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Devil in Disguise: Chapter 24

Merritt had no illusion that Uncle Sebastian would be able to persuade Keir to stay at Heron’s Point. She’d seen the tension in Keir’s posture, the way he’d gripped one hand inside the other. It was the look of a man whose nerves had been chafed raw. Short of chaining him to a heavy article of furniture, there was no way to keep him from leaving, regardless of what danger awaited him.

She supposed she should make plans for her own departure. She would leave tomorrow morning.

A feeling of utter gloom rolled toward her like a bank of storm clouds. She couldn’t let it engulf her.

Before she returned to London, she would go to Hampshire. She needed to see her family, especially her mother, who would surround her with inexhaustible warmth and vitality. Mama would hug her tightly, and demand to hear every detail, and send for a tray of sweets from the kitchen, and ask the butler to bring wine, and they would talk for hours. By the end of it, life would seem bearable again. Yes, she would go home to Stony Cross Park tomorrow morning.

Clinging to her resolve, Merritt wrote a telegram and dispatched a footman to post it, and went to find a quiet place to read correspondence. She settled on the tapestry room, a cozy wood-paneled space hung with glowing French tapestries. Sitting at a small giltwood desk positioned in front of a window, she read a detailed letter from Luke about meeting with insurance executives, and putting a vessel into dry dock for repair, and getting a builder’s estimates on constructing a new bonded warehouse.

What a fine manager Luke was turning out to be, she thought with pride. Reliable, attentive to detail, confident in charting a difficult path. A natural leader. She couldn’t imagine leaving the company in better hands than his as she went on to the next stage of her life . . . whatever that turned out to be.

She could stay in London, surround herself with people, go to dinners and parties, and become a patroness of worthy causes. But that would be far too similar to her life with Joshua. She’d outgrown all that. She wanted something new, something challenging.

Before she made any decisions, perhaps she should travel abroad. Italy, Germany, Spain, Greece, China, Egypt . . . She could visit the seven wonders of the world and keep a journal. What were the seven wonders? She tried to recall the poem a governess once taught her to help remember them. How did it go? . . . The pyramids first, which in Egypt were laid . . . Next Babylon’s garden, which Amytis made . . . Now that she thought of it, who had made the list in the first place? In a world full of wonders, seven seemed an awfully stingy number.

Gloom started to creep back over her again.

I’ll compile my own list of wonders, she decided, far more than seven. She would become an adventuress. She might even try mountain climbing. Not a large, life-threatening mountain, but a friendly mountain, with a nearby resort that served afternoon tea. Being an adventuress didn’t mean one had to suffer, after all.

A sound at the threshold caught her attention, and she turned in her chair.

Keir had come to the open doorway. He leaned a broad shoulder against the jamb with his hands tucked in his trouser pockets. He was rumpled, sandy, his form loose-limbed and athletic. The outdoor air had heightened the color in his face until the brilliant light blue eyes were almost startling in contrast. The carelessly disheveled layers of his golden-wheat hair practically begged to be smoothed and played with. Too handsome for words, this man.

As Keir stared at her intently, Merritt felt her insides turn clattery and heavy, like a drawer of jumbled flatware. This was it, she realized. The moment he would leave her for good. Again.

She felt her face arranging itself into the expression of a woman far too well-mannered to fall to pieces. “How did it go?” she asked.

“Better than I expected,” Keir admitted, and paused. “He was crabbit after I told him I wouldn’t change my mind about leaving. But he said he wouldn’t stand in my way if I agreed to stay at his club tonight. He says I’ll be safer there.”

“You will,” Merritt assured him. “Jenner’s is well guarded.”

“I also had to promise I’d let one of the night porters go with me to Islay,” Keir said with a scowl. “And let the porter stay close by until Ethan Ransom says I’m no longer in danger.”

“I think a bodyguard is an excellent idea.”

“But a porter’s no’ a bodyguard . . .’tis a waiter, aye?”

“Not always,” Merritt said. “There are very unsafe areas in St. James, and so the porters at Jenner’s—night porters in particular—have been trained to deal with all kinds of situations. Many of them are former constables or security men.”

Keir didn’t appear impressed by the information. “Devil knows where I’ll be putting him,” he muttered. “He’ll have to sleep in the cowshed.”

Merritt stood and smoothed her skirts. “Did the conversation end on a pleasant note?” she asked hopefully. “Are you and Uncle Sebastian on better terms now?”

