Authors: Karen Hawkins
Thank you for purchasing this Pocket Star Books eBook.
Sign up for our newsletter and receive special offers, access to bonus content, andinfo on the latest new releases and other great eBooks from Pocket Star Books andSimon & Schuster.
or visit us online to sign up ateBookNews.SimonandSchuster.com
Excerpt fromHow to Pursue a Princess
Snow swirled across the road,skittering over frozen mud and clinging to the edges of deep ruts, breaking freeto huddle together in small drifts on the grass that lined the road.
“Alexandra, pray close that curtain!” a weak voice cried plaintively.
Princess Menshikov, Alexandra Petrovna Romanovin, swallowed her irritation, closedthe leather curtain of her coach, and fastened it in place. She tried to smile asshe faced her chaperone, Countess Baryatinski. “I’m sorry, Anya. I let out some ofthe heat,nyet?”
“Allof the heat.” The countess’s thin, colorless face couldn’t display more unhappiness.
Alexandra had been disappointed when her uncle, the king, had appointed Anya as chaperone,for she’d wished for a younger, more fun companion. She already knew that the countesswas a horrible traveler and the first week had proven it. The rocking of the coachinvariably made the older woman sick. She swore that every bed of every inn was dampand caused her to sleep ill, while the food was always too heavy or too rich and gaveher indigestion.
However, this meant that as soon as they reached an inn, the countess retired to herbedchamber to recover from the “harrowing” aspects of their travels and remained thereuntil it was time to move on. Alexandra had never had so much freedom, so for thisreason she managed to put up with the countess’s less pleasant traveling habits.
The countess tugged the many fur blankets higher and complained, “What are you doing,leaning out the window in such a way? It is not safe. Someone might see you and recognizeyou.”
“In Scotland? We’ve traveled for three weeks now and not a single person has knownmy identity.” A delicious luxury, since Alexandra didn’t wish to be treated as a princess.“We are safe here.”
“It only takes one person to recognize you and then we’ll be lost.”
“Pah. You worry too much. If my uncle thought this was unsafe, he wouldn’t have allowedme to come.”
Anya’s thin mouth folded into a frown. “May I remind you that King Nikolaus sent twocoaches full of guards, one of which we have lost?”
“They’re not lost. When the axle on the smaller coach broke earlier today, we leftthem to assist with the repair.”
“I suggested we let them travel in our coach with us, but you disliked that idea.”
“It would have been horridly crowded. But that’s neither here nor there. We are withoutour usual protection and we must be cautious. Someone could recognize you and stealyou away, and try to force the king to pay ransom—or worse.”
“I’m in no danger. Doya is here.” Alexandra’s personal bodyguard had been with hersince she was born. “He will not allow harm to come to either of us.”
“He is but one man.”
“He is large like a bear, with fists of iron. And he is not alone and has three additionalguards with him. That is enough.”
“We can only hope,” Anya said petulantly. “I don’t know how I will do without a maidtonight.”
“It’s only for one night. If it helps, I will come to your bedchamber and braid yourhair for you.”
“Alexandra Petrovna Romanovin, you forget your position. You are a princess, and princessesdon’t—”
“Yes, yes. They don’t do this and they don’t do that. I have heard it enough, andI do not wish to hear it now. I came to Scotland to be free of that.”
The older lady sighed. “It’s madness. You should be home selecting a husband.”
“I had a husband once. Only three years ago. That was enough.”
Anya sighed. “Ah, child, I forget how young you are. A child, still, and yet a widow.Such a life is difficult,nyet? And Dmitri was a man’s man, too, so bold and full of life.” She shook her head.“No one thought to see him go so quickly. You were not married even a year when Dmitrifell from his horse—” She caught Alexandra’s gaze and flushed. “I’m sorry. I knowyou do not wish to relive that. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it—”
“It is the past. I do not live there.”
“Of course. Still, it will be pleasant to return home and find you a new husband,will it not? The king hinted that he’s received many offers for your hand.” She lookedarchly at Alexandra.
Alexandra blankly met the countess’s gaze.
Anya’s smile faded. “I suppose he’s merely waiting for you to choose one . . .”
“My uncle will have to wait a long time.” Alexandra turned back to the window, unbuttonedthe curtain and leaned out, the icy wind cooling her irritation.
The countess tugged on the fur blankets, muttering once again about the cold and announcingthat the foot warmer was now completely chilled.
Sighing, Alexandra closed the curtain once more. “When we left this morning, Doyasaid it would only be two hours to the next inn, so we will be stopping very soon.There, we will find a fire for you to warm yourself by. I do not wish you to takean ague.”
Anya smiled grudgingly. “I would be most grateful, Your Highness. My throat is feelingjust the slightest bit scratchy. I’ve no wish to become ill and impede our travels.”
Alexandra murmured her agreement.
Anya shivered. “If we were home in Oxenburg right now, I’d be sitting beside a lovelyfire, sipping warm tea.” The countess sighed with longing. “I shall never understandwhy you had to come to Scotland. It’s a barbarous place, filled with highwaymen andGod knows what else prowling the streets like hungry wolves.”
Alexandra pressed her lips into a firm line but didn’t reply. Her tutor, Lord MalcolmMacKenna, had been a Scot through and though. Appointed by her uncle to oversee hereducation, the grizzled Scotsman had blown into Alexandra’s quiet household like atyphoon, and proceeded to take over her education both inside and outside of the classroom.He took her on wild rides across the kingdom where, free from the fetters of courtlife, she emerged from her shell of shyness and embraced the lives and history ofher own people.
Her curiosity, always keen, had been freed as well, and Lord MacKenna had stoked itwell and often. He took her among the villagers and exposed her to the realities oflife among the common people, and fed her the works of John Locke and Robespierre.And when her father’d complained to her uncle that MacKenna was turning her into arevolutionary, the king had laughed and said that such learning had kept him on histoes, and that no monarch had ever been overthrown by a fat and well-fed people.
When all was said and done, her tutor had given her a deeper appreciation for herown beloved country. Tucked between Switzerland and Bavaria, Oxenburg was a land richin both its resources and its people. Alexandra learned to see her country anew throughMacKenna’s eyes, to appreciate its wealth, and to envision ways to preserve all thatwas good while encouraging growth.
With a glib tongue and sly sense of humor that Alexandra quickly came to adore, MacKennahad given her a love of something else, too—his home country of Scotland, fillingher head with legends and stories until she felt as if she belonged there, as well.And now, here she was—visiting the very country she’d always dreamed about.
“Finally, the inn!” Anya announced as the coach slowed and made a turn. “I cannotwait to put my head down and sleep. I ache everywhere.”
Alexandra smiled secretly. Each day, they went farther and farther into the countryside.And each day brought them closer to Alexandra’s real goal, unknown to her chaperoneand family.
She’d come to Scotland to find a husband.
On the same road,several miles to the south, rode James Keith, the fifth Earl of Kintore, ViscountStonehaven, and Baron Urie. He was chilled, but also deliciously pleased. He hadn’tfallen off his horse yet today. Of course, it was still early, but he rather thoughtthings were going his way for once.
“It’s about bloody time,” he told the falling snow in a defiant tone, tugging up hiscollar as an icy wind lifted as if in answer. It was a good thing he didn’t believein omens, for the suddenness of the snow that had engulfed him over the last halfhour didn’t portend well, despite his superior display of balance atop his gelding.
He patted the bottle of Scotch tucked under his coat and squinted blurrily at thegray sky. He still had an hour to ride before he reached his friend’s comfortableand snug country house, MacNee Hall. Viscount Arbuthnot threw massive house parties,and Kintore was in the mood for merriment. But now, with piles of the white stuffalready collecting and the strong wind making travel damned uncomfortable, he wonderedif he would make it.
There was wretchedly little in the way of shelter along this stretch of road, otherthan an old inn by the name of Cask and Larder. He hadn’t visited the establishmentin over five years, but he vaguely remembered it had sported a rather tolerable stockof Scotch.
He brushed snow from his lashes. He had to seek shelter somewhere and it was eitherthe inn or Keith Hall, his family home, which was impressive, cold, and empty. “Andempty it’ll stay,” he announced, his voice as bitter as the wind.
His horse, MacIntosh, shook his head as if in agreement. Kintore hadn’t been in KeithManor for over two years and he damned well wasn’t going now. There were too manymemories for him there, and far too many empty rooms. No, it was the Cask and Larderor nothing.
The horse shook the snow from its mane, and Kintore swayed in the saddle. When he’dset out he’d thought the cold would sober him, yet he’d been on the road for almostan hour, and he was every bit as drunk now as when he’d started. But drunk or no,he refused to fall off his horse.Not again.
His gaze flickered to a nearby ridge. As familiar as breathing, a gray roof framedwith four chimneys rose over a stand of trees.Keith Manor.
He resolutely looked away and rode past the gate, rubbing his gloved hands to tryto regain some feeling, a faint headache already forming. He’d pay for his over-imbibinglater, but he didn’t care. In fact, except for his few close friends, he didn’t carefor much of anything. He hadn’t for a long, long time. Not since—
A ripple of pain stabbed him as an instant image danced in his mind. “Go away,” hesaid through gritted teeth, but his imagination couldn’t be tamed. He pictured Janeas he’d seen her the last time—pink-cheeked in the snow, her bonnet tucked over herchestnut curls, her green eyes twinkling as she jumped out from behind a bush to loba snowball at him. It had hit him squarely on the forehead, which had incensed him.Now . . . now, he’d give all of his wealth, all of his lands, every bloody title andevery cursed farthing he had, to have that moment back.
