Elliot set Priti on her feet. “Uncle McGregor has no staff. Just Hamish.”
Juliana had been raised in a house with no less than twenty people to take care of two. This place was immense and tumbledown, and Mahindar and his family couldn’t be expected to do everything themselves. Juliana saw, stretching before her, a great deal of planning and work.
Elliot turned away. Priti jumped away from Nandita, who was trying to get her to stay in the bedroom, and ran for Elliot. “Kitchen!” she shouted.
Elliot scooped her up again. “All right, Priti. Let’s go explore the kitchens.”
He didn’t seem to mind the girl hugging him around the neck while he carried her down the hall, heading for the stairs.
Juliana closed the door and looked at the bed, a monster of a thing crouched in the middle of the room.
“Why put it there?” she asked out loud.
Nandita stared at her, not understanding. Something in the corner caught Nandita’s attention, and she cried out, pointing.
Juliana followed the young woman’s outstretched finger, then heard the rustling and skittering. “Ah,” she said. “That’s why.”
A string of mice raced across the edge of the room from one corner to the other before plunging behind the skirting board. When Juliana turned back to Nandita, she found the young woman in the center of the bed, her arms curled around her knees, her colorful scarves covering her body.
One of the mice chose to make a daring dash across the carpetless floor, heading right for Juliana. Juliana shrieked as loudly as Nandita had and scrambled to the center of the bed. Nandita reached for her, the two ladies hugged each other, and Juliana began to laugh, peal after peal that wouldn’t stop.
Elliot found the kitchen easily enough at the end of a long passage. An echoing room, it had been kept in some repair—the stove shiny and the coal bin stocked, the cabinets fitted with latched doors to keep the mice from the food.
The room was gloomy, the sun finally setting behind the mountains. Elliot lit candles, reflecting that he’d have to send Mahindar back to the village for kerosene and some lamps. It would be a long time before gas was laid on at the McGregor house.
Two worktables ran the length of the big kitchen, the end of one cleaned and sanded enough for using. Elliot set Priti down on one of the two stools there and began rummaging for food. He could at least take McGregor some toasted bread and cheese if nothing else. A good bottle of whiskey or a pint of ale might ease the man’s temper as well.
The dismay in Juliana’s voice when he’d told her there was no staff but Hamish had been sharp. When Elliot had first visited this house, he’d seen its potential, not its flaws. A place where he could retreat from the world and lick his wounds.
He could restore it himself—he didn’t mind hard work. He also knew that the villagers would welcome the extra wages for helping him. Elliot had enough money to employ them all. The fortune he’d amassed in India, which had continued to build even when he’d been in prison, was now vast.
When Elliot had picked this house, he’d pictured himself sharing it with Juliana, the only woman he’d have considered marrying, even though she’d been betrothed to another.
What I asked, Elliot, was whether you would marry me. The question had dangled in front of him like a lifeline. He’d clutched it, desperately hanging on, not letting go.
He’d never let go.
Elliot sliced bread with a knife that had only a few crumbs clinging to it. He handed one slice to Priti, who gnawed on it then made a face. The child didn’t like English or Scottish food, but she’d have to put up with it until Mahindar could make his marvelous butter naan or delicious roti.
Mahindar and family had not accompanied Elliot on his first trip up here to buy the estate, and Elliot knew that the state of the kitchen would draw Mahindar’s dismay. But Mahindar had worked miracles before.
Elliot found another knife and a square piece of yellow cheese. The stove wasn’t stoked, so McGregor would have to eat his bread cold.
The knife went through the hunk of cheese at the same time Elliot heard a faint step behind him. A stealthy step of someone who did not want Elliot to know he was there. It wasn’t Juliana, who smelled of rose water, nor was it Mahindar or one of his family. Nor was it McGregor, who pounded about like a troop of soldiers.
All this flashed through Elliot’s thoughts before his mind went blank. Heat came rushing at him, the flat heat of summer in the dry lands. There was no shadow, no concealing cover. He had to run, run for his life, but it was all open, nowhere to go.
And someone was behind him. There was no getting away—Elliot had to turn and fight. Bile rose in his throat. He’d have to kill or die.
Elliot shouted as he spun around, grabbed the muscular intruder, shoved him across the kitchen, and plunged the knife at his attacker’s throat.
Elliot’s captive yelled. And yelled and yelled. Over the noise came the familiar voice of Mahindar.
“No, no, no, no, sahib! You must not!”
Yes, he did. Elliot had to kill, he had to get away…
A big hand landed on his arm, stopping the knife. “No, sahib. You are safe now. This young one, he is a friend.”
Elliot blinked. And blinked again. Mahindar’s dark face swam to him through the gloom, the man’s kind brown eyes full of distress.
Under Elliot’s hand, a body struggled, and someone gasped for air. Elliot’s vision cleared, and he found that he held young Hamish, the bread knife about to nick the skin of his throat.