“Did you want us to leave on the moment, dear brother?” Ainsley asked. “I haven’t finished my tea.”
Elliot growled. The windows had been opened to let in the breeze, but he could feel nothing of it. The indoors sometimes pressed in on him, and it started to press in on him now.
They could never understand—and Elliot couldn’t make them understand—the little piece of darkness that gnawed away in the back of his brain and never went away. It had started while he was buried underground, in a place where time was nothing, where hunger and thirst were the only indication he was still alive. In a place where the strongest of men became raving lunatics, the darkness crouched, waiting to drag him back down to it.
I am not there. I am here.
Mahindar had taught him to say that when the darkness started to come. Elliot repeated it silently now, his jaw clenched, while the three ladies stared at him in consternation.
He had to leave. Now.
Elliot realized he still held his untouched teacup. He thrust it at Juliana, who took it quickly, before he strode out of the room.
He knew the ladies would put their heads together after he was gone and discuss what had just happened. Juliana’s defense of him warmed him a little—she’d been eager to go back to Edinburgh with Ainsley, but she’d changed her intent the moment she’d realized that Elliot wasn’t ready for her absence.
Elliot knew, logically, that they couldn’t stay at Castle McGregor forever, but he could make decisions about that later. Much later.
For now, he only wanted to walk.
As Elliot entered the kitchen, Hamish jerked up from where he was pumping water into the sink, blue eyes widening. Mahindar was busily going through the pantry, making disparaging noises, and Channan sat quietly at the table, cutting up vegetables and plopping them into a bowl.
“Rest easy, Hamish, lad,” Elliot said. “I don’t have any knives. But I want a gun.”
Any other time, he might laugh at the way Hamish first relaxed then went ramrod straight with fear again. But he didn’t have the patience.
Mahindar backed out of the pantry. “Memsahib took it from Sahib McGregor and had me lock it away,” he said.
“Then unlock it.” To Hamish’s continued stare, Elliot went on, “For rabbit, or game birds. There’s not much to eat, and my brother and brother-in-law might be joining us for supper.”
“Supper for six?” Mahindar rubbed his bearded chin as he always did when agitated. “That is much to ask, sahib.”
“Send to the pub for the meal then.” Elliot waited, and Mahindar hurried to a cupboard, unlocked it, and lifted out the shotgun and a box of shells. Elliot tucked shells into his sporran, checked the barrels and mechanism, laid the unloaded gun over his arm, and walked out the back door.
No one followed him, thank God. The wind was brisk, the sun high, clouds gathering above the towering mountains. Rain would come later, but not now. Wild country was what he needed. To be alone in it, what he wanted.
A small, muddy figure darted at him as he passed the garden gate. “Come!” Priti held up dirty hands to him, an eager smile on her face.
Something inside Elliot untwisted, and the darkness receded a little, snarling in frustration.
He reached down and scooped up the little girl, settling her on his shoulder, keeping her well away from the gun.
Priti balanced herself without worry, happily holding on to Elliot as they started up the path to the hills.
This child had never known fear. Elliot swore with everything within him that she never would.
When the ladies finished their tea and rose to leave, Juliana said, “I think you should return to Edinburgh. Today, I mean. Without dining with us.”
“Nonsense,” Rona said briskly, but Ainsley, with eyes so like Elliot’s, gave her a nod.
“I think I understand.” Ainsley came to Juliana, took her hands, and kissed her cheek. “He’s my brother, but he’s your husband now, and you need to learn the lay of the land. But if you ever need us, you telegraph. And I promise we will come for a nice long visit once you have settled.” She gave Juliana a grin. “You’ve married into a very large family, and this house, unfortunately for you, is big enough for all of them.”
More kisses, and a stout hug from Rona. “Look after my lad,” she said. “And make certain he looks after you.”
Juliana said a few more reassuring things then walked with her guests out the enormous front door and down the overgrown walk. The two ladies had come on foot, the skies so fair, though Juliana cast a wary glance at the thunderheads on the horizon. The weather could change quickly in the Highlands.
She waved her guests away at the gate then turned alone to her new home, pausing to take it in.
The castle and grounds truly were beautiful. Sunlight touched the pile of house, rendering it golden and hiding the gaps in the stone. Behind the house rose the mountains, liquid light shimmering in their folds, and to the east lay the slice of sparkling sea.
Time to make the place livable. Juliana had kept house for her father since the tender age of eight, when she’d realized that her flibbertigibbet mother, who preferred shopping, gossiping, and dosing herself with laudanum to running a household, would never be able to cope. Juliana had learned much from the butler and housekeeper, who’d become her friends, and after Mrs. St. John’s death when Juliana had been fourteen, Juliana officially ran the household. Gemma married Mr. St. John right after Juliana’s twentieth birthday, but Gemma had been wise enough to let Juliana carry on, never ousting her from doing what she loved.