He swiped a hand over his eyes, but the image lingered, so clear that he could almosthear her laughter. Jane laughing. Jane teasing. Jane, the one and only bright spotin his otherwise wasted life—
“No!” he snapped, his voice cracking in the silence like a gunshot.
MacIntosh shied, and a low branch at the side of the road brushed the horse’s flankand sent him into a full panic. Kintore’s carefully guarded bottle fell to the groundand broke as he fought to keep the animal under control.
It took every ounce of the little balance he had, and all of his strength, but hemanaged to keep the beast from bolting. Once the animal had settled and was back oncourse, Kintore took a deep breath of the cold air and grimly set his sights ahead.Enough thinking of the past. You have enough to worry about with this snow.
As if to prove him right, the snow began to fall even harder, making it difficultto see the road ahead. The wind charged him again and again in vicious blasts, sendingthe snow sideways, creeping into his coat. If he hurried, he might make it to theinn before nightfall. And if he didn’t . . . He squinted against the swirling snowand shrugged. If he didn’t, he didn’t. No one would care, certainly not him.
A half hour later, the earl reached the Cask and Larder. He passed his horse to astable lad who, bundled in several coats and wearing admirably thick mittens, hadhurried to meet him. The boy mumbled something about “Cossacks” that Kintore didn’tquite catch through the chattering of his own teeth. He issued a few brief ordersfor MacIntosh’s care, gave the gelding a final pat, and then hurried indoors.
After stomping the snow from his boots on the rug in the foyer, he peeled off hisuseless gloves and tucked them in his pocket. Seeing no sign of the innkeeper or hiswife, Kintore made his way to the empty private parlor off the taproom, where a firewas burning cheerfully.
Hands already held out, he went straight to the welcome blaze. Instantly, he was bathedin blessed warmth, his hands aching as feeling gradually returned. His teeth stoppedchattering, and he soon found that he could once again wiggle his toes inside hisboots.Much better.
Sighing with relief, he shrugged out of his wet coat and tossed it over the back ofa chair.
He’d just turned back to the fire when the sound of a woman’s sigh fluttered throughthe air. He slowly turned. The settee’s high back had hidden the fact that he wasn’talone.
He crossed the room and looked down at the woman sleeping on the settee. Curled uponher side, her hands tucked under her cheek, she slept like a child. Her skin was pale,her hair as black as night. Thick and shining, it was pinned in the unstylish bunmost servants wore. His gaze flickered over her sober gown.Ah, a maid. You thought the heavy snow would keep guests away, so you took a nap.
He didn’t blame her; the quiet fall of snow muffled all noise, while the low lightand crackle of the fire made a nap the most natural thing in the world.
Smiling, he brushed a strand of hair from her cheek, causing her to stir before shesighed back to sleep. Though not beautiful in the accepted sense, she was a fetchingthing. Her face was slender and angular, with thick lashes splayed over high cheekbones.Her mouth was wide, her lips soft and full, set over a stubborn chin that warred withthe delicate line of her nose. Even more fascinating were her eyebrows, which flewup at the ends in a delicate sweep, giving her face a piquant look.
Kintore couldn’t remember being so intrigued by a woman in a long, long time.Had I known that the Cask and Larder had such a taking little maid, I might have visitedsooner. Such a beautiful mouth . . .He reached down and ran a finger over her bottom lip.
Her lashes fluttered and then, with a soft sigh, she turned her face toward his hand,her skin deliciously warm against his fingers, her breath teasing his palm. It wassuch a sensual gesture that the desire to kiss her awake grew. Would she have a voicelike the black silk of her hair, one that would tangle him into her web of sleep?
The silliness made him chuckle. You are far drunker than you thought.Doubtless her voice was unschooled and shrill, as far from the silk of her blackhair as possible.Or is it?some secret voice whispered.What if her voice is as intriguing as she is?
He’d never know unless he woke her, and what better way to do that than to followhis impulse and kiss her awake?
He slipped his hand from her face and carefully sat by her side. Then he bent andtouched his lips to hers.
She stirred, her warm, soft lips moving under his as her thick, sooty lashes flutteredopen, her eyes a startling pale blue like ice over a river.Such eyes. I could drown in them.
He pressed his lips more firmly to hers and she moaned softly, her lashes flutteringclosed. He started to pull back but she gripped his lapel and kissed him anew withstartling passion. Her urgency instantly stirred him and he answered her kiss forkiss, her lips parting beneath his as she teased and tempted him.God, what a lively piece!
Encouraged, he slid his hand to her waist and smiled against her lips when she claspedher arms about his neck, moving sensually against him as her hip rubbed his.
His heart thundered and he kissed her over and over, nipping at her plump lower lipas their breaths quickened as one.She’s a hot-blooded one!Staying in this godforsaken place wouldn’t be as boring as he’d expected.
Her hand slipped to his cheek and then down to his chest, tugging at his waistcoatas if seeking for a way to his bare skin. Kintore’s cock hardened instantly and heslid his hand to her breast, cupping the full weight through her gown gently as histhumb found her hardened nipple—
She caught his wrist and her gaze locked with his, both of them frozen in place. Shebroke the kiss, her breath quick between her lips.
But then her gaze flickered past him, and quickly back. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
That voice.It was everything he’d dreamed and more. Lightly touched with an exotic accent, itwas as rich as velvet. Her words caught him in a snare of surprise, for there wasnothing coarse or unschooled about the way she spoke.
His gaze dropped to where her fingers encircled his wrist, his hand still cupped overher breast. For the first time, he noted that the fabric of her gown wasn’t broadcloth,but a heavy, black silk, trimmed at the neck and wrist with delicate and very expensive-lookingblack lace.
He returned her gaze. Good God, she’s not a servant.
As he stared into the beautiful icy blue eyes, bewitched by her lush voice and intriguedby her accent, his mind floundering with the realization that she was a lady, a heavyhand landed on his shoulder.
Kintore turned to find a huge man standing behind him. Built like a bear, the giant’sbroad face was covered with a coarse beard, his thick black brows drawn low, his darkeyes gleaming with fury. And his hand now squeezed Kintore’s shoulder in an agonizinggrip.
As Kintore leapt to his feet, the giant’s huge arm arced back with lightning speedand hit the earl dead on his chin.
Still drunk and dizzy from the lass’s kisses, Kintore went down like a bag of grain,his head hitting the wooden arm of the settee. Yet, as he fell into the blackness,it wasn’t the blinding pain of the hit that went with him, but the wild, heated gazeof a velvet-voiced lady with amazing pale blue eyes.
“Doya, you fool!” Alexandra criedas she jumped up and knelt by the fallen man.
As the huge guard took a step toward the stranger, she threw out a hand. “Nyet!You will not touch him again.”
The guard scowled but lowered his fist. “He deserves to be beaten.”
“That is for me to decide, not you.”
Doya crossed his massive arms. “Nay, Princess. For this, I must use my judgment. Ipromised your uncle, the king, that I would protect you.”
“I need no protecting.”
Doya’s face grew grim. “Yes, you do.”
“Pah, I do not. Besides, the king’s not my uncle, but my uncle-in-law, which meanseven less now that I’m widowed.”
“It means more. Now that you’ve no husband and your father is no longer with us, youruncle’s words, in-law or no, should be heeded.”
“I’m not a child, Doya, and both of you must recognize that.” Alexandra examined thefallen man, her fingers grazing the side of his chin, where a lump was already growing.A rapidly coloring bruise on his temple marked where he’d hit the arm of the settee.“You marred him.”
Which was very sad, for he was a beautiful man, all dark hair and, oh, such beautifulgray eyes. They made her think of the skies of Oxenburg right before a snowstorm.
She sent the guard a black look. “You did not need to interfere; I was handling thesituation on my own.”
“How?” Doya said, almost growling. “By kissing him again? You did nothing to stophim. I know, for I saw.”
She dropped her gaze to the unconscious man. It was true; she’d done nothing to stopthe stranger from kissing her. She wasn’t sure whether it was because he’d lookedso much like the Scotsmen of her imagination, or because his kiss had somehow echoedher own dreams so that it had seemed natural . . . or if, perhaps, it was becauseit had been so long since she’d been kissed.
Whatever the reason, she didn’t have a single regret.
It was a pity that it had been such a long time since she’d tasted passion, and Dmitriwould be the first one to say it. He believed in such things—it was one of the reasonsshe’d grown to love him after they’d wed. Dmitri never belittled emotions, but ratheraccepted and nurtured them.
That is how life should be lived—with love and passion.On his deathbed, Dmitri had made her promise that she’d remarry. She’d agreed, mostlyto get him to quiet down and take the medicines the doctors had brought, but it spoketo his love for her that even while ill, he thought of her happiness.
I had love and passion once, and I want it again. Yet after the prescribed mourning period had passed, she had found no one who sparkedher interest, even among the dozens who’d passed her uncle’s stern eye; not a singleman.
