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, Alisa 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, Alisa 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, Alisa and Nik must discover this unknown enemy while facing the dangerous demands of their own unruly hearts.
November 16th, 1824
Count Fyodor Apraksin handed the letter to the Master of the Honor Guards, Vasily Rurik, a large bearded man who had the look and fearless courage of a grizzly. “You take it to him.”
Rurik promptly handed the letter back. “Nyet. I’d rather face a thousand Cossacks than deliver that damned missive to His Highness.”
“Someone must deliver it.” Unlike the rest of His Highness’s entourage, Apraksin was not a soldier, but a courtier. And under normal circumstances, delivering a letter would indeed be his responsibility. But not this one.
He held it at arms’ length, like a snake about to strike. “What can that Scottish harpy want now?”
“Every time the prince gets a letter from Lady Ailsa Mackenzie, he snarls for hours. Sometimes days.”
“He has been in an especially surly mood of late.”
“So I’ve noticed,” Rurik said in a dry tone. “Something is on his mind.”
Apraksin sent the head guard a curious look. “I forget you know him better than any of us.” The royal family’s Honor Guards were made up almost completely of the younger sons of the nobility, and Rurik’s family was especially close to the prince’s.
“I used to be.” Rurik grimaced. “But now, like you, I don’t even know why we’re here. Has His Highness told you?”
“Nyet.” Apraksin glanced at the half open door and, determining no one was listening outside, said in a low voice, “It’s a mission of some sort, but that’s all I know.”
Rurik shrugged. “I suppose he’ll tell us soon enough. The only reason he would stay here at this time of the year is for a mission, not when we could be in Italy where it is warm and the women—“ He kissed his fingers to the air.
“Don’t remind me,” Apraksin said sourly. There was a widow in Milan he’d give his right leg just to spend two hours in her company. “He won’t admit anything’s afoot.”
“He is not a talker, this prince of ours. Not to us.”
This was true. When it came to developing what seemed like close friendships with various foreign dignitaries and powerful nobles, or seducing information from the wives of those same men, there was no more affable, personable, talkative man than their prince. But when he was no longer on stage, he became himself – direct, non-nonsense, and sometimes chillingly civil, especially if a particular situation did not please him.
Apraksin looked at the letter in his hand and grimaced. “Perhaps we can get Menshivkov to deliver that damned missive. That braggart is always saying he is the prince’s chief aide-de-camp, a title he made up in his own mind.”
Rurik, who’d been looking rather dour, brightened. “Good idea! We’ll let Menshivkov give his highness the letter after—“
The deep voice sent both Apraksin and Rurik spinning on their booted heels to face the door that was now standing wide open, a tall, uniformed figure framed within it.
“Your highness.” Apraksin clicked his heels and bowed sharply, Rurik following suit.
“We did not hear you,” Rurik added unnecessarily.
A single black brow rose at this. It was a simple movement, the raising of that black eyebrow, and yet that, combined with the icy stare of its owner made Rurik and Apraksin gulp noisily.
Without sparing them another glance, Prince Nikolai Romanovin closed the study door. At six feet four, he was taller than most men, with broad shoulders, thick black hair, and green eyes so dark they appeared almost black.
Apraksin inclined his head in a brief bow. “Your highness, this letter – I’m sure it can wait until after dinner.”
“Who sent it?”
Apraksin forced himself not to grimace. “It is about your grandmother.”
The prince’s mouth thinned. “Bloody hell, I thought that damned trunk would be there by now.”
Rurik offered, “We sent it in our own coach, escorted by the head groom, who sent word that it was delivered safely. Perhaps her grace has discovered another missing case.”
“That’s what I think,” Apraksin said.
The prince held out his hand.
Biting back a sigh, Apraksin handed the letter to the prince.
Nik opened the letter. Written in what was a now-familiar neat handwriting, this note had been written in far more haste than the previous ones.
TO HRH Nikolai Romanovin
I am writing so that you may learn of this news from me, and not from the idle gossip of strangers. I regret to inform you that your grandmother has gone missing. She left yesterday with Lord Hamilton to visit his seat at Caskill House, but neither arrived. We are currently searching for Her Grace, but I believe she may have been (and I dread using this word for I know it will cause you distress) abducted. I will explain more when I have news.
