A sense of unreality came over Merritt. She struggled to wrap her brain around the information and decide what it meant, but her usual thought process seemed to have been disassembled. She glanced at Keir, who had turned to busy himself with measuring tea into the teapot. His face was difficult to read, but she knew he had to be stunned and profoundly worried by the fact that everything was falling on his head at once . . . inheriting the trust and almost certainly the viscountcy and estate as well.
“Was it natural causes?” Keir asked calmly.
“I don’t know yet. He was certainly of an age for that possibility. I have to leave for London immediately and oversee an investigation.” Ethan went to a basket of food, lifted a cloth, and took out a bannock. He took a bite of the dry, crumbly oat bread without seeming to taste it. “I want to take Wilkinson with me and leave Duffy here, if you don’t object.”
Merritt frowned. “I might object.”
Ethan glanced at her speculatively and swallowed the bite of bannock. “With Ormonde’s death,” he said, “there’s no motivation for Brownlow to come all the way here and carry out the wishes of a dead man. It’s unlikely MacRae will be troubled by him again.”
“Unlikely,” Merritt said, “but not impossible.”
“Which is why I’m leaving Duffy with you,” Ethan said evenly, eating more of the bannock.
Keir slid his arm behind Merritt’s back and patted the side of her hip. “We’ll be all right,” he said. “We’ll stay safe in the house and plan of what to do next. There’s the distillery needing to be started up again, the trust properties needing to be managed . . . and an estate in . . . where is it?”
“Cumberland,” Merritt replied.
“Cumberland,” Keir repeated, and went to pour hot water into the teapot. He spoke while facing away from her, sounding wry. “If only I could divide myself into three men, each doing a job well, instead of being one man doing three jobs badly.”
“Three of you,” Merritt mused, her natural sense of humor asserting itself. “That would be rather too much for me to manage. Depending, of course, on how many of you would want me as your wife.”
Keir turned to glance at her over his shoulder, his hair tousled, his blue eyes glinting with a smile. “My heart,” he said, “there’s no version of me that would no’ choose you as my wife. ’Tis the first thing I would do.” His gaze held hers, and he added softly, “The very first thing.”
After Ethan and Wilkinson had left for London, Duffy went back to the change-house to rest in preparation for his solitary night watch. Merritt spent the afternoon talking with Keir, the two of them cuddled together on a very small settee. She would have to order one at least twice this size, she thought, when it came time to build a new house on the island. She watched with amusement as Wallace paced restlessly around the overloaded settee, obviously trying to calculate how he too could sit there.
“Wallace,” Keir said dryly, “I dinna know where you think you’ll find a blessed inch of empty space.”
The terrier persisted, however, hopping up near their feet and painstakingly crawling over their bodies.
“Wallace will come to London with us, of course,” Merritt said, reaching out swiftly to steady the dog as he wobbled. She pulled him onto her lap and leaned back against Keir. “As soon as Ethan says it’s safe, we’ll stay at my—our—home there, and meet with your father.” She paused, disconcerted. “I’m sorry, I meant with Kingston.”
“I dinna mind,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “He is my father, whether I call him that or no’.”
Merritt smiled and gently scratched Wallace’s head and ears until he sighed and slumped across her lap. “He’ll explain how we should proceed with the trust, and we’ll meet with all the solicitors and bankers and so forth.”
“’Tis no’ the trust I’m worried about,” Keir said morosely. “’Tis the estate and title. I have no connection to those lands—nor to the people who farm it—and I dinna think I can live in a place where my mother bided in such misery.” He paused. “Can I no’ give any part of it away?”
“One can’t give away a title, I’m afraid. And perhaps there’s a tiny percentage of land you might be able to sell, but most of it’s probably entailed. That means it has to be kept all together, along with the house, to pass down to the next generation. You won’t really own it so much as you’ll be its caretaker until the next Lord Ormonde. Certainly you wouldn’t want to evict the current tenants, who are good, hardworking people.” She thought for a long moment. “However . . . that doesn’t mean the manor house itself can’t be used for some other purpose.”
“A school?” she suggested.
“A school for what?”
“For boys and girls who are disadvantaged and need a good education as well as a healthy, happy place to live.”
Keir pressed his lips to her head. “I like that idea,” he said. “Very much.”
“It’s not the same as running your distillery of course, but there might be aspects you would find interesting and rewarding.”
