Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: A Mackenzie Clan Gathering

Book 8.5: The Mackenzies / McBrides Series

Scotland, September 1892

Something woke Ian Mackenzie deep in the night. He lay motionlessly, on his side, eyes open and staring at darkness.

A dozen years ago, awakening to total darkness would have sent Ian into a crazed panic, ending up with him on his feet, roaring at the top of his voice in English, Gaelic, and French. Servants would have rushed in, restoring lights some foolish footman had put out, finding Ian standing up beside his bed, swearing in rage and fear.

Now, he lay calmly, absorbing the soft quiet of the darkness.

The reason for his calm lay behind him on the bed—his Beth, curled against him in a nest of warmth.

Whatever change in the huge house had alerted Ian had been too subtle to wake Beth. She slept on, her breathing even, one hand soft against his bare back.

Ian’s mind rapidly churned through every possibility of what had dragged him from his dreams. His children—Jamie, Belle, and Megan—were fast asleep in their nursery. Ian knew whenever one of them was awake, knew it in his bones. They were shut behind the door of the large nursery at the end of the hall. Safe.

He let his senses expand to every tiny sound of the night. This was Scotland in the autumn, and winds flowed down the mountains to swirl around Kilmorgan with the shrieking of a dozen banshees.

The vast house itself, built a century and a half ago, was alive with noise. Creaking of pipes Hart had installed to bring running water to the bedchambers. The crackle of Daniel’s electrics experiments, the tinny sounds of the interior telephone system nephew Daniel had also created.

At the moment, all those noises, except the wind, were silenced. All except the snick of a window somewhere in the darkness of the house.

Ian and Beth were the only residents at Kilmorgan Castle, the vast mansion that stood north of Inverness. Hart, the Duke of Kilmorgan and master of the house, was in Edinburgh with Eleanor and his two children. His other brothers, Mac and Cameron, were at their respective country homes with their families, not due to Kilmorgan for a day or so.

Ian knew the exact location of each house of his brothers, and how long it would take the families to travel to Kilmorgan to celebrate Hart’s birthday next week. None of them could have arrived in the middle of this night without Ian knowing about it.

Kilmorgan was quite empty for now, except for Ian’s family, the skeleton staff needed to run the place, and three of the dogs.

Dogs … They were in the stables, guarding the prize racehorses. They weren’t barking or making a fuss.

But Ian knew, without understanding how he knew, that someone who shouldn’t be there was inside the house.

He slid out of bed, moving smoothly enough not to wake Beth. He stood a moment at the bedside, strong toes curling on the soft carpet, cool air brushing his bare skin. His valet, Curry, had dropped a nightshirt over Ian’s head when he’d headed to bed, but when Beth had joined him, the nightshirt had been quickly tossed away.

Ian moved past the shirt, a pale smudge on the carpet, to reach for the long folds of plaid Curry had laid across a chair to warm before the fire. Ian wrapped the kilt around his large frame, tucking the excess folds in around his waist. He then moved to the chest of drawers, opened the top one, and slid out a Webley pistol.

Ian never kept loaded guns in the house. Far too dangerous with children around. All shotguns were locked into cabinets in the steward’s house near the stables, any personal handguns were kept unloaded, ammunition locked away in a separate place. Ian had made this a firm rule, and Hart had agreed.

Ian moved from bedroom to his connecting dressing room, unlocked a cubbyhole within a cabinet, and pulled bullets from a box there. He lined up six in a perfect row, returned the box and locked the cabinet, and slid the bullets into their chambers with precision.

He left the dressing room through the door that led to the corridor, paused long enough to click the pistol’s barrel into place, and strode swiftly and silently down the hall toward the gallery at the end.

Clouds covered the moon tonight, but a gaslight near the staircase illuminated a long stretch of corridor lined with windows. This was the front of the house, overlooking over the drive that led to Kilmorgan. From the outside, the row of floor-to-ceiling windows was part of the grand facade created by Malcolm Mackenzie, the ancestor who’d first turned Kilmorgan from cold castle into a home.

Ian saw no one in the upper hall, no furtive movement in the shadows, nothing out of place. He crept toward the staircase, his bare feet making no noise on the carpet.

Lights on the landings were kept burning all night, so that members of the household who wandered about wouldn’t fall headlong down the stairs. Tonight, no one but Ian was in sight as he went quickly down the steps.

Not until he turned along the ground-floor gallery that ran toward Hart’s side of the house did Ian find anything wrong.

A flurry of movement at the far end of the gallery caught his eye. Ian took in everything he saw, assessed it quickly, then pushed the conclusions to the back of his mind as he sprinted toward the half dozen men in dark clothes trying to exit through the garden door.

Ian could move swiftly and in silence, and he was upon them before they realized. He heard muffled curses in several languages, saw the bulk of bodies and what they carried. Several of the men made it out before Ian wordlessly landed amongst them.

The man Ian caught by the back of the neck expertly broke from him, swung around, and jammed a short cudgel toward Ian’s stomach. Ian, who’d learned about dirty fighting both from his brothers and on the streets of Paris, avoided the cudgel and grabbed the arm that wielded it.

