Authors: Karen Hawkins
“He is nae a saint, you're right aboot that.” She turned back to D'yoval, dismissing Nik with a glance. “Put him away and give him an extra measure of oats, too. He was verrah well behaved today.” She didn't
even bother looking at Nik as she spoke, but moved closer to D'yoval, cooing to the spoiled animal as she rubbed his shoulder.
D'yoval seemed to enjoy her attention, too. Nik would have some serious words with his horse once Lady Ailsa was out of earshot.
Meanwhile, he had an irksome part to play. He bowed. “I will put your steed away, my lady.”
“Thank you. You may leave D'yoval with me.”
.” The word escaped him before he could catch it.
Her brows rose.
He tightened his hold on D'yoval's reins as he hurried to add, “It is cold, my lady, and I'm sure you wish to go inside. I can take both horses to the stables. It is my duty.” There. That sounded properly groom-like.
“Impossible. Like all males, St. George is nae fond of other animals, particularly those prettier than he. He would bite this one, and that would nae be guid.”
Nik wasn't sure whether he was more amused at the idea of a horse disliking another for its better looks, or irked that she thought that principle applied to “all males.”
Before he could decide, she left D'yoval's side and crossed to where Nik stood. She was even shorter than he'd imagined, her head coming well below his shoulder.
She held out her gloved hand.
He raised his brows, waiting.
She shook her hand impatiently. “Give me the reins so that I may hold D'yoval while you deal with St. George.”
A well-trained groom would not question a lady. A well-trained groom would do as he was told, even though he'd already warned the lady of the house about D'yoval's less-than-gentle disposition.
Well, Nik might be playing a groom, but no one said he had to be a well-trained one. He set his jaw. “
She tilted her head back to more fully view his face, her hand plopped on her hat to hold it in place. “Goodness, but grooms from Oxenburg are forward, intractable creatures,” she murmured. Without giving him time to reply, she turned and wandered back to the gate where he'd first seen her. “Fine. If you insist, then I will let you take care of both horses.”
He'd won, but somehow he found himself remaining by D'yoval's side, watching her warily, and feeling as if he'd missed something.
What would I have done if a groom had refused to do as I said?
He wasn't certain, for it had never happened. But he didn't think he'd so meekly accept it.
“My, my, my. Would you look at this?” She bent and picked up the flask Rurik had left. “Where did this come from?” She looked around as if expecting someone to claim it.
Nik bit his tongue.
Damn it, that's mine!
When silence met her inquiry, she shrugged. “I shall keep it for myself, then.” She unscrewed the top of the flask and took a cautious sniff. Then, to his utter shock, she raised the flask to her lips and took a sip.
Nik's brows rose. There was vodka in that flask. While he loved the Scots' whisky, which they'd aptly
named “the water of life,” his native country's vodka was a much, much stronger drink.
She lowered the flask, her eyes watering. She coughed, pressing a hand to her throat. “Guid lord, that is strong!”
“It's obviously not a drink fit for a lady.” He couldn't keep the smugness from his tone.
Her gaze locked with his. And then, with the utmost deliberate movement possible, as if she'd taken his words as a direct challenge, she lifted the flask once more and took another sip.
This time she swallowed the vodka with barely a grimace. “It grows on you, this drink, whatever it is.” Her voice, already a touch husky, had deepened even more, as if she fought the desire to cough.
Bozhy moj, but I have never met such a stubborn woman.
If he didn't say something, she would drink all his vodka. “I recognize that flask. It is Lord Apraksin's.”
“Is it? I wonder how it got here?”
“Perhaps it dropped from his pocket when he came to see to the horses earlier this evening. I will return it to him in the morning.”
A faint smile curled her lips. “Ah, but why make him wait? I will see him at dinner.” She slid the flask into her pocket and patted it. “I'm sure he will be glad to have it back. Iâbut wait, what's this?” She picked up the cigarillo that had been left on the fence post for him.
The vodka had been one thing, for the flask had been in plain sight. But the cigarillo? She had to have seen Apraksin place it there.
Had she? Or hadn't she?
Nik honestly couldn't say. He supposed the edge of the
cigarillo had hung over the fence orâ
Bloody hell, is she playing with me?
He was stuck; if he said something and she hadn't witnessed Apraksin putting the cigarillo on the fence, then Nik would have revealed himself. He was left simmering in growing irritation.
She rolled the cigarillo between her gloved fingers and then took a cautious sniff. “Divine. My father smokes this same kind, I think. The scent of the tobacco is just like thisâsweet and soft.”
Nik managed to say with what he hoped was unconcern, “That is an odd place to find a cigar. Perhaps someone left it there by mistake. Since the flask is Lord Apraksin's, perhaps the cigar is, as well.”
Amusement, curiosity, and challenge fleetingly crossed her face, but were quickly subdued behind a shrug as she continued to toy with the cigar. “A cigarillo would be a lovely way to ward off this chill, would nae it?”
He inclined his head, unable to spit out any more polite words.
“Let us see.” She bent and picked up some straw that was lodged against a post and twisted it into a spill exactly as Rurik had done. Her gaze locked on Nik. “You. Bring a lantern from the side of the barn. I'll need a light.”