Over time she’d grown to doubt her ability to love again, or even to feel a simpleremotion like passion. Until now.
Now, just looking at the man made her heart flutter. She brushed a finger over herbottom lip, remembering the kisses they’d shared. Her body quivered as if still beingtouched, her skin prickled with wanton desire.
Doya blew out a sigh. “This is what comes of visiting this foreign land. CountessBaryatinski is right; this barbaric land is not for us. We should have stayed in Oxenburg,where we belong. Whereyoubelong.”
Alexandra pinned the guard with a steely gaze. “Are you questioning my wishes?”
Doya’s shoulders sank. The guard had known her since she was born, and although hesometimes forgot that she had reached her majority, he was in no position to refuseher anything she truly wished.
She was, after all, still his princess.
He said in a deep, petulant voice, “You should have gone to your bedchamber for yournap like the countess, and not slept here, in the common room.”
“I didn’t expect anyone to come, and neither did you. Besides, I couldn’t have sleptin my bedchamber. The walls are like paper and the countess snores louder than thunder.”
Doya sighed. “I did not mean to disturb you, though ’tis good that I did. I came totell you that the snow is thickening. We will not be able to leave in the morning,as we’d wished.” He eyed the unconscious man. “But I shall demand that this—this—doystolskibe removed immediately.”
She had to chuckle. “Doya, such language!”
The guard turned fiery red. “I’m sorry, Princess. I forget myself. But I think itunderstandable, under the circumstances.”
She nodded, her attention already back with the stranger. The light from the fireshowed the beginning signs of dissipation in his face. And yet even with the faintlines down the sides of his mouth, and a faint gray pallor under his skin, he wasstill so handsome that just looking at him was a pleasure. His jaw and chin were strong,his nose perfection, and his mouth—oh, how she longed to kiss that sensual mouth again.Of all the kisses she’d shared, his had been the most—
“Your Highness.” Doya’s deep voice broke her thoughts. “Perhaps I was hasty in myassumptions . . . Did you ask this man—this stranger—to kiss you?”
“I was asleep when he entered. I awoke during the kiss.”
“Enough, Doya.” She brushed an errant curl from the stranger’s brow. “I don’t knowhim yet. But I will.” She slid a hand over his broad shoulder, noting the fine cloth.He is no commoner, this one.
“Know himyet? That is not wise.” Doya’s hands were fisted and he looked as if he’d still liketo beat their visitor to a bloody pulp.
“Truthfully,” she mused, running a finger over the side of the man’s face, “now thatI see him and how handsome he is, I wish I could kiss him a hundred times more.”
Doya groaned. “Princess, please!” His voice was almost pained. “No good will comeof kissing strange men. Surely you know this.”
“Why shouldn’t I kiss whomever I wish? I’m a widow, not some virgin whose virtue mustbe protected like a crystal vase.”
Doya’s face looked like was on fire. “He could have taken your innocent enthusiasmas a welcome for far more than mere kisses.”
“Nyet. If I’d wished him to, he would have stopped.”
“You do not know this.”
“Oddly, I do. And if I’d thought differently, I’d have sent him on his way.” She flippedup the hem of her skirt to reveal the carved hilt of her knife protruding from thetop of her boot. “If he’d been out of line, I’d have carved him back into it.”
Doya nodded, approval softening his expression. “I did not know you were armed. Youare good with your knife, too.”
“I should be; you taught me.”
“But you must not encourage this one. He is not for you.”
“He can be for me while the snow flies. I’ve nothing else to do.” She saw the firmset of Doya’s face, so she rose and stood before him, tilting her head back so thatshe could see his expression more clearly. “Doya, you must stop being so protective.”
“You are a princess,” he said stubbornly. “Princesses don’t—”
“Yes, they do! They are no different from anyone else. They get sleepy and they getbored and they like kisses from handsome strangers, too.”
“Naughty princesses, perhaps.”
“I suppose you think I should only kiss princes, then?” She took Doya’s large handand patted it as she said softly, “You’ve seen the princes who’ve come calling. ShouldI kiss them?”
The guard looked away.
“What did you call them?” she coaxed.
He grimaced, his black gaze sliding back to her. “Frogs.”
She chuckled. “Aye. Men with no chins and weak eyes. The Prince of Luxembourg evendrooled like a mad dog.”
Doya sighed and shook his head. “Inbred.”
“Exactly. And the Duke of Hapsburg was so fat that he couldn’t get out of his coachwithout the help of three footmen. He barely fit through the door of his bedchamber,so we had to move him to one with double doors, for fear he might get stuck.”
Doya looked grim. “He made no secret of the fact that he wished to avail himself ofyour coffers.”
“And other parts of me, too, for he leered most disgracefully.”
Doya jerked his head toward the stranger. “And this man? He was leering, too,nyet?”
“No, he was kissing me, and quite well. Even you must admit that he is very fit andyouthful compared to the men who’ve come calling.”
The guard leaned over and sniffed. “He reeks of spirits.”
“He’s not perfect. But to be honest”—she took a deep breath—“thisis why I came to Scotland.”
“To be importuned by drunks?”
“No—to find a husband who is not like the soft-skinned fops who languish in the courtsof Europe. Men who ride and hunt and fight—realmen.”
“Like your cousins.”
“Yes, just like them: strong-willed and capable. The history of the Scots shows themto be just such men. So here I am, looking for a new husband.”
“And your uncle knows of this?”
Good God, nyet.But if she told the guard the truth, then he would feel duty-bound to stop her. Insteadof burdening him, she said, “Doya, would we be here if the king hadn’t given his approval?”
The guard grunted. “You vow on your father’s grave that the king approves?”
“You can ask him yourself when we return to court.”
“I will do just that, Princess.”
“Then you will help me.”
Doya sighed and, with a display of reluctance, nudged the fallen man with the toeof his boot. “At least this one isn’t as puny as many men who’ve come courting you.Buthe still went down with one punch.”
“You caught him unawares. Plus, as you pointed out, he’s far from sober.”
Doya grunted, obviously unimpressed. “You think this man is a proper mate for a princess,then?”
“The king will not give his approval to a wedding if the man is not. But I think ourfriend here is far more civilized than you believe. He smells like Scotch, yes, buthis clothes are worth more than any gown I own.” She pointed to the emerald that flashedin his cravat. “That is a fine stone, too.”
Doya bent to look at it. “It is well enough.”
“He is expensively dressed, very handsome, and acts as if he owns the world. If thatdoesn’t sound like nobility, I don’t know what does.”
“I would need to see his papers.”
“Yes,” she said musingly. “So would I. But first we need to get him off the floor.”She gestured toward the settee. “Put him there. I shall tend his jaw, for it’s beginningto swell.”
Doya reluctantly did as she bid him, lifting their guest to the settee and settinghim down with something far less than gentleness.
“Thank you.” Alexandra placed a pillow under the man’s head. “You may go now.”
Doya crossed his arms. “I will not leave you with this man.”
“Oh?” She arched a brow at him. “Who is your princess?”
He set his jaw. “You are, Your Highness.”
“And who have you sworn to obey? In front of no less a person than the king?” Sheflicked her hand toward the door. “Ask the landlady to bring some of the Scotch shewas bragging about when we arrived. It will revive him. When you return, bring somepacked snow, too, for his jaw.”
“Very well. I will return soon.” With a lingering scowl at their unconscious guest,the guard left.
Alexandra gathered her skirts with one hand and carefully perched on the edge of thesettee, her hip by the stranger’s.
Sitting here so close to him, she could understand exactly how the kiss came to happen.First, a person would see the other asleep, and then she might notice how his golden-brownhair swept from his forehead, and how his skin felt so deliciously warm. Then, beinga curious sort, she might even run her fingers over the crest of his cheek to hishair, which sprang from his forehead with such an entrancing little lift.
Unable to resist that curiously decadent spot, her fingers caressed the silken hairbeneath her fingertips. It’s so soft. And his skin . . .She slid her fingers over his cheek. His skin was warm, too.Ah, so his pallor is because of his drinking. Then he will make healthy children.
Her gaze flickered over his broad chest and she glanced at his still-closed eyes.Is he as muscular as he appears? He has on far too many clothes . . .She slipped her hands under his coat and undid his waistcoat, then slid her handsdown his chest over his shirt.
She sighed in delight as her fingers slid over his broad chest and ridged stomach.“You are built like a Cossack, all muscle and steel.”
His lashes seemed to flutter and she held her breath . . . but he didn’t move againand she relaxed, her gaze moving over the refined lines of his face. Though he hadthe chest and taut stomach of one, this was no wild, restless Cossack. But what—andwho—was he?
She ran her hands over his chest one last time and then regretfully buttoned his waistcoat.As she did so, a heavy watch slipped from his waistcoat pocket and fell to the floorwith a thunk, a long chain rattling after it.
She picked it up, the metal warm in her palm. It was a magnificent piece, of burnishedgold with a fluted knob and a masculine chain. He has excellent taste, this one, and an appreciation for quality.She had noted that in his clothing, too.
Near the base was a small gold locket, oval in shape, and etched in an intricate pattern.As she looked at it, she thought she detected the outline of a name.
Frowning, she held it up and tilted it to the light. There, hidden among the swirls,was the name “Jane.”
