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Authors: Shannah Biondine

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BOOK: Cachet
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"And a woman's not much brighter than a piece of fruit."

"Must you always put words into my mouth?" he demanded. "You have the most irritating habit of finishing my thoughts. You do it all the time, even during dictation."

"I can compose a letter as well as you can, sir. I attended some of the finest schools on the East Coast."

"We were speaking of Mr. Somersdale. Have I made my position clear?"

"Abundantly," Rachel replied. "And as I'm still in mourning, this entire conversation has been unnecessary and distasteful." She wasn't finished goading him just yet. "However, I must come out of mourning eventually. Perhaps you should prepare a list of acceptable bachelors to spare us both this humiliation in the future." She opened a desk drawer and frowned. Where had she put the twine for bundling receipts?

"Arnold Somersdale is the only ineligible candidate," Morgan snapped. "Any other Yorkshire bachelor is potentially acceptable. I shall have a word with Somersdale. I want it clear he's to leave you alone."

She slammed her finger in the drawer in her haste to close it. "Ow! Sir, I've told you there's nothing between us. I'd prefer you didn't say anything to him."

"I'd prefer a clerk who follows instructions to one who believes it her place to give them." He turned on his heels and left. She frowned after him, thinking her broken nail and throbbing index finger were all his fault. Him with his nonsense about Somersdale!

He came storming back a half-hour later and threw two sheets of paper in her face. "Just what the bloody hell are these? Why shouldn't I fire you, Widow Cordell? You lied to me!" He'd been angry before, but never shouted at her.

She smoothed the crumpled papers, wrinkling her nose in disgust. The sheets reeked of perfume. She scanned the pages and went a deep scarlet. The notes were to the owner of the mercantile, and posed lurid suggestions that made Rachel's skin crawl.

Somersdale ranked as one of the ugliest men she'd ever known. He had a few sparse black hairs on the top of his head, which he combed east to west in an attempt to hide a large bald spot. He had a pinched nose and bulging eyes. The man was a human ostrich, and there was no change she'd ever want to engage in the activities those letters described with him.

"Is this someone's idea of a joke?" she asked Morgan. "I've never seen these before. I certainly never sent them! No wonder he thought I wanted more than fabric from him that night a the cottage."

Morgan reached for one of the letters, his fingers brushing hers. She felt a tingling awareness, but he appeared indifferent to the sensation. He was holding a sheet of the scented paper next to one from her desktop. She knew the penmanship didn't match. "You didn't write these," he concluded. "I take it they don't convey your sentiments?"

She was aghast. "I've never written a man a personal letter in my life. I can't imagine a woman debasing herself by writing such things. I don't wear perfume; it makes me sneeze. And I can spell, sir. The word 'evening' has two N's."

Morgan knew she spoke the truth. She'd been his employee for a good many weeks. Never once had he caught an error in spelling. He could call out a word and she'd unerringly rattle off the letters in proper sequence.

He didn't let himself dwell on thoughts about feminine perfume. Rachel had a scent all her own, unique and magnetic. He concentrated on the papers. "Why would someone forge these?"

Rachel gave a mirthless laugh. "That's obvious. Didn't you just threaten to fire me? How better to discredit me than plant a link between me and your enemy?"

"I wonder what else has been contrived," he said thoughtfully, squinting to peer out the front windows.

"Else?" She held her breath. He couldn't possibly have learned the truth about her.

"I'm afraid some nasty rumors are circulating about you, Widow Cordell. I've perhaps been too gullible and accepted them. My apologies, Rachel."

Words failed her. He'd never apologized openly before. No matter how rudely he spoke to her, not even when he'd thrown the stranger out of their offices. He'd also never called her Rachel. He was looking at her expectantly. She had to say something.

"I suspect Miss Prine wrote the letters. We got off to a bad start. She warned me that she expected I'd fail as your clerk. Perhaps she wanted to ensure my failure."

