The Seduction Of Elliot McBride

Page 20

The McGregor house would be more of a challenge, certainly, than her father’s elegant town house and small manor house near Stirling, but Juliana could do it, she thought. It was all a matter of organizing, and Juliana was most excellent at organizing.

She’d already begun making lists of things they needed to do, subdividing those lists into what must be purchased, what jobs could be left to ordinary laborers, and what jobs would take an expert’s skill, such as the bell system, which was in a complete disarray. To repair it, they’d have to find every rope in every pipe behind the walls and untangle the lot. But no matter—on the list the task went.

Juliana’s bravado flagged slightly as she walked back into the castle’s dusty interior. Hamish had tracked another layer of muddy boot prints in since the day before, but otherwise, all was as it had been yesterday—which meant a chaotic mess.

Because of the broken bell system, Juliana either had to shout for the staff when she needed something or go in search of them. As she reentered the morning room, she decided to do neither this time but carry the tea tray back to the kitchens herself. The empty things weren’t heavy, and Mahindar and his family had so much to do already.

She gathered up the cups and saucers, piling them neatly on the tray. If she fingered Elliot’s cup a little longer than the others, there was no one to see, was there?

When she entered the big kitchen with her tray, she was assailed by pungent aromas of food she couldn’t identify, the scents odd but somehow mouthwatering. A pot simmered on the stove, Mahindar tending it, and Channan sat on her heels next to a large clay pot in the fireplace, poking at something inside.

Hamish was at the sink, scrubbing pots.

“Where is Nandita?” Juliana asked as she set the tea tray on the kitchen table. “Is she all right?”

They’d found her this morning, after a frantic search of the house, hiding in the boiler room. McGregor shooting off the gun had frightened Nandita badly—she’d been certain that soldiers had come to take them away. Channan and Mahindar had to talk to her for a long time before she’d come out again.

“She is with my mother,” Mahindar said. “She will be well.”

Juliana thought of the way Komal scolded Nandita, not to mention the way she’d chased McGregor back to his bedroom, and wondered.

“They are looking after Priti, then?”

Channan looked around from the fireplace. Mahindar shook his head. “No, Priti left with the sahib. He went walking in the hills.”

“With the shotgun.” Hamish didn’t lift his arms from sudsy water, but he cranked his head around for the announcement.

“Oh.” Juliana rolled her lower lip under her teeth. “Is…she all right with him?”

“Yes, indeed, certainly,” Mahindar said without worry. “The sahib always takes care of Priti.”

Juliana relaxed. Elliot did indeed seem to like the child, and she’d seen how gentle he could be with her.

“He is very good to her,” Juliana said. She lifted one of the teacups from the tray, admiring its fineness. Ainsley had been sweet to give them the set.

Mahindar looked surprised. “But that is only natural, memsahib,” he said. “After all, Priti is his daughter.”

Chapter 8

The teacup slid out of Juliana’s hands and fell down, down, to smash into fragments on the flagstone floor.

Juliana regarded it in dismay, while her heart pounded in her chest, and her face grew hot.

Channan said something admonishing to Mahindar, and the man looked unhappy and bewildered.

“His daughter?” Juliana said, swallowing on dryness. “With Nandita?”

“Nandita?” Mahindar looked surprised. “No, no. Nandita is not Priti’s mother. She is her ayah—as you say, her nanny—but we all look after Priti. No, her mother is dead, poor thing.”

“Oh.” Juliana’s thoughts fluttered around each other. She’d assumed Nandita the mother, because the young woman had been so attentive to Priti, and Channan had made clear her only children were grown sons. But Juliana had had no notion that Priti was Elliot’s. Elliot and…who?

She wet her lips. “Mr. McBride. He was married? In India?”

Channan and Mahindar exchanged a glance. Channan said, “He was not.”

Mahindar tried to drown her words with a string of Punjabi. Channan answered him as forcefully, then she turned back to Juliana.

“The sahib was not married to the lady,” Channan said. “She was the wife of someone else.”

Juliana couldn’t breathe. Her eyes begin to burn, her heart to beat painfully.

“You knew nothing of this?” Mahindar asked her in a faint voice.

Channan spoke to him rapidly and firmly in their native language, and Mahindar grew more and more embarrassed.

A lady did not break down in front of her servants in the kitchen, Juliana admonished herself. A lady shouldn’t even be in the kitchen, should never pass through the green baize door that separated the servants’ quarters from the rest of the house. Even though they were living rough here, and any green baize had worn to gray tatters long ago, Juliana should have observed the sanctity of the custom.

She held on to this idea, pounded into her head by her upbringing, to keep Mahindar’s revelation from overpowering her.

“You weren’t to know, Mahindar,” Juliana said. “Hamish, fetch a broom and sweep up the broken teacup.”

She walked away from them, her heel catching on one of the porcelain fragments and grinding it to powder.

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