Authors: Karen Hawkins
At Ailsa's side, Gregor tsked. “The groom is bold for a mere servant, isn't he?”
“I would nae know. I was looking at the horses.”
Gregor chuckled. “Ah, cousin, such a lie! Iâ Ah. There comes my coach. I'm glad to see it, as I'm sure our grandmother will insist I dress for dinner.”
Gregor's coach, a frivolous thing in shiny black with the Mackenzie crest over the door, and pulled by a matching set of grays that must have been too dear for a man of limited means, swept up the drive and pulled to a halt at the front door. A footman ran out to assist, and a man alighted, dressed in the sober clothing of a servant. “Who is that?” Ailsa asked.
“What? Did Valjean leave you?”
“Valjean had the ill manners to break his leg, so he sent a cousin in his stead. The man is namedâ” He bit his lip. “Good lord, what is the man's name? I can never remember it. It is something with a lot of âr's in it.”
“He looks more like a prizefighter than a valet.”
“He's all thumbs, too. I shudder to think what my cravats look like now. But poor Valjean begged me to take him on, and was almost in tears while doing so, so I could not say no.”
“You are a slave to your kindness.”
He nodded glumly. “It is a curse.”
A knock heralded the entry of MacGill. The butler bowed. “Your ladyship, the prince's advisor and a guard have come to ask aboot Her Grace's disappearance.”
Ailsa couldn't keep the surprise from her face. “So that was nae the prince? Is he following, then?”
“Nae, Your Ladyship. Lord Apraksin was sent here by His Highness, who has taken ill and is unable to leave his bed. His Lordship brings with him the master of the guard, a Mr. Rurik, and a groom.”
“How rude that the prince did not come himself!” Lady Edana declared. “If I am ever abducted, I hope
from this family will go and see what's happened to me, and not send some sort of servant.”
“Never fear on that score,” Gregor said gallantly. “I would leave no stone unturned, ill or not.”
Ailsa barely heard them.
So the prince is using an “illness” to escape his duties, is he?
She was not surprised and, actually, was a great deal relieved. It was one less complication in a situation already far too rife with them. “Very good, MacGill. Pray bring Lord Apraksin and Mr. Rurik to us here. And ask Cook to serve tea for five in the small sitting room in a half hour.”
The butler, looking relieved to have been given some direct duties, bowed and left.
Gregor turned a quizzical gaze her way. “What will you tell them?”
“The truth. Or some of it. I'll inform them we've already set a plan in motion for the rescue, although I'll provide verrah few details. Hopefully, that will be enough.”
Gregor didn't look convinced. “Perhaps we should share our information and ask for their assistance? They were both well armed, for I saw high-quality rifles and a brace of pistols strapped to each saddle.”
Lady Edana looked up at this. “Oh dear. Do you think there will be
“Of course nae,” Ailsa said soothingly, though Gregor didn't look completely convinced. “Now that we have the ransom note, all we'll need to do is deliver the funds to the proper place, and Lord Hamilton and Her Grace will be released.”
That's how it usually works, isn't it?
She longed to ask the question, but knew it could appear as a sign of indecision, so instead, she looked at Gregor. “It's best if we handle this on our own.” Of that much, at least, she was certain.
He started to argue, but a quick look in Lady Edana's direction made him close his mouth and shrug. “As you wish.”
A noise sounded outside in the hallway, and MacGill could be heard approaching. Ailsa smoothed her gown and checked her hair in the mirror over the fireplace. “Come. Let's put on brave faces, for I'll nae have it said the Mackenzies cower.”
“Of course,” Lady Edana agreed, lifting her chin.
Though Gregor nodded, he still looked concerned, a feeling Ailsa shared.
It would take all her newfound skills to lead the family out of this mad coil, and she was determined to do just that.
Dusk settled in, dulled by cold gray skies that carried the taste of more snow. Outside the stables, Nik placed his bucket of tools by his horse, D'yoval, who was tied to the paddock fence.
The horse whickered softly as Nik patted the animal's muscled neck. “Look at you, snorting at this cold. Have you been away from Oxenburg so long that you've forgotten how a proper winter feels
D'yoval snorted as if outraged at the idea.
Nik chuckled. “I thought not. Well, I found an apple, and you shall have it once Apraksin arrives to report on his findings. Hopefully that will settle your dislike for this damp chill.” It would have been nice to be able to meet his men in the stables, for it would have been warmer, but the other grooms were a loquacious group and were too enthralled with the horsesâD'yoval in particularâto allow for privacy of any sort.
Besides, despite the cold, both the fresh air and the view were invigorating. Castle Leod loomed at the top of the drive, square and silvery against the dark gray sky. Judging from the windows and the style of
battlements, he thought it must have been built in the early or mid-seventeenth century. Three stories in height, narrow and square, the structure had as its centerpiece a fortified tower house.
Though the castle was an ancient fortress, the lack of additions or embellishments led Nik to believe the Mackenzies to be of small means. The neatly dressed servants wore plain brass buttons rather than the gold ones many men of wealth demanded, and the stables, while sturdy and in good repair, housed only the most mundane of cattle. He'd counted six field horses, three hard-going hunters, and two sets of coach horses, one of them a showy set of grays that the grooms had said belonged to Lady Ailsa's cousin, Mr. Gregor Mackenzie, who'd arrived earlier that day.
