Juliana stared at the gate as it dropped behind them. “Goodness, how does she know? We only married this morning.”
Hamish grinned over his shoulder. “Came over the stationmaster’s telegraph, didn’t it? Stationmaster’s son found me in the pub and told me, and we had a drink to your health, begging your pardon, m’lady. Someone would have gone out and told my cousin, who was doing her shopping, and she would have run back and told my great-aunt.”
The cart gave a large heave and dropped over a bump, and Hamish swung to face front again. Nandita squealed, and Juliana cried out with her, but Priti only laughed with the joy of a child.
They’d gone through an open gate and dropped down a foot from the eroding road to a wooden bridge. Hamish clattered the cart over this, while a river rushed below them in a great freshet.
Nandita grabbed the side of the cart, her eyes round, her veils fluttering about her face. The cacophony of the wheels on the boards along with the rush of river were loud, but Nandita’s voice rose above them. The young woman looked no older than the lad Hamish himself, perhaps nineteen or so, much younger than her sister, Channan. And she’d already lost a husband. No wonder she was so frightened.
“It’s all right, lass,” Hamish said as the cart clattered off the bridge. “No need to be afraid of the stream. There’s good fishing there.”
Nandita’s cries ceased now that they were on solid ground again, but her eyes remained huge.
“Elliot, can you tell her?” Juliana asked. “Tell her she’s safe.”
The cart hit a wide hole in the road just then, rocking them all. The latch on the door beside Elliot came open, the door flapping wildly.
“Elliot!” Juliana cried. She couldn’t lunge for him, because she had Priti, and Nandita was screaming again.
A less athletic man than Elliot would have been thrown free. Elliot gripped the cart, sinews standing out through his tight leather gloves. He maintained his balance, grabbed the flailing door, and closed and latched it again.
He turned to Nandita as though nothing remarkable had happened and began speaking to her, unhurried, in a language Juliana knew not one word of. Nandita listened, at last comforted by whatever he said. Her cries wound down, the road quieting as the river dropped behind them.
They came out of the woods and started downward, the road hugging the side of a steep hill. At the bottom of the hill was wide field of green, bordered by mountains marching in the distance and a sweep of sea far to the east.
At the end of the road sat the house.
It was was gigantic. And rambling. And ramshackle, crumbling all over in complete and utter disrepair.
Juliana put her hand to her throat, half rising in her seat. “Oh, Elliot,” she said.
Five stories of house shot straight upward from a rectangular base, the wall covered with a fantastic arrangement of crenellations, windows, arrow slits, and little round towers that swelled out from unexpected places. A mansard roof, punctuated with tiny dormer windows, rose high into the sky.
This wasn’t a medieval castle. It was a wealthy man’s fantasy, built to impress the neighbors—a fairy-tale castle. Except that now the fairy-tale castle was a hundred and more years old, crumbling, stained, and moss covered, windows broken, bricks from the roof littering the yard before it like gray snow. The clearing that had looked immense during the drive down the hill now revealed that it once had been twice that size, with new-growth woods invading the previously extensive park and gardens.
Hamish stopped the cart close to the house, the horse stepping carefully around the fallen stones. Elliot opened the cart’s rear door and stepped down. He surveyed the colossus with his hands on his hips, a new light in his eyes. He looked…satisfied.
Hamish leapt to the ground from his high seat, and the mare lowered her head and started cropping grass. Elliot turned to help Juliana out of the cart, his hand warm in the cooling evening air.
Nandita took longer to climb down, fearful of putting her foot on the little step, even with Elliot to steady her. Finally Hamish reached past Elliot, slung one arm around Nandita’s body, and lifted her to the ground.
Nandita stared at Hamish in complete shock and brought up her veils to cover her face.
“Hamish, lad,” Elliot said in a quiet voice. “An Indian woman is not to be touched by anyone outside the family.” His tone was stern, but the look he gave Hamish was almost amused. “It could be the death of you.”
Hamish’s eyes rounded. “Oh aye? Sorry.” He looked at Nandita and said in a loud, slow voice, “Sorry, miss.”
“She’s widowed,” Elliot said. He reached for Priti and swung her down from the cart. “Not a miss.”
Hamish’s voice got louder. “Beg your pardon, ma’am.” He left her and climbed hastily back to the driver’s seat. “I don’t want to cause no one’s death. Especially not mine.”
He turned the dogcart and slapped the horse into a fast trot, careening back out of the clearing. The cart slipped and slid on the narrow track as Hamish drove up the hill, the wheels rocking perilously close to the edge.
The front door was not locked, and Elliot pushed it open. The vestibule beyond was empty, its once-ornate ceiling covered with cobwebs. Muddy boots, likely Hamish’s, had tracked the flagstone floor as recently as today.
Elliot walked inside and opened the door on the other end of the vestibule to the house proper. The top half of the vestibule door held stained glass, but the glass was now so grimy that every pane was black.