“I’ve had to. If only you had seen what a nightmare it was.”
“But, Juliana, you saw it, you laid your plans, and directed everyone in battle against it. Your need to be a better woman than your mother was is admirable, and I understand it, but you must not let it obsess you. Mr. McBride needs a wife, not a sergeant major.”
Juliana bristled. “Gemma, you cannot tell me that this house does not need work.”
“Of course it does. But your husband is not a house. Do not try the same approach with him. Believe me, it will not work. Now, don’t open your eyes wide at me, child, and pretend you don’t know what I mean. To you, disorder is anathema. You think that if you can bring order to Mr. McBride’s life, he will be well. He is in disarray, and you must fix him. Perhaps you have not articulated it like that, but I see it. You did the same with your father. But people can’t be fixed, especially not men like Mr. McBride. Not in the way you mean. You have to understand, and help him, dear. Not repair him.”
Juliana sat in silence, her hands folded on her lap. Was that what she’d been trying to do? Gemma was a wise woman—she always had been.
Had Juliana been trying to tear down and reconstruct Elliot in the way she’d remembered him? In the way she thought he ought to be? In the way she could understand him better?
“Oh, Gemma.” Her eyes burned. “I have no idea what I am doing. I don’t know how to love a man. I only know how to make lists.”
Gemma’s face softened. “My dear, your other fault is being too hard on yourself. You believed you needed to be the perfect daughter—now you’re trying to be the perfect wife. You and Mr. McBride are two strangers attempting to learn all about each other. The process is slow. It took me twenty years to get to know your father, and ten of those years I’ve been married to him.” Gemma placed a warm hand on Juliana’s knee. “Besides, Mr. McBride doesn’t look terribly put out that you’re trying to repair him. He looks much better, even in these two weeks since the wedding.”
Ainsley had said much the same thing. Juliana gave a faint laugh. “I doubt that is my doing. Elliot never listens to a word I say.”
“You mean he does not snap a salute and obey you, like that Hamish does,” Gemma said. “Or Mahindar Singh, who falls all over himself to please you. Your husband goes about his business, but he notices. He certainly notices you.” Her smile turned sly. “Can I assume that within the year, your father will take on the happy title of Grandpapa?”
Juliana blushed. “It is far too soon to know that.”
“But from your pink cheeks, I see that you and Mr. McBride are striving for the outcome.” Gemma got to her feet in a rustle of crisp poplin. “I will leave you to your strivings, stepdaughter, and eagerly await the announcement.”
Juliana rose with her and caught Gemma in her arms. Gemma stopped, pleased, and hugged Juliana back.
“Thank you for coming,” Juliana said with sincerity. “I’m only sorry we did not have enough time to spend together.”
“Of course we didn’t. What with your planning, your house not ready, people shooting at one another, and crashing chandeliers, we did not have a moment to ourselves.” Gemma kissed her cheek. “Next time, dear.”
Juliana walked out with her stepmother, arm in arm, and put her into the dogcart that Hamish had driven back from the station, likely at his usual breakneck speed.
She waved at Gemma for a long time, blinking back tears, then she went back to the house, with much to think about.
Juliana amazed Elliot every time he looked at her. The day had been crazed, with getting the guests away, moving Stacy to McPherson’s, and putting the house to rights—at least as much to rights as a run-down manor house-cum-castle could be.
Inspector Fellows had left with culprits in tow. He’d taken the Dalrymples to the nearest lockup for a hearing on a charge of blackmail, and the assassin back with him to Edinburgh. He, Elliot, and McPherson had arranged for the removal of the body of the fallen assassin in the tunnels, the man to be sent back to his family in London. Throughout it all, Juliana had helped, advised, and made little lists in her notebooks. Neat, efficient, cool, and lovely.
Juliana sat now at the other end of the dining table, the house finally emptied. She wore a blue satin tea gown that rode low on her shoulders, a cameo resting at her throat. She’d caught her curls up into a simple coil woven with a blue ribbon, fine curls framing her forehead.
Her notebook reposed next to her, with a Faber’s pencil nearby, so she could add to her blasted lists as she thought of things. Her curls trembled a little as she bent her head to write, candlelight catching on her sleek hair.
Elliot’s gaze went lower, to the shadow between her br**sts. She’d worn the tea gown several times since their marriage, and Elliot decided he loved the dress. The satin hugged her body, and the décolletage put her br**sts in tantalizing view. He would buy her a dozen such dresses and make sure she wore nothing else.
Elliot picked up his glass of wine. “What are you writing?”
Juliana looked up, pencil poised. “Hmm? What’s next to be done, of course. The chandelier replaced. What a monstrosity. I’m rather glad it fell. We’ll have something much more tasteful and charming in its place. I thought the drawing room carpet would be fine, but when we moved a chair to decorate for the ball, I found a very large hole all the way through to the floor beneath. I’d wondered why that chair was in such an odd place…”