Louisa sighed and cracked open her eyes. Her head and bones ached and she raised her hand to brush hair out of her face and rub her forehead. She opened her eyes more, taking in the unfamiliar room. Shafts of light filtered through the cracks in the curtains and she guessed it was early evening. What was she doing sleeping in the middle of the day? And which room was she in?
She sat up, the blanket that had been wrapped around her falling down. Glancing around, she saw she was alone in a bed and it came rushing back. Oh good Lord. Giant Johnny had brought her in here for a marriage proposal. To which she had panicked in a most embarrassing manner.
She flopped back down on the bed, her arm covering her eyes. Had he really tucked her into bed as though she were a child? She recollected feeling his arm lying across her stomach and the warm length of his body alongside hers. She supposed she ought to be thankful that he had not stripped her of her clothes, although she noted her boots were not on her feet.
How in the world could she face him again? It was embarrassing enough to know he had witnessed her spectacle, but to treat her as an invalid, incapable of seeing to herself? Her mortification knew no bounds, despite the accuracy of his assessment.
What had even happened to her? She could recollect only one other experience like it, when she had fled from Willowcrest. The panic had utterly consumed her, to the point where she was no longer in control of her body. It was odd, watching oneself with a sense of detachment, unable to do anything. When the enormity of John’s proposal had sunk in—the man had ended a seven-year abstinence for her!—all she could think of was fleeing, getting away from him, but he had not let her. The panic had eaten at her, crawling out of the recesses of her soul, until it debilitated her, leaving her spent and exhausted.
Taking a deep breath, Louisa sat up again, determined to push through. He could think what he liked, but he would never see her in such a state again. All she had to do was lift her chin and pretend it had never happened and she would be fine.
Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she located her boots on the floor and put them on. As she went through the mundane routine of buttoning them up, her eyes scanned the room. She hadn’t been in John’s room prior to this afternoon and it intrigued her. What sort of personal articles did her prizefighter have? She frowned at that brief thought, telling herself that he was by no means her prizefighter.
The bed she sat upon was high—her feet dangled off the side—and long, giving her the impression it had been custom made for its owner, for it was certainly large enough for Giant Johnny. The linens and covers were of decent quality—not what one would find in a noble house, but remaining comfortable while durable. A small candelabra ordained a bedside table, the candles half-used. The top book on a pile was The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, which brought a smile to Louisa’s lips at the thought of the big man reading a romantic story. A good-sized vanity stood against the wall opposite the window, sporting a mirror and the various grooming implements one would expect any man to have. Eyeing the razor, she wondered again if his baldness was a choice or natural.
Her eyes fell on a miniature sitting beside the mirror and Louisa moved to take a closer look. A young, dark-haired woman with a sultry smile gazed back. Running her finger around the frame, Louisa supposed this must be his late wife to hold a place of such prominence; he would be able to look at her every day as he completed his ablutions. She thought back to what he had said about his marriage and wondered why he would want the daily reminder of an unpleasant union. Sympathy slid through her when she realized that this miniature was likely the closest link he had to the child he lost and mourned.
She caught her reflection in the mirror and her look turned to one of horror at the state of her hair. Taking out the remaining pins, she purloined the brush from the vanity—why on earth does a bald man need a brush?—and quickly raked it through her hair before pulling it back into some sense of order, retrieving from the bed what hairpins she could find to help.
Patting her hair in its final place, she looked at the items on his vanity more closely. His shaving kit, including the brush she had used, was made from dark cherry wood with gold trim. They seemed out of place for the man who preferred to dress in trousers and a shirt, keeping his wardrobe simple. Yet as she reflected on it, the quality of his clothing was fine, if not quite up to Bond or Jermyn Street standards. She glanced back at the custom bed, at the quality of the linens and the size of the pillows; even the candelabras were of decent quality. All this attested to a man of means.
Louisa fingered the handle of the straight blade, tracing the gold. A man’s personal wealth meant little to her. In her experience, the state of a man’s purse did little to determine his character. What spoke to her was the way he spent it. John was subtle, choosing items that brought him comfort without declaring his wealth to the world; those that did were personal, private. Even buying this inn spoke to his character. If he could afford it, as well as these items, then he likely could have afforded a nice cottage to spend his retirement reading about the Tom Joneses of the world instead of counting casks and serving steak-and-kidney pies to strangers.