He swung the man around and into a second. Ian shoved his pistol into the second man’s face.

In the next moment, both men crashed themselves into Ian, fighting for the gun. One man got his hand around it, but Ian yanked hard, and the pistol fell, skittering across the floor into darkness, out of sight, out of reach.

The toughs were good, but so was Ian. They had layers of clothes hampering them, while he fought like his ancestors, in kilt and bare feet, with his fists or by stealing another man’s weapons.

The first man grunted as Ian ripped the cudgel out of his hand and bashed it into his abdomen. The second man’s fist came at Ian’s face, which Ian caught with his big hand, then the second man punched him right in the gut.

Ian spun away, fighting pain. The man he’ d cudgeled was doubled over, and Ian spun back to the second man, battling until he got him into a headlock.

The first man, holding his stomach, went for the pistol. A growl escaped Ian’s mouth. He slammed the second man way from him and went after the first.

The second man dashed out the garden door, but Ian didn’t care. The first man, seeming to recover at every step, ran to where the pistol had fallen and scooped it up. Instead of turning to shoot Ian, he raced along the gallery toward the main stairs.

Ian went ice cold. Beth was up there. Ian had heard the echo of their bedroom door closing as he’d fought—the galleries and staircase let sound carry in an almost magical way. He knew Beth would have made her way to the stairs and started down, as Ian had, to see what was going on.

This thug with a pistol was running directly toward her.

Ian sprinted after him, kilt flying up over his thighs as he put on a burst of speed. Ian knew this gallery and the thug didn’t—where the bare spaces between carpets lay, where tables had been placed in the middle of the floor so a piece of sculpture could be viewed from all sides. Ian dodged these and leapt from rug to rug, gaining on the man before he reached the stairs.

Ian tackled him. He heard Beth give a sharp scream as the thug went down under Ian’s body.

Ian felt the cold pistol touch his ribs. In the next second, he’d be dead.

He used that second to roll, grab, and twist. The pistol came away from the man’s hand and went off, the bullet striking somewhere high in the ceiling.

Beth’s scream came again, and her shouts for help.

Ian hauled the thug around and punched him full in the face. The thug, instead of fighting, wrenched himself out of Ian’s grip, charged for the front door, yanked it open, and ran out into the darkness. Ian heard the man’s boots crunching on gravel, and then nothing.

Ian dashed out after him, but the tough was gone, swallowed by night and swirling mists. Dogs were barking now, and men were coming out from the stables with lanterns.

Ian closed the door. The thugs didn’t matter now. The safety of Beth and his children was all to him.

Beth ran down the stairs, her dressing gown floating behind her. “Ian, are you all right? Ian?

Ian caught her as she came off the staircase, lifting her from her feet and crushing her to him.

If the man had reached Beth … The thug was the sort to grab a woman and use her as a shield, and then shoot her when she was no longer useful.

If Ian had been a few seconds too slow …

He buried his face in Beth’s neck, inhaling the warm scent of her. She was beautiful, and well, and in his arms. Safe.

People brushed past him—servants coming see what was wrong. Lights flickered and grew brighter. Men came into the house through the front and garden doors, exclaiming, making sounds of disbelief and dismay.

Ian wanted them go away, to leave him with Beth alone in this bubble of peace he found in her arms, a place where the world couldn’t touch him.

But it wasn’t to be. His valet, Curry, once a London street villain, clattered down the stairs on swift feet. “Bleedin’ ’ell!”

Beth tried to lift away. “Ian—love—I’m all right. We must see what is happening.”

She was correct, of course. Ian had learned in this first decade of his marriage—ten beautiful, sparkling years—that he could not withdraw from the world. Once in a while, yes, with Beth and privacy, and maybe a lick of honey, but not always. He’d grown used to facing immediate situations without panic, without having to bolt and think it over later.

Letting out a long breath, Ian raised his head. Beth gave him a little smile and tucked his kilt, which had come awry while he’ d chased the thug, more securely around his waist.

The little gesture made Ian’s heart beat swiftly. To hell with facing the world. Ian would take Beth back upstairs now and let her unwrap him, enjoying whatever she found in whichever way she wanted to enjoy it.

Beth, catching the look in his eyes, let her smile grow wider, but she shook her head. Not yet, she meant. But later …

Ian would be sure to take her up on the unspoken promise. Resolved, Ian twined his fingers though Beth’s and let her lead him the rest of the way down the stairs.

The entire gallery glowed with light. The servants had turned up every lamp in the place.

Beth gasped in shock. Ian had seen and noted everything out of place as he’d run past in the dark, but he’d pushed the vision aside so it wouldn’t distract him in his pursuit of the intruders. Now he faced the gallery and what he’d seen.

Most of the tables that had held sculptures were empty, and almost every painting from the garden end of the gallery was gone. These pictures had been painted by famous artists through the centuries, plus a precious handful by Ian’s brother Mac. Only those that had been hung high, out of easy reach, remained. A few paintings lay piled on the floor, half-ripped from frames, the frames broken. Ruined.

Hart Mackenzie’s priceless art collection had just been ravaged and stolen, the thieves fleeing with the loot into the night.

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