Louisa poured herself another glass of wine and sat back in the chair, staring out her window into the darkness. She had moved into her cottage shortly after completion of the roof; her chamber was still the only habitable room, but it was all hers and it afforded her the privacy she craved. She had moved a table and chair from other rooms to provide more functionality and was pleased with the result.
She took a long sip of the wine she had pilfered from the inn, enjoying how it slid down her throat. She would leave Giant Johnny a note in the morning so he could balance his inventory. The inn was dark across the yard, the pub long since closed and all the guests abed, the moonlight casting shadows over the property. Only half the rooms were occupied tonight, but it was a great improvement from a few weeks ago. One of the rooms was a repeat customer, a fact that pleased her—repeat customers would tell their peers about their favorite places to stay.
She sighed, annoyed at how sleep would not come. She had prepared for bed several hours before, intending to rise early to help Maisie begin the day in the kitchen, but sleep still eluded her. And the wine was not relaxing her as she had hoped and she did not like the reason why. She glared at his bedroom window at the bottom corner of the inn, annoyed that he clearly had no issues with his sleep.
Three days had passed since she had allowed Giant Johnny to tup her in the cask room. The memory had her squirming slightly in her chair, her nerves aching for his attention again. They had not spoken of it or of much at all, and that was how she preferred it.
He was so different than her footmen. Those two she had chosen after careful deliberation, a planned pursuit—even though they thought they had been the pursuers—and detailed expectations. She did not regret her selections or the loss of her virtue; since leaving her family home, she had not felt so bound by society’s strictures as she used to. It was her choice who she gave her body to, her choice alone, and she would not be made ashamed of it.
Yet she was not foolish about it either. Posing as a widow had been a conscious decision, as had her footmen selections. Both had been slender, capable and discreet, neither having expectations beyond their brief liaisons; she would not be caught in the same situation Claire had been. She had even approached a midwife for information on preventing conception and obtained several sheaths, insisting on their use. Both footmen had easily acquiesced to her requirements.
But Giant Johnny was so different. Large and brawny, they had had sex in the cask room of all places instead of a quietly planned rendezvous in her room. No sheath had been used, as the whole thing had been entirely unexpected. Unplanned, she rephrased her thought. Her attraction to him was not a surprise, but she had not yet determined her course of action in approaching him about it. She had some doubts whether or not he would agree to her conditions—he was so much more than the footmen had been—but she was confident that in the end he would capitulate. After all, he was a man and she knew without arrogance that she was an attractive woman.
That was all some men needed. Or desired.
Any initial hesitations she had had over his size had been banished with the cask room. As a rule, she avoided larger men, but she had to admit that he had never used his size to intimidate or impose upon her. Her skin began to tingle and she closed her eyes, allowing the memory of being completely supported by his strength and the power of his thrusts to wash over her. Tilting her head to the side, she imagined the scrape of his beard as he kissed her neck and the feel of his hand as it cupped her mound. Her breathing grew agitated and she licked her dry lips as arousal began to take over her body.
Louisa was about to lift the hem of her nightshirt to see to herself when Giant Johnny’s face was replaced by that of Lord Darleigh, his young face twisted with angry lust.
Her eyes flew open and she gripped the wine glass tightly. It had been so long since he had invaded her mind that this appearance took her by surprise. It was a malicious joke of God that while she had survived, his attack would be revisited upon her time and again in her memory. An acquaintance of her brother’s, he had been so congenial to her on the occasions they had met, and in her innocence, she had not suspected anything sinister behind the glances he would send her. Until she had to defend herself against him and flee the house, leaving him bleeding to death on the library hearth.
She hadn’t returned or spoken to any of her family or friends since that day six years earlier. She had realized that she needed to take control of her own life and depend on no one.
It had been a struggle. Changing her name, finding a position in service, earning her own keep, not speaking of her past—everything she did was on her own and for her survival. There had been a few moments of caution, when her old life threatened to catch up with her new, but she managed to evade them and move on. The closest had been two years ago when one of her brother’s friends had attended a house party where she was working as a governess. He hadn’t quite recognized her, had accepted her story at face value—it was easy to fool people with a change in wardrobe, lack of cosmetics and a convincing story. He had tried to force his attentions on her as well at that party, but at least this time she was better prepared to defend herself.
