John woke from a fitful sleep, still fully clothed, to find himself alone in the bed. He had fallen asleep before Louisa had. He sat up, straining to hear any sounds, but the inn was silent. She could have gone to the privy, but he didn’t really believe that. He lit a candle, the flame revealing that even the indentation on her side of the bed had disappeared.
How long had she been gone? Too long, by the look of things. Could she have simply wanted to return to the cottage? He knew she liked to be alone after a crisis and this evening definitely qualified as such. Needing to assure himself of her whereabouts, he left his room and headed for the back door leading to the cottage.
The storm had stopped, the sky now crystal clear with a full moon shining down, illuminating the fallen snow with a haunting quality. Small footprints led from the inn toward the cottage, confirming his suspicions. It had been after the snow stopped, as the tracks were not filled in at all. His unease prodded him toward the cottage.
Halfway there another trail of footprints veered off, this time heading away from the small building toward the stable, footprints exactly the same as the ones he was currently following. Louisa had gone to the cottage after all, but then left. His unease graduated into a fully ominous feeling. John followed the second trail, stopping when the footprints passed the stable and headed out onto the public road.
She had left. Without a word, in the middle of the night with the weather as dismal as it was. John cursed himself for ever falling asleep when she had clearly been in a state of nerves. Knowing now what he did of her, thanks to all the revelations of the evening, he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised, but it still hurt.
There was only one thing to do. He couldn’t very well leave the woman he loved out in the cold, facing who knew what kind of danger. Striding into the stable, he roused a groom to hitch a horse to the cart. When the young man protested about the weather, the vicious snarl John gave him sent him fleeing to the task.
John stalked back to the inn. Once there, he stripped his bed of the heavy blankets, wrapping them up in a ball under his arm. Shrugging into a long coat and jamming a wool cap onto his head, he returned to the kitchen, stuffing bread, cheese and apples into a small leather satchel. Leaving the items for a moment, he went into the cellar and retrieved a bottle of brandy. Adding it to the satchel, he returned to the stable to find the cart waiting, the groom holding the horse’s head.
He put everything into the cart and located several lamps, lighting one to hang off the cart bench and adding the rest to the pile from the bed. He did not know how long it would take to find her and he did not want to have to return due to lack of supplies. He judged there were still several hours before sunrise and he wanted to have as much access to light as he possibly could in the meantime.
Swinging up on the cart, he gave a curt nod to the groom and flicked the reins. The horse protested at first, but another flick had the animal moving out into the moonlight. John guided the cart, ensuring Louisa’s tracks stayed. As long as she had stayed on the road, he would be fine; he didn’t know what he would do if she ventured off into the hills and woods.
Leaving the town behind, the cold beginning to seep through his coat, he fought to keep his worries at bay. It would help no one to imagine her hurt somewhere he couldn’t find her, freezing to death. Or beset upon those who would do harm to a woman. The moon was his friend tonight, keeping the lane and her footprints visible.
Reaching into the satchel, he pulled out the bottle of brandy and uncorked it with his teeth to take a swig, a part of him noticing he had grabbed one of the better bottles. Under normal circumstances he would take the time to savor it; tonight he was glad for the warmth it brought. He wrapped his coat around him more closely to help fend off the chill.
He thought of all that had been revealed in the evening, of how little he actually knew her. Those gentlemen had been looking for her for nearly six months, her brother for over six years. How had she managed to stay hidden for so long? What happened to her to even send her on the run in the first place?
And she hadn’t been married. He didn’t know what hurt more: her disappearance or her distrust. After all this time together, working so closely—sharing his bed, damnit—she still didn’t trust him. It was so obvious now and a part of him didn’t know why he was bothering to find her. Why would he be so intent on helping the woman when she wanted nothing to do with him, thought so little of him that she didn’t even think he was worthy of her trust? He didn’t even know for certain what he would do when he caught up to her.
In the lonely silence, following her trail, John gave in to his impulse, born out of fear, hurt and anger. “Jesus fucking Christ!” he yelled.
