Authors: Karen Hawkins
The prince's gaze flickered over her face, his expression thoughtful. “Lady Ailsa, I owe you an apologyÂ .Â .Â . and my thanks. I came onto your property without notifying you, and then pretended to be someone I'm not. For that, I am sorry.”
“I accept your apology. You were worried aboot your grandmother. That's understandable.” She raised her brows. “But the thanks?” Maybe he was going to thank her for the kiss, her impulsive, attempt-to-disarm-him kiss that had left her with such weak knees she could only hope she could walk on her own power back into the castle.
A glint warmed his gaze. “Thank you for the cigar,
.” He placed the cigar between his lips.
“You are welcome,” she said in a dry tone. “I will sleep more soundly knowing you and your cigar were reunited.”
He chuckled, the sound rumbling deep in his chest.
She watched him from under her lashes, wishing her heartbeat would slow. His lips now rested on the cigar where hers just had. It was a small thing, nothing really, and yet it was becoming increasingly difficult to swallow.
She drew her cloak more tightly about her and rubbed her hands together as if cold. “'Tis frigid oot, and it's getting dark, too. May we continue this conversation first thing in the morning? I've guests to see to, and there's much we must discuss, you and I.” When he didn't answer, she added, “I'll nae reveal your presence
to anyone in the castle, of course.”
Except Gregor. He, I will tell. I could use another opinion in this matter, and he's the only one I trust.
“Thank you.” Nik removed the cigar from his mouth, and though a smile touched his lips, his eyes were cool, assessing her. “I would not have you freeze, my lady. My men and I will wait until morning when you will share your information as to the location of these abductors, but no more. I cannot be gone long from Holyrood or people will realize I'm not there.”
“Aye.” She hesitated. “Aboot that. How is it that you've slipped away withoot notice?”
“It is as Lord Apraksin told you earlier: His Royal Highness Nikolai of Oxenburg is sick in his bed and was most sad he could not make this strenuous trip.”
So that was how they were keeping his absence a secret. “And Lord Apraksin and Mr. Rurik? I take it they are nae secret visitors here.”
“They, with a nameless groom, have come to Castle Leod to deliver letters to the duchess.”
“Who has been abducted and is nae here.”
“Also something not known outside of this small area.”
“Ah. So that's a secret, as well.”
He inclined his head. “For now.”
She nodded, fighting the desire to ask more questions. He was obviously only telling her the barest minimum.
He hides his reasons for his actions, and yet he expects me to openly share all of mine.
But it was more than that. That blasted kiss seemed to hang between them, coloring everything he said and
did. For her, it was as if every gesture, every intonation held some sort of sensual meaning.
And with that hope, she
No wonder the man was filled with his own sense of worthâwomen must have drowned him with attention from the time he was born. Why, he was probably
to being kissed unexpectedly.
Which would mean I am one of dozensâno,
who have done so.
The thought cooled her blood instantly, and she realized it was dangerous, being out here alone with this man. Alone and uncertain of her own reactions and thoughts. “We are settled, then. We will meet in the morning. Shall we say eight? Is that too early?”
Eight will do.”
She stepped away, turning on her heel. “Until tomorrow.” She spoke over her shoulder, noting that her voice seemed breathy, as if she couldn't find enough air.
She marched on to the castle, hurrying until she was almost running, aware of his eyes on her even now.
Gregor held up the lantern, the light spilling over the snow-covered path that curved behind Castle Leod. The ancient path was a remnant of the castle's past, and led to the old stables, which had long ago been abandoned and were now only used for hay storage.
Ailsa stifled a yawn, her breath puffing white into the black night. It was still dark out, the snow crunching under their boots.
Into the quietness, Gregor asked, “Ailsa, are you certain we shouldâ”
“Shhh!” She peered back at the castle, glad to note no lights had appeared in the windows. “Keep your voice down, and pray lower the lantern. Do you want everyone to know we're leaving?”
“It's four in the morning and everyone is abed, as all men with common sense should be.”
“We want them to stay abed, so hide that lantern.”
“I will, I will.” He moved the lantern so that it was on the side farthest from the castle, the light reflecting off the snow as it fell around them. “I can't believe the prince has come dressed as a groom.”
“I explained why he's done so.”
“I know, but he's taking a great chance with his safety.” Gregor grimaced. “Although if it had been our grandmother, I daresay we both would have been moved to do the same.”
“More than likely.”
He sent her a side-glance. “I still think we're making a mistake, leaving the prince and his men behind. We don't know whoâor whatâwe're facing. A few extra pairs of large, beefy fists might not be amiss.”
“If you'd met the man, you'd know why that's a horrible idea.” She swiped her glove over her face where the snow had melted as it hit her skin and left her damp and cold. “The prince has nae concern for anyone's objectives but his own, which is to retrieve his grandmother withoot paying even a nod to the ransom. 'Tis a reckless, dangerous way to approach this situation.”
“Who knew Oxenburg never paid ransoms?” Gregor said sourly. “I'd certainly never heard that tidbit of information before.”
