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Authors: Karen Hawkins

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BOOK: Mad for the Plaid
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“He has been in an especially surly mood of late.”

“So I've noticed,” Rurik said in a dry tone. “Something is on his mind.”

Apraksin sent the head guard a curious look. “I forget you know him better than any of us.” The royal family's honor guards were made up almost completely of the younger sons of the nobility, and Rurik's family was especially close to the prince's.

“I used to be,” Rurik said shortly. “But now, like you, I don't even know why we're here. Has His Highness told you anything?”

“Nyet.”
Apraksin glanced at the half-open door and, determining no one was listening outside, said in a low voice, “It's a mission of some sort, but that's all I know.”

Rurik shrugged. “I suppose he'll tell us soon enough. The only reason he would stay here at this time of the year is for a mission, not when we could be in Italy, where it is warm and the women . . .” He kissed his fingers to the air.

“Don't remind me,” Apraksin said sourly. There was a widow in Milan for whom he'd have given his right leg to spend just two hours in her company. “He won't admit anything's afoot.”

“He is not a talker, this prince of ours. Not to us.”

This was true. When it came to developing what seemed like close friendships with various foreign dignitaries and powerful nobles, or seducing information from the wives of those same men, there was no more affable, personable, talkative man than their prince. But when he was no longer onstage, he became himself—direct, no-nonsense, and sometimes chillingly civil, especially if a particular situation did not please him.

Apraksin looked at the letter in his hand and grimaced. “Perhaps we can get Menshivkov to deliver this. That braggart is always saying he is the prince's chief aide-de-camp, a title he made up in his own mind.”

Rurik, who'd been looking rather dour, brightened. “
Da!
If Menshivkov wishes to be a true aide, then he can give His Highness the letter after di—”

“What letter?”

The deep voice sent both Apraksin and Rurik spinning on their booted heels to face the door that was now standing wide open, a tall, uniformed figure framed within it.

“Your Highness.” Apraksin clicked his heels and bowed sharply, Rurik following suit.

“We did not hear you,” Rurik added unnecessarily.

A single black brow rose at this. It was a simple movement, the raising of that black eyebrow, and yet that, combined with the icy stare of its owner, made Rurik and Apraksin gulp silently.

Without sparing them another glance, Prince Nikolai Romanovin closed the study door behind him. At six foot four, he was taller than most men. An imposing figure with broad shoulders, thick black hair, and green eyes so dark they appeared almost black, he was not a man easily overlooked. In front of society, he took the character of a man of town, charming and easily amused, flirting with women one after the other, and never speaking of anything political or of consequence. Indeed, most of Europe believed him a wastrel of a sort, a reputation he had carefully cultivated.

In public, he'd been called “a womanizer,” “frivolous,”
and “an utter rakehell.” In private, he was well educated, knowledgeable, forceful, unyielding, a brilliant tactician, and a tenacious negotiator. This dichotomy had stood him in good stead during negotiations of all kinds. Only Oxenburg possessed a prince such as Nikolai Romanovin.

Apraksin inclined his head. “Your Highness, a letter arrived from Castle Leod.”

The prince's mouth thinned. “Bloody hell, I thought that damned trunk would be there by now.”

Rurik offered, “We sent it in our own coach, escorted by the head groom.”

Apraksin added, “Perhaps Her Grace has discovered another missing case?”

The prince held out his hand.

Biting back a sigh, Apraksin handed him the letter.

Nik opened it. Composed in now-familiar neat handwriting, this note had been written in far more haste than the previous ones.

To: HRH Nikolai Romanovin

Your Highness,

I am writing to you so that you may learn of this news from me, and not from the idle gossip of strangers. Your grandmother has gone missing. She left yesterday with Lord Hamilton to visit his seat at Caskill Manor, but neither arrived. We are currently searching for Her Grace, but I believe she may have been (and I dread using this word, for I know it will cause you distress) abducted.

