“Dear God, are you telling me that a bloody fête is more important than a sharpshooter hiding out in the woods?”
Juliana opened her eyes wide. “Yes. It is quite the most important point in our lives. If we let gentlemen like Mr. Stacy—and, I might add, Mr. Dalrymple—prevent us from carrying out events crucial to us and our marriage, then where would we be?”
How do you wrap me around your finger, Juliana McBride? Her eyes sparkled with resolve and stubbornness, her lips quivering from her stout declaration.
I love you with every breath I draw.
Elliot caressed her cheek then leaned down and kissed the soft lips he’d been longing to taste all day.
“Then I’ll just have to find him first,” he said, his lips a breath from hers. “Don’t send half the village after me this time.”
Her stubbornness dissolved to worry, and that worry touched his heart. “Be careful.”
“Always, love.” He kissed her again, then released her with reluctance to retrieve his rifle.
Juliana believed him. Elliot’s heart sang it as he left the room—finding the entire household, including the dog, gathered in the passage outside the dining room. They collectively tried to pretend they were doing something else when he emerged, but Elliot strode past them, unseeing.
She believed him. The rest of the world thought Elliot irretrievably mad, but Juliana had decided to trust his word.
She’d just given him the most beautiful gift he’d ever received.
The day of the midsummer fête dawned promisingly enough. The weather was calm, the sky arched blue overhead, and only a few white clouds drifted over the highest hills.
Juliana gave the fine weather the merest glance, relieved the rain had stopped. Rains had swept over the house two nights running, as had high winds and wild lightning. Hamish had been convinced he’d seen a ghost again and refused to leave the kitchen, despite all Juliana’s efforts.
And Elliot had hunted Mr. Stacy. Elliot had gone out walking the hills, even in the bad weather, but he’d never found trace of his prey. Either Mr. Stacy had gone to ground, or he’d left the area entirely.
Juliana knew—and she knew Elliot did too—that Mr. Stacy wouldn’t simply leave. He’d come for a reason, and while that reason was not yet clear, if Mr. Stacy were anything like Elliot, he’d stick to his purpose.
The fact that the house began filling up with guests also might have triggered Stacy’s absence. First to arrive was Sinclair McBride and his two children, Andrew and Caitriona. Six-year-old Andrew took at once to Priti and her goat, while Caitriona, a dignified eight, preferred to sit in the drawing room and look at Juliana’s ladies’ magazines.
They were lonely children, Juliana sensed, though she soon learned why Sinclair called them ungovernable terrors. The day they arrived, Andrew managed to lure the goat upstairs and hide it in the tiny room Komal occupied. The shrieks and scolding went on for hours, the goat, bleating wildly, happy to escape. During all this Caitriona sat calmly in the drawing room, holding her large golden-haired doll, and quietly turned the pages of the magazine, uninterested in the entire affair—uninterested in everything.
Next to come were Ainsley and Cameron and their baby, Gavina. They were quickly followed by more Mackenzies—Lord Ian and his wife Beth, with their children, accompanied by Daniel Mackenzie, Ainsley’s grown-up stepson.
A gentleman called Mr. Fellows arrived quietly and alone the day after that, to Juliana’s surprise. She’d invited him, but he’d replied by return post that he might not be able to make the journey from London.
“I am so pleased you could come after all, Mr. Fellows,” Juliana said, coming into the front hall to meet him. “Your caseload has lessened?”
“No,” he said in the dry tone Juliana was to learn he used habitually. “Not really.”
Lloyd Fellows, a detective inspector for Scotland Yard, was a half brother to the Mackenzies, and shared their looks—dark hair with a touch of red, hazel eyes with glints of gold. His stance, his quiet gestures, and the way he bent his head to listen to her, put her strongly in mind of Lord Cameron.
Mr. Fellows was quite a good detective, Juliana had heard, though she’d met him only once before, at Hart Mackenzie’s wedding, and that only for a brief greeting.
“Well, I am pleased you took time from your duties for our first event as Mr. and Mrs. McBride,” she said.
“I’m afraid I didn’t come for pleasure, Mrs. McBride. I came in answer to your husband’s telegram.”
Mr. Fellows obviously had no intention of explaining what the telegram said. He looked about at the freshly cleaned stones of the hall and the varnished and repaired wood. “I heard the McGregor house was a run-down wreck. I’m pleased to see accounts were wrong.”
“We’ve done quite a bit of work since moving in, that is certain. Now, if you are looking for my husband, I believe you’ll find him at the river with Lord Ian. Fishing. A pastime they both enjoy, apparently.”
“Thank you.” Mr. Fellows gave her a little bow. “I will take myself there.”
He withdrew without further word. Very polite, yes, Juliana thought, but with a hardness about him that told her he had to make himself remember to be polite.
Fellows went, and Juliana returned to her other guests and the ongoing preparations.
Elliot found Lord Ian Mackenzie to be one of the most refreshing men he’d ever met.