John sipped his tea from the large pewter mug, his dirty breakfast plate beside him on the bar. It was early yet, the closed sign still hanging in the window. He had debated opening as usual, but decided against it. The staff would tend to their current customers, but all others would be turned away. He would not give Louisa any means of distraction, not today.
His gaze roved over the other occupants in the room. Rose was doing a fine job of seeing to Louisa’s brother and family and the three gentlemen who had come in search of her. The two blond-haired children sat with their parents, the elder daughter chattering away and the younger one continually staring at him. Her brother kept casting glances in his direction, ones that he could not quite interpret but still recognized the challenge in them; John didn’t bother returning any of them. One of the three gentlemen—the Scottish one—was studiously reading a week-old newspaper, his face hidden. The other two were having a murmured conversation as they ate.
He had not slept again once they had returned to the inn. John had spent the remaining hours of the night with Louisa tucked into his side, her shivering finally abating as her body warmed. She had fallen into an exhausted sleep, one she had yet to wake from, and he was loath to disturb her. It had been a trying few days for her—a trying six years for her.
So he had lain there, feeling the warmth of the blankets and her body. He couldn’t stop wondering how this would all develop. He didn’t want to contemplate her locked in a place like Newgate or whatever passed as the local constable’s cell, but the reality kept threatening to move beyond the periphery, leaving him chilled.
Movement captured his attention from his tea. Matthew Brockhurst was standing by his table, his wife holding on to his arm. The man leaned down and said something that put a resigned look on her face and caused her hand to drop. She pasted a smile on and turned her attention to her daughters, encouraging them in their meal.
Baron Brockhurst—yea gods, John thought, how stupid am I to ignore the signs she is nobility?—straightened his coat, his eyes fastened on John as he tried to affect a casual demeanor. The conversation at the other table paused and the newspaper lowered enough to be seen over. The air in the room condensed as the baron moved closer to John, the tension hanging palpably. All eyes were on them.
The man came to a stop a few feet away, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Good morning, Taylor,” he greeted in his cultured voice.
John straightened, keeping his hands on the bar, bobbing his head in what passed as a bow. “Milord.”
Brockhurst gave him a small smile. “Shall we dispense with the formalities? We are brothers by marriage, after all. It would be awkward for you to ‘milord’ me over Christmas dinner.”
“If you insist.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the rest of the room. “You know, I saw you fight a few years ago. In St. Albans.”
John searched his brain for a moment. “Against Black-Eyed Stan? If I recall, I felled him in one round.”
“Yes. Sadly, I bet against you.”
John pressed his lips together. “I understand your betting history is not the most successful.”
His brows knit together in confusion. “I’ve had my losses, as has every gentleman.”
John chose not to respond to that, taking another sip of tea.
Brockhurst cleared his throat and glanced around John. “Is Anna-Louise still sleeping?”
“Does she—uh—does she normally sleep this late?”
Brockhurst gestured to the kitchen door. “Can you go wake her? I would like to speak with her.”
John drank more tea, setting his cutlery on his dirty plate. “I will rephrase. I can go wake her, I do have that ability, but I will not.”
Brockhurst started to scowl. “I don’t quite follow.”
John looked him clear in the eye. “She had a trying day yesterday, followed by a similar night. She needs her rest and I intend for her to get it.”
“She is my sister.”
“I am aware of that. She also announced to you yesterday that she is my wife.”
“I can go back and do it myself.”
“I see a few issues with that. First, you don’t know where she is sleeping and I don’t like the idea of you wandering about my inn disturbing my other guests. Second, you would disrupt my staff at work, another thing I would not appreciate. Third, you would have to get through me first and I don’t actually see you being successful at that. One round, remember?”
Brockhurst’s scowl deepened. “Did you just threaten a peer of the realm?”
John shook his head. “I stated my intention of protecting those who are close to me.”
The scrape of a chair ripped through the tension. Both men looked back at one of three gentlemen rising and making his way over. Yea gods, another one to come lay claim on Louisa?
