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Authors: Shannah Biondine

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BOOK: Cachet
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"All right," he sighed. "Somersdale, my father, and a man named Jackson Stowe were partners. Together they built the inn. Stowe was primarily a farmer, and in the early days the place barely made a profit. Very lean, especially split three ways. Somersdale decided he wanted out. My father bought his share, providing the capital Arnold used to open his mercantile. Then Andrew Tremayne died and left me his two-thirds interest. My sister inherited the cottage. When she died and the house passed to me, I mortgaged the cottage and purchased Stowe's remaining share. That made me sole owner."

"You said nothing about your mother, the European with the dark coloring. She was gone before those events took place?"

"Long before."

Rachel thought a moment. "So much tragedy in a young life. How old were you when you took over, my age?"

It was almost imperceptible, but some small movement gave her the sensation of withdrawal. "I don't know how old you are. You've never said."

"Twenty-five."

"Nay. I was eight and ten at the time."

"Eighteen?" Rachel twisted around again to look at him. "No wonder Somersdale resents you. It's amazing everyone in that village doesn't. You were a successful businessman at eighteen?"

She made it sound impossibly difficult. Morgan remembered well the hard times, but she couldn't understand how hard. No one did. He was no bleeding hero. He'd survived, following a basic instinct. He wasn't particularly proud of it. His tone was casual. "You were a wife at like age, I'll wager. That's the warehouse in the distance there. And that's my granary."

They rode out to the structure. There was a low flat rock near the entrance. Morgan reined in the stallion and swung down, reaching to set Rachel on her feet as he tied Phantom to the branch of a large shrub. Rachel noticed her escort had grown pensive. She let the silence lengthen, settling beside him on the large stone.

"You're a Yorkshireman, Morgan," she commented at last. "Why does the American West interest you?"

He stared off at something in the distance. "I didn't ask you out here to bore you."

"You won't."

He studied her face for a moment before explaining. "In trade, everything's related. Our local merchant buys from a regional supplier, who in turn gets his shipments from a factory in a large city. The factory may receive cargo from a trading vessel. The vessel calls in many ports, possibly from all over the world. It's not just what I do or what Boyd or Somersdale does. All's connected. The Colonies—Forgive me," he corrected, "
America
has great opportunity."

Neither had paid attention to the roiling clouds overhead. Morgan was struck by a large droplet. He snatched her off the rock, and in seconds had pulled a spare cloak from behind the saddle and wrapped her in it. By the time they made the cottage, a torrential rain was coming down.

He unlocked the door and shoved her inside. "I'll take Phantom back to the livery. Put some coffee on!"

She dropped the sodden cloak over a kitchen chair and lit the stove. Her quilt was still over the back of the armchair. The front door banged open again. "You never can get this blasted fire going," Morgan complained through chattering teeth. He was soaked to the skin, long hair sending rivulets of water down the back of his shirt as he knelt and began to work the bellows.

"Go in back and get out of those wet clothes," Rachel ordered. She thrust the quilt at him. He returned moments later and set his boots beside the hearth. Rachel glanced in the kitchen and saw he'd hung his clothes over a chair near the drying cloak. He'd also dragged all the chairs closer to the fireplace.

"Rachel."
His voice sounded oddly strained. She turned and found him staring at her. She followed the direction of his gaze to discover her wet blouse and long underwear were now all but transparent, clearly revealing her dusky nipples.

"Stop gaping," she hissed, covering herself with her arms. "It's nothing you haven't seen before. I'll go upstairs and change." Her own eyes were drawn to his bronze torso and the narrow trail of dark furring that trailed past his navel. The man was built magnificently. She found it hard to swallow. Even harder to meet his gaze, which had moved to her face.

The quiet companionship from the ride was gone. Pure animal attraction crackled between them, snapping with the hearth flames. Neither could seem to tear their eyes away from the other. They stood like that for an eternity until a large knot exploded on the grate. The sound brought Rachel out of her daze. She dashed up the staircase.

