Nikolai Romanovin, a royal prince of Oxenburg, has travelled to the deepest wilds of Scotland to rescue his grandmother the Grand Duchess, who was abducted while visiting an old friend in the Highlands. Wanting to avoid an international incident, Nik plans to quietly slip into enemy territory disguised as a groom at Castle Cromartie. But his plans go awry when he falls under the cool gray gaze of the laird’s daughter.
Pragmatic and clever, Ailsa Mackenzie has been left in charge of the family estate and her unruly grandmother in her father’s absence. Something about the new groom catches her eyes, and makes her think he’s not who he pretends to be—and even more shockingly, stirs her senses. Is it his obviously educated manners? His arrogant, non-servant-like presence? It’s certainly not his towering, powerful form, or slumberous, inviting green eyes!
After confronting the imposter and learning the truth, Ailsa agrees to help Nik—for she, too, understands difficult relatives and would do anything for family. Soon their secret partnership leads to growing respect, searing kisses, and then something far more perilous. And when their quest turns dangerous, Ailsa and Nik must discover this unknown enemy while facing the dangerous demands of their own unruly hearts.
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Mad for the Plaid
The Small Study
November 17, 1824
“What do you mean, she’s ‘gone missing’?” Lady Ailsa Mackenzie put down the letter she’d been reading and eyed her grandmother with disbelief.
Lady Edana MacGregor Mackenzie, the Dowager Countess Cromartie, fluttered her lace handkerchief. “I mean what I said: the duchess is nowhere to be found.” Dressed in black, a color Lady Edana had assumed on the death of her husband, the late earl, more than ten years earlier, she made an impressive figure. Tall and willowy, with carefully crafted dyed-gold hair that echoed the true color that had faded years ago, Edana fought valiantly to keep age from robbing her of the famed MacGregor beauty. “Ailsa, I am deeply concerned. Poor Natasha does not know the dangers of our highland countryside.”
“Perhaps Her Grace is oot in the carriage, or going for a ride, or . . . whatever it is she wished to do.”
“Dear, it’s ‘out,’ not ‘oot.’?” Edana sighed heavily. “I do wish your father had sent you to a proper boarding school.”
“I needed to be here with Mama after she grew ill. I would nae have missed those moments for anything.”
“And now she’s gone, your papa is never here. It’s as if I lost both of them at one and the same time.” Edana gave a fretful sigh. “Your papa is neglecting us all. He should have seen to it that you went to a proper boarding school and had at least one season. You might have married by now, the way your sisters have.”
Ailsa refrained from pointing out that while her sisters had inherited Edana’s famed MacGregor beauty, Ailsa had taken after the bold Mackenzies. Where her sisters had golden hair, blue eyes, willowy figures, and perfect noses, Ailsa’s hair was a darker, less noticeable ash blond, her eyes gray, her form stalwart, while her nose could only be called “prominent.”
It was an unfortunate blend of traits.
Not that it mattered; Ailsa was twenty-two now and had no desire to be displayed on the marriage mart among a group of mindless seventeen-year-olds who would drive her mad with their empty chatter and breathless gossip. She was happy to have been left at Castle Leod, where she could hunt, ride, fish, and—when the mood suited her—throw a cloak upon the ground under a tree and read to her heart’s content. There were a thousand amusing things to do here in the highlands, and she loved them all.
She was content with her life, especially now that Papa had left the castle and estate in her care. It was a big responsibility, and she was still learning how to answer the challenges presented, one of which was keeping up with her grandmother’s elderly, and at times quarrelsome, houseguest. “Why precisely do you think Her Grace is ‘missing’?”
“We were to meet for breakfast almost an hour ago, and at her request, too, for she wished to visit that shop in the village I told her about, but she didn’t appear.” Edana sniffed. “I had to eat by myself as no one else was up.”
“So the two of you are speaking again.”
“La, child, of course we are speaking!” Edana frowned, though she instantly ceased, for fear of deepening the lines between her eyes. “I admit we’ve had a few arguments—”
“No more than is to be expected.” Edana waved her handkerchief, wafting a floral perfume through the air. “Poor Natasha; she’s changed dreadfully. She used to be quite lovely. Now . . . well, you’ve seen her. She’s aged forty years in the time we were apart.”
As it had been almost forty years to the day since the dowager countess and the grand duchess had last seen one another, Ailsa didn’t find this difficult to believe. “Are you certain Her Grace is nae just still abed?”
