Authors: Shannah Biondine
It was over in a trice. Rachel gave the man her verbal acceptance. He left soon afterward. The soiree ended before midnight on a pleasant note. Violet had gone to bed saying she was well pleased.
Rachel's mind raced as she brushed out her hair and prepared for bed. She'd pictured her adulthood filled with Independence Day picnics and lawn parties. She imagined playing hostess at home on Sunday afternoons, working beside her father weekdays at the factory. She'd have a husband and children and they'd all live harmoniously with Jeremiah at Hardwick house. Had that been so much to ask?
It must have been. Because when she turned sixteen her father announced she was to marry one of his factory workers. Papa had been drawn in by tales of virgin land out West and promises his daughter would have a wonderful future as the wife of a young farmer in one of the new territories. Though his daughter had cried and pleaded that she was too young to marry, Jeremiah had seen her wed to Cletus Nash.
That hallmarked her descent into misery.
She'd left the tall brick mansion in Philadelphia to cross the plains and head north into the Oregon Territory. The first year of her marriage had been spent in a Conestoga, then Cletus erected a ramshackle farmhouse on their parcel. He'd somehow expected his crops to raise and harvest themselves while he squandered his time in fledgling saloons. He soaked up liquor and fancied himself a gambler.
But he'd had very poor luck—which hadn't deterred him from raising his bets or thinking he could beat the likes of Grubstake Smith. There had been other fancy vests and card sharps. Too many to count. Then Cletus caught pneumonia and left Rachel widowed.
The only thing she'd inherited from Cletus was his rotten luck.
She'd wasted no time getting out of Oregon. She wanted to forget the misery of those frontier years. Forget the small marker at the edge of the fields and get home to Philadelphia and her father. But the rotten luck that had dogged her husband was her legacy. She met with a land speculator, signed papers and went to the bank. There was one last detail, a gambling debt to some Easterner, then everything out West would be settled. But she'd wound up accused of murder.
Even before she reached Philadelphia, newspapers published the lurid tale and her description. An old friend of her father's had become a town sheriff in the Midwest and wired Jeremiah that his daughter's face was on a Wanted poster. Jeremiah had already decided his daughter would be shipped off to stay with Violet in London until the tempest passed.
Only London had now been replaced with some obscure northern village. The better to bury the past....
Boyd arrived right on schedule Monday morning. He brought Rachel's trunk out to the waiting carriage as Rachel donned her cloak and checked the guest room to make sure she hadn't left anything behind. She descended the front steps and froze. Two uniformed policemen were talking with some of Violet's neighbors a few doors down the street. Violet and Boyd noticed, too.
"I wonder what that's all about," Boyd commented.
"Robbery," said Violet's next-door neighbor. He shook his head in disgust. "Someone broke into Geoffrey's place and made off with the good silver last night."
Violet's hand went to her throat and she fingered the garnet brooch pinned to the lace of her collar. "Oh, how awful! 'Tisn't safe anywhere these days." She glanced at Rachel and gave her a meaningful look. "But we mustn't detain you and your employer, Rachel. The authorities don't need to speak to you. You couldn't have heard a thing. After all, you know you sleep like a stone."
"Yes, I'm afraid I couldn't be of any help. Mr. Atkinson?" Rachel gave him an expectant look. He extended his arm and she climbed inside the coach.
"Have a good trip, dear," Violet called. "Off with you now!"
Violet all but shoved Boyd inside and slammed the carriage door, nearly catching the tails of his coat. Garnet brooch open in her hand, she slapped at the horse's glossy flank, giving it a solid jab. The animal snorted in surprise and bolted from its peaceful standstill. The carriage shot down the length of the street, jostling Boyd onto Rachel's lap.
He instantly flushed and jumped onto the seat across from her. "That was the most bizarre thing I've ever seen in my life. I could have sworn your aunt—"
"Dear me. I know, sir," Rachel interrupted. "I'm dreadfully sorry, but first encountering policemen and then the horse. Poor Violet's never been the same since the accident."
