Scotland Christmas Reunion – Donna MacMeans

“DOES THE LOCH ever completely freeze in winter?” Light from a full moon shimmered on the icy water and reflected off Schiehallon’s frozen ridge on the far side of Loch Rannoock. Lady Edith MacPherson shivered before turning away from the window, her loneliness heightened by the isolation of the Scottish Highlands in winter. She should never have come. “Nay, not full across,” the woman designated as the Dowager’s lady’s maid for the length of her stay replied. Not that Edith intended to stay long enough to see for herself. She’d come north to welcome the returning newlyweds and bid goodbye to the estate now firmly in the hands of her son’s new wife. Lord, how could Claire stand it here? She herself missed the excitement and camaraderie of her friends in London as well as the gaiety inherent with the holidays. When she was mistress of Ravenswood Castle, her husband had always cut an evergreen for her to decorate for Christmas. She would place it in the parlor, where the fresh pine scent would fill the main floor, and the festive tree decorations would welcome visitors. The Scots did not celebrate Christmas, but Edith was determined that her boys would experience the joy to be had in a proper English Christmas celebration. “Will you wear the MacPherson plaid, my lady? The wool holds a nice warmth against a chill draft.” “By all means,” Edith answered. No one downstairs would be interested in her fashionable gown. The heavy plaid would cover all. Better to be warm than attractive on such a cold December night.

Once attired, she wound round the turret stairs to the Grand Hall on the main floor. No crisp pine greeted her from the side parlor. Paper snowflakes didn’t dangle from the row of antler trophies as the new mistress had the long hall stripped of the decades’ old trophies. Her daughter-in-law, Claire, was quickly leaving her mark on the castle, and in the process, removing all traces of Edith. Edith paused at the bottom of the steps, took a deep breath, and smiled, determined that her son and the new Lady MacPherson would remain unaware of her melancholy thoughts. “Claire, how lovely you look this evening,” she said in greeting. The girl had blossomed in her marital state, and had traded in her normal morose black and white for a simple cranberry gown. Gone were the pinched looks, the haunting accusations in her eyes. It had been a mystery to her why Cameron had chosen this unexpected Temperance firebrand over the other English beauties Edith had purposefully paraded before him. Yet Cameron’s love had lifted the self-doubt that had weighed down Claire’s shoulders.

She may not have been Edith’s first choice for a daughter-in-law but her son was happy and that, after all, had been Edith’s primary concern. The front door burst open. Cameron and the ghillie James, supported a bloodied man between them as they crossed the threshold. Peat, Cameron’s deerhound, followed at their heels. Claire rushed forward to close the door, the residence sadly lacking in servants. “What happened? Is he hurt?” She turned to a young girl from the kitchen who’d come to investigate. “Tell Cailleach to bring warm water and bandages, then collect some warm blankets from the bachelor quarters and bring them here.” She dispatched everyone with efficiency and purpose. Perhaps Cameron had been wise in his choice of a wife. Edith looked at Claire with a new sense of admiration.

“We found him at the side of the road,” Cameron explained. “His cart overturned with a broken axle.” They half-dragged him to a padded chair. “I didna see a horse so at least the beast escaped injury.” “Who is he?” Edith asked, as Cameron settled him near the fire. She pulled the plaid off her shoulders and tucked it around the stranger like a blanket. An odd sense of familiarity gripped her chest. She didn’t know this man, why should she feel that she had? She glanced at Cameron. “Do you know him?” James poured Scotch from a table decanter then passed it to Cameron. He held the drink to the stranger’s lips.

“Aye,” Cameron said. “I think this is the American that was at the distillery earlier. He was offering a contract for his empty bourbon barrels to age our Scotch. I believe he said he was heading for Pitlochry after he left RavenBeck. Guess he didna make it.” “An American?” Edith peered closer at the stranger’s face and clasped his icy cold hand between her warmer ones. She guessed the man was her age, perhaps a few years older. Even with the dried blood on the side of his face and a knot the size of a hen’s egg on his forehead, he was handsome. Myriad crinkles radiated from the corners of his eyes. Smile lines, she’d heard them called.