“’Tis about more than making whisky, my distillery,” he said reflectively. “The part I like the most is that my men and I, we’re all working together to make something good. Something we’re proud of. I think . . . I could feel some of that for a school.”
Merritt smiled and nestled more tightly against him.
They talked into the evening, until they were both tired and ready for bed.
“Let’s bathe first,” Merritt suggested.
Keir parted his lips to reply, when Wallace suddenly leaped off the settee and ran uneasily from the main room to the bedroom and back again. His small body quivered with excitement, and his wiry fur stood on end.
“What is it?” Keir wondered aloud, going to the window. Merritt turned down the lamp to reduce the glare of reflected light.
All three of them jumped as they heard a jarring sound from the distillery, a mingling of groaning metal and broken glass, as if something had smashed.
Then the night was silent.
Wallace erupted in furious barking, until Keir laid a gentle hand on his head, quieting him.
“An accident with machinery?” Merritt suggested. “Perhaps one of the copper stills fell over?”
Keir shook his head, staring intently out the window.
Something was wrong. Merritt felt her insides turn hollow. She went to the bedroom, took the Bulldog revolver from the leather valise where she’d been keeping it, and turned the lamp down in that room as well. As she glanced through the window at the whitewashed walls around the distillery, she couldn’t detect any movement.
Soon Keir came into the bedroom, his face grim. “Duffy would have come in to say something about it by now, if he were able.”
“Let’s go out together and look for him,” Merritt suggested.
Keir shook his head. “Stay here in the bedroom with the dog, keep the revolver with you, and lock the door. Wallace will growl if a stranger tries to come in.”
“What are you planning to do?”
“I’m going to look for Duffy outside, and if he’s no’ there, I’ll look in the distillery.”
“Keir, no—I’m coming with you. You’re not armed, and I—”
“You can’t shoot in the distillery, darlin’, or you might blow it to kingdom come. I can find my way through the distillery in the dark if need be, Merritt. I know it much better than he does. Dinna go in there—wait for me here. I’ll come back. I promise.” His lips twitched as he added, “And dinna shoot my dog by accident.”
After Keir had left the house, Merritt watched from the bedroom window for at least fifteen minutes. The distillery’s many roofs and walls, and the long machair grass surrounding the whole of it, were eerily illuminated by the blue light of a cloud-ghosted moon. Her breath caught as she saw Keir go through one of the side arches leading into the main building.
Wallace, who was standing beside her with his front paws braced on the windowsill, wagged his tail, and licked and panted.
Another minute passed, and another, as they continued to watch.
A growl came from the dog’s throat, so quietly menacing that every hair on Merritt’s body stood on end. In a moment, she saw movement near the archway . . . a man following Keir into the distillery. He appeared to be heavier, broader than Duffy.
“Oh, no you bloody don’t,” Merritt whispered, electrified with fear and urgency. Wallace remained at the window, staring outside. She couldn’t risk taking him with her.
Quietly she left the bedroom and closed the door, keeping him safely inside. With the revolver in hand, she went outside and made her way past the distillery walls. After hesitating at the main building, she followed an instinct and skirted around to the gigantic racking-house. The main door was ajar. She nudged past it and eased inside.
The maze of racks and casks was only faintly illuminated by fingers of blue light that crept in through a few high, small windows. After sidling against a wall, Merritt held very still, hearing the sounds of quiet footsteps. Another, slightly different set. Walking, stopping, walking . . . stopping. It was difficult to tell where any of them were coming from. She ventured farther into the rackhouse, keeping to the shadows and straining to see through the darkness.
A man was walking several rows away from her. Suddenly, she was startled by the feel of a gentle hand covering her mouth, and she inhaled sharply. Her heartbeat went out of control, cluttering her chest with its wild pounding until she could hardly breathe. But the strong, warm fingers were familiar. She relaxed at the scent and feel of her husband. His hand slid down her arm, closed over the gun, and gently removed it from her grip. After sliding it into her skirt pocket, he took her hand and pulled her along with him.
She could hear the other man’s footsteps again, this time much closer. Keir drew her with him to the end of a row. He ducked his head around one side of the rack and then the other, but both corridors were empty.
Merritt felt him lift one of her wrists up to his mouth. There was a slight tug as he bit through the threads affixing a tiny decorative button to the cuff. He took the little button between a thumb and finger, and tossed it into one of the corridors between the racks.
