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Authors: Karen Hawkins

Mad for the Plaid (28 page)

BOOK: Mad for the Plaid
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One with her eyes on a glittering crown.
Ailsa swallowed a flash of anger at this ice-cold woman who'd taken advantage of a tenderhearted youth. “You fancied yourself in love, I daresay.”

“Head over heels, as the saying goes. I even asked her to marry me, against my own father's wishes. She seemed thrilled, and—I thought—cared for me just as much as I cared for her.”

“But she dinnae.”

“Not even a little. A few months after our engagement was announced, I was in the stables seeing to a horse I'd just bought, and she and her father came in from a ride. They didn't see me standing in the back stall with my new purchase and I overheard them speak. My beloved was complaining about my callowness, my lack of conversation, my oh-so-boring declarations—all manner of things.” He pursed his lips, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Now that I am older, I admit she had a point. I was a callow youth, a fool, and worse, I was in love. It's a wonder she didn't burst into tears from boredom every time I spoke.”

“You are too kind,” Ailsa snapped. “She knew exactly what she was doing.”

“She did. But she is not at fault. It is how the marriage mart goes: women look for men who can provide well, and men look for women who will decorate their husbands' arms and provide heirs. There is no deceit in that, if one is honest. I just didn't know the rules of the game.”

And to think her grandmother had been upset Papa hadn't given Ailsa a season in London. The more she heard about the way people went about finding a husband or a wife, the happier she was out of it. “My sisters had seasons in London and found husbands, but I believe they married for love.”

“They are fortunate, then, for that is not always the case.”

“My sisters valued character over wealth. None of them have married high, but they are all secure and happy.”

“When you are in a position of wealth or power, the rules change. The number of those willing to use the words ‘love' and ‘forever' without meaning grows with each gold coin. My intended had been trained to do exactly what she did—seduce and marry the most influential youth she knew.”

“Trained? Surely her parents did nae wish her to endure a loveless marriage.”

“Her father didn't just wish it; he demanded it. When she complained about her boredom, he told her to keep her opinions to herself and to remember that once she was queen and had provided the throne with a prince, she would be free to find more interesting company.”

“What a . . . a . . .” She folded her lips. “I have nae words.”

“To a sixteen-year-old, it was the worst possible rejection. Of course, now that I look back on it, I realize I was a fool for believing her to begin with.” His face hardened. “I've never made that mistake again.”

“You mean, asking another woman to marry you?”

“That, and I've never again assumed anyone ‘loved' me without a reason. Both decisions have stood me in great stead.”

Her heart ached for the boy he'd once been. “What happened to that woman?”

“She married one of my cousins, a duke.” A flicker of humor curved his warm mouth. “You may be happy to know she is now very fat and has nine children.”

“Nine? Och, then perhaps their marriage was for love after all.”


Nyet.
My cousin says it is the only way he can keep her home.”

She winced. “Now I feel rather sorry for her.”

“Why?” He shrugged. “We all make choices and at times, face disappointments. It's inevitable.”

“Nae everyone is oot for their own good. Some people are kind and want only what is best for all.”

“Not in my experience.”

He said it casually, and she wondered if he'd felt this way before that ruinous betrayal. Had such a thing happened to her at that tender age, she'd have been harder, too, and definitely colder. She might also have believed, the way he now seemed to, that every declaration of affection was spurred solely by the desire to gain wealth and power, rather than by love. She couldn't imagine how lonely his life must be. “I'm sorry that happened.”

“I'm not. It was a good lesson to learn. It taught me many things, not the least of which is that people see what they want to see—a bit of information that has stood me in good stead.”

She frowned. “How so?”

“In parts of Europe, princes are as common as sparrows. And because of the very public and very foolish actions of a few of those princes, many people have such low expectations of a prince's behavior that they expect him to be a half-drunk womanizer, one who thinks his only purpose on earth is pleasure, and is bored by conversation of any consequence. People with secrets and power pay no attention to such a princely fool and will converse freely in front of him, thinking he not only doesn't care, but that he lacks the intelligence to understand anything he may hear or see. So, he comes, he goes, he listens, he sees, and he learns.”

And suddenly, Ailsa understood why Nik's reputation was so different from his true character. He
used
those expectations to his advantage, and even encouraged them. She couldn't believe he was sharing this with her. But then again, why not? Who would believe her, if she told them? And whom would she tell? She was confined to the depths of Scotland, and would never leave. “This prince you speak of. That's you. You hear and see and learn.”

“And seduce.” His eyes glimmered with amusement. “Of all the roles one can don, that offers the most pleasure.” His voice purred over the word, caressed it, and made her skin prickle as if he'd touched her. He slid his hand along D'yoval's back, Ailsa's gaze moving with it.

He had the most sensual hands she'd ever seen, his fingers long and masculine. They made her think of being touched, caressed, stroked.

Her mouth went dry and she had to fight not to reach out for his hand, which was so temptingly close. Oh, the things she might have done, had she been a bolder sort of woman.

She cleared her throat. “Thanks to the actions of England's last prince, whose exploits and scandals filled more newspaper columns than I like to remember, I am one of those who have a rather poor impression of princes. I always thought they did nothing more important than dancing at balls, chasing the latest beauties, and attending lavish dinner parties. I assumed a bevy of courtiers saw to the more serious issues.”

“When I go to social events, I do not just go and dance and talk to whomever I wish. Everything I do—
everything
—is watched, measured, and recorded. Even when I attend a ball, I am engaged in other activities. When I am dancing with the wife of an Austrian baron, I am confirming an alliance. When I smoke a cigar on the terrace with a Russian count, I am paving the way for a future treaty. When I ignore the ambassador from England, I am sending a message that my country does not appreciate the way they're treating our close allies, the Prussians.”

“All that at a simple ball?”


