Mackenzie family christm.., p.1

  Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift (highland pleasures), p.1

   part  #1 of  Highland Pleasures Series

Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift (highland pleasures)

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Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift (highland pleasures)

  Mackenzie Family Christmas: The Perfect Gift

  ( Highland Pleasures )

  Jennifer Ashley

  Highland Pleasures 4.5

  The Mackenzies gather for a clan Christmas and New Year's in Scotland. In the chaos of preparations for the celebration--the first of Hart and Eleanor's married life--one of Ian's Ming bowls gets broken, and the family scrambles to save the day. Daniel busily runs a betting ring for everything from the time Eleanor's baby will arrive to whether Mac's former-pugilist valet can win a boxing match to who will be the first of the many guests to be caught under the mistletoe. Ian begins a new obsession, and Beth fears the loss of one of his precious bowls has made him withdraw once more into his private world.

  A Mackenzie Family Christmas will be released in print as well as on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Smashwords, Apple, and at other e-vendors.

  A Mackenzie Family Christmas:

  The Perfect Gift

  by Jennifer Ashley

  Book 4.5 of

  Highland Pleasures

  Chapter One

  December 1884 Ian Mackenzie hated funerals.

  He especially hated dour, overly long funerals that dragged family and friends out to the side of a damp grave in the middle of a Scottish December, wind coming off the hills to chill the bone.

  The only warmth was Beth, standing at his side like a bright flame. She wore a dark gray frock trimmed with black, in keeping with the solemn occasion, but she could have been dressed in fiery red for the heat that suffused Ian. Because of Beth, he was able to come today and pay his respects to an old neighbor.

  The minister droned on about man being cut down like a flower in his prime--ridiculous, because Mrs.

  McCray had been ninety. A Sassenach from northern England, she'd married the laird in the next valley, a crony of Ian's father. Now Mrs. McCray and her husband were gone, and her sons, tall Scots lads who'd already produced more tall Scots lads, would take over the lands.

  The funeral ended, somber to the last. The McCrays had been very stern, very Scots, very Protestant, Mrs. McCray just as stern as her husband. Decadence strictly forbidden. And the Mackenzies, her neighbors, were so very decadent.

  "'Twill be quieter around these parts without her, that's certain," Mac Mackenzie said as they walked back home, Beth close to Ian, Mac arm in arm with his wife Isabella.

  Hart was riding back in his carriage, the Duke of Kilmorgan ever aware of his dignity. He'd come alone, as Eleanor, his new bride, was too far gone with their first child to make the journey to the chill funeral.

  "She never spoke except in a voice that would shatter glass," Mac went on. He put on a falsetto.

  " Roland Mackenzie, when are you going to leave off painting that trash and settle yourself like a gentleman? You disgrace yourself, your family, and your father. I can still hear her, poor woman."

  "Surely she left off after your marriage turned happy," Beth said behind him. "And you produced a son and heir."

  "No," Mac said, turning to flash his wide grin. "That was last week."

  "She went swiftly, which was a mercy," Isabella said. Wind stirred the dark blue feathers in her hat, and Mac's reddish hair. "She was working in her garden. Never felt a thing."

  "That's how I want to go," Mac said. "Walking upright one moment, flat on my nose the next."

  Isabella moved a step closer to him. "Let us not speak of it."

  "Aye," Cameron Mackenzie said. A sharp gust billowed back his long black coat, and shoved his hair from his sharp face. "Too many bloody funerals in this family already."

  Ainsley slid an arm around his waist. Cameron, the largest Mackenzie, bent his head as he pulled his wife to him.

  Ian felt Beth close on him as well, her gloved hands on his arm. All thoughts of funerals, old Mrs.

  McCray, and cold Scots winters dissolved. Ian had Beth, and nothing else mattered.

  They walked down the hill to the valley that held Kilmorgan Castle. Kilmorgan Castle was a large manor house now, the old castle having been pulled down a hundred and more years ago so that a modern, gigantic Georgian structure could be erected in its place.

