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Devil in Disguise: Chapter 25


After Phoebe and Keir had departed for the railway station, Sebastian went back into the house, intending to finish reading reports from his estate managers. But he hesitated at the threshold of his study, reluctant to return to his desk. Frustration gnawed at him. It had gone against every instinct to let his son leave the sphere of his protection while still recovering from his wounds. Keir was a target, and if there wasn’t someone hunting for him now, there would be soon. Lord Ormonde would make certain of that.

Thinking of the selfish hatchet-faced bastard, and the hell he must have made Cordelia’s life, and most of all how he’d almost succeeded in killing Keir, Sebastian was filled with a cold white flame of fury. It was an unholy temptation to go find Ormonde and personally beat him to a pulp. However, murdering Ormonde, while highly satisfying, would result in consequences Sebastian wasn’t particularly fond of.

Why was Ethan Ransom taking so bloody long to report to him? Why hadn’t the hired assassin been caught and interrogated by now? He couldn’t have disappeared into thin air.

Brooding, Sebastian flexed the tense muscles of his shoulders and reached up to rub his tight neck.

Damn it, he thought wearily, I miss Evie.

When she was away, which thankfully was seldom, the world stopped spinning, the sun went dark, and life devolved to a grim exercise in endurance until she returned.

At the outset of their marriage, Sebastian had never dreamed a shy, awkward wallflower, who’d spoken with a stammer since childhood, would turn out to have such fearsome power over him. But Evie had immediately gained the upper hand by making it clear he would have nothing from her—not her affection, her body, or even her thoughts—unless he’d earned it. No woman had ever challenged him to be worthy of her. That had fascinated and excited him. It had made him love her.

Now he was left counting the remaining nights—four, to be precise—of waking in the middle of the night blindly searching the empty space beside him. And the hours—ninety-six, approximately—until Evie was in his arms again.

Christ, it was undignified to pine over one’s own wife.

He was the one who’d encouraged Evie to accept the invitation from their friends Sir George and Lady Sylvia Stevenson, the newly appointed British ambassador and his wife. The Stevensons and their children had recently settled in the magnificent embassy on the rue de Fauborg Saint-Honoré, only a few doors down from the Élysée Palace. You must bring Seraphina and Ivo as well, Lady Sylvia had written. My children will be so happy to have familiar friends visit their new home, and Paris in autumn is beautiful beyond compare.

Although a stream of cheerful postcards and letters had arrived from Evie for the past three weeks, they were a poor substitute for the sound of her voice, and her good morning kisses, and the quirks only a husband would know about. The adorable way her toes would wiggle in her sleep whenever he touched her foot. And the way she would bounce a little on her heels when she was especially happy or excited about something.

God, he needed her back in his bed. He needed it soon. Meanwhile, he would try to exhaust himself into not thinking about Evie.

He decided to go for a swim.

After the carriages had departed, Merritt retreated to the privacy of her room and sat in a cozy corner chair, having what her mother had always referred to as a “two-hanky wallow.” She wept, and mopped at her welling eyes, and blew her nose gustily. In a few minutes, the worst of it had passed, and she relaxed back in the chair as a sense of dull peacefulness settled over her.

“There,” she said aloud, clutching a sodden handkerchief. “All done. Now I must find something to do.” Perhaps she would work on her list of wonders. She would add the Great Wall of China to the itinerary. To her chagrin, a new sob caught in her throat, and another tear slid down. Fresh sorrow had escaped, ready to rampage again.

Holy Moses, she had to stop this.

She stood and went to the dresser for a fresh handkerchief, and paused as she heard a commotion from somewhere in the house. Good God, had someone been injured? Was it a brawl? There was the bang of a door being thrown open . . . feet pounding the stairs . . . a hoarse shout that sounded like her name.

She whirled around in alarm as someone burst into the room without knocking.

It was Keir, huge and disheveled, panting with trip-hammer force, as if he’d been running for his life. He stopped in his tracks, his fixed stare raising every hair on her body.

“What happened?” Merritt asked, utterly bewildered. “Why are you here? You . . . you’ll miss the train.”

“Merry.”

Chills of astonishment went down her spine. She couldn’t make a sound, only watched with wide eyes as he came to her.

Breathing raggedly, Keir reached for her hand and pressed something into her palm. Her gaze fell to the trembling strip of paper in her hand, and she saw their typed names.

The paper fell from her nerveless fingers. She looked into his eyes, light and burning like twin stars. Oh, God, he’d remembered.

“Keir,” she said, trying to sound very calm, “it doesn’t matter now. Everything’s been settled. That night was a diversion for both of us, a lovely one, but . . . there’s no need to make a muckle into a mickle.” She paused, thinking she might not have said that right. “Keir—”

But the words were blotted out as he pulled her against him, his mouth seizing hers.