“I spoke with Her Grace’s maid, and she said Natasha left her bed chamber at daybreak. I asked the housekeeper to see if perhaps the poor thing was lost somewhere in the castle, as it can be confusing, but Mrs. Attnee says Her Grace is nowhere to be found.”
“Perhaps she went for a ride.”
“MacGill says all our coaches and horses are accounted for. Ailsa, I’m certain Natasha is missing. We must send a search party.”
“But the carriages and horses are all here, and you cannae be thinking she left on foot. It’s been snowing since late last night.”
“Of course she’s not walking! She’s a duchess, for the love of heaven. But if she’s been foolish, then we must stop her from—” Lady Edana clamped her lips closed.
Ailsa narrowed her gaze on her grandmother. “Stop her from what?” When Edana didn’t answer, Ailsa added, “I see. You’re hiding something.”
“Nonsense,” Edana said sharply, the faintest hint of a flush showing through her face paint. “I’m just worried.”
“Of course. Well, if there’s nae more to tell, then there’s nae more to do.” Ailsa pulled forward the stack of waiting correspondence. “The Grand Duchess Nikolaevna is neither a button that has been misplaced nor a puppy that has wandered off. Wherever she is, she got there under her own power and is where she wants to be.”
“Ailsa, please! Natasha must be found. You can’t go losing a grand duchess! Think of the scandal! Her grandson left her in our care. He will be beside himself with worry!”
“That, I doubt.” From her own correspondence with the prince, and the columns and columns she’d read about him in the papers, as well as the little her father had said of the man on meeting him at some function or another, she was well aware that the duchess’s eldest grandson was a profligate, a womanizer, and little else.
She pulled a fresh piece of paper from the center drawer and placed it before her. “Wherever the duchess is, she will return when she’s of a mind to.” Ailsa dipped her pen into the inkwell. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have at least ten letters to—”
“Fine! I’ll tell you what’s happened, but do not blame me if something ill has occurred to poor Natasha while you’ve been lollygagging about with estate nonsense!”
“?‘Estate nonsense’ is what puts a roof over our heads.” Ailsa replaced her pen in the holder. “Tell me everything.”
Lady Edana’s shoulders slumped. “Do you remember the first night Her Grace was here, and how she flirted so shamelessly with Lord Lyon, who did not look at all comfortable with her attention?”
“I vaguely remember that, aye.”
“It’s ‘yes,’ dear, and not ‘aye.’ Natasha was shameless. And my dear Daffyd—I mean, Lord Hamilton—noticed her affections were not returned. It was quite pathetic, and the whole situation put poor Natasha in quite an ill temper.”
“I noticed that. We all noticed that.”
“Exactly. And things just got worse after Lord Lyon left. Knowing how Her Grace taxes me, Hamilton said that he wished he could brighten her mood, just to be of service to me, of course. Which got me to thinking that perhaps what Natasha needed was a distraction.”
“A distraction? What do you mean— Och, you dinnae!”
“I did and it was brilliant!” Lady Edana beamed. “I asked Hamilton to ply her with attention. It worked, too, for she was in a much better mood after that, although”—Edana’s smile disappeared—“had I known then what I know now, I would never have been so charitable.”
“And what do you know now— Ah! Has Lord Hamilton come to care for Her Grace?”
“Don’t make me laugh!” Lady Edana said sharply. “He’s been playing a part, that is all. And at my request. It’s Natasha who’s made the mistake of caring, not Hamilton.”
“Really?” Ailsa considered this. “It seems much more than that to me. He sat near her at dinner last night, dinnae he?” Ailsa squinted at the ceiling, trying to remember all the places she’d seen Lord Hamilton with Her Grace. “And at the picnic and at the musicale and at—”
“Yes, yes.” Edana drew herself up, a firm smile now plastered on her lips, although it didn’t reach her eyes. “Naturally Hamilton went beyond my request, but only because he knew how much I was suffering from Her Grace’s moods. He’s been in love with me for so many years—I truly feel sorry for him.”
“I know all aboot Lord Hamilton. He eats dinner here so many nights of the week that he has his own bedchamber.”
“Then you don’t need me to tell you how concerned I was when it dawned on me that Natasha was beginning to believe Hamilton’s kindness as something more. Naturally, I warned her not to mistake Daffyd’s attention as anything other than politeness. You’d think she would have thanked me for taking the time, but no!” Edana’s jaw firmed. “She laughed and said I was jealous. Me! Jealous of an old woman like her!”
“I see. Did you mention your concerns to Lord Hamilton?”