Her gaze flashed back to the unconscious man.Is he married?
Instantly, a surprising rush of jealousy burned through her.I found him, damn it. He is mine.
She opened the locket. Inside, a small, delicate portrait had been painted on theenameled interior of the cover. The young woman had golden-brown hair. A thick curlhung to each side of a sweet, guileless face. Her eyes were large and dark over astraight nose and a mouth that curved with mischief and—
The door opened and the innkeeper’s wife entered carrying a tray with the requestedbottle of Scotch and two small glasses. She placed the tray on the table. “Yer mansaid ye wished fer some Scotch, so Mr. MacDuffie fetched a bottle of his guid stockfro’ the cellar. I thought ye might wish to—Och!” Her startled gaze had locked onthe man on the settee. “Where did he come fro’ and—” The landlady’s eyebrows knitand she leaned forward. “Why, ’tis Lord Kintore!”
“Kintore? You know him?”
“O’ course I know him. His family seat, Keith Manor, is no’ more than a half hour’sride fro’ here.”
“Who is he?”
“He’s an earl, miss. The fifth earl, in fact, and his family have been in this areafer centuries.”
I knew he was noble born.
Mrs. MacDuffie came closer and sniffed. “As I thought; he’s bosky.”
“Bosky?” The word wobbled on her tongue.
“Probably ’twas Scotch ’as laid him low, fer he’s always had taste fer it. ’Tis sad,but the earl has been given to drink ever since his—” Mrs. MacDuffie’s gaze met Alexandra’sand, lifting her chin a notch, the landlady clamped her lips over the rest of hersentence. “No’ tha’ ’tis any business o’ ours.”
These Scots are a prickly people, suspicious of anyone not theirs. Much like thosefrom my country.
“How did he get here?” Mrs. MacDuffie asked.
“He came in from the storm. My servant mistook him for an intruder.” As she spoke,Alexandra waved her hand and the watch chain slipped from between her fingers. Shefrowned and wound the chain about the watch.
The landlady’s eyes couldn’t be wider. “Tha’ is his lordship’s watch!”
“Aye. It was in his pocket and—”
“And ye took it!” Mrs. MacDuffie gasped in outrage and backed away. “Why, ye littlethief!”
“No, no. It fell out onto the rug. I just picked it up and—”
“I knew ye was naught but a Gypsy, and so I tol’ Mr. MacDuffie when ye and tha’ strangeband o’ yers bespoke the rooms and this chamber. A Russian lady—ha!”
Alexandra’s jaw tightened. “That’s enough. I will not tolerate baseless accusations.”
“We’ll see wha’ ye tolerate when I call the constable on ye. He’ll put ye into gaolfer thievin’, he will. An’ ye bein’ a foreigner, ’twill be years afore ye see thelight o’ day.”
Alexandra sighed with impatience. “Mrs. MacDuffie, I wasn’t stealing anything. It’snot what you think—”
“Humph. It’s not thinkin’, but seein’ wit’ me own two eyes. Ye were stealin’ his lordship’swatch, or I’m a horned owl.”
No onespoke to her in such a way! “Fine. Then you’re a horned owl,” she snapped.
Mrs. MacDuffie gasped. “Why, ye—”
“ ’Ere now, wha’ is all of the squawkin’?” Mr. MacDuffie, as round of form and faceas his wife, stood on the threshold.
Mrs. MacDuffie pointed at Alexandra. “Tha’personstole a watch fro’ Lord Kintore!”
“Lord Kintore? Here? But how—Ah!” Mr. MacDuffie hurried forward and then blanched on seeing the earl so still.“Is he—”
“He’s fine,” Alexandra said briskly.
Eyes wide, Mr. MacDuffie caught sight of the lump on Lord Kintore’s jaw. “Wha’ happenedhere?”
“This Gypsy had her giant thief-assistant thump the earl, she did! She admitted asmuch afore ye came in.”
“No, I didn’t. My guard thought the earl was an intruder. I was asleep when Lord Kintorecame into the room, and my guard thought . . .” She couldn’t really explain what hadhappened without raising even more questions and accusations. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Humph!” Mrs. MacDuffie said. “So after yer man hit him, then ye decided to stealhis lordship’s watch.”
“I didn’t steal it,” Alexandra said icily. “I merely picked it up after it fell outof his pocket.”
“Ha! We dinna like thieves in this country,” Mrs. MacDuffie said. “The constable willcome and take ye off to gaol, and I’ll see to it tha’ they—”
“No, you won’t,” came a deep, masculine voice from the settee. “Not while I have breathin my body.”
Alexandra’s heart did the oddest leap, as if in that slow and sensually deep voice,she recognized something forbidden. Something sensual. Something . . .all mine.The thought made her shiver, and with an exquisite sense of anticipation, she slowlyturned to face the man who’d dared kiss a sleeping princess.
She couldn’t tell if theearl read anything in her eyes, for all he did was flick a careless smile her wayas he swung his booted feet to the ground. He plucked his watch from her fingers whilehe pressed his other hand against his forehead as if to hold it in place.
“I’m sorry for your injury.”
He turned toward her and their gazes locked, stealing her breath.
His eyes blazed, a smile curling his lips as he ran a finger along his jaw, wincingwhen he found the lump. “Ah, yes. Your large friend did this, did he not?”
“He’s my guard.”
“So shesays,me lor’,” Mrs. MacDuffie said. “The big lout clubbed ye and thenthisone stole yer—”
“Enough!” The earl said quietly, “As my watch is right here, then apparently Miss—”He lifted his brows.
Alexandra flushed, her tongue seemingly frozen. I’ve never been so nervous.She wet her dry lips and curtsied. “Forgive me for not mentioning my name earlier.I am Alexandra Petrovna.”
“Miss Petrovna. How lovely to meet you.” He bowed far more deeply than politenessdictated for a mere miss, his smile warm and tempting, before turning back to thelandlady. “Since I have my watch now, then Miss Petrovna is either an incredibly ineffectivethief, or she wasn’t stealing it to begin with. Either way, the constable would notbe pleased to be called out for such a weak charge. It’s far too dangerous to travelin this snow, and I’m sure he has better things to do than arrest someone for a watchthat has already been returned.”
“Me lor’, her mansaidshe is a Russian lady,” Mrs. MacDuffie said, “but she looks like a Gypsy to me, andye know how they can be.”
The earl turned to Alexandra. “Ah, so you play the violin? Every Gypsy I’ve ever metdid so.”
She had to smile. “No, I don’t.”
“Then you must not be a Gypsy. But you are Russian?”
“We are from Oxenburg.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“Few people have. For that reason, sometimes my guard will tell people we are fromRussia, for more people know of it.”
Mrs. MacDuffie huffed. “Iknewye was tellin’ faraddidles!”
“Now, Mary, tha’ is enou’.” Mr. MacDuffie looked uneasily from the earl to Alexandraand then back.
“She’s lyin’ aboot tha’ and she’s lyin’ aboot the watch.” Mrs. MacDuffie leaned towardthe earl and said earnestly, “I tol’ MacDuffie tha’ there was something odd abootthese Gypsies, me lord, an’ tha’ I had me suspicions tha’—”
“Pardon me, Mrs. MacDuffie.” Kintore hadn’t raised his voice, but his deep, silken-softtone still turned all attention his way. “But we have discussed Miss Petrovna’s countryof origin enough.”
“Och, but she—”
“I grow bored, Mrs. MacDuffie. If I grow too bored, I will be forced to leave thisestablishment. And where I go, goes my gold.”
She gawked. “In this weather?” She pointed to the window, where the snow was now fallingin such thickness that all one could see was a blanket of white. “Ye wouldn’t makeit a mile!”
“Och, Mary . . .” The innkeeper looked anguished.
“It will be an unwelcome trial,” the earl continued, though a dangerously tight lookhad entered his eyes. “But I cannot stay where I am bored.”
“Surely ye wouldn’t leave jus’ because—”
Mr. MacDuffie grabbed his wife’s elbow. “Me lor’, consider the matter dropped.”
The earl smiled. “Thank you, MacDuffie. I can see that you’re a man of great wisdom.”He looked past the innkeeper to the tray his wife had brought in earlier. “Ah, someof your fabulous Scotch. Might I trouble you to pour a glass before you go?”
“O’ course!” MacDuffie eyed his wife narrowly and released her arm.
She glared at him but went to pour the drink.
“MacDuffie, if the Scotch is as good as I remember, perhaps I can relieve you of afew bottles. I will pay whatever you think fair.”
The innkeeper beamed. “Tha’ ye may, me lor’. I received a new shipment just last week.”
“Excellent. And from the looks of things”—he didn’t glance at the snow-filled window,but at Alexandra—“I will also need a room. I believe I will stay a day or so. Perhapslonger. I will pay in silver, of course.”
“O’ course, me lor’. It can all be arranged.” Gleeful at the prospect of such largesse,the beaming innkeeper bustled his wife out the door as soon as a generous glass ofScotch was pressed into Kintore’s waiting hands. The innkeeper paused just long enoughto promise a nice tea and some cakes within the hour, and then left.
The second their footsteps disappeared down the hallway, the earl turned his gazeback to Miss Petrovna. Such eyes. Like ice, and yet they hold such heat.“Well, here we are. Alone at last . . . again.”
