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Authors: Karen Hawkins

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BOOK: Mad for the Plaid
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“In London, immersed in politics. For all intents, it seems she is alone.”

“Except her cousin,” Nik said.

“He arrived today. According to something Lady Edana said, he is only an occasional visitor. It is Lady Ailsa who is in charge of the castle and lands.”

“Interesting. What have you ascertained about this abduction thus far?”

Apraksin blew a smoke ring that was quickly torn apart by the breeze. “While Rurik was checking the security of our assigned rooms, Lady Ailsa shared what she knows, which doesn't seem to be much. The coach carrying Her Grace and Lord Hamilton was overtaken on the road between here and Lord Hamilton's house around dawn on—”

“Wait. My grandmother was awake at

. From the expression of outrage on the Dowager Countess's face, I believe Her Grace and Lord Hamilton might have been involved in a flirtation.”

Rurik looked impressed. “Her Grace is a vibrant woman.”

“Too much so,” Nik said shortly. “And?”

Apraksin explained the details of the abduction that Lady Ailsa had shared. He finished with, “All the servants and Lord Hamilton's escort were accounted for except one guard.”

Rurik's gaze sharpened at this. “Is he still missing?”

. No one knows if he was part of this effort or if he was taken prisoner with Lord Hamilton and Her Grace.”

“We know the answer to that,” Nik said grimly.

Apraksin hesitated. “There is more. Blood was found on one of the seats. Not much, but I thought you should know.”

Nik's jaw hardened.
Bozhy moj, if someone has harmed Tata Natasha—
He fisted his hands, trying hard to regain control over his hot temper. “Where is this ransom to be paid?”

“Lady Ailsa was not forthcoming with that information, though she hinted she'd share it after dinner.”

“A stall, eh?”

. But as she spoke, Mr. Mackenzie glanced at Lady Ailsa's desk. I wondered if the ransom note might not be found there.”

“It could be. It's obvious she's shared the information with her grandmother and cousin, too. If Mackenzie's only an occasional visitor, I wonder why he's here now.”

Rurik spoke. “The footman who came to hang up my clothes said Mr. Mackenzie and Lady Ailsa are like
brother and sister. Mackenzie lived here as a youth after the death of his parents, and moved away on reaching his majority. He returns now and then to visit, usually during hunting season. Both he and Lady Ailsa are avid riders.”

Nik rubbed his chin. “As Lady Ailsa did not offer to share the actual note or the location for the exchange while she was supposedly bringing you up-to-date on the developments of my grandmother's disappearance, we'll assume she won't find it easier to do so after dinner.”

Apraksin agreed. “During dinner, Rurik can pretend to be ill and slip off to the study and see what's in that desk.”

Nik nodded, trying not to think of his grandmother hurt or frightened. “Find out where this ransom is to be paid. The note will tell us where to begin looking for these fools. We will leave at dawn.”

Rurik frowned. “All of us?”

“Of course,” Apraksin said, looking surprised.

“It's not necessary. I can watch over His Highness; no one even knows he's here.”

“And what should I do?” Apraksin asked in a stiff voice.

“Stay behind and wait for word from Edinburgh. Someone must inform us if the tsar arrives earlier than expected.”

Nik couldn't disagree.

The courtier scowled. “We will ask that a courier forward any message that may arrive.”

Rurik gave an impatient shake of his head. “Lady
Ailsa may not be in the best of moods once she realizes we've gone on our own to meet these scoundrels. I got the distinct impression she felt the matter best left in her hands.”

“Rurik is right,” Nik said before Apraksin could argue. “You will stay here. If word of the tsar arrives, you must inform us as quickly as you can.”

Apraksin grimaced, but after sending a black look at Rurik, the courtier muttered a reluctant agreement. Scowling, he flicked what remained of his cigarillo to the ground and put it out with his heel. “The lights in the dining room were just lit. We must get ready for dinner.”

“Do so,” Nik said. “Watch Lady Ailsa's relatives closely. There may be more clues there.”

Rurik inclined his head. “
, Your Highness.”

Asta rozhti!
” Apraksin hissed. “Do not bow to a groom!”

A dull red colored Rurik's face. He grimaced sheepishly. “I'm sorry. I did not think.”

Nik scowled. “Obviously.”

Still flushed, Rurik ground out his cigar and dusted his hands on his breeches.

Apraksin tugged his collar higher. “Come, Rurik. We must bathe and dress.” Without sparing Nik-the-groom a look, the courtier strode toward the castle, the master of the guard trailing behind him.

Nik watched over the gelding's back as his men disappeared into the castle. The woman he'd seen in the window—so calm and self-possessed—had been unflinching when she'd met his gaze. Challenging, even.
What are you hiding, Lady Ailsa? And why? Why would you pay off a ransom so quickly, without first trying to free the prisoners?

The snap of a stick sounded behind him. He turned, and there, standing by the gate his men had just left, stood Lady Ailsa.

Chapter 5

A thick cloak of dark green wool hung from the lady's shoulders and opened as she walked toward him to reveal the outline of a severe riding habit. With a jaunty riding hat trimmed with a feather resting upon her dark blond hair, Lady Ailsa looked like every young lady of fashion he'd ever seen. Only the sharpness of her pale gray eyes gave him pause.

Did she see me speaking to my men?
It was highly improbable she could understand Oxenburgian, but he couldn't stop a flash of unease.

