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Authors: Shannah Biondine

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BOOK: Cachet
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"Evening, widow. I've come for a word with you."

"If you mean you've come to admit culpability for those awful love notes, save your breath. I know you're behind them."

"We should talk inside," Pamela pressed.

Rachel admitted her into the parlor. "Let me guess. You're here to suggest I leave the holding company of my own volition. Why would I do that, after coming clear from London to take the clerking post?"

"Because you'll never have Morgan. He'd consider you a temporary amusement, at best."

"As opposed to you, a permanent affliction. You're an amazing creature, Miss Prine," Rachel observed. "Anyone else would be too embarrassed to show her face here."

"I have nothing to be embarrassed about," Pamela retorted. "I'm not the one without two coins to rub together. I can make it worth your while to give up clerking."

"You'd pay me so your 'close personal friend' doesn't have to? That's ludicrous."

"The arrangement here is what's ludicrous! The men pay you, then you turn around and pay Morgan rent. Why doesn't Morgan just pay himself? Unless it's for the sake of appearances."

"Appearances?" Rachel could hardly believe her ears. The woman had all but accused her of sleeping with the landlord! "Rental of this cottage was included in the terms of my post. I'd have to pay to live somewhere."

"As if Boyd hasn't let this place to you for a song!" Pamela scoffed. "He hired you and made you Morgan's tenant to spite me. Atkinson may think he's clever, but my father's one of the wealthiest farmers in this region. We can undo what Boyd's done."

"Your father's money doesn't interest me."

"You can't enjoy the drudgery of that office. Or poking your nose into everyone else's business, creating resentment wherever you go. You wouldn't abase yourself if you didn't need the income." Pamela released a tinny laugh. "Name a sum, widow dear. I'll pay your fare back to London, or even America. The farther the better."

"Just like that?"

Pamela snapped her fingers. "Just like that. Neither of us the loser. Women ought to run the world, don't you think?"

"A provocative notion. But if you already
had
power, you'd have no need for someone like Mr. Tremayne. You know he's an arrogant, selfish boor. Not worth the struggle you're waging."

"Not worth it?" Pamela repeated, staring intently at Rachel's face. "You wouldn't say that if—Well, well, well! Perhaps I was mistaken about you."

"Very mistaken, if you thought I'd leave this village merely because my presence here makes you uncomfortable."

"I see I must be painfully frank. Morgan's asked me to marry him. Soon I'll be mistress of this house. Obviously you'll have to depart. You should have taken my offer." Pamela rose and headed for the door, pausing to give Rachel a meaningful look. "I shan't repeat any of this to my future husband. He wouldn't be pleased to learn you dislike him so. He might decide to terminate you right away. Wouldn't that be a pity? You'd lose that traveling money. You had your chance."

"Yes, my first morning here. I should have hit you smack in the mouth with my broom."

 

Chapter 5

 

Chrissandra appeared at noon as promised. She and Rachel had devised a plan. Chrissandra and Boyd were to wed in the spring. Boyd had arranged a crew of Sheffield masons to build a second house on the Atkinson farmlands for the newlyweds, but work hadn't begun because Boyd hadn't finalized building plans. Chrissy had persuaded Rachel to help her draw him away from the offices. Rachel announced he had a visitor, and Boyd came into the outer reception area. Chrissy plied him with her most dazzling smile. "The builders are waiting for us, Boyd. No more excuses. We must review our plans today."

"Dearest, if it were any other time, but I've an important errand in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne this afternoon."

Rachel jumped in. "Sir, couldn't it wait until tomorrow? Perhaps I could—"

"That's very thoughtful, Rachel, but I truly can't spare the time out of the office." He gave Chrissy a look of reproach. "And I'm not pleased you've dragged my clerk into your scheme, young lady."

Morgan slammed a drawer shut. "It's a bloody henhouse in here! Man can't keep his thoughts together with all the infernal racket.
I'll
take the packet to Newcastle. Boyd, take this lady out for the afternoon so Madam Cordell can get back to work." He tossed Rachel a glower even as he snatched Boyd's hat from its peg beside the front door. "The masons are waiting."