"I'm afraid what you suggest is entirely possible. The woman's prone to fits of jealousy." He rolled his eyes. "It's not a pretty sight."

Rachel shrugged. "I can think of no one else who would purposely do me ill. Unless you wrote them."

"I realize your opinion of me is less than charitable, but surely you don't believe that."

"I don't know. I didn't believe you'd try to have me fired just because I didn't make you a cup of tea at the cottage, either."

He stunned her by laughing aloud. "Let me atone. Have supper with me at the inn tonight."

"We've never had a civil conversation that lasted five minutes, Mr. Tremayne," she snorted in derision. "I can just see the two of us now. Food and insults flying all over the place."

"You're mistaken, Madam Cordell. We've just had a rather lengthy discussion this morning. We might be less inclined to disagree if we searched for common ground. And I, for one, do
not
throw food."

She groaned as she read over the forgeries again. "I'll never be able to walk into that mercantile again knowing Mr. Somersdale believes I wrote these salacious notes."

"You have no need to go there. I made it quite clear he's to avoid contact with you."

"I hope you didn't insult him."

His expression hardened. "I didn't call him out into the street with my six-guns blazing, as one of your countrymen would have done. We Englishmen have more civilized ways of settling our differences."

"So I've heard. Dueling pistols at twenty paces. Very civilized."

"I happen to own a set of dueling pistols. In some circles, dueling is still considered quite the manly art."

"Only by men," she assured him. "Few women would see it as artistic. Paint on canvas is art. Blood spattering everywhere is savagery."

"Was your husband killed in a duel, widow?"

She took down a ledger and opened it, signaling her wish to end the discussion. "Still probing for background information to write that newspaper story, sir?"

"You may be correct about supper, Widow Cordell. I might be tempted to fling my potatoes and gravy into your hair, after all." He abruptly left.

Rachel watched him stride down the street and turn onto the main square, noting the angry set of his shoulders. She tried to push away the suspicion forming in the recesses of her mind. He'd said he didn't dislike her...Morgan was many things, but not a liar.

He'd apologized for misjudging her. Remarked that he found her attractive. Even seemed stung when she hadn't accepted his offer of supper. Did that mean....?

"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Richelle!" she huffed aloud. "And don't forget, deep down that's who you are.
Rachel
doesn't exist, remember? You made her up in order to hide."

She repeated those phrases over and over like a Gregorian chant on her way to the cottage, her thoughts in a cadence matching that of her heels along the cobblestones.
It doesn't matter what they think of you, any of them. You'll be going back to America soon. These people don't even know you. Don't let yourself care what Morgan thinks.

The rational, thinking part of her knew that was the wisest course. But a last little corner of her heart—so weary of clinging to empty dreams, of trying to do right while everything still turned out all wrong—that last little part of her, wonderful traitor, refused to listen.

 

Chapter 4

 

It was just before three in the afternoon. Morgan entered his private rooms above the inn to find Pamela curled atop his bed in a sultry pose. Clad only in her undergarments, she sucked in a breath. "Morgan! I've missed you." She ran her fingertips along the insides of her thighs. "You're always busy. Haven't you missed afternoons here with me?"

He stepped closer to the bed. "Sorry, I've had other priorities."

She rose onto her knees and reached for his belt buckle. "Shame on you. I should be your priority, Mr. Tremayne. You deserve to be punished for neglecting me so. You've earned twenty lashes."

He caught her hands in his. She glanced up into his stern face and laughed. "Sweetheart, I promise you'll like this game! Now take your punishment like a man." Her tongue moistened her lips suggestively.

"I wonder how you'll take your punishment, Pamela. You've been busy too. Writing love letters to another man. Spreading malicious gossip. Exercising your jealous streak. I've told you before I won't tolerate being manipulated."

"I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't written any letters." She tried to pull away, but he held both her wrists, his scowl deepening.

"Come now! You forged letters from my clerk to Arnold Somersdale. You lied to me, claimed they'd been seen together several times. Don't pretend you don't know what I mean." He released her without warning, sending her sprawling back onto the mattress.

