Louisa barely paid Rose’s chatter any mind as they cleaned the vacated guest rooms. This was not something she usually assisted the maids with, not after training them, but she wanted to avoid the office today. She knew it would be the first place Giant Johnny would look for her and wanted to delay that confrontation as long as she possibly could.
The humiliation from the night before still burned in her. The crudeness of his words, the way he rejected her proposal—it had been unexpected and embarrassing. Neither of her footmen had put up any fuss, which was how she liked it.
But Giant Johnny had to be different, didn’t he. Why couldn’t he be like every other red-blooded male and just take the sex she was offering? Why did he have to make things so difficult?
It hadn’t helped that she had been so aroused after watching him with his punching dummy. The play of his muscles in the candlelight, the way they bunched along his back, how his biceps tightened and released; she had felt the impact of his hits deep inside her and it thrilled her. She hadn’t realized before that moment how incredibly controlled he was and she wanted to have that leashed power in her bed and between her legs.
If only he hadn’t refused, she could have her satisfaction whenever she wanted.
She and Rose gathered their supplies and moved on to the last room. Rose began pouring out the used water basin while Louisa stripped the bed of its dirty linens. She was about to retrieve the clean ones when heavy footsteps sounded in the corridor and Giant Johnny appeared in the doorway. His face was tight and grim.
“Mrs. Brock, a moment if you may.”
She stood her ground. “I am busy.” She held a pillow in front of her, a pathetic shield.
Without speaking, he stalked over to her and yanked the pillow from her, tossing it on the bed. He grasped her elbow and pulled her out of the room. She resisted, squirming to get out of his hold, but he just tightened his fingers.
“Unhand me,” she demanded as they neared the stairs.
He ignored her and descended the stairs.
“You have no right to manhandle me! I will make a scene, I swear.”
He didn’t stop, but pulled her through the pub. “Go ahead. No one will care and you will only look foolish.”
She shut her mouth and pressed her lips together. She knew he was right. She lifted her chin and tried to walk regally for all he was propelling her through the room. She did not make any eye contact with patrons or employees, feeling the burn of her earlier humiliation compound itself at this display of chauvinistic imperialism.
They entered the kitchen and he led her without hesitation to the office. Expecting him to release her once they arrived, she was surprised when he continued into his room and closed the door behind them. When he did release her, she took several steps away from him and rubbed where his hand had been, although he hadn’t actually hurt her.
Louisa glared at him. “If you think that display of prehistoric—”
He closed the distance between them, his face dark, and covered her mouth with his hand. “Stop,” he growled. “You had your turn to speak last night. Now it is mine.”
Her glare continued over his hand until he dropped it. She raised her chin. “You did manage to say plenty last night,” she pointed out.
“Yea gods, woman, do you never cease?” He ran his hands over his bald pate.
She thrust her fists onto her hips. “You drag me into your room, most inappropriately I might add, and then have the audacity to be put out with me? If anyone has a right to be—mmph!”
John cut her off the only way he could think of. He caught her waist and pulled her flush against him, his mouth descending quickly to take her mouth in a wet kiss. She struggled for a moment, but he held her close and followed her movements with his head, not letting her get away. Finally, she sighed into him, her arms sliding around his waist.
Yea gods, but he would never tire of kissing this woman. He sank into her mouth, tasting the sweetness he knew lay beyond her tart words. Their lips met and molded into each other, teasing and exploring the other. He kept it slow, savoring the way she kept sighing, her body relaxing against his, giving herself up to him in a timeless instinct.
Breaking the kiss, he lifted his head, pleased to see how slowly she opened her eyes and blinked at him. He smiled at her. “Allow me to speak,” he murmured.
Anger flashed in her eyes when his words registered, but she pressed her lips together and nodded.
“I brought you in here because I did not want you to use any excuse to avoid me. Do not belittle either of us by claiming otherwise,” he said when she opened her mouth. She clamped her lips together and glared at him, telling him he had been right. “I also did not want anyone interrupting or eavesdropping.
“I said last night that I would discuss your proposal as reasonable adults. I will not accede to all of your wishes, just as I am aware you will not with all of mine.”
She looked at him warily. “What wishes are those?”
“I will be upfront with you. I have no intention of entering any such arrangement with you without knowing that marriage will be the end result.”
Louisa pulled out of his arms and took several steps away, turning her back on him. “I will not marry. It is out of the question.”
“I am not saying that it needs to happen now or even soon, but eventually.”
“I will give you time to grieve your husband and to adjust to the idea of marrying me, but I will not risk the possibility of a child out of wedlock.”
“There will be no child. I insist on using sheaths.” She began to pace the length of the short room.
John was still surprised for a woman to speak so bluntly about such things, but he kept it to himself. Louisa was not a usual sort of woman. “I agree to that, but sheaths break, kitten. I will not have a bastard.”
“You don’t even know if I am still open to having an affair with you.”
