Something was off, she knew it. People—John—had been acting strangely the last few days. He had been eating odd things like raw eggs and spending more time in the stable once the pub was closed. He would come to bed sweaty and sore. Louisa knew he was working with his training bag, but why he was working so long and hard she didn’t know.
There was subterfuge happening as well. Whispered conversations with Rose, conversations that ended as soon as she approached, denials that they were speaking of anything. Thankfully, Alfie Spike hadn’t reappeared since that horrible encounter. She had thought he would have stayed, but she did not make it habit to look gift horses in the mouth.
An illogical part of her mind kept delving into foolish territory. Thoughts of John and Rose kept bubbling up, little images of them in the stable together. She knew it was wrong, knew that John would not do that to her. If she knew anything about him, it was that he was honest. If he was tired of her, he would tell her and vice versa.
She just didn’t think the thought of him growing tired of her would make her feel so . . . hurt. Angry. Depressed.
It was good that he wasn’t tired of her, then.
But still, something was off and for once he wasn’t talking with her about what was going on in his head. His feelings. She had grown to expect those conversations, was beginning to not want to avoid them, but he wasn’t trying to talk about those things.
People were beginning to arrive for the boxing mill. The main event wasn’t for a few more days, but she had heard of exhibitions that were to take place beforehand. She hadn’t heard who the fighters were, frankly didn’t care so long as their inn and pub received more business. Thanks to the event, things were already picking up to the point where Louisa had to help out serving in the pub every night; business had gotten too hectic for Rose and Fanny to handle serving on their own along with maintaining the rooms and seeing to those customers. Louisa had already made notes to hire additional staff when special events came to town.
She bustled around the tables, dropping off food, clearing tables, taking orders. John and Mr. Packard were kept busy behind the bar serving drinks. Glancing over there now, she saw that it was just Packard seeing to the drinking patrons; John was nowhere in sight. Where would he have gone on such a busy evening? With an uneasy weight in her chest, Louisa made her way over to the bar.
“Three pints, Mr. Packard,” she said, wiping some spilled ale off the counter. “Where is Mr. Taylor?”
Packard jerked his head in the direction of the corridor. “He went to the cask room. Said he needed to tap a couple more to get us through the mill fine.”
“Oh.” Didn’t she see Rose go the same way a few minutes before as well? The uneasy weight grew. Pressing her lips together, Louisa marched to the corridor, even though her logical mind was screaming at her to not go there. But logic also dictated that it would be best to have everything out in the open, to know for sure what was going on.
She rounded the corner into the corridor to see John and Rose standing at the end. He was speaking to her in hushed tones: “. . . not to worry. I will be there.”
“Where will you be?” Louisa’s voice rang out in the corridor angrily.
Both looked at her guiltily. “Nowhere,” John said. “Just . . . behind the bar.”
She pierced Rose with a sharp look. “There’s work to be done, Rose.” Her voice was tight and hard. The maid quickly left the corridor to resume her duties, glancing at John over her shoulder as she left.
“Is something the matter, Louisa?” he asked.
“You tell me. What were you talking about with Rose?”
She scoffed. “Then why couldn’t you have the conversation out in the pub where everyone can see? Why did you have to hide back here?”
“We weren’t hiding. It was quieter back here.” He walked toward her.
“Yes, quiet enough to have an intimate conversation.”
“Intimate conversation?” John stopped and placed his hands on his hips. “What do you think is going on between me and Rose?”
She pressed her lips together and raised her chin. “I don’t think anything is happening. All I know is that we have a busy pub out there and two of my people were back here instead of working.”
He scrutinized her. “Good,” he said slowly. “Because you have nothing to worry about, kitten.”
“Usually when men say that, woman have cause to worry.”
“Not with me you don’t.”
“Seems to me another thing a man would say.” She spun on her heel and marched back to the pub. “We have a full pub, John. I suggest you return to work.”
Louisa studiously ignored him for the rest of the evening. She may not have caught him doing something illicit with Rose, but that did not mean he was innocent. She could feel his eyes on her several times and would not give him the satisfaction of knowing she was aware of him. It helped that she was nearly run off her feet. Men had arrived in droves in the last little while, all chatting about women, horses and boxing. Money had been exchanging hands in some pre-fight betting. She did not like to see that, did not like to have the reminder of how gambling had affected her life, but so long as the men continued to buy food and drink she would tolerate it.
