Ainsley’s eyes twinkled. “I believe there is a bit more to it than that, Rona. Remember what it was to be a newlywed?”
“Ah yes.” Prim Rona softened into a smile. She and Patrick had always doted on each other, and Ainsley and Cameron were very attached to each other. So much so that even through Elliot’s fog, he wondered why Ainsley was out of Cameron’s sight now, and why Rona had left her beloved Patrick behind.
His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Where have you left your husbands? In the village?”
Rona flushed, though Ainsley, very good at dissembling, only took another sip of tea. “They’re at the pub,” Ainsley said. “You know gentlemen.”
“I know my sisters,” Elliot growled. “You weren’t certain what you were going to find, and you came to smooth the way. You weren’t sure I was fit to be seen.”
“Well,” Rona said, her voice gentle in the same way Ainsley’s had been bright. “You must admit that you’ve been unwell, Elliot. We did try to call earlier, but your man couldn’t wake you.”
“I was tired,” Elliot said in a hard voice. “Remember what it was to be a newlywed?”
Juliana’s face went bright pink, which made her eyes starry. “No matter,” she said quickly. “We were somewhat at sixes and sevens earlier today. Best to let Elliot sleep anyway.”
Elliot felt the snarl in his throat. “Don’t try, Juliana.” He let his gaze skewer his sister then sister-in-law, who both looked guilty. “Coddling doesn’t help, Ainsley. Leaving me the hell alone is best.”
“Is it?” Ainsley said, her let us comfort my poor, sick brother tone vanishing. “Is that why you bought this house in the middle of nowhere? Helping Uncle McGregor is your excuse, but if you bury yourself here, you will never get better. There’s many a fine house to be had in Edinburgh, or even London, for a man of fortune. Which I know you have. A fortune, I mean.”
“I like the countryside.”
“A countryside difficult to reach, no matter how determined your family.”
“A countryside where a man can find a little peace and quiet.” His voice went up in volume.
“But now you’ve dragged Juliana up here,” Ainsley said. “Is it fair to her to pull her into your prison with you?”
Juliana leaned forward to set her cup on the tea table, her movement decisive. The angle made her brush Elliot’s broad shoulder, her reaching arm letting that shoulder contact her breast. She wore stays, but even the stiff touch of them was intimate.
Elliot would have Channan make Juliana a sari, so he could wrap her in silks and nothing else. Then he could touch her without undressing her, his hands sliding over the fabric warmed by her body.
“Elliot is my husband now,” Juliana said, with the slightest emphasis on my. “And this is our home.” Again a slight emphasis, this time on our.
Ainsley and Rona looked at her, blinking a little as they rearranged their ideas.
What had they expected? That Elliot had run off with a struggling Juliana over his shoulder to ravish her in a castle in the woods? To keep her prisoner here, the poor, naive beauty who hadn’t the faintest idea how to handle Elliot the beast?
They did think that. Dear God. Their faces made that plain enough. Elliot’s temper rose, but Juliana’s quiet, clear tones cut through.
“I quite understand.” She poured more tea, every movement connecting with Elliot’s body in some way. She dropped in two lumps of sugar and topped the tea with a dollop of cream, her arm, side, or bosom touching him at any given moment. “You are concerned for your brother, and our marriage was very hasty.” She gave them a little smile. “Well, it was hasty on Elliot’s part. I was for marriage, obviously, no matter which groom turned up.”
Ainsley raised her teacup in salute. “Bravo, Juliana. May Mr. Barclay’s wedding bed be filled to the brim with bedbugs.”
“Ainsley,” Rona said, though it was apparent she agreed. “For shame.”
“Nonsense, Mr. Barclay is the one who should be ashamed,” Ainsley said. “How lucky that Elliot turned up to save the day.”
“Not luck,” Elliot rumbled. “Mahindar and whiskey.”
“Then thank heavens for Mahindar and whiskey,” Ainsley said.
“My point is that everything has turned out for the best,” Juliana broke in. “Elliot and I live here now. Pity us if you like, but there it is.”
The two ladies blinked again. Ainsley and Rona had come rushing out here, like fairy godmothers to Cinderella, to rescue the fair maiden, only to find the fair maiden sitting before them, her back straight, primly telling them to go away. Juliana faced his sister and sister-in-law like a terrier confronting bloodhounds, and the bloodhounds weren’t quite certain what to do.
Elliot stood up. He didn’t want to, because he liked the warmth of Juliana against him, but this circle of femininity had gone on long enough.
“Fetch your husbands,” he said, “and either stay for a proper visit or scuttle back home. I will remain here, Juliana with me.”
Ainsley gave him a look of exasperation, while Rona merely raised her brows.
Elliot saw from their expressions that their next strategy would have been to bring Patrick and Cameron in on the matter. Elliot isn’t well, they’d say, and shouldn’t be left up here on his own. Do talk to him.
“But only if Patrick and Cam want to play billiards, shoot, or drink. I don’t need to be mollycoddled by the men of the family either.”