The newcomer stuck out his hand to Brockhurst. “Don’t think we’ve met. Jacob Knightly.”
Brockhurst eyed the hand with disdain. “Mr. Knightly?” He turned his head away.
A knowing grin crossed Knightly’s face and he glanced at John as if to say Watch this. “Yes. Mr. Jacob Knightly. Formerly the Earl of Rimmel, before my sister-in-law, the Marchioness of Maberly, experienced the joyful event of providing my brother, the Marquess of Maberly—yes, the eldest son of the Duke of—with his heir, thus reducing me to the spare’s spare, sans title.”
Brockhurst’s face flushed during that little speech, something that brought John a small degree of satisfaction. To his credit, he recovered well and offered his hand. “Matthew Brockhurst, Baron of. Anna-Louise is my sister.”
“Yes, that came up last night.” Jacob continued to smile. “It seems to me that whatever you want with our Louisa, you have to go through this man. Even if I were on your side, I don’t think you would be on the winning side of that bet. Too bad I’m on his. They are too.” He gestured to his friends, the blond one fingering his wolf’s-head cane and the Scottish one with his newspaper folded in front of him.
“Jesus, I just want to talk to my sister,” the man muttered. “It’s been six years. I had all but given her up for dead and now I find her here.”
John looked at him, compassion softening his approach. “I’m not saying no, I’m just saying be patient. Let her sleep.”
“For how long?”
He shrugged. “As long as she needs. You have a wife, you know how it works.”
A commiserating smile tugged at his lips. “Indeed. When she wakes, keep her here.” He nodded and turned on his heel to return to his family. He spoke with them quietly and gathered them up to return to their room.
John shared a look with Knightly. “Can I get you anything?”
Knightly cocked an eyebrow. “Is it too early for Scotch?”
“Not if you don’t want it to be.”
A full-fledged grin broke out on his face. “Oh, we are going to get along well. Just make sure it’s the good stuff.”
“When you only deserve pig swill?” John returned his grin. “I’ll see what I can find.”
Louisa stepped into the kitchen to see Timothy and Alan putting away dishes Maisie was washing. “Why aren’t you working?” she asked, her brow knitted. “I thought you were making steak-and-kidney pies today?”
Maisie looked up. “Mr. Taylor closed the pub today. Not much to do.”
“What? He closed the pub? Why would he do that?”
Maisie shrugged. “He just said we only had to see to the ones already here.”
Louisa straightened, grateful to have something to focus on instead of her impending crisis. “Where is he?”
“Out in the pub.”
She spun on her heel and marched out, all business. He should not have made such a decision without consulting her. Did he understand how much revenue they would lose? The boxing mill was still on and people needed to eat. And drink. She pulled open the door to the pub and stepped into the room, freezing immediately.
John was sitting at a table with Jacob, Stephen and Nathan, glasses in front of them and a half-empty bottle of Scotch. They were laughing at something while her brother sat across the room, watching them with his own glass of Scotch, a short, portly man at his table.
Good Lord, was that the magistrate with him? The constable? For the first time, Louisa regretted not venturing out into the town more, not learning who lived here. She had left that to John. And now here he was, getting thoroughly foxed from the looks of things, with the magistrate waiting to arrest her. Was this how things were going to happen, her getting arrested while John drank himself under the table?
Some love he showed.
He spied her standing at the door. “Louisa!” he bellowed. All the men stood quickly. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
She motioned him over, grateful he complied without making a bigger scene. When he was near, she crossed her arms. “What do you think you are doing?” she said. “You closed the pub without speaking to me about it.”
“You were sleeping. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“But why close it in the first place? This boxing mill is a chance for us to make a larger profit than we have in the past.”
He leaned in, concern on his face. “I thought we would need privacy to deal with the situation of your brother and friends.”
She blinked. “Oh.” It was actually sweet of him, when she thought about it. “You still should have consulted me. And this wouldn’t have been an issue if we had a private dining room.”
John shook his head at her, a small smile tugging at his lips. “Can’t you ever just say ‘thank you’?”
