The trickle of good heat in Elliot’s veins started to ebb. He released her finger. “Not now.”
“This isn’t a whim of mine. I came up here on purpose to ask you.”
Elliot returned his hand to the side of the tub and closed his eyes. “I don’t want to go back there. I want to be here. With you.”
“I won’t insist on any detail that is too upsetting for you. But I want to know the gist. Please, husband. Let me understand.”
The word husband made the heat return. But Elliot’s fingers bit down on the tin bath, muscles bracing. “Mahindar…”
“I do not want to ask Mahindar. I want you to tell me.”
Elliot pried his eyes open but slid down to let his head rest on the back of the tub. “Why?”
“Because Mahindar knows only the story you told him. I’m certain you left things out.”
Juliana put her hand on her chest, over her heart. Her wet hand seeped a damp handprint onto her blue bodice. “I know what you experienced was terrible. I know it will hurt your pride to talk about such things with your wife…”
Elliot laughed, letting his eyes drift closed again. “Pride? Pride was ripped away from me a long time ago. Pride is worth nothing. Nothing…”
The word spun the cold of the mountains toward him, the sound of gunfire, the endless skirmishes between people who cared nothing for borders drawn by governments—theirs or that of the British Raj. Elliot hid in a crevice in the rock, next to Stacy, neither man worried. They’d be able to slip away in the darkness, back down the hills to safer ground. Served them right for not checking local gossip first.
Then there had been the families. The two stupid Englishmen and their wives in their topees, bringing their children and a few Hindu servants with them to explore paths Alexander the Great had trod.
Stupid Englishmen who thought the color of their skin and their nationality would save them. They’d been cut off from retreat down the pass, targeted by one of the tribes who didn’t give a donkey’s balls about their nationality. The tribal men had lived in their rock fortresses in the hills for centuries—even Alexander, one of the greatest generals in written history, had turned back from them.
Elliot remembered the fear, the screams of the women, the cries of the children. He and Stacy had come out of hiding and cleared the way down the pass. He’d told the idiots to run—slow, too slow.
Shots had rung out, and one of the ladies had been hit. Only wounded, by the grace of God, but her terrified screams had split Elliot’s ears for a long time to come.
He and Stacy had held a hurried conversation, deciding their strategy. They had to be drastic to get away at all. Elliot would hold down the tribesmen with his repeating Winchester, while Stacy herded the English families down the hill. Stacy would return when they reached safe ground, and cover Elliot’s retreat.
Only Stacy had never come back. Elliot had held off the tribesmen for a long time, they determined to get the crazy shooter in the pass. But finally, Elliot had run short of ammunition, and the tribesmen had overwhelmed him.
Elliot’s hands burned again as they wrenched away the rifle. They spit at him and called him a coward, then wiped the blood of their fallen comrades on him and tried to kick him to death. Stacy was gone, and rescue would not come.
Elliot flinched as the blows came down, feet and sticks, the butt of his own rifle.
His thrashing tossed water onto the floor, and Juliana’s hands came to rest on his shoulders. “Elliot.”
He opened his eyes to Scottish sunlight, tepid bathwater, Juliana sliding her arms around him from behind.
Juliana didn’t ask why he’d started fighting, nor did she demand him to tell her what he’d remembered. She simply held him, never minding that her sleeves were getting all wet, the blue broadcloth becoming dark with water.
Elliot turned his head and kissed her cheek, liking how her breath felt cool on his damp skin. The screams, shots, and enraged shouts of men faded, to be replaced by the quiet sound of his lips on hers.
He reached his very wet hand up to undo the buttons of her bodice, but his fingers were too slick. “Take this off,” he said, tugging a button.
Her eyes widened. “Right now?”
“You charged in here while I was in my bath.” Where Elliot couldn’t walk away from her. “What did you think I’d do?”
He drew his finger down her closed placket, finding the damp spot where she’d pressed her hand. Her shoulder was also dark with water from where he’d rested his head.
“I am rather wet, aren’t I?”
Juliana undid the first two buttons of the bodice, and Elliot’s erection returned, harder than ever.
“Stand up,” he said. “Bare yourself for me. I want to watch you.”
Juliana’s face flooded with color, but she rose, fingers still on her buttons. “Only a very wicked woman would do such a thing.”
“Only wicked if the man is not her husband.” Elliot laced his fingers behind his head, the warmth in his blood hotter now than the water. “But you’re wicked, lass. You sat on a man’s lap, in a chapel, and told him to marry you.”
“That was not quite how it happened.”
“’Tis how I remember it, love. Go on. Unbutton.”
Elliot rested his hands on the sides of the tub again, but this time, his fingers were relaxed, warm.
Juliana, after a little hesitation, popped another button of her bodice. The linen corset cover beneath had a bow at the neckline, so fetching. Elliot watched her fingers, which trembled a little, as she unbuttoned the bodice all the way down.