Louisa woke slowly, the sound of scraping reaching her ears. She squinted in the early morning sun and rolled over, seeing John at his vanity, his face half-covered in shaving cream. His head was tilted as he drew the straight razor over his neck. He was wearing only his trousers and even those were hanging loosely around his hips, giving her a splendid view of his profile and a hint of his nicely rounded buttocks. She watched him in silence for a moment, enjoying it.
Somehow one night in his room had turned into three. And now a week. Even though a second key to the cottage had been made, she conceded to herself that his room was likely best, with his custom-made bed built to hold his large frame. She doubted he would be comfortable in her bed.
She sat up abruptly, the time of day sinking in. “Good Lord, I’ve slept in.”
His reflection furrowed its brow as he wiped the blade on the towel draped over his shoulder. “I doubt that. I haven’t heard anyone in the kitchen yet.” He angled his head the other way to scrape the stubble off his cheek.
“But it is already light out. Anyone who is up might see me return to my cottage. They would know I spent the night elsewhere.” Her shift falling over her head muffled her voice. Once her head poked out, she scanned the room for her stockings. Finding one, she pulled it on. “Where is my other stocking?”
He picked it up from where it hung off the wardrobe and handed it to her. “Would it be so bad for people to know?”
“Of course it would be. I have no wish to marry.”
“It’s not like we were caught in bed together,” he muttered before splashing water on his face and wiping it dry. “They can’t force us into marriage based on suspicions alone. For all they know, you could have been with one of the guests last night.”
“Yes, that would be much better,” she said, her morning sarcasm strong. “I would much prefer to be known as the innkeeper who goes above and beyond to ensure all the needs of her guests are met.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“But that is what you said.”
“Louisa,” he sighed. “Would it be so bad to marry me?”
She glared at him as she picked up her dress. “You said you were fine with this, that you wouldn’t say anything more about marriage unless I am with child.”
He raised his hands and moved toward her to help her with her dress. “And I am not. I am just asking what makes marrying me so unappealing.”
“I’ve told you, it’s not about you.”
“It must be, as you obviously had no compunction about marrying before.”
She clamped her mouth shut, her eyes blinking as he tugged her laces together. When he was finished, she marched over to his vanity and began to unbraid her hair. She picked up his brush and pulled it through her blond tresses. “Why do you even have a blasted brush?” she muttered.
“It came with the set.” He watched her, hands on his hips. “You know that I am not Brock, correct? That I am not like him?”
She was silent for several beats, the brush pausing in mid-stroke. “How do you know that?”
John shrugged. “I don’t, as you have never breathed even a word about him. I am assuming your jitters have to do with him.”
“You haven’t told me anything about your wife.” Her tone was defensive.
“You haven’t asked. What do you want to know?” When she didn’t reply, he continued. “The difference is that I am not trying to hide her. I will tell you anything you like, but every time I ask about your late husband, you change the subject.”
Her brushing resumed. “It has nothing to do with him. You just don’t understand.”
“Yea gods, Louisa, I am trying to. Can’t you see that? Can you understand that your refusal would be easier to stomach if you would just explain yourself to me?”
She twisted her hair into a simple bun, hairpins sliding in to hold it in place. “That’s the thing, you will never truly understand.”
He stiffened at her insinuation. “I see. The prizefighter is good for a tumble, but heaven forfend he should attempt intelligent conversation.”
“No,” she snapped. “You will never understand because you are a man.”
His feeling of offense remained. “That is not much better, kitten. What does that have to do with anything?”
Louisa turned to face him, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring at him. “If we were to marry, what would people call you?”
He frowned, feeling as stupid as she had implied moments before. “I don’t understand. John Taylor.”
“And what would they call me?”
“Mrs. John Taylor. In marrying you, I lose everything. My property becomes yours, my money becomes yours, my very name and identity become yours. Even those children you desperately don’t want to be illegitimate won’t truly be mine, but yours.”
“What of it? It’s the way of things. All those things come to me because I am your husband, who is expected to provide for you and our children. Makes sense to me.”
That was the wrong thing to say. Her face darkened as her mouth pulled down into a ferocious scowl and her skin flushed with anger. She was seething. “Of course it makes sense to you, as you are not the one who loses everything. Marriage is legalized degradation and exploitation of women; once married, a wife has no rights, no recourse should she need it. She becomes her husband’s property to use and abuse as he sees fit.”
“A husband’s duty is to care for his wife, not abuse her,” John pointed out.
“And how many husbands actually abide by that? How many put their wives in danger through infidelity or their fists? And if a man is seen to be abusing his wife, well, that is merely his legal right. None interfere with a husband’s discretion, even when it is so blatantly wrong. There is very little difference between marriage and slavery and those who fight against either is considered seditious.
