Authors: Karen Hawkins
I was not aware Her Grace was staying another month and (hopefully) longer. I cannot tell you how happy I am to learn this. Expect that blasted trunk in the next week or so.
October 11, 1824
To: His Royal Highness
Prince Nikolai Romanovin of Oxenburg
I regret to inform you that Her Grace's black dressing case containing her lotions still has not arrived and your grandmother strongly requests that you send it immediately. She wishes me to remind you that it has been one week and two days since your letter was posted. (On an aside, I did point out that your use of “next week or so” was obviously a generalization and that the case would most likely show up before this
letter arrives on your desk, but she will have none of it.) As I'm sure you are aware (as evidenced by your rapid departure on leaving your grandmother on our doorstep), Her Grace tends to be moody when she is upset.
Send the case or trunk or whatever it is as soon as is humanly possible.
Lady Ailsa Mackenzie
October 21, 1824
To: Lady Ailsa Mackenzie
When my men fetched the trunk from Her Grace's bedchamber last week, my men discovered something dripping out of one corner. Upon opening the trunk, we were met with a smell I cannot describe, even though it still lingers throughout the house like a deadly mist.
The trunk is not a “dressing case” filled with lotions as my grandmother has claimed, but is filled instead with her potions. One letter can make a great difference, can it not? Sadly, some of the bottles holding her potions were broken when the trunk was last moved, and I can only imagine her “eye of newt,” or whatever it is, has caused that deadly odor. I now hold out only a vague hope none
of us is overcome by it, orâas is more likelyâturned into some sort of goat or toad.
Before I send the trunk, it must be cleaned, aired, and left to dry. When this is done, I will send it by private courier.
Meanwhile, inform my grandmother that her “case” will be there forthwith. (Note: As she cannot measure “forthwith,” I trust this will end this unnecessary correspondence.)
November 14, 1824
The Small Study
November 17, 1824
“What do you mean, she's âgone missing'?” Lady Ailsa Mackenzie put down the letter she'd been reading and eyed her grandmother with disbelief.
Lady Edana MacGregor Mackenzie, the Dowager Countess Cromartie, fluttered her lace handkerchief. “I mean what I said: the duchess is nowhere to be found.” Dressed in black, a color Lady Edana had assumed on the death of her husband, the late earl, more than ten years earlier, she made an impressive figure. Tall and willowy, with carefully crafted dyed-gold hair that echoed the true color that had faded years ago, Edana fought valiantly to keep age from robbing her of the famed MacGregor beauty. “Ailsa, I am
concerned. Poor Natasha does not know the dangers of our highland countryside.”
“Perhaps Her Grace is oot in the carriage, or going for a ride, orÂ .Â .Â . whatever it is she wished to do.”
“Dear, it's âout,' not âoot.'â” Edana sighed heavily. “I do wish your father had sent you to a proper boarding school.”
“I needed to be here with Mama after she grew ill. I would nae have missed those moments for anything.”
“And now she's gone, your papa is never here. It's as if I lost both of them at one and the same time.” Edana gave a fretful sigh. “Your papa is neglecting us all. He should have seen to it that you went to a proper boarding school and had at least one season. You might have married by now, the way your sisters have.”
Ailsa refrained from pointing out that while her sisters had inherited Edana's famed MacGregor beauty, Ailsa had taken after the bold Mackenzies. Where her sisters had golden hair, blue eyes, willowy figures, and perfect noses, Ailsa's hair was a darker, less noticeable ash blond, her eyes gray, her form stalwart, while her nose could only be called “prominent.”
It was an unfortunate blend of traits.
Not that it mattered; Ailsa was twenty-two now and had no desire to be displayed on the marriage mart among a group of mindless seventeen-year-olds who would drive her mad with their empty chatter and breathless gossip. She was happy to have been left at Castle Leod, where she could hunt, ride, fish, andâwhen the mood suited herâthrow a cloak upon the ground under a tree and read to her heart's content. There were a thousand amusing things to do here in the highlands, and she loved them all.
She was content with her life, especially now that
Papa had left the castle and estate in her care. It was a big responsibility, and she was still learning how to answer the challenges presented, one of which was keeping up with her grandmother's elderly, and at times quarrelsome, houseguest. “Why precisely do you think Her Grace is âmissing'?”