Her voice was betraying a hint of panic and desperation. He furrowed his brow, wondering what had her so set against the institution. “I would say the way you just responded to my kiss says otherwise.”
She made a dismissive gesture. “I am sure I would have done the same with Mr. Packard.” Her pacing did not falter.
John let out a bark of laughter. “I find that hard to believe.”
She lifted her chin and sniffed. “Men find women interchangeable. Why can women not do the same?”
He walked up to her and stood in front of her, halting her pacing. Louisa tilted her head back to glare at him. He smiled at her. “You would be comfortable with Packard doing this to you?” He trailed his fingers down her neck. “Or this?” He stepped closer and nuzzled her ear. “What about this?” He placed hot kisses just below her ear in a sensitive spot that had her inhaling sharply. “Or this?” His hand slid down her back to cup her bottom, pulling her against his groin.
With a huff, she pushed him away. Her body screamed at her to step back into his embrace, but she resisted and stepped around him, resuming her pacing. “You made your point. That is hardly the issue, however. I have no intentions of marrying. Not you, not ever.”
John frowned at her. “Why are you resisting marriage again? Was your first one so horrible?”
She missed a step, but recovered. “Yours wasn’t ideal, so why are you eager to marry again?” she countered.
“Because I know that no marriage is normal. Each one is unique to the people in it. A marriage between us will be much different than our previous ones.”
She started rubbing her arms as she walked. “Why are you so insistent upon this? Do you offer marriage to every woman you tumble?”
“Since my wife died? Yes.”
Louisa halted and stared at him. “Well, that puts this into a better perspective. I had no idea you were so cavalier with your proposals.”
“I am not.”
“But you just said—” Her voice trailed off as his statement sank in. She shook her head. “No. No, it—you—”
John nodded, his face serious. “I have proposed marriage to every woman I have been with since my wife passed. There has only been the one.”
Her head continued in its slow shake, her eyes wide. She started rubbing her arms again. “That cannot be true.” She kept staring at him. “Please tell me it’s not true.”
He shrugged, a frisson of hurt blossoming in him at her rejection.
“Oh dear Lord,” she said. She was now rubbing her arms furiously. “Oh dear Lord.”
“Louisa?” he ventured cautiously.
“Oh dear Lord, I need to get out of here.” Panic had overtaken her entire body. He could see it in her eyes, a frightened wildness in them that unsettled him. Her breath came in choked gasps and she stumbled toward the door. “I need to leave,” she repeated.
John beat her to the door, blocking her way and holding it shut. “Calm down, kitten.”
“Let me out.” She struggled to get past him.
“You can’t leave like this.”
“Let me out, let me out!” She clawed at the door, trying to pry it open, but he was too strong and too heavy. She turned her attention to him, pummeling his chest with her fists. “Let me out, damn you!” Her face was turning red with her exertion and labored breathing.
“Louisa, calm down,” he said over her frantic words. “You can’t go out like this. You will frighten everyone.”
She didn’t hear him, just kept pummeling him and repeating herself. Out of options, John grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her into him, wrapping his arms around her, halting her movements. Her body shuddered and struggled against him, but he did not lessen his hold.
“Please let me out,” she whimpered.
“Hush,” he said, keeping his voice and embrace gentle. He rubbed her back, willing her body to calm. When he felt it begin to relax against him, he let out a long breath he hadn’t known he was holding. Her shaking subsided to faint tremors and her breathing was a consistent tattoo playing on the linen of his shirt. Her cheek rested against his chest above his heart.
Bending slightly, he scooped her up into his arms and carried her the few steps to his bed. Laying her down as softly as he would china, he pulled off her boots and covered her with a blanket. Her lack of protest showed how deeply she had exhausted herself. The look on her face reminded him of men who had taken hard knocks to the head and couldn’t think straight.
Without another thought, he climbed in beside her and settled around her, his arm resting over her protectively. Her eyes fluttered closed and he watched as she drifted off to sleep. He frowned as he took in the dark circles under her eyes and the worry lines creasing her skin.
Something had happened to her, something traumatic. John had never been so certain about anything in his life. To react this way to his wish for marriage? Yea gods, it hadn’t even been an outright proposal. What would she have done if he had gotten down on one knee with a ring?
A dark anger built up inside him when he thought about what her husband must have done to her. He knew depraved men existed, thankfully had not encountered any of them, but he had heard talk about what some men enjoyed doing to women and it made him sick inside. The thought of what Louisa must have suffered at her husband’s hands made his arm tighten around her, drawing her farther into his protection, even though he had the ugly thought that his protection was too little, too late.
It explained things about her. Her anger, her wish to be in control, her unwillingness to accept help. Given how she might have been broken, John was thankful she instead persevered, showing a strength he could only admire.
He knew he would have to go slow with her, build her trust in him. If it took years, he would accept that if it meant she would be healed from whatever wounds she carried.
He would not leave her side for a moment of it.