Jacob entered the pub, rubbing his hands against the cold. “Right then, Louisa, the coach is loaded. We are ready to go.”
Louisa smiled at her nieces and closed the storybook. “Well, I am sorry to have to leave before discovering if Ethelbert ever managed to get the mud out of his ears. We shall solve the mystery when I visit you at Riverwood.” Her eyes met her brother’s and they shared a smile.
The girls hugged her and Victoria promised them she would include their letters to her in her own. More hugs were shared, awkward ones with Matthew and Victoria. She was grateful neither of them lingered in the embraces. When they disappeared up the stairs, Louisa turned to look at John standing behind the bar, wiping glasses and setting them on the shelves. He was making an effort to not look at her, instead very intent on his task.
She didn’t know what to make of him. Two nights ago he was declaring his love to her on a frozen road and now he didn’t speak to her. She had hoped they would have had a chance to discuss what had occurred yesterday, but he had spent the remainder of the day being busy with the inn and boxing mill. She had even waited up for him but had fallen asleep before he arrived in their room. Waking up in the morning, she had found his side of the bed cold and flat; he hadn’t come at all.
She didn’t know what hurt more: his avoidance of her or his refusal to sleep with her. It sat in her chest, a tight heavy ball.
How had this happened? What did he mean by his behavior? To say one thing and then behave another way? He had said that it had been her decision, that he would not stop loving her, and then ignored her. Was this how he loved her with his love? If this was a taste of how things were to be with him, then perhaps she was better off returning to Ridgestone and not coming back.
Well, she was not about to leave while he continued to play at ignoring her. Louisa pressed her lips together, lifted her chin and marched over to the bar.
John glanced at her when she stopped, then turned his attention back to the glasses.
Louisa spoke. “The coach is packed. I am ready to go.”
He took a deep breath and continued cleaning the glasses, but didn’t respond.
“Ridgestone is two days away.”
The rag continued circling the rim of the glass, a slow rotation.
“I think that glass is clean enough,” she offered.
He placed it on the shelf and picked up another one, the rag barely missing a beat.
“Are you not going to say anything to me?”
He shrugged, inordinately obsessed with the glass in his hand. “What would you like me to say?”
“Good-bye? Safe travels?”
“Good-bye, then. Safe travels.”
The cold ball of hurt grew, weighing heavily in her chest. He still didn’t look at her, the rag in his hand warranting more attention than she. She supposed she should not have expected more, even from the man who had treated her like no other and then claimed to love her. She should have known that it had all been too good to be true. In the end, she was just another female a man had wanted for his own purposes.
“Louisa, the horses are getting cold.” She glanced over her shoulder at Jacob’s words, seeing him hold her cloak for her.
Nodding, she turned back to John. “Good-bye, then.” She spun on her heel and marched her way over to the door, weaving through the tables until she reached Jacob, who helped her with her cloak. Without glancing back at the bar, she stepped out into the cold, white morning.
It wasn’t snowing, but the sun was shining brightly off the ground, hurting her eyes. It was the resulting sting that made her eyes water, she told herself, nothing more. Certainly not a big callous galoot. Stephen and Nathan were waiting by the coach while Timothy and Alan were holding the horses’ heads. She said a quick farewell to the boys, not wishing to prolong the moment, before Stephen helped her in.
Not that she needed the help, but men did enjoy feeling useful.
Louisa settled herself against the squabs on the far side so she wouldn’t have a view of the inn as they left. She was leaving behind nearly four months of effort, four months of hard work. She had taken pride in what she had accomplished with John and now it was wiped away in less than two days. All because her past had finally caught up to her.
The men climbed in beside her, slamming the door shut. As they sat, the coach lurched into motion, the horses’ hooves muffled against the snow. Stephen offered her another blanket but she refused with a shake of her head and a small smile. He really was a nice man, treating Bonnie and his wards well.
She swallowed. “Bonnie had her child?” Her voice wavered. Yesterday had been too hectic for conversation with the Ridgestone men.
Stephen smiled broadly. “Yes, a girl. We named her Elizabeth, after my mother.”
“Congratulations. I am sure she is beautiful.”
“You will see soon enough. We will be staying at Ridgestone until after the Christmas season. The boys are less certain of her worth, as she cannot play ball with them just yet.”
Louisa gave him what she hoped passed for a smile and looked out the window. They were heading down the same road she had tried to take the other night. The trees and fields passed by more quickly than they had when she was walking. And on the cart.