The pub finally began to clear. They would not close, for all the customers were going to one of the exhibition bouts and would likely come back after for celebrating their wins and mourning their losses. But the respite would be appreciated, as it would give them time to clean and prepare and perhaps even rest a few moments and eat a few mouthfuls.
“Maisie, set out some nibbles for the staff,” Louisa instructed. “We’ll take the opportunity to refresh ourselves during this lull.”
“I’ll have Mr. Taylor and Mr. Packard send back some ale as well.”
“Very good, ma’am.”
Louisa went back into the pub, mentally preparing herself for speaking to John, even if it was just about ale for the staff. He wouldn’t begrudge it, she knew, would likely agree, but she did not want to look at or speak with him after what she saw in the corridor.
She was in luck, though. It was just Mr. Packard behind the bar, wiping glasses. “Mr. Packard, please pull some half pints for the staff and bring them back to the kitchen. We’ll have a few moments to ourselves back there.”
“Aye, Mrs. Brock.”
Louisa glanced around, not seeing John anywhere. Or Rose. Had they disappeared together again? There were still several customers nursing their drinks. She swallowed, hating herself for what she was about to ask. “Where is Mr. Taylor?”
Packard looked a little scared. “I, uh, I think he went to the bout, ma’am.”
The portly man shook his head. “I dunno. Don’t think so. Saw her go upstairs a few minutes ago.”
Relief eased through her. They weren’t together. He had gone to watch the exhibition match. She nodded, understanding the pull of the sport he had been a champion of for so many years. She could allow him that. But why would he go without telling her? That seemed odd.
Brushing the thought aside, she turned her attention to the remaining customers. Fanny was clearing some of the empty tables, so Louisa made her way over to the occupied ones.
“Need anything else, gents?” she asked.
The young Corinthians looked up. “No. We’re about on our way.”
“Going to the bout?”
“Yes. Should be a good one.”
She shook her head. “I know nothing of pugilism and that is as much as I want to know. But enjoy the fight. Be sure to come back here. We will still be open and serving pints to winners and losers.”
“I disagree that it will be a good fight,” another one said. “I think it will be quite lopsided. Doesn’t make sense to me to pit a champion against an unseasoned fighter.”
“But he’s been in retirement,” the first one argued. “The champion is not in champion shape anymore.”
A frisson of apprehension spiraled down her spine. “The bout is between a retired champion and a new fighter?”
The first Corinthian looked at her. “Yes. I thought you knew.”
She shook her head. “Knew what?”
He looked at her, confused. “But don’t you work here with him? John Taylor, I mean?”
Her breath seized in her body. “John Taylor is fighting tonight?” she squeaked out.
“Yes.” He checked his timepiece. “In fact, the bout has already started. Bottoms up, Drake. His fights don’t normally last more than four rounds.”
“He might draw this one out, seeing as how it’s an exhibition,” Drake pointed out as they left the premises.
Louisa walked back through the kitchen and into the office in a daze. She waved permission to Maisie to begin serving the staff, but did not speak. In the office, she sat down slowly on the newly made chair, one she had had custom made to accommodate Giant Johnny.
He was fighting. He hadn’t said anything to her about it, but he was fighting. Tonight. Right now, in fact. No wonder he had been spending so much time in the stable this past week; he had been training. And hadn’t told her. Was that what all those secret conversations with Rose had been about?
Why was she even focusing on Rose when at this very moment his face was being pummeled by another fighter? Good Lord, he could get seriously injured! What if he were to be knocked unconscious? What would she do then? It was bad enough to think of his bones breaking, but unconsciousness? She had heard of pugilists being beaten so hard they didn’t wake up. What would happen to her if John didn’t wake up? Their contract would not likely stand up in a court of law, so she would lose the inn, lose her stability and independence.
More importantly, she would lose John.
Louisa stood abruptly. She had to stop it, had to stop the fight. She didn’t know how she would do it, but she had to. She had to save John.
Grabbing her cloak, she dashed out of the office and into the pub. “Packard, where is the fight?” she asked.
“The old church stable, ma’am,” he replied. “The boxing mill is there too. It was the only place big enough for the crowds.” His voice faded as she stalked out of the pub and into the night.
Louisa scurried out of the inn yard, heading in the direction of the match. Stragglers were with her and she brushed by them impatiently, intent on her mission. She had to get to John before something serious happened to him.
She rounded the corner and the old stable came into sight. She could hear the shouting and cheering though she was still quite a distance away; the crowd must be large and enjoying the fight. That must be a good sign. If something bad had occurred, surely they would not be cheering as such. She did not slow her pace, but hurried on. The noise grew in volume as she approached the building.
