He held her with arms that shook but would not let her go, or let her fall. Juliana wasn’t sure how she knew that, but she knew.
One of the candles hissed as burned wick fell into the wax, and rising wind outside rattled the old casements.
Other than that all was silent. Juliana felt like a fairy-tale princess in this old, false castle, and the knight who’d brought her here was showing her a world she’d never known. Locked away in his palace, she’d learned more in the last two days than she had in the first thirty years of her life.
Elliot’s body was as solid as the foundations of this house. And yet, she sensed his fragility. He could crumble at the right touch to the right place, just like some of the walls in this old place. Juliana had to make sure that the touch never came.
The passage outside the dining room suddenly filled with noise. An impossibly loud bang and crash of glass sounded, followed by pounding footsteps, then a shrill voice shrieking in Punjabi, and a man’s bellow.
Juliana raised her head in alarm. She and Elliot were both naked down to their socks, Elliot’s kilt spread like a tablecloth where he’d laid her down. Their clothes were scattered over the floor, and the room had only one door. Hiding or flight was impossible.
McGregor’s voice rose right outside the door. “You leave that be, woman! A man can’t be stifled in his own house.”
More invective coming from Komal, because that was the only person to whom the stentorian female tones could belong. Footsteps hurried along the passage, followed by the voice of Channan, obviously trying to quiet them down.
Elliot’s arms tightened around Juliana. “Don’t worry,” he said into her hair. “Mahindar will keep them out. He’s on guard outside the door.”
Juliana’s face heated. “Outside the door? But I sent him back to the kitchens.”
“Mahindar guards any door I am behind. He knows what might happen if I’m disturbed.”
“What might happen?”
He shrugged “I might hurt whoever comes charging in. If I’m not in my right mind, I can lash out.”
His mouth thinned to a hard line, resigned, as though he’d already decided it was useless to fight his madness. He’d accepted it and was doing what was necessary to live with it.
Somewhere inside the hard, scarred Elliot was the laughing youth Juliana had fallen in love with so many years ago. He was still in there…somewhere.
Juliana had no illusion that she was special enough or wise enough to save him. She only knew she had to try. The man crying out to her in silence needed no less.
The bang and crash turned out to have been a glass-doored breakfront in the drawing room, now lying facedown, the glass smashed. Juliana gathered the story in bits and pieces.
McGregor had been searching the cabinet for a stash of cigars he’d sworn he left there fifteen years ago. Being of small stature, he’d stood on a chair to search the upper shelves, then decided to climb on the breakfront itself to search its top recesses.
Komal, entering the drawing room on some errand, had seen McGregor on the top of the breakfront, and started scolding him. When McGregor had tried to jump to the ground, his kilt had caught on a finial on the breakfront’s top. His weight had jerked the cloth free, and he’d sprung clear, but the breakfront had overbalanced and the entire thing had come crashing down.
Komal had started shrieking at McGregor, and the two had stormed through the halls, shouting at each other, neither understanding a word of what the other was saying.
“I’ve been laird here forty-five years,” McGregor said, poking the air with a finger partly bent from rheumatism. “Forty-five years. I will nae be chased around me own home by a pack of godless, screaming savages.”
“We are Sikh, sahib,” Mahindar said, offended. “We have a god.”
“You cannae deny that that woman is a screaming savage.”
“She is old, sahib.”
“Old?” Behind all his white hair, McGregor’s face turned chartreuse. “She’s no older than I am. Do ye mean that people of my age are raving mad? Say so and be done, damn ye.”
Juliana stepped forward. “Mr. McGregor…”
“And don’t ye try to placate me, young woman. I know all about the ways of beguiling women. My wife, God rest her soul, excelled at turning a fellow up sweet. I know all the tricks of females.”
“Uncle McGregor.” Elliot’s strong voice rolled through the hall as he emerged from the dining room, having resumed his shirt and kilt, his coat slung over his arm. “There’s a fine stash of whiskey down in the cellar. Why don’t you come and help me sample it?”
McGregor drew himself upright, his voice winding down to mere loudness. “Now that is the first sensible suggestion I’ve heard all evening.”
He turned and stalked down the hall. When Elliot caught up to him, McGregor said in what he thought was a quiet tone, “Got a leg over in the dining room, eh? Mrs. McGregor and me, we favored the conservatory. Had many a fine night under the moonlight there.” His chuckle faded away as Elliot ushered him into the cellar stairs and shut the door behind them.
He knew they were searching for him. He’d found a place to hide, down in the bowels of the earth, in a part of their warren-like prison even they didn’t know about. Some tribe had carved these caves deep into the hills in a time forgotten, and Elliot took refuge in them now. The doors he’d been locked behind were ancient and rusted, the locks easy to break, but there was no way out of the tunnels, and his captors knew it. The only opening to freedom led to a guard with a rifle.