When she came back down in a cotton frock, she found him seated in the big armchair beside the fire, a mug of coffee in one hand. Again the mood had shifted. He was all business, wearing a thoughtful expression she recognized from the offices.

"What did you think of my little tour? Certainly we have naught to compare with Philadelphia. What was your home like there? Your family?" She didn't respond at once. "Yes, I
am
being nosy," he informed her, "but I promise not to write an article for the papers when I hear your answers."

She scowled at him. He shook a forefinger at her. "It's your turn. Tell me about Philadelphia."

She shrugged. "It's noisy and sooty, full of bustling thoroughfares. Not unlike London. But you've read all about it, I'm sure."

"And your family?" She turned her back to him and wandered off to the kitchen. He clucked his tongue behind her, raising his voice to reach her ears. "No fair, Rachel. I distinctly recall discussing mine."

She returned to sit on the sofa with her own cup of coffee. "You doggedly avoid this particular topic," Morgan pointed out quietly. "Is there a highwayman or black sheep among your relations? I do hope so! Makes the tale so much more interesting." He winked at her over his cup.

"There's an accused murderer, but not much of a tale. I'm the daughter of a transplanted Englishman. Yes, Morgan, the same blood courses through my veins!" She poked her tongue out at him. "My father settled in Philadelphia before I was born. My mother was English, too. She died when I was young. Papa remarried a woman I don't much like. End of saga."

Not quite the end, Morgan saw from her expression. "So what did you really think this afternoon?" he asked soberly.

"I never realized you were such a visionary." She stirred the sugar sediment from the bottom of her cup, but jolted and dropped the spoon as a roll of thunder shook the house. "Sorry. I don't like thunder. It makes me edgy."

"Come sit with me, then." He patted his knee. Another thunderclap made the decision for her. She allowed him to wrap her in warm strength. "Better?" he whispered, cuddling her close. She nodded, trying to ignore his bare chest and the clean scent of his skin.

Morgan inhaled deeply. "You just called me a visionary."

"I didn't realize you had a passion for things beyond your own trade interests. You want admirable things for the village. You see how it could grow."

"Do you know what I'm envisioning now?" His fingers caressed her throat as his tongue parted her lips. He began exploring her mouth with slow deliberation.

Rachel was helpless against the rising tide of desire. Another clap of rolling thunder sent one arm up around his neck. Her fingers found his damp hair and she realized he'd removed the leather thong. She broke the kiss and raked her fingers through his hair, fluffing it to dry.

"I think I like your hair loose. You remind me of a lion. Your coloring and this thick dark mane."

He gave her a skeptical look. "Admit it. You've studied my ring."

She reached for his right hand. Interwoven with the large initial was a medieval rendering of a lion. "I honestly never noticed before." She trembled slightly as a deep rumble rolled overhead.

"Let's go upstairs, Rachel," he whispered. "Crawl into the canopy bed and make love until it passes. It could take hours, you know."

She shook her head, rising to her feet. Straightening her clothing, she struggled to keep her voice calm and steady. No small feat in the midst of a thunderstorm. Or with this gorgeous man watching her with lusty desire burning in his pewter eyes. "No. Forgive me if I led you to expect...We can't. I don't want you to touch me."

"Rachel, you're a bloody liar," he countered, stalking out to the dark kitchen to gather up his damp garments. "You want me. I felt your response."

"Forgive me for also being human," she said with sarcasm. "I can't seem to help but respond to you. No woman can, to hear Arnold talk of the legendary Morgan Tremayne. How many local girls have you waited out rainstorms with? Dozens?"

"You're not the first woman I've lusted after," he gritted out, shoving his shirttail into his breeches. "So what? I never claimed you were. You know I was involved with Pamela. There have been others. I'm sorry if you dislike the historical facts, but I can't change the past. Just what do you propose I do about it now?"

"I'm not proposing anything, and I don't understand why you're so upset. Unless you've never before encountered rejection. Did the others tumble into bed so easily? Nary a one put up a fight?"

