Authors: Karen Hawkins
The two men bowed and then left, the door closing behind them. Finally alone, Nik turned to the fire and threw the crumpled letter on top of the smoldering log.
He watched silently as the red-hot flames flickered to life, greedily reaching for the paper, blackening the edges before crackling hungrily and consuming the note in a heated blaze. He had to find Tata Natasha and stop the indomitable Lady Ailsa from alerting the authorities. There was too much at stake to involve anyone else, especially a sharp-witted highlander who managed to convey disapproval with every stroke of her pen.
The final bit of the letter curled into ashes, and he turned away, far more worried about his grandmother than he wished to admit.
The Small Study
November 25, 1824
Ailsa paced rapidly, her chin tucked against her chest, her hands clasped behind her.
Good lord, what a coil
Lady Edana sat by the fire pretending to embroider a rose upon a piece of cream muslin. She sighed. “
has someone done this?”
“We'll know soon enough,” Ailsa replied just as she had the previous nineteen times her grandmother had asked the question. Ailsa continued to pace, her slippers silent on the thick rug, her mind whirling with thoughts. On the day of the abduction, she and Greer had ridden to the overturned coach and, after much searching, had located the tracks of the scoundrels and their captives where they'd disappeared into the woods. There, behind a thick cove of brush, Greer had found signs of waiting horses.
Greer had followed the tracks a short distance, but it quickly became obvious that the abductors were not
heading toward the main road, but were going ever deeper into the woods, so he'd returned to where Ailsa waited.
After some discussion and a long look at the map Greer had brought, they'd decided that the abductors, burdened by the uncertain weather and two elderly prisoners, would be forced to join a road at some point north. Traveling into the mountains beyond the Rhidorroch Forest was a hardship even a healthy man would hesitate to face. That left one question: Which road would they join?
There were only two choices; the narrow and winding northwest road traveled through steep craigs before eventually leading down across the bogs of Meall An Fhuarain and on to the coast, where a handful of small villages sat. Ailsa's heart sank at the thought, for that road would take the ill-doers deeper into Mackenzie lands, which would make her clan look all the guiltier.
But if the scoundrels instead took the northeast road, which curved over the Strath Brora to Borrobol Forest, they'd end up on the easternmost holdings of the Summerlands. That option was her one and only hope, for the Summerlands were close allies of the Earl of Arran. If she could prove that the Summerlands had orchestrated the abduction, the Mackenzie name would be cleared.
Thus, she'd directed Greer and two of his men to follow the trail as far as they could and send word as soon as they knew which road the abductors had taken. The heavy snows of the last few days had lowered Ailsa's hopes considerably, but to her relief, a note had arrived this morning, hand delivered by Ian Stewart, one of Greer's men.
Ailsa paused by her desk and picked up the much-creased missive.
“I don't know why you keep reading it over and over; the words will not change.” Lady Edana's peevish tone raked over Ailsa's nerves like an out-of-tune piano. “It's the worst possible information, for they are deep in Mackenzie lands.”
Ailsa returned the letter to the desk. “Aye, but at least we know where they are headed. Greer traced them all the way to the Corrieshalloch Gorge.” She paused, sending a side glance at her grandmother as she added in what she hoped was a casual tone, “Greer awaits me there.”
Edana looked up, her eyebrows arched high. “
“I and some men will go directly over the mountains and join Greer. It'll be more rugged, as it is a much steeper trail, but 'twill be much quicker than Greer's journey, for he was following the abductors, who had to take the longer route because ofâ”
. You cannot do this.”
“I'm nae going alone. I'm taking Stewart and MacKean. We're leaving at first light.”
“Ailsa, you could get hurt. I won't have it.” When Ailsa didn't answer, Edana threw her embroidery upon the seat beside her. “This is your father's fault. He should have never put you in charge of Castle Leod, and so I told him when he first mentioned it. You are too young, and it isn't proper for a woman to carry such responsibility on her own.”
Ailsa's jaw tightened. “Have I done so puir a job managing the estate, that you question Papa's decision?”
Edana caught the look on Ailsa's face and winced. “No, of course not. You know you've done well. In fact, things have never been run better, butâ Ailsa, please. I cannot bear to think of you being in danger.”
Ailsa's heart softened. “I will take care. I promise. But Her Grace and Lord Hamilton were my guests and I cannae leave them in the clutches of these fools.”
“Technically, they were my guests.”
“Then you know how I feel.”
Edana sighed, a tremor crossing her face. “I do. I worry about them, too.”
Ailsa went to hug her grandmother, Edana's perfume enveloping them both. “I will find them,” Ailsa whispered against her grandmother's thin, powdered cheek. “I promise.”
Edana hung on to Ailsa for a long moment; then she straightened, dug out her handkerchief, and dabbed at her eyes. “I suppose I shall have to let you, for I can't think of any other answer to this wretched situation.”
Ailsa patted Edana's shoulder and then returned to the desk, more anxious than ever to be on her way. At least she would be
something; the waiting was onerous.
Edana put her handkerchief away. “Do you know the way over the mountains?”
“Aye. 'Tis rugged, steep country. Gregor and I hunted the edge of it just a year ago, and it was nigh impossible to traverse in places. It's infuriating that these louts have taken Her Grace and Lord Hamilton to the farthest reaches of our own property.”
