“He needn’t worry about that,” Merritt had protested. “You know my family is barely civilized!”
But Joshua replied that her definition of “barely civilized” was different from a rural Scotsman’s, and MacRae would be far more comfortable left to his own devices.
Merritt had never dreamed that when she and Keir MacRae finally met, Joshua would be gone, and she would be the one managing Sterling Enterprises.
Her brother came to the doorway and paused at the threshold. “If you’ll come this way,” he said to someone outside the room, “I’ll make introductions and then—”
Keir MacRae burst into the office like a force of nature and strode past Luke, coming to a stop on the other side of Merritt’s desk.
Looking sardonic, Luke went to lean against the doorjamb and folded his arms. “On the other hand,” he said to no one in particular, “why waste time with introductions?”
Merritt stared in bemusement at the big, wrathful Scotsman. He was an extraordinary sight, more than six feet of muscle and brawn dressed in a thin wet shirt and trousers that clung as if they’d been glued to his skin. An irritable shiver, almost certainly from the chill of evaporating alcohol, ran over him. Scowling, he reached up to remove his flat cap, revealing a shaggy mop of hair, several months past a good cut. The thick locks were a beautiful cool shade of amber shot with streaks of light gold.
He was handsome despite his unkempt state. Very handsome. His blue eyes were alert with the devil’s own intelligence, the cheekbones high, the nose straight and strong. A tawny beard obscured the line of his jaw—perhaps concealing a weak chin?—she couldn’t tell. Regardless, he was a stunner.
Merritt wouldn’t have thought there was a man alive who could fluster her like this. She was a confident and worldly woman, after all. But she couldn’t ignore the flush rising from the high-buttoned neck of her dress. Or the way her heart had begun to pound like a clumsy burglar trampling the flower bed.
“I want to speak to someone in charge,” he said brusquely.
“That would be me,” Merritt said with a quick smile, coming around the desk. “Lady Merritt Sterling, at your service.” She extended her hand.
MacRae was slow to respond. His fingers closed over hers, cool and slightly rough.
The sensation raised the hairs on the back of her neck, and she felt something uncoil pleasantly at the pit of her stomach.
“My condolences,” he said gruffly, releasing her hand. “Your husband was a good man.”
“Thank you.” She took a steadying breath. “Mr. MacRae, I’m so sorry for the way your delivery has been botched. I’ll submit paperwork to make sure you’re exempted from the landing charges and wharfage rates, and Sterling Enterprises will handle the lighterage fees. And in the future, I’ll make sure a berth is reserved on the day your shipment is due.”
“There’ll be no fookin’ future shipments if I’m to be put out of business,” MacRae said. “The excise agent says every barrel of whisky that hasn’t been delivered to the warehouse by midnight will no longer be under bond, and I’m to be paying duties on it immediately.”
“What?” Merritt shot an outraged glance at her brother, who shrugged and shook his head to indicate he knew nothing about it. This was deadly serious business. The government’s regulations about storing whisky under bond were strictly enforced, and violations would earn terrible penalties. It would be bad for her business, and disastrous for MacRae’s.
“No,” she said firmly, “that will not happen.” She went back behind the desk, took her chair, and sorted rapidly through a pile of authorizations, receipts, and excise forms. “Luke,” she said, “the whisky must be transported here from Deptford Buoys as fast as possible. I’ll persuade the excise officer to give us at least ’til noon tomorrow. Heaven knows he owes us that much, after the favors we’ve done him in the past.”
“Will that be enough time?” Luke asked, looking skeptical.
“It will have to be. We’ll need every barge and lighter vessel we can hire, and every able-bodied man—”
“No’ so fast,” MacRae said, slapping his palms firmly on the desk and leaning over it.
Merritt started at the sound and glanced up into the face so close to hers. His eyes were a piercing shade of ice blue, with faint whisks at the outer corners, etched by laughter and sun and sharp windy days.
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