He was a complex man, her Giant Johnny. Another frown at that reappearing thought. Unhappy with it, she patted her hair one last time and moved to the door. It was time she resumed her work, having already slept the afternoon away. She paused at the door, wondering if he would be on the other side in the office. Knowing there was little she could do to avoid him if he was, Louisa took a deep breath and lifted her chin, twisting the knob in her hand.
Giant Johnny stood as soon as the door swung open, wrenching his absurd spectacles off his face. He tried to catch the chair from falling, but he was not fast enough and the furniture shattered, sending splinters of wood careening across the floor. Louisa jumped out of the way to avoid her feet getting hit by one of the arms.
“Damnation,” he cursed. Immediately his face turned red with contrition. “My apologies, Louisa. I did not mean to curse.”
A small smile tugged at her mouth. “Perhaps the situation warranted it. I doubt you were expecting the chair to break. I suspect your reaction was more out of surprise than intent.”
His face remained red, the color stretching to cover his head. “True, that.” His eyes turned to concern. “How are you?”
She glanced down at her feet. “I am uninjured. I managed to dodge the flying debris.”
“No, I meant—hell.” He rubbed his head before putting his hands on his hips. He gestured to the desk. “Are you hungry? I have a tray here. And tea. Or I can get more ale, if you prefer. I finished my tankard but it is readily available. As you know.” He muttered that last part, his face reddening once more.
Warmth bloomed in her bosom, spreading to her stomach and head. It was almost dear to see him fumbling and nervous. “Where will I sit? We have a lack of chairs in here now.”
He missed the tease in her voice. “I can stand, it is no bother.” He moved and held out the smaller chair on the far side of the desk for her. Stepping over the debris, she settled herself into it and prepared herself a plate of cheese, bread and meat from the tray. Without being asked, John lifted the dainty teapot and poured her a cup, fixing it as she liked. Her eyes watched as his thick fingers handled the tiny sugar tongs, then set the small cup and saucer close to her plate.
“Thank you,” she said. “How has the afternoon gone? Any concerns or mishaps that need to be addressed?” She took a bite of bread, eager to focus on work and not how he was hovering nearby.
“Um, no. It was a slow day, so I spent it in here.”
Louisa nearly choked on her bread. “You spent the day in the office? You hate the office.”
He cleared his throat. “Yes, well, I wasn’t needed anywhere else and there was someone in my room.”
It was her turn to go red. She lifted her chin and looked him straight in the eye. “I apologize for the inconvenience.”
“No, no, no bother at all,” he assured her hurriedly. “I, um, it’s just—”
“I did not mean to cause you any distress,” he said. “I had no intention of causing you harm.”
“I know that.”
“Louisa.” He crouched down close to her and took her hand. “You must know that I greatly respect and admire you. I have come to care for you.”
She tried to tug her hand out of his, but he wouldn’t let go. He continued. “All I am saying is that you have no need to be afraid of me. I will never intentionally do anything to harm you.”
“Thank you,” she said, struggling to keep her voice normal.
“I do wish to be with you, but I can’t have a bastard. Life is hard enough without having to live with that. If I have to choose between not having you and having a bastard, I would choose to not have you. Not because I don’t desire you—yea gods, kitten, you just have to look at me and I stand at attention—but because a man must have some code, some honor, and therein lies mine.”
Louisa stared at the man at her knees, his head bowed as his fingers traced over her knuckles. She looked at him and thought of his room and his behavior toward her. This was a complex man before her, a subtle man, but one who lived honorably. It was true—she had no fear of him. It was what his desires represented that repulsed her. To marry would be to completely surrender who she was, to lose whatever identity she had scraped together, and that was something she could not tolerate.
She understood his dilemma. She agreed that life was hard enough—how much more difficult would it be if she gave birth to a daughter out of wedlock? What sort of life could that child expect? But the thought of marrying him squeezed her throat shut. For a brief, absurd moment, she understood how Sara felt whenever she experienced one of her anxiety attacks.