It was then she came up with the idea of creating a private school with her friends and convinced them to join her, creating the Governess Club. The plan had gone well and had been well on its way of accomplishing exactly what she wanted—independence and control. But then Claire had gotten married, followed by Bonnie. That had not been in the plan.
The final straw was Sara, the one she thought she could rely on to remain constant. It was likely uncharitable of her, but Louisa never thought Sara would attract the interest of a man; she was too meek and mild to draw any of that sort of attention. She had had visions of the two of them becoming spinsters together, working and becoming successful with the Club until they retired together to a nice cottage somewhere warm. She had always wanted to see the Continent and Portugal had a nice sound to it. But then Mr. Pomeroy had proposed, the final rock that had shattered her dreams of independence.
There was no possible chance of the Governess Club surviving, not with three of the members married and one of those living so far away. Even if Claire and Sara declared themselves committed to the club, the nature of marriage would soon change that. Their husbands would demand more and more of their time, children would come along and require their attention—in short, the club would have died a slow, agonizing death and she was damned if she would remain to watch it.
So she left. At Sara’s wedding to Mr. Pomeroy, Louisa slipped out of the church during the vows and made her way to the coaching inn. She had it timed perfectly and had boarded the mail coach just as Mr. and Mrs. Pomeroy would be introduced to the world.
And she hadn’t looked back. Her next three months had been spent moving from place to place, introducing herself with variations of her name, often even sneaking into stables and shacks to avoid registering at public inns. It wasn’t until she entered the Beefy Buzzard that she had been tempted to remain. Giant Johnny’s offer had given her a reason to hope once more that she would be able to realize her dream.
Louisa drained her wine glass, attempting to wash away the vision of Lord Darleigh. Her hand shook as she placed her glass back on the table, a heavy ball gathering in her stomach. Taking deep breaths, she tried to calm down by reminding herself that no authorities had caught up with her yet. All she had to do was continue in her ruse and she would be fine.
She gazed back out of the window, desperate for something to focus on, something to distract her from her memories. She was about to pour herself another glass of wine when movement in the yard caught her eye. The kitchen door had opened and someone left the inn. Leaning forward, she squinted to get a better look.
His size was unmistakable, even if his features were too shadowed to see. John moved across the yard toward the stable, his footsteps sure and confident. Nothing deterred him, his focus on his destination clear. At the stable door, he paused to light a lantern and disappeared inside, the light disappearing the farther into the building he went.
Why was he going there at this time of night? Was it an illicit rendezvous? Her gut churned at how he could roger her in the cask room one day and then meet another in the stable. Such was the nature of men.
Her mind controlled itself after a moment down that path. Over the past months, she had seen no indication that he was involved with any woman, herself excepted. It could be that he was the most discreet man alive, or there could be another reason for his late-night visit to the stable. She wondered if one of the guests had requested something or he had heard a commotion.
The thought of him putting himself in danger did not sit well with her. He may be a foolish man, but he was her surest way to independence and she did not want anything to risk that. If she went to the stable, she could help him with any possible trouble there might be. If it had merely been a guest requesting something, well, as a partner in the inn, she had a right and a duty to know everything that went on there.
With that thought, she tightened her wrapper around herself and slid her feet into her boots. She was going to the stable.
Louisa slowed as she approached the stable. She had not brought a lantern, having none in her cottage and not wanting to alert any potential criminals to her arrival. As she drew near, the sound of something—or someone!—being punched reached her ears. She froze, the sound continuing. Who was being beaten? John? He was a big man, but even he could be overpowered by numbers, weapons or even taken by surprise. Blast, she should have thought this through better and brought some sort of weapon. All that wine had muddled her head.
