“Oh dear. Poor lady.”
“Illness can take one swiftly in India,” Elliot said, not without feeling. “Stacy grieved, then took a fancy to an Indian woman called Jaya.”
A courtesan, Juliana supplied silently. She knew that respectable young women in India were ferociously looked after to prevent them having out-of-wedlock affairs with European men—with any man, for that matter.
“It was a casual affair,” Elliot said. “And I…had an affair with her too. But Jaya fell for Stacy. She feared he had no true affection for her, was using her to soothe his feelings. So, to move things along, she told him she preferred me, packed her bags, and arrived at my house. Stacy was incensed and came to fetch her back. I don’t think he realized his affection for her until she left him.” He turned the goblet with stiff fingers. “When I returned to the plantation after my capture I found that Stacy had married Jaya, she’d borne a child, and she was dead. Stacy had abandoned Priti, and Mahindar and Channan had taken her in. I paid them for Priti’s upkeep, including what expenses they’d incurred while I’d been gone. Priti was just old enough that the lady could have started her when I was taken.”
Juliana tried to decide what to feel. First, jealousy, her failing—a large, painful dose of jealousy. In her mind, Elliot had always belonged to her, ever since the ten-year-old Elliot had kissed her cheek in order to slip a frog into the pocket of her pinafore.
She’d been willing to marry Grant because she’d known it would be useless to pine away for Elliot, who’d preferred India and adventure to this tame side of the world. But the fact that Elliot had gone to this unknown woman, that he’d been willing to do so, burned in her heart.
Second, pity—for Priti, left alone and not understanding, and for Elliot, who’d returned from a horrible ordeal to find the woman he’d had a child with dead. Anger at Mr. Stacy for abandoning the little girl no matter whom she belonged to.
“Is Mr. Stacy still alive?” Juliana asked.
Elliot shook his head. “I don’t think so. He left his plantation and went to Lahore, according to Mahindar, and Mahindar heard that he died in an earthquake there.” Elliot sloshed more whiskey into his goblet. “I told you, not a pretty story.”
“You are correct. Not for young ladies in a drawing room.”
“It is in the past. Gone.”
Elliot drank the whiskey and returned the glass to the table, obviously intending to say no more.
“Well,” Juliana said briskly. “Priti is a sweet girl, and I’m happy we can provide a home for her. I will have to look into clothes for her, and a governess, and we must make certain a nursery is put in order for her. Nandita is kind to look after her for now, but Priti should not live like a servant.”
Juliana set down her knife and fork exactly parallel across her plate. “What you mean, my dear Elliot, is that she lives the way you do, which means a bit rough. I don’t intend to break her spirit, if that’s what you fear, but she does need to learn manners, and English, and a good many things.”
“I’ll ask her,” Elliot said with a straight face.
“You should begin acknowledging her as a McBride right away, so that there is no question how you view her as she grows up. I warn you, it will not be easy for her, having an Indian mother, but we will do our best to smooth her way.”
The quiet gratitude sent a shiver down Juliana’s spine. Not Priti’s fault at all that she was the daughter of a courtesan two men had loved. The jealousy prickled again. Juliana would have to decide what to do about that—the affair had been so far in the past, after all. That Elliot had planned to take care of Priti no matter whose daughter she turned out to be mitigated the jealousy a bit.
“Yes, there is much to be done.” Juliana took refuge from her emotions, as always, by organizing. Organizing was such a comforting thing. “Not only for Priti, but for us as well. As soon as we are able, we must pay calls to everyone in the area. It’s our duty, and also our duty to host a gathering, perhaps on Midsummer’s Eve. That will indicate to the neighbors that we plan to settle here, and are not simply city dwellers looking to spend an idle week in the country. We’ll have a fête, and a ball. I shall have to find out what fiddlers to hire and where to obtain the food, which will all have to be local, of course. Perhaps you could…”
She noticed that Elliot had frozen in place, staring at her with an unfathomable look.
“Elliot?” she asked quickly. “Are you all right?”
“I don’t do well around people,” he said in a hard voice. “Not anymore.”
No, he didn’t. She’d seen that already, even with his own family. “That is the beauty of having a wife,” she said. “You have to do nothing but stand looking laird-like and letting the whiskey flow. I shall have to greet everyone and make sure they’re entertained. Trust me, much better for us to endure such a thing for a few hours than be talked about up and down the countryside. Don’t worry, Elliot. I will take care of it.”
She had no idea, Elliot thought, how absolutely beautiful she looked at this moment. Her blue eyes were shining under the light of the candles, her hair glistening as she moved her head. She talked rapidly and gestured with her plump hand, so happily dooming him with neighborly calls and a midsummer fête.