The boxing mill was stupendous for business. Men, young and old, had been arriving since yesterday in anticipation, watching more of the exhibitions that led up to the main fight. The inn was near capacity, all but a few rooms taken. Those rooms Louisa was certain would fill as well, even if not with sportsmen in town for the event. There was a winter storm brewing and stranded travelers would need a place to stay. It was music to her ears, the sound of coins exchanging hands.
Louisa weaved through the tables, carrying two servings of pie to a table, followed by Rose with just as many. They placed them in front of the men who ordered them, who were laughing raucously.
One of them grabbed Louisa’s wrist. “Wait a moment, luv, I’ve a question for you.”
She wrenched herself away from the man, glancing over her shoulder at John behind the bar, pouring drinks. He wasn’t looking her way. “What is it?” she asked, trying to remain civil. The man was a paying customer.
He glanced at his friends with a grin. “What is your opinion of premarital relations?”
“With you? Not a very good one, I am afraid.”
His friends guffawed at that. His face flickered, but he persevered. Rose moved away as she saw to other tables. “What I mean is, luv, we’ve been having a conversation here. Do you think a man, a healthy man, has to marry a girl he’s been sleeping with?”
She frowned. “Does the girl have expectations?”
“Perhaps.” The man shifted uncomfortably. “But in this day and age, a girl should know that a man’s not going to buy the cow when he’s getting the milk for free. Don’t you agree?”
His friends laughed again, pounding the table with their fists and tankards. Their noise added to that already filling the pub. The man looked at her with an expectant smirk.
Louisa shifted her weight to one hip, looking at the man through narrowed eyes. This clearly was the kind of man who preyed on innocents, luring them into a sense of security before ruining them. It left a sour taste in her mouth that men like him existed, even more so that he and his drunken friends had been allowed in her inn. At some point the value of a shilling was not worth the sacrifice.
“Well, luv, what do you say?”
“I agree,” she declared.
He blinked, clearly not expecting that response from her. “I beg your pardon?”
“I agree with premarital relations. After all, a woman should be assured the entire pig is worth it when all she can expect is such a small sausage.”
The table was silent as her words sank in. The man’s face reddened as his friends broke out into more laughter. He opened his mouth to say something when one of the others clapped him on the back. “Don’t be sore, Preston, not when you goaded her.”
Louisa pasted a polite smile on her face. “Enjoy your pies, gentlemen. If you need anything else, Mr. Packard or Mr. Taylor behind the bar will see to it.” As she walked away, she made a mental note to tell Rose and Fanny to avoid that man for the rest of his stay.
“Louisa.” John forestalled her retreat into the kitchen and gestured for her to come to the bar. “Are you all right?” His eyes were on the table she had just served.
“Yes, it was just some men who thought alcohol made them humorous.”
The door banged open and they both looked at a young lady with two blond children. She looked around and saw John and Louisa watching them. She took the children by the hand and approached the bar, ensuring she kept the girls from the more rowdy tables.
“Are you the proprietor?” The young brunette asked as the small group stopped at the bar. She spoke in the cultured tones of the nobility. “Please tell me you have a room. The last two my husband and I stopped at were full and the snow is getting worse.”
John nodded. “I am Mr. Taylor and this is Mrs. Brock. We are the owners.”
“We do have a room available,” Louisa said. “It is large enough to accommodate your family. Two large beds.”
Relief washed over the young lady’s face. “Thank goodness. My husband is just seeing to the coach and horses.”
“Why don’t you have a seat here while you wait?” Louisa gestured to a nearby empty table. “I will have one of our maids ensure the room is ready and have a tea tray sent up for you. You and your daughters must be cold and tired from your traveling.”
“Mama,” the eldest girl whispered not-so-quietly, “she looks like the lady in the portrait. Like Grandmama.”
The young lady smiled sheepishly at Louisa. “I apologize. You do bear a resemblance to my late mother-in-law.”
“Think nothing of it,” Louisa assured her. She smiled at the girl. “I am sure I would know if I were related to such lovely young girls.” Her comment made them both turn shyly into their mother’s skirts. “I will just see to your room and tea tray.”