John’s words came back to her. The only way to change is to stop running. She wasn’t running. If she was, she was running toward something, rather than away from it. That was also known as returning, which was a new concept for her. For the first time in six years, she was doing the right thing and she knew it.
It was what he had encouraged her to do. This whole thing was his fault. He had pushed and pushed for her to make a decision about what to do, and so she had. And how did he react? He ignored her, avoided her, acted as though he had nothing to do with what was happening. She wouldn’t even be in this coach if it wasn’t for him. If she had had her way, she would have stayed at the Beefy Buzzard, where her life once more had purpose. That is, if he hadn’t caught her on the road and brought her back.
What is the opposite of running away? More words echoed in her head. Running back had been her answer. That had been the right answer, hadn’t it? What else could she have said?
Stay. Stay. That was the opposite of running away. It wasn’t running at all, not even back to something. That alternative hadn’t occurred to her last night. Was it even a viable one?
Images flashed through her mind of what her life would be like if she stayed at the inn. Days filled with Maisie and the boys, helping out in the kitchen, sitting in the office having tea as she worked with the books. Seeing the inn expand into a successful, reputable business, one that attracted prestigious guests and became a popular stopping point between Bath and London. They may be on an alternate route, but that made little difference. With the right exposure, they could become a lure for the travelers to leave the Bath Road, even if just for the night.
And her nights. Nights serving in the pub, bantering with the customers, watching John laugh and talk with them. He had always been good with the customers; it was the management part he struggled with. Watching him had always brought a warm feeling in her chest, and once they started their affair, a sense of anticipation for the coming encounter. He did wonderful things to her body with his hands and mouth, things she had never experienced with either of her footmen.
Early mornings were her favorite with him, though. Waking up wrapped around his large frame, warm from the blankets and sleeping next to him. Sometimes he would wake her, his hands skimming along her back, touching her gently, reverently. Despite his size and physical strength, he had always been gentle with her, always made her feel comfortable.
Made her feel loved. Looking back, she knew that to be true. It had made her feel . . . odd. Safe. She had trusted that safety, thought his declaration of love solidified it, but his behavior since yesterday morning showed her how foolish she had been.
She opened her eyes, not seeing the passing scenery. She would never have those days, nights, or mornings again. After what he put her through, she could not imagine becoming that intimate with anyone ever again. We make ourselves vulnerable to each other, kitten. She had not wanted that, had never wanted to be vulnerable to anyone, had tried to avoid it, but he had managed to wrest it from her anyway.
Damn him, damn him, damn the man. He had done this to her, he had made her vulnerable and made her love him. Yes, she admitted it, she had fallen in love with the big fucking galoot. The cold ball of hurt began to coalesce in her chest and started to burn, pushing hot anger through her veins. She may not know much about love, but she definitely knew that it was not like this. You didn’t tell someone you loved them and then push them away like he had.
Louisa turned to face the men, interrupting their conversation without a thought. “Turn the coach around.”
“What?” Jacob said.
“I forgot something. We need to go back.”
“Turn the fucking coach around!”
Silence reigned as they all stared at her. Without moving his eyes from her, Nathan Grant raised his cane and knocked on the roof, giving instructions to the driver.
The hot anger coursed through her, making her tense. The coach couldn’t go fast enough for her, and her fury grew with each turn of the wheels. John Taylor had a lot to answer for and she was going to make sure he did.
When the coach turned into the yard, it was still rolling to a stop when she opened the door and climbed out. She hit the ground running and stormed into the inn, throwing the door open.
All heads turned and stared. She didn’t care. Louisa honed in on the giant behind the bar, pulling a pint of ale for a patron. He looked up and his eyes widened. He stared at her, the ale overflowing. With a curse, he released the tap and placed the pint on the bar, wiping his hands on his apron. “Louisa?” His voice carried in the silence. “What are you doing here?”
Her eyes narrowed as she stalked toward him and hissed, “You have some nerve. To say you love me and then treat me like a veritable stranger? What? What did I do? The very thing you told me to do. I made a decision. You said that it was my choice and to make a decision and that you would love me no matter what.”
He looked at her, his face hard.
Louisa continued. “I suppose I am better off knowing that you are not a man of your word, John Taylor. For shame on you to punish me for doing what you told me to do. Do you like to kick small dogs as well? How dare you.