She'd called him “
”? He'd never been so insulted. Ever. Worse, she was about to smoke his own cigar right in front of him, from a light she was forcing him to provide.
Jaw tight, he tied D'yoval to the fence and retrieved the lantern. He brought it to her, holding it aloft. The
golden light spilled over her face in the early-evening gloom, warming her skin and shimmering over her dark gold curls.
She lit the spill and then toasted the edges of her cigar before she lit it.
She knew what she was doing. A woman smoking a cigar wasn't unheard of, especially in Europe, where the rules of society were laxer. But for a lady to do so in this staid country was almost scandalous.
But perhaps Scotland differs from her older cousin, England?
He hadn't bothered to think about such things before now, as his concerns had been so focused on his mission.
The cigar flared, and she drew on it, her lips encircling the cigarillo in a way that riveted Nik's attention. As he watched, the first puff of sweet smoke slipped over her full lips and warmed the chilled air.
Bozhy moj, those lipsÂ .Â .Â .
She looked at him through the haze of smoke, amusement rippling through her voice. “You may put the lantern back.”
He hadn't even remembered he was holding it. He must look like a fool, holding the lantern while staring at her in such a way. Cursing his inattention, he returned the lantern to the hook by the barn and then came back to the fence.
She'd already turned away and had walked a few steps until she stood in the center of the path that led to the castle, the cigar held at a jaunty angle, a wisp of smoke curling into the fading light. “Before you put St. George away, see to it that he's brushed and fed. We had a hard run today, and he'll need both.”
Though it went sorely against his pride, Nik inclined his head and managed to say in a fairly pleasant, if clipped, tone, “
, my lady.” Soon she would leave, and he would be free to express himself by kicking the stuffing from a bale of hay.
As if she knew his thoughts, she smiled through the drift of creamy smoke. “Well doneÂ .Â .Â . Your Highness.”
Ailsa watched her opponent with bated breath. Slowly, like a lion stalking its prey, he left the fence and came toward her, his dark green gaze locked on her face.
She didn't know him well enough to read his expressionâcaution or irritation or mere arroganceâso his approach made her heart race even through the boldness now swimming through her blood, brought on by the sting of the cigar and the harsh drink she'd imbibed.
What will he do?
Her brain calmed her galloping heart.
He has nothing to gain by frightening me, and everything to lose. He's here because of his grandmother, and I know all there is to know about her disappearance.
Ailsa could only thank the fates that had brought her home at such a providential moment, for it had allowed her to witness unseen the prince's conversation with his men. Although she hadn't been able to hear a word of it, there had been no doubting the commanding way this “groom” had spoken to the others, or the respectful bow made by Mr. Rurik, or the hissing warning it instantly won from Lord Apraksin. And now she knew
why the groom had looked at her so boldly when he'd first arrivedâhe wasn't a groom at all.
He stopped before her now and she was struck by his height. He was so tallâtaller even than her father, who was over six feet. But it was more than the prince's height that held her attention. If she'd thought this man handsome when she'd first seen him from the study window and thought him a mere groom, she hadn't accounted for the additional impact of his nearness, which brought with it new revelations, such as his green, green gaze and the sensually handsome cut of his mouth.
She kept her smile, although it took all her concentration to fight the urge to whirl on her heel, lift her skirts, and run for the safety of the castle.
He's trying to intimidate me.
The thought stiffened her spine and she rocked back on one foot while leaving the other firmly in place, putting some space between them without yielding ground.
She took a short puff on the cigar, determined to keep the end glowing for the duration of their talk. “I know you're nae a groom. 'Tis as obvious as the nose on my face, and as you may have noticed, I have a
His lips twitched, but he stubbornly refused to smile. “I don't know what you're saying. I'm only aâ”
“âprince. Admit it.”
Irritation tightened his jaw.
“I am nae a fool, Your Highness.” She tapped the end of the cigar, the ash blowing away in the icy wind as if it never existed. “I saw you speaking with your men. They were deferential in their tone and manner; one
even bowed to you.” She chuckled. “It is quite obvious you are nae a mere groom.”
She waited, but he still didn't acknowledge the truth of her words.
Irritated, she added in a faintly mocking tone, “But the biggest hint of all was that you dinnae know how to brush a horse properly.”
His eyes narrowed. “I know how to brush a horse.”
“For a man who rarely brushes one, you did”âshe looked past him at D'yoval and pursed her lipsâ“fair. But for an experienced groom, it was a sad job indeed.”
His jaw tightened, his eyes flashing irritation. It was odd. She'd heard that he was a wastrel, a womanizer, a typical spoiled member of royalty. All the papers (and her father, as well) had said the same thing of Prince Nikolai. How was it that none of the rumors included the phrase “steely-eyed opponent”? And why would a vapid womanizer care if someone believed him capable of brushing a horse?
“What's wrong with the brushing I gave this horse?” He spat the words as if they were sour.
She held back a smile and flicked a finger toward the horse. “To begin with, you only brushed poor D'yoval's back and flanks. His sides are untouched, and half the time you were using the mane comb instead of the currycomb. Of course, if you'd bent down to brush his sides and chest, you would nae have been able to see your men during your nae-so-secret meeting.”