It felt good to shatter the night with that. A small surge of satisfaction went through his blood, but it was short lived. , he had been driving for near an hour and still no sign of Louisa beyond her footprints. She must have left hours ago in order to make it this far.
John squinted. There was a small figure stumbling up on the road ahead. He slowed the cart to a plod, relief washing over him when the figure glanced back and the light reflected in Louisa’s eyes. They widened when she saw him, but she pressed her lips together and lifted her chin, turning her face to continue walking. Her cloth portmanteau was slung over her shoulder.
He pulled up beside her, unable to speak at the relief of knowing she was unharmed.
“What are you doing here?” she snapped.
He cleared his throat. “I would think that is obvious.”
“I didn’t ask for you to come after me.”
“That was pretty obvious as well, considering you left without saying anything. Did you even think of letting me know what was going on in that head of yours?”
“That would have defeated the purpose of leaving.”
“Of sneaking off. Running away.” She didn’t respond to that. “Get in the cart, Louisa.”
She gave a snort. “No.”
“Your feet must be cold.”
“That’s not the point.”
His frustration level was rising. “It never is with you, is it? You can’t ever say or take anything at face value. It all has to be so fucking complicated with you. Heaven forbid you should just get in the damn cart and warm up your feet, not when your goddamned pride is at stake.”
“There’s your prize-ring language coming through again.”
“Aye, the bloke from the trenches, ’e must be reachin’ above ’imself, thinkin’ the lass from Mayfair might stoop to talk to ’im.”
“Don’t do that, don’t talk down about yourself.”
“It’s just what you’re thinking, isn’t it?”
“I have never thought that of you.”
“You don’t have to think it, but it’s the way you treat me. Good for nothing but a warm bed and a roof over your head. No wonder you didn’t want to marry me. You can’t even tell me who you are, why should you ever consider spending your life with me?”
“Why would you consider spending your life with me if you don’t know who I am?”
“Because I fucking well love you.”
She stopped in her tracks, her fingers flexing around the strap of her portmanteau. “You don’t sound too happy about that.” Her voice was quiet, grudging.
He reined to a halt. “Well, I’m not too happy about much right now.” He took a deep breath. “And I certainly didn’t intend telling you like that.”
“It doesn’t change anything.”
He looped the reins on the cart and jumped down. “I didn’t tell you for it to change things, I told you because it’s the truth.” Now that they were stopped and he was facing her, John could see her cold skin and the shivers that were threatening to rack her body.
She dropped her portmanteau on the ground and crossed her arms, putting her hands under her armpits. “And just what do you think you’re going to do with this love?”
“Love you, damnit. That’s what people do with love.”
“Bollocks!” A flicker of shock flashed over her face. A small, breathy laugh escaped her and she quirked a smile. “Bollocks.” Her smile grew and her voice rose. “Bloody hell. Damnit.” She looked at him, her eyes bright, shaking her hands in front of her. “More. Give me more.”
He crossed his arms. “Crikey.”
“Crikey?” She raised her brows and he nodded. “Crikey!”
“Jesus Christ! Fucking Jesus bloody Christ’s bollocks, damnit. Sod it.”
Her eyes were bright, her smile wide, breathing heavy from her shouting. He lifted his brows. “Are you finished?”
“Crikey,” she said quietly.
“Feel better?” When she didn’t say anything, he moved to brush some hair out of her face, but thought better of it and dropped his hand. “Yea gods, Louisa. Your lips are blue. Can you just get into the cart?”
She shook her head. “You’ll just take me back to the inn.”
“Jesus, I’ll take you wherever you want. I just want to help you.”
“I don’t need your help.”
“As if I didn’t know that already.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Yes, you’re this sentient, logical human being. Why don’t you put some of that sentience and logic into action and get yourself into the damn cart? You won’t be able to take care of yourself when your feet fall off from frostbite.”