She flushed, though the smile she sent him was anything but shy, her eyes shimmeringwith the unmistakable light of smoldering passion.
So you enjoyed our kiss as much as I did.
“Yes, here we are.” She tilted her head to one side. “Alone.”
God, but he loved her accent. The faintest hint of a “v” instead of a “w.” The veryslight trill before the “r.” It was damned attractive, as was she.
He usually went for the tall, willowy blond sort. But this woman—he wasn’t certainwhat it was about her, but he was completely entranced.And all from a kiss.
He realized that she didn’t have a drink. “Oh, no. That must be remedied.”
He crossed to the tray and poured her a glass. “This. You cannot come to the Caskand Larder without a sip of the water of life.”
“That’s what we call it.”
“Ah. Thank you. I would like that very much.”
He brought her the glass. “Here, Miss Petrovna. I only poured you a little. Averylittle.”
As he’d done no such thing, a smile quivered over her lips, and then finally sprangto life, her amazing ice-blue eyes sparkling. She took the glass and sank onto thesettee, patting the cushion beside her in invitation.She is a bold one. I like that.
He sat beside her, letting his knee graze hers.
She made no move to distance herself. Indeed, she eyed him as if measuring him fora coat, her gaze never still. “Lord Kintore, though I don’t know you well, I beginto think you are something of a troublemaker.”
He grinned over his glass. “What gave you that idea? That I would kiss a beautifulmaiden sleeping peacefully by a warm fire? Or that I would offer a lady such strongspirits within a short time of meeting her?”
“Both of those.” She lifted her glass. “And your smile. It promises much . . . whatis the word? Ah yes, mischief.”
He waited as she took a sip, watching her over the edge of his own glass. To his surprise,she didn’t sputter or cough as he’d seen other women do when they tried strong spirits. So it is not your first time, eh?
“Mmm.” She took another sip and nodded thoughtfully. “Very nice. Smooth. An excellentfinish, too.”
“Ah, an aficionado.”
“I’ve never had Scotch before. But vodka, yes.” She held her glass to the light and eyed the color. “In my country, the women drinkwith the men after dinner. There is none of this separation of the sexes, as you dohere.”
“You disapprove of that?”
“Very much. Do you like it so?”
“To be honest, I’ve never thought of it. But now that you mention it, it does seemrather silly. All the men do is retire to the study, sip whiskey or port, and waituntil it’s time to join the women. I daresay the women do the same: watch the clockand welcome the rest of the party when the time comes.”
She smiled her approval. “So it seems to me.”
“Now that you’ve brought this astounding wrong to my attention, at the very next dinnerparty I attend, I promise to break with tradition.”
She chuckled, the sound so rich and lush that it pulled him forward. “Lord Kintore,we will get along well, you and I. Especially if I continue to benefit from your tastein Scotch.”
“I shall see to it that you never go without. This inn is known for its good meals,clean linens, impeccable Scotch, and a certain large brass tub.”
She brightened. “They have a tub?”
“Oh ho, and what a tub. If one must get stuck in the snow, this inn has much to recommendit.”
“Then we were both fortunate that it snowed when it did. I shall buy some of thisScotch for my uncle, the k—” Her gaze dropped and she took a quick drink.
“Your uncle, the . . . ?” he quizzed.
“It is of no consequence.” She tapped her glass with a slender finger. “My lord, Imust warn you that I may be bidding against you for the bottles you requested fromMr. MacDuffie.”
“Bid away. I like a good contest.” While she took another sip, he allowed his gazeto roam over her. She was a tiny thing, this lady of Oxenburg; she barely reachedhis shoulder, and yet she kissed with amazing passion, and her breasts were deliciouslyfull. What more could he ask for?Well . . . it would be good to see her in something other than unrelenting black.Say, a thin lawn night rail.
His gaze moved to her left hand, where a pale circle of skin on her ring finger indicatedthat a wedding ring had been removed recently.Ah, that explains the black weeds; she’s a widow. That also explains why she didn’tshy away when I kissed her.“So tell me, Miss—er, Mrs. Petrovna, why were you going through my pockets?”
“I did no such thing. When my guard placed you on the settee, your watch fell fromyour pocket. I was merely admiring it.” She shot him a sideways look. “The locket,too.”
She saw Jane’s portrait. His merry thoughts scattered like dead leaves before a wind and his jaw tightened.“The locket is a family heirloom.”
She raised her brows, obviously waiting.
He stood and crossed to the tray and poured more Scotch into his glass.
Mrs. Petrovna watched him, her long lashes obscuring her expression. “Where were youheaded in this storm?”
Glad that her question had nothing to do with the portrait of Jane, he answered, “Iwas on my way to visit some friends for a small house party. And you?”
“We are to visit the Duchess of Roxburghe’s house party at Floors Castle.”
“I and my chaperone . . . Anya.”
He noted her hesitation.She is hiding something, but what? And why?“And where is this chaperone? Not that I wish her to make an appearance.”
That drew a grin. “My chaperone is ill, so she will not be downstairs for some time.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
She peeped up at him through her lashes, and he had to fight the urge not to leanover and envelop her in a heated kiss. “I’m not sorry,” she confided. “I am too oldfor a chaperone.”
“Old? You cannot be more than nineteen.”
“I’m almost twenty-two.” She tilted her head to one side. “How old are you, if youdo not mind my asking?”
“Hmm. I thought you—”
The front door to the inn thumped open, and heavy footsteps tromped down the hallway.Mrs. Petrovna cast a wary eye on the doorway just as a huge, lumbering form filledit. “Ah,” she said. “It is Doya.”
The guard was both the size and color of a large bear. With a fierce beard coveringa stern face, his thick brows overshadowing black eyes, Mrs. Petrovna’s “Doya” wouldraise fear in almost any man.
Except Kintore. All the earl saw was the reason why his jaw was so painful, and heburned to return the favor.
The giant scowled back.
Mrs. Petrovna placed her glass upon a side table. “Ah, Doya. Did you bring the snowas I asked?”
The guard, still glaring at Kintore, held up a ball of snow and rumbled somethingin a language the earl had never heard. Mrs. Petrovna answered, her voice liltingover the syllables.
Kintore caught a glance from her and decided to go stir the fire. Whatever they hadto say to each other had nothing to do with him, but perhaps he could figure out aword or two of their conversation.
Alexandra watched as the earl went to add wood to the fire. Relieved that he no longerseemed to be listening, she took the snowball from Doya. “It’s packed like a rock.”
Doya’s teeth flashed in his beard. “Shall I break it over the fool’s head?”
“He’s not a fool.” She placed the ice ball on the tray beside the Scotch. “What heis, is an earl.”
Doya’s smile faded. “Are you certain?”
“The innkeepers recognized him. His family home is near here.”
Doya’s lip curled. “He doesn’t look like much of an earl.”
She turned to watch Kintore lift a large armful of firewood from the rack beside thefireplace, his strong arm muscles visible under his coat.Ah, my Cossack. I wish to see those without your sleeves covering them.Added to his delicious form were his dark hair and gray-green eyes, and she couldn’tforget his wicked smile, either. Oh, he’s very much an earl. All of him. I would wager gold florins that he—
“Princess?” Doya’s impatient tone told her that she’d missed his last comment.
“I’m sorry. I was thinking of something else. What is it?”
He glared at the earl. “I suggested that we call the countess from her bed to do herduty. You should not be here alone with the stranger.”
“The Earl of Kintore is no longer a stranger. Besides, the door is open and Mr. andMrs. MacDuffie will be coming in and out. They promised us tea.”
Doya must have seen the determination in her gaze, for he scowled. “You will not listento me, will you?”
His chin jutted forward, but after a brief silence, he bowed. “As you wish, Princess.But I will be close.” With a final glare at the earl, the guard left.
Alexandra turned to find the earl’s gaze on her, his expression thoughtful. “So yourguard—that’s what you called him, isn’t it?” At her nod, he continued, “Your guardbrought you a snowball. Is this a custom from your country?”
“I asked him to bring it so that you might put some snow on your chin. Sadly, it ismore ice than snow.”
“That’s quite all right. I don’t need—”
“Nyet.You will try it.” She went to the tray where she’d set the ice ball. Lifting thebrass candlesnuffer from the table, she whacked the ice ball sharply to break it intolarge pieces. “Do you have a handkerchief?”
He reached into his waistcoat pocket and removed a neatly folded and starched handkerchief.
“Thank you.” She wrapped it about the larger pieces of ice, her fingers cold fromthe contact. “Now come and sit. I will hold the ice to your injury.”
His gaze narrowed. “My jaw is fine and there’s no need for ice.”
However she might feel about his pigheadedness, she loved his soft Scottish burr.It brushed every word with a flavor that made her think of his kisses.
She gathered her thoughts. “Come, Kintore. I know much about bruises and lumps. Mycousins were forever falling off their horses and wrestling one another, and I’vetended many such injuries.” She patted his arm and then pointed to the settee. “Sosit.”
“I don’t need—”
“Lord Kintore, enough!” Her tone was as cold as the ice in her hand as she drew herselfup and pointed. She looked as disdainful as a queen.
It was tempting to argue, but the truth was that his jaw did ache. “Fine.” He didas he was bid. “But the ice won’t help anything.”