Slipping inside, her senses were bombarded. Lanterns hung from the rafters and beams, casting light throughout the entire scene. Men and women of all types were there, shouting and cheering on their fighters. More shouts for bets added to the confusion and money was changing hands at a furious pace. And the stench—oh, the stench—of a plethora of sweaty, drunk humans in a confined space filled her nostrils, making her eyes water. Louisa swallowed, her throat becoming thick with bile. She didn’t know if it was from the disgusting smell or from the pure delight all these people were displaying at watching two men beat each other up.
Louisa pushed through the crowd, determined to get to the fight and stop it. She gritted her teeth as she fought through the crowd, using her elbows to get around people. Many dirty looks were sent her way and several unpleasant comments tossed, but she pressed on. As she drew closer to the center of the stable, the sound of fists landing on flesh joined the cacophony and spurred her on.
She had to stop when she reached a rope, keeping the spectators from the fighters. It was set up in a square about ten square feet. But she hardly noticed, her eyes riveted on John in the middle of the ring fighting his opponent.
Just as the time she had seen him in the inn’s stable, he was shirtless, trousers and boots being the only items he wore. His skin was sweaty, glistening in the light from the lanterns; already one eye was swelling shut and a bruise was growing on one of his sides. But he danced—or looked like he was dancing—moving toward his opponent and away, his hands always up in front of his face. Louisa watched the play of his muscles as he fought, the way they coiled and released with precision.
He towered over the other fighter. His reach was longer. His body stronger. His opponent bobbed and weaved around the punches, taking the opportunities to get closer to land some decent hits. The men around her pushed into her, shouting at their chosen fighters. From the sound of things, John was the heavily favored one, and looking at the fight, it was not hard to see why. He was dominating the bout, but also seemed to be drawing it out. Seeing him fight, seeing him in this element where his success was unsurpassed, was novel and a part of her wanted to just stand and watch him win.
The fighters drew closer to where she was standing. Louisa had to think fast. How could she stop the fight? What would happen if she were to climb into the ring? She did not want to risk getting hit herself. What if she reached out and grabbed John when he was close enough, or tapped him on the shoulder? But that was dependent upon him coming within her reach and she did not want to distract him to the point of him getting hurt because he wasn’t paying attention.
Scenarios flew through her mind, all the while with her eyes on the fight. John landed hit after hit, enough to make his opponent stagger and shake his head, but not enough to send him off his feet. Even though she had never seen a prizefight before, had never seen John use his full strength, she knew he was holding back.
The fighters were making their way back in her direction. She had missed her opportunity the last time, she could not afford to do so again. She focused on John, intent on stopping the fight.
They were closer, but not close enough yet. Louisa still did not know what she was going to do, but she knew they had to be closer. John swung and missed, a rare event from the looks of things. His opponent saw the opening and took advantage, stepping closer with quick movements and aiming his fist for John’s head.
Fist collided with face. The crack was heard by the front spectators and John’s head whipped to the side. He staggered back, one hand to his head, his body hunching over. This gave the younger fighter another opportunity. The same hit, this time with more force as John was not holding himself up or protecting himself with his hands. Another crack, another whip of his head.
Blood flew through the air. Louisa saw it in a surreal moment, saw it flying off John’s face and in her direction. The blood arched and began its descent, landing across her face and on her clothing. She couldn’t help it.
Louisa shrieked. Loudly. And high-pitched. Enough to stop the fight and silence the stable. She shrieked out of shock and surprise. Why she had never considered what proximity to the fight might bring was beyond her. Now she stood with a large streak of John’s blood on her. She could feel where it had landed on her face, warm and oozy and beginning to slide down, thanks to gravity.
Even the fighters had stopped. John’s eyes widened when he saw who it was and what had happened. He took a step toward her, one hand outstretched, concern in his one good eye. Blood was dripping out of the fresh wound on his face, but he paid it no heed.
“Louisa?” he asked. “Are you hurt?”
Seeing his face, seeing what his opponent had done to him, was what spurred her on. Looking him dead in the eye, she lifted her chin and shouted, “Two pounds on Johnny Taylor!”
“Ouch!” John winced and jerked away from the cold compress Louisa pressed unceremoniously against his face. “That hurt.”
She gave him a disbelieving look. “You just had a man intentionally hit you in the face more times than I counted and you are complaining that this hurts?”
“I am sensitive,” he said, giving her a sheepish shrug.
