“If I’m right,” Elliot said to the night, “then tell your friends I didn’t kill you. Keep them the hell away from me and my wife.”
Wind sighed in the trees, last year’s leaves scuttling in the dirt. It was dry now, no rain for days.
Elliot spoke again, keeping his voice level, no shouting. “If you’re trying to take the child, I’m not letting her go to you. Priti is mine, and she’s staying with me.”
Silence. The watcher apparently did not intend to speak.
Elliot walked closer to the spot where he thought the next opening to the tunnels lay and set the tin of biscuits on a rock. “If you try to live off the land, someone will report you to the constable as a poacher. I’ll have my lad bring you some food.”
Still, nothing. The wind sighed again, and in the next instant, Elliot knew the watcher was gone.
He’d heard no branch moving, no twig breaking. Stacy was almost as good a tracker as Elliot. That had been the basis of the men’s friendship at first.
Elliot waited for a long time after that. The noises of the woods returned to normal again, but not until the moon had moved well behind the hills in the west did Elliot snap open the gun and tramp back the way he’d come.
The next morning, Juliana emerged from bathing and dressing in the bedchamber to find the lower hall filled with men wanting work.
Hamish had spread the word with a vengeance. Men of all ages, shapes, and sizes had come from Highforth village and the outlying farms, from sturdy lads who should have been in school all the way to a stooped elderly man who’d come to give his decided opinions on everything. They’d arrived to put McGregor’s house right.
Mahindar was a bit nonplussed about how he would feed them all, but Juliana had Hamish run to the village and see what he could find. Not only that, the farmers and crofters brought things with them—chickens, eggs, a nanny goat, cheese, bread, ale—gifts for the new laird and his lady.
Priti liked the goat, even though it immediately found and ate one of Channan’s pretty silk scarves. The animal looked quite innocent when the discovery was made, despite the bit of indigo silk sticking out the side of its mouth.
McGregor sat down outside with the elderly man to chat and smoke a pipe with him, while Mahindar and Channan ran about the kitchen, Nandita tried to hide from all the strange men, and Priti played with her new friend the goat.
The day before, Juliana had begun lists of what needed to be done, but her round of calls, followed by climbing through the tunnels with Elliot and making love all evening, had kept her from finishing them. Mahindar’s voice sounded down the passage as he tried to keep order, and Komal busied herself following people about and giving commands no one understood.
As Juliana tried to decide what they should do first, Elliot calmly walked in and took over.
He set men to repairing the roof, some to repairing windows, some to finding the wires and pulleys of the bell system, and some simply to cleaning. He gave orders clearly and without fuss, asking which would be the best men to do each job.
By midmorning, Castle McGregor buzzed like a hive, workers crawling all over it—raising dust, hammering, breaking away old things and putting up new. The kitchen overflowed with food, Mahindar, Channan, Nandita, Hamish, and Mrs. Rossmoran’s granddaughter Fiona cooking up a storm and watching Priti at the same time. The nanny goat eyed Mahindar nervously as he approached her, but Mahindar only wanted a bit of milk.
Juliana commandeered a section of the dining room table, where she wrote letters, made her lists, and summoned Hamish from time to time with a handbell, which she’d found rolling in a drawer in the sideboard.
One of the smaller rooms on the ground floor, whose windows overlooked the land sloping down to the sea, would be sunny in the mornings, perfect as her writing room. The room next to it, large and airy, would be the breakfast room. She looked forward to mornings there with Elliot—he reading his newspapers, she reading and answering her correspondence.
Cozy, domestic, warm.
When the house was whole, she told herself, Elliot would no longer have his bad dreams and waking visions of the past. He was a natural leader—the way he handled the men working on the house told her that. He’d be himself again. They’d have summer fêtes and the shooting in August, Christmas and New Year’s, and then return to Edinburgh or London—wherever her family and his decided to go—for the social rounds of the Season.
Mahindar fed them all lunch, mostly bread, meat, and cheese—probably Fiona Rossmoran’s suggestion, though Mahindar brought Juliana a lentil and chicken stew with goat’s milk that was seasoned to perfection.
The men worked throughout the afternoon, their banging and shouting somehow comforting. The old house had been quiet too long. Now it teemed with life.
Even McGregor was excited. He’d longed to repair the place, he’d said, for years, but he’d had no money, and he wasn’t the sort of laird who’d force his tenants to work for no pay.
As the workday waned and the men went home with their families, Mahindar came to Juliana’s dining room corner and cleared his throat. Juliana looked up from her list of supplies to find him curling and uncurling his large hands in nervousness.
“What is it, Mahindar?” she asked in alarm. “Is Mr. McBrideunwell again?”
“No, no, the sahib is fine,” Mahindar said quickly. “No, the thing I do not want to have to tell you is that we have a thief.”
“A thief?” Juliana glanced at the jumble of furniture piled into the dining room, put there so the men could tear apart the other rooms. “How can you tell anything is missing? Or even what there was to be missing in the first place?”