He’d apparently lived a happy life. She envied him that. Not that she was complaining. Having buried a son and a husband in the cold ground outside, she’d known her share of misery. Still, happier times still lived in her memories. Still… that odd sense of familiarity refused to dissipate. How could she know this man? CAMERON MANAGED TO pour some Scotch down the man’s gullet. He startled, coughed and opened unfocused eyes. “Does he have a name?” Claire asked, dabbing at the side of his face with a moist cloth. “Grayson, I believe,” Cameron said.

“Henry Grayson.” He leaned over the man and nearly shouted. “Can ya hear me, Grayson? We found you at the side of the road. Are ya hurt, man?” The stranger began to shake his head, winced, and then thought the better of it. He struggled to sit up. “Something spooked the horse. The wagon overturned.” He looked up to Cameron and nodded toward the glass. “Is there more where that came from?” Cameron and James laughed before Cameron handed him the glass. “I think you’ll be just fine.

” The two returned to the sideboard presumably to share in the whisky. “Gray?” Edith said, still at the stranger’s side. The others had moved away, giving the stranger room to breathe, and affording the two a bit of privacy. “Is that truly you?” “You know him?” Cameron stopped mid-room, glancing back in question. The stranger turned slightly, his eyes searched her face. “I once knew an American boy named Henry Grayson,” Edith explained. “You can’t be that Henry Grayson as the boy I knew is –” “Hello Edith,“ he said in a soft seductive voice. A smile graced his lips. “You are as beautiful as ever, and a delight to behold.” “–dead,” Edith finished on a gasp.

She stood and backed away. “You two know each other?” Cameron’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Did you know she was my mother when you offered your contract at the distillery?” “I did not,” the stranger said. “I assure you that your mother is a complete–” his eyes skimmed over her, warming appreciatively, ”– and most delightful surprise.” “All these years…” Edith stared in shock. He should be a ghost, but as she’d tucked her plaid around him, she knew most assuredly that he was not. Her cheeks heated. “I thought you had died on the crossing to America.” His answering smile held a grim twist. “You certainly treated me as if I had.

” He tried to stand but fell back in his chair, the scotch in his glass sloshed over the rim. “I don’t think you should try to rise just yet, Mr. Grayson,” Claire said, applying a cloth wrapped around ice to the bump on his head. “You’ll be staying here tonight. We have plenty of room.” “Thank you for your hospitality,” he said with a grateful glance to Claire. “Perhaps it would be best if your husband could help me to that room. I wouldn’t want to infringe upon your supper.” Cameron lent his shoulder to helping Grayson to a room in the bachelor wing. Edith watched them leave the parlor, her son firmly grasping her love from decades past.

How was this possible? Her mother had told her the boy had died, and the absence of letters had assured her this was true. If that hadn’t been the case, she would have waited for him as she promised. She wouldn’t have agreed to marry her husband. She would have forfeit her privileged life, her sons, her — “Lady MacPherson,” James interrupted her thoughts. “We’re going into dinner now. Will you join us?” He extended his arm before her. “Cameron will join us in a moment once the American is settled.” “Yes,” she answered as if in a daze. She reached for his arm, needing a man of substance to encourage her legs to move. The world had suddenly turned topsy-turvy and she wasn’t certain of her role in it.

Dinner did not improve her situation. She hadn’t much of an appetite and couldn’t even say what conversation was exchanged around her. All her thoughts centered on the man in the back rooms. She excused herself, pleading a headache, but she didn’t return to her room. Not exactly… “HAVE YOU COME to verify that I’m not a ghost?” Henry asked the moment she’d entered his room. Light from the gas jets brightened papers spread about the bed covering. His nightshirt, one of Cameron’s discards, provided a view of his dark chest hair tinged with gray. Even though she knew she should be too old to be affected by such sights, her insides clenched in appreciation. He returned his attention to his papers. “Or were you afraid I might haunt your bedchamber and rob you of sleep, much as memories of you have robbed me of mine.

