The torture, the alternate starvation and halfhearted feeding, the sleeplessness leading to long periods of unconsciousness had nearly killed Elliot. His captors expected him to die at any moment, they said, had even shown him the pit where they’d throw his body. Wild animals would find him there and tear him apart. They threatened to throw him in even before he was dead.
Elliot talked in a monotone, relating horror after horror, his eyes closing while his lips moved. He no longer saw the room, or heard the laughter outside, or felt the solidness of the floor beneath him.
He hadn’t realized that his words had drifted to silence. His eyes remaining closed, his lids too heavy to open.
Then he smelled the rosewater soap Juliana liked so well, sensed the brush of her on his skin. Her warmth slid along his body, and still he couldn’t open his eyes or reach for her.
“I never told them about you,” he said, his lips stiff. “They questioned me and tortured me, but I never once said your name. You were mine, my secret. The one thing they could never take from me.”
She skimmed her fingers up his arm under his loose sleeve. “I don’t feel worthy of that.”
“You were light and life. You are heat, and I’m so damn cold.”
Elliot opened his eyes. Juliana a hairsbreadth from him, surrounding him with her beautiful scent, her warmth. She was life, and home.
“How did you get away from them?” she asked, her voice holding a little tremor.
“They’d taught me to kill. When I helped kill some of their enemies, the leader started treating me better. Then one of the men became jealous of me, killed another, and blamed it on me.”
“Oh.” Juliana’s hands came to rest on his chest, fingers points of warmth through his shirt.
“I knew they’d come for me right away. I hid in the dark. They sent in only one man to fetch me, because they didn’t fear me enough. I had to kill him before he could make a sound. I dressed in his clothes. In the dark, I crept into the tunnel where they kept the guns and stole my Winchester back, and what was left of the ammunition.
“Someone saw me. I shot at him, and I ran. I disappeared into those hills so fast, I never looked back. I can’t remember most of that run, but they were after me.”
He felt a smile coming on. “But I was good. I always had been. I eluded them like an animal, laying false trails and crossing rivers, and praying I didn’t step on a cobra and end everything. I had to get back home. I mean to Scotland. Had to.” He brushed Juliana’s hair back from her face. “I had to get home to you.”
Tears trickled from her eyes. “I was so afraid every minute you were missing. I thought of you every day, every hour.”
“I think I knew that. I could see you so clearly, even in the worst of the dark.”
“How did you manage to get back to your plantation?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea, love. At some point, I crossed the border back into the Punjab, and kept wandering. I suppose I simply knew my way home. Mahindar says he found me about ten miles away from my plantation, crawling, half blind with infection. But he knew it was me.”
Mahindar had fallen to his knees and gathered Elliot, who was filthy and infested with vermin, to him and held him hard. The man had cried, rocking back and forth, saying over and over, Sahib, I have found you. I have found you.
Elliot vaguely remembered the kitchen of his plantation house, Komal and Channan exclaiming and crying, the three rushing to find water, food, clothing, a razor to remove the matted hair from his head and face. He remembered them showing him Priti, not two months old, and explaining that Jaya had died. Stacy had abandoned the child and gone who knew where, leaving Priti with Mahindar.
The weeks between then and Elliot’s first convalescence in Scotland were a blur. Elliot moved in a daze, certain he was in the dream.
He’d realized one day, in Patrick’s house in Edinburgh, that he couldn’t hover in that bedchamber forever. He’d come up with a plan to bring himself back to life.
Juliana rested her head against his chest, her hands soft through his shirt, and Elliot rested his cheek against the scarf over her hair. She was everything he was not, whole and beautiful, kind and sensible. He might once have been charming as she’d claimed today, but he’d also been arrogant and confident that he could take on the world and win. Elliot had learned too late that he was as weak as those foolish English people who’d wandered too far into the Afghan hills, people he’d despised even as he’d helped them to safety.
“I’m not who I was,” he finished. “Sometimes I thank God for that. I lost most of myself in those caves as a prisoner. I’m not sure who it was who came out.”
“You’re Elliot,” Juliana said. “My Elliot.”
“Not what you thought you were getting, eh, lass?”
She raised her head, her eyes still wet. “You are too hard on yourself. You are exactly what I wanted.”
“I thought if I came here to this house and married you, I would get well.” Elliot knew the rest with certainty. “But I might never get well.”
“You will,” Juliana said with conviction. “I know you will.”
Elliot didn’t share her confidence. Telling her the story had drained him, and he had nothing left for hope for the future. Tomorrow he could hope again. Tonight…
Tonight he had to be lord of the manor and let dozens of people into his house to see what he’d done with it. Tonight he’d dance with his wife and show the world the woman he’d caught.