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Devil in Disguise: Chapter 36


After Keir collected Merritt’s leather valises, she went into the cottage with him. Wallace followed, panting happily. The home’s interior was brighter and airier than Merritt had expected, with white plastered walls and windows with diamond-shaped panes to let in the light. A broad brick fireplace with a polished copper hood warmed the main room. Although the floor was paved with hard gray slate, it was neatly swept and softened by colorful handmade rugs. The far end of the room opened to a small kitchen with a stove and a plumbed sink.

Keir carried the valises into a small, sparsely furnished bedroom with a fine four-poster bed with fluted columns.

Merritt unpinned her traveling hat and set it on the bed. She ran her fingertips lightly over a beautifully quilted coverlet. “Did your mother make this?” she asked, feeling oddly bashful.

“Aye, she was great on sewing.” He turned her to face him and unfastened her traveling cloak. “If there was anyone I trusted to take you back home,” he said, “I’d put you on the next steamer back to Glasgow. I dinna want you traveling alone again, Merry. You shouldn’t have come.”

“I know,” she said contritely. “I’m sorry.”

His mouth twisted. “You’re no’ sorry,” he said.

“I’m sorry you’re not happy about it.”

His brooding gaze swept over her. “What’s this about being ill on the ship?”

“It was just a moment of queasiness. I’m quite well now.”

After removing her cloak and laying it on the bed, Keir took her shoulders in his hands. “Are you willing to wed me?”

“It’s what I want more than anything,” she said.

He continued to frown. “Dinna complain to me if you change your mind later.”

She smiled up at him. “I won’t change my mind.”

Hearing muffled conversation from the main room, and the sounds of someone bustling in the kitchen, Keir reluctantly released her. “’Tis best to say as little as possible about Ransom,” he told her. “I told Slorach he’s representing a well-heeled whisky merchant who’s after buying land on Islay and laying out a links course. Ransom is to go around the island and look over the ground.”

“Is Ethan staying here?” she asked. “With us?”

His lips twitched. “No. That would be a bit crowdit. He and his two men are staying down the road at a wee auld change-house.”

“Change-house?”

“Ale-house, you could say, where a man can stay for a penny-fee if his wife has denied him her bed.”

“Why did Ethan bring only two men?”

“’Tis all that’s needed, he says.”

“That’s not enough,” Merritt said, frowning. “Not nearly. What could he be thinking? It’s a good thing I’m here to protect you.”

With a long-suffering expression, Keir took her back to the main room, where the Slorachs were busy in the kitchen. Fia had put a kettle on the stove, and was carrying items from the kitchen worktable to a cupboard.

Slorach was peeking into a group of baskets and crocks that remained on the table.

“Ranald,” Fia warned her husband, “dinna touch one morsel of that. ’Tis food the neighbors brang for Keir, now that he’s returned from his travels.”

“So have I returned from my travels,” Slorach protested, “and I’m hungert.”

“Keir’s travels were to England,” Fia said tartly. “You went only as far as Tarbert.”

Keir intervened with a grin. “Let him have a bite, Fia.”

While the other three talked, Merritt went to a tea table and chair, positioned in front of a window that revealed a view of the sea and a distant lighthouse. She sat in the cushioned chair, and Wallace came to rest his chin on her knee, his round dark eyes twinkling at her. Her hand moved gently over his head. It was darkening outside, and she shivered pleasurably at the comfort of being in a warm house.

Keir came from the kitchen with a mug of tea and set it before Merritt. She glanced up at him in mild surprise, and smiled. “Thank you.” As she took a sip, she realized he’d made it exactly how she liked it, lightened with milk and just the right amount of sugar.

Staring down at the terrier, Keir asked softly, “What do you think, Wallace? She’s one to be keepit, aye?”

The long, silky tail fanned vigorously from side to side.

Soon Ethan arrived with the sheriff, a ruddy-faced giant of a man with abundant red hair and a handsome thick mustache.

“Lady Merritt,” Keir said. “’Tis our sheriff, Errol MacTaggart.”

“A reet winsome lady, she is,” MacTaggart exclaimed, grinning. “I was told English ladies were pale and sickly, but here you’ve found a dark beauty with roses in her cheeks.”

Keir smiled briefly. “Let’s no’ make this langsome, MacTaggart. Lady Merritt is weary, and as you know, I’m no’ one to stand on ceremony.”

“’Tis a haisty affair, aye?” the sheriff observed, some of his good cheer fading as he looked around the room. “No flowers? No candles?”