” She advanced toward the bed. “I came to see how you fared? If there was anything you need?” “An explanation.” His lips slid into a half-smile. It was not kind, not like the ones he’d gifted her with downstairs. “I still can’t believe that after all these years, I’ve found you here, in Scotland, of all places. How many years has it been?” She settled into a chair near the bed, close enough to study how time had treated Gray in the intervening years, yet far enough away that she remained in the shadows to the room. “My mother said your ship was lost at sea. I waited a year for letters that never arrived,” she offered. “It was only after I’d finally accepted that you were gone that I married Cameron’s father.” She picked at the fringe on her gown to avoid Gray’s expression.

“We were married for twenty-three years before I became a widow.” “I’m sorry to learn of your loss.” Compassion swept his face before his eyes narrowed in contemplation. “I don’t recall a MacPherson.” “You never met him.” She smiled, then gazed about the room. “He built this castle for me, you know. He hoped a home with modern amenities would entice me to stay in Scotland.” “And did you?” “I’m afraid he was disappointed with my reception,” she replied with a tight smile. “I missed the sophistication of London life and never learned to appreciate Scotland’s winters.

” Her lips tilted. “Only an American would travel to the Highlands this time of year.” He laughed, the sound much deeper and richer than she’d remembered from their earlier time together. “Obviously, you’ve not experienced Kentucky winters. The holiday season is particularly difficult now that my wife is gone.” She recalled those smile lines. He certainly hadn’t pined for her for thirty years. “You’ve married?” She shifted uncomfortably. “When you didn’t reply to my letters, I assumed it was your method of saying you no longer cared, so yes.” He gathered his papers into tidy stacks.

“I found a lovely woman with a ready smile and an open heart. We raised three strapping boys and a sweet girl who are all back in Kentucky.” “I cared,” she rushed to add, recalling her pain and heartbreak when she’d believed he’d succumbed to a watery grave. “But I was told you had died. Did you expect that I’d hopelessly wait? For what purpose?” She grimaced, wishing her mother still lived so she could release her anger on the one that deserved it. “My mother must have imagined a relationship with an American impossible and a long distance relationship improbable.” “She was probably right,” Gray admitted. What? Her eyes widened, but he waved her arguments aside before she gave them voice. “It doesn’t matter now, does it? We’ve each lived our lives…happy lives…and we both found love in the arms of another. Most people are lucky to find love once in a lifetime, but we managed to find love twice.

We were blessed.” “Perhaps.” She agreed, but she couldn’t stop imagining how it might have been had her mother not interfered. “The past is past,” he said, as if he could read her mind. “We shouldn’t dwell on possibilities that can never be.” She nodded, then stood, effectively ending their conversation. “I should leave you to your rest. You’ll be leaving in the morning?” He began to nod, then grimaced and reached for ice wrapped in a cloth. “We can always keep in touch,” he rasped. “I’m afraid.

as the years pass, fewer and fewer friends from the old days remain.” “Perhaps,” she managed, hoping she effectively hid her desire to step toward the bed for his embrace. It had been years since she’d felt the comfort of a man’s arms about her, of the scrape of a whiskery chin along the side of her face. For a moment, she wished she might sweep her hand in the air and push all the complications and difficulties between them away to return to the two intimate and close friends that they had been in her youth. But the years were many. Too many. They exchanged chaste good evenings, then she silently returned to her room utilizing the secret staircase that led to the library upstairs. Wisdom decreed that it was best not to disturb the past and consider what could have been. But wisdom hadn’t encountered the image of Henry Grayson in a nightshirt. HE DIDN’T LEAVE the next day.

The repairs on the wagon would take longer than anticipated thus Gray was obliged to remain with them for another day. Yet the addition of a stranger did not delay Claire’s determined ritual cleaning. Edith felt underfoot and of benefit to no one at the moment. She supposed Gray felt similarly. She invited him for a walk about the estate, but before they left, Claire presented a request. “As Mr. Grayson will be with you, I thought you might collect some mistletoe from the apple tree orchard.” A flush filled her cheeks. “I know mistletoe balls are more appropriate for a Christmas celebration, but no one can complain if we leave them in place for Hogmanay,” she said, handing Edith a basket. “Cameron and James left to conduct some distillery business, else I’d ask James for assistance.