In the meantime, my men and I are actively searching for her. I promise that if Her Grace and Lord Hamilton are not found soon, I will call in the local militia to assist in the search. Rest assured no stone will be left unturned.
We will find your grandmother and she will be returned to you hale and hearty.
Lady Ailsa Mackenzie
November 12, 1824
P.S. The trunk arrived this morning.
Nik crumpled the letter in his hand. “Ehta prost nivazmosha!”
Apraksin and Rurik stiffened to attention.
Nik ignored them, the paper crinkling noisily in his tight fist. Though his grandmother gave him grief whenever she could with her ceaseless demands and often ribald comments – truly the woman’s sense of humor was as unchecked as a child’s – he loved her dearly. More, perhaps, than anyone else.
He rarely admitted that to anyone, for he’d witnessed others being exploited for their familial and romantic ties by unscrupulous foes trying to change the tide of various negotiations. He, himself, had once almost fallen victim to that ruse.
So the question was this: had someone abducted his grandmother in order to change his position on the current negotiations? Or was she a victim of another plot, one unassociated with him and his efforts here?
He uncrumpled the letter and read it again. It was obvious Lady Ailsa had already decided that Tata Natasha’s disappearance – and that of this Lord Hamilton – was an abduction. If someone were trying to reach me, why would they take Hamilton as well? That makes no sense.
A small flare of hope warmed Nik. He re-crumpled the letter, aware of the gazes of his men. It was a relief to be with his men and not have to pretend to be an empty-headed, idle fool. It was taxing, keeping up such a façade, but the benefits were beyond counting. It was amazing how many times men of great importance revealed pertinent information in front of someone they thought a lackadaisical, inattentive creature.
And in Nik’s life, nothing was as valuable as information.
“My grandmother has gone missing,” he announced shortly. “Lady Ailsa believes her grace to have been abducted.”
Apraksin’s mouth dropped open.
“Someone took her grace? On purpose?” Rurik said in obvious disbelief.
“I daresay they regret it now, but da.” His jaw ached from where he ground his teeth. Tata Natasha will not accept such an ignominious fate as being abducted, which could leave her open to abuse. She had better be well or— His hand tightened over the crumbled paper. “She must be rescued as soon as possible. But at the same time, I cannot have a scandal. Oxenburg cannot have a scandal. Not now.“ He tapped the letter. “Lady Ailsa has said she will call in the militia if my grandmother is not found soon. We cannot allow her to do so.”
Apraksin’s dark eyes gleamed. The slender courtier was at his best when a scheme was at hand. “You are on a mission, then.”
“Da, and it is tenuous at best, but bloody important. A disruption could ruin everything.”
“You should stay here,” Apraksin said. “I will go to Castle Leod and—“
“Nyet. Tata Natasha is my responsibility.”
Rurik nodded. “It honorable you feel so. Whoever goes to Castle Leod must find her and bring her home quickly and quietly.”
Nik agreed. “If it’s revealed she’s been abducted, those involved in the current negotiations might fear our secrecy has been compromised and refuse to continue the talks. We must keep this entire incident quiet.”
“You think Her Grace’s abduction is linked to these meetings, then?” Apraksin asked.
“I don’t know, for we have been very careful. However, another person of importance was taken with Her Grace – a Lord Hamilton, who has no association with what we do here. Knowing my grandmother’s propensity for meddling in what does not concern her, it is possible she is cooking in a soup of her own making. Something totally unrelated to anything here.”
“That would be no surprise,” Rurik admitted. “But it does not change the fact she’s been taken. When do we leave?”
“The sooner we leave, the quicker we can return. No one can know I’m gone, which means I cannot take the guard.”
“What?” Apraksin gaped. “You cannot travel without your guard!“ He looked at Rurik expectantly. “It would not be safe, would it?”
“Nyet,” Rurik said shortly. “Your Highness, if it is discovered you are traveling without protection, you will become a target.”
