Good Lord. Louisa sat down at the small kitchen table with a thump. The pail in her hand dropped to the floor, dirty water splashing onto the stone. The mop followed suit, giving a clang as it clattered next to the pail.
She hurt. Her muscles were sore and every inch of her body seemed to ache. The pain seemed to permeate her very being. Unable to even hold her head up, Louisa laid her head on the cool table and closed her eyes.
Inchoate respect for maids settled in her. After three days of furious cleaning, still less than half of the sleeping rooms had been cleaned. She had assured Giant Johnny—Mr. Taylor—that she would have the task completed within a week’s time. What had she gotten herself into? Her fingers were red, the skin was beginning to crack around her fingernails and all her muscles were protesting their overuse. Never one to leave a job unfinished, it was her pride that continued to spur her on.
She did not allow herself to think of the pub room and the cleaning that it would entail.
Good Lord indeed.
“Packard, if that is you, bring me some bread and cheese and a pint.”
Louisa bolted into a proper sitting position despite the scream of protest from her back. Giant Johnny was in his office and had heard her ignoble collapse. Thanks be to God, he had not actually seen that it was her. He had been watching her closely since she began her maid work and she felt he was searching for some reason to find her lacking. More of her blasted pride would not allow him to see any weakness in her.
Stifling a groan, she pushed herself up and prepared the meal Mr. Taylor had requested. The bread and cheese were some of the only edible foodstuffs in the kitchen, having been provided by outside sources. Louisa carried the tin plate and frothing mug into the office, where the giant was bent over some books. A pair of spectacles rested upon his nose, lending themselves to an incongruous portrait of a man at work.
“Put it there,” he muttered, gesturing to the only free spot on the desk. Louisa obliged and the sound of her skirts caused him to look up briefly, then complete a double take as he realized just who had brought him his food. Giant Johnny—Mr. Taylor—shot to his feet and took his spectacles off and stuffed them into a shirt pocket. “Mrs. Brock. Good afternoon.” He was wearing only trousers and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows; the opening at his throat was held together by loosely tied strings, giving her a pleasing view of the top of his chest, and he wore no tie. He had the look of a laborer about him, not an innkeeper.
“Good afternoon, sir.”
He glanced at the open door to the kitchen. “I am sorry, I was expecting Packard.”
“I believe he stepped out for a moment before he needed to start the evening meals.” Louisa looked at him with a demure smile, hoping it hid her shaking muscles.
“I see. Yes. Thank you. For the food.”
“You are welcome.”
He gestured to the food. “Would you like to join me?”
She was starving. “No. Thank you,” she added belatedly.
“I must return to work.” Her muscles screamed at her in protest.
“That is what I wish to speak to you about.”
Louisa narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips together. That did not bode well. She would be damned if he found fault with her work, not after she had worked her fingers to the bone the last few days. “Is there something the matter?” she asked, her voice tight and stiff.
He rubbed his bald head and gave her an exasperated look. “Mrs. Brock, fetch some tea for yourself and come sit down. That is an order,” he added when she opened her mouth to object.
Stifling an indignant huff, she did as she was bade and returned shortly with a small tea tray. Settling her skirts around her legs as she sat, she folded her hands over her lap and waited for the tea to steep. She met his gaze straight on, refusing to give him any hint of anxiety or intimidation.
Not that she felt either, but that was beside the point.
He had waited for her return to resume his seat himself, fingering the feathered quill in his hand. Once she was settled, he squeezed himself into his small chair. Louisa watched him do so, closely. He braced his large hands on the curved arms and gingerly brought his body down onto the seat as though he was afraid he would break the chair. His bottom settled as close to the edge as he could possibly get it before sliding back. He paused for a moment, holding his breath; she wondered if he realized he looked to be waiting for the furniture to collapse beneath him.
Once assured it would support him yet again, he released his breath and leaned back. He affected what she assumed was to be a calm pose, but the disparity between furniture and man was too great for him to be truly comfortable. She thought for a moment if the impending conversation also contributed to his discomfort.
Well, she was in no way going to make this easy on him. She maintained her solid stare and kept her lips pressed together.
“Where are you from, Mrs. Brock?” he asked, breaking the silence.
Louisa did not even blink at his opening salvo. “South.”
The corners of his mouth tugged. “I assumed you are from England, Mrs. Brock. Your accent betrays that much.”
She did not reply. The less she said, the less he would know.
“And your family?”
“What of them?”
“Where are they?”
“I could not say.”
“Your husband’s family did not take you in after his passing?”
“What do you think?”
He lifted a hand. “Pax, Mrs. Brock. I am not your enemy.”
Louisa busied herself in checking the steeping tea. It was not yet strong enough for her preferences but she prepared herself a cup anyway to prolong the silence. Milk and sugar were added, the clinking of the spoon against the cup filling the room.