He was incredulous. “I hardly think you can equate marriage with slavery.”
“Why not? Slaves are seen as savages based on the color of their skin and their inability to speak our language when first presented with it or to wear clothing like ours. They are not seen as sentient beings, capable of providing for themselves and making sound decisions. Wives are viewed the same way and I will not subject myself to it. Slaves cannot leave their masters and wives cannot leave their husbands; it is prettied up with a romantic notion, but the intent is the same. It is ludicrous to consider a man like Charlie Drover, who can barely recognize his own name, capable of voting and owning property, yet deny me that right. I am a sentient human being, capable of running an inn, of educating children, of making intelligent decisions in all aspects of life, and I refuse to be denigrated into the role of wife merely to appease some societal concept of propriety that was created by men!”
Yea gods but she was beautiful when fired up. Her eyes flashed with angry passion and her bosom heaved with her rapid breath. John was hard-pressed to keep his eyes off her breasts, but even the fire on her face aroused him.
He crossed his arms over his chest and tried to focus on what she was saying. “So you think I am just like every other man in England? That is why you don’t want to marry me?”
She threw her hands up in the air in frustration. “I’ve told you, it’s not about you. Haven’t you been listening, you big galoot?”
A bark of laughter escaped him. “Big galoot? Is that what you really just called me?”
“Yes, and I’m not sorry for it.” Her chin was in the air.
He scratched his freshly shaven cheek. “I don’t think I’ve been called a galoot since I grew a foot in one week.”
She huffed, chin still high in the air. “I can’t imagine why not. You can be exceptionally obtuse.”
John couldn’t help himself. He walked over to her, a smile playing at his lips, eyes roaming over her still flushed face. He stopped when he was more than close enough to touch her, awareness of her prickling along his skin. “Say it again,” he murmured.
He gave a mock shudder. “Oh yes, again.”
A smile tugged her lips. “You are being ridiculous.”
“Because I am a—” he prompted.
“A big galoot.”
He took a long breath through his nose and fluttered his eyes, smiling at her. “You certainly know how to sweet-talk a man, kitten.”
“Big galoot,” he finished and put his hands on her waist to pull her to him. Once her body was flush with his, he lowered his head and kissed her.
He had spent a week studying her body, two months before that studying her personality. He was still learning the nuances of her pleasure, the softness of her skin, the valleys and slopes of her body, and hoped he would be allowed to explore them for the rest of his life. He knew that she was a fighter, one for whom control was important, even as she was trembling with ecstasy. So her initial reluctance to his kiss didn’t surprise or discourage him, but made the moment her body sighed into his all the more sweet.
Her hands landed on his chest, sliding up to his shoulders and down to clutch his biceps, pulling herself even closer to him, his legs pushing into her skirts. Louisa felt her breasts pressing against his chest, her nipples hardening at the feel of his heat through the fabric of her clothing. She opened her mouth, welcomed in his tongue and met it with her own, the feel of his beard against her chin sending swirls of desire down to her stomach.
How could it be that her head still spun after a week of enjoying his kisses? How could it be that with each one her desire for him grew? A lust, a need was growing inside her to clamber into his skin and burrow herself as deep as she could inside him, making them one. This took her beyond her experience, as her footmen had been short-lived affairs, a hot lust that burned out rapidly and was easily dismissed unless deliberately brought to mind. With John Taylor she found herself watching him more and more during the day, leaving the safe confines of the office more and more just to be around him, reliving the moments in which he touched her, kissed her, made her laugh.
He had become an obsession, a flame she could not keep herself away from.
John moved his kiss down her neck, paying homage to her beating pulse, and she angled her head to give him more access. The tugs on her laces on her back brought a small dose of reality. “No.” Her protest was weak. “I must go.”
“You can wear this again today,” he murmured against her skin, his hot breath skimming her nerves and making her eyelids flutter. “You have done it before.”
“Allow me this, Louisa. Allow me to love you.”
She wanted to correct him, wanted to tell him that what they were doing had nothing to do with love and that she ought to get to work. What she did was cup his face to pull him in for another kiss. As she devoured his mouth, he pushed her dress off her shoulders, the garment sliding down her body to pool on the floor. His trousers needed little encouragement to follow suit.
John bent slightly to wrap his arms around her waist and lifted Louisa up. She obliged by holding on to his neck, securing herself more tightly as he carried her over to his bed. The moments he carried her, lifted her as though she weighed no more than a cat, sent thrills through her, knowing her giant contained a strength beyond what she could measure and he used it to bring her pleasure.