“Is there perchance a private dining room available?” the lady asked. She cast a wary glance around at the men well on their way to drunkenness.
Louisa shot A Look at John, who said, “Not yet, but none will bother you here. I will see to it.”
“Thank you,” she said, the conversation drifting away as Louisa headed into the kitchen.
“Maisie, we need a tea tray,” Louisa said. The cook was already putting together several more pies and looked flustered.
“We’re running out of dinner pies, Mrs. Brock,” she said. “We’ve enough for twenty more, but that’s it.”
“That’s a good thing,” Louisa smiled. “If you can, save one for Mr. Taylor and me. But we can eat something else later. Timothy, how about that tea tray? Four settings, please. I’m going to check on the rooms.” She went up the back stairs and let herself into the room she promised to the new arrivals.
Her practiced eye scanned the room, taking note of how prepared it was. It was set up for two, recently cleaned and dusted, new linens on the beds, pillows neatly plumped, washstand ready for fresh water and use. She grabbed the pitcher and hurried downstairs, filled it with the pot of warmed water from the back hob and returned it to the room. She stepped back into the corridor and headed for the linen closet, fetching several more towels; the additional young guests would likely need them.
She closed the linen closet and headed back to the room, her arms full of towels. Just as she was passing another door, it opened and someone stepped out, crashing into her and sending her towels scattering on the floor. A firm hand grasped her elbow when she was teetering, steadying her.
She opened her eyes and looked into the bluest, coldest eyes she had ever seen. Blond hair fell across his forehead, but the boyish look did nothing to reduce the effect of his eyes. She unconsciously fought to suppress a shiver.
“My apologies,” he spoke in a deep, cultured voice. “I did not mean to step into you, Miss—”
“Brock. Mrs. Brock,” Louisa said. She bent down to retrieve the towels, refolding them to stack neatly.
He bent down with her, one hand holding on to a black cane with a golden wolf’s head. The creature was in a frozen snarl, making her wonder about the man who held it. “Our proprietress, from what I understand. Mr. Taylor informed us you were around somewhere.”
“Yes, I oversee the maids and the kitchen. The boxing mill and weather are stretching our staff thin, so I am helping where I can.” She took a towel from his offered hand and folded it, adding it to the stack.
“An employer who does not mind getting her hands dirty. Most admirable.” He straightened with her, offering his hand to assist her up, which she did not take.
“Are you here with your wife, Mr.—”
“Grant. And no, I am betrothed but not yet married. I travel with two companions who are waiting for me below stairs to dine. It has been a long day and the kitchen smells promising.”
Louisa smiled politely. “You will not be disappointed, Mr. Grant. Our cook lives up to the smells.”
“That is reassuring.”
“If you will excuse me, sir, I must see to this room.” She nodded and turned on her heel, delivering the towels to the room. One last review of the room and she left, taking the back stairs back down to the kitchen.
Timothy was just finishing up preparing the tea tray. Louisa measured out the leaves into the teapot and added water from the kettle they always kept boiling for just this reason. She closed the teapot and put a cover on it. Once more up the back stairs and she put the tray in the room, locking it behind her.
When she returned to the pub, the crowd had grown; she could not see across the room and the noise had increased. She glanced at the bar, where John was still busy with the drinks. The young lady and her two daughters were sitting at a table, her gaze wary and nervous. A man sat with them, his back to Louisa, a reassuring hand holding the young lady’s. The man must be her husband.
Louisa pushed her way to the bar. She leaned over the end. “John, the family’s room is ready. I put the tea tray in it to get the children out of the noisy pub. Where is the book?”
He pushed it toward her. “They’re signed in.”
“I just want to check the name so I can address them properly. She’s obviously nobility; I assume her husband is too.”
“Yes, a baron.”
Louisa flipped to the relevant page and trailed her finger down to find the right entry. When she saw one for two adults and two children, she looked over at the name.
And froze. Her heart even stopped for a moment.
