Mrs. Rossmoran sniffed. “Doctors only tell you what you pay them to tell you. I wager he gave you some foul muck in a black bottle that will do you no good at all. Or he says it’s all nonsense and you need to stiffen your resolve. But doctors are too young these days, coming out of schools with highfalutin ideas about what goes on inside the body. They pay no attention to what goes on inside people’s lives, do they?” She patted Elliot’s kilt-clad knee. “What you’re doing is grieving, lad. Grieving for yourself. Because what ye were is gone, isn’t it? You’ve seen too much, and you’ve been hurt too much. The man you were will never come back.”
All true. Every word was true. Hearing this blunt assessment coming out of Mrs. Rossmoran’s small, pursed mouth was both startling and comforting.
“You’ve started off well, though, in your marrying,” Mrs. Rossmoran said. “You stick with her, lad, and you’ll do fine.”
“Aye. I can agree with that.”
Mrs. Rossmoran laughed, showing she’d lost a good many of her back teeth. “I thought you would. Saw the twinkle in your eye. That’s what ye need, lad. Bairns. A good many of them. Ye get on home and get to it.”
Elliot departed not long later, swimming with tea and full of shortbread that Fiona had served hot from the oven. Nothing for it but that Elliot should wrap up half of it to take home with him.
Mrs. Rossmoran might have something, he thought as he climbed along the side of a hill, well under the trees, heading in the direction of Castle McGregor. Bairns.
Elliot always felt better when he was with Priti. How much better would he feel if he and Juliana surrounded themselves with more wee ones, all red haired like their mother? A whole nursery of children for Priti to play with and for Elliot to bask in.
The steps he’d have to take in order to bring in those wee ones made his heart lighter.
His body warmed at the memory of Juliana in the dining room, her body under his on the table, how fine it had been to climb into bed with her later and draw her back against his body. He would have done more if he hadn’t had to spend considerable time calming down McGregor. Tonight he would—
The woods didn’t change, and only silence flooded it. But Elliot halted, every nerve alert.
He scanned the hill that rose to his left, its towering trees cutting off his line of sight in that direction. But he knew. The prickle in the back of his neck told him.
There was a watcher in these woods.
And he was watching Elliot.
The thought rose—Please, not again—but Elliot squelched it. He was mad, yes, but his madness couldn’t make an entire wood go silent.
Woods teemed with life. Birds, beasts, and insects lived out their existence in their particular strip of territory—they were born, raised, ventured from the nest, found mates, raised their own young, and died. All that life made noise.
A silent wood meant a predator, one so deadly that all animals stilled, as Elliot did. That predator might be a bear, a wolf, or more likely these days, a human.
How long Elliot stood unmoving under the noiseless trees, he wasn’t certain.
Gradually, the sounds began to return. A robin called, another challenged. Undergrowth rustled—squirrels or rabbits returning to their business.
Elliot scanned the hill again. Nothing had changed. But the animals knew, as Elliot knew, that the hunter had gone.
He remembered now why he’d gone to the boiler room, his excitement in finding the trapdoor. He remembered what he’d been looking for before his mind had seized him and transported him to the past.
Elliot started walking, fast, faster, until he was running down the slope, back to discover whether he’d been right.
Mahindar informed Juliana that Elliot was not there when she arrived home from her call to the Terrells, but before she had the chance to worry, Elliot came striding in through the open front door.
“Juliana, come with me.”
He was out of breath and walking swiftly, but his eyes were alight with determination.
Juliana opened her mouth to ask where he wanted to take her, but closed it when he shoved a shortbread-scented package at Mahindar, grabbed Juliana by the hand, and started pulling her to the kitchen.
“May I at least take off my hat?” she asked.
Elliot frowned down at the hat’s saucy tilt of brim, the feathers that curled over the crown, and the ruche of ribbon in the front. He wasn’t studying the hat, Juliana realized, but deciding a way to conquer it.
His fingers made short work of the pins, then he lifted off the hat and tossed it into the hands of Channan, who’d hurried out of the kitchen to join them.
Elliot took Juliana’s hand again and towed her onward, through the kitchen, down the stairs in the back of the scullery, and to the darkness of the cellar and the heat of the boiler room.
At least the boiler was working now. A red flicker came from the great hulk of iron in the corner, which would heat water for the kitchen, and with luck and time, the bathrooms upstairs. By this light, Elliot lit two candle lanterns and passed her one.
Mahindar appeared in the doorway. “Sahib, why are you down here again?”
Elliot handed Mahindar his lantern, shed his coat, pushed up his sleeves, and hauled open the heavy trapdoor.
“Because I remembered why I came down here this morning.” He took the lantern back from Mahindar. “You stay up here,” he told the man. “I want someone to know where we are in case the door falls closed, and I can’t open it. Which is what happened to me this morning.”