She cupped his cheek, pulling his head up to look him in the eye. Her eyes begged him to understand. “It’s not you, John. It’s marriage.”
He nodded. “I understand. I know. I mean, I don’t know, you don’t have to tell me, but I understand. I can be a patient man. All I ask is a chance to prove myself to you.”
Louisa shook her head. “You don’t have to prove anything to me. You are a good man, John Taylor. It is I who have the problem. If I were different, we would be having a much more favorable conversation right now.”
“I don’t want you to be different. Just give me time. We will be cautious, but I need your assurance that if you find yourself with child, you will at the very least consider marrying me.”
She took a deep breath. He wasn’t actually asking for much. She would get what she wanted and he would have his assurances. Considering marriage was much different than actually marrying. She hadn’t conceived with either of her footmen, so it was even likely that she was incapable. What sort of risk would she be taking to agree to this? Not much, by the looks of things.
Louisa gave him a small smile and traced his cheekbone with her thumb. “I can do that.”
Relief flooded his face and he turned his head into her palm, kissing it. “Thank you.”
“We still need to be cautious and discreet,” she warned him. “And the inn must always come first.”
“Of course.” John grinned at her and tugged her forward to lean closer to him. “Now to seal our bargain with a kiss.”
“If you insist,” she said, licking her lips. Her eyes were already riveted on his mouth.
“On this, I do insist,” he murmured, his eyes twinkling. He held back a space, giving her time to pull away if she so chose.
She did not disappoint. Letting out a sigh, she pressed her lips to his in a gentle caress, capturing his lips with her soft touch. She guided their mouths in the intimate dance, taking her time as she explored him.
It was a feeling she had never experienced before, this desire to learn about a person. Her footmen had been calculated decisions meant to broaden her own knowledge of lust, desire and the act of coupling. But with John it was different. When she licked his lips and dipped her tongue into his mouth, it was because she wanted to feel his groan vibrate against her. When she sucked on his lower lip, it was because she wanted to feel his breath quicken on her skin. When she traced his neatly trimmed beard, it was because she reveled in the scrape of the hair between her fingers. Above all, she did all these things because she knew it brought him pleasure.
When she kissed this man, it was about him, not her.
John broke the kiss and pressed their foreheads together. “The door is open, kitten,” he panted. “Let’s take this into my room.”
She caught her breath and sat up, shaking her head. “I cannot. We cannot. I have already slept the afternoon away and dinner will be starting soon. We must prepare.”
He sat back on his heels, linking their hands together. “Tonight, then?”
She nodded. “I will leave my cottage door unlocked. Come once the pub has closed for the night.”
He frowned. “I dislike the thought of your door being unlocked.”
“It cannot be helped. Chances are I will fall asleep waiting for you and knocking on the door will be disruptive. And there is only the one key.”
“Don’t get your back up, kitten,” he soothed. “Allow me to be concerned for you. I would feel this even if we hadn’t just decided to have an affair.”
She was still disgruntled. “Either way my safety is my own concern.”
“But it doesn’t have to be. Gather some of your things and you can wait in my room for me tonight.” He grinned suggestively at her. “After all, we’ve already determined you are quite comfortable there.”
“Hmph.” She lifted her chin and returned her attention to her food. “I suppose that would be feasible. For one night, at least, but you must see to having a second key made tomorrow.”
He stood. “Of course.” He leaned back down and kissed her cheek, inhaling her scent. “I shall count the minutes until tonight, kitten.” He straightened and left the office, a spring in his step.
Louisa sat for a long moment, staring at the desk without really seeing it. She had just agreed to embark on an affair with this man. Her footmen had been prudential, but this she feared bordered more on an affair of the heart. She would be foolish to let either of them think in such a way, but she was at a loss as to how to prevent it. She was worried at least one of their hearts was already engaged, and she wasn’t sure that it was his.
She shook herself out of her reverie and the noises from the inn surrounded her again. “Alan,” she called out. The boy came to the office door. She indicated the broken chair. “Clean that up please and then go and fetch the carpenter, Mr. Smith. I need to speak to him about fashioning a new chair.”