In response to the sound, the footsteps came closer, until Merritt could tell the man was heading toward them. Her hand inched toward her skirt pocket, but Keir caught it gently and guided it to a wooden lever attached to the rack.
“Push it down on three,” he whispered, almost inaudibly, and he reached for a higher lever on the rack.
She waited, sweat breaking out as the footsteps came closer. Keir’s fingers tapped on her arm. One . . . two . . . three. She shoved the lever down with all her strength.
The entire rack shuddered, and casks began to roll with the sound of thunder. Seeing Keir pull another lever, and another, Merritt reached to help him. She glanced into the corridor, and saw the stranger staggering between the heavy plummeting casks.
Then the man was quiet, groaning as he was pinned beneath the weight of a barrel.
Keir went into the corridor and looked at the man incredulously. “He’s no’ the one from the alley,” he said.
A few minutes later, Merritt sat in the kitchen with Agent Duffy, dabbing gently at his bruised and lacerated temple with a cold, wet cloth. She and Keir had found him outside one of the distillery walls, where he’d been knocked unconscious by the intruder. After they’d helped him into the house, Keir had gone to fetch the sheriff.
“I’m so sorry,” Merritt murmured, as the young man flinched and drew in a hissing breath. “I do wish you’d take that dram of whisky Keir poured for you.”
“Ransom wouldn’t like it,” Duffy said. “I’m still on the job.”
Merritt nudged the glass toward him. “I won’t tell.”
Duffy reached for it gratefully. After a bracing swallow, he let Merritt press a cold compress to his forehead. “I should be handling the situation,” he said. “Where’s Mr. MacRae?”
“He’s gone to fetch MacTaggart,” she said.
“The suspect—where is he?”
“We left him in the rackhouse, after we bound him up with baler twine.”
The stranger had been dazed and battered, putting up only a feeble struggle before Keir had subdued him. After the man’s hands had been fastened behind his back and his legs tied together, Keir had searched his pockets and found a revolver and a set of brass knuckle dusters. Merritt had pulled out a knife from a sewn-in sheath in the shaft of his boot.
She’d been perplexed by how ordinary the hired assassin’s appearance was. There was nothing of the stage villain about him, nor did he seem mad, desperate, impoverished, or any of the things that might drive a man to crime. He was a well-dressed man in his twenties, with a face that could have belonged to a shopkeeper or a business clerk.
As the man sat propped up against a wine cask, his hard, empty eyes had unnerved Merritt. He’d refused to speak, only stared at them with that emotionless gaze, as if he were turning to stone in front of them.
“Whether you tell us or no’,” Keir had said wryly, “’tis no great mystery about who sent you, and what you were after doing.” As the stranger maintained his cold silence, Keir had stared at him with curiosity and a hint of pity. “I dinna know what made you so broken, but life must have gone hard for you. Why kill a man you have no quarrel with? Only for money? Had you come to me as a stranger needful of work, I’d have offered you a good honest job.”
That had provoked a reaction, the calcified façade cracking to reveal molten scorn. “I’d never work for a sheep-shagging Scot.”
Outraged, Merritt had been about to tell him exactly what she thought of him, but Keir had smiled at the insult and rose to his feet, pulling her up with him. “Is that the best you can come up with?” he’d asked. “My friends and I call each other much worse after a round at the local tavern.”
Merritt’s thoughts returned to the present and Duffy as he gingerly gripped his sandy head in his hands and stared down at the table. “I’m not cut out for this kind of work,” he said glumly. “I should have stayed with teaching.”
She looked at him alertly. “You’re a teacher?”
“Assistant master of science at Cheltenham College. And I was good at it.”
“Why did you go into law enforcement?” Merritt asked.
“I thought it was more exciting. And important.”
“Dear boy, there’s nothing more exciting or important than teaching.”
“Platitudes,” he muttered.
“Not at all,” she said earnestly. “Teaching makes people who they are. Perhaps it even shows them who they are. If done well, it’s . . . magical. A good teacher is a guide to the wonderments of life.”
Duffy folded his arms and lowered his head to them. “It doesn’t matter now,” came his muffled voice. “The position at Cheltenham has long since been filled.”
