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."