Mr. Taylor tore a piece of bread from the small loaf on his own tray and popped it into his mouth, watching her closely. As he chewed, he cut slivers of cheese, his eyes darting between her and his task. When he had several slices, he added one to his mouth and took a gulp of ale. He grimaced and peered into his tankard before setting it aside.
When his mouth was clear, he asked, “Have you heard of the Five Hit Wonder?”
Louisa held her cup of tea close to her mouth. “No.” She sipped her tea.
One side of his mouth tilted and he offered her the plate of bread and cheese. “I am not surprised. The Five Hit Wonder is a pugilist. In the fight that made him famous, he felled his opponent in just five blows.”
Louisa took a piece of bread and cheese and nibbled on it. Her stomach demanded more but she restrained herself.
“Few women follow pugilism. It’s a masculine domain.”
She spoke up, not a flicker on her face. “Prizefighting is barbaric.”
“Such is the chant of many a temperance march. It takes a special female to be able to be a spectator at a match. But that is another matter. The Five Hit Wonder is—was—the reigning champion. For years. The best since Jack Broughton, many said. Broughton civilized the sport, by the way, by introducing more rules to reduce the gore and chaotic nature of the bouts.”
She tilted her chin. “I fail to see the civility of a sport where the object is to beat a man to a bloody mess.”
Mr. Taylor drank more ale and held some bread and cheese in one of his large hands. “It can be quite lucrative. The prizes are monetary, some purses more than you would imagine.”
She sniffed. “The slave trade is lucrative; hence the reluctance of the slavers for its demise. Yet you will not see me condoning that either simply because the color of the coin is pretty.”
He popped the food into his mouth and waved a hand, indicating the room. “So lucrative, in fact, that it facilitated the purchase of this inn.”
Louisa stared at him for a moment before a quick laugh escaped her. “Are you telling me that you are the Five Hit Wonder? Ridiculous.” She continued to laugh, but misgivings began to tickle her spine. The man had the size to be a prizefighting champion.
Without speaking, Mr. Taylor stood and crossed to a door at the back of the room. He opened it and took one step inside the room. She could see a shelf of books and the corner of a bed as he pulled out a brown book with a plain cover. It must be the bedroom he mentioned. Closing the door behind him, he moved back to the desk and held the book out to her, and after a moment she had no choice but to take it. The misgivings grew into dread as she opened it to find playbills and articles pasted to the pages. The playbills proclaimed the coming bouts of John Taylor, the Five Hit Wonder. The more recent ones had pictures of him stripped to the waist, poised in a fighting stance with a fierce look on his face. The articles spoke of his accomplishments, his history, his revolutionary approach to the sport.
Louisa swallowed and focused on a piece of information in one of the articles. “You were in the army?”
He had resumed his seat. “The King’s Twenty-sixth Grenadiers. But armed service is bloody boring when there is no active combat. It is where I started boxing as a way to amuse myself.”
She shot him a disapproving look and said, out of habit more than anything else, “Your language is still in the prize ring, I see. Please be more mindful.”
He raised his eyebrows in surprise and chuckled. “Oh, well done, Mrs. Brock. You would make a fine governess with that prim tone.”
Louisa shut her mouth and pressed her lips together.
Mr. Taylor leaned forward and folded his arms on the desk. “Who I am is not a secret; I do not intend it to be. But I told you this story because I want you to know that I understand the need to begin anew. My questions are not meant to interrogate you. I merely want to know if an angry husband or some other family is going to appear and cause trouble.”
When she didn’t speak, he continued. “I have been watching you since you started here and I can tell that you have never been a maid before. Your language, your inefficiency, even your dress does not speak of life in service. I have no intention of holding it against you. Everyone can learn a new trade. But I am putting myself and my inn at risk if I am harboring a runaway wife or daughter or even convict. I need to know that my investment in you is sound and that there will be no issues.”
Louisa swallowed and lifted her chin. “There is no husband, family or constable looking for me. There will be no such trouble.” I hope.
A ghost of a smile tugged at his lips and he sat back. “Good. As I just said, I will be lenient as you learn your job. How goes the room cleaning?”
She hated to say it, but the man said he would be lenient. “I may need more time than a week. I have only managed to clean four of the rooms.”
He nodded slowly. “Fine. There is not much need for them just yet, the customers mainly being the locals looking for food and drink.”
She stood and he followed her. She picked up her tea tray. “If there is nothing else, sir, I should start getting the kitchen prepared so Mr. Packard can begin the evening menu.”
“Of course.” He watched as she moved to the door. “Just keep in mind, Mrs. Brock, a fresh start can be a good thing.”
Louisa didn’t stop as she exited the office, happy in the knowledge that she hadn’t betrayed the state of her muscles. She took the tray over to the sink and washed up, thinking she would have to be careful where Mr. Taylor was concerned. He was more observant than he appeared to be.