  Ian, as always, felt lighter as he beheld the beautiful symmetry of the house--four wings of identical dimensions running back from a long perpendicular wing. The long wing was proportional to the four shorter wings by exactly two to one, not an inch out of place. The height of the house likewise was pleasingly proportional to its breadth and depth. Ian had studied the house meticulously over the years, measuring it to the last fraction. His father had tried to beat the obsession out of him, but Ian had taken comfort in the precise calculations.

  Behind the house, formal gardens had been laid out in the same kind of mirrored symmetry. Mac said he found the entire setup stifling, but the astonishing simplicity of the house and gardens had helped keep the young Ian from complete despair.

  Now he shared this beauty with Beth . . . he shared so many things with her.

  The house's massive front hall welcomed them with warmth, made still more cheerful by the greenery and ribbons the ladies of the house had hung here, there, and everywhere. Like I'm walking through a bloody woods, Hart had growled, but without any true rancor behind his words.

  Curry, Ian's valet, met them in the hall and ushered the family into the private dining room, where warm tea, coffee, whiskey, wine, and plenty of food awaited them. Curry, a Cockney man who'd helped Ian through the worst days of the asylum, considered funerals bad luck, especially funerals of a lady who'd turned a rough tongue on Curry on more than one occasion, and so had stayed home.

  Hart, having arrived before them, insisted they lift at least one glass to old Mrs. McCray. "May she, her husband, and our father be bullying one another in the great beyond."

  "I hope they enjoy it," Mac said, lifting his glass. His cut crystal goblet held tea, not whiskey. Mac now drank no alcohol of any kind.

  "Confusion to them all," Cam said, joining the toast.

  Hart downed his single malt in silence, then he left the room, off to seek Eleanor. The ladies sipped, each enjoying a warm spiced wine, but Ian didn't drink.

  "She wasn't cruel," Ian said into the lull.

  The others turned to him in surprise, as they often did when Ian added to a conversation long after that conversation had ceased.

  "No?" Mac asked, an edge of anger in his voice. "She urged Father to have you committed as a lunatic, and then told Hart he made a mistake letting you out of the asylum again."

  "She thought she was helping me," Ian said. "Father wanted rid of me. There is a difference."

  Mac studied him for a moment with an unreadable expression, then went back to the exotic tea his valet kept brewed for him. "If you say so, little brother."

  "She were a right bother, that's for certain" Curry said, approaching with more whiskey. "Forgive me bluntness. But old Mrs. McCray could be kind too. She took in urchins, gave 'em a warm belly and a job."

  "In return for a piece of her mind," Mac said.

  "Aye, that's so. But when you're starving, you're not so choosy. As I know."

  Ian sipped his whiskey and sat down with Beth, no longer interested. Mac laughed at Curry. "You mean, the Mackenzies took you in, and in return, you have to put up with us?"

  "Now, I'd never say something like that, your lordship," Curry said. His eyes twinkled, and he tipped Beth a wink, but Ian had lost the flow of the conversation. The funeral, Mrs. McCray, and all that it meant, were finished.

  "By the way," Curry said, coming to Ian with the decanter. "While you were out, it came."

Ian waited while Curry filled his glass, Ian taking in the flow of the amber liquid, the exact way the droplets splashed into the glass and spread in perfect ripples.

  When Curry finished and took a step back, his words, along with Beth's excited smile, connected in Ian's brain.

  "It's here?" Ian asked.

  "Aye, m'lord. Waiting for you in the Ming room. With the Russian gentleman's compliments, his man who delivered it said."

  Ian didn't hear the last. He left his seat, his brothers, their wives, and Curry a blur as he strode out of the room and down the enormous corridor, not realizing until halfway that he still clutched a full glass of whiskey, the liquid sloshing out over his hand.

  *** *** *** Beth walked out after Ian, her skirts rustling, but she didn't hurry. She knew where her husband was going and why.

  This summer, Ian had found an illustration of a Ming bowl in a book he'd read with his usual speed, and nothing would do but that he acquired said bowl, no matter what the cost.

  He'd scoured antiques stores in London, Edinburgh, Paris, and down into Italy. He'd visited dealers, written letters, sent telegrams, and waited anxiously for the answers. Because Ian was one of the foremost collectors of Ming bowls in Great Britain and Europe, many came forward to say they had a bowl exactly like it, but Ian had always known that none of them were right. It isn't the same, he'd tell the disappointed merchant or collector.