At least it’s not an illicit affair, a small voice in her head informed her. Ignoring the relief that statement brought, she pressed herself against the wall and edged her way toward the open door. Twisting her head, she darted a quick look inside before retreating to the safety of the dark night. No one had been in the aisle, the light coming from one of the smaller stalls in the back. She chanced a longer look. Shadows on the wall clearly showed someone punching, but the distortion of light and shadow made it difficult to determine who. The sound continued, no cessation indicated. Whoever was getting beaten must already be unconscious, for no grunts or moans filled the stable.
She crept in, crouching below the stable walls to avoid being seen. Only about half the stalls were in use and all the horses were calm, something that appeared odd to her. Wouldn’t they be more agitated if a fight was happening nearby? However a horse should react, it was clear what was happening and she pushed on.
She paused at one stall, spying a neglected plank of wood. Reaching in, she grasped it and lifted it, holding it as she had the hammer last week. It would have to do. Pressing her lips together, she continued, approaching the back stall. Her heart was hammering in her ears and she tried to keep her breath slow and even so as not to draw attention to herself.
Reaching it, she took a deep breath before standing and rushing around the wall, brandishing the plank of wood over her head as she charged the attacker.
John turned just as she swung the plank down and dodged it, catching it in his hands as it whistled by his shoulder. “Yea gods, Louisa, what has gotten into you?” he demanded.
Her eyes took in the scene. He was the only one in the stall, a large cylindrical bag hanging from the ceiling by a chain. There was no injured man on the floor, no blood oozing out of any wounds, no evidence of a fight. Taking in the man standing before her, she saw he was shirtless, his sweaty skin glistening in the light of the lantern. Her heart was now hammering for different reasons.
Riveted, she stared at one drop of sweat as it drifted from his shoulder and down his chest, catching in the curly hair that covered it. Her eyes took in his large, dark nipples and then roamed down to his abdomen. The muscles were more defined than her footmen’s had been and there was not an ounce of fat. His dark hair continued to trail down and disappeared into his trousers in the most tantalizing way. She had the urge to run her fingers through that hair and discover the treasure it promised.
Jerking her gaze away at that thought, her eyes landed on his arms, also covered in hair. While his abdomen had been flat, here his biceps were clearly defined, the bulges larger than she had ever seen on any man; she knew both her hands would not encircle them. She had felt the strength and power of those biceps as they had easily hefted her off her feet and the thought of them doing that again made her knees weak.
Drifting down slightly, she saw his hands wrapped up in cloth mufflers, his fingers protected by the soft material. She met his gaze again, saw the angered confusion in them. “What are you doing?” she babbled, recovering from the surprise of—everything.
He wrested the plank of wood from her and tossed it to the side; the sound of it hitting the floor reverberated throughout the stable, disrupting the horses slightly. His glare did not abate. “I am using my practice dummy. Now answer my question.”
Louisa straightened and adjusted her wrapper around her shoulders. “I saw you enter the stable and was curious. When I heard sounds of a fight, I thought to help.”
His brow lifted with incredulity and a half smile pulled at his mouth. “You thought to help me in a fight. With a plank of wood.”
She sniffed and lifted her chin. “It was all that was available. And I can fight just as well as the next man.”
That inspired a bark of laughter. “I doubt that.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “It is true.”
“Very well. Prove it.” He gestured to his punching dummy. “Hit the dummy.” He placed his hands on his hips and she was hard-pressed to keep her focus on the conversation.
“I don’t need to prove myself to you.”
“Prove it to yourself then. Hit the dummy.”
Glaring at him, she stalked to the dummy, wound up her arm and hit it for all she was worth. The bag hardly moved, but she danced away from it, shaking her hand. “Ow! You could have warned me it was going to hurt.”
He intercepted her dance and took her hand in his, forcing it to open. “Come here,” he said when she tried to pull away. He massaged her fingers, easing the pain. “You said you can fight as well as the next man. I am the closest next man around, so I would think you could handle it.”
She glared at him again to hide how much she was enjoying the hand massage. “All you proved was that I am not a champion brawler.”
“Pugilist,” he corrected. “Or prizefighter.”
She sniffed. “Little difference.”
