Louisa sat back on her heels and wiped the sweat from her brow. This was the last room. She glanced around the small space, now glistening in the sunlight provided by the window. For the life of her, she could not feel a sense of accomplishment in completing her task. Now that they were all clean, she knew it was only a matter of time before the rooms were used and once more needed to be cleaned. To be certain, they would not likely need such focused attention again, unless there was a particularly inconsiderate guest, but still.
She was too tired and sore to revel in her success. Good Lord, she thought, rubbing her neck. I was not meant for service.
With a sigh, she pushed herself to her feet and collected the cleaning supplies. She tossed the dirty water out the window and carried the rest down to the kitchen. Mr. Packard gave her a nod when she came in, his pipe dangling from his mouth. “Mrs. Brock, I need the big pots from the office.”
She forced herself to smile at the portly cook and nodded. “Of course, right away.” It stuck in her craw to be deferential, but she needed the money. Mr. Taylor had given her wages yesterday, reduced due to her room and board, but it felt good to have her finances on the rise again, meager as her earnings were.
Depositing the cleaning supplies in a closet, Louisa went to the office and poked her head in before entering. She had avoided Mr. Taylor as much as possible since their encounter in here several days ago. She had succeeded surprisingly well, it being an average-sized inn and they the only three employees. Besides, if he wanted to see her, he knew where to find her.
Several casks inhabited one corner of the office, filled with what, she did not know. Above the casks was a shelf filled with dried spices, sugar, flour and other dry goods in clay pots. Above even those, several large pots hung from the ceiling. Stretching on her toes, Louisa could not even brush the lowest one with her fingers.
Pressing her lips together, she scanned the room for something to knock the pot off its hook on the ceiling. No broom or other such long-handled device was in reach to aid her. Spying Mr. Taylor’s chair, she dragged it over and lifted her skirts to step up onto it, using her free hand on the back of the chair to steady herself. The chair itself wobbled, enough to give her a moment’s doubt, but she persevered. She took hold of the shelf and reached up to the pots. Her fingers just managed to brush the bottom of the lowest one.
“How in the blazes did they get up here?” she muttered to herself before extending her arm again, this time going up on her toes.
Her fingers were nearly close enough to dislodge the pot. If she were quick enough, she would be able to catch it as it fell. If not, well, after spending so long with children, her ears could withstand one loud commotion.
She stretched farther, wishing to get that extra inch that might serve her purpose. She tightened her grip on the shelf, hoping it might boost her farther. The chair wobbled beneath her, teetering to one side. “Come on,” she muttered through gritted teeth. “Almost there.” She shifted to balance the chair better, but the wobble worsened. She managed to lift the pot off the hook a bit, but lost her grip and it settled back down. “Oh no you don’t,” she growled at the pot and tried again. She placed her fingers in the same spot and lifted the pot again. One more half inch and she would have it.
But the chair had other plans. Too unbalanced, it tipped to the side and Louisa felt herself fall with it. Her hand on the pot flailed, trying to right herself and the chair, but to no avail. The shelf shuddered under the unexpected weight of her panicked grip, the clay pots jostling together, ringing in the quiet of the office. She gasped, “Oh no,” before feeling all the support underneath her give way and she knew she was falling.
Just as the chair slid that final inch from under her and her fingers lost their grip on the shelf, quick footsteps came up behind her and strong arms circled her waist, lifting her to safety. The chair clattered to the floor and the clay pots settled, the office resuming its previous tranquility.
“Are you all right? Injured in any way?” Mr. Taylor’s deep voice rumbled in her ear. He held her effortlessly against him, her legs dangling in the air.
The breath from his voice warmed her ear and neck, causing a flutter to travel down her spine. Louisa blinked as she registered the hard chest against her back and the arms around her waist. They were strong, confident, and she knew that he would not drop her; it was beyond his ability to do so. Her back curved into his body, instinctively adjusting to him, and she had to fight the urge to lean her head back onto his shoulder. Good Lord, but he truly was Giant Johnny, easily surpassing his fellow men in both size and strength. The knowledge trilled through her blood.
What in the blazes am I thinking? she asked herself, shaking herself out of this surprising reverie. She cleared her throat. “Release me now.” Her voice was clipped and she consciously softened it to add, “Please. I am fine.”
She felt his hesitation, but he slid her down after a moment, holding on to her waist until her feet were steady on the floor. “You are certain you are uninjured?” he asked.
Louisa stepped away from him, the distance between their bodies welcome despite her skin itching to return to his embrace. That would not do. “Yes.”
He was rubbing his head when she turned to look at him. “What were you thinking?” he asked. His tone was irate.