  At long last, he'd pinned down the current owner of the bowl in the book--an aristocrat in Russia. The Russian gentleman had agreed to the price and said he'd send the bowl by courier. Impatient Ian had thought of little else from that day to this.

  Beth found him at a table in the middle of the Ming room, his broad hands tearing back the paper and straw in a wooden box. She paused to observe him, her tall husband with a blue and green Mackenzie kilt hugging his hips, his dark formal coat stretched across his shoulders. He'd mussed his close-cropped hair, lamplight burnishing auburn streaks in it.

  He worked quickly, gaze intent on the box. The room around him was filled floor to ceiling with glassed-in shelves and glass cases on the floor, each bearing a Ming bowl on a little stand, each precisely labeled.

  Bowls only. Ian had no interest in vases or in porcelain from any other period. His early Ming collection, however, was priceless, the envy of all other Ming aficionados.

  Ian lifted the bowl from the wrappings and swiftly examined it, holding it up to the light and studying every side. Beth held her breath, fearing the Russian had cheated him, and wondering what Ian's reaction would be if he had.

  Then Ian relaxed into his devastating smile, his golden gaze seeking hers. "My Beth, come and see."

  He held the bowl with steady fingers as he waited for her. Beth marveled that his hands, so large and strong, could be so gentle--with his Ming bowls, on her skin, while holding his son and daughter.

  The bowl was certainly beautiful. Its thin porcelain sides were covered with interwoven flowers and tiny dragons in blue, one object flowing into another in delicate strokes. The inside of the bowl held more flowers dancing around the rim, and on the bottom was a single lotus flower. The underside held a dragon, four claws curled around the bowl's bottom lip. The blue, the only color, was incredible--dark and intense across the centuries.

  "Lovely," Beth breathed. "I understand now why you hunted for it so hard."

  Ian kept his gaze on the bowl, his face betraying joy he didn't know how to convey. He said nothing, but his look, his happiness, was enough.

  "The perfect Christmas gift," Beth said. "How on earth will I find something for you to compete with it?"

  "Today isn't Christmas," Ian said in his matter-of-fact voice, still looking at the bowl. "It's the twelfth.

  And we give our gifts at Hogmanay."

  "No, I meant . . . Never mind." Ian could be so very literal, and though he did try to understand Beth's little jokes, he didn't always catch when she meant to be funny. Poor Beth, she imagined him thinking, She doesn't understand a word she's saying.

  Ian set the bowl into her cupped palms. "Hold it up to the light. The pattern is deep. You can see the layers when th' light is behind them."

  He kept hold of her wrists as he guided her to raise her hands, holding the bowl toward the warm yellow wall sconce, which dripped with long, clear crystals.

  The light unfolded more flowers from between the dragons and vines, small and light blue. "Oh, Ian, it's exquisite."

  Ian released her wrists to let her turn the bowl this way and that, but he remained behind her, his warmth on her back. Her bustle crushed against her legs, Ian's arm coming around her waist. He leaned to kiss her neck, the love in the kiss rippling heat through her.

  Beth held the bowl up again, her fingers trembling. She needed to tell Ian of the outcome of their nights in bed this autumn, but she'd not had the chance yet. But now . . .

  Beth started to turn, to lower the bowl, to hand it back to him.

  Her shoe caught on the edge of the Aubusson carpet, its fringe snagging the high heel of her boot. She rocked, and Ian caught her by the elbow, but the bowl slipped from her fingers.

  She lunged for it, and so did Ian, but the porcelain evaded their outstretched hands.

  Beth watched in horror as the blue and white bowl fell down, down, down to the wooden floor beyond the rug, and smashed into shower of beautiful, polished bits.

  * * * * *

  Chapter Two

  Beth followed the bowl down, her dark skirts spreading as she sank to her knees. "Oh, Ian." Her breath caught on a sob. "Ian, I am so, so sorry."

  Ian remained fixed beside her, his polished boots an inch from her skirts. His large hand curled against the blue and green plaid of his kilt, a silent sign of his anguish.

  Beth reached for the pieces, tears in her eyes. What had she done? What had she done?

