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Authors: Karen Hawkins

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BOOK: Mad for the Plaid
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Ailsa stared at the envelope resting in Gregor's hand. Dirty and creased, her name was scrawled over
the crinkled paper. She took the note, a tremor passing through her fingers.
The ransom request. It can be nothing else.

Aware of Gregor's curious gaze, she forced a smile. “Of course. It must be for the coal. You know how much we use at this castle.”

“I shudder to think of it.” He turned to address an idle remark to Lady Edana, and Ailsa was left with the note.

She opened it quickly.

Bring two hundred guineas to the Iron Kettle in Kylestrome. The prisoners will be released to you forthwith.

That was all. The handwriting was awkwardly slanted, as if someone had used his or her weaker hand in an effort to disguise their handwriting.

She pursed her lips.
Forthwith, hmm? And not a misspelling to be seen. Whoever wrote this is educated.

The village of Kylestrome was in the very northern outreaches of Mackenzie land, in the direction the abductors were taking the prisoners, so that made sense.
But why is the note addressed to me and not Arran? It's his brother who was taken, after all. And everyone knows Arran has more funds than all the Mackenzies put together. Perhaps Arran is trying to distance himself from the abduction in order to appear innocent of subterfuge?

She frowned. She hadn't expected a ransom note—indeed, she could have saved Greer the trouble of tracking the abductors had she thought they'd offer a chance to purchase the freedom of their captives.
Perhaps this isn't an attempt to cause a clan war at all, but a simple case
of greed. But only two hundred guineas? Why not more? Or is it— Blast it, I'm more confused than ever.

Her shoulders slumped as her thoughts swirled and then tangled. She'd been so sure Arran had been behind this abduction and now, in one second, her beliefs had been put into question.
How do I make decisions for the good of all when I don't know enough about—

“Ailsa?”

She blinked at Gregor and realized she'd been staring at the note for far too long. “Oh. I'm sorry.” She forced a smile and folded the note in half. “I was doing sums in my head.” She placed the note on the corner of her desk. “You know how distracting that can be.” Before he could comment further, she asked, “So what's brought you to us? I thought you were wintering with the Earl of Argyll.”

“Ay, yes. Argyll.” A shadow crossed Gregor's face as he turned toward the fire, where he held out his hands to the warming blaze. “I left, and rather abruptly, too. I'm sorry I didn't send word I was coming, but there was no time. I rode here; my coach and things should arrive shortly.”

Ailsa shrugged. “You are always welcome here; you know that.”

“Of course he is,” Lady Edana said firmly. “But still, you must tell us about your visit with Argyll.”

Gregor looked bored. “There's not much to tell. He's devilishly short-tempered and dresses like a merchant.”

“Yes, yes, but his daughter.” Lady Edana leaned out to grasp Gregor's hand as if to hold him in place. “What about
her
?”

Gregor flushed as he gently freed his hand from Lady Edana's. “Ah yes. The most worthy Lady Agnes, of whom I'd heard much, turned out to be as pretty as a flattened mushroom and as intriguing as a dried leaf.” He feigned a shudder as he turned back to the fireplace, the flames reflecting in his boots. “No, thank you.”

“It's not about her prettiness or ability to fascinate.” Edana's voice was uncharacteristically sharp. “Lady Agnes's dowry is impressive, and you have need of a fortune.”

“I don't care what her dowry might be. If I must be chained for life, then it will have to be to a prettier and more lively post than that or I will die of boredom.”

Edana, red-faced, her mouth set in a belligerent manner, snapped out, “If one needs the funds, one must—”

“Of course, of course. And when things get desperate, perhaps I will return to Agryll's house and court his daughter. But not today.”

An awkward silence emerged between the two and Ailsa wondered how it was that her grandmother had been privy to the reason for Gregor's visit with Argyll, when Ailsa hadn't realized the import at all. She cleared her throat. “However it was that you came, Gregor, I'm glad you're here.”

He sent her a grateful look. “Thank you.”

“Of course we are,” Lady Edana said, although a bit stiffly. “When you first arrived, I thought perhaps you'd come because of our misfortune.”

