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Authors: Karen Hawkins

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“Really?” Ailsa considered this. “It seems much more than that to me. He sat near her at dinner last night, dinnae he?” Ailsa squinted at the ceiling, trying to remember all the places she'd seen Lord Hamilton with Her Grace. “And at the picnic and at the musicale and at—”

“Yes, yes.” Edana drew herself up, a firm smile now plastered on her lips, although it didn't reach her eyes. “Naturally Hamilton went beyond my request, but only because he knew how much I was suffering from Her Grace's moods. He's been in love with me for so many years—I truly feel sorry for him.”

“I know all aboot Lord Hamilton. He eats dinner here so many nights of the week that he has his own bedchamber.”

“Then you don't need me to tell you how concerned I was when it dawned on me that Natasha was beginning to believe Hamilton's kindness as something more. Naturally, I warned her not to mistake Daffyd's
attention as anything other than politeness. You'd think she would have thanked me for taking the time, but no!” Edana's jaw firmed. “She laughed and said I was jealous. Me! Jealous of an old woman like her!”

“I see. Did you mention your concerns to Lord Hamilton?”

“Of course. I warned him he was in dire danger of being put upon by Her Grace and that her feelings were unnaturally strong. He was much struck by my observations, and asked me several times why I thought such a thing. It's laughable, I know—Daffyd and Natasha!”

Ailsa wisely didn't say a word.

Her grandmother gave a hearty laugh that sounded oddly hollow. “Why would any man pay attention to
her
? She cannot be bothered with keeping out of the sun to prevent freckles, or with wearing something that fits. Like you, she refuses to maintain her appearan—” Edana closed her lips over the rest of her sentence. “You know my feelings on the subject.”

“Och aye, I know them well. Too well, many might say. When did you tell Lord Hamilton your suspicions aboot Her Grace?”

“ ‘About,' not—” Edana caught Ailsa's expression and hurried to add, “Yesterday after lunch. He said he would speak with her immediately. Poor Natasha must have been devastated: two men in a row rejecting her. I fear she just up and left us, unable to bear the thought of facing such embarrassment.”

“But none of our coaches are missing.” Ailsa tapped her fingers on the desk. “When you asked MacGill if any of the coaches and carriages were missing, did you
inquire after Lord Hamilton's coach and horses, or just our own?”

Edana stiffened. “You
cannot
be suggesting that Daffyd and Natasha have— No. I will not believe it.”

“We must find oot.” Ailsa turned to the long, fringed bell pull and tugged it firmly.

“You are wasting your time.” Lady Edana sniffed.

An awkward silence filled the room until a soft knock heralded the entry of the housekeeper, Mrs. Attnee. A plump, motherly woman, she wore a beaming smile that dimmed on seeing the Dowager Countess. “Guid morning, my lady.” The housekeeper dipped a quick curtsy, her expression softening as she turned to Ailsa. “Lady Ailsa, you rang?”

“I understand you assisted in the search for Her Grace.”

Concern creased Mrs. Attnee's forehead. “Aye. She is nae to be found. We searched the house top to bottom, too.”

“And Lord Hamilton? Do you perchance know where he is?”

“Lord Hamilton left verrah early this morning.”

“What?”
Lady Edana blinked. “Are you certain?”

“I saw him myself, I did. I'd just sent the upstairs maids aboot their dooties when he came sneakin' doon the stairs.”

“Sneaking?” Ailsa asked.

“I would nae call it other, fer he was bent o'er and walkin' like this—” She hunched her shoulders and mimicked someone tiptoeing.

“Nonsense,” Edana announced, her neck a mottled
red. “Hamilton would never move in such a-a-a subversive fashion!”

Ailsa ignored her. “Did Lord Hamilton say anything?”

“Just ‘guid morning.' He'd just sent one of the footmen to have his coach brought round, though. I dinnae think aught of it as he sometimes leaves early for Caskill Manor if he's plannin' on going huntin' and such. 'Twas obvious he dinnae wish fer company, so I left him in the foyer. When I came back later, he was gone.”

Ignoring the strange hissing sound now coming from Edana, Ailsa smiled comfortingly at the housekeeper. “So you would nae know if he left
with
someone.”

“Nae, I—” The housekeeper gasped. “Lord, do ye think he's run off with Her Grace?”

Edana made a strangled noise while Ailsa said, “I think 'tis possible Her Grace decided to visit Caskill Manor at Lord Hamilton's invitation.”

“Ah!” The housekeeper pursed her lips. “I thought there might be some courtin' goin' on, what with all the whisperin' and such, although I never imagined they'd elope—”

“That is
quite
enough!” Edana snapped, her eyes blazing. “Mrs. Attnee, I will thank you for not spreading vile rumors!”

“There, there,” Ailsa said soothingly. “The truth does nae always come in a neat box. Sometimes 'tis a messy package, best opened when fortified by drink.”

Mrs. Attnee nodded wisely. “I'll pour some sherry.” She made her way to the small stand near the window, poured sherry into a small crystal glass, and brought it to Lady Edana.

Lady Edana took the glass gratefully. “That
harpy
! I cannot believe Daffyd would—”

An abrupt knock on the door heralded the entry of MacGill. Tall and gaunt, the butler looked abnormally pale, his eyes wide. “My lady, a message has come from Caskill Manor.”

“No!” Edana threw up a hand. “Do
not
say Lord Hamilton has eloped with Her Grace!”

