Authors: Karen Hawkins
He regarded her for a long moment, his slightly deferential manner now completely gone. There was turmoil
in his deep green eyes, a quick flicker of thoughts as he made a decision regarding her confrontation.
After a split second, he drawled, “It seems I am found out.” To her surprise, he shrugged and then flashed a smileâand a charming, winsome smile it was, too. “You, fine lady, have discovered me.”
She could only blink. Ailsa couldn't believe he'd revealed himself; she'd expected him to at least argue. Perhaps he'd admitted his identity because he believes to gain more from this admission. If so, that was a sad mistake indeed.
He captured her free hand and bowed over it, all grace and playfulness. “Allow me the pleasure of an introduction. I am Nikolai Romanovin, Crown Prince of Oxenburg.”
The change in the man from cautious, resentful groom to charming, gracious prince was breathtaking. His entire expression changed, his eyes gleaming as if he were fascinated, a teasing smile now playing around his mouth. “You seem surprised, and yet a moment hence, you were confident beyond doubt.”
“I'm surprised only that you admitted your deceit so quickly.”
“Allow me to point out that my âdeceit,' if you must call it that, was not perpetrated against you.”
His hand, gloved as hers were, was warm where it covered hers, and she was far more aware of it than she should have been. She cleared her throat and tugged her hand free. “Then against whom was this deceit perpetrated?”
“I am here in secret for my own security; no one must know I've left Holyrood.”
He'd hesitated before he'd answered. It had been a mere half second's worth of a hesitation, one upon which she might not have put weight were it anyone else. But she had the impression that, with this man, every little nuance held a meaning of some sort.
“I see.” She pursed her lips, wondering how she should play this new game. She almost preferred the hostile groom to the warm, charming faÃ§ade the prince now wore, but only because she knew it to be a faÃ§ade and nothing more. Had they met under other circumstances, she couldn't begin to imagine how quickly she might have succumbed to the warmth of his expression and the charming smile. She nodded as if she agreed. “Safety is important.”
He inclined his head and said in a low, almost intimate tone, “If it is not too much trouble, I hope you will continue to pretend I'm a groom. It will be safer.”
Safer for whom?
He was so tall and so large that she couldn't imagine him being in any sort of danger whatsoever. Added to that, he stood here, without a guard, without looking over his shoulder or in any way displaying the reactions of someone truly concerned for his safety. She managed a noncommittal shrug, as if she could have cared less about his intentions, even though she burned to know them. “Fine. I will nae reveal your presence.”
To punctuate her agreement, and to irk her guest a bit and perhaps tease him into revealing his true colors, she took another puff on the cigar, pretending to savor the flavor.
“You like cigars?”
“Who does nae?” To be honest, she didn't like it, not even a little. It had taken all her considerable powers of concentration not to cough during the few puffs she'd taken, for the smoke tickled her throat mightily. It had been a childish ploy, drinking the prince's liquor and smoking his cigar. But she'd been unable to resist the temptation to shake his composure. Thank goodness she'd had Gregor as a mentor as she grew up, for when they'd been younger, he'd shared both his whisky and cigars, something her father would have condemned, had he known.
Ailsa enjoyed whisky, but she'd never found any joy in smoking cigars. And now her poor throat, already burned by the strong drink in the flask (whatever it had been, it was stronger than whisky), protested each puff she took. Papa always said the only way to appreciate a cigar was with the mouth, and not the lungs. Gregor had laughed at that, and swore that a true connoisseur both tasted the smoke and let it warm the soul.
However Gregor saw it, Ailsa couldn't imagine puffing any longerâbetween the drink and the cigar, she was feeling distinctly dizzy. “Tell me, Your Highness: what do you hope to accomplish, if you dinnae intend to let anyone know you are here?”
His gaze flickered over her, lingering on her lips in a way that left her breathless. “That's simple, my lady. I came for you.”