” “We’d be delighted,” Gray answered, taking the basket from Edith’s arm. “If you’ll just point me toward the orchard?” “I’ll show you,” Edith said, priding herself on not questioning the appropriateness of a kissing bough at a New Year’s Eve gathering. The Hogmanay celebration would be the first for Claire, both in participation and as the mistress of the castle. Her excitement was evident. “Edith,” Gray said, once they were on their way. “I hope you don’t take offense, but I can’t help but notice that you’re not the irrepressible happy girl that I recall. You seem so melancholy. You should be dancing at a holiday ball, burning a yule log, and toasting with a celebratory punch. Cheer up, my girl. It’s soon to be Christmas.

” She smiled at the affectionate reference to “my girl.” No one had called her that since her husband had died. “I suppose you caught me at a melancholy time. It’s difficult to abandon one’s home for another.” She stopped and looked back at the imposing castle. It had always been more her husband’s dream than her own, even though he often cited her as his inspiration. “While I’ve always preferred the London property, it’s still…bittersweet, I suppose.” She turned and continued trudging toward the orchard. “As for a holiday ball, you may have noticed that we haven’t a Christmas tree in the house, or holly, or—” she glanced at him under her lashes “—mistletoe.” His eyes crinkled.

“A lacking that is soon to be corrected. I suppose you’ll be putting up a Christmas tree as well. I must admit I’m in a sudden mood for an old fashioned holiday.” “You won’t find that here,” Edith said, dismayed with the petulant sound of her voice. “Why not?” “The Scots don’t celebrate Christmas. I’ll admit that I’d forgotten that when I made this trip to welcome my son and his new wife, and to say my goodbyes to the castle. Claire might be British, but she has embraced the Scottish traditions like a native.” She turned to him a bit exasperated. “Who doesn’t celebrate Christmas and Boxing day? These are just work days for the Scots.” “And what is this Hogmanay that I keep hearing of?” “It’s the Scottish way of celebrating the ending of the old year in preparation for the new.

Did you not get the feeling that we were being pushed out the door?” “There was a certain urgency to our walk, I suppose.” “It’s to get us out of the castle so Claire and Cailleach can clean. A Christmas tree would only drop needles and the castle must be throughly cleaned by the last day of the year. It’s a Scottish tradition.” She sighed. “Claire has invited friends from London for a large party that day.” They reached the Orchard. Edith pointed out a growth of the parasitic mistletoe high in the branches of an older apple tree. “A party, aye?” A twinkle sparkled in Gray’s eyes. With the basket still on his arm, Grayson climbed the tree and hacked at the growth.

“Will there be dancing?” “Yes, but this won’t be a formal ball like the ones we attended.” Edith collected the mistletoe as it rained down around her from the tree above. She placed the gathered foliage in the basket. “Many of the villagers will be in attendance.” “I suppose there will be drinking at this Hogmanay?” She smiled. “Yes, of course. Cameron will tap a barrel from the distillery.” She smiled up through the branches of the old apple tree. Was Grayson still the same nimble dancer that she recalled? Excitement began to build inside her at the possibility of dancing with him again. Granted, the dance might be a jig and not the more formal guided steps of a ballroom, but even a jig sounded thrilling if shared with Gray.

“There should be pipers,” she yelled up to the tree. “And a fiddler or two.” She heard his sigh, a weary audible sound. “Then I’m disappointed that I shall miss it.” He began his slow descent from the higher branches. “But why?” she asked, feeling the unexpected happiness drain from her soul. “It’s only a few days away. Surely you can stay?” “I can not.” He jumped to the ground, then helped collect the fallen pieces of mistletoe. “I’m behind in my schedule as it is.

As much as I would enjoy more time with you and participating in such a lively celebration as this Hogmanay, I can not stay here for a week when I can be out visiting other distilleries collecting contracts.” She turned away, not wanting him to see her disappointment. “What’s that?” he asked, breaking the silence. “Up on the hill?

.

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