Merritt leaned forward to reposition the compress against his forehead. “If that’s what you want, I’ll see what I can do to help.” She smiled. “Or perhaps a new opportunity will present itself.”
Keir returned with Sheriff MacTaggart and a deputy, and Duffy went with them to the distillery rackhouse. In the meantime, as dawn approached, the small house was overrun by friendly strangers, some of them neighbors, some distillery workers and their wives, and some of them friends of Keir’s since childhood. They were all excited and outraged by the news of an intruder having been caught at the MacRae distillery, and were full of colorful opinions about what to do with him.
Even if Merritt had been well-rested and prepared for visitors, the deluge would have been overwhelming. As it was, she found herself wandering distractedly among the crowd, smiling and nodding, and repeating names in an effort to remember them. Someone brought a basket of hot morning rolls directly from the baker and began handing them out. Someone else filled the tea kettle and set it on the hot stove plate.
Amid all the bustle, Merritt found herself gently shepherded to the settee. Gratefully she sat, and Wallace hopped up beside her. The terrier licked his lips and stared at the morning roll in her hands. It had been split open, with a curl of cold butter beginning to melt inside. Slowly Merritt consumed the roll and broke off a few small pieces to feed to Wallace. With his solid, warm body cuddled up to hers, and her stomach comfortably full, it took only a few blinks before exhaustion overtook her.
“Merry,” came a low, familiar voice, and she opened her eyes to discover Keir leaning over her. He smiled and stroked back a loose lock of her hair, and glanced down at Wallace, who extended his short legs in a trembling stretch.
She had no idea how much time had passed as she’d dozed in the corner of the settee, but the daylight was much brighter now, and many of the visitors seemed to have departed.
“Poor weary lass,” Keir said, sitting beside her and gathering her close.
Merry yawned against his shoulder. “The first time I meet your friends and neighbors . . . and I fall asleep in front of them.”
“They understand, love. They’re full of good wishes. Soon they’ll take their leave, and we’ll have a proper rest.” Keir patted her hip. “When I told everyone you followed me into the distillery with your wee pop-gun to protect me, they all said you were as brave as a Scotswoman. ’Tis a great compliment, ye ken.”
Merritt’s lips twitched at his description of the high-caliber revolver as a “wee pop-gun.”
“MacTaggart took the man to a holding cell in Port Charlotte,” Keir continued, settling her more comfortably in the crook of his arm. “We found out his name is John Peltie.”
She glanced up at him in surprise. “You made him talk?”
“No, it was Duffy. He convinced him it would go better for him if he cooperated. Peltie admitted that Lord Ormonde hired him to finish the job after Brownlow failed at it.”
Wallace hopped off the settee, simultaneously yawned and whined, and padded across the room to the door.
“I’ll take him out,” Keir said.
“I wouldn’t mind stretching my legs,” Merritt said, reaching for a shawl draped over the back of the settee. “I’ll go with you.” She drew the shawl around herself and knotted it loosely over her front.
Before they went outside, however, Sheriff MacTaggart met them at the threshold, having just returned from Port Charlotte. “MacRae . . . and milady . . . I received a telegram from Commissioner Ransom that you’ll be wanting to know about.” With a slightly theatrical flourish, he took the message from his pocket. “It says Mr. Brownlow was apprehended last night at the Charing Cross station while attempting to board a train. Brownlow confessed to Ransom that he killed Lord Ormonde, after Ormonde fired him and wouldn’t pay what he owed him.”
“To be fair,” Keir said reflectively, “I can see Brownlow’s side of it. He did a fine job of setting fire to the warehouse and shutting me in. By all rights, I should have been scowdered and burnt to a crisp.”
“I could have warned him you were a daft numptie who’d jump oot the window,” MacTaggart said, and they exchanged a grin.
The dog pawed impatiently at the door.
“Sheriff,” Merritt said with a slight smile, “if you’ll excuse us, Wallace has his priorities.”
MacTaggart stepped aside and opened the door for Wallace with a show of deference, and the terrier trotted out.
Keir took Merritt’s hand. They paused at the threshold, blinking in the bright daylight.
There was so much ahead of them, Merritt thought, feeling momentarily overwhelmed. So much to be done.
She glanced up at Keir, who smiled as if he could read her thoughts.
“Let’s start with a walk,” he suggested, and bent to steal a kiss. “We’ll figure it out from there.”
And together, they walked out into the morning.
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