Baron Brockhurst and family.
Dear God, he had caught up to her. A coincidence, it had to be. There was no possible reason he should expect her to be here. The young lady had no idea who she was and had given no indication that she was expecting to find anyone here.
She glanced up at John to see him giving her an odd look.
“I called your name about three times. That family looks ready to go up.” He gestured to their table.
Louisa followed his finger with her eyes to see the man standing at his table, his hand loosely holding his wife’s in the air. Baroness Brockhurst was looking between the two of them, confused. The baron was staring at her, his hazel eyes wide. His blond hair was tamed into neat waves, different from the young shag she had last seen on him. His clothing was finely tailored, understated in its elegance, the grays and greens complementing his coloring.
“Matthew?” The baroness said. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” She glanced at Louisa again.
Louisa looked at John, who was still watching her. “I have to go,” she whispered.
“Go? Go where?”
“I just—” She spun on her heel and began to push her way through the crowd.
She tried to pick up her pace, but the crowd made it difficult.
She grimaced as she pushed her way through the bodies filling the pub. Her heart was pounding in her ears; all she could think about was getting away from her brother. If he caught her, everything would fall to pieces. “Move,” she whispered, but she doubted whoever was in front of her heard. Her panic propelled her forward. She wasn’t looking where she was going and ran straight into a hard chest.
“Excuse me,” a deep voice said.
“Get out of my way.” She tried to move around whoever it was.
She looked up and saw the familiar face of her friend’s husband, Jacob Knightly. She had lived with him, Claire and Sara for the better part of a year. What was he doing here? Oh God, he was here for her, wasn’t he? A glance over his arm showed her Stephen Montgomery standing beside the table and the man with the wolf’s-head cane sitting, looking confused.
She tried to move around him, but Jacob grabbed her arms. “Wait, where are you going? It’s me, Jacob.”
Louisa struggled against his grasp, but it wouldn’t loosen. “Let me go!” she shouted. She tried to kick him.
“Louisa, calm down. What has gotten into you?”
“Get your hands off her!” The roar carried over the noise of the pub, silencing everyone and everything. John barreled through the crowd, his face intent and angry, his purpose clear. Jacob released his grip on Louisa—was it out of fear? Shock? Did it matter?—and John immediately brought Louisa close to him, protecting her.
He looked at her, his eyes scanning her face. “Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”
“No, John, it’s not—”
Jacob interrupted. “I don’t know what you’re getting at, mate, but I didn’t even touch her long enough to hurt her.”
“You”—John pointed his finger in Jacob’s face—“you need to stay away from her.”
Recognition dawned on Jacob’s face. “You’re John Taylor, the Five Hit Wonder.”
John’s face remained angry. “Yes, and it appears you know exactly what I can do, so step back.”
Matthew Brockhurst joined the fray. “What exactly are you doing with my sister?”
John and Jacob turned to look at the smaller man. “Who?”
His finger waved between the two of them. “Both of you. How do you know my sister and what gives you the idea that either of you can even touch the sister of a baron?”
“Sister of a baron? Louisa Hurst?”
“What are you talking about? This is Louisa Brock.”
John and Jacob spoke at the same time, both looking at each other when they said Louisa’s name.
Baron Brockhurst frowned. “No, that is Miss Anna-Louise Brockhurst. My sister. Who I have been searching for the past six years.”
“What?” John looked at her, still in his embrace. “What is he talking about?”
She begged him with her eyes to let it go, let her go.
“Six years?” Jacob said. “We’ve been searching for five months, after she disappeared from home without a trace.”
“Home? What home?”
“Disappeared?” John was still looking at her. “What is going on, Louisa?”
“Her name is Anna-Louise, Miss Brockhurst to you,” Baron Brockhurst said hotly. “And where were you living all these years?”
John now pointed at the baron. “I suggest you stop talking, milord, and let her speak.” He turned back to her. “Tell me what’s going on, kitten.”
“Kitten?” Brockhurst demanded. “Who is this man to you, Anna-Louise?”
