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Authors: Karen Hawkins

Princess in Disguise

BOOK: Princess in Disguise
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Chapter 1

S
now swirled across the road,
skittering over frozen mud and clinging to the edges of deep ruts, breaking free
to 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, closed
the leather curtain of her coach, and fastened it in place. She tried to smile as
she faced her chaperone, Countess Baryatinski. “I’m sorry, Anya. I let out some of
the heat,
nyet
?”


All
of 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 countess
was a horrible traveler and the first week had proven it. The rocking of the coach
invariably made the older woman sick. She swore that every bed of every inn was damp
and caused her to sleep ill, while the food was always too heavy or too rich and gave
her indigestion.

However, this meant that as soon as they reached an inn, the countess retired to her
bedchamber to recover from the “harrowing” aspects of their travels and remained there
until it was time to move on. Alexandra had never had so much freedom, so for this
reason 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 recognize
you.”

“In Scotland? We’ve traveled for three weeks now and not a single person has known
my 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 allowed
me to come.”

Anya’s thin mouth folded into a frown. “May I remind you that King Nikolaus sent two
coaches full of guards, one of which we have lost?”

“They’re not lost. When the axle on the smaller coach broke earlier today, we left
them to assist with the repair.”


With
our maids.”

“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 without
our usual protection and we must be cautious. Someone could recognize you and steal
you 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 her
since 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 additional
guards with him. That is enough.”

“We can only hope,” Anya said petulantly. “I don’t know how I will do without a maid
tonight.”

“It’s only for one night. If it helps, I will come to your bedchamber and braid your
hair for you.”

“Alexandra Petrovna Romanovin, you forget your position. You are a princess, and princesses
don’t—”

“Yes, yes. They don’t do this and they don’t do that. I have heard it enough, and
I 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 Dmitri
fell from his horse—” She caught Alexandra’s gaze and flushed. “I’m sorry. I know
you 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 looked
archly 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, unbuttoned
the curtain and leaned out, the icy wind cooling her irritation.

The countess tugged on the fur blankets, muttering once again about the cold and announcing
that the foot warmer was now completely chilled.

Sighing, Alexandra closed the curtain once more. “When we left this morning, Doya
said 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 take
an ague.”

Anya smiled grudgingly. “I would be most grateful, Your Highness. My throat is feeling
just 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 lovely
fire, sipping warm tea.” The countess sighed with longing. “I shall never understand
why you had to come to Scotland. It’s a barbarous place, filled with highwaymen and
God knows what else prowling the streets like hungry wolves.”

Alexandra pressed her lips into a firm line but didn’t reply. Her tutor, Lord Malcolm
MacKenna, had been a Scot through and though. Appointed by her uncle to oversee her
education, the grizzled Scotsman had blown into Alexandra’s quiet household like a
typhoon, 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 court
life, she emerged from her shell of shyness and embraced the lives and history of
her own people.

Her curiosity, always keen, had been freed as well, and Lord MacKenna had stoked it
well and often. He took her among the villagers and exposed her to the realities of
life 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 a
revolutionary, the king had laughed and said that such learning had kept him on his
toes, 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 her
own beloved country. Tucked between Switzerland and Bavaria, Oxenburg was a land rich
in both its resources and its people. Alexandra learned to see her country anew through
MacKenna’s eyes, to appreciate its wealth, and to envision ways to preserve all that
was good while encouraging growth.

With a glib tongue and sly sense of humor that Alexandra quickly came to adore, MacKenna
had given her a love of something else, too—his home country of Scotland, filling
her 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 cannot
wait 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 chaperone
and family.

She’d come to Scotland to find a husband.

O
n the same road,
several miles to the south, rode James Keith, the fifth Earl of Kintore, Viscount
Stonehaven, and Baron Urie. He was chilled, but also deliciously pleased. He hadn’t
fallen off his horse yet today. Of course, it was still early, but he rather thought
things were going his way for once.

“It’s about bloody time,” he told the falling snow in a defiant tone, tugging up his
collar as an icy wind lifted as if in answer. It was a good thing he didn’t believe
in omens, for the suddenness of the snow that had engulfed him over the last half
hour 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 the
gray sky. He still had an hour to ride before he reached his friend’s comfortable
and 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 stuff
already collecting and the strong wind making travel damned uncomfortable, he wondered
if he would make it.

There was wretchedly little in the way of shelter along this stretch of road, other
than an old inn by the name of Cask and Larder. He hadn’t visited the establishment
in over five years, but he vaguely remembered it had sported a rather tolerable stock
of Scotch.

He brushed snow from his lashes. He had to seek shelter somewhere and it was either
the inn or Keith Hall, his family home, which was impressive, cold, and empty. “And
empty 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 Keith
Manor for over two years and he damned well wasn’t going now. There were too many
memories for him there, and far too many empty rooms. No, it was the Cask and Larder
or nothing.

The horse shook the snow from its mane, and Kintore swayed in the saddle. When he’d
set out he’d thought the cold would sober him, yet he’d been on the road for almost
an 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 framed
with four chimneys rose over a stand of trees.
Keith Manor.

He resolutely looked away and rode past the gate, rubbing his gloved hands to try
to regain some feeling, a faint headache already forming. He’d pay for his over-imbibing
later, but he didn’t care. In fact, except for his few close friends, he didn’t care
for 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,” he
said through gritted teeth, but his imagination couldn’t be tamed. He pictured Jane
as he’d seen her the last time—pink-cheeked in the snow, her bonnet tucked over her
chestnut curls, her green eyes twinkling as she jumped out from behind a bush to lob
a 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 and
every 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 almost
hear her laughter. Jane laughing. Jane teasing. Jane, the one and only bright spot
in 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 flank
and sent him into a full panic. Kintore’s carefully guarded bottle fell to the ground
and 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 he
managed to keep the beast from bolting. Once the animal had settled and was back on
course, 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 difficult
to see the road ahead. The wind charged him again and again in vicious blasts, sending
the snow sideways, creeping into his coat. If he hurried, he might make it to the
inn before nightfall. And if he didn’t . . . He squinted against the swirling snow
and 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 a
stable lad who, bundled in several coats and wearing admirably thick mittens, had
hurried to meet him. The boy mumbled something about “Cossacks” that Kintore didn’t
quite catch through the chattering of his own teeth. He issued a few brief orders
for 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 his
useless gloves and tucked them in his pocket. Seeing no sign of the innkeeper or his
wife, Kintore made his way to the empty private parlor off the taproom, where a fire
was burning cheerfully.

Hands already held out, he went straight to the welcome blaze. Instantly, he was bathed
in blessed warmth, his hands aching as feeling gradually returned. His teeth stopped
chattering, and he soon found that he could once again wiggle his toes inside his
boots.
Much better.

Sighing with relief, he shrugged out of his wet coat and tossed it over the back of
a chair.

He’d just turned back to the fire when the sound of a woman’s sigh fluttered through
the air. He slowly turned. The settee’s high back had hidden the fact that he wasn’t
alone.

He crossed the room and looked down at the woman sleeping on the settee. Curled upon
her 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 bun
most 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 light
and crackle of the fire made a nap the most natural thing in the world.

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