“We were to meet for breakfast almost an hour ago, and at her request, too, for she wished to visit that shop in the village I told her about, but she didn't appear.” Edana sniffed. “I had to eat by myself as no one else was up.”
“So the two of you are speaking again.”
“La, child, of course we are speaking!” Edana frowned, though she instantly ceased, for fear of deepening the lines between her eyes. “I admit we've had a few argumentsâ”
“No more than is to be expected.” Edana waved her handkerchief, wafting a floral perfume through the air. “Poor Natasha; she's changed dreadfully. She used to be quite lovely. NowÂ .Â .Â . well, you've seen her. She's aged forty years in the time we were apart.”
As it had been almost forty years to the day since the dowager countess and the grand duchess had last seen one another, Ailsa didn't find this difficult to believe. “Are you certain Her Grace is nae just still abed?”
“I spoke with Her Grace's maid, and she said Natasha left her bed chamber at daybreak. I asked the housekeeper to see if perhaps the poor thing was lost somewhere in the castle, as it can be confusing, but Mrs. Attnee says Her Grace is nowhere to be found.”
“Perhaps she went for a ride.”
“MacGill says all our coaches and horses are accounted for. Ailsa, I'm certain Natasha is
send a search party.”
“But the carriages and horses are all here, and you cannae be thinking she left on foot. It's been snowing since late last night.”
“Of course she's not walking! She's a duchess, for the love of heaven. But if she's been foolish, then we must stop her fromâ” Lady Edana clamped her lips closed.
Ailsa narrowed her gaze on her grandmother. “Stop her from what?” When Edana didn't answer, Ailsa added, “I see. You're hiding something.”
“Nonsense,” Edana said sharply, the faintest hint of a flush showing through her face paint. “I'm just worried.”
“Of course. Well, if there's nae more to tell, then there's nae more to do.” Ailsa pulled forward the stack of waiting correspondence. “The Grand Duchess Nikolaevna is neither a button that has been misplaced nor a puppy that has wandered off. Wherever she is, she got there under her own power and is where she wants to be.”
be found. You can't go losing a grand duchess! Think of the scandal! Her grandson left her in
care. He will be beside himself with worry!”
“That, I doubt.” From her own correspondence with the prince, and the columns and columns she'd read about him in the papers, as well as the little her father had said of the man on meeting him at some function
or another, she was well aware that the duchess's eldest grandson was a profligate, a womanizer, and little else.
She pulled a fresh piece of paper from the center drawer and placed it before her. “Wherever the duchess is, she will return when she's of a mind to.” Ailsa dipped her pen into the inkwell. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I have at least ten letters toâ”
“Fine! I'll tell you what's happened, but do not blame me if something ill has occurred to poor Natasha while you've been lollygagging about with estate nonsense!”
“ââEstate nonsense' is what puts a roof over our heads.” Ailsa replaced her pen in the holder. “Tell me everything.”
Lady Edana's shoulders slumped. “Do you remember the first night Her Grace was here, and how she flirted so shamelessly with Lord Lyon, who did not look at all comfortable with her attention?”
“I vaguely remember that, aye.”
“It's âyes,' dear, and not âaye.' Natasha was shameless. And my dear DaffydâI mean, Lord Hamiltonânoticed her affections were not returned. It was quite pathetic, and the whole situation put poor Natasha in quite an ill temper.”
“I noticed that. We
“Exactly. And things just got worse after Lord Lyon left. Knowing how Her Grace taxes me, Hamilton said that he wished he could brighten her mood, just to be of service to me, of course. Which got me to thinking that perhaps what Natasha needed was a distraction.”
“A distraction? What do you meanâ Och, you dinnae!”
“I did and it was brilliant!” Lady Edana beamed. “I asked Hamilton to ply her with attention. It worked, too, for she was in a much better mood after that, although”âEdana's smile disappearedâ“had I known then what I know now, I would never have been so charitable.”
“And what do you know nowâ Ah! Has Lord Hamilton come to care for Her Grace?”
“Don't make me laugh!” Lady Edana said sharply. “He's been playing a part, that is all. And at
request. It's Natasha who's made the mistake of caring, not Hamilton.”