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Devil in Disguise: Chapter 2


The sky had begun to darken as they went back out to the wharf, and a lamplighter moved along a row of gas lamps. Merritt saw that the barge had departed for Deptford Buoys for another load of whisky. Its cargo had been unloaded and carried to the dock entrance.

“That’s mine,” MacRae said with a nod to a lone leather traveling trunk, repaired with a number of leather patches, that had been set amid a group of whisky casks.

Merritt followed the direction of his gaze. “Is there more?” she asked, thinking surely there had to be.

“No.”

Afraid she might have given offense, Merritt said hastily, “I call that very efficient packing.”

MacRae’s lips twitched. “You could call it no’ having very much to pack.”

As they went to retrieve the trunk, they passed a group of longshoremen and warehousemen gathered around Luke. The sight caused Merritt to glow with pride.

“My brother’s a very good manager,” she said. “When he started at Sterling Enterprises, he insisted on spending the first month loading and unloading cargo right beside the longshoremen. Not only did he earn their respect, he now understands more than anyone about how difficult and dangerous their work is. Because of him, we’ve installed the latest safety equipment and procedures.”

“It was also your doing,” MacRae pointed out. “You hold the purse strings, aye? There’s many a business owner who would choose profit over people.”

“I could never do that. My employees are good, hardworking men, and most of them have families to support. If one of them were injured, or worse, because I didn’t look after their safety . . .” Merritt paused and shook her head.

“I understand,” he said. “Distilling is a dangerous business as well.”

“It is?”

“Aye, there’s a risk of fire and explosions at nearly every part of the process.” They reached the trunk, and MacRae glanced over the crowd and across the wharf. “My men have gone to Deptford Buoys for the next load of casks, it looks like.”

“I’m sure you wish you’d gone with them,” Merritt said, trying to sound contrite.

MacRae shook his head, the creases at the outer corners of his eyes deepening as he looked down at her. “No’ at the moment.”

Something in his tone implied a compliment, and Merritt felt a little thrill of pleasure.

Grasping the trunk’s side handle, MacRae hefted it to his shoulder with ease.

They proceeded to warehouse number three, where the whisky casks were being loaded, and walked around to a locked door at the side. “This leads to the upstairs flat,” Merritt said, inserting and turning the key until the bolt slid back. “They’ll be your private rooms, of course. You’ll be able to come and go at will. But there’s no connecting door to the warehouse storage. That part of the building can only be accessed when you and I are there with a revenue officer, each of us with our own key.” She led the way up a narrow flight of stairs. “I’m afraid the flat has only cold running water. But you can heat water for a bath on the stove fire plate.”

“I can wash with cold water the same as hot,” he said.

“Oh, but not this time of year. You might catch a chill and come down with fever.”

Now MacRae sounded amused. “I’ve never been ill a day in my life.”

“You’ve never had fever?” Merritt asked.

“No.”

“Never a sore throat or cough?”

“No.”

“Not even a toothache?”

“No.”

“How remarkably annoying,” Merritt exclaimed, laughing. “How do you explain such perfect health?”

“Luck?”

“No one’s that lucky.” She unlocked the door at the top of the stairs. “It must be your diet. What do you eat?”

“Whatever’s on the table,” MacRae replied, following her into the flat and setting the trunk down.

Merritt pondered what little she knew about Scottish cuisine. “Porridge, I suppose.”

“Aye, sometimes.” Slowly MacRae began to investigate the room as they talked. It was simply furnished with a table and two chairs, and a small parlor stove with a single fire plate in the corner.

“I hope the flat is acceptable,” Merritt said. “It’s rather primitive.”

“The floor of my house is paved with stone,” he said dryly. “This is an improvement.”

Merritt could have bitten her tongue. It wasn’t at all like her to be so tactless. She tried to steer the conversation back on course. “You . . . you were telling me about your diet.”

“Well, mostly I was raised on milk, potatoes, dulse, fish—”

“I beg your pardon, did you say ‘dulse’? What is that, exactly?”

“A kind of seaweed,” MacRae said. “As a lad, it was my job to go out at low tide before supper and cut handfuls of it from the rocks on shore.” He opened a cupboard to view a small store of cooking supplies and utensils. “It goes in soup, or you can eat it raw.” He glanced at her over his shoulder, amusement touching his lips as he saw her expression.

“Seaweed is the secret to good health?” Merritt asked dubiously.

“No, milady, that would be whisky. My men and I take a wee dram every day.” Seeing her perplexed expression, he continued, “Whisky is the water of life. It warms the blood, keeps the spirits calm, and the heart strong.”

