John climbed to the top of the stairs, seeing Louisa speaking with Rose and Fanny about the rooms. Watching her, his body tingled with the memories from that morning and his cock stirred just thinking about what she had done to him. Even that little conversation when his manhood was literally in her hands—yea gods but she made his blood boil.
Marriage equates slavery? Now that he had time to think about it fully clothed, he could understand her perspective. Didn’t agree with it—he doubted Amanda had felt like she had been in slavery—but he could see her thinking it was true. Her first marriage must have been horrible, even worse than his.
He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms, watching her. He wasn’t actually complaining about their relationship—hell, if that morning was any indication, she had no qualms either. Why did he feel like something was missing? He didn’t intend on marrying her right away; he just wanted the option for the future.
He would have to work on convincing her otherwise. At least with him marriage would be different. He didn’t understand how she couldn’t see that yet. After all he had done for her—how many men of her acquaintance would give her a partnership in an inn? Teach her how to shingle a roof? Drink ale with her? What was it about him that reminded her of her first husband? Yea gods, if it was something he could stop doing, he would; he just needed to know. If she didn’t talk to him about it, how could he know what to do to change her mind?
“Winter weather is approaching,” she was saying to the maids. “We must ensure all rooms have extra towels. I have already informed Alan and Timothy to keep the coal reserves stocked in the rooms as well; you will have to keep the fires at a low burn starting mid-morning. If the rooms are not let by late evening, we can let them go out and can light them again if there are any last-minute guests without losing too much heat.”
The girls nodded and she sent them on their way. Louisa turned and looked surprised to see him standing there, but recovered and walked toward him. “What are you doing here?”
She raised her eyebrows. “You have work to do. You don’t have time to be watching me. Why would you even say something so foolish? What do you truly want?”
John pushed himself off the wall and straightened. “Lunch. I’ve asked Maisie to get some plates ready for us. Rose will bring them out. And I tend to say nice, complimentary things to the people I care about. I know, it’s strange, but that’s just the way I am. I like it when you feel good about yourself.”
She frowned. “You are being ridiculous. I don’t appreciate this kind of teasing.”
“Do you appreciate any kind of teasing?” He took her hand and walked down the stairs with her.
She had pulled her hand out of his grasp by the time they reached the bottom. “Teasing is a waste of time. People should just say what they mean.”
“I did say what I meant. I was watching you. You are quite watchable. Ale?”
“Please.” She sat at a table in the corner while he pulled two pints and brought them over. “How can someone be watchable?”
John smiled at her and shrugged. “Don’t you watch me?”
“Liar. I’ve noticed it.”
“I deny everything.” She couldn’t help but smile back at him.
He chuckled. “There you are, kitten.”
Her smile disappeared. “You need to be more careful,” she warned him. “We don’t want people to know about us.”
“So you have to stop it with the hand-holding and the ‘kitten’ in public.”
They were interrupted by Rose bringing out their food, ham sandwiches and apple pie for dessert. “Anythin’ else, luv?” Rose asked, her eyes on John. He shook his head and bit into his sandwich, the maid tossing her hair over her shoulder and a smile at Louisa.
Louisa stared hard at John as he ate, picking at the bread of her sandwich. He reached for his pint and glanced up. “What?” he said around the food in his mouth.
“Nothing.” She lifted her sandwich to her mouth. “So you will stop? We are agreed?”
He thought for a moment. “No.”
“What?” She nearly choked on her food. “What do you mean? We don’t want people to know about us.”
“No, you don’t want people to know about us. I am fine with them knowing. If you allowed it, I would marry you and shout it from the rooftops.”
She frowned fiercely at him. “Stop this. You are being ridiculous.”
“Allow me to show you the respect of not hiding you.”
“John, we discussed this.”
He shook his head. “I remember more of a diatribe on your part, not a discussion.”
“Why do you have to do this? Why does everything have to be an analysis of our relationship? Why can’t you just accept what we have?”