“Much difference. A pugilist fights by rules, with honor; it is about besting his opponent, not pummeling him. A brawler does not abide by such strictures, as his fight is solely about physical dominance.”
“The end result is the same: blood and injury. Both are barbaric.”
John grinned at her. “There are times when you sound every inch a lady.”
She froze, shocked he had picked up on something she took for granted. Her mind raced. “I had a good governess,” she finally said. It was the truth. He didn’t need to know the full nature of her upbringing.
“Now,” he said, releasing her hand, “the first thing you need to know is to make your fist like this, without curling your fingers around your thumb. Tuck it under like this, keeping it outside.” He curled her fingers into the position he meant. “This will keep your thumb from breaking. And don’t hit with your knuckles unless you actually want to cause damage. Hit with the front of your fist, like so.” He demonstrated a soft hit against the dummy. “Now you try.”
Looking at the bag warily, Louisa made a fist as he had shown her. Winding back, she stilled when he stepped close and his fingers lightly took her arm. “No, pull your elbow back behind your shoulder,” he said, his breath warm against her cheek. “It gives you more power. And keep it up, like so.” He directed her arm with his fingers. “Now release.”
She did as he said, causing the bag to shudder. It wasn’t a swing, but movement just the same. She looked at him. “It doesn’t hurt as much, but it’s difficult.”
He steadied the bag with one hand. “That’s because this is my bag. It is made to withstand my punches while still being heavy enough to develop my power. This is a champion’s bag. I could have a smaller one made for you, if you like.”
Intrigued for just a moment, she shook her head. “Why didn’t it move when I hit it correctly?”
“It’s not really supposed to move much,” he explained. “This is a resistance tool. If it swings too much, then it won’t be withstanding punches and therefore building power. My trainer would stand and hold the bag still to provide even more resistance.”
“Show me how you use it.” She tried to keep the interest out of her voice.
He gave her a half smile. “Of course. Step back a bit.” When he ensured she was safe, John stood at the bag within arm’s reach in an upright stance, raising his hands to hover just below his chin. He moderated his breathing, taking slow breaths in through his nose and out through his mouth. He wound up his right arm and jabbed at the bag, the dull thud of his muffler hitting the canvas meeting his ears. He did a few more right jabs before bringing in his left for combination hits. The bag shuddered where it hung, swinging slightly as the force of his hits increased. The thuds picked up their pace, mingling with his grunts whenever he hit the dummy. He shuffled around the bag, imagining an opponent in front of him and hitting him.
His exercise lasted several minutes, his mind and body achieving the mindless state of repetition and exertion. When he finally stopped, his breathing was haggard and his muscles were beginning to ache, especially around his shoulders. He had been a prizefighter for a decade and it had taken a toll on his body.
Panting, he glanced over at Louisa standing at the edge of the stall. Her mouth was slightly open and her eyes had a glazed look to them. Her fingers absently played with the edge of her wrapper, but he could see her tightened nipples through her nightshirt.
John turned his attention back to the bag, steadying it with his hands, fighting his reaction to the woman. The last thing he wanted was another relationship like his marriage, where his wife only had use for him when he boxed. Even though Louisa’s obvious arousal had his cock stiffening into a full-fledged salute, he resisted it.
His caveman side was screaming at him. This is why he had come into the stable so late at night, unable to sleep because of this woman. She had avoided him for the last three days, so he turned to a proven method to work out his frustrations, both sexual and otherwise. And now here she was, clearly open to getting into bed—or a stall—with him.
But his seven-year celibacy gave him strong control over his primitive side. And he would not be made a fool of by a woman again.
“Johnny,” she said, her voice quiet and throaty. The sound of his name spoken in such a way shot another arrow of lust to his groin, but he continued to resist. “John,” she repeated, so he turned his eyes to her. “About the other day—I understand—I don’t have expectations. It was just—”
“So help me God, Louisa, if you say it was just business, I won’t be held accountable for my actions.” He turned back to the dummy and gave it a few hard punches.
“What?” she asked, startled by his interruption.