I will explain more when I have news. In the meantime,
my men and I are actively searching for her. I promise that if Her Grace and Lord Hamilton are not found soon, I will call in the local constabulary. Rest assured no stone will be left unturned in our search. We will find your grandmother and she will be returned to you hale and hearty.

Yours sincerely,

Lady Ailsa Mackenzie

November 17, 1824

P.S. The trunk arrived this morning.

Nik crumpled the letter in his hand. “
Ehta prost nivazmosha!

Apraksin and Rurik stiffened to attention.

Nik ignored them, the paper crinkling noisily in his tight fist. Though his grandmother gave him grief whenever she could with her ceaseless demands and often ribald comments—truly the woman's sense of humor was as unchecked as a youth's—he loved her dearly. More, perhaps, than anyone else.

He rarely admitted that to anyone, for he'd witnessed others being exploited for their familial and romantic ties by unscrupulous foes trying to change the tide of various negotiations. He himself had once almost fallen victim to that ruse.

Once.

So the question was this: had someone abducted his grandmother in order to change his position on the current negotiations? Or was she a victim of another plot, one unassociated with him and his efforts here?

He uncrumpled the letter and read it again. It was
obvious Lady Ailsa had already decided that Tata Natasha's disappearance—and that of this Lord Hamilton—was an abduction.
If someone were trying to reach me, why would they take this Hamilton? That makes no sense.

A small flare of hope warmed Nik. He re-crumpled the letter, aware of the gazes resting on him. It was a relief to be with his men and not have to pretend to be an empty-headed, idle fool. It was taxing, keeping up such a façade, though the benefits were beyond counting. It was amazing how many times men of great importance revealed pertinent information in front of someone they thought a lackadaisical, inattentive creature.

And in Nik's life, nothing was as valuable as information.

“My grandmother has gone missing,” he announced shortly. “Lady Ailsa believes Her Grace to have been abducted.”

Apraksin's mouth dropped open.

“Someone took Her Grace?
On purpose?
” Rurik said in obvious disbelief.

“I daresay they regret it now, but
da
.” Nik's jaw ached from where he ground his teeth.
Tata Natasha will not accept such an ignominious fate as being abducted, which could leave her open to abuse. She had better be well or I will—
His hand tightened over the paper. “She must be rescued. But at the same time, I cannot leave or those here will realize something has happened. I cannot have a scandal.
Oxenburg
cannot have a scandal. Not now.”

Apraksin's dark eyes gleamed. The slender courtier was at his best when a scheme was at hand. “You
are
on a mission, then.”


Da
, and it is tenuous at best, but bloody important. A disruption could ruin everything.” He tapped the letter. “Lady Ailsa has said she will call in the constabulary if my grandmother is not found soon. We cannot allow her to do so.”

“Of course,” Apraksin said. “I will go to Castle Leod and—”


Nyet.
Tata Natasha is
my
responsibility. I will go.”

Rurik nodded. “It is honorable you feel so. Whoever goes to Castle Leod must find her and bring her home quickly and quietly.”

“But . . . the mission?” Apraksin said. “Can you leave?”

“I must,” Nik said grimly. “But I don't know how to arrange it. If it's revealed my grandmother's been abducted, those involved in the current negotiations might fear our secrecy has been compromised and refuse to continue. We must keep this incident quiet.”

“You think Her Grace's abduction is linked to these meetings?” Apraksin asked.

“I don't know, for we have been very careful. Plus, another person of importance was taken with Her Grace—a Lord Hamilton, who has no association with what we do here. Knowing my grandmother's propensity for meddling in what does not concern her, it is possible she is cooking in a soup of her own making. Something totally unrelated to anything here.”

“That would be unsurprising,” Rurik admitted. “When do we leave?”

“The sooner we leave, the quicker we can return. No one can know I'm gone, which means I cannot take the guard.”

“What?” Apraksin gaped. “You cannot travel without your guard!” He looked at Rurik. “It would not be safe.”

“Nyet,”
Rurik said shortly. “Your Highness, if it is discovered you are traveling without protection, you will become a target. The only way—” He broke off, frowning.