“Pah.” She sank onto the settee beside him, tucking her leg under her so that shecould face him. “Now lean back and I will hold it to the bruise.”
“I can do that myself if you’ll just—”
“Nyet.”She pushed him back, his head tilted against the cushions as she pressed the iceto his jaw.
She removed the ice. “It will hurt worse later if we do not ice it now.” She lookedat him, her brows lowered. “This is all my fault, and the only way I can make thingsbetter is to reduce the swelling a little.”
He hesitated, touched by her earnest expression.
Caught by her accent, which was more intriguing by the moment, and the faint poutof her full bottom lip, he found himself nodding. “Oh, damn it, very well.”
“Thank you.” She carefully replaced the handkerchief.
It hurt, but after a few moments, the ice cooled the hot swell of his jaw and thedull ache began to disappear.
Kintore found himself staring at her bottom lip again. No longer pouting, it was stillas red as a cherry.And just as tasty.The memory of their earlier kiss warmed him, and he wondered if he should kiss hernow or wait until the pain had completely subsided.
“Better?” she asked, trying to read his expressions.
“Much. I must admit that I am surprised.”
Alexandra smiled happily. “You shouldn’t be surprised; ice cures many ills.” She satback a bit, her head tilted to one side. “I’m sorry if I made you angry before, butDoya’s actions are my responsibility, as much as mine are his.”
Kintore’s lashes slid down, hiding his expression. “For a mere commoner, you are verybossy.”
She mistrusted his tone as much as his look. “What is this ‘bossy’? I have not heardof this.”
“You order people what to do, almost like”—his gaze locked with hers—“royalty.”
She started, and would have dropped the ice had he not steadied her hand with hisown.
“That’s what you are, isn’t it?” The earl spoke softly, his mouth curved into a smilethat didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Aren’t you,Princess?”
Alexandra started to rise, butthe earl held her in place, his hand tightening over hers. “I heard that bear ofyours call you ‘princess.’ ”
“You are mistaken. Now let me go; I am done holding the ice to your jaw.” She tuggedher hand, trying to free it.
“If I let you go, I may never find out who you really are.”
She tugged harder. “Kintore, please, I cannot—”
“Yes, you can.” He scooped her up and plopped her into his lap, his arms like bandsof steel. “There. Now we will talk.”
She was instantly aware that his manhood was directly under her bottom, separatedonly by her skirts and his breeches. He smelled of Scotch and starch, mingled withthe faintest hint of cologne. The heady mixture instantly made her wish to burrowagainst him. “Let me up. You should not—This is uncalled for!”
“I will have answers.” He plucked the handkerchief full of ice from her hand and tossedit on a table, then shifted her so that her bottom settled more squarely on his powerfulthighs. “And I will have answersnow.”
There was no way to free herself. Kintore’s arm, wrapped around her waist, was aspowerful as she’d imagined, and she was so much shorter than he that her feet weretoo far off the ground to get any purchase.
She lifted her chin. “I will not answer any of your questions like this.”
“Oh?” He put his lips to her ear and whispered, “Perhaps I should seduce your answersfrom your lips.”
Her traitorous skin tingled in anticipation.
“I know you desire me, Princess, just as I desire you. A few kisses”—he pressed hiswarm lips to her ear just long enough to set off a maelstrom of shivers—“and you wouldtell me everything you know.”
She couldn’t disagree. Her body had flared to life beneath his touch, her heart flutteredin anticipation, and her skin tingled as if he were already touching her intimately.
No man had ever awakened her body so thoroughly and instantly. She didn’t wonder whatit would be like to make love to this man; she knew. And she ached with a longingthat almost made her shudder in despair.
As if he knew her weakness, he smiled, his eyes darkened by passion. “Come, Princess.Tell me who you are.”
She desperately tried to obtain some control over herself. “Or? I am the one withguards, not you. If I yell—”
“Then your Doya will come running,” he agreed.
“Which you do not want,” she pointed out.
“Nor do you. If he finds you in my lap, he will never again leave you alone with me.”Kintore bent closer, his warm breath brushing her cheek. “You and I would both dislikethat.”
It took a strength she didn’t know she possessed, but she crossed her arms.“Nyet.”
“Very well. You’ve asked for it.” Kintore gently nipped her ear, his teeth scrapingover the sensitive skin of her lobe. Instantly, her thoughts scattered. She grippedhis coat with both hands, gasping as he teased her.
Kintore slid his hands to her hips and she leaned into his embrace. As he bent hishead to kiss her, she slid her lips to his cheek and then to his ear. She was nota woman who only took. With a soft moan, she did as he’d done, nipping and kissinguntil he gripped her urgently.
Unable to wait a second longer, he held her face and captured her mouth with his,kissing her over and over until neither of them could breathe.
She moved wildly against him, trying to get closer, her bottom warm against his thighs.She traced her tongue over his teeth, lightly teasing him before she slipped a handover his broad chest, down his flat stomach to—
“No!” he gasped, grabbing her wrist and tugging it back to his chest. “That wouldbe an error, with your ill-tempered guard near.Good God, you are a witch. A delightful,delicious witch.”
Alexandra chuckled, pleased and relieved that she was not the only one affected. Herbody humming from his touch, she leaned against him. “Lord Kintore, can I trust you?”
“Yes. With your life.”
The quiet intensity of the words stole her breath.
Kintore’s brows knit as if he, too, were surprised.
She sighed. “I will admit all. You are right; I am a princess.”
A gleam of satisfaction lit his eyes. “I had to kiss it from you, but there it is.”
“If I must face an interrogation, that would be the manner of interrogation I’d choose.”She looped her arms about his neck. “So Doya gave me away, despite all of his warningsthrough our journey not to betray our secret.”
“The Russian word for ‘princess’ sounds very similar to the one used in your language.”
“Ah, and you speak Russian?” When she said “Russian,” it had a round “oo” sound thatmade her lips pucker enticingly.
“Some. Enough to pick out a word here and there. Your languages are similar.”
She shrugged. “Somewhat. The history of Oxenburg is not far removed from that of ourRussian sister.” She tilted her head to one side. “How do you come to speak Russian?Not many in your country do.”
“At one time I imagined myself going into politics and serving at an embassy. Butthen . . .” He shook his head and leaned back, putting more space between them. “Thatwas a long time ago. A foolish dream for a foolish man.”
“Why is that a foolish dream? It sounds like a fascinating career for a man with address,unless—Ah. You inherited your title, and then could not commit to the travel.”
“Yes. I had duties here, the house and lands to look after, and . . .” His lashesdropped again, a sudden tightness to his face. “There were other things, too.”
Like the woman of the locket? Is that the part that truly troubles you?“You would have been an excellent ambassador. It is a pity you were unable to followyour heart.”
He gave a mirthless laugh. “If you knew me, you’d understand why such a career was—andis—an impossibility, whether I had other obligations or not. I’m not the sort to sacrificefor my country or anyone else.”
“You expect too much. Most of us have generousmoments,notlives. I’m certain you are far more generous than you think.”
“How little you know me,” he said coolly. “But it matters not, for the opportunityis gone, and now my Russian is as rusty as my manners—neither of them fit for thepublic.”
“Kintore, perhaps you could—”
“No. There is no ‘perhaps.’ What’s important is now—and I have just realized thatwe, my love, have never been properly introduced.” He pressed his lips to her fingers,looking into her eyes as he spoke. “I am James Keith, Earl of Kintore. How do youdo, Princess—?”
Her hand curled over his, her palm warm against his fingers. “I am Alexandra PetrovnaRomanovin, Princess Menshikov.”
Alexandra waited, watching his expression from beneath her lashes. Her chest was uncomfortablytight and her palms suddenly damp. It was silly to be so concerned. Her title waswhat it was, and she couldn’t change it. Unfortunately, there had been many men towhom her title had meant more than she did. Thus, if she was going to consider thisman as a candidate for her next husband, then she had to be bold and fearless anddiscover his true mettle.
And oh, how she wished to consider him thusly. He was everything she’d dreamed ofin a mate—powerful, well educated, handsome, and sharp-witted. On the surface, atleast, he was her match, kiss for kiss.
Strange at it was, in some ways she felt that she already knew him. Even now, justlooking into his eyes, his every thought whispered to her. He was intrigued and . . .disappointed.
She frowned, but before she could ask, he said, “Princess Menshikov, it is very niceto meet you.”
“It is very nice to meet you, too, my lord.”
“I cannot believe I’m talking to a real princess.”
She shrugged. “My titles came to me after I married into the royal family. I am aminor member, now that Dmitri is gone. I am happy for that. There are things thatare unpleasant about such a connection. In fact, that is why I was traveling undera different name: my uncle feared someone might abduct me.”
“Your disguise needs some work.”
“Doya should not have called me ‘princess’ in front of you.”
“Actually, I knew you were more than you said, even before I heard your guard’s slip.”
That, she hadn’t expected. “I thought we were being so discreet.”
“Not when you travel with a squadron of Cossacks under your command. In our country,ladies and lords travel with grooms and coachmen, and perhaps a few outriders if theroad is dangerous. They may be armed, but they are not military men.”
“Ah. You can tell that Doya and his men are from the royal army.”