Louisa clamped her mouth shut and pressed her lips together. She glared at him, but John just shrugged, not breaking eye contact. Long moments passed in which she could feel the cold burrowing deeper and deeper, her boots long since wet and her stockings soaked. She couldn’t fight the shivering anymore and it began to overtake her body.
His face and voice turned pleading. “Please, Louisa, give me this. Allow me this.”
There. That was what she was waiting for. She could make the decision and not lose face. She turned and tried to climb into the cart, but her feet and hands were too numb. Familiar large hands circled her waist and John lifted her with ease and she settled on the bench, thankful to have her feet out of the snow.
He tossed her portmanteau on the bed of the cart and climbed up beside her. Reaching around, he brought forward a blanket and wrapped it around her, tucking it close. He settled another blanket around her legs. “Comfortable?” he asked quietly.
From underneath the bench he pulled out a bottle. “Brandy,” he said, offering it to her. “It will help warm you.”
She took a swig, her frozen lips wrapping around the bottle, and coughed at the fire that blazed down her throat. “Crikey,” she croaked.
He didn’t chuckle or smile. “Are you hungry? I have bread, cheese, apples.”
She shook her head and took another drink. “This brandy is warming me up.”
“Don’t go too fast with that,” he cautioned. “Especially if you’re not eating.” He picked up the reins. “Where do you want me to take you?”
Louisa held the bottle in her lap, staring at it. “I don’t know.” Her voice was a whisper.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“I don’t know where I want to go,” she said more loudly.
He heaved a sigh. “Where were you going on foot?”
“I don’t know, I was just walking.”
“Just walking? At this time of night and in ankle-deep snow?”
She snapped at him. “Do you think I want to be like this? Do you think I enjoy not knowing what to do? This is how I’ve lived for the last six years, John, constantly looking over my shoulder and holding my breath that someone might recognize me and I would have to run again.”
“But what are you running from?” he demanded. “What is so serious that you can’t face it? You’ve obviously had people who cared for you, so why leave? Just tell me. It can’t be that bad.”
“I murdered a man!”
Her shouted confession rang through the cold air. Good Lord, that was the first time she had said it out loud and she didn’t know how to feel. Relieved? Scared? She didn’t know how to define whatever was rushing through her veins right now.
John was staring at the reins in his hands. He wasn’t speaking, which was odd for him. He always spoke. Made her speak too. Which is why she was now shouting her secrets out into the open air and he was staring at the reins in silence.
“John?” Her voice was tentative.
He inhaled deeply through his nose and let it out, his large body deflating as he exhaled. He took the brandy from her and took a long pull. “I don’t think I heard that correctly. Could you repeat it, please?”
“I murdered a man.” Her repetition was less vehement than before.
Another deep inhalation and exhalation, another swig of brandy. “I assume there is an explanation. You don’t strike me as the kind of person to kill in cold blood.”
She took the brandy back. “I need more of this if I’m going to tell you.” Her grimace wasn’t as pronounced this time. She must be getting used to the spirits. “It’s a long story.”
“Are you expecting a witty quip? Because I’m not in the mood for it right now. I’m bloody cold and the woman I love just told me she killed a man.”
“Right. It was six years ago.”
When she stopped speaking, he bowed his head. “That part was simple to deduce. Just tell me.”
Louisa took a deep breath. “His name was Lord Blaine Darleigh. A friend of my brother’s from Oxford. Last night Matthew was apologizing for the way he had been. Darleigh was part of that set. The drinking, the gambling, I assume the whoring as well. I was seventeen, so he was still my guardian, but Matthew was more drunk than sober in those years. Once, when he was still suffering from his previous night’s revelries, I talked him into letting me live at Willowcrest, a small estate that was part of my mother’s dowry. I just wanted to get away from him and his drunkenness.
“What I didn’t count on was Matthew using the estate as a gambling stake the week after I moved. And he lost it. To Darleigh. He showed up the next day, without warning, with the deed, stating that the bet was for the estate and all of its contents. Contents he . . . took to . . . include . . . me.”
John drew himself up, but didn’t speak.
