Juliana relinquished him. McGregor didn’t seem to mind so much to lean on Komal while she led him down the hall toward the kitchen.
Juliana returned to Elliot, who watched from the doorway, and he put his arm around her to draw her back into the light and chaos of the room.
Debate had started about who should next attempt the sword dance. “Elliot,” his older brother Patrick’s voice rose. “You used to do it, and do it well.”
“A dozen years ago,” Elliot shot back, but the crowd took up the cause.
“Go to, McBride!” Mac Mackenzie shouted, and Daniel echoed him. Applause and yells urged him on.
“All right.” Elliot held out his hands, motioning them to stop. “Play it slowly,” he said to the piper.
The piper blew into the bag, filling the room with sound. When the musicians were ready, Elliot bowed, then he started.
He hadn’t done this dance in years, but it came back to him. He leapt left, then right, his arm coming up for balance. Around the four sides of the sword and scabbard, outside the cross at first, left then right, his leaps high, kilt moving. Then inside the cross, toe and heel, flat foot stamp and toe. In and out, front and back, left and right.
The guests clapped along, and the men shouted encouragement. Elliot let himself rest on the cushion of music as his feet did the work.
The mind was a strange place. He hadn’t done this in years, and yet, it all came back, steps learned long ago as a careless youth. His whole past was there, waiting for him to find it again.
The piper and the fiddler sped up. Elliot sped up too, to more applause and cheers.
Then the piper sped again. Elliot shouted, and he danced back from the swords, laughing and panting. “Enough!”
Juliana caught him as he backed away—what a fine feeling to yield to the softness of her. Daniel was pressed forward, told to show them what he could do.
Daniel made his bow, winked at the ladies, and proceeded. He began the dance as Elliot had, first outside the cross, then in between the blade and scabbard, his feet flashing back and forth. When the music sped up, so did Daniel, and Elliot joined the crowd in urging him on.
“Daniel does well,” Juliana said into Elliot’s ear as the piper played as fast as he could, and Daniel’s feet moved precisely in the complicated jig.
“He’s eighteen,” Elliot said. “I’m thirty.”
“Well, you did your best.”
Elliot looked down at her sly smile and sparkling eyes and kissed her. The guests whooped. At the same time, Daniel finished the dance, bowed, and flashed his grin at every young lady in the room.
Juliana touched Elliot’s arm. “He’s going to break hearts. As you did.”
“There was only ever one lass for me,” Elliot said. He kissed the corner of her mouth, and the guests, watching avidly, cheered again.
Elliot thought about what he’d said again much later in the night, when the guests had returned to McPherson’s or the village, and even Mahindar had been persuaded to bed.
Juliana smiled sleepily at him as Elliot made love to her, his need so great. The erotic feeling of her around him sent all other thought away. Nothing existed but the pleasure, her tightness, the scent of her, the heat of their bodies together.
Only ever one lass for me, he whispered to himself when he slid out of her and collapsed beside her, snuggling into her to sleep.
Elliot had met only one other woman as resilient as Juliana—his sister, Ainsley—and even Ainsley thought Elliot ought to be locked into a quiet room and fed gruel. Juliana had faced everything Elliot had thrown at her with head up and no complaints, taking it all in stride. She was strong, beautiful, and his. He slept.
Somewhere before the dawn, Elliot woke again. The night was still, the frogs silent, the room dark.
Elliot lay on top of the covers, Juliana now spooned back into him. Her warmth was all he needed in the summer night.
She was light. And life. He’d had a long climb and had a way to go still. But when he was wrapped in Juliana, all darkness vanished, unable to prevail.
He’d sent Stacy out into that darkness.
Rage answered. He left me to endure torture and fear and starvation. And he brought danger to Juliana. Stacy deserved whatever fate he found.
Elliot had taught the man, befriended him, grieved with him when he grieved. Stacy was never the same after his wife fell ill and died. Illness could come so fast in India, then infection, and swiftly, death.
Elliot remembered the night Stacy’s wife had drawn her last breath, how Stacy, only a lad of twenty-three, had held on to Elliot and wept.
Stacy’s grief had turned to rage, but he didn’t have an enemy he could see to fight. Elliot had taught him how to turn his anger into honing his skills. He’d taught Stacy how to make the plantation work, which would have made young Mrs. Stacy proud.
So many nights they’d spent in quiet friendship, getting drunk on whatever fermented beverage they could get their hands on, or simply sitting on the veranda in the dark. They’d talk, or they’d be silent, either one companionable. They were friends who knew what each other thought even before they’d said it.
And then Jaya came and changed everything.
She hadn’t meant to, Elliot knew now. But he and Stacy had been young, stupid, and arrogant, and they’d let her.
Now Stacy was out in the night, followed by people wanting to kill him.
Elliot let out a long breath. “Och, damn it,” he whispered. He rose from the bed and began to dress.