Authors: Shannah Biondine
"Does that mean you didn't?" The question was asked so softly, he almost didn't hear it. She couldn't be asking out of personal interest. Not Widow Cordell. She couldn't be. But her dark eyes studied his face too closely for it to be anything else. Christ!
"Nay, I didn't. Nor will I, particularly in light of the Somersdale forgeries and this new lie. Her appalling lack of judgment doesn't endear her to me."
Rachel glanced out the window. "It's late, Mr. Tremayne. I need to get home."
He paid the barkeep and led Rachel back to the wagon. She placed a hand on his arm as she climbed up, but made certain she sat as far away from him on the seat as possible. Her mind was in turmoil on the ride back to Crowshaven. Why had she ever spoken so plainly? Did he guess her distant manner hid her true feelings?
They were back inside the village proper before Morgan broke the silence. "You asked me for a list of suitable bachelors."
"I was taunting you that morning, Mr. Tremayne. I don't actually expect you to write one out."
They pulled up in front of the cottage. "The question is whether to include myself."
Rachel wanted to drop through the floorboards. Had he been reading her mind? She tried to sound offhand. "Well, you
a bachelor. Theoretically, there's no reason why your name couldn't be included. But it's not of any significance, as I'm still in mourning."
He walked her to the porch and reached for his set of keys. "There are several reasons why my name should not appear. I'm your employer as well as your landlord. You seem to prefer the company of chimney sweeps and wayfarers. You refused my offer of supper, lest you be tempted to hurl insults and victuals at me. And there's the fact that you won't address me by my Christian name."
She slid past him into the house. "Tell Mr. Atkinson I'll finish the posting in the morning. I won't let on you deceived him into meeting with the masons, though I'm sure Chrissy will want to thank you. Good evening, Mr. Tremayne."
"Morgan," he corrected as she closed the door. "Good evening, Rachel."
Long October shadows slanted across the floor of the office. Chrissy's pale hair shone like a halo as she chattered about the upcoming dance, bubbling with excitement. Rachel wrote out the last page of the correspondence Morgan had requested to be completed that day. She set the documents on his desk alongside the sealing wax, then breezed past Chrissy to collect Boyd's teacup. Chrissy pursued her to the tiny rear kitchen area.
"It sounds like a marvelous evening," Rachel sighed, "but I really can't go."
"You don't plan to wear black and sit home alone for the rest of your life, do you? Surely you've been widowed nearly a year, Rachel."
"Long enough to stop wearing weeds," Rachel admitted.
"Then what on earth are you waiting for? Good heavens! The Harvest Dance is the perfect opportunity to rejoin the living."
Rachel frowned slightly. Rejoining the living was just what she wanted to do, but not here. "You forget that I'm an American, Chrissy. I needed to get away after my husband died, but my father will send for me soon. It's better if I wear black until I return to the United States."
"Pooh! I think you're nervous about being courted again," Chrissy argued. "So what if you sail back to America one day? You can still have a social life in the meantime. Pull out one of your colorful gowns and come along. I've already spoken to Boyd and he's agreed to bring you as our guest."
"I did, and I'd be honored, Rachel. Ready, sweetheart?" Boyd had found the two women talking. He joined them, smiling at Chrissandra. They bid Rachel good evening and disappeared into the twilight.
Chrissy and her dreaming about colorful dresses...
Rachel shook her head. There were none in her wardrobe. She'd fled Philadelphia with a single trunk, holding only the trappings of death. She could sew, of course, but wasn't about to set foot in the mercantile again to purchase fabric. Not after those horrible forged letters!
She didn't need to go to a dance. But the last time she'd been among happy people at a large gathering had been...God, literally years ago. What could it hurt to go and watch others having fun? But she'd have to make a trip somewhere to get a gown. There were several dressmakers in Newcastle. Chrissy mentioned that Pamela's gowns were made by women there. But Rachel didn't have transportation or time for fittings. If she took a few days off and went to London, she could purchase a finished gown and see her aunt again. She missed Violet.