Rachel coughed into her hand to mask her lie. "Her betrothed was an officer of the peace. He was killed by a runaway horse on his way to the policeman's ball."
From Newcastle-Upon-Tyne the carriage headed inland across the broad moors. Rachel listened to Boyd and gazed at the passing scenery. Hazy skies were dotted here and there with clumps of whitish gray batting and a light but chill breeze had been blowing every since they'd left the inn that morning.
This was early summer. Rachel surmised winters here would not be terribly different from the wet misery she'd known in the Oregon territory. But this country-side was much prettier.
Boyd explained that he and his longtime friend held separate business interests, but had invested jointly in a livery and freight service and a small warehouse between Newcastle and the village of Crowshaven. Boyd owned the local tobacco shoppe. His partner, Morgan Tremayne, owned the local inn and a granary that had fallen to disuse. And they had recently formed the holding company of Atkinson & Tremayne, Ltd.
"I was in London negotiating with my tobacco supplier, but generally Morgan's the one who travels," Boyd told her. "He makes excursions often, so he uses a suite of rooms on the top floor of the inn and rents out his family cottage. That arrangement's suited to his erratic schedule."
Their driver swerved to the edge of the roadbed. Boyd thrust his head out the window and shouted something. Rachel caught a glimpse of a lone rider who shot past them on a dark gray horse. Boyd shouted again and the rider yelled an answer. Boyd glanced at Rachel and gave a hapless shrug. "As I said, he's off again."
"The maniac who nearly ran us off the road was the innkeeper? Your partner?" The mental image she'd formed of a sedate older gentleman instantly crumbled.
Crowshaven was visible now just beyond a gentle rise. Rachel grinned as she saw the town was nothing like she'd anticipated. No raw lumber or dirt floors; these were solid homes with glass windowpanes and stone foundations. As the carriage neared the heart of the village, her eyes took in the square with a sense of wonder and joy. Cobblestones! Real streets, not dirt and mire. It was darling, this quaint village. She liked the tiny shoppes and marketplace crowded with stalls and carts. Boyd pointed out his tobacco store and the chandlery, baker's, post office, livery stable, and blacksmith's. Just off the main square stood a large mercantile. The most imposing structure in the whole village was the Crowshaven Inn.
They swung in a circle to the outer edge of town. A row of houses dotted an angular bluff. The carriage stopped at the second house from the corner. "This is Morgan's cottage," Boyd announced.
Rachel sat unmoving. She'd pictured a single story bungalow. The weathered stone residence had a high gabled roof. Glittering diamond-shaped windowpanes flanked the front door and graced the second story. It was no mansion, but there was an undeniable charm about the place. Boyd escorted her up the front walk and into the parlor. It was snug though sparsely furnished.
A settee upholstered in a somber brown sat beside a cherry end table. A solitary armchair faced the open hearth. The chair's floral fabric matched the front window drapes. Beyond the parlor was a small kitchen. An alcove led to a pantry and a small bedchamber.
"Sorry about these," Boyd coughed, pulling the tattered kitchen curtains aside to display the rear garden. "There's a wire run to the fence for hanging out the wash. That stile leads to the alleyway." Rachel barely heard him. She was staring at the yard. There were flowers in bloom right outside her back door. Flowers, not knee-deep mud and a wooden privy!
Upstairs, the front bedchamber was dominated by a mahogany canopy bed and tall dresser. The bed's faded lace canopy and coverlet matched the curtains across the wide windows. The house featured a good many windows, Rachel noticed. A welcome change after years in a dark shanty. Across the hall, a narrow cot and small table faced the low bureau in the third bedroom.
"I trust the house is acceptable?" Boyd inquired.
"It's wonderful. You've very generous to let me stay here. I hope the owner isn't going to change his mind and decide to move back in."
"I wouldn't worry about that. Morgan hasn't lived here for years. As I said, he's quite comfortable at the inn. He lets this cottage on a yearly lease."
