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Authors: Shannah Biondine

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BOOK: Cachet
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"American, yes."

"Boyd is known to take pity on charity cases...which explains why he would rent to the likes of you. But I warn you, widow, the rest of us don't accept strangers so easily."

"So I see," Rachel observed dryly. "I'm also Mr. Atkinson's new clerk, so I'll be meeting other villagers soon."

"A woman can get only so far on pity, widow woman. Don't expect to turn other men's heads just because Boyd feels sorry for you."

Rachel's eyes narrowed. "Is Mr. Tremayne terribly handsome?" she asked. The flash of anger in the cold blue eyes told Rachel she'd guessed correctly. "I know he's young and has dark hair. He must be something, indeed. And I wonder which you favor most—his looks or his money?"

"Morgan's looks are of no concern to you, hireling."

"My, a handsome landlord. I can hardly wait to meet him."

"And I can hardly wait until you fall flat on your face! Which you will. A woman clerking," Pamela scoffed. "Preposterous."

"Excuse me," Rachel reached past her unwelcome visitor for the broom. "I'm not used to your English accent. Could you spell that last word for me?"

"What?" Pamela sputtered in outrage.

"I didn't think so." Rachel stepped back inside and slammed the door.

When a knock sounded later, Rachel was more cautious in greeting her visitor. This girl's hair fell in a gleaming platinum cloud around her shoulders. She had dramatic blue-green eyes that sparkled as she greeted Rachel. "I'm Boyd's fiancee, Chrissandra James. I've come to take you shopping."

Rachel explained her wariness had been in reaction to her first visitor. Chrissandra scowled. "That Pamela! She's the worst snob in town. My only reservation about Boyd hiring a woman as his clerk was the difficulty Pamela's bound to stir up. She's a vicious gossip and can't bear other womenfolk within a mile of Morgan. She won't make your tasks any easier."

"I get the impression Mr. Tremayne's the favorite son around here."

Chrissandra led her toward the square. "I've been in love with Boyd ever since I can remember. He and Morgan are best friends. Morgan's almost like a brother to me. He's gorgeous, and unlike most of the local men, yet he gets on with all of them. Well, you'll see."

They made a day of shopping and filling Rachel's larder. When the flour and sugar sacks were tucked inside the pantry, Rachel thanked Chrissy for her help.

"You're a refreshing change, Rachel. We've never had an American here for any length of time. A few have passed through, but you're the first to stay. Don't be put off by Pamela. For all the show, she's just another farmer's daughter. You'll make a wonderful clerk."

* * *

Rachel succeeded well enough at her new post, until it came time to audit the inn. Boyd had introduced her to Thomas and Emily Poole, the middle-aged couple who managed the place for Morgan. Boyd patiently explained how they were to complete the new tally sheet. Rachel would go by on Thursdays to collect the sheet and post the information into Morgan's ledger. But Rachel arrived to find the sheet blank.

"There were no sales last week?" she asked Thomas. "No purchases? No activity of any kind?"

He shrugged, running a hand through spiky gray hair. "Aye, sales aplenty, all right. Don't know how many rounds the men went through over Barker's birth announcement. His sixth. You'd think the effects would've worn off by now. Bless 'em again, Lord," he prayed, eyes lifted to the ceiling. "It's good for business!"

"Mr. Atkinson explained this," Rachel sighed. "I need to know what you sell each day and what you order every week. An empty sheet is useless."

Emily sniffed as she bustled past. "Don't have all day to go marking up papers. Got beef and cabbages to boil. Roasts don't make themselves, you know."

"I realize that, but it only takes a moment once a day to mark the tally. Surely you could spare that."

Emily bristled. "Never known such folderol in my life! Why can't I just tell you what's what when you come in each week? Always done it that way before Boyd hatched his notions about tallies."

"If you're too busy, perhaps Thomas can do it," Rachel suggested.

"He agrees it's nonsense, don't you, Thomas?" Emily shot her husband a pointed look. He muttered something and ducked behind the polished oak bar. A patron with a full tankard in his hand leaned over the bar. The craven barkeep rose to give a nodding answer, then ducked out of sight again. The customer straightened and turned to pin Rachel with his gaze.