“Of course. I warned him he was in dire danger of being put upon by Her Grace and that her feelings were unnaturally strong. He was much struck by my observations, and asked me several times why I thought such a thing. It’s laughable, I know—Daffyd and Natasha!”
Ailsa wisely didn’t say a word.
Her grandmother gave a hearty laugh that sounded oddly hollow. “Why would any man pay attention to her? She cannot be bothered with keeping out of the sun to prevent freckles, or with wearing something that fits. Like you, she refuses to maintain her appearan—” Edana closed her lips over the rest of her sentence. “You know my feelings on the subject.”
“Och aye, I know them well. Too well, many might say. When did you tell Lord Hamilton your suspicions aboot Her Grace?”
“?‘About,’ not—” Edana caught Ailsa’s expression and hurried to add, “Yesterday after lunch. He said he would speak with her immediately. Poor Natasha must have been devastated: two men in a row rejecting her. I fear she just up and left us, unable to bear the thought of facing such embarrassment.”
“But none of our coaches are missing.” Ailsa tapped her fingers on the desk. “When you asked MacGill if any of the coaches and carriages were missing, did you inquire after Lord Hamilton’s coach and horses, or just our own?”
Edana stiffened. “You cannot be suggesting that Daffyd and Natasha have— No. I will not believe it.”
“We must find oot.” Ailsa turned to the long, fringed bell pull and tugged it firmly.
“You are wasting your time.” Lady Edana sniffed.
An awkward silence filled the room until a soft knock heralded the entry of the housekeeper, Mrs. Attnee. A plump, motherly woman, she wore a beaming smile that dimmed on seeing the Dowager Countess. “Guid morning, my lady.” The housekeeper dipped a quick curtsy, her expression softening as she turned to Ailsa. “Lady Ailsa, you rang?”
“I understand you assisted in the search for Her Grace.”
Concern creased Mrs. Attnee’s forehead. “Aye. She is nae to be found. We searched the house top to bottom, too.”
“And Lord Hamilton? Do you perchance know where he is?”
“Lord Hamilton left verrah early this morning.”
“What?” Lady Edana blinked. “Are you certain?”
“I saw him myself, I did. I’d just sent the upstairs maids aboot their dooties when he came sneakin’ doon the stairs.”
“Sneaking?” Ailsa asked.
“I would nae call it other, fer he was bent o’er and walkin’ like this—” She hunched her shoulders and mimicked someone tiptoeing.
“Nonsense,” Edana announced, her neck a mottled red. “Hamilton would never move in such a-a-a subversive fashion!”
Ailsa ignored her. “Did Lord Hamilton say anything?”
“Just ‘guid morning.’ He’d just sent one of the footmen to have his coach brought round, though. I dinnae think aught of it as he sometimes leaves early for Caskill Manor if he’s plannin’ on going huntin’ and such. ’Twas obvious he dinnae wish fer company, so I left him in the foyer. When I came back later, he was gone.”
Ignoring the strange hissing sound now coming from Edana, Ailsa smiled comfortingly at the housekeeper. “So you would nae know if he left with someone.”
“Nae, I—” The housekeeper gasped. “Lord, do ye think he’s run off with Her Grace?”
Edana made a strangled noise while Ailsa said, “I think ’tis possible Her Grace decided to visit Caskill Manor at Lord Hamilton’s invitation.”
“Ah!” The housekeeper pursed her lips. “I thought there might be some courtin’ goin’ on, what with all the whisperin’ and such, although I never imagined they’d elope—”
“That is quite enough!” Edana snapped, her eyes blazing. “Mrs. Attnee, I will thank you for not spreading vile rumors!”
“There, there,” Ailsa said soothingly. “The truth does nae always come in a neat box. Sometimes ’tis a messy package, best opened when fortified by drink.”
Mrs. Attnee nodded wisely. “I’ll pour some sherry.” She made her way to the small stand near the window, poured sherry into a small crystal glass, and brought it to Lady Edana.
Lady Edana took the glass gratefully. “That harpy! I cannot believe Daffyd would—”
An abrupt knock on the door heralded the entry of MacGill. Tall and gaunt, the butler looked abnormally pale, his eyes wide. “My lady, a message has come from Caskill Manor.”
“No!” Edana threw up a hand. “Do not say Lord Hamilton has eloped with Her Grace!”
Mr. MacGill looked shocked. “Nae, my lady. Nae that. The steward at Caskill sent word. Mr. Grant says Lord Hamilton sent a note last night that he and a guest were to be expected early this mornin’ and his lordship requested a sumptuous breakfast fit fer a queen—”
Lady Edana choked, and then held out her glass for more sherry, which Mrs. Attnee instantly brought.