And perhaps Violet would have news about Papa's investigations. The last letter Rachel received from him had depressed her. His men had located the desk clerk and the land speculator, whose statements only supported the case against her. The marshal maintained their testimony proved Richelle Nash had both motive and opportunity for the gambler's murder. She knew it looked that way. Just as she looked like a grieving, penniless widow. So much for appearances.
She shook her hair back, chiding herself not to give up hope. Someone else had killed Grubstake Smith. Somewhere there was proof of that.
Abandoning her absent musing, she noticed dark had fallen. She stacked her journals on the filing cabinets. She'd waited long enough for Morgan's return. She went about tidying the office and had just pulled down the window shade when he unlocked the front door.
"Christ, bloody locked out of my own offices."
"It's very late, Mr. Tremayne. I don't like staying alone past nightfall. If you'll sign the letters on your desk and affix your seal, I'll post them in the morning."
"Letters, aye," he mumbled. Rachel stared at him. His speech was thick, his lapels uneven. There was a strangely disheveled look about him. He scrawled his name on the documents. He gaped at his right hand and frowned. "Where's my signet?"
Rachel stifled a gasp. He'd gotten drunk and lost his signet! He was never without that ring. Symbol of family integrity and pride, handed down from five previous generations of Tremaynes. Its imprint sealed every bargain and appeared on every letter. He never executed a document without his cachet.
"I don't recall if you were wearing it this morning, sir. Maybe it's still in your room at the inn."
"My name is Morgan," he growled. "Why do you vex me by refusing to use it? Swear you're out to rattle my brains."
"They'd more likely slosh just now," she muttered beneath her breath. "I only pray it wasn't stolen," she said louder. "I know it's very valuable to you, all but irreplaceable."
"Aye, eerie-traceable! Got to think. Had it when I left this morning. Showed Grundy my family crest this afternoon...the pub! That's where I left it. Hold here, will you? I'll go back and fetch it."
Rachel rolled her eyes heavenward. The last thing he needed was another visit to the pub! "I'll go with you, sir."
He blinked to clear his vision. "What's this?"
She kept her voice smooth. "I should make certain you reclaim the ring. I know its importance to you and the company."
"Humph! Wouldn't go to supper when I asked. Had to twist your arm to get you to Newcastle. Suddenly you're craving my company. Is this your way of saying I'm besotted?"
She cringed again at the slurred speech.
Beyond besotted. More like embalmed.
"I simply feel it's part of my duty to make sure you locate the ring. I truly would sleep better knowing you had it back."
He moved unsteadily to the door. "You'll dine with me, then. Won't be accused of exploiting the help." She locked the office and took Morgan's arm. They'd walked less than a block when he tripped and knocked them both to the ground. Rachel pushed him away and struggled to her feet. The last of her patience had been knocked out of her. Her pride was smarting—both cheeks of it.
"Is it never possible to conduct business without ale, Mr. Tremayne? Look at you!" He glanced down at himself in confusion. "Your clothes are a mess. You can't walk a straight path you're so drunk, and this chilly night air doesn't help."
"Ha! Spent my whole life in the English damps!" he snorted. "What would
know about it, Colonial? Was fine 'til you sent me sprawling."
Images rose unbidden in Rachel's mind of nights in the Oregon Territory. Memories of struggling to drag Cletus inside their ramshackle farmhouse. Western saloons, English pubs. All one and the same. She wrapped Morgan's left arm across her shoulders. Curling her right arm around his waist, she heaved upward and started forward. "Come on, sir," she sighed. She'd find out what had become of his ring and leave the menfolk to get him back to the inn and poured into his bed.
Sir, sir, sir
. Never did like that word on your lips." He tightened his arm around her. "You've such soft lips, Colonial, but never a kind word for me comes out of them. I need an ale."
She frowned and kept walking. "You need food. Ale will only make things worse."
