By the time Keir and Merritt emerged from the house the next day, it was early afternoon.
The weather was cool and gray—dreich, Keir called it—but Merritt’s wool walking dress and sturdy shoes kept her comfortable, and a thick cashmere shawl protected her from the wind. Wallace raced back and forth, playing fetch-the-stick with Keir as they walked.
The distillery and house covered three acres of ground, all of it overlooking the sea. Although the property appeared to exist in romantic isolation, it was only about two miles from Port Charlotte, which, according to Keir, was filled with shops, gardens, and terraced houses.
Wallace followed as Keir took Merritt into the distillery for a tour. She was amazed by the size and complexity of the operation, which used a combination of machinery and gravity to move enormous quantities of grain and liquid. Barley was hoisted to two- and three-story lofts, and funneled to various places in the distillery through iron shoots. There were upper malting floors connected to a massive kiln by gangways, along which bags of dried malt were carried. That had been one of Keir’s early jobs when he was a boy, as he could scurry quickly back and forth along the gangways. After being ground in a giant mill, the dried malt was conveyed by elevator to a grist loft, and eventually mixed with hot water in a sixteen-foot diameter tun that stirred the mash.
“Once the malt is mixed with water,” Keir said, “it cuts down on the grain dust and lowers the risk of explosions.”
Merritt looked at him with wide eyes. “Like the kind that happens in flour mills?”
He nodded. “’Tis the same. But we connected a large metal pipe between the grist elevators and the roof, so most of the explosion’s force would go up into the sky. And we installed fire hydrants and plugs, reels, and hose wherever we could.” He kept Merritt’s hand in his as they wandered past a towering row of copper stills. “There’s little danger of that now, as the distillery’s been shut down for nigh a month. But ’tis still no’ a good idea to light a match or smoke a cigar anywhere around the distillery.”
“Or fire a gun, I suppose,” Merritt said.
“Or that,” Keir agreed ruefully. He hesitated before asking warily, “You dinna bring a revolver to Islay, did you?”
“Of course I did. I borrowed one from Uncle Sebastian’s gun room. I came here to protect you, remember?” She reached into the pocket of her walking skirt, where a small but weighty Bulldog revolver rested against her hip. “If you’d like to see—”
Keir groaned and shook his head, pulling her between the copper stills. “No, dinna show me.” He backed her up against a cool copper surface. “I dinna need you to protect me,” he informed her. “I need you for other things.”
“I can do those too.”
His mouth moved over hers in a long, savoring kiss, not stopping until she was clinging to him weakly, her legs unsteady.
They broke apart as Wallace ran up to them, carrying something in his mouth, his tail wagging.
“What did you find?” Keir asked, reaching down to take the object from him.
Merritt felt a sharp pang of worry as she saw that it was a man’s wool flat cap. “Dinna fash,” Keir said immediately, “it belongs to one of Ransom’s agents. Duffy, I think. He’s probably somewhere in here.”
Merritt continued to frown. “Are they hiding from us?” she whispered.
“No, only trying to stay out of our way.” He dangled the flat cap near Wallace’s nose. “Let’s go find him, laddie.”
The terrier trotted away, glancing repeatedly over his shoulder to make sure they were following.
“Does Wallace know when Ethan or one of his men are nearby?”
“Aye. He met them—Duffy and Wilkinson are their names—before you arrived. I introduced them, and gave them each a bit of carrot to feed him. Wallace counts them among his friends, so he won’t bark at them. But if a stranger is nearby, he’ll tell us.”
They went to a large multi-story rackhouse, where filled whisky casks were stored horizontally on racks, stacked four high.
“Duffy?” Keir called out cautiously.
Merritt tensed, her hand creeping surreptitiously to her skirt pocket as they waited for a reply.
“Mr. MacRae?” A young clean-shaven man with dark hair came walking from the other side of the rackhouse. Keir gave the hat to the terrier, who dutifully carried it to Duffy. “Thank you, Wallace,” the man said, scratching him behind the ears. “I was looking for that.” Glancing at Merritt, he bowed respectfully. “Milady.”
She smiled and curtsied in return. “Mr. Duffy.”
The young man’s gaze went to Keir. “If you’re going to tour the rackhouse with Lady Merritt,” he offered, “I could patrol another area in the distillery.”
“Aye,” Keir said.
They waited until Duffy had left before they began to walk among the racks, with Wallace following. “How old do you think he is?” Merritt whispered, slightly disgruntled.
“Two-and-twenty?” Keir guessed.
“I was estimating about twelve.”
Keir gave a shake of his head, dismissing her concern, and turned her to look at the stored casks. “Look at these racks—we installed them last year. Before that, we had to store the casks standing upright, which exerts too much pressure on them and causes leaks. Keeping them sideways is easier on the casks, and it lets more air circulate around the sides and ends.”
“Why do you want air to circulate?”
“Improves the flavor.”
“How do you move the casks in and out of the racks?”
“It still takes brute force to lift them up,” he admitted, “the same as with vertical storing. But to take them down, ’tis a simple matter of pulling the levers at the end of each row. It releases the stops, and the barrels come rolling out.”
“That could be exciting,” she said dryly, looking at the endless rows of barrels waiting to tumble.
Keir reached out and eased her against him, and nuzzled a few kisses beneath her jaw and along her throat. “Have you seen enough of the distillery for now, love? I could do with a wee nap.”
She slid her arms around his neck and lifted her mouth to his for answer.
Aside from that brief encounter with Duffy, they saw no sign of Ethan or his men. They were so absorbed in each other, relishing the novelty of being able to do whatever they pleased with no concern about anyone’s schedule, that the hours slipped by without their notice. They cooked a simple meal, drank wine, made love, and had a long, relaxed conversation before the fire. In the evening, they took Wallace for a walk around the property, and looked out at the sea through binoculars as dolphins cavorted.
Merritt had never been so happy, but at the same time, the lurking, nagging worry about potential danger was ever-present. And there was also the question of what was happening in court. It had been two days since Kingston had appeared at Chancery to reveal he’d located Keir, but so far there had been no word of any legal developments.
“He’ll telegram when there’s something to report,” Keir said. “Or Ransom will find out and tell us.”
As it turned out, Ethan knocked at the front door early the next morning. Keir dressed hastily and went to let him in while Merritt hurriedly put on a robe and set a kettle on to boil.
Ethan looked tired and tense as he entered the kitchen and held his chilled hands over the stove to warm them. “I have shocking news,” he said, rubbing his hands briskly to distribute the heat. “Do I have to broach it carefully, or can I simply come out with it?”
“Is it shocking in a good way or a bad way?” Merritt asked.
Ethan considered that. “Not bad, on the face of it. But I don’t know the details yet.”
“What is it?” Keir asked.
“Lord Ormonde was found dead in his home late last night.”
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