He was incredulous when he turned to face her fully, hands on his hips. He didn’t miss how her eyes scanned his chest again, but he remained focused. “What kind of man do you think I am? To make love with a woman I work with, a woman I respect, and consider it just business? If you were a prostitute, yes, but yea gods, Louisa, give me credit for having some semblance of honor.”
She looked at him with solemn eyes. “I was going to say that it was just unexpected. We need not place any more ideals upon it. We both were involved in what happened; I do not place the blame at your feet.”
“Oh. Well.” He blinked. “Not that I think we did anything worthy of blame,” he muttered.
“In fact,” she continued as though she hadn’t heard him, “that is something I wished to speak to you about.”
He watched as she pressed her lips together and lifted her chin, actions that amused him. She did those things when she was going to make a declaration of some sort or was unhappy about something and trying to save face.
She did not disappoint. “We are both healthy adults, obviously with needs that are not currently being met. I propose we make an arrangement between us to see to those needs.”
John rocked back on his heels. “You mean to have an affair?”
She nodded. “A discreet one. It would not do for our inn’s reputation should word of it get out; women are just beginning to feel comfortable here. We would meet late at night, in my cottage when I indicate you will be welcome. A sheath would be used, something I must insist upon, as I have no wish to conceive a child. You must never spend the night but return to your room soon after we are finished with each other and ensure none sees you enter or exit the cottage. Outside of that, our relationship would remain as it is, professional and courteous. No sneaking touches or kisses, no needlessly seeking the other out, nothing to indicate anything untoward is happening between us. While I understand my widowed status allows me a modicum of freedom, I will not be fodder for gossip.”
During her delivery, he had turned back to the dummy and traced lines on it. When she was finished, he resumed punching it.
“Well, do you agree?” she asked over the noise of his exercise. When he continued his punching, she raised her voice. “Do you have nothing to say?”
He stopped and shot her a hooded look. “I wasn’t aware my participation was required in the conversation. You clearly have it all sorted. Am I even necessary to see to your needs?”
She sniffed. “There is no reason to be crude.”
He barked out a laugh that had the horses shifting. “You just outlined the most bloodless affair known to man and you think I am being crude?” He shook his head. “What makes you think I would agree to any of this?”
“Well,” she sputtered, “you are a man. I am offering an arrangement with no expectations. I should think that would appeal to you.”
“The fact that I am a man means I should be grateful for your offer? What am I to expect when I enter your room—will your nightshirt already be pulled up and your legs spread, and ten minutes later I take my leave of you?” He shook his head again. “I am a man, not a savage. Such a cold arrangement has never held any appeal to me. I am not controlled by base desires nor will I beg for your favors or attention. If I enter any sort of affair with you, I will not be afraid of any expectations placed upon me. And it would be an affair that leaves us both satisfied, not this fumble-tumble idea you have.”
“A simple no would suffice.” Her chin was in the air again.
John walked up to her until she had to tilt her head to keep her eyes on his face. “That wasn’t a no,” he murmured, enjoying how her mahogany eyes widened. “It was a request for us to actually discuss this like reasonable adults who are attracted to each other. I won’t deny it, kitten, I want to make love with you again, but not at the sacrifice of intimacy and affection.”
She shook her head and her voice was firm. “It would just be sex, not making love. No intimacy or affection.”
He looked at her, trying to see beyond her words. “How long ago did your husband pass away?”
She stilled and there was a brief flare of panic in her eyes. “Long enough for this to not be a scandal.”
“You loved him, so much that it hurt when he died?”
“What business is it of yours?”
John reached out and tucked a loose blond strand of hair behind her ear, trailing his fingers down her neck and to her shoulder. “I would not seek to hurt you. It is not wrong to seek happiness, even when one you loved is gone. I would do all in my power to assure you find it.”
That was the wrong thing to say. He could see it in the way her face darkened and closed off, a formidable wall erecting between them.
“My happiness is not your responsibility. It is mine alone, dependent on me and no one else, least of all any man. Forget I ever mentioned anything.” She spun on her heel and marched out of the stall.