As the inhabitants of Castle Leod don't seem to be well-funded, it could mean they would be easy to bribe, so if they are not directly involved, they may have allowed Tata to be kidnapped.
Before arriving, Nik had imagined Lady Ailsa as a dour, prune-faced spinster with gray hair and a permanently displeased expression, but he'd by chance overheard a comment by one of the footmen that the lady in question was none other than the clear-eyed, square-chinned miss who'd been standing in the window earlier. Though she didn't qualify as a beauty in any way, she was much younger than he'd expected, with dark mousy-blond hair, a bold nose, and an unflinching gaze.
The latter had told him all he needed to know about the lady whose strong, annoyingly neat handwriting had so plagued him. In some ways, she reminded him of the castleâsmall and sturdy, but unremarkable. Had
he met her at a dinner party or some such event, he'd have never spared her a second glance. Even now, he was glad he'd have no commerce with her. He had no illusions about the souring effects of female stubbornness. Living with his own grandmother had taught him that much.
D'yoval whickered softly, his breath puffing white. Nik dismissed Lady Ailsa from his thoughts and dropped the comb back in the bucket. That done, he pulled the apple from his pocket. As D'yoval eagerly took the treat, Nik saw Rurik walking down the path to the stables.
The guard looked about him, his dark gaze flickering over the stables, the paddocks, the open fields, and thick shrubs. He stopped some yards away, pretending to examine the horse and ignoring Nik.
Nik supposed it would look more natural if he were performing groom-type things, so he pulled a brush from the bucket and began working on D'yoval's coat. Without looking at Rurik, Nik asked, “So? What have you discovered?”
Rurik leaned against the paddock fence and pointed to the horse's neck, as if giving Nik orders. “Apraksin will join us soon. He has more information than I.” He dropped his hand and flicked a careful glance at the stable windows, which were bolted closed. “Is it safe to talk here?”
“The grooms and stable hands are gathered on the far side around a stove, talking and laughing. They won't hear us.” He smirked. “Just to be sure they are attached to their pursuits, I left them a bottle of vodka, which they like very much.”
“Do they speak Oxenburgian?”
I insulted them every way possible and none of them so much as flinched. Iâ Ah, here he comes.”
Apraksin had walked out of the front of the castle, nodding to a footman as if to indicate he didn't need an escort. As soon as the door closed, he casually made his way to where Rurik stood by the paddock.
“That was bold,” Nik said. “Won't they wonder why you left?”
Apraksin grinned. “I asked if I could smoke in the sitting room. Lady Edana was quick to send me outside.”
“The Dowager Countess of Cromartie, Lady Ailsa's grandmother.” The courtier pulled a small metal case from his pocket and opened it to reveal slender cigarillos. He offered one to Rurik, who took it with a murmured thanks. “I am here, enjoying a cigar, away from the curtains and rugs her ladyship wishes to protect.”
Rurik pulled a tinderbox from his pocket and then made a spill of a thick twist of straw scooped from the ground. Soon the sweet cigar aroma caused Nik to growl, “Do you try to torment me?”
Apraksin grinned and, glancing around, placed a fresh cigarillo on the fence rail. “There. One for you to collect after we've left.”
“Thank you. That's something, at least.”
“We should leave vodka, too, since you gave yours to the grooms.” Rurik slipped a flask from his pocket and propped it beside the fence, near the cigar.
Nik grunted his approval. “That will be most welcome.
It will be cold in the stables tonight, even with the woodstove.” He moved to the front of the horse and absently ran the brush over D'yoval's neck. “So. What have you found out?”
Apraksin answered, “A ransom note was delivered this afternoon. Two hundred guineas were requested.”
“For both hostages?”
“So it seems. Our hostess is unhappy about the situation. Concerned, even. As she should be.” He cast a glance at the castle, and then added in a low voice, “From something Lady Ailsa said, I got the impression she hopes to pay this ransom as soon as possible.”
“A foolish decision,” Rurik said around his cigar.
“Oxenburg does not pay ransoms,” Nik stated. “If you make one payment, then the abductors have that much more reason to keep their prisoners. And the longer the abductors keep the prisoners, the less likely it is they will survive.”
“I said as much.” Apraksin made a smoke ring. “But when I suggested to Lady Ailsa that she might wish to rethink her position, she became veryÂ .Â .Â . adamant.” He grimaced. “It is obvious she does not wish for our assistance in this matter.”
“She is a stubborn woman,” Nik said.
“She is young. Perhaps that is it.”
“And inexperienced,” Rurik added. “As we have a Romany presence in Oxenburg, we've faced the consequences of paying ransoms and know the usual outcome.” As soon as he spoke, Rurik cast a quick glance at Nik. “I beg your pardon if I offend you with such a comment.”
Nik shrugged. “My grandmother would be the first to tell you that if you are so foolish as to allow yourself to be abducted, then you deserve to pay a ransom.”
“One of the few things she says that I agree with.” Apraksin leaned against the fence. “Rurik and I spoke to some of the maids to see what we could discover about this Lady Ailsa. She is the youngest of the earl's children, is unmarried, and has been running the estate on her own for the last year since her mother's death. She seems quite formidable.”
Nik patted D'yoval's neck. “Where is her father if he is not running the estate?”