“Don’t worry, lass,” McGregor said. “I will never let that nasty female hurt you.”
Komal actually smiled at him. Beamed, even. McGregor turned brick red and started to stammer. Komal snatched the second whiskey bottle out his hand and ran for the kitchen.
“Blast you, woman!” McGregor rocketed after her, Priti happily following. They heard voices raised, in two different languages, down the echoing passage to the kitchen.
“Poor old devil,” Juliana said, not stopping her smile.
She turned back to Elliot, who leaned his hips comfortably on the back of the empire sofa, his kilt outlining his thighs.
Even if he never spoke to Juliana of things important to him, she certainly could enjoy looking at him. And touching him. The wet heat of the bath hadn’t left her all day.
“But, really, we must do something about the Dalrymples,” Juliana said. “They could be dangerous to you.”
Elliot shrugged. “Mrs. Dalrymple is not Scottish, whatever she claims. She didn’t understand a word I said to her.”
“My dear Elliot, neither did I.”
He smiled. “In any case, I can’t be tried for murder if there is no body, no grave, no marker.”
“You can be tried if he continues to be missing, as the man suspected of making him go missing if nothing else.”
“The great British system of law makes them have to prove it.” Elliot went quiet. “But our Mrs. Dalrymple’s not wrong, lass. I am a murderer.”
“You’re not,” Juliana said stoutly. “Not if Mr. Stacy is alive.”
“He is.” Elliot’s hands tightened on the back of the sofa, the knuckles whitening through his tan. “I’m not talking of him. I’m speaking of other men.”
“You mean in the army. In battles.”
He paused again, as though gathering thoughts he didn’t want to think. “No. I mean when I was a prisoner. My captors taught me how to kill with my bare hands, and then made me do it for them.”
Juliana stared at him with the surprise she did so well, the expression of not wanting to believe the horrors he told her. Her blue eyes went a bit wider for a moment. Elliot hated that, with everything he revealed, he’d shatter more and more of her innocence.
Elliot lifted his hands and looked at them, callused and worn, the fingertips scarred where they’d been cut off, the nails surprisingly whole for having been pulled out and grown back.
“They taught me how to put my hands around a man’s throat,” he said. “How to use my thumbs to crush his windpipe. How to press my fingers into his eye sockets and pull his cheekbones from his face. A man will fight so hard to live when he’s dying…”
Juliana’s hand went to her own throat, slender with a sweet dusting of freckles. “You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want to,” she said.
“I helped them kill men in their rival tribe. They made me into an animal, and they laughed when their enemies died by my hands.”
At least she didn’t say, with the superiority of Mrs. Dalrymple or Mrs. Terrell, that the men he’d killed were only heathens and didn’t matter. They were men with lives and homes, with children and wives who’d wail in grief when they did not return.
“When it was over, they’d lock me back up again.”
Juliana came to him with slow steps, her gaze never leaving his face. She closed her hands over his, lifted each, and pressed a kiss to his scarred knuckles.
“I know you had no choice,” she said. “They would have killed you if you hadn’t done it.”
“But I should have refused. Obeying them makes me a coward by most standards. I should have resisted, even to death, before I did their work.”
Her warm tear trickled to the back of his hand. “You had no choice,” she repeated in a whisper.
It hadn’t seemed real, those swift, silent battles in the night, Elliot chained and made to defend the camp from their rivals. In the cold blackness, Elliot had fought men who’d tried to thrust knives into him, his fear and obsessive need driving him on. He’d fought them because he’d refused to give up and die.
“I had to live,” he said. “I was determined to live, whatever the cost.” He released her hands and brushed back a tendril of her hair. “To see you again.”
Juliana looked up at him, lips parted.
“It’s what drove me to live, lass, every minute of the day or night. To see you again. To hear your voice. To touch you…” Elliot drew his finger down her cheek. “They wondered at my resilience. They called me a demon or the walking dead, because I wouldn’t lie down and die. But I couldn’t. Not until I saw you again.”
More tears trickled down her cheeks. Elliot brushed one away with his finger.
“I didn’t understand myself what you were to me,” he said, “until I was in danger of never seeing your face again, or your sweet smile. Then I knew. You were my lass, Juliana. You always have been.”
“But you came home.” Juliana took a step back, pulled her handkerchief from her sleeve, and wiped her eyes. “You came home and never said a word to me.”
“I didn’t want you to see me until I’d healed. I was a broken man. But I realized I’d never heal until I returned to India and faced what I was, what had happened to me. Besides, Priti was in India. I didn’t intend to leave her there to be raised without a father. I went back to settle everything for once and for all before I returned to Scotland forever.”