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Devil in Disguise: Chapter 3

MacRae swallowed hard before replying in a mere scrape of sound. “Aye.”

Merritt was flooded with the deepest, fiercest blush of her life. “Could you . . . do you think . . . you might pretend you didn’t hear?”

He shook his head, his own color rising. After what seemed an eternity, he replied huskily, “No’ if it’s something you want.”

Was he asking for permission? Encouragement? She couldn’t seem to catch up to her own heartbeats. Every inch of skin was on fire. “I don’t suppose it . . . might be something you would want?”

She was always so composed—she was known for it. But at the moment she was all dither and turmoil, standing there in front of him.

Her mind flailed for a way to end the awful tension. She would make light of it. She would tell him it had been a frivolous comment at the end of a long day, and she hadn’t meant it, and then she would laugh and—

MacRae drew closer and took her head in his hands. His thumbs caressed the edge of her jaw, the light rasp of calluses causing gooseflesh to rise everywhere. Holy Moses, he was really going to do it. She was about to be kissed by a stranger.

Too late to make light of anything now. What have I done? She stared up at him with wide eyes, the dissonant notes of nerves and tension joining in a long, sweet chord of desire.

The crescents of his lashes, dark with gold tips, lowered slightly as he looked down at her. There was no place to hide from that piercing gaze. She felt so terribly exposed, every bit as naked as he’d been a few minutes ago.

His head bent, and his mouth found hers with a pressure as soft as snowfall.

She’d thought he might be rough or impatient, maybe a bit clumsy . . . she’d expected anything but the gently teasing caress that coaxed her lips apart before she was even aware of it. He tasted her with the tip of his tongue, a sensation that went down to her knees and weakened them. She felt herself list like a ship unable to right itself, but he gathered her firmly against him, his supportive arms closing around her. The tender focus on her mouth deepened until it had gone on longer than any kiss in her life, and still she wanted more.

He kissed her as if it were not the first time but the last, as if the world were about to end, and every second was worth a lifetime. He feasted on her with the craving of years. Blindly she caught at his mouth with hers, while her fingers tangled in his hair. The textures of him—plush velvet, rough bristle, wet silk—stimulated her beyond bearing. She’d never known desire like this, a swoon that kept deepening into more and more exquisite feeling.

All too soon, his mouth lifted, and to Merritt’s eternal embarrassment, she whimpered and tried to pull him back to her.

“No, darlin’,” he whispered. “You’ll turn me to a live coal on the floor.”

His mouth drifted to the tender angle beneath her jaw and nuzzled gently.

She tried to remember how to breathe. How to stand without her legs collapsing.

“Milady,” she heard him say quietly. When she didn’t, couldn’t, respond, he tried again. “Merritt.”

She loved the sound of her name on his lips, ghosted with a slight burr. Tipping her head back, she stared into his cool, bright eyes.

“No’ for the world would I do you any harm,” MacRae murmured, “or have it rumored that you’ve lowered yourself.” Carefully he released her and stepped back. “That’s why this will never happen again.”

He was right. Merritt knew that. Reputations had been destroyed with far less cause than this. Even with the protection of a powerful family, she could still be harmed by scandal and alienated from good society. And she had no desire to live as an outcast. She liked having dinner with friends, attending dances and plays, and riding in the park. She liked going to church, attending holiday festivals, and belonging to women’s clubs and charity organizations. The public sympathy she’d received since her husband’s passing had allowed her to make some unconventional choices, such as running his company herself. But all that sympathy could be squandered in one careless moment.

She let out an unsteady breath, smoothed her skirts, and worked on recollecting herself.

“We don’t have much time if we’re to find something for you to eat before we return to the loading dock,” she said, rather amazed at how normal she sounded.

MacRae gave her an adamant look. “I’ve already said I’ll take no dinner, and that’s my last word on the matter.”

The wee bully had her way, of course. She towed Keir in the opposite direction of the warehouse dock, promising it wouldn’t take long; they would purchase something from a street seller. Something that had already been made and could be eaten right there in public. He would feel much better, she assured him, and then her mind would be eased on his behalf.

Keir didn’t object as strongly as he could have, partly because he was so hungry, his insides were fit to rattle like an empty churn. But mostly it was because this was the last time he would have this woman to himself, and despite his worries over the whisky shipment, he wanted a few more minutes with her.

