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Devil in Disguise: Chapter 9


They dined at a small round table in an upstairs parlor. The air was lit by candles and lamps with frosted glass shades. Thankfully, the room wasn’t cluttered with little delicate figurines and ornaments. It was clean and simple, with oak paneling and windows swathed in blue velvet curtains. At least half of one wall was occupied by a long, low cabinet stocked with decanted liquor and glassware. Dishes of olives, almonds, and celery sticks on cracked ice had been set out.

Thanks to the injection Dr. Gibson had given him, Keir barely felt the wound on his back as he sat in a sturdy upholstered dining chair. The footman, Jeffrey, came to set covered dishes on the table, which had been overlaid with heavy white linen. After filling long-stemmed glasses with water and wine, the footman left them in privacy. Having expected him to hover around them during the entire meal, Keir was gratified to learn they would serve themselves.

He found himself relaxing deeply, steeped in Merritt’s effortless charm. He’d never talked so much during a meal. The stew had been made with chunks of beef, potatoes, and turnips simmered in burgundy wine until they melted at the lightest pressure of the tongue. There was a salad of crisp lettuce greens and chopped mint leaves, and wedges of cottage bread, the interior laced with holes to catch every drop of salted butter.

As they talked, Merritt entertained him with stories of her childhood in Hampshire as the oldest of six siblings. Her father, the earl, loomed large in those stories, as a loving parent and a man of great authority and responsibility. His marriage to Lillian Bowman, an American heiress, had been an improbable match, but the union had turned out to be a remarkably happy one. Merritt’s mother was a lively and lighthearted woman, the kind of mother who had romped outside with her children and splashed in puddles with them, and encouraged their flights of fancy.

At Merritt’s coaxing, Keir told her about growing up on Islay, and a boyhood spent running about with a pack of rowdy friends. The group had frequently ended up in scrapes and misadventures that had earned all of them good hidings when they went home. All except Keir, whose father, Lachlan, had never laid a hand on him. His mother, Elspeth, had fretted over that: The neighbors had advised that without proper discipline, the lad would end up spoiled. But Lachlan always reasoned that a teenage boy had little enough good sense as it was; a clout upside the head might knock it right out of him.

One day when Keir had come home with bruises and a blackened eye from fighting with his friend Neil, Lachlan had said he reckoned Keir had already had enough battering, and he wouldn’t add to it. But he did want an explanation. Keir had told him Neil had bragged that his father was the strongest man on the island and would win in a fight against anyone else’s father. Especially Keir’s father, Neil had added pointedly, who was older than everyone else’s. So Keir had given Neil a thrashing to settle the matter. To Elspeth’s annoyance, Lachlan had been so pleased, he hadn’t even scolded the boy, declaring he’d been obliged to defend the family honor.

Merritt chuckled at the story. “You were an only child?” she asked.

“Aye. They were never able to have bairns of their own, so they . . . took me in.”

“You were an orphan?”

“Abandoned.”

Keir wasn’t sure why he’d told her that. It was something he rarely, if ever, discussed with anyone. But those coffee-dark eyes were so warm and interested, he couldn’t seem to hold back.

Merritt took a sip of her wine before asking gently, “Do you know anything about the woman who gave birth to you?”

“No, and I dinna need to.”

Merritt’s dark eyes seemed to look right inside him. “The gold key . . .”

Keir smiled slightly at her perceptiveness. “She left it with me at the orphanage. I wear it because . . . I suppose ’tis a small way of honoring her. I owe her that much at least, after the pain I caused her.”

A tiny crinkle appeared between her fine brows. “Do you mean childbirth?”

“That, and the sorrow of having to give away her bairn.” He paused reflectively. “I think I was one of many men who hurt her, one way or another. A lass who was protected and loved would no’ have found herself in such circumstances.”

An east wind gusted through a half-open window, whisking in the invigorating freshness of ocean brine and spindrift. It had begun to rain, the drops coming down with the weight of pennies.

Merritt went to the long cabinet, gesturing for Keir to stay seated. She brought back a coffee service on a silver tray. There was the pleasure of watching her prepare coffee for him, adding sugar and a dollop of heavy cream that billowed up to the steaming black surface. She passed the cup and saucer to him, along with a small plate bearing a yellow slice of marmalade cake.

As Keir ate every crumb and washed it down with coffee, he was steeped in the bittersweet awareness that for the rest of his life, the memory of this evening was the one he would return to over and over. Nothing would ever come close to the pleasure she gave him.

The mantel clock began a series of delicate chimes. Midnight.

Time had never been so unwelcome an intruder. But it was better that the night end now. With one hunger sated, his body was now ready to assuage another. He needed to remove himself from temptation.