He sat on the bed, Louisa straddling his hips, their mouths still fused. Her shift was bunched at her waist, her stockinged thighs cradling his. Above her stockings, where their bare skin met and his erection throbbed insistently against her belly, fire coursed over her nerves and she knew without even feeling it that she was wet, her core weeping in anticipation of being filled by him again. Her inner center ached with loneliness, its wail echoing in its emptiness, only to be appeased by his penetration.
“Ah, kitten,” he moaned against her lips. In one fluid movement her chemise was relieved and chucked to the floor. He buried his face in her breasts as one questing hand sought the wet warmth underneath her curls. Her fingers ran down his back, marveling again at his muscles and strength. When two of his fingers found her nub and rubbed circles over it, her nails gripped his skin, threatening to draw blood. His mouth closed over a nipple and his tongue ran around it, puckering it into a hard point.
Her head fell back, small gasps escaping her in time with his suckling. She caressed his head, holding him to her breast, her fingers running over his bald head.
He shifted his hand, his thumb replacing his fingers so they could slip inside her, stroking the walls of her core. “Johnny,” she moaned.
“You are so hot,” he muttered against her breast. “So wet. Hot and wet.” His fingers moved in and out of her, coiling the familiar tension inside her.
“Harder, Johnny, harder.”
He obeyed, quickening the thrusts of his fingers and increasing the pressure of his thumb. “I love it when you say my name like that,” he growled.
“Johnny,” she repeated. He growled against her breast, the vibrations coursing through her. “Johnny.”
Another growl and he removed his hand from her mound. “Enough of this.” He held her close as he twisted and lay her on her back on the soft mattress. He knelt on the floor, using his body to separate her thighs. His hands ran lightly over her skin, drifting from her stomach to her inner thighs, running along the creases that separated leg from hip.
“So beautiful,” he crooned. “Beyond measure.”
Louisa sat up and grasped his shoulders, guiding him down. “Don’t make me wait, Johnny.”
His eyes glinted up at her as he neared his destination. “I am going to make you purr, kitten, so much you will scream.”
“Words are meaningless. Put action to them.”
His face disappeared and he breathed on her moist skin, adding his warmth to her already boiling core. His tongue flicked out, its tip running along her length before his mouth fastened on her clit. “Oh yes, Johnny, finally,” she murmured and lay back on the soft mattress.
As he worked his magic with his tongue, the coil inside her increased its tension. “Right there,” she gasped when he hit a particularly prime spot. Her hips jerked when he returned to it, not hiding her pleasure in the slightest. She pressed her head back into the mattress, arching her back as he suckled.
He growled against her, sending shafts of delight through her core. She set her heels on his shoulders, opening herself up even more to his attentions, pressing herself against his face. She was getting close, her body’s trembling more difficult to suppress.
He lifted his head for a breath. “You taste so sweet,” he muttered. “The finest honey.” He dove back in.
She arched her back again and gasped. “Fingers.” She barely managed to get that word out but it was enough. His two fingers slid back in, stretching her once more, forcing her closer to the edge of the abyss. He skillfully maneuvered her closer and closer, his mouth and fingers working in tandem to drive her there. Her heels slid down his back, digging in below his shoulder blades, trying to draw him in even closer. His pace quickened and moments later she arched her back, choked gasps escaping her as her body climaxed.
John eased away from her, dropping light kisses on her thighs as his fingers slowed their pace, prolonging her orgasm until her body relaxed and she released a deep shuddering sigh. He sat back on his heels, one hand rubbing circles on her stomach, and smiled at her. “You are amazing when you come.”
She smiled at the ceiling, her eyes closed. “I can’t take all the credit. But don’t think I am excusing your prize-ring language.”
He moved to lie on the bed next to her. “You enjoy it, admit it.”
“I admit nothing, sir.”
“I can make you admit it.”
He chuckled, his hand still caressing her stomach. It drifted up to include her breasts, but remained light and attentive. Louisa opened her eyes and smiled at him when she saw he was watching her. She rolled on to her side to press up against him, his hard cock between their bodies. She trailed her hand down his firm chest to grip it, her thumb spreading the bead of moisture that had already escaped. He groaned as her fingers closed around his shaft and tugged gently.
“I suppose you now want me to return the favor.” The look she gave him was sultry.
He shook his head, propped up on one elbow. “No favors here, not in my bed,” he said. His eyes shut as her grip firmed and her strokes became more confident. “Nothing I do is out of expectation of receiving the same. I ask only that you do what you wish, whatever brings you pleasure.”