Keir shrugged uncomfortably and came farther into the room, gazing over the tapestries. “I dinna know,” he admitted. “He wants to make up for lost time. And I think he may have a notion of turning a rough diamond into a polished stone.”

“But you don’t want to be polished?” Merritt asked gently.

“I’m no’ a diamond in the first place.”

She smiled as she went to him. “I disagree on that point.” An earthy but appealing mixture of scents clung to him, smoke, sea air, a hint of wet dog, the sweet tang of whisky on his breath.

“I’m no’ inferior,” Keir said, “only different. My life suits me—why change it?” Shoving his hands deeper in his pockets, he frowned and paced. “I told Kingston to end the probate,” he muttered. “If I renounce the trust, which I never wanted in the first place, Ormonde will have no reason to get rid of me.”

“But the trust is your birthright,” Merritt protested. “Your mother wanted you to have it—”

“That’s what Kingston said.”

“—and Lord Ormonde may still try to have you killed regardless.”

“He said that too.” Looking surly, Keir ducked his head and scrubbed his fingers through the short hair at the back of his neck. “But I told the duke if I went back to Islay and disavowed any connection to the Challons, that would likely put an end to it.”

“Oh, Keir,” she said softly. How that must have hurt Uncle Sebastian.

“Then he reached in his waistcoat and took out a wee lock on a watch chain.”

“The one from your mother?”

“Aye. He asked if I wanted to try the key on it.”

“And did you?” Merritt asked gently.

Keir shook his head, his color rising, his gaze troubled and guilty.

Tenderness washed through her as she reflected that through no fault of his own, he’d been thrown into a situation with no easy choices. “I’m sure you’re worried about all the things that key might unlock,” she said. “How could you not be? Since you arrived in England, you’ve had to endure more upheaval and pain than any of the rest of us. What you need is time to recover and reflect on all of it. Eventually you’ll know the right thing to do.”

His shoulders relaxed, and he turned to face her fully. “What will you do?”

Merritt summoned a smile. “You needn’t worry about me. I expect I’ll be making plans to travel abroad. My brother Luke will take care of all the issues related to the warehouse insurance, and make sure you’re reimbursed.”

Keir gave a brief shake of his head to indicate he wasn’t concerned about that.

The half-hour chime of the desk clock floated through the air as delicately as a soap bubble. Merritt felt her heart sinking, anchoring her so deeply in this moment of loss, it seemed she would never be able to move on to another feeling. “You’ll have to leave soon,” she said, “if you’re going to reach the station in time.”

“The duke said Culpepper would pack for me. All I have to do is wash up.”

She smiled at him blindly. “Let this be our good-bye. I hereby release you from our engagement. You were a very nice fiancé”—she paused to give him a mock-reproving glance—“although I do think you might have tried to kiss me at least once.”

“’Tis only that I know better.” Keir smiled slightly, his gaze traveling over her, collecting every detail. “Scotland has a long history of border warfare, ye ken. There are many ways to attack a fortified hold: battering rams, siege towers, cannons . . . but the best strategy is to wait.” He reached out to touch a loose tendril of her hair and stroke it gently behind her ear. “Sooner or later,” he continued, “the drawbridge has to be lowered. And that’s when the invaders force their way through.” His eyes held her fast in silver heat. “If I let you slip past my guard, Merritt . . . I’d be leveled to the ground.”

“Then we’re fortunate that didn’t happen,” she managed to say.

He took both her hands and lifted them to his lips. “Lady Merritt Sterling . . .” His voice was slightly hoarse. “I’m glad to have met you. I owe you my life. And though I shouldn’t say it . . . you’re everything I’ve ever wanted in a woman, and more.” His fingers tightened briefly before letting go. “’Tis the ‘more’ that’s the problem.”

“I think we would all agree it was a peculiar visit,” Phoebe told Keir dryly, as the carriage rolled along the drive leading away from the estate at Heron’s Point. They were followed by another carriage conveying the nanny, nursemaid, and footman. She cuddled Eden on her lap, gently shaking a carved wooden rattle in front of her. The baby’s gaze followed the toy with rapt attention. “I do wish my mother had been there,” Phoebe continued. “You would have liked her tremendously. But I suppose it’s soon for you to start meeting the rest of the family.”

“I may never want to meet them,” Keir said. “Or at least, no’ for a while.”

Phoebe regarded him pensively. “Merritt said anyone in your situation would feel overwhelmed, and we must let you set the pace.” She smiled. “But I hope you don’t think I’m going to let you vanish into the proverbial Scottish mist, never to be seen again. You need a sister, and I happen to be excellent at sistering.”