“I wish I liked whisky, but I’m afraid it’s not to my taste.”

MacRae looked appalled. “Was it Scotch whisky?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “Whatever it was, it set my tongue on fire.”

“It was no’ Scotch, then, but rotgut. Islay whisky starts as hot as the devil’s whisper . . . but then the flavors come through, and it might taste of cinnamon, or peat, or honeycomb fresh from the hive. It could taste of a long-ago walk on a winter’s eve . . . or a kiss you once stole from your sweetheart in the hayloft. Whisky is yesterday’s rain, distilled with barley into a vapor that rises like a will-o’-the-wisp, then set to bide its time in casks of good oak.” His voice had turned as soft as a curl of smoke. “Someday we’ll have a whisky, you and I. We’ll toast health to our friends and peace to our foes . . . and we’ll drink to the loves lost to time’s perishing, as well as those yet to come.”

Merritt stared at him, mesmerized. Her heart had begun to beat much too fast, and her face had turned hot for the second time that evening. “We’ll drink to the loves yet to come for your sake,” she managed to say, “but not mine.”

MacRae’s head tilted as he regarded her thoughtfully. “You dinna want to fall in love?”

Merritt turned to wander around the flat. “I’ve never cared for the phrase ‘falling in love,’ as if love were a hole in the ground. It’s a choice, after all.”

“Is it?” MacRae began to wander as well. He paused at the open archway of the main room to view the connecting bedroom, which contained a bed, dresser, and washstand. In one corner, a folding screen concealed a portable tin slipper tub and a modern water closet.

“Yes, a choice one must make according to common sense. I waited to marry until I found someone I knew would never break my heart.” Merritt paused with a bleak smile before adding, “Of course, my heart was broken anyway, when his steamer sank in the mid-Atlantic. Nothing would ever be worth going through that again.”

She looked up to find MacRae’s gaze on her, as pale and bright as a flicker of moonlight. He made no comment, but there was something curiously comforting about the way he looked at her, as if there were nothing she could say that he wouldn’t understand.

After a long moment, he turned and continued to explore the flat. Although the rooms were quite plain, Merritt had insisted on furnishing them with a few small luxuries: a soft tufted wool rug and upholstered chair, thick Turkish toweling and good white soap for washing. There were extra cotton quilted blankets for the bed, and white muslin curtains for the windows.

“You dinna think it will mend?” MacRae asked, and she realized he’d been thinking over what she’d said about her broken heart.

“It has already. But like most things broken and mended, it will never be the same.”

“You’re a young woman yet,” he pointed out, “still of an age for breeding. Will you no’ want bairns?”

Merritt blinked at his forwardness, before reminding herself that country folk were blunt about such matters. She decided to be equally frank. “I did, but as it turned out, I’m barren.”

MacRae absorbed that without expression. He examined the cast-iron hand pump at the kitchen sink, running his fingers over the lever. “There are always little ones who need taking in.”

“I might consider that someday. But for the time being, I have more than enough to occupy my time.” She paused. “What about you? Is there a sweetheart waiting for you back on Islay?”

“No.”

“Why not? You’re on the early side of your thirties, running a thriving business—”

“I wouldn’t say ‘thriving.’ No’ yet.” At her questioning glance, he explained, “After my father passed away—five years ago, come January—I took charge of the distillery, and discovered Da had been as bad at business as he was good at making whisky. The books were a shamble, and we were deep in debt. Now the debts have been paid, and the distillery equipment upgraded. But with so much to be done, I’ve had no time for sweethearting. To be sure, I’ve no’ met the woman who could tempt me away from a single life.”

Merritt’s brows lifted. “What kind of woman will she be?”

“I expect I’ll know when I find her.” MacRae took up the trunk and carried it to the bedroom.

“Shall I light the stove, and put on a kettle of water for you to wash with?” Merritt called after him.

Silence.

After a moment, MacRae leaned around the side of the archway to regard her with a frown.

“Thank you, milady, but I won’t be needing that.”

“Oh, dear. Well, washing with cold water will be better than nothing, I suppose.”

“I’m no’ going to wash,” he said shortly.

“It will take only a few minutes.”

“I’ve no reason to go to the docks all primpit up.”

“I wouldn’t call it primping,” Merritt said. “Just basic hygiene.” Seeing his stony expression, she added, “Arguing about it will take the same amount of time as actually doing it.”

“I can’t wash with you in the flat; there’s no door between this room and the next.”

“Very well, I’ll wait outside.”