“Very much so. Here, only the royal family rides with a military escort. And no onehas personal guards who dress and talk like Cossacks.”
“I thought we were blending in rather well.” She sighed. “I told my uncle that I didn’tneed so many guards.”
“How many are there?”
“There are fifteen.”
He whistled. “Are they all the size of Doya?”
“He is the biggest. But not all of them are here, as one of our carriages broke anaxle and most of them are staying with it until it’s fixed. We are awaiting them atthis inn.”
“The snow will stop travel for several days at least.”
“So it seems.”
He eyed her thoughtfully. “I’d say you’ve been causing quite a stir as you traveled.”
“More than I was aware, apparently. So if the noblemen here do not employ guards,then who protects them from wolves and Gypsies, and land squabbles, and—”
He laughed and held up a hand. “Wolves? We have no wolves. They have all been hunted.”
“Ours are big and a pack can take down a horse.”
“Even I would be glad to have Doya with me, then. What are these ‘land squabbles’?”
“They are common in my country. For example, long ago, Count Gagarin—he’s one of ourgreat military leaders from the Austrian conflict—found some old documents that suggestedthat his neighbor, Prince Kilkov, had at some point moved the markers for one of theiradjoining fields, moving a spring from one property to the other. Though presentedwith the evidence, Kilkov refused to shift the markers to the spot the count had determinedto be the correct position, saying it was just a ploy to gain access to the springhead.”
“I do not know. Gagarin is not famous for his truthfulness, so it is possible thatthe prince was correct in his assumptions. On the other hand, there are those whosay they’ve seen the old deeds and that Gagarin’s claims are legitimate.” She shrugged.“However it may be, that started a fight that has continued for four decades now.Sadly, the fight sometimes spills onto the roads, so that even common citizens mustride with guards.”
“Bloody hell. Are many people killed?”
“Not often. It usually ends with a good round of fisticuffs.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“Then the man who delivered the death blow must pay a fine to the family of the personkilled. The fines are very, very steep, too.” She grimaced. “Doya says facing surpriseattacks keeps our men sharp, so he often travels through troubled areas just to giveour men extra training in case we should be attacked for a more serious reason.”
“Things are very different in Oxenburg.”
“It’s very beautiful there.”
“I’m sure it must be.” He traced the band of black lace at her wrist. “These clothes . . .they are widow’s weeds.”
“My husband died two years ago. He was older than I, but very strong. He took a fencewith a new horse that balked at the last moment, and . . .” She opened her hands.“It was unexpected. We—” She stopped. “I don’t know why I tell you this.”
Kintore gestured to the window, where the snow was making icy decorations on the panes.“What else do we have to do?” He smiled and traced his fingers along the necklineof her gown. “Unless you have a better idea . . .”
She had hundreds of better ideas. Breathless at her own thoughts, she said in a rush,“Dmitri and I were married less than a year.”
“Nyet. We had hopes of a family, but it was not our destiny.” She peeped at Kintore fromunder her lashes. “And you? Have you ever been married?”
“No. I have no wish ever to be married.”
So the portrait is not of his wife. Who could it be, then? A lost love? A fiancéewho died after an illness? Or someone else he loves and misses?
She threw up a hand. “Please. Call me Alexandra.”
“Ah, we are throwing all propriety out the window, are we?”
“Why not? As you pointed out, we are here, isolated and far from civilization. Whywould we welcome the restrictions of society that we dislike here, where no one knowsus or sees us?”
“You are a rebel.”
“So Doya tells me.”
He laughed. “Alexandra it is, then. Please call me James.”
She pursed her lips and he instantly thought of kissing them. “That is a good namefor you,” she said, “but I will call you Kintore. It suits you.”
“You may call me whatever you wish, Alexandra.” He cupped her cheek and ran his thumbover her soft bottom lip. “I have only one more question for you, and then I wishto kiss you again. Over and over.”
She flushed, a pleased smile touching her lips. “Yes? What do you wish to know?”
“Why are you here, in Scotland?”
She turned to place a kiss in the palm of his hand. “It is simple, Kintore. I cameto find a husband.”
He pulled back, his passion cooled as thoroughly as if he’d been dowsed in snow.Surely she’s teasing.He eyed her carefully. She met his gaze without blinking. “Good God, you’re serious.”
She slid her hand over his cheek. “I wish to find a man of much strength who willbreed good, strong sons.”
He shook his head. “You are a bold woman to admit that openly, but it changes things.I’m not the sort of man to marry.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Good God.” He set her to one side and then stood.
Brows lowered, Alexandra sprang from the settee. “What are you doing?”
“I, madam, am going to my bedchamber.”
“But it’s early yet. They haven’t yet brought tea or dinner or—”
“I’ll have dinner in my room.” He took a step toward the door.
“Wait!” She stepped in front of him. “I don’t understand. You asked why I was herein Scotland and I told you. Would you have rather that I’d lied?”
“I’d rather you weren’t in the market for a husband. Alexandra, I’ve no wish to marry.Ever.And you are serious about it.”
“I want to marry again, yes, but if it bothers you so, then we will not mention itagain.” She shrugged. “We will leave marriage to the fates, eh? Meanwhile . . .” Sheplaced a hand on his chest and slipped her fingers under his waistcoat. “We are strandedhere. You amuse me. I like your kisses and I know that you like mine. Can you thinkof a reason not to enjoy each other?”
He could think of several: chief among them, discovering that he’d gotten a princess—aprincess,by God—with child, or being pummeled by her guard for daring even to look her way.“I can’t take that risk.” He shook his head. “Would that you reallyhadbeen a Gypsy.”
She pouted. “And if I had?”
“Then I would not hesitate to seduce you. But knowing who you are and what you desire,I must refrain.”
“Pah, that will make no one happy.” She stepped closer, her pale blue eyes darkeningwith promise as she pressed her soft curves against him. “Come,pashinko. Let us enjoy what time we have. If it makes things easier, I am more than willingto pretend I am a Gypsy.”
“That would be a very dangerous game.”
“But fun,nyet?” She wrapped her arms about him. “I should warn you; I am a determined woman. WhatI want, I get.”
“That’s very princess-like of you.”
“It is how I am. No matter how much you wish to resist, I have every intention ofseducing you.”
In his dreams, if a woman said such a thing to him, he wouldn’t hesitate. And thiswoman, with her sensual voice, generous curves, seductive accent, and startling eyes,would have made the encounter memorable.
It was a pity, for he could think of nothing he’d enjoy more than spending a few dayslocked in a snowy inn with Alexandra. But he’d be a fool to indulge himself. He hadseen too many of his friends fall into this particular trap, and the better connectedthe lady’s family, the more tightly bound the hapless male became.
Fortunately the memory of those wretched friends cooled his ardor and wiser, calmerthoughts prevailed. He untwined her arms from his waist and stepped away. “Pardonme, Your Highness, but I must leave.”
And with that, he bowed and left without looking back.
The next morning, Kintore shruggedinto his coat in the front hall, wincing when the collar brushed his tender jaw.“Damn you, Doya,” he muttered.
He’d gotten no sleep last night as some cruel imp of fate had put him in the bedchambernext to Alexandra’s. As he’d tossed and turned, he’d heard her murmur a goodnightto someone—Doya, perhaps?—and then climb the stairs, his imagination lingering onevery possible sway of her hips, every breath she took. When she’d approached hisdoor, she’d hesitated.
He’d waited, holding his breath. God, he’d yearned for her to enter his chamber andclimb into his bed. Just thinking about her silky black hair and her sky-blue eyeshad made his cock stir to life.But there’s a price that comes with that,he’d told himself sternly.
She’d stayed outside his door for a long time, the sound of her breathing just barelyaudible, while Kintore’s body had burned with an almost undeniable heat.
Just as he was on the verge of leaping from his bed and yanking her into his room,she’d sighed and continued down the hallway.
He’d been left aching for her, and after she’d opened the door to her own bedchamber,he’d listened to every sound she’d made as she prepared for bed. He’d heard her steps,the rustle of her clothes, the thump of her boots as she set them by the fireplace,the click of her comb as she placed it back on her dresser—every sound had sent hisimagination into places that had made him burn more.
Long after she’d fallen asleep, he’d continued to imagine her getting undressed inhisbedchamber, of her setting her boots besidehisfireplace, of her smile and the curve of her full breasts as she’d climbed intohisbed, of the way her warm skin would feel againsthis,and on and on.
He hadn’t gotten enough sleep to fill a thimble. And he’d awoken this morning stillthinking of her, and of how close he’d come to pulling her into his room and havinghis way with her. It was time to stop tempting the fates and put some distance betweenhimself and the delectable Princess Alexandra.
Tired but determined, he’d risen and dressed as warmly as he could, forgoing his usualroutine of shaving, and decided to brave the weather and travel to Aberdeenshire,where he was certain to find another inn. He just needed to settle up with the landlord.
MacDuffie conveniently came hurrying out of the parlor, an empty tray in his hands,just as Kintore reached the bottom of the stairs. The innkeeper halted when he sawthe earl with his portmanteau. “Me lor’! Ye’re leavin’? B-but ye canno’!”
“Yet I am. Sadly, I’ve recalled an important appointment that I must keep.”One far away from a tempting princess on the hunt for a husband.“Thank you for your hospitality.” He pulled out some coins and held them out to theinnkeeper.