She huffed. “Thank you.” She eyed the portly man with her brother. “Who is that?” she whispered. “Is he the magistrate?”
He followed her gaze. “I don’t know. Never seen him before.”
She glared at him again. “And you thought drinking was the best way to handle this situation?”
He shrugged, the smile still on his face. “Didn’t seem it would hurt.”
Her brother walking toward them caught her attention. His steps were tentative, his gaze unwavering. “John,” she whispered, her eyes wide.
He grasped her hand. “Just breathe, kitten. His sister has returned from the dead. Give him a chance.”
She clutched his hand, her grip tight as she watched Baron Brockhurst approach. “Anna-Louise,” he said. “How—you are well?”
She pressed her lips together and lifted her chin, her fingers digging into John’s hand. “I go by Louisa now and yes, I am well.”
“Right. Louisa. You met Victoria last night, and my girls.”
“They seemed nice.”
“They are looking forward to getting to know their aunt. They are already planning what room will be yours.” He smiled the smile of a proud, indulgent father. “Victoria’s family lives in Cornwall and she has always encouraged me to continue searching for you. Not that I was giving up,” he added quickly. “But she kept my spirits up.”
“She sounds lovely.” Louisa paused for a moment. “Wait, what? Room? What are you talking about?” She looked at John, who looked just as confused as she did.
Brockhurst took a deep breath. “An—Louisa, this is Mr. Coates, a solicitor. Not mine, but one from here that I found on short notice.”
“Is this about Darleigh?” she asked. “Do I need a solicitor already?”
Her brother looked confused. “Darleigh? What does he have to do with this?”
“Isn’t that why you’ve been looking for me? I have to admit, I am surprised the authorities haven’t found me after all these years.”
“What are you talking about?”
Louisa took a deep breath and looked at John for encouragement. He nodded and squeezed her hand. “I am the one who killed Blaine Darleigh,” she told Brockhurst.
“Anna-Louise,” he said slowly, “Darleigh is not dead.”
“What?” Surely she misheard him. She felt the blood drain from her face. John guided her over to where he had been sitting. Her friends, who continued to remain silent, pulled up more chairs to accommodate the entire group. John took the chair on one side of her, her brother on the other.
“Anna-Louise, I need to explain what happened.”
“She said to call her Louisa,” John said, shooting him a quick glare.
Brockhurst glanced at his table companions. “Perhaps we should discuss this in private. Is there another room we can use?”
“Louisa, do you want to speak in private?” John asked her when she didn’t respond. She met his eyes briefly and shook her head. He addressed the baron. “I believe the other gentlemen will understand the need for discretion and silence in this matter.”
Jacob nodded. “Our lips are sealed.” Stephen murmured his agreement and Nathan looked at her brother, his blue eyes ice cold.
“Louisa,” Brockhurst tried again, “Darleigh isn’t dead. I went to Willowcrest two days after I lost it to him. I know,” he said, forestalling whatever she might have said, “I shouldn’t have staked it in the first place, but you have to understand. I was young, drunk more often than not. I was wholly unprepared for our father’s death and the responsibilities of the title. God, I was twenty years old.”
She found her voice again and it was cold, even to her ears. “I was seventeen when Darleigh tried to rape me, Matthew, three years your junior. He said he had won my home from you, and all its contents. I was one of the contents, in his opinion.”
He had the grace to flush and nodded. “That is what I deduced when I arrived the day after he had. The servants had found him in the library and patched him up as best they could. They hadn’t contacted any doctor or authority, so it was contained within the estate. But he didn’t die. When he woke up, though, he wasn’t the same. I took him back to his estate and told everyone he took a fall from his horse and hit his head. He has a round-the-clock nurse now, can hardly do anything for himself. Can barely talk.”
He offered her a tentative smile and put his hand on hers. “So you’re safe. I took care of it and Darleigh can’t ever say different. I behaved like your brother for the first time in my life when you needed it the most but weren’t around to see it.”