Mr. MacGill looked shocked. “Nae, my lady. Nae that. The steward at Caskill sent word. Mr. Grant says Lord Hamilton sent a note last night that he and a guest were to be expected early this mornin' and his lordship requested a sumptuous breakfast fit fer a queen—”

Lady Edana choked, and then held out her glass for more sherry, which Mrs. Attnee instantly brought.

MacGill cast a cautious look at the countess before he continued. “His lordship and his guest never arrived.”

“What?” Ailsa asked, and for the first time, a true flicker of worry pinched her.

“Grant sent a footman here to ask after Lord Hamilton. On the way, the lad found his lordship's carriage left on the road, blocked by a felled tree. The groom, both footmen, and three outriders were wounded, whilst one outrider was naewhere to be seen.”

Ailsa's hands trembled, so she gripped them together.
How could this be? Our guests, abducted?

“There's more,” MacGill said in a grim tone. “The side of the coach was peppered wi' bullets.”

Mrs. Attnee gasped while Lady Edana went pale. Ailsa found herself on her feet. “The duchess and Lord Hamilton were nae—” She couldn't say the words.

“Nae, my lady. There was blood on the carriage seat; only a few droplets, nae more.” MacGill's brows lowered. “But Lord Hamilton's men found a wee rip of tartan pinned under a wheel. The
Mackenzie
tartan.”

“That's ridiculous!” Lady Edana exclaimed. “We would never harm Lord Hamilton!”

“Mr. Grant knows tha',” MacGill said. “But nae matter wha' Grant thinks, he has nae choice but to send word of the abduction to Lord Hamilton's brother.”

Ailsa had to bite her lip to keep from saying aloud how unjust that was. The Earl of Arran and her father had never gotten along, fighting for decades over various property lines and estate boundaries. If Arran thought them responsible, he would call for retribution. Aware of the servants' anxious gazes now pinned on her, Ailsa tucked her fears away. “MacGill, was a note left? A ransom request?”

“Nae, my lady.”

Lady Edana put down her glass. “Cromartie must come home at once and deal with this.”

The two servants looked at Ailsa, their gazes questioning.
Are they hoping I'll send for Papa?
She dropped her hands back to her sides, fighting a very real desire to do just that.

It would be easy to send for Papa and let him deal with this crisis, but in doing so she would be admitting she was unable to manage the situation herself. Ailsa wasn't willing to do that.
She
had been left in charge of Castle Leod and all that entailed, and that included the well-being of her guests. “This is my mystery to solve,” she said briskly. “And solve it, I will. We must find Lord
Hamilton and Her Grace.” Which was a long shot, but her only option. Whomever had organized this little charade would hide their prisoners well.

Lady Edana frowned. “Are you sure? Your Papa—”

“—is busy. I can handle this.” Ailsa said the words as confidently as she could, hoping against hope that her grandmother would agree.

To her surprise, Edana sighed, and then shrugged. “Fine. I just don't understand one thing. Hamilton's value is obvious, but why would someone take Her Grace? She's not particularly wealthy that I know of.”

“Perhaps she was where she wasn't expected—in Lord Hamilton's coach.” Ailsa spread her hands on the desk and leaned forward. “MacGill, have a horse readied; I want to see this carriage and the ‘proof' left behind. Inform the gamekeeper he will be accompanying me. Mr. Greer is an expert tracker and I will have need of his skill.”

“Verrah guid, my lady.” Looking much heartened, MacGill bowed and left.

Lady Edana sank back in her chair. “Lud help us all; the world is upside down!”

Ailsa managed a firm smile. “All will be well. I promise.”

Her grandmother seemed comforted by Ailsa's words, but to herself, Ailsa had to wonder if someone was trying to start a clan war. Was it possible that Arran, tired of being put off from grabbing more of the Mackenzie land by his brother's friendship with Lady Edana, had orchestrated this little escapade? It seemed the only answer, and yet the maneuver was so blatantly
obvious that it made her wonder if something more complex was afoot. But what?

When she found the prisoners, she would have her answers. Her gaze landed on a small stack of notes resting on the corner of her desk and she grimaced. She supposed she needed to inform the prince of the current situation. Her Grace was his grandmother, after all.

Ailsa hated to do it—just exchanging a few notes about Her Grace's missing trunk had been far too much contact with the man as it was, but there was nothing for it. Like him or not, Ailsa had a responsibility to keep him apprised of the situation. Had he been a man of substance, she might have worried he would take it upon himself to arrogantly barge in, interfering with her efforts to contain the situation and find the prisoners. Fortunately, she doubted he'd do more than demand an accounting. And that, she hoped to be able to provide, and soon.

Sighing, Ailsa sat back down, pulled a piece of foolscap her way, and began writing the necessary note.

Chapter 2

Holyroodhouse

Edinburgh

November 22, 1824

Count Fyodor Apraksin handed the letter to the master of the honor guards, Vasily Rurik, a large bearded man who had the look and fearless courage of a grizzly. “
You
take it to him.”

Rurik promptly handed the letter back. “
Nyet.
I'd rather face a thousand Cossacks than deliver that damned missive to His Highness.”


Someone
must deliver it.” Unlike the rest of His Highness's entourage, Apraksin was not a soldier, but a courtier. And under normal circumstances, delivering a letter would indeed be his responsibility. But not this one.

He held it at arm's length, as though it were a snake about to strike. “What can that Scottish harpy want now? We sent Her Grace that blasted trunk.”

“Every time the prince gets a letter from Lady Ailsa, he snarls for hours. Sometimes days.”

BOOK: Mad for the Plaid
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