She caught her breath. The man was dressed like any other farmer, with muddy boots and a rumpled shirt beneath an open vest. Black breeches clung to trim, well-muscled thighs. The sun had tanned his skin a deep bronze. Dark, shoulder-length hair was tied back at the nape of his neck and formed a thick mustache that obscured the upper lip of a sensual mouth.

But the man's eyes were what transfixed her. They were unexpectedly light. A pale pewter, totally arresting against such dark coloring. Rachel found it hard to ignore the strong physical reaction she had to his gaze. He made her feel as though she were standing there naked.

He crossed to where she and Emily stood. "Young lady has a point, Emily. If Atkinson's going to send her over each week, the least you can do is have the numbers ready. I know you ken what she needs."

Rachel was studying the floor in an attempt to avoid his eyes. She almost succeeded in appearing indifferent until he spoke. His voice seduced her in a deep, rich timbre. Her gaze lifted to catch his wink at the inn's matron. "Whether she knows how to properly utilize the figures is something else again. Let's have a look." He reached for the ledger in Rachel's arms.

Rachel found her tongue and stepped back to evade his grasp. "Excuse me, but we're capable of resolving this, sir. If the information is provided to me, I'll make the proper calculations."

Emily glanced up at the man now, uncertainty on her face. Her tone became more petulant. She wiped chapped hands down her apron front. "Will you please explain what it's like running this place, sir? She's no idea. Spends her day resting her bottom over at the office."

Amused gray eyes swept over Rachel in a shameless appraisal, lingering on her backside. "Hasn't done her bottom any harm, Emily. Perhaps you should sit more."

Rachel was flabbergasted. Emily offered no objection to the randy comment, but Rachel wasn't feeling so charitable. She was plainly dressed in mourning attire. The presumptuous cad was asking to have his face slapped. She was about to say so when he turned back to Emily. "Excuse us." He pressed strong fingers against the small of Rachel's back. "Let's step outside."

Rachel found herself on the broad porch before she could protest. Seconds later she did, and quite clearly. "Your behavior is distressing, to put it mildly, sir. I'm recently widowed and don't appreciate your leering attentions. Don't you have anything better to do than pester women?"

He gave her an insolent grin and seized the ledger from her arms. God, but he was irritating! And striking as a gypsy. Still, he was just another farmer with a lot of audacity and mud on his boots. She couldn't let his exceptional good looks affect her. "Sir, return that book or I'll be forced to send for Mr. Atkinson."

"Slippin', boy!" came a jocular voice from behind them. "Bosom like that and you're oglin' your books? Must be some profit this week!"

Rachel's eyes widened in horror. It
couldn't
be!

"Archie, the lady's a widow," came the teasing protest, uttered as a meaty hand clapped down on the younger man's broad shoulder. "Watch your tongue!"

"I should have a partner like young Atkinson. Hired you a little jewel, didn't he?"

"Aye. Not one mistake in her addition." Glancing at Rachel, the handsome one nodded, perfect teeth showing below his dark mustache. "I'm suitably impressed." He handed over the ledger. "Plainly there's more to our young widow than meets the eye, though no man would complain on that score."

Rachel waited until they were alone on the porch. "You might have introduced yourself, Mr. Tremayne! I thought...I assumed you were a farmer."

"Farmer?" Glancing down at his boots, he released a hearty laugh. "For a few hours today, that would have been accurate." His deep laughter had the same alluring quality as his speaking voice.

She edged away. "Could you speak to Emily again about the tally sheet? I'm only trying to be of help, sir."

"Are you headed home now, Widow?"

"Yes, but I have to drop off the ledger at the office first."

"I'll save you the stop. I'll see you home and take the ledger back to the office. I generally make a point of checking on my new tenants, but I've been away the past week or so."

"I know," Rachel asserted. "Mr. Atkinson and I were nearly run off the road in our coach that day. Do you always ride so fast and recklessly?"