  She found Ian on his knees next to her, his hands gently lifting hers from the broken shards. "You'll cut yourself."

  His voice was even, almost a monotone. Ian's gaze fixed on what was left of the bowl, his whiskey-

  colored eyes taking in every piece, as though he knew exactly where each of the bits fit together.

  "We can fix it," Beth said quickly. "I'll have Curry find some glue, and we can put it back together again."

  "No." Ian kept hold of Beth's hands.

  "But we can try."

  Ian finally looked at her, his mesmerizing gaze meeting hers for a brief instant before it slid away again. "No, my Beth. It won't be the same."

  Tears slid down Beth's cheeks, and she reached again for the pieces. She would gather them up, paste the thing back together, try to find its beauty again.

  A bite of pain made her jump. Ian lifted her hand and kissed a spot of blood on her thumb.

  "Stay here," he said quietly.

  He flowed to his feet, leather boots creaking, and walked swiftly out of the room. Beth waited, more tears coming, and she put her thumb into her mouth to stop the bleeding.

  She couldn't believe she'd done this, ruined the thing Ian had wanted so much, had worked so hard to find. He'd finally won his heart's desire, and Beth had broken it.

  She had to fix it. She had to. If she couldn't repair the bowl, she'd have to find another one. The Russian gentleman might have a similar bowl, or know someone who had. She'd need help--and she knew just which Mackenzie she would recruit to help her. Hart could make the world turn upside down and shake out its pockets if he truly wanted to, and Beth would explain that he truly wanted to. This was for Ian.

  Ian returned, carrying a broom and a dustpan. He put out his hand to stop Beth when she tried to climb to her feet, then Lord Ian Mackenzie, youngest brother of the Duke of Kilmorgan, swept up the tiny shards of porcelain and shoved them into the dustpan.

  "What the devil?" Curry ran into the room, taking in Ian then Beth on the floor. "M'lady, what happened?"

  He asked Beth, because Curry knew that if Ian didn't choose to answer, he wouldn't.

  "I broke the
bowl," Beth said, miserable.

  Ian carried the broom and dustpan to Curry. "Throw the pieces away."

  "Just like that?" Curry bleated. " Throw the pieces away?"

  Ian gave him an impatient look, shoved the dustpan and broom into Curry's hands, and turned for the open door.

  "Where are you going?" Beth called after him.

  Ian glanced back at Beth but didn't meet her gaze. "Jamie and Belle will be awake from their naps in five minutes."

  Because Ian knew his son's and daughter's routines by heart, and never let anyone vary them, he would be right.

  Beth didn't relax. "Tell them I'll be up soon," she said.

  Ian nodded once and walked away.

  Beth got to her feet, picking a minute piece of porcelain out of her skirt.

  Curry stared at her, round-eyed, still holding the dustpan. "What happened?"

  "I don't know. It slipped out of my hands." Beth dropped the last piece into the dustpan, her breath hurting as she spoke. "Oh, Curry, I feel so very awful."

  "No, m'lady, I mean, what did 'e do?"

  "He . . . fetched a broom and swept up the pieces. But I could see he was upset."

  "That's all?"

  "I wouldn't say that was all. He had trouble looking at me, and I know I've hurt him. He wanted that bowl so much."

  Curry turned away, laid the dustpan next to the opened box, and propped the broom against the table.

  "'E broke another bowl once," he said in a slow voice, "about a year before 'e first clapped eyes on you.

  It were 'orrible, m'lady. Screaming like . . . I've never 'eard a sound like that come out of a 'uman throat.

  Me and Lords Mac and Cameron had to sit on 'im to keep 'im from 'urting 'isself. 'Is Grace wasn't 'ere--off politicking at the time--but 'Is Grace had to come back from wherever 'e was to calm Lord Ian down. It were days to get 'im to quiet, and none of us slept a wink."

  Beth listened, disquieted. She'd seen Ian in what he called his "muddles," when he lost control of his rage or performed an action over and over, desperately trying to make sense of whatever had happened to set him off. But he'd not done that in years, not since their marriage ceremony in their cozy house not far from here. Beth's domestic life so far had been nothing short of blissful.

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