Somewhere outside this room, life rushed by like scenery outside a railway carriage, melting into a mad watercolor blur. But here in the compass of his arms, time had stopped. The ticking minutes caught fire and vanished into smoke. There was only the urgency of Keir’s embrace, the rough, vital kisses, the strength of him all around her. She’d never expected to feel this again.

Her hands groped around his neck, her fingers lacing through the thick shorn locks at the back of his head. The hard, clean contours of Keir’s face rubbed against hers, a different feeling than the coarse tickle of his beard. But the mouth was the same, full and erotic, searingly hot. He consumed her slowly, searching with his tongue, licking deep into each kiss. Wild quivers of pleasure went through her, weakening her knees until she had to lean against him to stay upright. As her head tilted back, a forgotten tear slid from the outer corner of her eye to the edge of her hairline. His lips followed the salty track, absorbing the taste.

Keir cradled her cheek in his hand, his shaken whisper falling hotly against her mouth. “Merry, love . . . my heart’s gleam, drop of my dearest blood . . . you should have told me.”

Merritt heard her own weak reply as if from a distance. “I thought . . . in some part of your mind . . . you might have wanted to forget.”

“No.” Keir crushed her close, nuzzling hard against her hair and disheveling the pinned-up coils. “Never, love. The memory slipped out of reach for a moment, is all.” His hand coasted slowly up and down her spine. “I’m so damned sorry for the way I’ve been trying to keep you at a distance. I dinna know you were already inside my heart.” He paused before adding wryly, “Mind, I did have to jump from a three-story window, with little to break the fall but my own hard head.” Taking one of her hands, he pressed her palm over his pounding heartbeat. “But you were still in here. Your name is carved so deep, a million years could no’ erase it.”

Completely undone, Merritt buried her face against his chest. “This is impossible,” she said in despair. “You shouldn’t have come back. We have no future. I wouldn’t be happy in your life, and you wouldn’t be happy in mine.”

Although the words were smothered in his shirtfront, Keir managed to decipher them.

Softly he asked, “Would you be happy without me?”

Merritt swallowed hard. “No,” she admitted wretchedly. “We’re doomed, separately or together.”

Keir cupped a hand over her head and gathered her deeper into his embrace. She felt a tremor run through him, and for a moment she thought he might be weeping. But no—he was laughing.

“You find this amusing?” she asked indignantly.

He shook his head, swallowing back a chuckle and clearing his throat. “I was only thinking if we’re doomed either way . . . we may as well stay together, aye?”

Before she could reply, he bent and caught her lips with his, coaxing a response she couldn’t hold back. Nothing was under her control. She was as reckless as a girl in her teens, overwhelmed with new emotions and ready to throw away everything for the sake of love.

Except even as a teenage girl, she’d never felt anything like this.

Keir was kissing her harder now, ravishing slowly, letting her feel his hunger, his need.

Unbelievably long, sensuous kisses . . . sometimes languid, sometimes fierce . . . kisses that made impossible promises.

A breath rasped in his throat as he let his lips wander gently over her face. “Merry, lass . . . I have to tell you what that night meant to me. How beautiful it was . . . how you quenched a thirst in my soul.”

“Keir,” she managed to say, “we must be careful not to confuse the physical act with deeper feelings.”

He drew back to look down at her with a frown. “I dinna mean when we fooked.”

Merritt flinched as if he’d just dashed cold water in her face. “For heaven’s sake, please don’t put it that way.”

His brows lifted slightly at her vehemence. “How should I say it, then?”

After sorting through various possibilities, she suggested, “Sleeping together?”

Keir looked sardonic. “Neither of us slept a wink.”

“Then . . . ‘when we had relations.’”

He snorted, obviously loathing that suggestion. “My word means the same thing, and ’tis shorter.”

“The point you were about to make . . . ?” Merritt prompted.

“Oh, aye. What made the night special was how we talked for hours, just the two of us. The ease of it . . . like floating on salt water.” A soft distance entered his gaze as he continued. “We were in our own world. I’d never felt that with anyone before, but I knew I could tell you things I’d never told anyone. And when we slept together . . . that was part of the conversation, only without words.”

Merritt was speechless.

He had to stop saying wonderful, endearing things in that accent, and standing there with that stray lock of gold-burnished hair falling over his eyes . . . how was a woman supposed to think straight?

She went to him, pulled his head down to hers, and silenced him with her lips. Only as a necessary measure to stop him from talking. Not because she wanted him. Not because the silky, delicious warmth of his mouth was impossible to resist.

Keir’s arms went around her reflexively, his lips sealing over hers. He explored her with avid hunger, stroking and teasing, awakening deep pangs of delight. One of his hands slid low on her spine, keeping her pressed close and tight. His body was so hard, the aggressive shape of him nudging against her, and she went hot all over at the remembered sensation of him filling her.

Mortified by the awareness that she’d gone wet, her intimate flesh throbbing, Merritt struggled out of his arms.