"Only when I'm in a hurry," he answered, reaching for her elbow. She stiffened at his touch. "I don't bite, you know, Clerk."

"There's no need to visit the cottage, sir. Mr. Atkinson and Miss James helped me settle in, and Miss Prine has called on your behalf."

"So you've met her." He didn't sound surprised. They crossed the cobble-stoned square, Morgan nodding to folks they passed along the street. He waved to a wizened stranger in a rickety wagon, then boldly strode up Rachel's front walk. She stared as he fished a ring of keys out of a pocket. This particular man having a key readily at his disposal made her nervous, but she held her tongue. He was perfectly within his rights as landlord.

"Do you have a name, Clerk?" The question came as the keys dropped out of sight.

"Rachel Cordell," she answered as she preceded him into the parlor. "As you can see, the house is satisfactory. There are some minor points we might discuss, though, since you're here."

"Such as?"

"The floors need polishing. If you can't send someone to do it, perhaps I might have a rug. And I'd like to replace the kitchen curtains. If you'll reimburse me for the fabric, I'll sew a new set myself."

Morgan glanced around, noting a womanly touch evident in minor changes her and there. He'd had female tenants before. Married women intent on pleasing their husbands. This was a widow, who'd done these things solely to please herself. A throw pillow on the settee, vase of flowers on the kitchen table, scent of lemon oil in the parlor. Subtle touches he doubted anyone else would notice. But Morgan knew this house well, and found himself oddly gratified by the changes.

He cleared his throat. "I'll send Thomas to polish the floors. I've no objections to new curtains, assuming your sewing is as good as your ciphering."

"Thank you, sir. And thank you for seeing me home, but—"

"I'd take a cup of tea." He took a seat in the parlor, watching her reaction. Any local female would have already offered tea and excuses for him to tarry. This little vixen had practically dismissed him from his own bloody residence!

Morgan wondered what sort of man she'd been wed to: strapping lumberjack, or some simpering bank teller? Archie had been right about the fine bosom. That thought led Morgan to wonder if her trim waist led to equally slim legs. It was impossible to tell beneath the voluminous dark skirts. Aye, dark skirts befitting a widow in mourning. There was nothing the least bit provocative in her dress or demeanor. Odd that he found himself very aware of her.

The somber fabric only served to highlight her tawny coloring. She had luminous brown eyes and gleaming auburn hair. Damned attractive morsel, in the most devastating way. Carelessly, naturally. He sensed this one wasn't the sort to primp and fuss as other women did.

He imagined brushing her dark hair and inhaling the scent of it, wrapping his hands in her tresses. He'd tilt her head back and explore that sweet mouth...
What the devil's come over you, Morgan? The woman's husband just died!

He realized she was speaking to him. Something about being out of tea. Out of tea? Perhaps it was the manure on his boots. His reliable effect on the ladies was having none on this one. But she wasn't supposed to entertain strange men in her parlor, was she? The whole point of the black was to keep men like him at bay. He knew that. He also knew she was one of the most intriguing women he'd yet to encounter. This little American was different.

She planted herself by the door. "I'm glad we finally met, Mr. Tremayne. I'm very comfortable here. I like the house. Thank you again for checking the premises. Perhaps I'll see you tomorrow at the office." She handed him back the heavy ledger.

"Good day, Widow," he nodded.

Rachel kept a smile on her face until she'd closed the door behind him. It had been all she could do to resist slamming it off its hinges. Letting her stand there like a ninny while he reviewed his books! He must have known she had no idea she'd been talking to her employer. Then he'd insisted on walking her home as an excuse to snoop around. She should have guessed the rogue's identity from his looks and manner. Emily's behavior should have warned her.

"You idiot," Rachel muttered, trudging upstairs to her bedchamber. She unfastened the collar of her dress and froze.

The accursed man was standing across the street, looking right up at her! She realized he could make out her silhouette through the lace curtains. She backed away and aligned herself with the nearest bedpost. Eventually he turned and walked off, but not before offering a stiff bow. He'd known she'd been watching him, as well.

BOOK: Cachet
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