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Devil in Disguise: Chapter 34


Keir wandered aimlessly around the house, brooding. If Merritt were able to recognize what an impossible situation she’d put him in, everything would be so much easier. His refusal to take her to Islay had nothing to do with his respect for her, which was enormous. Her well-being would always take precedence over his, because she was what he valued most. Because of who he was as a man. Because he loved her.

He found himself meandering down the hallway that led to the study, and heard the sound of voices coming from the open door. Without making a conscious decision, he paused at the threshold and glanced inside. Kingston and Westcliff were talking with the comfortable ease of old friends, a tray bearing a brandy decanter and crystal glasses between them. Keir missed sitting at the tavern talking with friends, or lingering with some of the men after work to finish the day with a taste of whisky, or “dramming,” as they called it.

Kingston looked up and smiled as he saw Keir. “Come in, my boy.”

It was disarming to see the change in the duke’s expression, the elegant features softening and warming. And in response, Keir was surprised by a feeling of kinship, and relief, and the expectation of a good conversation. He realized he was starting to like the man’s company.

As he entered the room, he paused in front of Westcliff, knowing something had to be said about his relationship with Merritt. “Sir,” he said, and cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Earlier . . . Merritt gave the impression that a certain question had already been asked and answered. But I would no’ do so without first discussing it with you.”

The earl’s expression was difficult to read. “A father’s consent isn’t necessary in the case of a widow marrying for the second time.”

“’Tis necessary to me, milord,” Keir replied. “If you’re of the opinion she’d be ill-served to have me as a husband, ’tis your right to say so, and my obligation to pay attention.”

Westcliff regarded him thoughtfully. “There’s no need to enumerate the obvious challenges you and she are facing. I’d rather ask how you’re planning to handle them.”

Kingston picked up his brandy and stood. “Good God,” he said with amusement, “if it’s turning into that sort of conversation, I’m going to pour the lad a brandy. Take my chair, Keir.”

Keir complied, and sat facing the earl. “I dinna have an actual plan yet,” he admitted. “But I would do everything possible to protect her and take care of her feelings. She would never go wanting. I would listen to her opinions, and treat her as a beloved companion, always. I’ll work very hard, and sacrifice what I must. If she’s no’ happy living on Islay, I’d live somewhere else.”

The duke gave him a glass of brandy, and half sat on the heavy mahogany desk nearby.

Westcliff seemed struck by the last words. “You’d move away from the island? You’re that convinced she’s worth it?”

“Of course. There is but one Merritt. And no’ one minute of the day does she cease to be a joy to me.”

That drew the widest, most natural smile Keir had seen yet from Westcliff. “If you can say that after her determined display this afternoon, I think you’ll do well together.”

“’Tis proud I am that she’s such a fine marksman,” Keir assured him. “But it was no’ necessary for her to prove. There was never a chance I would allow her to go into danger with me.”

“You’re a fine young man,” the earl said. “For what it’s worth, the union has my full support. However, marrying a Marsden can be a knotty proposition, even with one as amiable as Merritt. If I may share a bit of hard-won wisdom . . .”

“Please,” Keir said readily.

“I do a fair amount of riding on my estate,” Westcliff said. “With every single horse I own, I often lay the reins on his neck and let him move forward to find his own natural balance and gait. I’ve seen far too many overbearing riders constantly manage and adjust the horse to force its obedience. Every little toss of the head or momentary hesitation is corrected. A variety of torturous bits, spurs, and straps are employed to make it submit. Some horses endure such treatment, but far more are ruined by it. Their spirits are broken, and their temperaments permanently soured. Always let a horse be a horse.” He paused. “Do you take my meaning?”

“Aye, milord.”

“Was an analogy really necessary, Westcliff?” Kingston asked. “You could have simply said, ‘Please be kind to my headstrong daughter and don’t break her spirit.’”

“Force of habit,” the earl said. “None of my sons pay attention unless it’s horses.” He swallowed the last of his brandy and set the empty glass aside. “I’ll take my leave and let the two of you talk,” he said, and stood. On the way to the threshold, he added, “Incidentally, if it’s ever mentioned that I used that analogy for handling my daughter, I’ll have no choice but to say it’s a vicious lie.”

“I understand,” Keir said, and drowned a grin in his brandy.

Kingston remained half-sitting, half-leaning on the desk. “If you don’t mind my asking,” he said after Westcliff had left, “how was it left with Merritt?”