“No, and also no ring,” Keir informed him. “Let us say our pledge, give us the certificate, and we’ll have done with it in time for supper.”

MacTaggart clearly didn’t appreciate the younger man’s cavalier attitude. “You’ll be having no signed paper until I make certain ’tis done legal,” he said, squaring his shoulders. “First . . . do ye ken there’s a fine if you’ve no’ posted banns?”

“’Tis no’ a church wedding,” Keir said.

“The law says without the banns, ’tis a fine of fifty pounds.” As Keir gave him an outraged glance, the sheriff added firmly, “No exceptions.”

“What if I give you a bottle of whisky?” Keir asked.

“Fine is waived,” MacTaggart said promptly. “Now, then . . . do the rest of you agree to stand as witnesses?”

Ethan and the Slorachs all nodded.

“I’ll start, then,” Keir said briskly, and took Merritt’s hand. “I, Keir MacRae, do swear that I—”

No’ yet,” the sheriff interrupted, now scowling. “’Tis my obligation to ask a few questions first.”

“MacTaggart, so help me—” Keir began in annoyance, but Merritt squeezed his hand gently. He heaved a sigh and clamped his mouth shut.

The sheriff resumed with great dignity. “Are the both of you agreeable to be wed?”

“Aye,” Keir said acidly.

“Yes,” Merritt replied.

“Are the both of ye single persons?” the sheriff inquired. When they both nodded, he pressed, “You’re no’ brother and sister?”

“No,” Keir said curtly, his patience wearing thin.

“Nor ooncle and niece?”

“MacTaggart,” Keir growled, “you know thunderin’ well I have no nieces.”

The sheriff ignored him, focusing on Merritt with a deeply searching gaze. “Milady, has this man used force or false representation to carry you away against your will?”

Merritt blinked in surprise.

“What’s the matter with you, MacTaggart?” Keir demanded. “Of all the goamless questions—”

Fia interrupted. “This lass has no’ been abducted, sheriff.”

Keir glanced at her over his shoulder. “Thank you, Fia.”

“She’s been debauched,” Fia continued primly. “Drawn away from the path of virtue by the temptations this lad exerted upon her.”

Keir was thunderstruck. “Debauched?”

MacTaggart stared at him gravely. “Do you deny you’ve lain with this lass, MacRae?”

“I deny ’tis any of your fookin’ business!”

Ranald Slorach shook his head glumly. “’Twas London,” he said. “That wicked city put lewd ideas into the lad’s head and corrupted his mind.”

Merritt pressed her lips together and lowered her head, holding in a helpless giggle while the Slorachs and the sheriff continued to discuss the ruination of Keir’s moral character while tarrying too long in the unwholesome environment of London, and the degenerate atmosphere of England in general. She stole a covert glance at Ethan, who was struggling manfully to conceal his own amusement.

“Sheriff,” Ethan broke in, “now that the damage has been done, I believe only marriage will correct it.”

“’Tis right, you are,” MacTaggart said decisively. “The lad must be hob-shackled right away, for the saving of his character.” He looked at Keir. “Go on then, MacRae. Speak your vow.”

Keir turned to face Merritt fully, and took both her hands in his. As he stared into her eyes, his expression changed, softening with tender warmth. “I take you for my wife. I vow I’ll try every day to be the man you deserve. And I’ll love none but you, my heart, until my last waking moment.”

She was caught in that diamond-bright gaze, while every part of her was alive with awareness of him . . . her skin, her body, her pulse, the marrow of her bones . . . all harboring the recognition of him not as a separate being, but as part of herself. She’d never imagined such intimacy was possible, an intimacy that had nothing to do with ownership.

I’ll be the extra rib that protects your heart.

You can’t. You are my heart.

She smiled up at him, burning and weightless with joy, wondering how gravity could still be anchoring her to solid ground. “I take you for my husband. I’ll love you with all that I am and all that I have, forever.”

His mouth came to hers.

She never remembered anything specific from the next few minutes, what words were exchanged, or what time it was when everyone else left and she and Keir were finally alone. She did recall he’d heated a hot bath for her, and when they’d climbed into bed, the sheets had been ice-cold, but Keir’s body heat had warmed her rapidly. And she remembered him leaning over her with a lazy smile, his hand moving gently down her body as he said, “Ransom told me we’ll have to confine ourselves mostly to the house and thereabouts for the next few days.”

“That won’t be a problem,” she’d whispered, and drawn his head down to hers.


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