The man merely shook his head and said once again, “Me lor’, ’tis I’m sorry I am,but yecanno’leave. Go look oot the window in the front parlor. I’d suggest the door here, butwe canno’ get it open. ’Tis blocked by the snow.”
With a sinking feeling, Kintore went to the large bow window and looked out throughthe part not covered by huge drifts, which wasn’t large.
Never in all of his years had he seen so much snow. It was piled up in fluffy abandonagainst every wall it could find until the water barrels and shrubberies were lostfrom sight. Worse, it was still coming down in large, wet flakes that would buildup even higher.
MacDuffie stared out the window as well. “I suppose yecouldleave, me lor’, if ye were determined, bu’ I wouldna recommend it.”
Neither would Kintore. If anyone knew the cost of winter, it was he—and how very highthat cost could be.
As if to confirm this, a huge slab of snow and ice fell from the roof and crashedonto the ground, showering the window with rock-hard icy pellets.
Both men stepped back.
“Och, tha’ scared me nigh to death, it did! ’Tis no’ fit fer mice nor men, is it?”
“No.” Kintore removed his coat. “It appears I must remain.”
MacDuffie beamed and took the earl’s coat, hanging it carefully over his arm. “I’llcarry yer portmanteau back to yer room. Shall I fetch ye breakfast?” His smile fadeda bit. “We’ve no’ as much as usual, since Mrs. MacDuffie’s a wee bit under the weather,but the kitchen maid can cook porridge and we’ve eggs and pig, to boot.
“That will be fine, I’m sure. Thank you.”
“Ye’re welcome. I’ll bring ye some nice malty ale fer breakfast, too.” The innkeeperleft.
Kintore scowled. Bloody hell, this was a pretty turn of events. And a dangerous one,too. If he wasn’t careful, he might end up leg-shackled to an Oxenburg princess.
Sighing, he turned from the window and crossed to a chair by the cheery fire. Howlong would this snow last?Damn it, how long willIlast?He’d never been very good at denying himself, especially something that was readilyavailable and oh-so-tempting. Frankly, in the years since Jane’s death, he had stoppedtrying to deny anything except his feelings. Those, thankfully, were almost entirelydead.
The only feelings he had left were of the sensual kind, and unfortunately the princessknew just how to stir them to life. He eyed the settee, remembering how he’d kissedAlexandra on those very cushions. His body hardened at the memory and he shifted uncomfortably.He’d have to set some definite lines to keep himself from succumbing. No more kisses,no more holding her in his lap, no more anything.
He could look, but he wouldn’t touch. And that was that.
“Good morning, Kintore.”
He stood and turned to face Alexandra.
She raised her brows on seeing him, her gaze flickering over his face.
He touched his cheek and then grimaced. “Ah, yes. I didn’t shave this morning. I shall—”
“No, no,” she said, sounding oddly breathless, her gaze locked on his face. “Leaveit. It becomes you.” She flushed, then turned to look out the bow window. “It’s fallingvery hard now.”
He watched her stand on her tiptoes in an effort to see above the drifted snow, herfigure rounded and graceful beneath her black gown. He thought of all the women heknew who dressed themselves in the brightest of fineries, wore the most expensivejewelry, and paid hundreds of pounds for hairdressers to twist and curl their hairinto fashionable styles. Yet this slip of a woman could walk into a room wearing thedrabbest of gowns, with no jewelry whatsoever, and put every one of those peacocksto shame. She was fresh and lovely and far too delectable.
He realized that the silence was growing. “The snow looks quite wet. I can’t imaginetraveling in this.”
“It’s not so bad if you stay under the trees lining the road.”
He blinked. “How do you know that?”
“I went for a walk earlier this morning.”
“Pah. In my country, we have snow like this for months on end.”
“You did not go alone.”
She looked surprised. “No, for Doya insisted that I have a guard with me, which issilly. No one would try to abduct me in this weather.”
“There are other dangers. The snow can be treacherous—” The words tangled in his throat,his heart pounding as if he’d been running.
Fortunately, Alexandra didn’t seem to notice as she turned from the window. “It islovely,nyet?”
“I suppose so.”
She gave him an unreadable look as she walked past him to sit upon the settee. Trailingbehind her was the faint scent of lavender and—was that rose? He took a deeper breathand his heart slowed to a more regular beat.
She sat in the very spot they’d both occupied the night before, watching as he tookthe chair opposite instead of joining her on the settee. Her frown let him know heropinion of his choice of seat. “I saw MacDuffie on the stairs just now, taking yourportmanteau back to your room. You were planning on leaving and never saying anotherword to me, weren’t you?”
“I thought it would be for the best.”
“For us both.”
Her lips thinned. “You are a coward.”
No one had ever accused him of such a thing.Ever. “I am no coward.”
“What are you, then, that you would have snuck out thinking I was still abed?”
“I wasn’t sneaking out. I was using the front door—or I would have, had it not beenblocked by snow.”
Her foot tapped impatiently. “You avoided me last night and then this morning, youtried to run away. You are obviously not happy with what I said, and we must discussit.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. I am simply not interested.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he saw hurt flash in her remarkable eyes.Damn it, this is exactly what I didn’t wish to happen.
She was silent a long moment before she collected herself enough to give him a painedsmile. “Doya says I should remember that not everyone is as outspoken as I am. Still,I’m not sorry for being honest. I must marry. I have no choice in the matter and Ithought you might be a possibility, but you are not.” She shrugged. “Do not worry.I am young and there are many good men in this world.”
“Why must you marry?”
“My husband was the king’s nephew. But I, too, have royal blood, although of anotherbranch of the house. My son will be fifth in line for the throne after the king’ssons.”
“He has many?”
“Four. As soon as the princes start having their own children, my importance willbe greatly reduced. But until then, my offspring will be the fifth in line, rightafter the princes. For that reason the king feels I should marry as soon as possible.”
“I see. How did you come to marry the king’s nephew to begin with?”
“It was an arranged marriage. I was young, so—” She shrugged. “Now, I wish to findmy own husband.”
“I would say that would be preferable.”
“Yes, although I grew to love Dmitri, it is too much to expect that to happen a secondtime. So this time I will marry for myself.”
“And the man you marry? He will be a prince?”
“No, no. I am a princess only because of my marriage. Once I am no more a princess,I will take my old title, that of duchess. I will pass that on to my children.”
“So you don’t need to live in Oxenburg, then.”
She blinked, looking surprised. “Why wouldn’t I live there?”
“Because if you marry, you will have to consider someone else’s wishes as well asyour own.”
“Ah. I suppose that is true. I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Why did you come to Scotland looking for a husband? Surely there are worthy men inOxenburg.”
“It is not a very large country, so there are not as many eligible men as you mightthink. But it doesn’t matter. I wish our line to be strong, and for that reason Ihave decided to wed a Scot.”
“A true Scot will not willingly bow to any sovereign but our own. Nor do I know ofany who would give up his country.”
“That’s very William Wallace of you,” she said in a dry tone. When he looked surprised,she added, “My tutor was from Edinburgh.” She rested her elbow on the settee arm,her fingers absently twiddling with the black bow adorning her neckline. “Kintore,though we’re not to be more, I hope we can at least be friends. I would like thatvery much.”
Friends.Did he even know what those were anymore? After Jane’s death, he’d isolated himselffrom most of his friends, pushing them away because their condolences and pity madehis agony even more painful.
After that, bent on not thinking, not feeling, he’d cultivated only the shallowestof acquaintances, the sort given much to merriment and little to talking. He had nothingthat he wished to talk about anymore, and damned little that he wished to hear.
He realized that Alexandra was still waiting, so he said, “We can try to be friends,but we are worlds apart. We are from different continents, different countries, differentpositions in our lives . . . we’ve only one thing in common.”
He met her gaze steadily.
She flushed. “Oh, that.”
“Yes. It is not enough on its own, especially as you wish for a husband and a family,and I wish for peace and amusement, but it is there nonetheless.”
She rested her chin in her hand. “Do you think we might just flirt for a day or two?Very innocently, of course. Would there be anything wrong with that? I miss flirtingvery much.”
His gaze moved over her blue-black hair to her fascinating mouth, and down to hergenerous breasts.What’s wrong is that I would like it far too much.“We would be wiser to avoid flirting. I think you know that.”
She sighed. “So you are telling me ‘nyet.’ ”
Her brows drew down and she leaned back against the cushion. “I am not used to beingtold that. It is very unpleasant.”
He chuckled, dissipating his irritation. “Yes, it is.”
“But”—she threw out her hands—“if that is what you feel, then I must accept. It’sa pity, though, for I like you very much, and your kisses . . .” She closed her eyes,her expression one of sensual pleasure.
He’d seen that look yesterday, and seeing it again made his cock rigid with the memory.God, she was lush.
She opened her eyes, the translucent blue shining through her sooty black lashes breathtakinglybeautiful. “But since you wish it, I will say no more about it.”
“That would be best,” he managed.
She threw up her hands. “Fine! It is sad that it is not to be, but I will accept it.Once we leave this inn, I shall find someone else.”
“You must do what is best for you.” The words were strangely bitter on his tongue. Why should I care?he asked himself.I don’t. I can’t.