“You can’t do this. You can’t tell me to be strong, can’t tell me it’s my decision and then treat me like a leper when you disagree with me. You said you would be here for me, you big galoot, and you abandoned me when I needed you the most.”
He shook his head. “I didn’t go anywhere. I’m still here.”
“Bollocks that.” There was a rumble in the pub and she looked at everyone. “Yes, I said bollocks. And somehow the world is still rotating.” She turned back to John. “You ignored me. You avoided me. I did what you told me to do, made a decision, and just because you didn’t like what I decided, you separated yourself from me, which one could argue is worse than actually leaving the premises, because I knew where you were. I could see you yet you didn’t want anything to do with me.”
“Yea gods, Louisa,” he interrupted hotly. “You didn’t choose me. Give a man time to lick his wounds. You are the one who is leaving me.”
“It wasn’t forever. I never said it was forever.”
“You never say anything. Wait, I’m wrong. You always say how you want to have control over your life, want to be treated as the sentient being you are, and how you don’t want to marry me.”
“You know why I don’t and it has nothing to do with you.”
He continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “This is me giving you what you want. You made a decision and even though I didn’t like it, I didn’t try to stop you. You are a sentient being and I am doing my goddamned best to respect that. I sure as hell don’t like it, it’s eating me alive to let you go, so forgive me if I couldn’t bloody well watch the woman I love as she walked away.”
She pushed at his chest. “You don’t get to say things like that. I never wanted this before I met you and you don’t get to take it away now that I do.”
“Why did you even come back, Louisa? You have made it clear that we are nothing more than an illicit affair, just two adults satisfying their needs.”
“Damn you, John Taylor, damn you. You did this to me. You made me vulnerable, you made me want you. I came back because I fucking well love you, you big galoot.”
He blinked. And blinked. Her shout lingered in the now silent pub. Louisa folded her arms across her chest, pressed her lips together and lifted her chin.
He placed his hands on his hips and took a deep breath. “You don’t sound too happy about that.” His voice was quiet, calmer now.
She shrugged, a small smile tugging at her mouth at having her words used against her. She refused to let that smile show. “I am not too happy about much right now. But I certainly intended to tell you that way.”
A small laugh escaped him. “Perhaps in the future we can do this without the cursing.”
Louisa smiled back. “Let’s not set our expectations too high.”
He glanced around the pub. She followed his eyes, seeing them rest on Jacob, Stephen and Nathan standing at the door, watching with differing expressions of interest. “It’s not forever?” he asked quietly.
She shook her head. “I will come back. Or—”
He looked at her questioningly when she hesitated. “Or?”
The words came out in a rush. “Or you could come with me? Meet my friends?”
John’s brows raised and he cocked his head. “Meet your friends?”
“Well, you already met them.” She gestured to the men at the door. “You may as well meet the ones that make them bearable.”
He rubbed his head and nodded slowly. “Packard can watch the inn for a week or so. He knows how things work.”
“So you will come?”
“On one condition.”
Her face darkened but she nodded. “Which is?”
John’s arm snaked around her waist and pulled her against him. He seized her mouth in a deep kiss, his lips moving on hers. Louisa let out a startled sound, but wrapped her arms around his neck, her hands gripping his head. Their tongues didn’t hesitate to meet, teasing and playing with each other. He bent her over his arm, trying to get closer to her.
John pulled away when the hoots and hollers from the tables penetrated their haze. He ended the kiss slowly, landing little pecks around her mouth. When he straightened, taking her with him, her arms slid down to his shoulders and she let out a deep sigh. When she opened her eyes, he gave her a big grin.
“Was that your condition?” she asked. “Because I’m not quite sure if I met it.”
“No, that was just for fun,” he replied. “My condition is that you give me lots of your sweet talk.”
He grinned at her. “The kind of stuff that makes me shiver.”
She rolled her eyes. “You are being ridiculous.”
“I know. Because I am a?”
“A big galoot.”
“That’s the magic I was looking for.” He kissed her again, savoring her lips against his. “Come help me pack?”
“It will be faster if you do it yourself.”
“Who wants to be fast?” He looked over at the Ridgestone men. “Change of plans, mates. We’re going to leave tomorrow.”
Jacob grinned. “So long as you give us the good stuff again.”
“Done.” He bent and scooped Louisa up in his arms. “We’ve some business to take care of in the back.”
“Put me down, you big galoot! Let me go!”
“When you put it like that”—he chuckled and carried her away to more hoots and cheers—“not on your life.”