted window open? He thought the chill came from Cam’s wing, and he quietly moved that direction. The short hall beyond was empty and dark. “What the devil are you doing, love?” he said, a bit louder. “It’s freezing. Let’s go to the studio and make it cozy.” Another rustle. Mac followed the noise around the corner to the longer corridor. At its end was a flash of white, then nothing. Mac gave up stealth and sprinted down the corridor. He’d catch Isabella and she’d laugh, then he’d carry her to where they could tear off what little clothing Mac wore and enjoy themselves. A window lay at the end of the hall—open, Mac saw as he reached it. As he’d suspected.

Mac slammed it closed. He heard a whisper of sound and spun around. Behind him, where he’d just come from, stood a lady in white. A chance moonbeam caught on her red hair. In that instant, Mac knew this wasn’t Isabella. Different stance, different height, and Isabella was . alive. Why he thought this woman wasn’t, Mac didn’t know. Maybe because the moonlight made her skin deathly pale, or because the white dress floated, though the draft had gone. Mac couldn’t see every detail of her, but she seemed to have no hands or feet. Mac’s heart beat faster, but he felt no fear. Kilmorgan was an old place—this could be any lady, from any era. “Good evening, ” he said softly. “I’m Mac. But you probably know that. What’s your name, lass? Which one are you?” The apparition was utterly silent. Mac took a step forward, wondering what would happen when he reached her. Could he walk straight through her? And would that be impolite? He was halfway down the hall to the hovering lady when she vanished, abruptly and utterly. Clouds slid over the moon. Mac was left in the freezing cold and dark, alone, disappointed, and suddenly tired. He moved quickly back to his own wing, doused the lights in the studio, and fled downstairs to his bedchamber, which was warm and inviting. His wife was fast asleep in their bed, and never moved when Mac climbed in with her, spooning close to her in their heated nest. “I saw a ghost last night,” Mac announced at the breakfast table. Ian Mackenzie took a moment to decide whether this declaration was interesting enough for him to look up from the letter and photographs that had arrived in the morning’s post. Mac liked to spin yarns, and Ian had learned to ignore most of them.

He glanced at Mac, who slid into a place at the long table, his plate loaded with eggs, sausages, ham, and scones dripping with butter. A few rivulets of butter trickled over the edge of the plate to make perfect round pools on the tablecloth. Their nephew Daniel laughed. “Did you, Uncle Mac?” “I did, ” Mac answered without worry. “Vanished before my eyes.” Violet, Daniel’s wife, made sure their seven-year-old daughter, Fleur, wasn’t giving too many bits of toast to the dogs, and leaned forward eagerly. “Interesting. Where did you see it?” “My wing. Then it floated to Cam’s wing and disappeared.” Mac shoved most of a scone into his mouth and chewed noisily. Ian had difficulty knowing when Mac was teasing or serious. Hart and Cameron were straightforward with their speeches—sometimes loudly so—but Mac made up stories or played with words, bursting out laughing in the middle of them. Ian had learned to wait until Mac wound down to judge whether what he spoke was truth or exaggeration. He returned to his letter and let the others at the table play it out. Breakfast at Kilmorgan was an informal meal, with food placed on the sideboard for all to enjoy. Some days the ladies indulged in breakfast in bed, but most mornings they made their way to the dining room to eat with the family. The younger Mackenzies were welcome—no banishment because they had not yet reached a specific age. The four brothers had made that decision years ago. Ian liked the breakfast gatherings. He read his letters or newspapers while various Mackenzies chattered around him. At the house he shared with Beth and his three children, breakfast could be intimate or rowdy, the five of them crammed around the table. As soon as Mac ceased speaking and began to eat, Ian’s daughters, Belle and Megan, entered and helped themselves at the sideboard. Megan finished filling her plate first and took a seat next to Ian. Megan was thirteen now, and becoming so beautiful. Ian lost himself in looking at her eyes, so like her mother’s, and her hair that was glossy brown with a touch of red.

Belle, her plate heaped almost as much as Mac’s, sat on the other side of her sister. Ian noted they kept to the placement that was usual at home—they knew he preferred it if everyone sat in the same seats day after day. “Good morning, ladies, ” Daniel boomed at them. “Uncle Mac has seen a ghost at the top of Kilmorgan Castle. What awful specter haunts our midst? A Highlander of old, calling to his clan? Great-great-great-grandfather Malcolm bellowing for his whisky? A lady waiting for her lover to return from one of our many rebellions?” “Papa.” Fleur shook her head at him. Like Violet, she was a skeptic. Megan shivered. “I hope it’s not the lonely lady.” Belle scoffed. “There are no ghosts. They are seen only by people who are drunk or mad.” She caught Mac’s grin and flushed. “Not that I mean you are mad, Uncle Mac. Or drunk. But it has been shown that oil of turpentine and the components of paints can make one’s brain behave as though it is intoxicated. You might have breathed in too much last night.” Mac winked at her. “An excellent theory. Very scientific. I assure you, dear niece, I keep plenty of air flowing through my studio and avoid a buildup of fumes. I truly did see a ghost. Kilmorgan is quite haunted.” “Poppycock, ” Belle said, but Megan shivered again. “There has been absolutely no proven existence of ghosts and spirits, ” Belle went on.

