The door slammed shut behind her, but there was no acknowledgment from the crowded room. Water dripped off her cloak and puddled around her feet; the wetness had long since infiltrated the materials of her cloak and boots, making her skin cold and clammy. Fighting against the shivers, her eyes adjusted to the light in the room, taking in the cheering men congregated in the center. Bets and encouragements were called out, but Louisa could not see what the spectacle was through the mass of male bodies.
Some of her hair had escaped her hood and she lifted a hand to push it back out of her face. Her fingers were freezing on her already cold skin and she clenched them in a futile effort for warmth. She could feel her stockings clinging to her legs and feet, wedging themselves uncomfortably between her toes inside her sopping boots. The holes in said boots had chosen to make themselves uncomfortably known today with a vengeance, letting in every drop of rain and mud they could. She did not look forward to cleaning the expected mess or to repairing her boots, if she could even find the means to do so. She forced herself to not contemplate the state of her dress or the possibility of her portmanteau not measuring up against the torrential downpour outside.
“Come on, Harry, put yer back into it!”
“Almost got ’im, Johnny. Stronger now!”
“A shilling says Harry comes back and wins it all!”
The shouts turned to roars, the excitement growing. Louisa could hear the desperate cries of those who had placed a losing bet on Harry. She still could not see what was happening, but it was clear from the spectators that Johnny had the upper hand in whatever they were doing.
Her eyes scanned the room. Several of the wall sconces had sputtered out, casting the pub in shadows. Discarded plates covered with forgotten food sat neglected on the tables, no one bothering to clean them up. Candelabras dripped wax on the tables and several of the benches were propped up with blocks of wood to steady them. The congealing food matched the odors coming from the kitchen, which Louisa dared not glance into. The room was all male; no serving maids scurried around to clean up the mess left by the patrons. Along one wall was the bar, separating the room from the casks lining the wall behind it. A large gray cat sat in the space between two casks, paws tucked under it, unblinking eyes on her; it was the only living thing to have noticed her entrance.
“Yes,” Louisa muttered, glaring at the creature. “I look like something you dragged in.”
The cat yawned, revealing its sharp fangs. Deeming the gamblers and Louisa beneath its notice, the cat shifted and began grooming itself, the small pink tongue darting out.
Hmph. It was illogical for her to be rankled by the dismissal of a cat, but such was her current mood.
Victorious cheers resounded in the room, mingling with the groans of defeat, and the crowd began to disperse. One man sat at a table, wringing and flexing his hand in obvious pain. Money exchanged hands; only one protested the fairness of the match and subsequent match, but was silenced by a large, beefy hand landing heavily on his shoulder.
Louisa’s eyes widened as she saw the owner of the hand stand up. A true giant, he towered over all in the room, reaching above six feet in height. A thick neck supported a large, bald head that glistened in the candlelight. Dark eyebrows capped his dark eyes separated by a crooked nose, obviously broken at some point in his life. A neatly trimmed chin-strap beard ran along his jaw, accentuating the angles of it. A barrel chest expanded to shoulders so broad Louisa was sure she could sit comfortable on one; the white linen of his shirt did nothing to hide the enormity of his body. Arms like tree trunks bulged with muscles and his thighs strained against the material of his brown trousers.
“Now, George,” the deep voice rumbled calmly in the now quiet room, “Harry here is not protesting the match. Why are you?”
The giant interrupted, “Did you bet on Harry?”
“Did Harry win?”
“No.” George’s face took on a resigned look.
“Then there is no reason for you to not pay up, is there?” The giant smiled, revealing white teeth. None were missing, although some were crooked.
“Good to hear, man.” Johnny patted George’s shoulder. The smaller man jerked involuntarily under the pressure, but Louisa had the feeling the giant had reined in his strength to minimize any damage. “You know how I feel about cheats. Now, who’s thirsty?”
Louisa watched as the giant moved behind the bar and men carried their empty tankards over. He filled them, taking coin as he did so, laughing and talking with his customers. She swallowed when his eyes finally fell on her and Louisa flexed her grip on her portmanteau unconsciously. When he filled the final tankard thrust at him, the giant wiped his hands on a towel and walked over to her, his long strides eating up the distance.
“Good eve, miss,” he greeted in his deep voice, nodding his head. “What can I do for you?”
Louisa flexed her grip again, otherwise not moving or dropping her eyes from his. “This is an inn, correct?”
“Aye. The Beefy Buzzard. The rooms are upstairs. You need one?”
“Hey, Johnny, that some new entertainment?” One drunken shout carried over the others.
Louisa’s face flushed hot despite the earlier chill of the rain lingering on her skin. Giant Johnny half turned to the room and shouted, “Oi, respect the lady or get out! Yer wife will be happy to have you home early tonight, Charlie.”
Ribbing followed that statement, Charlie getting jostled and hit by his friends. His scowl lasted only a moment before he was grinning again at whatever was said.
“Sorry for that,” Giant Johnny said, turning back to her, a grin on his own face. “They’re not always the best-behaved lot.”
Louisa regarded him, silently weighing her options. The rain had not let up outside and there was no other inn in the vicinity. She truly had no choice but to stay at the Beefy Buzzard, God help her.