“Merritt—”

“More coffee?” she suggested brightly.

Keir caught her hand as she reached for the pot. “I’ll be taking my leave now,” he said softly.

“But it’s raining.”

That kindled a faint smile. He forbore to point out what she already knew: A Scot was hardly one to be daunted by rain.

He tried to say her name, but it came out as “Merry.” A word of joy, shaped in longing.

Their hands folded together slowly, compactly, more thrilling than any physical connection he’d had in his life.

There was so much he wanted to tell her—all of it true, and none of it right.

A gust of rain came through the window as the storm burst with new vigor. The flame of a gas lamp sputtered and died, despite its protective glass housing. Keir sprang up and went to shut off the lamp valve, while Merritt rushed to the window. “The frame sticks from humidity,” she said, struggling to close it, gasping a little at the rush of chilled wet air.

Keir came to help her, pushing the window down with one hand, while rain streamed over the glass. He left one hand braced on the sill, near her shoulder, while they both looked out at the turbulent night. He’d always loved storms, the charged air making his senses come alive. Shadows and ripples of light undulated across the sky as if they were viewing it from undersea.

“We’re in for a brattle,” he observed.

“Is that what you call it?” Merritt asked, turning to face him.

Gently he used the pad of his thumb to stroke away a raindrop near the corner of her mouth. “Aye, we have dozens of words for weather. If it comes in a soft shower, we call it a greetie.”

Merritt’s lips quirked. “In Hampshire, we say it’s a roke.” Her hands came to rest lightly at his sides.

Keir drew an unsteady breath as he felt her nestle closer to him. His body was hard and heavy, filled with a desire beyond utterance. Every cell clamored for him to take her, mate with her. Instead, he bent his head and laid his cheek against her hair. They stood together as the dark night sang a million notes of rain.

“At this moment,” he whispered, “I’m as happy as any man who ever lived.”

Her voice was muffled in the folds of his borrowed shirt. “Then stay.”

Keir’s heart jolted. She was being impulsive, he told himself. He didn’t want to be something she might later regret. He didn’t want to cause her one moment of pain or sorrow, when she’d already had her share of both.

“No,” he muttered. “’Tis hard enough to leave you as it is—dinna make it worse.”

“Stay for one night. Just one.”

He’d never been so wildly aroused and frustrated. It would be so easy to let himself forget everything except the pleasure of her body. But one of them had to think of the consequences, and apparently that had to be him. There was no choice but to put a stop to this, now.

Letting go of her, he said brusquely, “You dinna know what you’re asking for.”

“I’m asking for the gift of a night with you.”

Keir wanted to melt to the floor. For her to put it that way . . . as if making love would be a gift from him to her, instead of the other way around . . . she devastated him. With just a few words, she had taken ownership of him from head to toe.

He longed to tell her that. Instead, he decided to be crude. If he had to offend her for her own good, so be it. He only hoped she wouldn’t cry. Maybe she’d slap his face instead—he’d prefer that to tears.

“I dinna fook like a gentleman,” he told her gruffly. “There’ll be no pretty words and fine manners. I’ll throw a leg over, start the bed to banging, and when I’m done, I’ll give you a pat on the arse on my way out. If that’s what you’re after, tell me where your room is, and we’ll go at it.”

But there was no outrage. No face slap. Just a brief silence before Merritt said helpfully, “It’s the last door on the right, at the end of the hallway.”

She’d called his bluff. Her lips twitched at his expression.

Damn it.

Exasperated, Keir took her upper arms in his hands and held her apart from him. “If I stayed, no harm would come to me—only to you. I’d pay any price to have you, but I won’t let you be the one to pay it.”

“I’ll take responsibility for my own decisions.”

“Are you so daft, lass, that you think one night with me would be worth risking everything?” he demanded.

Merritt shrugged and lowered her gaze, but not before he saw the impish gleam in her eyes. “I’d like to find out.”

Unable to stop himself, Keir jerked her close and kissed her roughly. She opened to him with sweet yielding, soothing the ragged edges of his passion until he groaned and stroked inside her mouth with his tongue. The kiss turned deep and languorous, sending waves of dizzying pleasure through him.

God help him, he would have died for what she was offering. To be inside her . . . to hold her for hours . . . he had to have this, no matter what happened afterward. Feverishly he kissed his way down her neck, feeling the movements of her throat as she gasped and swallowed.

Taking her head in a gentle clasp, he kissed her forehead and eyelids, and followed the slope of her nose down to the trembling bow of her upper lip.

“If that’s what you want,” he said hoarsely, “I promise you . . . the night will be worth it.”


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