“Those who pretend to have gathered evidence are frauds. Oh, I beg your pardon, Cousin Violet.” “No need, sweetheart, ” Violet answered calmly. “I know all about frauds and hoaxes. Do not worry, Megan. Whatever your uncle Mac saw, it wasn’t a ghost.” “If you say so, ” Mac said before he fell to devouring the rest of his breakfast. Megan did not return the smile, from which Ian deduced she was not reassured. He reached over and squeezed her hand. “There are no ghosts, ” he said firmly. “They do not exist.” “Quite right, ” Belle said on Megan’s far side. Belle looked for rational and scientific explanations for everything, from a flower pushing through the earth to how far away the stars were, to how rain clouds formed. Her inquisitive and eager mind had worked through most of the books in Ian’s library, and she’d quickly absorbed everything her brother’s tutors had taught them. Jamie, Ian’s oldest, had gone off to Harrow, leaving his sisters behind, but Ian had insisted they hire another tutor, one who could keep up with Belle’s swift mind. She was determined to go to university, to study to be a doctor. Ian saw no reason why she should not—Belle was brilliant and ought to be allowed to do anything she wanted. Beth tried to explain to Ian and Belle that education for a woman was very difficult, but Belle only furrowed her brow and said she’d do it. Ian knew she would, and he’d certainly use all his might as a Mackenzie to ensure that she found a university that would take her. Megan was no less intelligent, but in a different way. She was highly imaginative, constructing entire worlds in her mind and acting them out with her dolls or the dogs. Where Belle made her way through scientific journals, Megan read fairy tales and lengthy novels. Megan was also quite musical, able, like Ian, to learn a piece of music by hearing others play it through once. Unlike Ian, though, Megan could play it back with feeling, often ending up sobbing by the close of the piece. Megan was compassionate; Belle a force to be reckoned with.

Beth expressed surprise that the two got along so well, but Belle was Megan’s defender, and Megan’s gentleness eased Belle when she grew frustrated and impatient. “What is this talk of ghosts?” Isabella Mackenzie floated into the room, her red hair drawn up in the latest fashion, which Ian privately thought resembled a giant pincushion. Isabella changed her hair nearly every week. Mac rose from the table, wiped his mouth, and kissed his wife soundly on the lips. “Saw one. Upstairs last night.” “How exciting.” Isabella helped herself to toast and tea from the sideboard, sat down, and raised her cup to her lips. “Tell me all about it.” Mac launched into his tale once more, and Ian returned to his letter. He’d written to a man in London, asking for particulars on what was in the photographs and line drawings—an antique necklace with intricately worked loops of gold and hung with emeralds and lapis lazuli. It was ancient, Roman, and had purportedly been taken from the tomb of a Roman consul’s wife. Somehow it had ended up in the treasury of a church in Norwich, and when the parish needed to raise money, they’d decided to sell it, as it was nonecclesiastical and had been hidden away for a rainy day. They’d sold it to a small museum in London that hadn’t really been able to afford it, and the necklace hadn’t proved a great attraction, giant fossil bones being more interesting to the museum’s patrons. The museum had quietly sold it on to a collector in Paris. Ian had decided the necklace would look perfect on Beth, and wanted it for her Hogmanay present. There was a problem, however. The necklace had disappeared after the sale, and no one knew where it was. Ian, with the determination Belle had inherited from him, set out to find it. The letter, from a London acquaintance who’d photographed the piece when it had lain in the museum, confessed he did not know where the necklace had ended up. The Frenchman who’d purchased it claimed it had never reached his Parisian mansion. Somewhere between London and Paris, the necklace had vanished. Ian read the words, studied the man’s photographs and drawings of the necklace, and made up his mind that nothing would deter him. “Excellent, ” Isabella said. “Once we trap it, we’ll know whether it is a true ghost or someone playing tricks on poor, sleepless Mac.

” Ian looked up. “Trap it?” “Yes indeed.” Isabella’s green eyes sparkled as she gave Ian her wide smile. “We’re off to catch a ghost.” “Poor thing, ” Megan said, her mouth turning down. “It’s only someone playing tricks, ” Belle said. “You’ll see. We’ll catch them and give them a good talking-to.” “Poor thing, ” Megan repeated. Ian squeezed Megan’s hand again and slid one of the photographs toward her. “I’m going to find this for your mama, ” he said. “Will you help me?


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