“I’m a Scotsman,” he said.
Still flashing the wicked grin, he cleared more branches from the hole and reached for her.
Juliana clung to him as she kicked and wriggled her way out, Mahindar’s shirt now torn and stained with dirt.
The hole opened onto the sheer side of a hill. Elliot leaned against the almost vertical slope and helped Juliana find footholds, tussocks of grass that wouldn’t slip under her feet.
They’d emerged to a treeless heath that was filled with rocks and bushes like those which had grown over the hole. The slope on which they stood ran steeply down to the rushing river below—one misstep could plunge her into it.
Elliot was not about to let her go. He held Juliana with immovable strength as he guided her along their makeshift path, until they came to a true path that had been cut into the side of the hill. The sound of sheep bleating in the distance indicated what this path was likely for.
Elliot settled Juliana against a large boulder that might once have been a standing stone, her feet on firm ground, then he climbed back up the hill. Juliana watched him cover the hole, replacing the branches and smoothing the earth.
He retrieved the lanterns he’d tossed out and made his way back down to her, walking sure-footedly along the ridge to the path, never a misstep. He might have been walking on a wide, paved road for all Elliot noticed.
He returned to Juliana’s boulder and leaned on it next to her. “This valley would have been a good place for the McGregors to come to evade the McPhersons,” he said. “The McGregors could have crossed the river and hidden in the meadows beyond without anyone realizing.”
“But then they’d have abandoned the castle to the rival clan,” Juliana said, following his gaze across river. “Do you think any of McGregor’s wild ancestors would have done that?”
“No, but they’d have sent away the women and the wee ones. The families could have lived off the land in that valley a long time, in the warm months.”
Juliana took in the beauty of the scene, the river rushing below them—the same one that had frightened Nandita so when they’d clattered over the bridge. Mr. McGregor and Hamish both claimed that the river teemed with fish, and in the folds of the valley, the McGregor women and children of old would have found berries and other sustenance. In peaceful times, they’d have explored the valley that rolled between the hills, and would have known exactly where to hide when battle came.
“I’ll wager there are bushes plump with berries down there now,” Juliana said, her mouth starting to water. “How about it, Elliot? Shall we bring back a bucketful and teach Mahindar how to make raspberry fool?”
“We don’t have a bucket.”
Juliana lifted the white shirt and made a bowl of it. “I used to do this with my pinafore when I was a girl at my father’s manor house. I’d bring home plenty of bright red berries, half of which I ate on the way. Drove my governess wild.”
Elliot didn’t look at her, but a faint smile crossed his face. “The Juliana I knew always had her pinafore neat and clean. Never a hair out of place, following all the rules.”
“That was the Juliana I showed to company. When I was alone in the woods, I was a bit more lackadaisical. No one to see me, you see.”
“I wasn’t company. I was the unruly brother of your friend.”
“Perhaps, but when Ainsley paid a call, or I called on her, things had to be done properly. She laughed at my insistence on etiquette, but she played along.”
“The fact that you convinced Ainsley to do anything by the rules is a bloody miracle,” Elliot said, with the fondness of an older brother for a harum-scarum sister.
“I remember she rather enjoyed raiding the pantry when we were at school. I thought her audacious, but she never minded sharing the spoils. But she turned out all right, didn’t she? Happily married now, with a child of her own and another on the way.”
“I want children.”
Elliot’s blunt statement made her stop. The sun was descending behind the hills to their right, casting shadows over the river below. Elliot looked down the hill at the roiling water, bracing himself on the boulder. The sun slanted from the jagged mountain to sharpen his face and outline his body in a faint glow.
When he looked at Juliana again, the liquid light brushed the fine net of scars that ran from his temple into his hair. “Many children,” he said.
“I see.” Juliana’s heart thumped. “Is that why you rushed to Edinburgh to stop my wedding and steal the bride?”
“No, to take you away from that twit, Barclay. Lucky for him, he’d eloped, so I didn’t have to kill him.”
“For his sake, I hope he took his pianist back to England. He embarrassed you, and I’m not forgiving him that.” Elliot looked off into the distance again. “I didn’t realize I wanted more children then.”
“But you realize it now?”
“Something Mrs. Rossmoran said to me today put it in mind.”
“Mrs. Rossmoran…” Juliana blinked. “You spoke to her today? When I stopped, her granddaughter said she was poorly. Is she all right?”
“Mrs. Rossmoran is the hardiest woman in the Highlands. She had her granddaughter lie because she didn’t want to see Uncle McGregor.”
“Oh.” Juliana rearranged her ideas about the frail old Highland rose. “I’ll remember to make my next call alone, or with you. She apparently doesn’t mind seeing you.”