“John,” Louisa whispered, “I need to get out of here.”
“Right.” He held her to him with one arm, using the other to make a path through the pub crowd, all watching the farce unfold. He led her back toward the kitchen, where it would be quieter.
“Wait, where are you going?” Matthew called out.
“Come back here!” Jacob shouted. “Let’s go,” he said to his friends. All four men followed in John’s wake.
“Victoria, this will all be sorted soon,” Matthew assured his wife. “Take my family to our room,” he ordered Rose without missing a step.
In the kitchen, John was trying to get Louisa to tell him what was happening. “Kitten, who are these men? What do they want with you?”
Everyone was talking at once.
“Where you have been, Anna-Louise?”
“What were you thinking, disappearing like that?”
“Do you have any idea what we’ve been going through?”
“What is going on? Just talk to me.”
“Where have you been living? How did you end up working at an inn?”
“She’s the proprietress, not working here.”
“You own the inn? When the hell did that happen?”
“Have you been well?
“I had almost given up hope.”
“Enough!” John roared. Louisa had her hands over her ears. He glared at the other men in the room. “I can fight all of you at once, have no doubt about that. I am in charge here and I say you all stay quiet.” His glare transferred to the kitchen workers and Maisie. “Give us the room.”
When it was just the six of them, he turned his attention to Louisa, rubbing her arms reassuringly. “Kitten—”
“Wh—” The baron tried to interrupt but John’s glare cut him off.
He tried again. “Kitten, we’re all a little confused and frustrated here. An explanation would be helpful.”
Louisa looked at him imploringly, shaking her head.
“Please,” he said.
She looked at all the men in the room, all watching her with varying degrees of emotion on their faces. Jacob had his arms crossed, Stephen was leaning against a counter, Nathan was studying his cane, and Matthew had his hands on his hips; it was clear they were all waiting for answers.
Louisa brought her eyes back to John. “John, I really—I’m sorry, I really am.”
Her voice was a whisper. “My name is Anna-Louise Brockhurst. I am who he says I am. I am his sister.”
“You heard her,” Brockhurst said.
“I told you to be quiet,” John snapped.
“Who are you to speak to me like this?”
“He’s my husband!”
Her declaration rang in the kitchen. She glared at her brother. “He’s my husband,” she repeated.
“That was fast,” Jacob muttered, shifting on his feet.
“What are you implying?” John growled. Jacob raised his hands in apology. John focused on Louisa again. “What is your brother talking about?”
She took a deep breath. “I left Willowcrest, one of his estates, six years ago.”
“I’ve been searching for you ever since, Anna-Louise.” When John moved to rebuke him again, Brockhurst snapped, “I am allowed to speak to my sister.”
“It’s fine, John,” Louisa said. John nodded reluctantly.
“Thank you,” he said. He looked at her, his eyes bright. “I haven’t stopped, not since finding you gone.”
“Is this a habit of yours, Louisa?” Jacob asked angrily.
“It is my turn to speak,” Brockhurst said hotly. He returned his attention to his sister. “Obviously there were some distractions. Victoria, my wife, we’ve been married for four years. Our daughters, Hannah and Maria, they would love to get to know their aunt. Your portrait, the one with you and me and the dog, still hangs in the entry of Riverwood. I’ve never given up hope of finding you. To think it is a winter storm that finally reunites us.”
“Is it my turn now?” Jacob asked with sarcasm in his voice. When Louisa nodded, he continued, more calmly, addressing John and Brockhurst. “I don’t know anything about her before eighteen months ago, but I met her as Louisa Hurst. She was a governess and a friend of our wives. Sixteen months ago she moved into the estate Ridgestone with her friends to start a private school. She disappeared this last June just as Sara was getting married. No note, no clues, nothing; she just disappeared. Our wives, being the good friends they are who care about her, have since sent us all over in search of her. Home for a week, search for a week or two, depending on the distance. We were on our way to Bath to see what we could uncover when the storm diverted us. Fortunately for our search.”