Keir gave him a resigned glance. “If I don’t take her to Islay, it somehow proves I don’t value her as a partner.”

“That’s the Marsden streak,” Kingston said dryly. “Not a single one of Westcliff’s brood doesn’t fantasize about saving the day in one way or another.”

“’Tis because I value her that she can’t go.”

“She’ll come to understand.”

“I hope so.” Keir took another swallow of brandy and sighed shortly. “She’ll have more than enough opportunities to save the day in the coming months and years.”

The duke crossed his long legs and idly regarded the tips of his polished shoes. “Keir . . . I believe I understand some of what you’re feeling. Particularly the part about facing a mountain of responsibilities for which you’ve never prepared. However, you’re absolutely capable of handling it all, and eventually you’ll find the right people to manage your affairs. Meanwhile, I can think of no other woman more perfectly suited to help you through it than Merritt.”

“What about the people in her circles? The fancy folk.”

“What of them?”

“Will they give her a hard time of it, for marrying below herself?”

Kingston appeared mildly startled. “Below? Your rank and pedigree are superior to hers. Not only are you the son of a duke, but on your mother’s side, you’re descended from an ancient Saxon family.”

“But manners, bearing, education—”

“Irrelevant. Above all, society respects lineage. Therefore, you’ll find their expectations of you and your behavior will be most elastic. If you descend into lunacy, they’ll call you delightfully eccentric. If you act the dullard, they’ll praise your refreshing lack of pretense.”

A reluctant grin spread across Keir’s face.

“Whatever you may need,” Kingston said, “in the way of advice, connections, capital, or anything else, do not hesitate to come to me. I’m always at your service.” He paused. “Later, when there’s an opportunity, I want to introduce you to your two remaining siblings. You would enjoy their company. You and Gabriel, in particular, are much alike in temperament. He married into the Ravenel family, and his wife is a thoroughly charming woman—”

“Oh, Pandora is my favorite!” came a new voice from the doorway, and they both glanced at the threshold where Seraphina was standing. “She’s very witty and fun, and a bit odd in the nicest possible way.” With her slender form clad in a green dress, and her brilliant golden-red hair trailing over her shoulder in a thick braid, she reminded Keir of a mermaid. “May I interrupt just for a moment?” she asked, beaming at them both. “I have something important to show Keir.”

Kingston gestured for her to enter, and Keir started to rise to his feet.

“No, sit right there,” Seraphina urged, and took the chair next to his. She held a folded length of parchment in her lap. “Phoebe left a note asking me to go through our family genealogy books to see if we had any Scottish ancestors. She found none on your mother’s side at all, and she said you’d be disappointed if there were none on Father’s side.”

Surprised and touched by both sisters’ concern, Keir shook his head with a smile. “Dinna worry about that, Seraphina. I decided ’tis enough to be Scottish in my heart.”

“Still, you wouldn’t mind if I told you we have some Scottish blood, would you?” she asked, her eyes twinkling. “Because I’ve discovered that we do in fact have a Scot in our family tree! It’s been overlooked because he’s not in our direct line. I had to trace the connection through some female ancestors instead of going only through the male lineage. But we are very clearly indisputably descended from a Scot who was our great-great-great-great-great . . . well, let’s say eighteen-times-great . . . grandfather. And just see who it is!” Seraphina unfolded the parchment, which was inscribed with a long vertical chart of connected names. And at the top—

ROBERT I

King of Scots

“Robert the Bruce?” Keir could feel his heart expanding in his chest.

“Yes,” Seraphina said gleefully, leaping up and bouncing on her heels.

Keir stood, laughing, and bent to kiss her cheek. “One drop of Robert the Bruce’s blood will do the job. I could no’ be happier. Thank you, sister.” He tried to hand the chart back to her, but she shook her head.

“Keep that if you like. Isn’t it wonderful news? I have to go tell Ivo we’re Scottish!” She left the room triumphantly.

Keir chuckled as he folded the paper and slid it into his pocket. He glanced at Kingston, who had managed to quell his own smile long enough to finish his brandy.

“I’ll say good-bye to you in private now,” Keir said. “I’ll be leaving at first lark song.”

The duke looked at him alertly. “A day early?”

“’Tis easier that way,” Keir said, and paused bashfully. “I want to thank you for safeguarding the trust on my behalf. You’ve fought for a year without even knowing if you’d find me.”