“What misfortune?” Concern dimmed Gregor's smile. “Uncle is not—”

“Nae! 'Tis naught like that,” Ailsa said hastily, sending
a dark look at Lady Edana. “'Tis a small situation, but one that will soon be resolved.”

“We can only hope,” her grandmother interjected. “And it is not small at all. The Grand Duchess Nikolaevna is a
very
important person.” Lady Edana turned back to Gregor. “She was here, as my guest, and now she's gone missing.”

“Good God!” Gregor turned a worried face toward Ailsa. “You've looked for her, of course.”

“Extensively. And we've a tolerable idea where she might be, too.”
In a manner of speaking.

“Tell Gregor all,” Edana said sharply. “Now that he's here, he can assist us in the search.”

“How?” Ailsa's voice cracked a bit. It was irksome that her own grandmother didn't seem to think her able to handle this situation without the assistance of a male.

Edana waved her hand. “Your cousin hunts as if born to it. Your papa has said so himself many times.”

Gregor nodded thoughtfully, as if he'd already given the matter the deepest consideration. “She has a point, cousin. Thanks to the hours and hours I spent tracking hares with Greer, I'm something of an expert.”

“I was with you every one of those days,” Ailsa said drily. “And I'd call neither of us an expert.”

“True, but we're better trackers than most gamekeepers found today. Even your father noted my ability during the hunts we had before the weather turned, and he doesn't care for me.”

“Gregor, nae! Papa is quite fond of you.”

“He tolerates me.” Gregor made a face. “I wouldn't call it more than that.”

“You're exaggerating. Papa is nae the most demonstrative of men.” Which was an understatement, indeed. As much as she loved Papa, she knew he could seem quite cold to those who did not know him.

Edana nodded wisely. “'Tis true, Gregor. Your uncle went the direction of his own papa, who had too much common sense and far too little emotion for my taste. It was a rare day when Cromartie allowed a smile to pass his lips. As for a laugh, I can think of only a dozen times I heard one.”

Gregor's expression softened. “That must have been difficult for you, for you are a burst of emotion and light.”

“You flatterer!” Edana sent him an arch look, her earlier irritation already forgotten. “You are too kind. I'm glad you've come. Ailsa and I have been at wits' end to decide how to proceed.”

Ailsa's jaw tightened. “That's nae true. I've a verrah guid idea how to proceed.”
I hope.
But with Lady Edana's words, Ailsa's nagging worries returned in full force.

Gregor's gaze flickered over Ailsa's face. “So this duchess has gone missing. How so?”

“She and Lord Hamilton were abducted when on their way from here to his house. Their coach was found abandoned, the servants injured or missing.”

“Good God!” Gregor's eyes widened.

“Indeed.” Ailsa hesitated, wondering if she should tell him everything, but the concern in his gray eyes banished her concerns. “In fact, the note you found by the front door was nae a bill, but a ransom note.”


What?
” Edana gaped. “We were so sure there wouldn't be one!”

“Well, there is one. And it quite changes the way I think of this whole affair.” Catching Gregor's confused look, Ailsa added, “We thought this incident might be of Arran's making. He's been after the grazing lands for decades.”

“He's a hawk, too, and enjoys shredding people in his talons.” Gregor's brows lowered. “How much does the ransom note request?”

“Two hundred guineas.”

He frowned. “I expected more.”

“So did I, which confirms that there's some other reason for the abduction.”

“Obviously,” Gregor agreed.

“Fortunately, I have that much in the safe. I had planned to use it for improvements on the tenants' cottages this spring, but that must wait.”

“Where do you deliver this ransom?”

“An inn in Kylestrome, which is far north of here. I—”

The sound of horses trotting up the drive made them all look toward the front window.

“That must be Arran.” Lady Edana's voice was heavy with dire prophecy. “I'm still not convinced he's not behind this.”

Gregor shrugged. “We'll just explain the facts and he'll be forced to accept it. At least publicly.”

“It's worse than you know,” Ailsa said. “Someone went to the trouble to implicate us in the abduction. A scrap of Mackenzie tartan was found under one of the wheels. It looks dire.”