“I don’t know.” John gave her a sad smile. “I’m not trying to force you, not trying to make you into my slave. I just think you deserve more than something we have to hide. I think I deserve something more. It makes me feel like you are ashamed of me.”
Louisa stared at him, swallowing her food, and washed it down with some ale. “You are an odd man, John Taylor.”
“So you’ve told me.”
“I am not ashamed of you.”
He shrugged, taking a big bite from his sandwich.
They both looked up to see a scrawny man with unwashed hair standing across the pub from their table. His clothes were worn, with holes in some places and stains on the lapels. A tattered red scarf hugged his neck loosely.
The man walked slowly toward them, slightly hunched and his hands in fists. “’ere comes the Five Hit Wonder, ladies ’n gents. Bigger’n a mountain, stronger’n a bear, no man alive can beat ’im.”
John grinned and stood up, heading toward the man with his hands up in fighting mode. The man kept talking. “Watch ’im, gen’lemen, ’e is big but ’e is fast. Lightnin’ quick, wot wit’ a one-two”—John feinted two punches—“’e starts his attack, an’ then th’ ol’ three-four-five”—three more feints—“an’ ’is opponent is down for th’ count.” The man made an elaborate show of falling into a chair to much laughter from the patrons.
John grabbed him by the arm and hauled him up into a hug, pounding his back. “Alfie Spike, ye old wanker, wha’ brings ye here?”
“Well, who else is gonna make sure yer not scarin’ proper folks wit’ yer unnatural height?”
“Me? Folks ain’t scared of me when they’ve got yer ugly mug to look at.”
The two men embraced again with more back-pounding and laughter. When they separated, John gestured to the pub and Louisa. “Welcome to th’ Beefy Buzzard, Alfie. We’re doin’ fine. And ov’r here be Mrs. Louisa Brock, me partner in th’ enterprise.” He led the smaller man over. “Mrs. Brock, Mr. Alfie Spike, my old manager and all-’round scoundrel.” He laughed, clapping the man on his shoulder.
The man bent at the waist, smiling at Louisa and bringing her hand to his mouth for a kiss. “Pleasure, Mrs. Brock, I’m sure.”
“Mr. Spike. Welcome to the Beefy Buzzard.”
“Ooh la la, ye’ve got yourself a nice soundin’ one for a change there, John.”
John cuffed him on the head. “Watch yerself. Packard, another ale and sandwich. Sit.” He pulled out a chair and Alfie slumped into it. “What brings ye to Grompton?”
Alfie yanked his ratty top hat off his head and tossed it on the table, scratching his head before pulling some leaflets from his jacket. “Wot else, mate? Boxing. There’s a mill in a fortnight. Here, in Grompton. Where’s th’ privy in ’ere?” He scratched himself, caught Louisa looking at him before removing his hand sheepishly.
John gestured. “Back that way.” He finished off his sandwich as the man disappeared down the corridor to the privy.
Louisa watched him leave as well and frowned deeply at John when they were alone again. “Who is that man?”
“I told you. Alfie was my manager. Arranged my fights, took care of business.”
“Why did you speak to him like that?”
John grinned. “I’ve known him for years. We’ve always talked to each other like that.”
“No.” Louisa shook her head. “Ye old wanker? Yer ugly mug? Folks ain’t scared? You’re talking like you belong down on the docks.”
“You do it with the customers as well. When you’re talking with anyone but me, you speak as though you’re in Seven Dials. You talk like a prizefighter to everyone but me.”
“I do?” John looked at her with a blank face. “I had no idea.”
“Why do you do it?”
“Well, I am a prizefighter, kitten. I suppose there are expectations that go with it.”
“Expectations to make yourself sound unintelligent?”
John sat back. “I’m a prizefighter. I’m good at it.”
“You were a prizefighter. You are retired and have been successful at making this inn flourish.”
“It wasn’t flourishing until you came along.”
Louisa shook her head. “You would have made it work without me. You are an intelligent man, John. You don’t need to hide it.”