He was still stunned by what had happened in the flat.

He was sure he hadn’t kissed her the way a gentleman would. Thankfully, she hadn’t seemed to mind. He’d tried to hold back, but it had been impossible. That mouth . . . sweet as honey from the comb. And the way she had molded bonelessly to him. She’d felt so exquisite in his arms, so fine and lush and warm.

He would relive that kiss in a thousand dreams. It had been as unlike anything that had happened in his life before, as it would be from everything that came after.

As they made their way through the filthy environs of the South London docks, he kept Merritt close beside him. It wasn’t at all a place for her. The pavement was littered with refuse, the wicket gates and walls were plastered with faded advertisements and obscene images, and the windows of slop shops and public houses were covered with grime. Noise came in layers: steam cranes and sounds of construction, ships’ bells and blasts, jingling carts, hooves and wheels, and the endless din of human voices.

“How invigorating,” Merritt exclaimed, glancing around the scene with satisfaction.

He responded with a noncommittal grunt.

“Being in the thick of things,” she continued, “where ships have docked with cargo from all over the world: pine from the West Indies, oranges from Seville, and tea from China. Yesterday one of our warehouses was stocked with ten thousand bundles of cinnamon, and the smell was glorious.” She let out a satisfied sigh. “How busy and alive this place is. Look at all these people!”

“Aye,” Keir said, gazing dourly at the milling crowd around them.

“The excitement of London always makes the family estate in Hampshire seem dull and quiet. There’s nothing to do but fish, hunt, or walk through the countryside.”

Keir almost smiled at that, thinking she’d just described his ideal day. “You dinna go back often?” he asked.

“Hardly ever since . . . well, since I had to start managing Sterling Enterprises. Fortunately, my family comes to London all the time.” They came to a penny pie shop, and she exclaimed, “Here we are.” Patrons had lined up in front of the shop, the queue extending along the pavement. Appetizing smells of hot pastry crust and fillings of minced beef or sweetened fruit drifted out from the doorway in a rich current. “This place is one of my favorites,” Merritt said. “The pie maker keeps a clean shop, and always uses good ingredients.” She assessed the size of the crowd with a slight frown. “Bother. The queue is too long.”

“Are you sure—” Keir began, his gaze riveted on the little pies being carried out by customers. Each pie, with its flaky lid punctured at the top to let out fragrant steam, had been nestled in its own paraffined cardboard box. He could have eaten a dozen of them, boxes included.

“I’ll take you to a food stall where we’ll find something much faster,” Merritt said, striding purposefully along the street.

They walked past offerings displayed on trestle boards and tables . . . puddings, sliced beef, boiled eggs, paper scoops filled with pickles, olives, salted nuts, or hot green peas glistening with bacon fat. There were roasted potatoes wrapped in waxed paper, crisp slivers of fried fish, smoked oysters crusted with salt, and cones of hardbake sweetmeats or brandy balls. Just a few minutes earlier, Keir had been willing to overlook his hunger in favor of more important concerns. Now that he was surrounded by this profusion of food, however, his empty stomach informed him that nothing else would happen until it was filled.

Merritt stopped at a stall featuring sandwiches, bread and butter, and cake.

“Evenin’, milady,” the stallkeeper said with a respectful tip of his hat.

“Mr. Gamp,” she said warmly. “I’ve brought this gentleman to try the best ham sandwich in London.”

“Smoked Hampshire ham, that’s the secret,” the stallkeeper said proudly as he set out a pasteboard box. “That, and the missus bakes the bread herself. Barm-leavened, to make it soft and sweet.” Deftly he cut one of the sandwiches on the board into triangles. The sturdy slices of bread had been filled with a plump stack of thinly sliced ham and a layer of watercress.

“How much?” Keir asked, swallowing hard at the sight.

“For tuppence, you’ll get a sandwich and a mug of beer,” Gamp replied.

It was twice as much as the same meal would have cost in Islay. Keir handed over the money without a quibble.

After ceremoniously placing a wrapped sandwich in the pasteboard box, Gamp added a pickle and an individual loaf of currant cake, and said to Merritt, “Extries for any friend of yours, milady.”