“What you are is a big baby.” She pressed the compress back to his face. “Hold this.” He dutifully held the compress while she wiped more blood off the rest of his face. “How you have managed to keep all your teeth and not damaged any facial feature besides your nose is beyond me. That was the most brutal thing I have ever seen.”
He tried to smile at her, but groaned and returned the compress to his face. “But you liked it, didn’t you?”
“Liked seeing a man pummel you with his fists? Liked seeing your blood on his hands and skin? Liked seeing you beat a man—a man who most likely has a mother, a sister, a wife, concerned just like me—beat a man to a near pulp? And all this for a purse of what, ten pounds?”
“Fifty. You were concerned about me?”
“Fifty pounds to beat a man up?”
“And you won it?”
He grinned, despite the pain. “You saw me get this.” He waved the purse in front of her. She batted his hand away and he tossed it on the bed. He took a long sip from the Scotch sitting on the nightstand.
She fingered the cut on his cheek. “You need stitches. Let me get my needle and thread.”
“Whoa, whoa, wait.” He grabbed her wrist. “You have a needle and thread? I don’t think I trust you with that.”
“What, are you afraid of needles too, you big baby?”
“When they’re in your hand, it’s probably best I am.”
“Be quiet, you big galoot.”
“Mm, you’re talking dirty again.”
“And you must be punch-drunk.” She rummaged through her sewing bag and retrieved her needle and some thread.
“Just drunk on how beautiful you look today.”
“I look beautiful every day.” She said this matter-of-factly as she threaded the needle and swirled it around in his Scotch. “Hold still.” She stood between his legs and dabbed his wound clean, beginning to stitch it shut.
“Have you done this before?” he asked, watching her intently, trying to remain still despite the painful pull of needle through skin.
“No, but I’ve seen doctors do it many times. I was a governess, remember.”
His hands settled on the back of her thighs, his thumbs caressing the cheeks of her bottom. “You were concerned about me?” he asked again.
“Was fifty pounds really worth this?” She avoided his question. “What are you going to do with that money anyway?”
“Can’t a man have some secrets?”
“Not when it involves getting your face bloodied and bruised like this. Tell me what was so important that you had to do this.”
“Well, Christmas is coming up and a man likes to spoil his woman, give her something nice to mark the occasion. I was thinking we could go to Bath for a few days, stay in a nice hotel, eat some Sally buns, perhaps get you a nice dress.”
Her needle stilled and she looked at him for a long moment. He looked disgruntled at having to tell her, but also eager to see her reaction. “I don’t need any of those things.” She fought the warmth spreading in her chest at his thoughtfulness.
“It’s not about what you need, but what I want to give you.”
“Give me a private dining room, John. I don’t want to go to Bath.” She broke off the rest of the thread and dabbed at the stitched wound again.
He moved his face away from her touch. “It’s always about the inn, isn’t it? I bet you were concerned for me because of how my being hurt would affect business, right?”
“And don’t call me your woman,” she snipped. She began to wash the needle in the basin on his vanity.
“Yea gods, Louisa, a man can’t do anything right with you, can he?”
“And I was concerned because I didn’t want to have to see your broken face in bed with me,” she growled.
“What?” he snapped.
“I happen to like the way your face looks, you big galoot, and I don’t like thinking of it being hurt.”
He grabbed her and pulled her close to him. “My face isn’t hurt.”
“Says the man with eight stitches in his cheek, a fat lip and a black eye.”
John shook his head. “I’m too tall for anyone to land decent hits. My face won’t ever be broken.”
She framed his face with her hands. “This looks broken to me and I don’t like it. I thought you were retired.”
“I was a boxer for a decade, kitten. It’s not like I can just turn it off like it was an ale cask.”
She traced his eyebrows. “Do you miss it? Is that why you did this?”
“Do I miss it?” He shrugged. “Like I said, it was ten years of my life and I was good at it, pretty much all I’ve been good at my whole life. And you know why I did it. For you, kitten.”
She took a deep breath through her nose. “I really don’t want to go to Bath, John.”
“Then we’ll figure something else out to do with the money. Just nothing to do with the inn, agreed?”
She nodded. “I can do that.”
“Can we seal this bargain with a kiss?” He grinned at her hopefully.
Louisa grimaced. “I don’t think you understand how your face looks right now when you smile.”
“Kiss me anyway? Make my pain go away, kitten.”
“You truly are a big galoot, Johnny Taylor.” She kissed him anyway.