“But I might have married Grant in the meantime,” Juliana said. She sniffled, swiped at her nose, and tucked the handkerchief into her pocket. “I accepted his proposal because I thought I’d never see you again. You might have been too late.”
Elliot let amusement slip through the shivering horror in his mind. “No fear of that. I had Ainsley keep an eye on you and tell me everything you did.”
“But…” Juliana looked bewildered. “When on earth did Ainsley find time to be your spy?”
“My sister is amazingly resourceful. And cunning. If she couldn’t speak to you herself, she’d recruit someone else to. And she reported everything to me. She didn’t know the whole of what I was up to, and I asked her not to tell you I was asking about you, and to trust me. She did, bless her. I knew exactly when you were to marry Grant Barclay, and exactly how much time I had to return to Scotland and prepare things to scoop you up. I knew you’d never change the wedding date—you schedule your life to the minute and follow it exactly.”
Indignation edged out her bewilderment. “Even so, you could have said something. When you were captured, when we thought you dead…They were the most awful months of my life. Nothing can compare. I cried all day in relief when I got Ainsley’s telegram that you’d been found and were all right. And then you never wrote, never called on me, never spoke to me, never sent a message.”
“I know I did it all wrong,” Elliot said. “Ainsley would say I’m only a man after all. I did what I did because I didn’t want to give you the chance to say no.”
“So you came to my wedding to snatch me from the altar?”
“I’m a Highland barbarian. We steal our wives, didn’t ye know?”
“You are horrible.”
“I always have been.” He managed a grin. “You knew that.”
Juliana pressed her hands to her face. “Elliot, what am I to do with you?”
He couldn’t stay away from her any longer. Elliot took her hands, tugged her against him, and closed his arms around her. He laid his cheek against her fragrant hair, and let her warmth soak into his body.
Juliana relaxed with a sigh, and Elliot closed his eyes, focusing only on the heat of her against him, the softness of her under the stiff fabric of her dress.
“Elliot,” Juliana murmured after a while.
Elliot didn’t answer. He kissed her hair.
“What are we going to do about the Dalrymples?”
Poor Juliana. So worried about trivial matters. Elliot tilted her head back and briefly kissed her lips. “I might know someone who can assist.”
“Friend of a friend.” He kissed Juliana again, tasting the tea on her lips, and the cinnamon and pepper of the cake she’d nibbled.
The stain of the past slipped away, once again. The darkness was still there, ready to flow out and twine him in its net, but for now, closing and locking the door then unbuttoning Juliana’s dress was easing it away.
Elliot ended up sitting on the chair at the writing desk, she straddling his lap, he making made slow love to her, holding her.
In that quiet ecstasy, Elliot began to believe he could get well again. Maybe it would take a long while, and perhaps the memories would never entirely go away, but he would live. All he had to do was make love to Juliana, for now and for always, and he’d never fear anything again.
The work in the house continued through the afternoon and on into the evening. Elliot sent Hamish running to the village to telegraph London, then he took his rifle and went out looking for Stacy.
The red setter followed him, showing no sign of wanting to return to McPherson. Elliot didn’t want the dog to be hurt, but he knew Stacy. The man had a soft spot for animals, and wouldn’t hurt one to get to someone who’d enraged him. If he wanted Elliot dead, he’d confine his sights to Elliot.
Elliot found no sign of Stacy that day, however. Perhaps the man had given up and retreated.
Elliot had been keeping his ears open for news of any stranger staying in the area, but heard of no one unusual arriving of late, besides himself. He’d considered the possibility that Stacy might try to enter the house under the pretext of being a worker, but McGregor and Hamish knew every man for miles by sight, and Mahindar knew Stacy by sight. None of the men was Stacy.
When the workers went home to supper and bed, Elliot locked the doors of the castle with the giant keys then bolted them. After that he collapsed into bed and slept hard, his arms around Juliana.
In the wee hours of the morning, McGregor roused him to do some fishing.
Elliot took his rifle with him as well as his poles. He’d use the opportunity to search again.
McGregor took him along the river to the west, where it cut through the steep hills to fetch up into slower, more placid pools on McPherson’s land. Here McPherson met them.
The setter, who’d followed Elliot, wagged her tail and sniffed McPherson, then went back to circle Elliot.
“I seem to have stolen your dog,” Elliot said. “Or she stole me. I’m not sure which.”
“I can spare her,” McPherson said in his booming voice. “If she likes ye, why not? Ye need a dog in that great house of yours.”
The setter followed Elliot to the deeply shadowed spot where he quietly cast his line. From there Elliot could see up and down the river and into the hills, where a hunter might sit with a rifle similar to Elliot’s. The setter chased a few butterflies on the bank then settled down to watch the fishing with sleepy eyes.