MacGill cast a cautious look at the countess before he continued. “His lordship and his guest never arrived.”
“What?” Ailsa asked, and for the first time, a true flicker of worry pinched her.
“Grant sent a footman here to ask after Lord Hamilton. On the way, the lad found his lordship’s carriage left on the road, blocked by a felled tree. The groom, both footmen, and three outriders were wounded, whilst one outrider was naewhere to be seen.”
Ailsa’s hands trembled, so she gripped them together. How could this be? Our guests, abducted?
“There’s more,” MacGill said in a grim tone. “The side of the coach was peppered wi’ bullets.”
Mrs. Attnee gasped while Lady Edana went pale. Ailsa found herself on her feet. “The duchess and Lord Hamilton were nae—” She couldn’t say the words.
“Nae, my lady. There was blood on the carriage seat; only a few droplets, nae more.” MacGill’s brows lowered. “But Lord Hamilton’s men found a wee rip of tartan pinned under a wheel. The Mackenzie tartan.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Lady Edana exclaimed. “We would never harm Lord Hamilton!”
“Mr. Grant knows tha’,” MacGill said. “But nae matter wha’ Grant thinks, he has nae choice but to send word of the abduction to Lord Hamilton’s brother.”
Ailsa had to bite her lip to keep from saying aloud how unjust that was. The Earl of Arran and her father had never gotten along, fighting for decades over various property lines and estate boundaries. If Arran thought them responsible, he would call for retribution. Aware of the servants’ anxious gazes now pinned on her, Ailsa tucked her fears away. “MacGill, was a note left? A ransom request?”
“Nae, my lady.”
Lady Edana put down her glass. “Cromartie must come home at once and deal with this.”
The two servants looked at Ailsa, their gazes questioning. Are they hoping I’ll send for Papa? She dropped her hands back to her sides, fighting a very real desire to do just that.
It would be easy to send for Papa and let him deal with this crisis, but in doing so she would be admitting she was unable to manage the situation herself. Ailsa wasn’t willing to do that. She had been left in charge of Castle Leod and all that entailed, and that included the well-being of her guests. “This is my mystery to solve,” she said briskly. “And solve it, I will. We must find Lord Hamilton and Her Grace.” Which was a long shot, but her only option. Whomever had organized this little charade would hide their prisoners well.
Lady Edana frowned. “Are you sure? Your Papa—”
“—is busy. I can handle this.” Ailsa said the words as confidently as she could, hoping against hope that her grandmother would agree.
To her surprise, Edana sighed, and then shrugged. “Fine. I just don’t understand one thing. Hamilton’s value is obvious, but why would someone take Her Grace? She’s not particularly wealthy that I know of.”
“Perhaps she was where she wasn’t expected—in Lord Hamilton’s coach.” Ailsa spread her hands on the desk and leaned forward. “MacGill, have a horse readied; I want to see this carriage and the ‘proof’ left behind. Inform the gamekeeper he will be accompanying me. Mr. Greer is an expert tracker and I will have need of his skill.”
“Verrah guid, my lady.” Looking much heartened, MacGill bowed and left.
Lady Edana sank back in her chair. “Lud help us all; the world is upside down!”
Ailsa managed a firm smile. “All will be well. I promise.”
Her grandmother seemed comforted by Ailsa’s words, but to herself, Ailsa had to wonder if someone was trying to start a clan war. Was it possible that Arran, tired of being put off from grabbing more of the Mackenzie land by his brother’s friendship with Lady Edana, had orchestrated this little escapade? It seemed the only answer, and yet the maneuver was so blatantly obvious that it made her wonder if something more complex was afoot. But what?
When she found the prisoners, she would have her answers. Her gaze landed on a small stack of notes resting on the corner of her desk and she grimaced. She supposed she needed to inform the prince of the current situation. Her Grace was his grandmother, after all.
Ailsa hated to do it—just exchanging a few notes about Her Grace’s missing trunk had been far too much contact with the man as it was, but there was nothing for it. Like him or not, Ailsa had a responsibility to keep him apprised of the situation. Had he been a man of substance, she might have worried he would take it upon himself to arrogantly barge in, interfering with her efforts to contain the situation and find the prisoners. Fortunately, she doubted he’d do more than demand an accounting. And that, she hoped to be able to provide, and soon.
Sighing, Ailsa sat back down, pulled a piece of foolscap her way, and began writing the necessary note.