Edana picked up her embroidery and placed it back in her lap. “We look all the guiltier now.”
“Aye. If Arran comes and all I can tell him is that our men tracked the abductors and prisoners deeper into our own lands and we did naught aboot it, it will nae be guid for us.”
“Arran.” Edana poked her needle into the muslin with more force than necessary. “I've quite lost my patience with that man. It's just like him to do something reprehensible so he can storm in and steal some of our lands.”
Ailsa drummed her fingers on the smooth surface of the desk as she considered this. “But why such an elaborate ruse? If he's merely looking for a fight, there are more ready ways; he could use an auld claim to stir up forgotten hurts, forge documents that make it seem our claim is false, or other things of that nature. 'Tis done all the time.”
“He's not content taking our landsâhe also wishes to humiliate us. Arran is capable of any evil. He dresses like a commoner, which I find unforgivable for someone of his station.”
Ailsa absently rubbed her temples, wishing they didn't ache from nights of too little sleep and the jumbled thoughts of a thousand what-ifs. This challenge was bigger than any she'd yet faced. People's lives were at stake. People she knew and was responsible for.
I will deal with this,
she told herself stoutly.
I may not have Papa's breadth of experience, but I have Mama's calm, logical reasoning and it has stood me in good stead time and again.
“This venture is most unsafe,” Lady Edana continued, as if unaware of Ailsa's silence. “There are brigands in the mountains; Lord Elgin himself was robbed
while traveling through that area not two months ago. His horses and silver were taken and he was almost shot. It's a wonder he made it out alive.”
Ailsa sent her grandmother a wry look. “You're nae helping.”
Lady Edana rested the embroidery frame on her lap, her eyes unusually dark with worry. “We should call your father backâ”
“Nae. I will nae throw oop my hands and cry âquit' at the first sign of trouble whenâ”
A soft knock came upon the door and MacGill entered, looking flustered. “My lady, we've a guest.”
Ailsa's heart sank. “Arran.”
“Nae, my lady. 'Tis nae the earl, but 'tisâ”
“âyour cousin,” came a familiar voice from behind MacGill.
” Ailsa ran to hug her cousin.
Of Ailsa's height plus an inch, and dressed like the man of fashion he strove to be, Gregor Mackenzie accepted her hug with a chuckle and a fond pat on her cheek. “Oh ho, such a happy greeting.”
She released him, laughing a little, glad to see a friendly face. “You surprised me, that's all. The weather is nae conducive to casual visits.”
“Ah, but I grew up here. A little snow will not stop me.” He tugged one of the curls that rested beside her cheek and then went to greet Lady Edana, who embraced him just as warmly.
Ailsa smiled as she watched him. On the death of his parents, at the age of twelve, Gregor had come to live at Castle Leod. Since he was close to Ailsa in age and
loved the outdoors just as passionately as she, the two of them had become as close as any brother and sister, spending hours hunting and riding and talking. As Ailsa's sisters were all more than ten years older, having someone near her own age had been a godsend.
Later, when Gregor reached his majority, he'd left Castle Leod to set up his own town house in Edinburgh, where, to her father's chagrin, the youth had set about living the restless life of a man-about-town. Ailsa's father had fumed over what he perceived as his nephew's profligate lifestyle, and had grown colder to the young man as time passed. But Ailsa had never let her cousin's excesses color her love for him. When he'd left Castle Leod, she'd missed him desperately, and she was always glad when he visited, especially during hunting season, when the two would ride the moors and glens for hours upon hours.
His gaze, the same gray as her own, narrowed as he regarded her. “Ah, my littlest cousin, I see you're still running the huge estate from that too-large desk. What is my uncle thinking, letting you dry into dust behind such a mahogany monstrosity?”
“I fit that desk perfectly, large or nae.” She smiled as she looked him up and down. “My, how fashionable you have become, Cousin Gregor.”
“He looks quite well, doesn't he?” Lady Edana said with obvious approval.
Though short of stature, Gregor was dressed to advantage, not in the exaggerated manner of a dandy, but in a quietly perfect way. From his starched and complex cravat, to his coat of deep blue that fit his
frame without a single crease, to his fashionably knit breeches, he was a sight to behold. Had that arbiter of fashion, the infamous Beau Brummell, still held court in London, he would have approved Gregor's tasteful attire without hesitation. It was a pity Papa never understood the difference between a dandy and a man of fashion.
“Why, thank you, my dearest Ailsa.” Gregor gave her a flourishing bow that she imagined would not have been out of place at court. “Coming from you, who rarely notice such mundane things as fashion, that is high praise indeed.”
“What of me?” Lady Edana said in a wounded tone. “Does my opinion matter so little?”
Gregor flashed a droll look at Ailsa before he said with dramatic earnestness, “Ah, most beautiful of all grandmothers, your opinion matters the most. But first, I must knowâwhat dark magic is this? You are younger every time I see you.”
Lady Edana couldn't have looked more pleased. “I've been using a new lotion,” she confided, as if conferring a great secret.
“Whatever it is, you look all of twenty-two years of age, and Iâ Oh! I almost forgot.” He reached into his pocket and turned back to Ailsa. “I found this under a rock by the front door. It's addressed to you, so I assumed you'd want it. It must be a bill of lading, left by some careless tradesman. I wonder that MacGill did not already see it.”