Silence settled in the pub. Louisa could feel all of their eyes on her, but all she could do was stare at the glass in front of her. She hadn’t killed Darleigh. It was a relief, on some level, but all those years spent running from something that didn’t actually happen. What did that make her? She hadn’t even had the courage to stay and face the consequences. And she hadn’t ever since. Every time something happened to threaten her, she ran.
Until last night. Until John, her big galoot, had taken her hand and brought her back to the inn. He didn’t force her, didn’t impose himself on her, but saw her for who she really was and stood beside her anyway. He loved her and she loved him in return.
Good Lord, why was she thinking of this now? Louisa pushed the thought away and looked at her brother. He looked so earnest, so sincere. But she couldn’t forget so easily. “You—” She stopped and composed herself. “Darleigh is not dead?”
Matthew shook his head. “No.”
“But you, you have never been there for me, Matthew. You are the reason Darleigh could attack me in the first place and why I ran. It all comes back to you.”
He nodded and bowed his head for a moment. “I know. I know that and acknowledge it. All I can do is say that I am different and will be a better brother from now on. I spent six years looking for you, An—Louisa, that must count for something.”
She glanced around the circle. John was rubbing his head, Jacob was studying his hands, Stephen and Nathan just looked awkward. But not as awkward as the solicitor hovering on the periphery, not quite part of the circle.
She frowned. “Why the need for a solicitor?”
Her brother sat up. “Ah. That. I want you to come home with me, Victoria and the girls. I am your family and I will care for you from now on.”
That was a surprise. Louisa shook her head. “No.” She saw John stop rubbing his head, his hand dropping to his lap. “No,” she repeated.
Matthew looked awkward. “You know I am your guardian until you are twenty-five years of age. That is still two years away.”
Why isn’t John saying anything? He was just sitting there, so she latched on to the first thing she could think of. “I told you yesterday that John and I were married.”
“Hence the solicitor.” Matthew gestured to the portly man.
Louisa stood up, moving away from the table to pace, her arms crossing and uncrossing as she did. “You are going to have it declared invalid because we didn’t have my guardian’s permission? That is archaic, even for you. You haven’t ever been much of a guardian and if you think I need one now, then you are sadly mistaken.” Her skin began to itch and she unconsciously rubbed her arms to lessen the sensation.
“There’s the Louisa I know,” Jacob muttered under his breath. He raised his hands up in defense against her glare and made the motions of locking his mouth shut.
“Not based on consent, but Taylor didn’t know your real name until last night. Anna-Louise Brockhurst.”
“I don’t understand.”
Mr. Coates cleared his throat. “If you married Mr. Taylor,” he nodded at John, his eyes wary, “but gave a false name, then the marriage is fraudulent.”
“You did not use your legal name, nor did you sign it, thus making it null and void, just as with any other legal contract. As that appears to be the case, Lord Brockhurst is still your legal guardian.”
Louisa stared at the small, portly man for so long the solicitor started to squirm in his shoes. “Uh, you do understand what I am saying, correct?” he ventured.
When her brow lowered and her eyes turned into a ferocious glare, her stance clearly preparing to attack the man, John stood up and took her arms. “Louisa,” he said quietly, repeating her name until she looked him in the eyes. “Perhaps it’s time to cut the line, tell them the truth.”
“But he just said that we’re not married,” she whispered angrily.
“We’re not.” John rubbed her arms before cupping her face, reiterating the truth with a disbelieving shake of his head. “Are you listening to yourself? You are getting upset over being told a fake marriage is in fact fake.”
She blinked at him. “Why aren’t you more upset at this?” she demanded. “Matthew is destroying what we have here.”
“What do we have, kitten? Tell me that.”
Louisa stared, her throat closing. He wasn’t truly serious, was he? Was this the same man who followed her last night and declared his love for her in the most objectionable manner? Had she truly been contemplating loving him back just moments ago?
He kept speaking, his eyes kind and gentle. “I have made my position with you clear. I am not going anywhere and not changing my mind at all. What we have is up to you. You are the one who has to decide.” He smiled at her, a touch of sadness in it. “I fucking well love you, Louisa. No matter what you do or where you go, I will be here, loving you. You just have to decide what you want.”