MacRae looked outraged. “Alone?”

“I’ll be perfectly safe.”

“The wharf is crawling with navvies and thieves!”

“Oh, come, you’re making too much of it. I’ll wait on the stairs, then.” Now determined, Merritt fetched a large enameled jug from an open shelf, set it in the cast-iron sink, and reached for the pump handle. “But first, I’ll fill this with water.”

“That pump won’t work unless you prime it first,” MacRae informed her with a scowl.

“Yes it will,” she said brightly. “This is a modern design, with a special valve that maintains a permanent prime.” She took hold of the lever and pumped energetically. The cylinder sputtered and creaked and began to vibrate with accumulating pressure. She was perplexed as the spout remained dry. “Hmm. The water should be coming out by now.’

“Milady, wait—” He headed toward her in swift strides.

“It’s no trouble at all,” Merritt said, putting more effort into pumping the lever. “I’ll have it started soon.”

But the lever became almost impossible to push down, and then it seemed to lock at an upright angle, while the entire assembly groaned and shuddered.

She let out a yelp and hopped backward as pressurized water spewed from the cylinder cap.

Fast as a leopard, MacRae reached the pump and grappled with it, averting his face from the forceful spray. With a grunt of effort, he screwed the cylinder cap on more tightly, then struck the assembly base with the heel of his hand. The last of the water gurgled and gushed from the faucet into the sink.

Merritt hurried to fetch a dishcloth from the cabinet. “I’m so sorry,” she exclaimed, coming back to him. “I had no idea that would happen, or I’d never have—” She broke off with a squeak of surprise as he shook his head like a wet dog, sending droplets everywhere.

MacRae turned toward her. With dismay, Merritt saw the water had gone down his front. The shirt was plastered over his torso, and his face and hair were dripping.

“Oh, dear,” she said, apologetically holding out the dry dishcloth. “You’re all drookit again. Here, take this and . . .” Her voice faded as he ignored the offering and kept coming toward her. Mildly alarmed, she leaned back to avoid contact with his wet body. Her breath caught as he gripped the edge of the sink on either side of her.

“You,” he said flatly, “are a wee bully.”

Merritt parted her lips to protest, but as she looked up at him, she saw amusement sparkling in his eyes.

Somewhere amid a chaos of heartbeats and nerves, she felt laughter trying to break through, and the more she tried to hold it back, the worse it became.

“Poor man . . . you haven’t been dry since you s-set foot in England . . .”

Gasping, she began to dab at his face with the dishcloth, and MacRae held still. Water dripped from the locks hanging over his eyes, a few drops landing on her. She reached up to push his hair back. It felt like rich satin, the ends curling slightly against her fingers.

“I’m not a bully,” she told him, continuing to wipe his face and throat. A few more giggles burst out, making her clumsy. “I was being h-helpful.”

“You like telling people what to do,” he accused softly, his gaze tracing over her features.

“Not at all. Oh, I feel so misjudged.” But she was still laughing.

MacRae smiled, a flash of spendthrift charm amid the tawny beard. His teeth were very white. He was so gorgeous that Merritt’s fingers went nerveless and she dropped the dishcloth. Her insides were singing with giddy excitement.

She waited for him to step back. But he didn’t. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d stood so close to a man that she’d felt the touch of his breath on her skin.

A question hung suspended in the silence.

The temptation to touch him was too overwhelming to resist. Slowly, almost timidly, she reached up to his bearded jaw.

Her stomach went light and she felt oddly weightless, as if the floor beneath her feet had suddenly disappeared. The illusion seemed so real that she gripped his arms reflexively, his muscles whipcord-taut beneath the wet layer of his shirt. She looked up into his eyes, the searing pale blue of hottest flame.

Her touch had spurred his breathing into a new, ragged rhythm.

“Milady,” he said gruffly, “I’ll be relying on your common sense now. Because at the moment, I have none.”

Merritt’s mouth had gone dry. Attraction pulsed all through her, making her fingers tighten rhythmically on his arms like the kneading of a cat’s paws. “Wh-what about the honor of Scotland?” she managed to ask.

His head dipped lower, and she felt the brush of his lips and the coarse velvet of his beard against her forehead. An erotic sensation, rough and smooth all at once. She closed her eyes and wilted against the sink.

“The problem is . . . Scotsmen have a weakness.” His murmur went through her skin and thrummed at the quick of her body, as if her spine had been replaced by a violin string.

“They do?”

“Aye . . . for bonnie dark-haired lasses who try to boss them.”

