Her eyes went still, and her voice was a whisper of breath. “What I asked, Elliot, was whether you would marry me.”
Elliot sat still, his eyes as gray as winter skies and just as cold.
Juliana realized that, when she’d blurted her question, she’d been thinking of Elliot, the teasing, warm-eyed young man of her youth. This Elliot McBride was a stranger. His light hair had been cropped close, his face hard, and thin scars laced his cheek.
This Elliot had tracked and killed other men, had been captured and held prisoner for so long that they’d all feared him dead. The ten months he’d been missing had been the worst of Juliana’s life. He’d returned to his brother’s house for a time to recover, but Juliana had not seen him. He’d visited no one, had let no one visit him, and had disappeared back to India again.
“As I say, a foolish idea,” Juliana said quickly. “You look a bit green, Elliot, so never mind. I didn’t mean to frighten the life out of you. Return to your cozy doze.”
Elliot’s gaze flicked to the bare altar and back to her, his fingers at her back hot in this chill place. “Not so foolish. I think it a grand idea.”
“Truly, pretend I said nothing. You didn’t hear me the first time anyway.”
Elliot moved his hand to cup her shoulder through the satin, his strength rippling heat through her too-cold body. “I cannae pretend I didn’t hear the second time, lass.”
“Well, I take it back. I shall remove to my father’s house and start returning the gifts. I kept meticulous notes, as I always do. Gemma smiles at me for my lists and notes, but she will thank me for them now.”
Her smile was wide, her eyes too bright, and Elliot’s heart beat so hard he was surprised it didn’t echo in the quietness.
He wanted to charge out of the pew shouting for joy, tow Juliana back into the church, and command the minister to get on with the ceremony. His family and Juliana’s were residents of this parish, they were both of marriageable age, and there would be no impediment. He knew people who could issue a new license quickly, and it would be done.
Elliot had traveled to Edinburgh to find her today, to continue plans he’d put in motion. The interminable wait in the crowded church had started to unnerve him, so he’d slipped away to be alone in the chapel. A few sips of whiskey, and his tired body—he never rested well at night—had taken him to sleep.
To be awakened by the delicious weight of Juliana in her satin and tulle, the scent of roses, the sound of her voice. Yes. This was right.
“I won’t be going back to India,” he said. “I’ve purchased a house, th’ old McGregor estate about thirty miles north of Aberdeen. McGregor’s my great-uncle on my mother’s side, and was in need of a bit of cash. You might as well marry me and have the run of th’ place.”
Juliana still stared at him, her lips parted enough for him to want to taste the moisture between them. If she said no, or that she wanted to wait, he had more plans for that. Elliot might be mad, but he intended to be very, very persuasive.
“That’s a bit of a journey,” Juliana said, her voice faint.
“Aye.” Trains made traveling much easier these days, but even so, the north of the country was remote, a peaceful retreat against the noise. Elliot needed so much peace.
Juliana’s blue eyes held trepidation. Under their scrutiny, Elliot felt his lassitude trying to descend once more, wanting him to lapse into a stupor again, to lean against the satin warmth of her and breathe her scent…
“Are you certain, Elliot?” Juliana’s voice brought him awake again.
Of course he was certain. Elliot needed her with him so he could be strong and well.
He shrugged, pretending nonchalance. “I told you, ’tis a grand idea. Everyone is wanting a wedding. You’re in the bridal clothes, and I’m not likely to stay in finery long.”
Her eyes widened. “You mean that you want to do this today?”
“Why not? Your guests are here, the minister is waiting.”
Juliana pursed her lips, the little gesture heating his blood. “It would be quite a scandal.”
“Let it be. While they talk, we’ll be at our estate, far away.”
Juliana hesitated, then her smile took on a hint of wildness. “All right. As you say, why not?”
Elliot’s heart thundered, elation rising to choke him. He needed to finish this, take her home, be with her.
Elliot pulled her to her feet and propelled her out of the pew. Juliana half tripped in her high-heeled slippers, but he steadied her with a strong hand. The nearness of her, the feel of her soft arm beneath his scarred fingers, urged him on. He needed to seal this bargain before the darkness returned, and he didn’t mean the darkness of the nighttime.
They were at the door. Elliot stopped her, his grip on her too tight, but he couldn’t make himself ease it. “Stay with my sister while I go explain to the minister that the groom will be a different man. Will ye be ready?”
“Yes.” Juliana wet her lips. “Indeed.”
She reached for the door handle, but Elliot drew her back. “Wait.”
He slid his arm behind her, as solid as a tree branch, and drew her closer. So close she saw the pattern of white scars on his cheek, the thin lines that ran across his cheekbones and ended under the line of his hair. A thin, jagged blade had made those cuts.
He was going to kiss her. Juliana’s breath caught as she waited for the cool touch of his lips, the press of his mouth. She’d dreamed of his kiss so many times, after the one he’d stolen from her so long ago.