"But Morgan, I need to review the documents with Boswell."

"I can do it as easily, and mayhap finish drafting up a new delivery contract if I can put an end to this female caterwauling. Get Chrissandra out to the farm and settle things. I'll do your errand. It's not as though you don't cover for me often enough."

There was a silence after Boyd and Chrissandra left, then Rachel heard a low sound she realized was Morgan chuckling. She looked up at him. "He'll be out to skewer me when he realizes we all conspired together. Chrissy told me he'd be stubborn about it."

"And you sat there complaining—"

"I have a reputation to uphold." He disappeared into Boyd's private room and returned with a thick packet under one arm. "Get your shawl, Madam Cordell. We're bound for Newcastle."

"With both you and Mr. Atkinson away, I should stay here."

"You know, madam, I've never seen your name chiseled above the door. Mine is, though. Which would seem to indicate I'm in charge here."

He walked her to the livery stable and had the stable boy hitch a pair of horses to a delivery wagon. They rode in silence. Morgan pulled the rig to a halt before a large stone building. He helped Rachel down and tied the reins to a lamppost. Rachel agreed to wait in front as he disappeared through a pair of thick oak doors.

But it was dull just standing there, so Rachel took to browsing along the lane. She paused to study a porcelain lamp prominently displayed in one shop window.. The milky porcelain of the lamp's globe featured gaily-painted light pink roses and green tendrils. Rachel glanced away. The lamp beckoned. She admired it once more, deciding it was truly beautiful.

"What ye lookin' at, Dolly?" The stranger's grimy fingertip left a smear on the window near Rachel's nose as he pointed to the object inside. "That lamp there? Pretty piece, all right."

"Here on your lonesome, lass?" The dirty fellow beside her had an even filthier companion. He saw the look in her eyes and laughed. "We're sweeps, Miss. Watch it, else you'll have soot on your skirts." He glanced down and smirked. "Then, no one would notice, seein' as how they be the color of soot, anyway."

"Indeed. This young lady's in mourning," Morgan supplied stiffly.

Rachel thought of the stranger he'd tossed out of the office. She tucked her arm through his and offered a relieved smile.. "There you are, sir. I was admiring that lamp. Could we go inside? I'd like to inquire what the shopkeeper's asking for it."

The merchant beamed at them as they crossed his threshold. "Can I be of assistance?"

"Yes, I was wondering how much you're asking for—"

"Another time, madam." Morgan pulled her back outside. "I told you to stay outside the office building. Instead I find you half a block away, cozying up to scum off the street. Now you want to dicker over a lamp. This isn't a shopping excursion."

"I know, Mr. Tremayne, but it reminds me of my mother. She grew flowers like those in our garden. It's a particularly beautiful lamp."

"There are lamps at the cottage. If you need more light, buy yourself some candles." He started back up the street, glanced over at their rig and horses, then headed for a pub across the way.

Rachel spotted a wooden bench farther up the sidewalk. She pulled away from him and plopped onto the bench, crossing her legs. Her upper foot kicked at nothing. Morgan continued a few paces, then doubled back to confront her.

"What's come over you?" he demanded. "Did I destroy your hopes for the evening by running off your sooty friends?"

"I want that lamp." She enunciated each word with cold precision.

"You want that lamp." This was repeated in a tone of incredulity she didn't appreciate one bit.

"Yes, Mr. Tremayne, I want that lamp. And you are the most insensitive man I've ever met."

Christ, but the wench was stubborn, Morgan told himself. "The little card by the base said he's asking roughly the equivalent of twenty dollars in American money, Rachel. You can't afford such frippery. You don't need the lamp, and you certainly can't afford it."

"How do you know?" she snapped without thinking. "It so happens my husband gave a land speculator an option on our property in Oregon. After his death, I completed the sale. I have money back in America. I'm not a total pauper, sir. If I were, I'd take Pamela's offer and buy myself the lamp on my way out of Crowshaven. I'd be only to happy to bid it and you farewell."