“Who would do such a— Ah. Arran, trying to cover his intentions.”

“I thought so, but— To be honest, I dinnae know what to think. I fear if I showed the note in an effort to prove our innocence, he'd just say we wrote it ourselves. We are damned either way we play this.”

“Bloody hell,” Gregor muttered, looking dark. “Who has done this to our family?”

“I wish I knew.” She looked out the window, where they could now hear men's voices, low and deep, though indistinguishable. “And now we must face the earl. I'd hoped for a week or more before this meeting. He must have been in his home seat, which is surprising, as he usually winters in London.”

Gregor strode to the window, twitched back the long velvet curtains, and peered down. “That's not Arran.”

“Thank goodness,” Lady Edana breathed.

Gregor leaned a bit closer to the window. “There are three men on horseback, but none of them wear the earl's livery. They have extremely fine horses, too, quite unlike the plodders I last saw carrying Arran and that fat son of his.”

Ailsa joined Gregor at the window. On seeing the men, she muttered under her breath, “The prince!”

Gregor sent her a surprised glance. “Who?”

“The duchess's grandson, Prince Nikolai—I don't remember the rest of his title.” Ailsa had to admit that the horses were spectacular; two bays and a white gelding, all of them heavily muscled and so beautiful as to draw every eye.

Her gaze reluctantly went to the men. The prince
looked just as she'd expected—he was tall, handsome, and wore an elegant fur-lined coat that was open at the neck and wrists to reveal a touch of lace. He sported a neatly trimmed beard and mustache that gave him a slightly foreign air, although the cut of his obviously expensive clothing was definitely not English.

His expression was faintly haughty as he looked about the entry of Castle Leod, but he seemed far less antagonistic than she'd expected after bearing the brunt of his caustic letters. Her gaze flickered to the man riding beside him, who was taller, broader, and more heavily bearded—a bear of a man. Everything about him, from his neat uniform to his short, combed beard, shouted “military.”
A royal guard, perhaps?

She flicked a quick glance at the third man, obviously a groom. Dressed in the rough clothing of a servant, a heavy, worn-looking, and shapeless coat draped over his broad frame, he wore a muffler wound about his head that covered most of his face, precious protection from the cold that his companions hadn't taken advantage of. Taller even than the others by several inches, he sat atop his magnificent white horse with a lithe grace that made her think of a large cat.
A lion, no less. He must be riding one of the prince's horses.
Had she a horse like that, she'd have been loath to leave it behind, too.

The groom dismounted and took his masters' reins while they alighted. One of her footmen met them, and she let out an irritated sigh. “I don't know why he's come; I told him I'd send word once we knew something.”

“I daresay he's worried,” Lady Edana offered. “Her
Grace spoke often of her grandson. I gather they were quite close.”

That didn't ring true with the dismissive tone of the prince's correspondence, but Ailsa kept the thought to herself. “He's here now, so I'll have to speak with him.” She looked back out the window. “They are quite handsome, these foreigners.”

Gregor's gaze followed hers. “Prussians dress the same; fur-lined clothing, and very military-style fashions.”

From behind them, Lady Edana commented, “I do so love a Prussian uniform. Nothing is quite so dashing.”

Ailsa watched as the two guests walked toward the house, the groom following one of her footmen and leading the horses in the direction of the stables. As he passed under her window, he glanced up, his muffler falling from his face. Their eyes met and, to her surprise, he didn't look away. Indeed, he stared, boldly and without hesitation.

In her experience, servants did not boldly stare the way this man did. But what a man, though. Thick black hair framed the sort of face only a sculptor could create. Thickly lashed and slumberous dark eyes framed a bold and straight nose, his cheekbones high and proud, his mouth as brazenly perfect as the rest of him. While the others were bearded, he was not, his firm jaw clearly in view where not covered by the muffler.

But it was his expression that held her attention. No one had looked at her in such a direct manner, as if she were a display at a museum created for no other reason than to be gazed upon and then—to her instant
irritation—dismissed when he looked away, apparently disinterested.

BOOK: Mad for the Plaid
11.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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