Da
. And sometimes more.” His smile held a hint of bitterness.

“So that's where you get your different faces.”

His brows lowered. “Different faces?”

“You are one way when you talk to some people, another way when you talk to others, and a third way when you talk to me. Sometimes I wonder which is really you.”


Bozhy moj
, you make me sound atrocious. This is what you said you saw when you read my palm, I think. I do not like it.”

He sounded genuinely upset, which surprised her. “I only meant that you are probably quite guid at what you do.”

After a moment, he said shortly, “I do what I must.”

“I'm glad I dinnae have gold plates and cups and beds, for it seems like a lot of work. Do your brothers also do these things?”

“My brother Max is our general. My brother Wulf—he and his wife have become our best representatives in foreign courts. And Alexsey has undertaken the preservation of our cultural heritage, especially the Romany, from whom we descended. As in most families, we each have our place. I daresay 'tis the same with yours.”

“Aye. My sisters are married and have set aboot providing heirs. Papa purchased my brother a set of colors, since the lad was mad for the military. And Gregor . . .” She paused, thinking about her cousin. “Gregor is still trying to figure oot what he can contribute.”

“And your father?”

“He is in London, fulfilling his political duties. That is his passion.”

“What about you,
krasavitsa
?” Nik's gaze fixed upon her face. “What is your passion?”

“Castle Leod. I make sure there is enough food in the
larder for winters, enough silver in the coffers to pay taxes, make repairs, and take care of our tenants and retainers, and keep my grandmother oot of trouble.”

“Do you enjoy these things?”

Enjoy? She'd been honored Papa had put his trust in her to oversee the estate, but she'd never thought of her duties as “enjoyable.” “I'm guid at it.”

“I'm sure you are. But does it inspire you? Leave you breathless from meeting the challenge? Do you wake up eager to face the new day, ready to
make
something of this opportunity?”

“I love Castle Leod. I grew oop there and—”

“We all love our homes. I'm asking if this is your life's purpose. Do you see yourself doing it your entire life? When you're thirty? Forty? Fifty?”

Fifty? “To be truthful, I never thought that far ahead.”

“You should. In many ways, you are the freest person I know. Your family is well situated: no one has a true claim on you or your time. Your sisters are busy elsewhere, your brother is enjoying his commission, and your father's employed in something that absorbs him.
You
deserve that, too. You should find the thing you love to do, and take advantage of that before responsibility steals away your freedom.”

“But . . . what aboot Castle Leod and the people? Nae. I'm where I belong.”

“What about a husband? Children? A family of your own?”

“I dinnae see me having any of those.”

He laughed softly. “There are too many men in Scotland to let a beauty like you walk away.”

He thinks me a beauty?
“My sisters are the beauties in my family, nae me. Nae one has ever paid me the least heed.” At his shocked look, she hurried to add, “Nae that I wished them to, for I've always been happy with my lot.”


Bozhy moj
, are the men of Scotland all fools? I refuse to believe that. You will be married and with child within the next year, perhaps two, but no more. It is inevitable.” He spoke as if he'd just commanded such a thing to happen.

How could he go from telling her he thought she was beautiful one moment, to almost demanding she marry a fictional person who didn't even exist, the next? For some reason, it irked her.

“You, too,” she replied hotly. “Don't all princes have to marry?”

“In time,
da
.” His expression darkened. “I will eventually marry and it will be to someone who brings wealth, or a strong connection, to our country. Someone trained to navigate the dangerous shoals of court life. But you have no such complications. When you marry, it will be for one reason only: love.”

Envy colored his voice. Though he hadn't chosen them, he'd paid for those gold cups and plates, and was paying for them still. Ailsa tried to imagine the sort of worldly, sophisticated woman, who could live in the prince's world, one filled with oily courtiers and false friends. The woman would be beautiful, of course, and intelligent, and knowledgeable about life in court.
A paragon. And yet I'm sure one exists . . . somewhere.
The whole thing was rather lowering.

“What are you thinking,
krasavitsa
? You look sad.”

“I'm nae sad.” She pasted a smile on her stiff lips. “I was merely thinking that I've had enough lounging aboot. If we wish to leave at first light tomorrow, we should see to packing oop.” She turned and walked toward the cave.

He fell in behind her, his boots crunching the dead leaves at their feet. “How long do you think it'll take us to catch up to the others?”

She paused by the cave opening. “Nae more than a day, mayhap two, if they're waiting for us in Greer's camp, which is where I think they'll go. This ravine travels northwest, which is the direction the trail followed, too.”

“Good.” He glanced up at the sun. “I hope the weather holds.”

“So do I,” she admitted, her gaze drawn to his stomach as he lifted his hand to rake his hair from his face.

Perhaps it wasn't just his powerful chest muscles that kept capturing her imagination, but something subtler. Like the fine, crisp hair that covered it in such a beguiling fashion, narrowing when it reached his taut stomach, into a thin line that disappeared under his belt in the most tantalizing way.

She wanted to trace her finger down that line and follow it to the forbidden secrets below.

Goodness, where had that come from?

“Bloody hell, you must stop looking at me like that.”

Ailsa's gaze locked with Nik's, her face heating. “Like what?”

“As if you wish to devour me whole.”

“I'm nae the only one.”

“Indeed, you aren't.” He grasped her wrist, his fingers warm on her skin. “We have been dancing about this for days now. It is time we stopped dancing.”

She looked about wildly, feeling like a rabbit trapped in the seductive gaze of a viper. “I'm nae dancing. I'm just—” Good lord, could she even put it in words?
Should
she?

“You want me as I want you.” He gave her that damnably knowing smile that always set her stomach aquiver. “Are you afraid,
krasavitsa
? Now that we've shared our secrets?”

BOOK: Mad for the Plaid
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