Yesterday was a blank; all days for a long time had been a blank…except…
“Married? What the devil are you talking about? Tell me you brought me whiskey.”
“No, indeed. Her ladyship, your sister, forbade it. She said I was to get you up and down to the drawing room by any means necessary, except whiskey.”
“Ainsley said that?” Elliot wanted to laugh. He’d always been close to his little sister, who knew him in ways no one else ever could. That was the old Elliot, though. No one knew the Elliot of now.
Elliot threw back the covers. He was naked, but Mahindar neither noticed nor cared. “Draw me a bath. I’m not fit to be seen by decent women. Not even my resilient sisters.”
As Mahindar bustled around preparing the bath with ewers of steaming water, Elliot fought his way from the dense fog of his sleep. Mahindar was speaking, and Elliot struggled to focus on his words.
“I have put them in the morning room with the memsahib,” Mahindar said, “and there they wait.”
Mahindar looked up, the water dribbling, unheeded, to the floor. “Yes, the memsahib,” he said in careful tones. “Until yesterday she was called Miss Sinj.”
Mahindar, who’d worked for Britons all his life, prided himself on getting British titles correct. He did have some difficulty pronouncing the names, however—and who can blame him? Some are bloody impossible.
Elliot rubbed his face again. “Miss Sinj? I’ve never heard of anyone called Sinj…” His eyes slammed open, letting in too much light. He rolled out of the high bed, landing hard on his bare feet, and the room spun.
“You mean Miss St. John?”
“Bloody hell, and damn everything.”
Snatches of yesterday came to him—Juliana plopping down on his lap in a billow of white, her hopeful smile, her beautiful blue eyes.
The memory of her skin under his fingertips, the kiss he’d pressed to her palm. Elliot had drawn her warmth into him, which he’d clung to as though he hadn’t felt warmth in years. He’d longed to kiss her lips there in the chapel, but couldn’t bring himself to with a mouth sour with whiskey.
Then he remembered standing at the front of a packed church, almost panicking at the press of bodies, all those eyes staring at him as he promised to be a good and true husband to Juliana St. John.
Bits and pieces came to him of the journey here, too slow when all he’d wanted was to be with Juliana. Then they’d been at the run-down house, Elliot coming to himself with his knife at the throat of the terrified Hamish, Juliana’s voice cutting through the darkness.
His mind gave him back the next thing, the bliss of Juliana’s heat, her touch, the scent of her surrounding him. A moment, that was all, of drowning in her and forgetting everything.
But the darkness had decided to rob him of even that. It wanted to take Juliana away from him, snatch back peace as Elliot reached for it.
No. I need this.
He plunged into the bath, letting it bite his flesh and the scars on his back. Mahindar knew better than to try to wash Elliot or help him into or out of the tub. Elliot soaped himself down, getting plenty of water on the floor, then curbed his impatience to lie back and let Mahindar shave him.
Mahindar finished as quickly as he could, unhappy he couldn’t wrap Elliot’s face in a hot towel and perhaps finish with a massage. Elliot ignored the man’s complaints, rubbed himself dry, and dressed.
Hamish was clattering around the hall below, making a great deal of noise when Elliot descended, but Elliot couldn’t stop to decide what he was doing. He noticed that a fist-sized hole had been punched into the lacy stonework of the ceiling, only a few inches from the big chandelier.
Elliot barreled into the morning room to find three elegant ladies in the act of lifting teacups. A clock somewhere in the house chimed three. Ainsley smiled at him, and Rona, his prim sister-in-law, gave him a look of appraisal.
Juliana studied Elliot over the rim of her cup, then she set the cup back down, her eyes full of concern.
Did he look that much like hell? He should have glanced into a mirror, but the bedchamber had none, and Elliot had learned to avoid mirrors. He trusted Mahindar to make sure his clothes were straight but never bothered anymore with anything beyond that.
“Here you are, Elliot,” Ainsley said, her voice overly bright.
“Yes, here I am. Where else would I be?”
He heard the growl come out of his mouth, but he couldn’t stop it. Ainsley, his tomboy sister, was resplendent in some creation of cloth that subtly changed hue when she moved. Rona, plump and regal, wore a dark dress she’d assumed befitted her age of fifty-odd, with a cap of ruffles, bows, and floating lacy bits. All his life, Elliot had seen Rona in some kind of cap—plain ones and Sunday best, caps for calls and for receiving calls, for visiting one’s doctor and for shopping. Whenever he thought of Rona, his first vision was of caps.
He took all this in swiftly, then observations were shoved to one side of the room, and the only being who existed was Juliana.
Her lawn gown was cream colored with thin black piping outlining her bodice, placket, collar, and cuffs, the skirt deeply ruffled down the front. A high collar framed her chin, softening her face and emphasizing the slight dimple in the left corner of her mouth. She’d woven a cream-colored ribbon through the dark red of her hair, little ringlets left to float from her forehead and the back of her neck.
She resembled the china figurines he’d seen in shops throughout Europe, elegant ladies frozen forever in time, their porcelain hands plucking at swirling porcelain skirts.