“I knew I’d find you,” Kingston said quietly. Turning abruptly businesslike, he walked to the other side of the desk and opened a drawer. He pulled out a calling card, took up a pen from a carved agate holder, and unstopped an inkwell. “I’m giving you my London address,” he said, writing on the engraved card, “and also the name of a manager at the club, who always knows my whereabouts. Send a telegram if there’s anything you need. Anything at all. I—” He broke off, set the pen down, and took a moment to discipline his features. “It’s difficult to let you leave, knowing Ormonde is going to send someone after you.”

“I’d rather be shot at,” Keir said, taking the card from him, “than spend all day in court as you’ll be doing.”

Kingston responded with a mirthless chuckle.

Keir hesitated for a long moment, and came to a decision. Feeling self-conscious and vaguely idiotic, he reached down past the collar of his shirt, hooked his finger on the chain around his neck, and tugged until he’d fished out the gold key. He cleared his throat and tried to sound casual. “I wondered . . . if you still . . .” His voice trailed into silence as he saw Kingston reach for his waistcoat pocket. The man’s usual adroitness seemed to have deserted him as he worked to unfasten the watch chain. “ ’Tis only a formality,” Keir muttered.

“If it doesn’t unlock,” Kingston said calmly, his face averted, “it’s unimportant. For all we know, she could have sent the wrong key.”

“Aye.” But Keir’s heart had begun to pound fast and hard, resonating high in his throat. Kingston gave him the chain with the heart-shaped lock dangling from it. As Keir took it, he was chagrinned to discover his hands were shaking a little. He fumbled to insert the key, and twisted.

Click.

The tiny, definite sound pierced him. The lock fell open and detached from the chain, as Keir had expected it would. There was no reason to make a fuss. But he kept his head down as his eyes and nose stung and the room became a watery blur. His throat clenched until he had to clear it.

In the next moment, he felt himself caught in a secure, roughly affectionate grip, one hand at the nape of his neck, the other clamping on his shoulder to bring him close in something that wasn’t quite an embrace, but felt like one. And through the ramshackle pattern of his own breathing, he heard Kingston’s vibrant and unsteady voice.

“You’ll always be Lachlan MacRae’s son. But you’re mine too.” A pause, and then he added hoarsely, “You can be mine too.”

“Aye,” Keir whispered, while an unexpected sense of peace stole over him.

Merritt emerged from heavy layers of sleep. She was filled with such lassitude that it was difficult even to turn over in bed, as if the blankets had been sewn with lead weights. Her mind awakened by slow degrees, still occupied with a dark, velvety dream of Keir making love to her.

Except . . . it hadn’t been a dream . . . had it? No, he’d come to her room in the middle of the night, hushing her when she’d tried to speak, kissing every inch of her skin as he’d removed her nightgown. Her eyes blinked open. As she glanced around the room, she caught sight of her neatly folded nightgown on the nearby chair. Wondering if the maid had seen it, Merritt sank a little lower beneath the covers. To her relief, the housemaid soon left wordlessly and closed the door.

Merritt was naked and profoundly relaxed, the tip of her breasts a little chafed. The soft flesh of her vulva was filled with lingering sensitivity after having been caressed, kissed, bitten, teased, invaded. Remembering the pleasure Keir had given her, she writhed a little and felt her toes curl. He’d lain on top of her, between her thighs, his weight nudging her pelvis with each deliberate thrust. He’d felt so powerful, his body claiming hers, invading her with deep, delicious strokes, and it had gone on forever. She’d been exhausted afterward, but she’d mumbled that they had to make plans and talk, and spend the day packing and preparing for their trip to Islay, and she was sorry if he was unhappy that she insisted on going with him. Keir had hushed her and held her against his hard, hairy chest, until she hadn’t been able to stop sighing and yawning. That was the last thing she remembered.

The sunlight pressing in through the shutters was very bright. How late had she slept?

She stretched and began to roll over—

—and twitched at the unfamiliar feeling of something sliding down her arm. She felt for it, realizing it was a chain.

A bracelet?

Hastily Merritt climbed out of bed, snatched up her nightgown, and pulled it on. She hurried to the windows and opened the shutters, and stared down at the bracelet in a flood of sunlight. It was a gold watch chain, fastened around her wrist by the tiny gold padlock.

She was shaken by a confusing mixture of emotions, all wrapped in panic.

Keir had left without her.

She wanted to break something. She wanted to cry. How could he leave without telling her? And what was she going to do about it?

Her mind summoned three words.

“Be fierce, Merritt.”


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