Elliot shrugged as he swallowed another large mouthful. “Rona’s cook wanted only Scottish food in her kitchen, much to Mahindar’s distress. I told him that here, he and his wife can cook whatever they like.”
“Well.” Juliana drew another breath. “I will be eager to taste what you come up with, Mahindar.”
Mahindar did not look convinced. “Perhaps the memsahib prefers haggis?” His expression said that he’d rather die than have to prepare such a thing, but Mahindar always wanted to please.
“No, no,” Juliana said quickly. “This is lovely.”
“The sahib, he was so kind to us when he had his plantation. He let me tempt him with many a Punjabi dish, and did not insist on boiled mutton and very soft peas. He is so kind, is the sahib. Always kind to everyone.”
Juliana saw Elliot look up from his food, brows drawn, then he went back to shoveling the tikka into his mouth, tearing off pieces of the bread to accompany it. Nothing wrong with Elliot’s appetite.
Juliana knew exactly why Mahindar was emphasizing Elliot’s kindness. Kindness to Mahindar, to Mahindar’s family, to Priti…
“Thank you, Mahindar,” she said. “That will be all for now.”
Mahindar looked from her to Elliot. “But there is more in the kitchen. I can bring more.”
“No, you and your family should enjoy some food and a time to eat. When we finish, or need anything, I will ring…I mean, Mr. McBride will shout for Hamish.”
Mahindar looked to Elliot for confirmation. Elliot glanced up briefly and gave him a nod. Mahindar, resigned, set down the tray and walked quietly out of the room, shutting the door carefully behind him.
Juliana pushed her fork through the red orange savory sauce and tried to decide how to broach the subject.
Ladies were supposed to expect their husbands to take lovers outside marriage and even to have children with said mistresses. A wife was not supposed to mention this or bring up the fact, even if the children were brought home to be raised in her house.
This situation was different, perhaps, because the lover in question was dead, the affair conducted years before Elliot’s return home or this marriage. Indeed, because the woman had passed away, perhaps Elliot was more to be pitied than censured. But still, a lady was not to notice these things—she was to look the other way at her husband’s goings-on.
But Juliana had never been one for looking the other way at anything. She’d had to keep her eyes firmly open growing up with her kind but distant, ever-so-respectable father and her self-indulgent, rather indolent mother.
“My stepmother,” Juliana said. She had to stop and clear her throat.
Elliot looked up, his black coat and white shirt elegant, yet his skin brown with his outdoors life, his hands blunt and worn from work.
Juliana coughed and took a drink of water.
“I’ll tell Mahindar not to make it so spicy next time,” Elliot said.
“No, no. It’s fine.” She dabbed her lips with her napkin. “As I was saying, my stepmother can be very blunt. Discusses things quite frankly. When she comes to visit, she will want to know all about Priti, and her history. What shall I tell her?”
Elliot looked faintly surprised. “Tell her anything you like. I’m not ashamed of her.”
“Yes, but, my dear Elliot, I’m not sure myself of the story.”
He frowned. “I’ve told you.”
“No.” Juliana dragged in a breath. “No, you haven’t.”
His frown deepened. “Haven’t I?”
“Mmph.” Elliot reached for the whiskey decanter and poured a large measure into the goblet. He took a generous sip then ran his tongue across his lower lip. “Sometimes I can’t remember the things I’ve said or not said.”
“I understand. It must be painful for you.”
Elliot stopped in the act of taking another drink, the goblet halfway to his mouth. “Don’t pity me, Juliana. I’m sick to death of pity.”
Juliana held up her hand. “Not pity. Interest. I’d be quite curious to hear the story.”
Elliot drank the whiskey. He set down the goblet, keeping one hand on it. “It’s not pretty. Not fit for young ladies at a drawing room tea.”
“We’re in the dining room. And I’m a married woman now.” Juliana’s face heated as she remembered the weight of Elliot in the dark last night, the pain-pleasure when he pushed his way inside her for the first time. “In all ways married.”
Elliot’s expression didn’t soften. “There’s a chance she’s not my daughter,” he said. “But a much better chance that she is.”
“Which do you hope?” Juliana held her breath for the answer.
“That she’s mine. But it doesn’t matter. Her mother is dead, Archibald Stacy is dead, and Priti will live with me, no matter what.”
Juliana let out her breath again, little by little. “Mr. Archibald Stacy was the lady’s husband?”
“Stacy was a Scotsman I helped settle on a plantation. I’d known him in the army, given him some training. Stacy came to me when he resigned his commission, and I helped him find a plantation near mine.”
Juliana knew from Ainsley that after Elliot had left the army, he’d become a planter, and then made a business of showing other Europeans how to live and prosper in India.
“We were friends,” Elliot went on. “Stacy had a Scottish wife, a young woman he’d gone back to Glasgow to marry, but she grew sick and died within a month of their arrival.”