“Louisa?” John asked softly. She stared at his chest, unable to look up until he cupped her face and tilted her head up to look her in the eye. His were a mixture of confusion and compassion. “Is all this true?”
She nodded, not speaking.
He swallowed, nodding slowly. He thought for several moments, swallowed again. “Do you need some time?”
She nodded. “Please,” she whispered.
He took a deep breath and turned to their audience. “I suggest we take a break and go to our respective rooms. We will discuss this more in the morning.”
Brockhurst spoke up. “No, I want—”
“This isn’t about you, milord,” John said firmly. “Can’t you see how overwhelmed she is? This is my inn, my wife. This will keep until the morning.” When none of them moved, he added, “Tell Packard behind the bar that your drinks are on me this evening. Go.”
He didn’t wait for them to leave before escorting her back to the office and into his room. He closed the door, releasing her arm. She immediately moved to the wardrobe and began taking her things out.
John rubbed his head before putting his hands on his hips. “I am your husband?”
“I couldn’t think of anything else to get them to listen to you.”
“So you lied?”
“It worked, didn’t it?” There was a growing pile of clothes on the bed. “I need to go to the cottage. The rest of my belongings are there.”
“Why do you need your belongings? Where are you going?”
“I have to leave, John. I know it’s busy and I’m sorry to leave you in a lurch, but I have to go.”
“Wait, go? You’re leaving again? Was that man right—this is a habit for you? Just like lying, apparently.”
She shot him a glare. “Don’t you dare judge me. You know nothing about it.”
“So tell me. Don’t run away.”
“I’m not running away.”
“Sure looks like it to me.”
Another glare. She gathered her things. “I’m going to the cottage, get out of my way.”
He shook his head. “No. I’m not letting you do this.” He took what he could from her arms and threw it back on the bed.
“Don’t try to stop me, John.” She gathered her things off the bed. He took them from her again and threw them back down.
“Those men out there have been searching for you, Louisa, your brother for six years. Have the strength to face them and give them an explanation.”
“I can’t, I truly can’t.”
“Yes, you can.” He stepped close to her and held her arms. “I will be here to help you. You won’t be alone.”
Louisa stared at him for a long time. He didn’t understand. No one did. She could not explain to anyone about what happened with Lord Darleigh, not without risking prosecution. The only thing that had kept her alive and free these last years was her ingenuity with her deceptions. It had all been working so well until today, but who could have predicted her brother and her friends’ husbands would all show up at the Beefy Buzzard? And on the same day.
But looking at John standing in front of the door, blocking her way, keeping her from her freedom, she knew that her deceptions weren’t over. The idea of ending them was tempting, but her sense of self-preservation was too strong. She had to lie again, no matter how much she didn’t want to, no matter how hard it would be this time. She couldn’t deny that she had come to care for him, but it made little difference to her decision. She had come to care for her friends and that hadn’t stopped her either. It hadn’t been easy to leave Willowcrest or Ridgestone, but she had been strong enough to do what was necessary then and she was strong enough now. Her affection for others did not outweigh her need to stay alive and free.
That was one thing John had gotten right: She could do this. It wouldn’t be hard; he seemed to genuinely want to help her. And all men needed was the hint of a vulnerable woman for their protective instincts to rise up. He would be so focused on protecting her that he would not consider any other scenario.
She slipped into the new deceit. “You will be here to help me?” she asked, making her voice quiet with a hint of pleading.
John nodded. “You are not alone, kitten. Never again will you be alone.”
She took a deep breath. “What happens now?”
He glanced at the door. “I need to check on Packard. The pub is full. But you can stay here and relax. Lie down, read, think, do whatever you want. Just relax.”
“I don’t want to be alone, John.”
He kissed her forehead. “I will come back when I can. You’re not alone. I’m not going anywhere. We will sort this all out tomorrow.”
She nodded. “All right. Tomorrow.”
John smiled at her, kissing her lips softly. “I will be back. I promise.”
Louisa watched him leave the room, closing the door behind him. She would have to wait a while longer, wait until there was little risk of being followed. Then she would make her move.