She couldn’t stop staring at him. Was he speaking a foreign language? She couldn’t quite comprehend what he was saying. “Wh-what?” she stammered.
“It’s your choice,” he repeated.
She glared at him, his words unsettling her. She shoved at his chest, not moving him an inch. “Aren’t you going to tell me to stay?” Isn’t that what men in love wanted, for the woman they loved to stay with them?
His thumb traced her cheekbone. “No. This is your decision. You have to want to stay if you are going to be happy here.”
“Excuse me.” Brockhurst’s voice interrupted them. “This tête-à-tête has gone on long enough. You need to stay away from my sister, Taylor.”
John’s hand dropped from her cheek and a chill immediately took its place on her skin. She looked at him, at the flare of anger in his eyes. He took a deep breath and stepped away from her. “Of course, milord. For now,” he added that part in a low voice, his gaze steady on the man.
Brockhurst skirted around John, his eyes wary. “Anna-Louise, think of it. A prizefighter, that’s all he is. You don’t truly want to be tied to that for the rest of your life, do you? Living in an inn? You deserve better. Come home with me to Riverwood. Come home to your family. There will be dresses and London seasons waiting for you. Come and let me give you the life you were raised to have, the life you deserve. The life he can’t give you.”
Louisa’s eyes narrowed at his insulting words toward John. She opened her mouth to rebuke her brother, but was interrupted.
“Hold on just a moment.” Their heads swiveled to see Jacob standing and approaching. “If you two get a chance to make your case to her, then we do as well. Our wives have been beside themselves this whole time and Montgomery even left his newborn daughter to continue this search.”
The five of them stared at Jacob. He looked back and shrugged. “It only seems fair.”
“Very well,” Brockhurst said. “What have you to add? What can you offer my sister that I can’t?”
“Well, uh,” Jacob said, looking back at his friends for help. “I don’t actually have anything. I didn’t think that far ahead.”
With a sigh, Stephen slapped the newspaper down on the table and stood. “Miss Hur—um, Brock—hurst—shall I just call you Louisa, for clarity’s sake?”
“Louisa, your friends are concerned for you. You disappeared without a word and they had visions of your demise for months.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Nathan joined the group, his cane tapping on the floor, and shook his head in disgust at his companions. “Both of you are hopeless.” He turned his attention to Louisa. “Miss Brockhurst, I don’t know you, you don’t know me. The only reason why I am here is because you are important to Sara, who is important to me. I have no personal stake in your return to Ridgestone besides assurances of your health and well-being.”
“And you think I am hopeless at this?” Jacob muttered.
Nathan shot him a glare before turning back to Louisa. “It occurs to me that you have the worst possible dilemma ahead of you—the choice between people who obviously care for you. It is like asking a well-loved child who their favorite parent is. Our ladies at Ridgestone have truly been beside themselves with worry; of that I have no doubt. Your brother has spent the last six years searching for you, castigating himself for his role in your disappearance. And Mr. Taylor here has done little to conceal his feelings toward you; a larger bulldog you could not find.
“When you make your choice, know that the other parties will be content so long as you are. Choosing one over the others does not eliminate them entirely. Well-sprung coaches and the postal system exist for a reason. Just know that you have eleven people who are proud to know you; you will never truly be alone again, for whatever comfort or distress that might bring you.”
Louisa was grateful for his words, oddly delivered as they may be. It struck her that he was right. She did have people that cared for her. She had spent the last few years so focused on looking for those who wished her harm that she had overlooked those who wished her well.
“What is this about her making a choice?” her brother said angrily. “I am her guardian. The choice is mine. Pack your things, Anna-Louise. I’m taking you out of this hole and back where you belong.”
“How about we let her decide?” John said, his voice tinged with anger.