She beamed at him. “You’re too kind, Mr. Gamp.”

Keir went with Merritt to stand beneath the eaves of a top-heavy building, where he proceeded to wolf down his food. Ordinarily he would have felt self-conscious, eating in front of a lady—while standing on a public street, no less—but he was too hungry to care.

After he’d finished the sandwich and drained the beer, Keir was filled with fresh energy. He felt as if he could stock every cask of the whisky shipment into the warehouse singlehandedly.

He went to drop the empty mug into a bin beneath Gamp’s stall table, and admitted to Merritt, “You could say, ‘I told you so,’ and you’d be in the right of it.”

She laughed. “I never say, ‘I told you so.’ It never helps, and everyone hates hearing it.”

Flecks of light danced over her cheeks, scattered by the nearby perforated iron firepots at the stall. It made her appear to sparkle like a creature out of Scottish lore. Beautiful women were often dangerous in those stories: disguised as a water spirit or a witch, to ensnare a hapless male and lead him to his fate. No escape, no mercy. As a young boy, Keir had always wondered why the men hadn’t tried to resist.

“Ah, weel,” his father had explained, “they’re enchanters of men, bonnie women are, and when they beckon, we can’t help but follow.”

“I wouldn’t!” Keir had said indignantly. “I’d stay home and take care of Mither.”

There had come a chuckle from the stove, where his mother had been frying potatoes. “A good laddie, y’are,” she’d called out.

His father had grinned and stretched out before the hearth, lacing his fingers together over his middle. “Someday, lad, you’ll ken exactly why a man falls to temptation, even knowing the better of it.”

And, as in most things, Keir thought ruefully, his father had been right.

It was only a short walk back to the wharf, past houses and shops with light glowing from windows and in glass cases of streetlamps. Merritt began to dread the moment when they reached the warehouse and this peculiar but delightful interlude with a stranger would be over. How long it had been since she’d felt this giddiness, as if she were being courted. She’d forgotten how much she’d liked it. How odd that the man to remind her was a rough-and-ready whisky distiller from a remote Scottish island.

MacRae accompanied her to Sterling Enterprises, and stopped with her just inside the entrance. “When will you go home?” he asked, as if he were concerned about leaving her there.

“I’ll take my leave after I meet with Mr. Gruinard, the supervising exciseman,” Merritt said. “He has an office here in the building. I’m sure I can persuade him to wait at least until noon tomorrow before interfering with the bond terms.”

The hint of a smile lurked in the corners of his lips as he stared down at her. “How could anyone refuse you?”

That tempting forelock of hair had fallen over his forehead again. Merritt had to clench her hand to keep from reaching up and stroking it back. “You mustn’t hesitate to come to me if there’s anything you need,” she told him. “Recommendations for places to go, or introductions to someone—or if there’s a problem with the flat—I’m here most days, and of course my secretary or Luke will provide assistance—”

“I don’t expect I’ll be troubling you, milady.”

“It would be no trouble. Just walk over here from the flat whenever you like, and . . . we’ll go to the penny pie shop.”

He nodded, but she knew he had no intention of taking her up on the invitation.

That was probably for the best.

But as they parted company, Merritt had a sense of being abandoned, deprived of something . . . not unlike a puppy whose owner had just left the house. What was the word for it? Forlorn, she decided. Yes. She was feeling forlorn, and that would not do.

Action must be taken.

She just wasn’t certain what that was yet.

During an hour of negotiations with Mr. Gruinard, Merritt managed to gain a few small but valuable concessions. Now she could finally go home. It had been a long day, and she was eager to sit by the fire with a pair of soft slippers on her feet. But no matter how tired she was, the cogs of her brain wouldn’t stop turning, and she knew already she would be in for a night of poor sleep.

She decided to have her carriage stop at warehouse number three on the way home. After all, as a caring older sister, she was concerned for her brother’s welfare, and as a responsible employer, it was her place to find out how work was progressing.

And if, in the process of speaking to Luke, she happened to catch sight of Keir MacRae . . . well, that was entirely incidental.

The warehouse was a hive of activity. A steam-powered crane creaked and groaned, and occasionally hissed as if with a sigh of relief, after lifting cargo to the upper level of the building.

