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Devil in Disguise: Chapter 11


Merritt stood in her bedroom as Jenny unfastened the back of her dress. It had been a long day, fraught with work she hadn’t felt like doing. She hadn’t been able to focus on anything for more than five minutes. Her mind had pulled back from every task like a cantankerous mule.

Her gaze strayed to the nearby bed, freshly made with pristine smooth sheets and blankets, the pillows nicely plumped. There were no signs of the torrid activity of the previous night. But for a moment, her mind conjured an image of a sleek golden body, broad shoulders rising over hers, the flash of the tiny key as it dangled from his neck and dragged gently between her naked breasts.

She gave a brief shake of her head to clear it. The bed was too large for one person, ridiculously so. She would get rid of it, she decided, and buy one half its size. Should she have the brocade counterpane cut down to fit the smaller bed? No, she would give it away and have a new one made. Perhaps something in blue—

Her musing was interrupted by a deep boom from outside, rattling the glass lamp housings and the crystal drops in the chandeliers.

“Holy Moses,” Merritt exclaimed, “is that thunder?”

Jenny was frowning. “I don’t think so, milady.”

They hurried to the window and drew back the curtains. Merritt flinched at a blinding flash close to the horizon, instantly followed by another thunderous sound. It was coming from the direction of the docks, she realized. Her stomach turned to ice.

“Fasten my dress back up, Jenny,” she said tensely. “No—first shout for Jeffrey and tell him to have the carriage readied, then help me with the dress.”

Approximately ten minutes later, Merritt was hurrying downstairs. There was a hammering at the front door. Before she could reach it, someone shouldered inside without waiting for a response.

It was Luke, who wore no overcoat or hat. His face was set and grim as he said without preamble, “It was one of ours.”

“The explosion? It was one of our warehouses? Which—”

“Yes—”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know. I was at a card game at a club near the wharf. Someone came running in with the news.”

“Why did you come here?” Merritt demanded, gasping with anxiety. “You should have gone to see if it was . . . if . . .” She couldn’t speak for a moment. “Oh, God, Luke, do you think it was the bonded warehouse?”

Her brother’s face was grim. “It was a bloody massive explosion,” he said quietly. “The kind that would happen if fire reached a hundred thousand gallons of alcohol. I came straight here because I knew you’d rush to the scene, and it’s as dangerous as hell. Listen to me, Merritt—I’m only letting you go there on condition that you stay close to me. You’re not to leave my side without asking. Agreed?”

Merritt was both astonished and irritated by the tone of command she’d never heard from her younger brother before. Although she wanted to inform him that she had too much common sense to go dashing about the scene of raging fire, she didn’t want to waste time. “Agreed,” she said shortly. “Let’s go.”

They went out to a waiting hansom cab and headed toward the wharf at a breakneck pace. To Merritt’s agonized frustration, the vehicle was forced to slow as they approached the main gate. A sea of onlookers had already amassed, filling the streets and making it difficult for the fire brigades’ horse teams and steam engines to reach the docks. A cacophony of sounds filled the air, clanging bells, pumping steamers in the water, and people shouting.

“We’ll have to stop here,” Luke said, and paid the driver before helping Merritt out. He kept an arm around her, trying to protect her from the crush of bodies as they made their way through the crowd.

The flames illuminated the wharf with the brilliance of midday. A coughing sob broke from Merritt’s throat as she saw the main source of the fire was indeed warehouse number three. She felt a hot slide of tears down to the edge of her jaw.

“He may not have been in there,” Luke said immediately. “He might be at a tavern or . . . or the devil knows . . . a brothel or music hall.”

Merritt nodded, trying to take comfort from the words. She blotted her wet cheek with the sleeve of her coat. It was a measure of her feelings for the man that she would have been overjoyed to find out he was at a brothel. Anything, anything other than being caught in that inferno.

“He could be wandering through the crowd right now,” Luke continued. “If so, we’ll have little chance of finding him.”

“Let’s search the area around the warehouse.”

“Sweetheart, we won’t be able to go anywhere near there. Just look at—no, you’re too short to see over the crowd. There are at least a half-dozen steamers in the water, pumping at full force, and two rolling engines trying to extinguish it from the street.”

“Maybe we can find out something from one of the firemen,” Merritt said desperately. “Help me reach them.” At his hesitation, she added, “Please.”

“Damn it all,” Luke muttered, and began to guide her through the jostling mass of bodies. Merritt could hardly see or breathe with so many people packed around them. A pungent, strangely sweet haze filled the air—the smell of whisky burning, she realized with piercing despair.

An anxious murmur went through the crowd as eerie blue flares began to shoot up from the warehouse like tentacles. Abruptly Luke hauled Merritt against him and covered her head with his arms. A fraction of a second later, she felt the ground shake from a brutal explosion. Heat seared her exposed skin as a massive fireball blossomed toward the sky. Screams erupted from the gathering, and people began to push and shove in panic.

As Luke and Merritt were swept along with the flow of bodies, she felt someone step on the hem of her cloak. She clutched at her brother to keep from falling. Perceiving the problem instantly, he ripped the cloak’s fastening at her throat and let it drop. In seconds, it had been trampled by a battalion’s worth of feet.

Merritt gave a little yelp of surprise as Luke picked her up bodily and threw her over his shoulder. She stayed still, trying to make it easier for him to carry her as he made his way toward a long shed near the burning warehouse.

Carefully Luke bent to set Merritt on her feet beside a brick wall, which provided some shelter from the blistering heat of the warehouse, about thirty yards away. “Stay right here,” he said brusquely.

It was difficult to hear anything over the hissing and roaring of the steam engine nearby. Merritt squinted at their surroundings through a slow rain of bright cinders and ash that floated like black feathers. The shed contained shops belonging to the blacksmith, fitter, and wheelwright, with a shared work yard. Her attention was caught by a cluster of men standing near a large anvil, all staring at something on the ground.

“I’m going to try to talk to someone from the fire brigade and find out—” Luke fell silent as Merritt reached out with one hand to grip the lapel of his coat. He followed the direction of her gaze.

One of the men had moved, revealing a glimpse of a man’s booted leg extended along the ground.

They were standing over a body.

Merritt felt her limbs turn to lead. The man she’d been intimate with only last night . . . the tender, passionate lover with laughing blue eyes and wicked hands . . . might be lying dead a few yards away from her.

She experienced a sensation she’d felt only twice in her life. Once when she’d been kicked in the stomach by a pony that had spooked at an unexpected noise. The glancing blow had driven out her breath and filled her with nausea.

The second time was when she’d learned about Joshua’s ship sinking.

With an incoherent sound, she started forward.

Luke caught her around the waist. “Merritt, no. Stop.”

She writhed in his grasp, focused only on the scene in front of her.

“Merritt,” Luke persisted, grasping her chin and compelling her to look up at him. She blinked and subsided at the sight of her brother’s strained face. He stared down at her with intense dark eyes, the same color as her own. “Let me go look,” he said. “If it’s him, it . . . you may not want to see.” He paused. “Whatever happens, I’m here with you. Don’t forget that.”

Dazedly Merritt realized her younger brother, once a baby she’d helped to dress and bathe, and later a toddler she’d taught how to eat pudding with a spoon, had become a man she could rely on.

She set her jaw and nodded to let him know she wouldn’t fall apart.

Luke let go of her and went to push his way into the gathering. He crouched on his heels beside the form on the ground.

Seconds passed as if they were years. Five . . . ten . . . fifteen . . . while Merritt stood like a cemetery statue.

Remaining in a crouch, Luke twisted and gestured for her to come.


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