"I merely passed along what I heard." She tried her best to look mortally wounded, rubbing both arms. "I thought you should be told. I never forged any letters. The slut lied if she claimed I did. You'd take the word of that Colonial?" He'd heard petulance in her tone before, but today it verged on strident.

"I've spoken to Arnold and seen the letters. Rachel didn't pen them. I know your perfume, Pamela. That was a stupid trick." To Morgan's practiced eye, it appeared she still entertained hopes of seducing him. She didn't understand her wiles weren't having the desired effect. Not today. Not ever again.

She shrugged in feigned indifference. "You complained that Boyd refused to admit he'd made a mistake and let her go. I tried to help you. A liaison with Somersdale would give you the ideal cause to rid yourself of that unwanted baggage. If the tart slept with him, she deserves what befalls her."

"She hasn't." Morgan stalked out of the bedchamber and retired to his adjoining sitting room. He settled into a dark leather chair. His head ached. The padded leather upholstery made coping with this unpleasantness only slightly easier.

Pamela reluctantly dressed, finally acknowledging defeat. "Well then, no harm done. I don't understand the fuss."

Morgan snorted in poorly disguised sarcasm. "You don't understand simple facts. I've no interest or energy for playing games. You don't grasp the concept that trade and commerce are what matter most in my life. The American woman is important. She's a capable clerk and provides me with rental income. She's a decent, quiet tenant. Your little ploy could have disrupted everything."

"That stupid chit waits on you like a chambermaid! Everyone in town knows we're practically betrothed," Pamela huffed. "It's an insult to me that you'd have that slut at your beck and call."

"We're not even remotely close to any such binding union, my dear. I have everything I need here." He gestured at his chambers. "I've no incentive to take on the burden of a wife, particularly if she demands to be my first priority."

He reached for the liquor bottle on the low table beside his chair. Finding the bottle empty, he frowned and tossed it to the floor. "Well, almost everything I need. Out of brandy." Now he glanced up to meet Pamela's furious glare. "Your scheme failed. Rachel needs a job. She'll stay on as my clerk and tenant. You did achieve one thing with this rot of yours, though. You opened my eyes to the liability I incur having a woman around with jaundiced views."

"Rachel needs a job," Pamela mimicked. "I'm not fooled by that little tramp in her widow's weeds! And I'm not the only one who mistrusts her. Always butting her nose in where it's not wanted. Poor Thomas can't pour a pint downstairs without answering to her for it."

"Indeed!" Morgan shot to his feet. "Thomas and Emily work for me, remember? I can't let them give a free pint away to every milksop with a tale of woe. The same's true for Boyd and his tobacco. Rachel looks after our interests."

Pamela made an unladylike noise in her throat. "And you look right back. I've seen you measuring her bosom and hips with your eyes. Don't tell me you haven't thought of bedding that refugee from the cow town saloons."

Morgan knew he was supposed to vehemently deny it. This was where Pamela expected him to grovel and patch things up. It didn't matter that she'd caused the trouble. Pamela never apologized. Remorse was virtually unknown to her.

He couldn't resist grinning as he gave her the last answer she expected.

"You're right, Pamela. I've thought about it. I've pictured her naked beneath me in that canopy bed at the cottage. I've wondered how she'd taste and feel. Whether I ever act upon those thoughts is up to
her
, not you. I'd better not hear more rumors about Rachel or find you here again uninvited. Your father's loan payments can be accelerated."

"You bastard!"

He threw a disgusted glance over his shoulder as he went out. "Take the back stairs, eh, Pam? We wouldn't want townspeople talking."

* * *

Pamela lurked on the cottage porch, Rachel discovered with dismay. It was nearly dusk, but even from a distance she spotted the pale hair and knew it didn't belong to Chrissy. Chrissy would have rushed forward with a friendly greeting. Rachel thought about turning back, but it was too late.

BOOK: Cachet
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