He bowed. “Good evening, my lady. You are out late.”

“I always ride this time of the evening.” She moved closer, her gaze slipping from him to D'yoval, her expression softening. “Och, what a beauty.”

Her voice was low and sultry, like a cup of rich, hot chocolate swirled with sugar, a faint trace of a Scottish accent brightening each word.
The silk of her voice is at variance with the sharpness of her quill.

He inclined his head respectfully the way a groom should, though he watched her through his lashes.
“I am surprised anyone would ride in such weather. It grows cold.”

“My horse likes the cold, as do I.” Her gaze remained on D'yoval, taking in the animal's powerful lines with an expert eye.

While she looked at the horse, Nik took the opportunity to examine her in return. Her face was scrubbed of artifice and a slight dusting of freckles powdered her pale skin, while her thickly lashed eyes shimmered a silvery gray that shone with intelligence and—was that humor? He thought perhaps it was.

Her profile was in relief, and he had to admit that her nose was indeed bold, which gave her glance a hawkish directness. He wondered if she were really so imposing a person, or if she merely had the look of a Roman empress.

She moved in front of D'yoval, the wind blowing her cloak as she walked. Her formfitting habit was far more complimentary than the gown she'd worn before, and he could now see that she was pleasantly shaped indeed. Her breasts were high and generous, her hips rounded, her waist feminine while not ridiculously thin.

His gaze followed her fitted jacket down to her sweeping skirts, and then on to her riding boots. They were mud-splattered, as was her hem, which suggested a vigorous ride. But he thought her boots told her story more than the riding habit. While her clothing was fashionable, her boots were comfortably worn, the toes scraped, the heels a bit down. A serious rider
never gave up a pair of comfortable boots until they were unusable. It took too much time to break in a new pair.

Lady Ailsa was not a fainthearted, balk-at-hedgerows type, but a bruising, leather-to-hell rider. One to be wary of on, and most likely off, the field.

She sent him a glance now, her gray eyes alight. “This beautiful horse. What's his name?”


“D'yoval.” She murmured the name as if tasting it. “That's as lovely as he.” She reached out to pat the horse, but the gelding whickered and nervously moved away.

Nik hid a grin. “He is not so tamed, eh?”

Lady Ailsa shot him a surprised look, a flicker of suspicion in her gaze, and he realized his tone had been far too informal.
I must be careful with this one.

“I will ride this horse.” She turned back to D'yoval.

Nik almost choked. “I beg your pardon?”

“I will ride this horse. This evening I'll ask Lord Apraksin to set a time for me to do so.”

“Lord Apraksin will not allow it.”
He'd better not, if he knows what's good for him.
“D'yoval is not an easy horse to ride. He is very stubborn.”

“So am I. I can handle him.”

Her confidence made Nik raise his eyebrows, but, aware of his “groom” status, all he said was, “Of course, my lady.” Best to get D'yoval out of sight before Lady Ailsa decided to abscond with him now. Nik untied the gelding's reins.

D'yoval jerked his head, but Nik knew his horse well and was ready for that particular trick. “As you can see, he requires a firm hand.”

“I have one.”

“And he bites.” Catching her raised brows, he hastily added, “My lady.”

Amusement warmed her pale eyes to silver. “I bite, too.”

She looked so incredibly appealing standing there, her chin at a cocky level, confidence warming her face. Nik almost returned her smile, catching himself just in time.
Perhaps I was wrong before; if I met this woman at a dinner party, I most assuredly would have noticed her.

He inclined his head politely, using the gesture to sweep his gaze over her. “If you don't mind, I should take the horse to the stables. Lord Apraksin wished D'yoval to be given oats.”

She placed her hand on D'yoval's bridle. “In a moment.”

Nik's polite smile faded. She hadn't said “when I say so,” but it was obvious in her manner. He had to swallow a very real desire to scowl. He was just beginning to realize what a horrible servant he would be. Not only did he dislike it when someone ordered him to do something he didn't wish to do, but he found it almost impossible to pretend he didn't care.

She patted D'yoval, who was now allowing her to do so, and was even whickering softly now and then.

Nik sent a hard look at his gelding.

“What is your name?”

He realized Lady Ailsa was no longer looking at the horse, but at him.
Bozhy moj, I must have a name.
He grabbed the first one that came to mind. “Menshivkov. I am Lord Apraksin's groom.”

Her cool gaze measured, assessed. “Are you a good groom, Menshivkov? A verrah guid one?”

“Of course.” He couldn't keep the outrage from his voice. If he ever decided to be a groom in earnest, he would be the best one of all. There could be no question. He realized her brows had lifted, and he hastily added, again, “My lady.”

“Guid. Then I will let you see to my St. George.”

“See to your . . .”

She pointed behind him to the stable yard. “St. George is my horse. He is tied to the post.”

Nik followed the direction of her gloved finger and caught sight of a horse tied to the far fence. He took in the large, rather mule-faced bay with its sour expression and a head that seemed too large for its stocky body. “St. George does not look like a saint.”

A choked laugh made him look back at Lady Ailsa. Her pale gray eyes shimmered with humor. They were actually quite pretty when lit thus. They sparkled as if flecked with silver. Framed by thick brown lashes that curled beguilingly at the corners, they gave her a faintly sleepy look that made her very intriguing.

BOOK: Mad for the Plaid
8.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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