“If everyone believes me still here, it will not be an issue. Apraksin, how can we keep my absence a secret?”
Though he looked far from pleased, courtier’s face folded in thought. He absently played with the lace on his wrist. Finally, he said, “Later tonight, we will announce you’ve fallen ill, perhaps from the food from last night’s ball. Many were complaining about it.”
Nik considered this, and then nodded. “Very good. But I will need three, maybe four weeks. Will this ruse work that long?”
“I think so, da. After a week, we will announce you are better but then you will relapse, only worse this time.”
“Good. Meanwhile, you two will announce you’re traveling to Castle Leod to see my grandmother.”
Apraksin raised one his eyebrow. “And once we’ve rescued Her Grace?”
“We will take her to Inverness and put her on the fastest ship to Oxenburg. It is fortunate I have these few weeks open in the negotiations; one of the players was held up by winter storms. It will be three weeks, and more likely longer before he arrives. Nothing can be done until then, anyway.”
“Who is this person?” Rurik asked.
Nik hesitated. He’d worked so hard to get the fool to the bargaining table – years, in fact. But he supposed he had no choice; everyone would know soon enough. “The Tsar of Russia.”
Apraksin swore under his breath while Rurik gave a silent whistle.
“As I said, ‘tis serious,” Nik confirmed.
“I’m surprised he dares leave Russia,” Apraksin said in a grim tone. “There is such unrest.”
“That is the reason we are having these negotiations. He has ignored all advice and has repressed his people to the point of – Well. I need not tell you. But now he wishes our help and that of other countries in quelling this revolution he’s started. If Russia falls to the scourge of anarchy, Europe could follow. While Oxenburg is in no danger, our neighbors are.”
“And with the treaties we signed after the war, that means all of us must be involved.” Apraksin took a steadying breath. “I can see why you’re determined to see these negotiations through. We will find your three weeks. I will have one of the men announce you’ve fallen ill later this evening, right as dinner is served.”
Rurik added, “I’ll set a guard around your bedchamber to keep out the inquisitive.”
Apraksin pursed his lips. “Menshivkov can stay in bed, covered by blankets when the servants bring food, in case someone is watching. His hair is about the same color as yours and while he’s not the same height, he is close enough that we can mask it.”
“And when the tsar arrives?” Nik asked.
“We will have Doubrovnik ride to Castle Leod with word.”
Nik agreed. “That will work.”
Apraksin turned to Rurik. “You and I should go now and tell everyone who will listen that we are bored and have secured permission to visit Her Grace. We will say we are delivering personal letters. A number of those were delivered just yesterday, so that detail can be confirmed.”
“Very good.” Rurik looked at the prince. “And you?”
“Once it is dark, I’ll find a horse and meet you on the other side of the bridge.” Nik paused. “However, it would be safer if I were to travel from there on not as a prince, but as a groom.”
Rurik muttered under his breath, but after a moment, he said with obvious regret, “You are right, of course. If people believe you are sick in bed here, then they will not be looking for you elsewhere. And as a groom, you will escape unwanted attention. Still—“ He shook his shaggy head. “I am uneasy you are taking such a risk.”
“I have no choice. Besides, you will be on hand to keep watch.”
Apraksin added, “Your highness will need a groom’s clothing. I’ll procure some from the servants. I will tell them it’s for one of the guards, who wishes to sneak out undetected to court a housemaid.”
“Spasiba,” Nik said. “Bring the clothes to me here.” He waved them toward the door. “Now go. You know what must be done.”
The two men bowed and then left, the door closing behind them. Finally alone, Nik turned to the fire and threw the crumpled letter on top of the smoldering log.
He watched silently as the red hot flames flickered to life, greedily reaching for the paper, blackened the edges before crackling hungrily and consuming the note in a heated blaze. He had to find Tata Natasha and stop the indomitable Lady Ailsa from alerting the authorities. There was too much at stake to involve anyone else, especially a sharp-witted highlander who managed to convey disapproval with every stroke of her pen.
The final bit of the letter curled into ashes, and he turned away, far more worried about his grandmother than he dared admit.