Rachel flinched inside at that news. She couldn't promise to stay a year. Not nearly that long, if there was any kindness left in the world! "I don't know whether I can commit to a full year, sir. Perhaps half that time." She was afraid she'd just ruined her chance at both the house and the post, but it had to be said.
"All right, Rachel," he smiled, "Don't feel you must make too many decisions all at once. Six months will be fine for now." He had the driver unload her trunk, and sternly shook his head when Rachel dug into her handbag. "I'll deduct the rent from your salary each week. I know you haven't much money. Your aunt explained the difficult circumstances that caused you to sell the farm after your husband's death. Pity, leaving you so indebted. But please don't worry, I won't repeat a word to anyone else."
"My aunt told you all about it, though."
Violet, you wicked storyteller!
I guess that's only fair after the balderdash I handed him about you and the horse.
Boyd coughed into a fist. "She led Mr. Soames to understand you'd had a rough time back on the frontier and arrived in England with limited resources. I don't mean to dwell on your misfortune. I thought I might ask my fiancee to look in on you tomorrow. Chrissandra would love to help you stock up on provisions. She adores any excuse to be out browsing. Please dine at the inn this evening and tell Mrs. Poole to put your meal on Morgan's account."
Rachel studied his face. "What's he like, sir? I feel a little strange moving into the man's home and eating at his inn, working in his office, yet we're complete strangers."
"Let's see. Some call him the Bargainer. He lives and breathes trade, which makes him the ideal partner for me. I believe there's more to life than commerce. Morgan believes life
commerce. He's a proud man, but not above plowing a field or making a delivery himself. Has a reputation for honoring his word. Something we literally bank upon. I think you'll get on. You seem the earnest sort, which he'll appreciate."
He was almost back in the carriage before she remembered to ask when she was expected at his office. "Take a few days to settle in," he called back. "I'll send Miss James by tomorrow and expect you Friday morning at nine."
Rachel closed the cottage door and turned to gaze again around the snug parlor. This musty but appealing little domicile was hers alone. The thought had her mind reeling. For the first time in her life, she would be residing alone. Working at a clerking post she had chosen to accept, eating meals when she wanted to fix them, bathing and sleeping and doing dozens of things when the whims—not Cletus—struck her. He'd been gone for over three months, but she hadn't been able to shake the horrid memories of all their years together.
Those bleak nights in the shack. The even worse times when his elder brother had come to stay for extended visits. The sour smell of liquor, stale smoke, vomit, and God knew what else on the men's clothes.
There would be no drunken fools to contend with here, no gropings, rushed apologies for imaginary failings.
She was really and truly alone.
Wanted as a criminal...and yet free for the first time in years. That thought brought her a strange peace that allowed her to rest easy in the strange new bed that night.
Rachel surveyed the cottage again the next day. The furniture was in good condition, but the kitchen curtains would have to be replaced. The hardwood floors in the parlor needed polishing. All she could do now was give the place a good clean sweep. She opened the front door and knocked a cloud of dust onto the porch.
"Good God! Why don't you watch what you're doing?"
An attractive and furious blonde woman shook off her brocade skirts. Rachel propped the broom against the wall. "I beg your pardon! Mr. Atkinson told me you'd be over today, Miss James, but I didn't expect you this early."
"I'm not Chrissandra. My name's Pamela Prine. I'm a close personal friend of the owner, Morgan Tremayne. He's away, so I thought I'd greet the new tenants. I'd like a word with your master or mistress, please."
Rachel extended her right hand. "I'm Rachel Cordell, Mr. Tremayne's new tenant. I'd ask you in, but I haven't a thing in the house to offer as refreshment."
"You're the tenant? Well, I hope your husband doesn't find our village too provincial, Mistress Cordell."
"My husband's in a grave back in America." Rachel gestured meaningfully at her own dark skirts.
"A widow? And a Colonial?"