“But I wasn’t,” she protested faintly, and felt the curve of his smile.

“A man knows when he’s being bossed.”

They stood together, motionless, with him braced over and around her.

His body was so close, so big and powerful. She wanted to explore the masculine terrain, charting every hard inch with her mouth and hands. It shocked her, how much she wanted him. Since Joshua’s death, those needs had been set aside.

But something about Keir MacRae had made it impossible to ignore them any longer.

Carefully he clasped her chin and tilted it upward. Her blood was racing. He stared down at her intently, his eyes bright with glints of frost and fire.

When he spoke, his low voice was flicked with wry humor.

“You’ll have your way, lass. I’ll go wash in the other room, since you’ve already made a start of it for me. As for you . . . dinna move. Dinna touch anything. Because I doubt a lady would want to see a dobber like me dashing about in the a’thegither.”

Which, Merritt thought dazedly, showed how little he knew about ladies.

MacRae pumped more water into the jug and carried it into the bedroom.

As he went into the next room, Merritt bent to retrieve the dishcloth and did her best to mop up the puddles on the floor. At the sounds from the next room—the clink of the porcelain basin at the washstand, the repeated sluices of water, some brushing and scrubbing—her imagination ran wild. She tried to distract herself by tidying the kitchen.

“Where are your men staying?” she eventually asked, wringing out the sodden dishcloth.

“They’ve taken rooms at the waterside tavern,” came his reply.

“Shall we have someone carry their belongings there?”

“No, they did that themselves when the barge docked, and took their supper at the public house. They were like to starve to death.”

“What about you?” She reached out to close the curtains over the window near the sink. “Have you had anything to eat?”

“That can wait ’til the morrow.”

Merritt was about to reply, but she froze, her hand suspended in midair. The window happened to be positioned to mirror the opening of the next room with remarkable clarity.

The naked form of Keir MacRae was reflected in the glass as he crossed the bedroom.

She went hot and cold all over, riveted as he bent to take a pair of trousers from the leather trunk. His movements were easy, graceful with a sense of coiled power, and that body—

“You’re going to work through the night without any dinner at all?” she heard herself ask.

—with those long, elegant expanses of tightly knit muscle and sinew—

“I’ll be fine,” he said.

—was magnificent. Fantasy wrought into flesh. And just before he fastened the trousers, she couldn’t help noticing the man was incredibly well-endowed.

Oh, this was beneath her, ogling a naked man. Had she no dignity? No decency? She had to stop before he caught her. Dragging her gaze away, she struggled to keep the conversation going.

“You would work more efficiently if you weren’t weak from hunger,” she called out.

The reply from the other room was slightly muffled. “I dinna have time for loafing at a public house.”

Merritt’s gaze darted back to the reflection in the window. She couldn’t help it.

MacRae was pulling a shirt over his head and pushing his arms through the sleeves, his torso flexing and rippling with muscle. It was the body of a man accustomed to pushing himself without mercy.

This was the most interesting and exciting thing to happen to Merritt in years. Perhaps in her entire adult life. Before her marriage, she would have been too shy to enjoy it. But now, as a widow who occupied a solitary bed . . . the sight of Keir MacRae’s body made her achingly aware of what she’d once had and now missed.

Sighing, Merritt pulled the curtains closed and moved away from the window. Although she was unable to summon a full measure of her usual good humor, she tried to sound cheerful when MacRae came back into the room.

“Well,” she said. “That’s much better.”

He looked refreshed and far more comfortable, wearing a knit wool waistcoat over the collarless shirt. His hair had been brushed back, but it was already falling over his forehead in shiny amber ribbons. The reek of whisky and sweat had been replaced by the scent of white soap and clean skin.

“I’ll admit, ’tis preferable to smelling like a tavern floor.” MacRae stopped in front of her, a glint of mischief in his eyes. “Now that you’ve taken charge of me, milady, what’s your next command?”

The question was casual, with a hint of friendly teasing. But she was stunned by the reservoir of feeling he’d unlocked in her, so vast she was drowning in it. A feeling of pure longing. And until this moment, she’d never even known it was there.

She tried to think of some clever reply. But the only thing her mind could summon was something impulsive and silly.

Kiss me.

She would never say something so brazen, of course. It would appear desperate or mad, and it would embarrass both of them. And for a business owner to behave in such an unprofessional manner with a customer—well, that didn’t bear thinking of.

But as Merritt saw his blank expression, a horrid realization made something inside her plunge.

“Oh, God,” she said faintly, her fingers flying to her mouth. “Did I say that out loud?”


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