He wasn’t alone. Louisa glared at her brother. “How dare you? You waltz in here, take one look at the place and deem it a hole? We have worked hard to improve it, to make it into the most successful inn on this road. It may not be Mayfair, but it is no less valuable to me or to John. And who do you think you are? You don’t see me for six years and you think you can commandeer my life?”
“I am your brother and your guardian,” he protested.
“That means very little to me at this moment in time,” she relied hotly. “The only family I have recently known are my friends at Ridgestone and—and John Taylor. He may be a retired prizefighter, Matthew, but he is an honorable man with more integrity and compassion than I have ever seen in you before.”
“You haven’t seen me in so long, Anna-Louise. I have changed from that man I used to be. You don’t know me anymore.”
“That’s my point, Matthew.” Louisa took a deep breath to calm herself and moderated her voice. “You don’t know me anymore either. I have changed from that young girl I was. I have seen and done things I never imagined I would have as a baron’s sister. I have been my own guardian for six years; I don’t need you or anyone to make decisions for me. John and my friends know that much about me and I ask that you respect me enough to allow me to do so.”
“Good Lord, that’s exactly what I am talking about!” Louisa threw up her hands in frustration before taking a deep breath to calm herself. She pressed her lips together and lifted her chin. “I am no longer Anna-Louise, Matthew. That girl died that day in the library. I have been Louisa for six years and I intend to be her for the rest of my life because she is not a weak entity, dependent upon those who would make her so. You can’t even acknowledge that.”
“Matthew?” A low, contralto voice came from the stairs. Victoria Brockhurst was standing at the bottom, watching the byplay. “We could hear you upstairs. The girls are worried.”
“Everything is fine,” Brockhurst assured his wife. “We are just discussing An—Louisa’s options.”
Victoria gave Louisa a tentative smile. “I do hope that you will choose to make us a part of your life. It would be lovely to have more people around the table at Christmas. I come from a large family and can find holidays at Riverwood more quiet than I would like.”
Louisa smiled back, surprised and grateful at the effort this stranger was making on her behalf. “Thank you. I will be sure to make myself known to you. After all, well-sprung coaches and the postal system exist for a reason, correct?”
There was muffled coughing at the table and more Scotch was poured. Victoria’s smile grew. “Indeed. Shall I bring the girls down?”
“In a few minutes, my love,” her husband said. “We are not quite done here yet.” With another smile at Louisa, the blond woman disappeared up the stairs.
When her brother looked like he was going to begin another guardian rant, Louisa spoke. “Matthew, please understand. This is my life, not yours. This choice is mine. That is the way you can be a good guardian to me.”
Matthew looked at her silently for several heartbeats. He took a deep breath and rubbed his chin, looking at John, who just shrugged. His gaze shifted back to Louisa. “This is what you truly want?”
“Yes. I need to decide my own life.”
The smile he gave her was sad. “Well-sprung coaches and the postal system, right? Just promise me you won’t disappear again. Come to me if you need help.”
Louisa gave him a smile she didn’t quite feel. “I will do my best, but I have relied on myself for so long, it may take some doing.”
His smile remained sad. “I understand. And I apologize for how my past actions have harmed you. Truth be told, it was losing you that made me cast off that immaturity and recklessness. It was hard, but once I met Victoria, she helped me achieve the stability you now see. If you will excuse me, I will go inform her of what has transpired. I shall see you later.” He gave her an awkward kiss on the cheek and left.
Well, that was one down. Louisa took a deep breath and glanced between John and the men at the table. Jacob stood and approached her and John, his eyes never leaving hers. When he stopped in front of her, he shoved his hands in his pockets, his lips pressed together and his brow furrowed.
He spoke. “Louisa, did you ever stop to consider how your disappearance would affect Claire and the others? Stephen wasn’t mistaken. They have been worried sick, imagining all sorts of things happening to you. They have barely let us rest since Sara jilted the vicar.”
“What?” Louisa was incredulous. “You mean she actually went through with it? I left as it was happening, but thought she would come to her senses.”
Jacob made an impatient sound. “The point of the matter being that your disappearance created a turmoil in the house.”