“It dinnae matter what they do in Oxenburg; we're nae there. It will be easier and much safer for everyone concerned to pay the coin, collect the captives, and return home.”
“And if that doesn't work?”
“Then we'll do what must be done,” she said quietly.
He nodded. “Do you still think Arran is behind this?”
“I dinnae know,” she answered honestly, the clean smell of snow tickling her nose. “We'll find oot when we face the abductors.”
“So we will.” They were quiet a few minutes, trudging up the steep path, snow hissing as it hit the glass in the lamp.
Gregor finally broke the silence, his breath frosting each word. “I hope the prince doesn't follow us once he discovers we've left. From what you repeated of your conversation, he seems rather determined.”
And arrogant and willful and focused on his own needs and nae one else's.
“Nothing will keep him from following. But with any luck, he will nae discover we're missing until eight or perhaps even later. We'll be long gone by then, and he'll have nae idea which direction we took.”
“He could track us.”
“He'd have to know which direction to look. And the snow will cover our tracks well before he's oop.” She hoped that was true. Right now, in the icy black cold of morning, she had to force herself not to question every step she'd made. It was such a complex situation, and she couldn't shake the weight on her conscience of those who depended on her.
She glanced uneasily back at the castle, where it loomed tall and forbidding in the icy darkness, and pulled the hood of her cloak farther over her head. It was frigid cold this morning, and she could only be thankful Gregor had lent her a pair of his breeches. “Thank you for sharing your clothing. It will be much easier to ride in the forest withoot worrying aboot my skirts catching on the branches.”
“Our grandmother would be furious.”
“It does nae take much.”
He chuckled. “No, it doesn't.” He stumbled a bit, and almost dropped the lantern. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “New boots. They're not yet broken in. I told Golitzin to set out the old ones, but he didn't listen.”
“Golitzin? Who is that?”
“My new valet. Well, he's my valet until Valjean heals. I made the new man say his name a dozen times last night so I could learn it.”
“You dinnae tell your valet we were leaving this morning?” she demanded.
“Of course not! As far as he knows, I won't be dressing until eleven, as I usually do.”
She frowned. “Guid. You dinnae know him well enough to share our plans.”
Gregor tugged his muffler more closely about his neck. “Brrr. It's cold.”
“I know. Thank goodness I'm nae trying to keep warm in skirts. With all the undergarments I'm wearing, the breeches are much warmer. There's nae a draft to be had.” That much was true; Gregor's breeches were toasty warm, especially after she'd tugged them over two woolen chemises and a pair of long men's pants Gregor had thoughtfully sent along with the breeches.
The snow grew heavier as they climbed where the wind had piled it thicker on the ridge. “I told MacKean and Stewart you'd be coming, too. They are to have our horses ready.”
Gregor made a face. “Did you tell them I had to beg you to allow me to go?”
“Nae, but I'm willing to change my mind, if you keep reminding me of it.”
“Lud, no! I'll not say another word, I vow it.” He was silent a moment before adding tentatively, “Although I'd think you'd be glad for the company.”
To be honest, she
glad for the company. More than she could say. She and Gregor used to ride the eastern edges of Castle Leod's estate, a beautiful trail that spanned several lochs, scenic moors, and not a few dangerous bogs. Sometimes, if they planned to be gone all day, Gregor would sneak some of his clothes to her. They were always careful no one saw them, especially Lady Edana, who had no hesitation in reporting to Papa anything she thought unladylike.
Ailsa smiled at Gregor now. “It's kind of you to come. This is nae your fight.”
He didn't return her smile. “Does it involve you?”
“Then it's my fight, too.” He linked his arm with hers. “Your family is now mine, and when there's trouble, I wish to help.”
“That's verrah kind of you. To be honest, I'd thought to leave you here with Lady Edana to keep her calm, so the men and I could rescueâ”
He stopped, and to her shock, his voice cracked, sharp and furious. “Ailsa, I am not a child.”
“I never said you were. I justâ”
“You don't believe I'm capable of helping, do you? Not really.”
“I do. It's just that our grandmother worries so much and I thought you couldâ”
“Stay home, holding Lady Edana's hand like a child left behind, while the adults participate in life's real events. Is that what you mean?”
, Gregor. I just thoughtâ”
“You are just like your father, neither of you willing to give me a chance.” Gregor stomped a short distance away, spinning back to face her, the lantern held at his side. “Well, I'm not a child, and I'm not a bloody fool.”
Ailsa blinked, her mouth hanging open in surprise. In all her years, she'd never seen her cousin so angry. “I assure you I never think of you as a child
a fool.” She spread her hands wide. “Truly, I dinnae.”
He glared at her, and for a horrible moment, she thought he'd turn and leave her alone in the black snow, taking the light with him. But instead, he grimaced and pressed a hand to his temple. “I'm sorry, Ailsa. I just didn'tâI can't explain how thisâ” He swiped his eyes as if wiping away tears.
“I've never seen you so overset. What's wrong?”
“Everything. Nothing.” He gave a shaky laugh. “It's been a long few months. You don't know howâI justâreally, it's not you I'm angry with, it's Uncle.”