Her movements stopped, her fingers remaining around his cock. John nearly begged her to continue. “You mean to say,” she spoke, “that if I were to leave this bed now, leaving you like this, you would have no objection?”
“Oh, I would object wholeheartedly,” he replied. He looked at her, cupping her face in his large hand. “But I would not force anything on you that you did not wish. True pleasure and intimacy cannot be achieved without trust, and making demands on a person in bed does not breed it. This is what I give to you, my trust, and with it, my affection.”
Louisa looked at him in a long silence, still holding his member at her mercy. He did not waver from her scrutiny, but held it, confident she would see the sincerity of his words.
When she spoke, it was with a small frown on her face. “You are an odd man, John Taylor.”
He gave her a small smile. “An improvement from a big galoot, I am sure.”
She did not react to that, but tightened her grip on him enough to make him inhale, but not with pleasure. It didn’t exactly hurt, but his body instinctively reacted to the possibility of that appendage being in more pain. “I could hurt you,” she said.
“Yes.” He refused to break her gaze, recognizing she needed this.
“I have seen grown men scream like little girls when this is hurt. I could do that to you with just a squeeze of my hand.”
Yea gods, but if he didn’t deflate just a little bit at that thought. “Yes.”
“Do you still trust me?”
“Yes.” He did not hesitate, his tone firm and sincere, his gaze still not leaving hers. This was vital to both of them.
Her grip eased and she began to move her hand up and down, her touch pleasurable once more. “You make yourself vulnerable to me.”
“I just had my head between your legs. We make ourselves vulnerable to each other.”
“That seems foolish.”
“Such decisions can be, at times. I think this is not one of them.”
Louisa leaned into him, kissing his chest before resting her cheek over his heart. His words made her feel inadequate, unworthy of the trust he was bestowing upon her. He claimed she made herself vulnerable to him, but she couldn’t agree. Even now she was feeling the weight of everything she had been running from, all the lies she had told, knowing they ensured her survival. Did that justify telling them, if it meant she could live?
He threaded his fingers into her hair, tilting her head to gaze upon her face. His questioning eyes roamed over her as though trying to see inside her mind. “Louisa?”
She did the only thing she could think of, the only thing that would ensure his distraction. She gave him a smile and kissed his chest again, making a trail down his sternum, pausing to pay homage to his nipples. When her teeth nibbled on one, a deep groan rumbled up from his chest. With slight pressure, she had him lying on his back, her hand encouraging his cock to impressiveness.
When her trail of kisses grew closer to their destination, his hand on her head stopped her. “You don’t have to.” His words were not very convincing.
She pushed his hands away and held his wrists to the bed. “You will lie there and make yourself vulnerable to me, Johnny. And you will enjoy every moment of it.”
He smiled at her. “If you insist, madam.”
“My kitten has claws,” he said, linking his hands behind his head. Her dominance aroused him even further.
“And you need to watch yourself that you don’t get scratched.”
Louisa dipped her head and ran her tongue along the length of his cock. He inhaled sharply, his shaft quivering as more moisture beaded at the tip. She flicked it with her tongue, the salty taste seasoning her mouth. Grasping the base of his shaft, she closed her mouth around only the head and sucked.
A strangled whimper escaped him, sending a surge of power through her, and she took as much of him into her mouth as she could. She kissed him as thoroughly as she knew how, using the reactions of his body as a map to his pleasure. Her hand worked with her mouth and his body twitched and writhed. When she curled her tongue around his shaft, adding the rough friction to the fray, his hips began to make little thrusts. One of his hands came to grip the back of her head, but she batted it away, intent on this being from her alone. She increased the suction of her mouth.
“God, Louisa, I—I want—I need to be inside you.”
She didn’t stop, didn’t acknowledge his words. She was in control and she would decide what would happen. She cupped his balls, fondling them, feeling them harden in preparation.
“Kitten, love, I’m going to—”
His cock throbbed in her mouth and she lifted her head, rapidly pumping him with her hand. “Not yet, Johnny, not until I say.”
“Please,” he begged.
“Hold off.” Her pace increased.
A few more hard pumps. “Now.”
A guttural groan accompanied the hot spurt of his seed. It arched onto his stomach, pooling on his skin. She continued to stroke him, easing her pace and pressure as he emptied. His chest rose and fell with his deep breaths as he recovered.
Grasping one of her arms, John tugged her down to settle against him, kissing the top of her head. “You, kitten, are beyond words.”
Louisa smiled into his chest, her equilibrium restored. She was safe again, once more in control of herself and her situation. Order was restored and his words could be forgotten.
She wasn’t vulnerable in the slightest.