Keir set her free with a breathless laugh. “Careful, lass. One stray jab of your wee elbow would send me to the floor.”

She went to the window and pressed the burning side of her face to a cool glass pane. “This is madness,” she said. “This is how lives are ruined. People are caught up in the pleasure of the moment without stopping to consider the consequences. There are so many reasons we shouldn’t be together, and only one reason we should, and it’s not even a good reason.”

“’Tis the only reason that matters.”

“You know that’s not true, or you wouldn’t have tried so hard to keep from forming an attachment to me.”

“’Tis no’ an attachment,” he said brusquely. “You’re in my blood.” He came to the window and propped one of his shoulders against the frame. Mellow autumn light gilded his inhumanly perfect features.

“I wouldn’t have left on that train today, Merry. I’d have come back even if I hadn’t remembered that night. No’ a minute after the carriage started on the drive, I was ready to leap out of my skin. It felt wrong to be leaving you. Unnatural. My body can only bide so much distance from yours.”

Merritt forced herself to turn away from him and go to the washstand. Clumsily she poured cold water onto a linen hand towel. “I’ve always prided myself on my common sense,” she muttered. “I’ve always had definite views of marriage, and I waited for years until I found a man who met the requirements on my list.”

“You had a list?”

“Yes, of qualities I desired in a partner.”

“Like shopping?” From his tone, it was obvious he found the notion entertaining and nonsensical.

“I was organizing my thoughts,” Merritt said, holding the compress against her sore, swollen eyes. “You wouldn’t give a dinner party without first writing out a menu, would you?”

Keir approached her from behind, reaching around her to brace his hands on either side of the washstand. “I’ve never been to a dinner party,” he said. He bent to kiss the back of her neck, and she felt the shape of his smile against her skin. “How well do I suit your list?” he asked, his breath stirring the tiny wisps of hair at her nape. “Not at all, I’d wager.”

Merritt set down the compress and turned to lean back against the washstand. “The list doesn’t suit you. A whisky distiller from a remote Scottish island was not what I had in mind.”

He grinned at her. “But you couldn’t help yourself.”

“No,” she admitted. “You’re perfect as you are. I wouldn’t want to change you.”

“Life changes everyone,” he pointed out. “I’m no’ proof against that. None of us knows what’s in store.”

That reminded Merritt of a subject that needed to be brought up. She folded her arms against a sudden chill. “Keir,” she asked, “has all your memory returned, or only part of it?”

“’Tis coming back in pieces, like a puzzle. Why?”

“The day I showed you to the warehouse flat, we talked about why I hadn’t had children with Joshua. Do you remember what I told you?”

Keir shook his head.

“I’m barren,” she said flatly, her fingers flexing into her upper arms. “Just before my husband died, I visited a London specialist to find out why I hadn’t been able to conceive.” She paused, recalling the term the doctor had used . . . uterine fibroids . . . but at the moment it wasn’t necessary to go into such detail. “After the examination, he said I had a condition of the womb—it wouldn’t endanger my health—but it’s virtually impossible for me to have a baby. If I’d wanted to become a mother, he said, I should have tried much sooner, and there might have been a chance. By the time I finally married, however, it was too late.”

Keir was expressionless. After a long silence, he asked gently, “What did your husband say?”

“Joshua was overwhelmed with sadness. It was difficult to accept he’d never have children of his own. No son to inherit the business he’d built. He didn’t blame me in the least, but it was the greatest disappointment of his life. It sent him into a deep melancholy. I tried to comfort him, but it was impossible, since I was the cause of his grief. That was why he went on that last trip—he thought perhaps spending a little time away from me, and seeing family and old friends in Boston might lift his spirits. So in a way, his death was—”

Merritt paused, surprised by the words that had nearly sprung out.

My fault.

In the days and weeks after her husband’s passing, she’d discovered grief wasn’t a single feeling but one made of many layers, mortared together with if-onlys. If only she hadn’t turned out to be barren. If only she’d done a better job of consoling Joshua and lifting his depressed spirits, he wouldn’t have gone on the trip. If only she’d never married him in the first place, he would have married someone else, and he’d still be alive.

She knew logically that she hadn’t been to blame, it had simply been an accident.

Joshua’s ship hadn’t been the first to go down at sea, nor would it be the last. But deep down she’d harbored a sliver of guilt, like one of those splinters so small it could stay lodged in a finger for years.

Keir’s alert gaze took in every tiny variation of her expression. His chest rose and fell with a long breath, and he pushed away from the washstand with startling abruptness. He began to pace around the room, not like someone deep in thought but like a caged lion.

Merritt watched him in growing confusion. Was he sorry for her sake? Was he bitterly disappointed, as Joshua had been?

No . . . from the way he raked his hands through his hair, from his deepening flush and darkening scowl . . . and the twitching muscle in his clenched jaw . . .

“Are you angry?” she asked, bewildered. “With me?”


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