“ForÂ .Â .Â . me?” Her voice squeaked oddly on the last word and her cheeks heated.
His smile warmed. “
. I have come to alleviate you of a great burden.”
The untruth of his statement returned her composure. So he'd come all this way to help her, had he?
Not bloody likely.
She managed a polite smile. “Oh?”
“You will tell me all you know of my grandmother's abduction, and I will find Her Grace and Lord Hamilton and bring them back unharmed.”
He made it sound so simple, almost negligently so, which irritated her like sand between her teeth. She'd lost sleep over the abduction, had plotted and questioned, worried and planned. And now here he was, without the least show of concern, offering to do the deed for her.
“That is good,
?” He threw out his hands, looking as if he'd just granted her the world's largest favor. “You will not have to do anything; I will take care of the issue for you.”
He looked so confident that a flicker of uncertainty brought her up short. Under normal circumstances, she would have found it amusing for a huge, handsome man to look at her in such a solicitous manner. But this situation was different. She'd been deeply alone, struggling to find her way through this new, dangerous situation without the benefit of an advisor or even a sympathetic ear. Part of her wanted nothing more than for someoneâsomeone who knew more than she, but who cared just as muchâto assist her in making the difficult decisions. While another part of her refused to step away from her responsibilities.
What if he and his men are better suited to lead this rescue attempt?
But even as she had the thought, suspicion made her look at him with narrowed eyes. His expression was one of concern, and appeared quite genuine, but she
couldn't erase from her memory the way he'd talked to his men when he hadn't known anyone was watchingâin a bold, arrogant way.
That was not the prince she now faced. She forced a smile. “That is a kind offer, but I already have a plan in place to rescue Her Grace and Lord Hamilton.”
Impatience flashed through his eyes. “I suppose your little plan has to do with paying the requested ransom.”
Her jaw tightened, and she didn't answer.
“Because if it does, then you, my lady, are making a great error. Paying the ransom will only encourage those who took the captives to ask for more gold. And then more again.” His jaw firmed. “Oxenburg does not pay ransoms.”
He said the words as if that one sentence settled matters, which only raised her ire all the more. “What would you suggest, then? Storming in, swords drawn and pistols blazing, hoping Her Grace and Lord Hamilton do nae get injured in the melee?”
His smile faltered and then disappeared. “Of course I would not ride in with pistols blazing. That'sâ” He broke off, his mouth pressed into a straight line. But after a few moments, he seemed to regain control of himself, for his expression softened. “Come. We should not fight; we have the same goal, which is to save our loved ones. And
, I would not race in thoughtlessly, as you suggest, for I am not a fool. But paying the ransom is not the way.”
“It is worth trying, at least. If it wins back the prisoners with nae blood shed, then we will all be relieved.”
“And if it does not, then you have merely encouraged the abductors to think you weak.” He bent down and captured her free hand, cupping it between his own. “Please. Let me help you. My men and I know best how to handle this situation.”
Though he held her hand so comfortingly, there was a set to his mouth that told her that no matter what she said or did, he would do as he saw fit.
She looked down at where her hand disappeared in his and gently freed it. There was nothing stopping the prince and his men from setting out on their own; she knew that. But she hadn't shared the exact location of the ransom meeting with Lord Apraksin for a reason; she'd wished to keep some of the cards in her own hands. It had seemed overly cautious at the time, and Gregor had even questioned her about it after Lord Apraksin and Mr. Rurik had left the small study, but now she was gladâso gladâshe'd followed her instincts.
The prince might know how to handle this situation in Oxenburg, but he didn't know the Scots the way she did. He had no understanding of the complexities of clan relationships, and could never bring this unfortunate episode to anything but a regrettable end.
She and her party would leave in the morning as she'd planned, and the prince and his men could do what they would, although they'd have no idea where to begin their search. She would not forgo caution for bravado.
It was time to put an end to this. She held her hand to one side to drop the cigar to the ground.