"I'm not proposing anything," he mimicked. "Meaning I
should
, I suppose?"

"You're the landlord, I'm only the tenant. You're the employer, I'm the lowly office clerk. How could I presume to tell you anything, Mr. Tremayne?"

"Damn it all, somehow you bloody well
are,
" he fumed. He seized her elbow and stared down into her defiant dark eyes. "My interest in you is utterly, intensely personal. It includes expectations for a certain level of intimacy between us. If you're not ready yet, owing to your recent bereavement, I can accept that. But if you're saying you expect me to
marry
you…"

"I don't expect anything of the kind."

"Then what the devil are you saying?"

"Good afternoon seems appropriate. And thank you, for an interesting excursion."

Morgan gave her an unreadable look, then banged out the front door into the storm. Rachel knew he'd been unsettled when his seduction went awry. She also knew that there would be hell to pay for it. One way or another.

 

Chapter 9

 

Rachel answered the light rap at her door and stared down at the small visitor on her porch. It was a boy of perhaps ten, who hesitantly asked if she was the American lady.

"Yes. And who are you?"

"Nathan Tate, Mistress. My father has a farm outside town. Mr. Morgan's come to help us, account Papa busted his leg plowin' last week."

"Ah, that's why I haven't seen Morgan for a several days. Did he send you here?"

The freckled face bobbed once. "He said I should ask you to Christmas supper with the Atkinsons at the inn. Miss James, too. Mistress Poole makes a fine goose. At least my father says she would. He says she has the backside for bein' the best cook in the whole district."

"I expect he means she has the back
ground
for it," Rachel corrected gently.

"No, he says backside, all right. He says Emily Poole can pull out a roast or ham with both hands and bump the oven door shut without even turnin' around."

Rachel disguised her smile. "Perhaps he knows best. Send word back that I'd be pleased to go. Does your father read to you from books, Nathan?"

The boy colored slightly. "Ain't got no books, Mistress. Mr. Morgan read me a tale from one he brung to the farm once."

She asked the boy to wait and returned seconds later with a tattered volume. "This is a special book from America, called an almanac. It's a book for farmers. The first one was written by a famous American. Have Mr. Morgan read some of it to you. Tell him I'll expect it back when next I see him."

But she did not see him for the next few weeks, and soon it would be Christmas. She spent her spare hours at home knitting thick woolen scarves for her two bosses and thought about the third scarf she'd made for her father. She'd finished it first and sent it with a long letter home. Spending a holiday here in England had its appeal, but she was still terribly homesick, and ever cognizant of the fact she was living a masquerade.

A few days before Christmas Eve, she found Emily in the inn's taproom struggling to fasten small candles to the branches of a large fir tree. "If you could just hold that limb there steady, if you would," Emily mumbled. "It wants to slap me right in the nose every time I work near it, and I can't move this beastie away from the wall. Thomas never bothers to think of the decoratin'."

"I'll help you," Rachel said without thinking. She waited for Emily to refuse the assistance, but instead the older woman heaved a sigh of relief and began issuing more orders. Still, when they'd finished attaching red plaid bows and painted wood ornaments, both women stood back to admire their work—and the almost palpable new bond they'd formed over the course of the afternoon.

"You're coming to Christmas supper with Mr. Boyd and Mr. Morgan. Thomas and I always set out a feast, come Christmas night. Don't like Mr. Morgan to be thinking how he's got no one left of family, and Boyd's as apt to sup with us here as spend the day at the farmhouse. Then there's one or two stragglers here in the village with no one with whom they might share a cup o' cheer."

Rachel again wore the gown she'd purchased for the Harvest Dance, but no one seemed to mind. She arrived to find Boyd and Chrissy mingling with some of the local townspeople. Morgan came down the stairs from his private suite dressed like a country gentleman, and made a low bow before Rachel as he handed back the almanac she'd loaned him.

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