She felt the familiar cloak of detachment fall over her shoulders. She had been wearing it for so many years to avoid emotional entanglements and it would serve her well as she told this story. She heard the impassiveness in her voice. “I fought him. Truly fought him. I hadn’t ever physically fought anyone in my life before then; I didn’t even know I had it in me. But I did fight. We were in the drawing room, later the library, when I tried to run away. I thought there might be something in there I could use as a weapon.
“It turned out the only weapon I needed was myself. We were by the hearth when I pushed him away again. He stumbled, tripped over my embroidery basket, I think, and hit his head against the mantle. The blood just . . . gushed out of his head. I stared at it, at the puddle that was growing on the floor, and couldn’t think. I just looked at it. It was so red—not as bright as one would think, but darker, almost like—I can’t even think of what to compare it to. A dress? I’ve never seen a sunset that color before. It just was . . . red.
“It was thinking about how difficult it would be to clean up that spurred me into action. I knew if I was found with a dead body in my library, the body of a peer, I would be charged. My brother wouldn’t be able to help me. My servants wouldn’t be in a position to help me. There was no one. No one. The only thing I could think of to do was to leave. Run. Become someone new. Before yesterday, I hadn’t even heard my full name in six years. Anna-Louise Brockhurst.
“Cumberland was the first place I went. I was a companion, but that only lasted a couple of months. Then I was a governess. I kept bouncing from family to family, always choosing families that were merchants looking to break into the nobility somehow, but people who wouldn’t know me. But two years ago, I was in a town where I met three other governesses. We became friends and I convinced them to pool our resources to create our own private school.”
She smiled sadly. “Complete independence. I wouldn’t be subjected to the whims of employers, wouldn’t have to defend myself against any man, complete financial and personal independence. That is where Jacob Knightly and Stephen Montgomery come in. Claire and Bonnie married them, and Sara was marrying the vicar, Charles Pomeroy; I don’t know the connection to the man with the cane. But with each marriage, the Governess Club fell more and more apart. As much as it isn’t for me, their marriages are important to them and I couldn’t ask them to sacrifice that for me. And there would come a point when they wouldn’t have time for the club at all.
“So I left. Again. And that’s how I ended up at the Beefy Buzzard. And now here we are.”
Silence settled around them, her story told. The forgotten cold made itself known again and Louisa sipped more of the brandy, her eyes not leaving John. He was hunched over, rubbing his head, an action that showed his distress.
It was odd, speaking her story out loud. She still couldn’t define how she felt. But something else was creeping up on her and it felt suspiciously like—worry. Worry about what John was thinking, what he was feeling about her revelation, how he was not speaking. So unlike him.
She swallowed. Had hearing the truth about her killed his love for her? She didn’t want to admit how much that thought scared her, how much she wanted him to continue to love her.
Louisa reached out tentatively, her fingers brushing his sleeve before pulling back. “John?”
“You were never married?”
She shook her head. “No. It was easier for me to travel alone if I posed as a widow.”
He took the brandy from her and took a long swallow. “We need to get moving,” he finally said. “The horse must be cold.” He flicked the reins and the cart jolted into motion, turning back in the direction they had come.
“We’re going back ho—to the Beefy Buzzard?” she asked.
He nodded. “You said you didn’t like who you were, how you keep running. I figure the only way to change that is to stop running.”
Panic bubbled up in her and she struggled to tamp it down. “But, Darleigh—Matthew—I will be arrested if I’m found.”
“That is a possibility,” he conceded. “But it was self-defense. The courts should recognize that.”
“As for being a fugitive, well, we’ll find you a good lawyer. Your brother must know someone.”
John finally looked at her and took her hand. “I know you can look after yourself. I know you are strong enough to do many things without me. But you don’t have to anymore. You don’t have to be alone; you can make the choice to allow me to do this with you. For whatever you need, I will be here. That is what I am going to do with my love for you. Love you with it.”
He gave her a small smile and squeezed her hand. “So yes, we’re going home.”