He gave her a small smile. “Why not? I have to hide what I’m doing with you.”
Louisa pushed herself up from the table and gathered their empty dishes. “I’ll go see what is taking that sandwich so long.”
“Louisa,” John said as she walked away. He sighed and shook his head.
“Trouble wit’ th’ missus?” Alfie asked as he sat down again.
“She’s not my missus,” John muttered. Rose brought out the sandwich and placed it in front of Alfie.
He winked at her. “Ta, luv.”
John leaned his arms on the table. “So there’s a boxing mill here?” He made a conscious effort to regulate his language. She was wrong, he didn’t hide his intelligence.
Alfie glanced at him around his sandwich. “Aye. Retirement not treatin’ ye well?”
“It’s fine. The mill will bring business.”
“There’s exhibitions next week, leadin’ up to th’ main event. Purse fights. I kin get ye one, if ye want.”
“Thanks, but I’m not interested.”
“Think abou’ it. There’s a bloke lookin’ to make a name fer hisself. He’s not that bad. Ye’ve got at least a head on ’im and more’n two stone, I figure. Ye’d take ’im down wit’out breakin’ a sweat.”
John cocked an eyebrow at him. “Doesn’t sound like much of a challenge.”
Alfie laughed, bits of food flying out of his mouth. “That’s th’ point, Johnny. We’ll split the purse.”
He glared at his former manager. “Did ye come ’ere jes to get me to fleece th’ bloke wit’ ye?” He heard his words and forced himself to speak as he would to Louisa. “I wouldn’t do it for you before, I’m not going to do it now. I’m a respectable businessman now.”
Alfie raised a placating hand. “I’m not suggestin’ anythin’, John. Tell ye wot, you keep th’ purse an’ I’ll make th’ rounds wit’ th’ side bets.”
“It doesn’t matter,” John said, sitting back. “I’m not interested.”
Alfie looked at him for a long moment before a slow smile crossed his face. “She is yer missus, ain’t she? Well done, mate.”
“What?” John shook his head. “I tol’ ye—told you she’s not. And she has nothing to do with this.”
Alfie shook his head. “I’ve seen it happen time an’ again. A fighter meets a skirt, gets caught up in ’em and it all changes. It happened wit’ ye an’ Amanda for a bit, but ye got out of it.”
John rubbed his head. He knew it was useless to talk to Alfie; he would only hear and see what he wanted to.
Was he right? John knew his feelings were getting more involved with Louisa every day, but he didn’t see that as a negative thing. He certainly didn’t see it as changing him. He simply didn’t want to fight. It didn’t matter that he knew Louisa wouldn’t like it; she had vocalized her objections to pugilism several times.
“Don’t you miss it?” Alfie asked him.
Miss it? John looked down at his hands, folded in front of him. His large hands, ones that provided him with more money than he had expected to ever earn in his lifetime. What he had said to Louisa wasn’t wrong; the inn hadn’t been flourishing before she came. He had been floundering, thinking every day about what a mistake he had made. He enjoyed serving drinks, but she did all the hard work to make this place run. He had been in over his head and he knew it now.
In the ring, he had been a champion. In control of his opponent, himself, the fight. He would see the man in the minutes before they began and know exactly what he needed to do to defeat him. And he would do it. Play with his opponent for a few rounds sometimes—the crowds liked longer fights—but the end was always inevitable to him.
It had grown wearying, however. Not the fights or the winning, but the constant talk of the sport, surrounded by men like Alfie. He had begun to want more from life and thought buying the inn would give him what he was looking for. Only it had been falling apart around him until Louisa came. And now that was falling apart too, with her equating marriage to him with slavery and wanting to hide their relationship.
Things were getting out of control again and he didn’t like it.
John focused on his former manager. “Fifty pounds?”
With fifty pounds he could take Louisa to Bath and work on convincing her to not be afraid to let people know about their relationship. Get things under control again. “Tell ye what, Alfie. Get me in that ring and I’ll show ye jes’ how much I miss it.”