Keir responded with a distracted nod. The mention of Merritt’s name had infused his blood with restless, uneasy energy.

After saying good-bye to her in the tapestry room, Keir had gone to bathe and change into the traveling clothes Culpepper had laid out for him. Only for traveling, the valet had emphasized, as they were made of heavier, darker fabrics designed to withstand the rigors and filth of the journey.

When it was time to depart for the railway station, Kingston had gone out to the front drive to see them all off. He’d helped Phoebe and Eden into the carriage, then turned to Keir.

“I’ll visit you on Islay soon,” Kingston had said in a tone that would brook no argument. “Naturally I’ll send information from Ethan Ransom as soon as I receive it. In the meantime, you’re to take no chances, and you’ll hold to our agreement about the porter. I’ve already wired one of the club managers, and he’s making the arrangements.” To Keir’s surprise, the duke had handed him his familiar folding wallet. “This is yours, I believe.”

It had been filled with a thick wad of Bank of England notes.

“What’s all this?” Keir had asked blankly.

“You’ll need cash for the journey. No, for God’s sake, don’t argue, we’ve done enough of that today.” The duke had seemed pleased that Keir had dutifully tucked the fat wallet inside his coat. “Be safe, my boy. Look sharp, and don’t let down your guard.”

“Aye. Thank you.” They had exchanged a handshake, a good solid grip that had imparted a surprising measure of reassurance.

Keir glanced out the carriage window as the team of horses pulled them along the graveled drive with gathering momentum. He felt uncomfortable in his own skin. Tangled up in something, the way kelp, with all its leathery strings and straps, could snare an unwary swimmer off Islay’s shore. Random muscles in his arms and legs twitched with the need to walk or run, but all he could do was sit.

“What are you going to do about Merritt?” Phoebe asked.

“Nothing,” he said gruffly. “What needs doing?”

“You’re not going to write to her? Visit her?”

“I bid her farewell, and that’s the end of it.”

“I suppose that’s for the best. Although the two of you did seem to have . . . what’s the word . . . an affinity?”

Keir sent her a dark glance. “Some birds can swim and some fish can fly. But they still dinna belong together.”

“Yet another fish analogy,” Phoebe marveled.

The bulk of the overstuffed wallet was bothersome. Keir reached into his coat and fished it out. Brooding, he began to sort through the cash in the wallet, discovering a variety of denominations . . . one-pound notes, fivers, tenners . . . so much that it wouldn’t allow the wallet to stay folded. He would give some of it to the footmen and carriage drivers, he decided, and began to remove a wad of notes.

A little slip of paper fell from the side pocket of the wallet, fluttering to the carriage floor like the slender leaf of a rowan tree. With effort, Keir clasped one hand to his ribs and bent to retrieve it. He sat up and regarded it curiously.

Mr. Keir MacRae Lady Merritt Sterling

The names had been typed . . . but why? . . . what for? . . .

Bits and pieces of memory whirled in his head . . . thoughts wheeling just beyond reach. As he struggled blindly to catch hold of something, make sense of the tumult, he heard Merritt’s voice . . . stay for one night just one . . . and there was the smell of rain and the cool darkness of night, and the warmth of a bed . . . the tender plump curves of a woman’s breasts, and the hot clasp of her body pulling at him, squeezing in voluptuous pulsation, and the sweet, wracking culmination as she cried out his name. And there was the sight of her in candlelight, flames dancing in guttering pools of wax, catching glimmers from her eyes, hair, skin . . . and the glorious freedom of yielding everything, telling her everything, while inexhaustible delight welled around them. And the despair of leaving, the physical pain of putting distance between them, the sensation of being pulled below the surface of the sea, looking up from airless depths to an unreachable sky. Tap. He saw Lady Merritt’s fingertip pressing a typewriter key. Tap. Tap. Tiny metal rods flicked at a spool of inked ribbon, and letters emerged.

Keir was panting now, clutching the slip of paper, while his brain sorted and spun, and pin tumblers aligned, a key turned, and something unlocked.

“Merry,” he said aloud, his voice unsteady. “My God . . . Merry.”

Phoebe was looking at him with concern, asking something, but he couldn’t hear over the wild drum of his heartbeat.

Turning too quickly in his seat, Keir ignored the stab of discomfort in his ribs as he hammered the side of his fist on the panel of the driver’s box. As soon as the carriage stopped on the drive, he told Phoebe brusquely, “Go on without me.”

Before she could reply, he climbed out of the carriage and headed back to the house at a full-bore run.


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