Tittering laughter from passing shoppers made Rachel blush. She hadn't realized she'd spoken so loudly. "Confounded females!" Morgan growled low. He caught her fingers in his. "If you've finished making a public spectacle of us both, I'd like to show you something. Will you walk with me, or must I drag you like a spoiled child on her way to the woodshed?"

She rose and let him draw her to an open area overlooking the Tyne river. He dropped her hand and rested both fists on the stone embankment. He stared down at the water.

"Forgive my presumption, Madam Cordell. It appears I was mistaken about your finances. How would I know you had funds back in America, or anything else, for that matter? You've bit my head off for asking about your private life. Reticence is one thing,

but—"

Rachel needed to change the subject. "Forgive me, sir, but just what am I supposed to see? You said you would show me something."

"Aye." He gestured expansively. "Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. The activity along the river. England. What we're about, Boyd and I."

Rachel gazed across the embankment wall and actually focused on the bustling scene before her. She'd been so angry she hadn't noticed the city itself, reminiscent of her own beloved Philadelphia. Small piers and moorings dotted the riverbanks. Men stooped their shoulders beneath crates and barrels being loaded onto boats of varying sizes. A fishmonger loudly hawked his wares, shouting to be heard above the din of wagons and horse-drawn carts jostling to deliver or receive goods from the skiffs and barges.

Morgan had told her Newcastle was a direct trade point leading north into Scotland, but she was still surprised to see knobby knees poking out beneath plaid kilts worn by a group of young ruffians. They engaged in a verbal debate about ancestry and a possible blood tie to a herd of sheep with a pair of Yorkshire farmers.

Reddening at the coarse language, she ventured a sideways glance at Morgan to see his reaction, but he appeared to be staring off at a large wagon being unloaded near a warehouse doorway. Suddenly he turned back to her. "What was that you said about Pamela?"

She'd forgotten she'd blurted the woman's name in her fit of pique. "It's not important."

"It is to me. I don't like conspiracies, Widow." He led her back to the pub and took a table by the front window. A pitcher of ale and two tankards were plunked down by the barkeep, who winked at Morgan as he hustled past.

Rachel's cheeks began to stain as she realized the significance of that wink. She noted the facial expressions of the other patrons. Her relationship to the handsome man with her had been misconstrued.
They think we're two lovers who've had a quarrel.
The little traitor inside her had taken over the citadel and was shouting from the parapet.
Admit it, you wish it were true! You wish you were lovers...who could kiss and make up
. She glanced at his lips. Oh God!

The truth plowed over her like a runaway stagecoach. How and when had she let this catastrophe befall her? She'd fallen in love with him! Abruptly she jumped to her feet. "This isn't—It's not proper for me to be here. I should wait outside while you have your ale."

He poured ale into both tankards without glancing up at her. "Sit down and answer my question. What exactly did Pamela offer you and when?"

She eased back onto the edge of her seat. "She offered traveling expenses back to London. Or even America. But that was when—" She went a deeper scarlet.

"When what?"

She couldn't admit Pamela's suspicion that they'd slept together. "After I found out about the letters. She came to the cottage and I accused her of writing them. She wouldn't admit she had. I wouldn't take the money she offered, so we reached a stalemate. She told me about the betrothal."

Rachel's heart sank. He was going to marry Pamela. The knowledge hurt. She had no chance with him, no business
wanting
him. She watched him drink his ale, still wondering how his lips would taste, wondering where she'd lost her common sense.

"I haven't heard any announcement. Whose betrothal?"

Rachel nearly choked. "Yours, sir."

Morgan silently cursed. Pamela's taunts came back. Boasting of an engagement when none existed was despicable enough to be one of her ruses. Rachel indicated their conversation had taken place a few days after the forged letters to Somersdale, which meant it was also after Pamela's visit to his room and his warning. Pamela obviously had no intention of heeding it. "She maintained I'd proposed to her?"

BOOK: Cachet
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