After a long moment, Nik snapped, “If you have an idea, then say it. I do not have all day.”

Rurik's face reddened while Apraksin sent Nik a surprised glance.

Nik ignored them both. At one time, when he'd been a youth, he and Rurik had been close, but those days were long gone. Nik couldn't allow anyone close now—his life was not his own. “Speak, Rurik. What are your thoughts?”

Rurik's mouth had been white, but now he shrugged. “It might be possible to make people believe you are still here.”

“How?”

“An illness, perhaps. One that would keep you in your bed.”

Nik looked at Apraksin. “Is this possible?”

Though he looked far from pleased, the courtier's face folded in thought. “It can be done, I think.” He absently played with the lace on his wrist before finally saying, “Later tonight, we will announce you've fallen ill, perhaps from the food at last night's ball. Many were complaining about it.”

Nik considered this and then nodded. “Very good. But I will need three, maybe four weeks. Will this ruse work that long?”

“I think so,
da
. After a week, we will announce you are better, but then you will suffer a relapse, worse this time.”

“Good. Meanwhile, you two will announce you're traveling to Castle Leod to see my grandmother. I will follow, but dressed as a groom. I'll make certain no one sees me leave.”

Apraksin raised an eyebrow. “And once we've rescued Her Grace?”

“We will take her to Inverness and put her on the fastest ship to Oxenburg. It is fortunate I have these few weeks open in the negotiations; one of the key participants has been held up by early-winter storms. It will be three weeks, and likely longer, before he arrives. Nothing can be done until then anyway.”

“Who is this person?” Rurik asked.

Nik hesitated. He'd worked so hard to get the fool to the bargaining table—years, in fact. But Nik supposed he had no choice; everyone would know soon enough. “The tsar of Russia.”

Apraksin swore under his breath while Rurik gave a silent whistle.

“As I said, 'tis serious,” Nik confirmed.

“I'm surprised he dares leave Russia,” Apraksin said in a grim tone. “There is such unrest.”

“That is the reason we are having these negotiations. He has ignored all advice and has repressed his people to the point of— Well. I need not tell you. But now he wishes our help and that of other countries in quelling this revolution he's started. If Russia falls to the scourge of anarchy, Europe could follow. While Oxenburg is in
no danger because of the concessions we've made to ensure our subjects are well taken care of, some of our neighbors aren't in such a harmonious position.”

“And with the treaties we signed after the war, if one country falls to unrest, then the rest of us must be involved.” Apraksin took a steadying breath. “I can see why you're determined to see these negotiations through. We will find your three weeks. I will have one of the men announce you've fallen ill later this evening, right as dinner is served.”

Rurik added, “I'll set a guard outside your bedchamber to keep out the inquisitive.”

“Good.”

Apraksin pursed his lips. “Menshivkov can stay in bed, covered by blankets, when the servants bring food, in case someone is watching. His hair is about the same color as yours, and while he's not the same height, he is close enough that we can mask it. I will have Doubrovnik ride to Castle Leod with word once the tsar has arrived for the negotiations.”

“That will work,” Nik agreed.

Apraksin continued. “Rurik and I will go now and tell everyone who will listen that we are bored and have secured permission to visit Her Grace. We will say we are delivering personal letters. A number of those were delivered just yesterday, so that detail can be confirmed.”

Nik nodded his approval. “Once it is dark, I'll find a horse and meet you on the other side of the bridge.”

Rurik's heavy brows lowered. “I am uneasy that you are taking such a risk.”

“I have no choice. Besides, you will be on hand to keep watch.”

Rurik didn't look pleased, but he nodded. “Your Highness will need a groom's clothing. I'll procure some from the servants. I'll tell them it's for one of the guards who wishes to sneak out undetected to court a housemaid.”


Spasiba
. Bring the clothes to me here.” Nik waved them toward the door. “Now go. You know what must be done.”

BOOK: Mad for the Plaid
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