He thrust out a hand toward her. “John Taylor, proprietor and innkeeper, at your service.”
Louisa hesitated a moment before placing her hand in his. It was immediately dwarfed in his large one as he shook it. Warmth surrounded her fingers and seeped in, warming her cold skin.
“Mrs. Brock,” she replied, trying to not betray her reaction to the handshake. This alias had served her well these past months.
Mr. Taylor frowned and glanced at the door. “Your husband is seeing to your coach?”
“I am a widow,” she said, sharing the story she had decided upon. It was less remarkable for a widow to be a solitary traveler than a young woman.
“My condolences,” Mr. Taylor offered. “It is an unpleasant day to be traveling by oneself.”
“To be traveling at all, to be sure.”
“Indeed. Let’s get you into your room and warmed up.” He gestured to the stairs but Louisa did not move.
She felt her face flush again and she gritted her teeth. She lifted her chin in a gesture of challenge. “I am afraid I have few funds, sir,” she gritted out. Mr. Taylor frowned but did not speak right away, so she continued. “I am willing to pay through other means.” His gaze ran down her body at that statement and she felt her flush deepen, this time with anger. “Not that,” she bit out. “Never that.”
His eyes met hers again and his eyebrows twitched. “I am not in the habit of compromising women in need of shelter, Mrs. Brock. I was assessing what you would be able to do.”
Louisa tilted her chin even more. “I can clean or do dishes or cook.” Cooking might be a stretch, but based on what she smelled and saw coming from the kitchen, she was certain no one would notice the difference. “Whatever you ask me to do, within propriety of course, I will do my best. I am a hard worker.”
Mr. Taylor shook his head. “We can discuss this in the morning. You are in need of a bed and a warm bath, it appears. Let’s get that sorted first, shall we?” He relieved her of her portmanteau before she could protest and lumbered off in the direction of the stairs. The crowd parted at his large approach, leaving a wake of leering drunkards. Louisa lifted her sodden skirts and hurried after him up the stairs.
The corridor was darker than the pub below it, only three sconces lighting the entire area. He opened a door at the far end and disappeared into it. Louisa hesitated at the door, unable to see into the darkened room.
The sound of her portmanteau falling to the floor reached her ears. Footsteps came from the darkness, approaching her. Louisa swallowed when Giant Johnny stepped into the meager light, holding a candelabra. She stepped to the side when he didn’t stop and watched him use one of the remaining wall sconces to light the brace in his hand. He returned to the room, the candles providing a faint circle of light around him. She watched as he knelt down and used one of the candles to light the coals in the hearth; light and heat began to creep into the room when he succeeded.
Giant Johnny—Mr. Taylor—straightened and looked at her, his ham-sized fists on his hips. He regarded her with serious, dark eyes. “You will be safe here, Mrs. Brock. I guarantee it personally. I will be closing the pub soon and will ensure the men do not bother you.”
“It will take some time, but I can get a bath up here. Hot water and all that.”
“That would be lovely, thank you.”
He kept his eyes on her, still standing in the doorway. “Are you in the area for long or just passing through?” he asked.
Louisa blinked. “I am uncertain. My plans are currently in flux.” As they had been since leaving Ridgestone over two months ago.
“Well, you can have this room for as long as you need. We will make arrangements in the morning.”
He cleared his throat. “I cannot leave the room until you move from the doorway, Mrs. Brock. I need to return to my customers before they decide to attack the kegs on their own.”
“Oh.” Louisa quickly stepped into the room. “Of course.”
With a crooked smile, he made his way to the door. “I suggest remaining in the room. I will bring a plate of food up shortly. Open the door for no one but me.”
Louisa raised her eyebrows. “Is it that dangerous here? Hardly a ringing endorsement.”
Mr. Taylor paused and looked back at her, displeasure at her comment clear on his face. “I guaranteed your safety, but even I cannot be everywhere at once. The advice I give you is prudent, but not mandatory.”
Louisa swallowed, knowing she had been inexcusably rude. Even with that knowledge, her apology stuck in her throat. She turned her gaze to the door, unwilling to allow him to see whatever emotion there might be in her eyes, and nodded.
He cleared his throat, a deep rumbling that brought to mind what she thought a volcano would sound like. “It is late and you must be uncomfortable in those wet clothes. I will get a bath up here soon. Would you prefer that or food first?”
“Whichever one you can manage. I will accommodate you. There is no other helping you, is there?”
“Mr. Packard cooks, but that does not often allow for help outside the kitchen. A couple of boys come during the day, but return home early due to their age.”
“As I said, I will accommodate you,” Louisa repeated.
“Thank you.” With a nod, Mr. Taylor closed the door behind him with a definitive click.
Out in the corridor, John released his grip on the doorknob and shook his head. The lady may look nice, but she had the tongue of a viper. Even dripping water on his floors and lips blue from the cold could not disguise her charms. Charms that were less appealing once she spoke.
Shaking his head again, he returned to the crowd below. Even a man such as him knew to stay away from such creatures, especially if he wanted to keep all his important parts in working condition.