She lifted her chin. “I knew they would be fine. They all had their husbands. They don’t need me.”
“If you think that is true,” Jacob scoffed in reply, “then we have just wasted the last five months searching tirelessly for you. Yes, Claire has me, Bonnie Stephen, and now Sara has Nathan, but none of us is you. For God’s sake, you have known them for years. Do you honestly have no concept how much your friendship means to them? You are not dispensable to them; you are their friend and they have been worried sick about you. Not even a quick note explaining yourself or indicating that you are well? Shame on you, Louisa, whoever you are. Shame.”
“You don’t understand,” she said.
He hunched his shoulders in exasperation. “Of course I don’t understand. I have no insight into what goes on in that head of yours. None of us do. I’ve known you for more than a year—Claire and the others for longer—and your first instinct was to run away, not talk about it with the friends you had been living with. I don’t know what hurt Claire more—your disappearance or the fact that you didn’t trust her enough to tell her something was bothering you.”
“Are you trying to guilt me into returning with you? That is quite the strategy. Is that how you managed to convince Claire to marry you?”
“Louisa,” John admonished in a low voice. She pressed her lips together, refusing to apologize.
“No.” Jacob shook his head. “I’m not trying to guilt you. I’m trying to understand. And I do believe you owe your friends an explanation, at the very least.”
Louisa turned away, moving to stare out the window. Jacob’s words surrounded her, suffocating her. How could he say such things? To hear him voice such things was odd. She never would have expected him to have any sort of insight—on anything. It occurred to her that she had always sold her friend’s husband short, never believed he would be able to contribute any sort of substance to Claire’s life. It was a shock to think he was more than what she expected.
That thought sent a jolt through her. She stared at her reflection in the glass. Good Lord, who had she become? She could see the bitterness tingeing her eyes, pulling the corners of her mouth into a permanent frown. She couldn’t even think of the last time she had met someone and didn’t immediately feel she had to protect herself from that person. Her first response to anyone was sarcasm and bitterness, anything to keep them from getting too close. Even with her friends, it had taken the better part of a year for them to break through her walls.
How had John done it so easily? Why had he even wanted to? God, looking at herself, she couldn’t see any reason why he should. She could see nothing in herself that another might find appealing.
Good Lord, she had to get out of here, out of this room. She spun on her heel and stalked to the kitchen. “I haven’t eaten anything yet,” she muttered. “Who can think on an empty stomach?”
“No, you don’t.” John moved in front of her, halting her progress. She tried to sidestep around him, but he didn’t let her. “No running, kitten,” he said quietly, his eyes full of understanding. “You are strong enough to see this through.”
“John.” Her eyes pleaded for him to understand and let her go.
“You can do this,” he reiterated.
“John, he’s right,” she whispered, fighting tears that she hated to admit were filling her eyes. “I am a horrible friend. A horrible person.”
“You know that’s not true. You have made mistakes, but you are not beyond redemption. What do you have to do to make things right?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. Just think. What is the opposite of running?”
“What is the opposite of running away?” he repeated.
She thought for a moment. “Running back,” she finally said.
Something flickered in his eyes and he smiled at her. It was an odd smile, one she hadn’t seen on him before, and she didn’t know what it meant. “There you go, kitten. There’s your answer.”
“You think I should go back to Ridgestone?”
John shook his head. “It’s not about me. This is still your decision. What do you think you should do?”
“I, um—” She stopped. He said to think about what she should do, not what she wanted to do. It seemed obvious. Jacob had laid it out well. There were three people in her past she owed explanations to. She should see to that.
Louisa looked at John, gazing into his familiar, comfortably dark eyes, trying to see what he was thinking. He wasn’t giving anything away, just letting her decide.
She took a deep breath. “I should return to Ridgestone. Jacob is right. I need to talk to my friends.”
Oh good Lord, what was that pain in her chest?
He nodded, pressing his lips together. “Then that is what you will do.”
The pain swelled, making it difficult to breathe. She bowed her head and wiped at her eyes, dashing away the tears that had dared to escape.