Curses and grunts of effort filled the air as the warehousemen worked. Even with ramps and hand trucks, it took brute effort to maneuver and rack the whisky barrels.

Merritt entered the building as inconspicuously as possible, taking care not to block anyone’s path. Nearby, men strained to push heavily loaded hand trucks up a ramp, where a warehouse gauger stamped each cask. At least a half-dozen workers with tin drinking cups had gone to the corner, where stone jugs of water had been set in barrels of sawdust and ice.

Her presence was quickly noticed by one of the foremen, who offered to escort her to the upper floor where Luke was working. They went up on a hand-powered lift, operated by a working rope at the front of the cage. During the ascent, Merritt gazed around the warehouse, but even from her elevated vantage point, there was no sign of Keir MacRae.

She found Luke on his hands and knees, marking the floor with chalk to indicate where to store the next load of casks. “Would you like to hear some good news?” she asked as she approached him.

A slow grin crossed her brother’s sweat-streaked face at the sight of her. He stood and dusted his hands together, creating little clouds of chalk. “Tell me.”

“I just met with Mr. Gruinard, and he said even if we don’t have all the whisky stamped and stocked inside the warehouse by noon, as long as the casks are set inside the bonded yard—”

“The one we’re only allowed to use for timber?”

“Yes, that one—Mr. Gruinard will make an exception and let us use it as a temporary holding area for the whisky until we finish the job.”

“Thank God,” Luke said fervently. “Well done, sis.” He gave her a quizzical glance. “Is that all?”

“What do you mean, ‘Is that all?’” Merritt asked with a laugh. “Isn’t it enough?”

“Well, yes, but . . . there was no need to tell me in person at this hour. You could have sent a note, or let it wait until morning.”

“I thought you’d want to know right away. And I wanted to see for myself how you were doing.”

“I’m so touched by your concern,” Luke said. “Especially since you’ve never taken such trouble over me before.”

“What twaddle,” Merritt exclaimed good-naturedly. “Two weeks ago, I brought soup and tea to you—here in this very warehouse—when you had the sniffles!”

Setting his hands on his hips in a relaxed posture, Luke said in a dry undertone, “Let’s not pretend this visit has anything to do with me. You came here hoping for a glimpse of a certain bearded Scotsman.”

She lowered her voice as she asked, “Did he say anything to you?”

“About what?”

“About me.”

“Why yes, we stopped in the middle of work to gossip over tea. Then we made plans to visit the milliner and try on bonnets together—”

“Oh, hush,” Merritt whispered sharply, both amused and annoyed.

Luke regarded her with a slow shake of his head. “Be careful, sis.”

Her smile faded. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“I’m referring to the mistake you’ve apparently already decided to make.” Taking in her offended expression, Luke added, “Don’t misunderstand me—MacRae seems as good-natured and steady as they come. A brick. But there’s no part of your future that would naturally align with any part of his. On top of that, after the way you’ve flouted convention in recent years, London society is dying to catch you in a scandal. Don’t provide them with one.”

To receive a lecture on conduct from a younger sibling—who was no saint himself—was bad enough. But it was even worse to see the concern in Luke’s gaze, as if he suspected something had happened at the warehouse flat. Was it that obvious? She felt as if she were walking around with a large scarlet letter stitched across her bodice.

She kept her tone light even though her chest was tight with anger. “Why in heaven’s name am I being lectured for something I haven’t done?”

“It’s not a lecture. Just a reminder. The devil never tries to make people do the wrong thing by scaring them. He tempts them.”

Merritt’s forced laugh came out as brittle as overcooked toffee. “Dear, are you claiming Mr. MacRae is the devil in disguise?”

“If he were,” Luke replied quietly, “I’d say the disguise has been pretty damned successful so far.”

She flushed deeply, and strove to keep her voice calm, even though she was seething. “If this is all the thanks I’ll receive for my efforts with Mr. Gruinard, I’ll take my leave now.”

Turning on her heel, she began to make a smart exit, heading to the stairs instead of waiting for someone to operate the lift. The effect was ruined, however, as she crossed in front of a ramp leading to an upper row of barrel racks, and heard a muffled shout.

Pausing in confusion, Merritt glanced toward the noise and saw a heavy barrel rolling toward her.


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