Mahindar knew Channan was going to scold. And scold and scold. His wife was good at scolding him, but she only did when Mahindar deserved it, so it smarted doubly.
The sahib had never kept secret the fact that Priti was his child. But the man spoke so very little to anyone that most people did not realize that he’d fathered her. They assumed, as the memsahib had, that Priti was a servant’s daughter. Mahindar never spoke of it to anyone himself, because both he and Channan knew how the English felt about half-caste children. The sahib, and Priti, would have an easier time of it if people didn’t know.
But Mahindar had assumed the memsahib would know. Mr. McBride had spoken of her often, describing her as a childhood friend, a young woman to whom he’d never had difficulty talking about anything and everything.
Mahindar braced himself for the scolding, but it didn’t come. Channan simply turned back to her tandoor and stirred the vegetables inside.
“I know, I know,” Mahindar said in Punjabi. “I am a fool.”
“I said nothing,” Channan said without looking at him.
“But you are right. I want him to be happy. I need him to be happy.”
“What happened to the sahib was not your fault. I have told you.”
Mahindar turned back to his pots of spices, reflecting mournfully that his supplies were too low. He’d become acquainted in London with another Punjabi who knew where to find the best Indian spices in the city. Mahindar had started sending the man money and a list of needs, and the man sent back, by special delivery, lovely jars of turmeric and saffron, the mixture called masala, and peppers that Mahindar could not find in the English or Scottish markets. He would have to write another letter to his friend and post it soon.
As always when Mahindar thought of what had happened to the sahib, and the enmity between Sahib McBride and Sahib Stacy, he felt remorse. He might have prevented the fight, might have prevented the journey into the wild lands during which the sahib had been stolen.
Mahindar had searched and searched after the sahib had disappeared, but hadn’t been able to find him. He’d searched every day. Those long months had been the worst time of Mahindar’s life.
“Not your fault,” Channan repeated.
Hamish, not understanding a word of what they said, swept the floor in a rush of energy, as he did everything else. “So Nandita doesn’t have any children?” the lad asked.
“No,” Mahindar answered, switching to English. “She was married very young—fifteen or sixteen she was, but her husband was a soldier. He was arrested and killed, sadly.”
“What had he done?” Hamish asked, the broom slowing.
“Nothing at all,” Mahindar said. “He saw someone else doing something they shouldn’t, so they came for him one night and pretended to arrest him for treason. They shot him like a dog.” He shook his head. “Poor little Nandita.”
“That’s terrible.” The broom stopped altogether, and Hamish leaned on it, his red brows drawn. “Is that why she was hiding in the boiler room?”
“She is afraid of soldiers and guns. They mean grief to her.”
“Poor thing.” Hamish’s sympathy glowed from him. “Does she speak any English?”
“She knows a few words only.”
“Well, I’ll just have to teach her then.” Hamish looked down at the broom, realized it was at a standstill, and began sweeping vigorously again.
Mahindar noticed Hamish hadn’t offered to teach Channan or Komal English. He went back to his spices, smiling to himself, feeling a little better.
Dinner was slightly delayed because when Elliot and Priti returned, they were covered from head to foot in black mud.
“What on earth happened to you?” Juliana asked, coming into the flagstone passage to discover the source of the delay.
She found Priti in the laundry room, standing inside the huge metal sink, Channan pumping water over her and scrubbing her with a large sponge. Elliot, stripped to the waist, was standing at a smaller sink, with Mahindar scrubbing just as hard.
“Riverbank,” Elliot said, spluttering as Mahindar squeezed a giant sponge full of water over Elliot’s head. “I slipped in, and Priti fell in trying to rescue me. The bank we climbed out onto was this color.” He pointed to the tar-like mud on his kilt.
Juliana fought back the urge to laugh, and at the same time she didn’t know what to say to him. Elliot seemed relaxed, happy about his escapade with Priti and the comic way they looked.
Mahindar kept slopping the sponge, which was at least two feet wide, all over Elliot’s body. Elliot gleamed, wet, his arms glistening with water that pattered to the floor, the tattoo stark on his skin.
He grabbed the sponge from Mahindar. “Enough. Get Priti upstairs and dry.”
Mahindar relinquished the sponge with a sigh, as though realizing the limit to which Elliot would put up with his ministrations. Elliot scrubbed himself over, sloshing water onto his face and torso.
His kilt was drenched, and so were his bare legs, his boots left outside the back door. He snatched up a towel and rubbed his hair vigorously as he started out of the laundry room.
Juliana flattened herself against the wall in the passage between laundry room and kitchen as Elliot strode out, wearing only his kilt. He halted when he saw her, and he stepped close to her, his gray eyes glittering in the dim light of the hall.
Despite the toweling, Elliot was still wet, water beading on his lashes and dripping from the ends of his short hair. He said nothing, only leaned closer, closer. Now Juliana’s bodice was wet, the front of her skirt smudged with mud from his kilt.