Before her fingers could loosen enough to release it,
the prince's large gloved hand closed about her wrist and she was tugged forward, her astounded gaze now level with the second button on his coat. Less than an inch separated them; she could feel the heat from his body through her heavy wool coat.
It would be best if I don't look up,
she decided, her heart thundering in her ears, her skin prickling with awareness.
The prince plucked the cigar from her surprised fingers.
“What are you doing?” she heard herself ask in a breathless voice.
He bent closer, his breath warming her chilled cheek. “Taking what is mine.”
She knew he was talking about the cigar, but for a breathless moment she closed her eyes, a willful thought scampering unbidden through her imagination.
I wish he were talking about me.
Surprised at herself, her eyes flew open, and she found herself drowning in his green, green eyes. She tried to swallow, but couldn't, so she lowered her gaze to his chin, forcing her distracted brain to focus on that and nothing else. But that firm chin was attached to a very sensual mouth, and the sight of it tugged her forward.
One small move on her part, and she'd be against him, her chest to his. And if she lifted up on her toes, her mouth might touch his, which would be foolishâ
Or would it? Perhaps in kissing him, she could regain some control over this situation, over him. If he thought she'd fallen under his spell, he'd think he'd won, and
that would give her the time to figure out how to deal with this new development.
Without giving herself too much time to think about it, she lifted up on her toes and kissed him.
She wasn't sure who was more shocked, for they both froze in place, her body pressed firmly to his, her chilled lips over his warm ones. And och, how delicious his lips were.
Nae, nae, nae! That's enough! One kiss, nae more!
she warned herself frantically. She lifted her foot to step back, but the prince's strong arms slid about her and locked her in place.
And suddenly, she was no longer the one kissing, but was the one being kissed. His mouth, warm and insistent, covered hers, teasing and tempting. He didn't just kiss, he
, bending her back, pressing her lips apart, his tongue brushing hers in a wantonly intimate gesture.
Heat flooded her, overwhelmed her, consumed her. He deepened the kiss, nipping her bottom lip andâ
She broke away and stepped back, her breath rapid, her heart galloping madly. Her gloved fingers brushed her burning lips.
That wasÂ .Â .Â . Oh my.
He watched her and she caught a flicker of surprise in his green eyes before he lowered his lids and regarded her through his lashes.
“I dinnae mean for that to happen,” she blurted.
“Neither did I,” Nik admitted. She'd surprised him. He'd expected the kiss to be pleasant, perhaps even sensual, but nothing had prepared him for the searing passion that kiss had ignited.
There is more to this little mouse than I expected. Much, much more.
Nik wasn't quite sure what he was to do with that information; he only knew it was now a factâshe was a blindingly passionate woman, and under other circumstances, he'd have enjoyed tasting more of her.
She nervously wet her lips, and his body warmed yet again as she said in a breathless voice, “I dinnae know what came over me. That wasÂ .Â .Â . I should nae haveâ”
“Please. Kisses are never to be regretted.”
Ailsa could only nod. She hoped he was now feeling even more superior than he had, as if he'd already won the day. As if she'd given him the upper hand without a fight. Which was exactly what she wanted.
Still, she couldn't stop looking at his mouth which had just covered hers. At his strong jaw, or the thickness of his lashes over his green, green eyes. Like it or not, the prince was a handsome man. More than handsome. One could even say he was perfect, at least the parts of him that she could see.
Which had the unfortunate effect of making her wonder about the parts she
see. And therein lay the danger: the parts of himâboth physical and otherwiseâthat were hidden from view.
Ailsa took a deep breath, pulling cold air into her lungs and trying to calm her scattered thoughts. She'd been so focused on trying to best this man that she hadn't been prepared for her own reactions, and they'd almost escaped her control.
she told herself with a deep thankfulness. This man was an impossible temptation for any woman, especially one who'd just taken two gulps of an unnamed burning liquor
and puffed on a cigar that was much stronger than any she'd ever tried.