"Always ready to challenge me. Argue with me, frown at me." His breath was pungent with liquor and too warm as it tickled her ear. "I'd pay you for a kiss." Her knees started to buckle as he leaned his full weight upon her. "Just one, Rachel." His lips moved closer to her face.
She elbowed his ribcage. "Stop this nonsense! Find your precious signet yourself." She spun free and headed back along the street.
"Widow, you'll not go alone." He started after her. "Some churlish lout may be lurking in the shadows to do you ill."
the only lout apt to do me ill," she tossed over her shoulder. She continued across the cobblestones. He caught up and pulled her up short, turning her to face him.
"I'm not so muddled I've forgotten that you agreed to sup with me. Swear I'll be a gentle nun."
was a mental image! "You're impossible, Mr. Tremayne."
There was nothing to do but visit the pub. The village was crowded with itinerant workers in for fall harvest. These nights they filled both the inn and the pub. Morgan pushed past the other patrons, banging his fist on the worn bar as he shouted to the harried barkeep. "Grundy! Where's my bloody ring? Think I left it on public display?"
Grundy fished in the pocket of his apron and produced the gold ring. "Here 'tis, Tremayne. Knew you'd be back." Placing the signet in Morgan's upturned palm, Grundy advised, "Should have taken that bit of mutton I offered. You're slicker than the cobblestones in February."
Morgan flopped into a chair seconds after its occupant rose and moved away from it. Rachel stood nearby, unable to locate an empty seat herself. Morgan glowered at the pub patron on his left. The fellow muttered beneath his breath and slunk away. Rachel slipped into the vacated seat just as Grundy appeared with mutton stew and fresh bread. "Drinks, Bargainer?"
Rachel spoke up. "A pot of tea with honey and two large mugs, please."
Morgan feigned surprise. "You hate tea."
"The ale didn't kill you," she replied. "I don't suppose a mug of tea will kill me. Eat your supper, sir." By the end of the meal his posture and speech had improved. "Was today a holiday or special occasion?" she asked.
"No, All Hallows was last week. Why?"
"You drank so heavily for amusement, then? Or maybe to avoid the office. You'd forgotten the letters you said were so important this morning."
"I wasn't avoiding anything. Bloody correspondence just slipped my mind. Anyone might make a—"
"Mistake?" she supplied. "Morgan Tremayne actually
made an error
? Two, if we count nearly losing your ring. This date should be entered in the village records."
"Christ, so I got drunk! Next holiday I'll close down this bleeding pub."
"Why wait?" she snapped back. "Men drink when they win a fortune at cards; drink when they lose. Drink in foul weather or because it's balmy and warm. Drink because the moon is round or the sea is blue. There's always an occasion to drink, or a man creates one."
He leaned back in his chair, pinning her with his gaze. "Was your husband perchance an alcoholic, widow?"
"Indeed Mr. Tremayne, and it ultimately cost his life." She jerked her shawl higher on her shoulders. "Thank you for supper, sir. You got your ring back. I can see myself home." She left the crowded pub, ignoring the randy comments behind her back, and stepped into the welcoming darkness. She never should have started on him, she told herself. He hated to be contradicted and she had no right to chastise him for drinking.
A long arm snaked around her waist and she found herself looking up into troubled gray eyes. "Rachel, please hold a moment. You helped me retrieve a family heirloom this evening. I should like to pay you something. That's only fair. I apologize for my rudeness."
"I didn't come here for money."
"You didn't have to come at all," he observed. "That's my point. This was beyond your regular duties, though I do appreciate your concern. I must compensate you somehow. Perhaps the lamp you saw in Newcastle?"
"You paid for supper. That's enough. Good night, sir." She tried to pull away, but his arm only tightened.
"I'll walk you to the cottage."
"No, I don't need you to. I'm sure it's perfectly safe out here. I—"
"It's not safe anywhere for a young woman alone past dusk. I said I'll see you home."