She lifted her chin. “Mr. Packard sent me to fetch him one of the pots.” She gestured to the dangling instruments, still swaying from the incident.
“And you thought the best way to fetch one was to stand on a damaged chair?”
“I could not reach. What would you have me do?”
“Did it occur to you to find someone who is taller than you?”
“Why would it? The chair was convenient and was serving quite well. I had no need for anyone’s help.”
Mr. Taylor’s eyes narrowed and they turned black with anger. “No need? Then what do you call falling off the chair and my keeping you from harm? Was that not needing help?”
Sniffing, Louisa looked away. “I did not say I needed you to rescue me.”
“If I hadn’t, you would likely be unconscious on the floor, perhaps even dead.” His voice was laced with displeasure. Tension radiated off him. She would not have been surprised to see him assume a prizefighter’s stance, his muscles were so tight.
“There is no call for such dramatics,” she huffed.
“Packard!” Mr. Taylor bellowed, making her jump. He reached up and retrieved the pot she had risked her safety to get. A shot of annoyance ran through her at how easily he accomplished the task. The cook appeared in the doorway and Giant Johnny thrust the pot at him, his eyes not leaving Louisa. “In the future, Mrs. Brock is not to fetch these pots.” He silenced her protest with a slash of his hand. “She is too short and it risks her safety. Either yourself or I will get them, or anyone who is tall enough, for that matter.”
“Yes, sir.” Mr. Packard gave a sharp nod, no question or hesitation in his voice. He didn’t even shoot a look of irritation in her direction for being the cause of such a clipped command; he simply accepted it and returned to his duties.
“That was unnecessary,” Louisa began.
Mr. Taylor cut her off, placing his fists on his hips. It made his presence in the room increase, if that were possible, taking every available inch as his own. “Mrs. Brock, you may have little regard for your own safety, but I will not have your injuries or your death on my conscience. So long as you work here, if there is any task that may risk your health and well-being, you will seek assistance.”
“I don’t need—”
“This is not negotiable,” he clipped out. “If you feel you will have difficulty meeting this expectation, pack your things now.”
Louisa hated him in that moment. Hated that he was commanding her, hated needing this position for the shelter it provided, hated knowing he was right. This hatred was visceral, bleeding from her bones and through her pores until she could almost feel the hot slime of it on her skin, burning her. The hatred wasn’t a stranger, but it had been so long since she felt it that it took several moments for her to gain control of it.
She swallowed and nodded. “I will do as you say.”
Mr. Taylor visibly relaxed, his arms and shoulders lowering. “I am glad to hear that. I should not want any harm to come to you.”
Louisa gritted her teeth. “I am not your responsibility, Mr. Taylor.”
“So long as you are in my employ, you are.”
For a moment, she was in serious contemplation of leaving. True, here she had a roof over her head, food—despite how questionable it was—in her belly and something to occupy her days. But Giant Johnny was turning into a domineering man, one used to ordering people about and not anticipating any refusal, merely taking what he saw as his right. She had spent her past few years fighting against such men, leaving when it was a better option than losing. She had no desire to find herself in yet another situation like that.
She thought she had found her sanctuary with her friends and their Governess Club. For a brief time, they were their own masters, making their own decisions regarding their lives and their futures. True, Jacob Knightly lived at Ridgestone with them, but for the most part he remained out of the Governess Club’s business. The estate and his marriage were his concerns; the Governess Club, the ladies’.
And it had been wonderful. Difficult, but wonderful.
But now she found herself yet again in the situation of submitting to a man. Did she need this position that much? Would she be able to survive like this? Odds were low, as she had yet to succeed in that. How long would she be able to suffer this? How long before he would demand the sacrifice of her dignity, her self-respect?
Did she want to find out?
Mr. Taylor continued speaking, his tone more gentle now that he had gotten her to accede to his wishes. “I just want you to be safe. I would feel horrible should anything happen to you. It’s for your own good.”
She couldn’t stop the snort. “Of course it is. Isn’t it always?”
He was taken aback by the sarcastic vehemence of her tone. “What?”
She couldn’t stop herself, didn’t know if she wanted to. “Men like you are always making decisions for a woman’s own good. We’re too weak minded and flighty to be considered capable of determining what our own good is, so we must depend on men to determine that. Why does no one recognize that men are selfish and will manipulate the situation to serve their own needs? At what point did ‘what’s best for the woman’ become entire acquiescence to man’s desires? Why is it that no one can see that disparity? And those who do are scoffed at, ridiculed and shunned for being ‘unnatural’ females, merely for wanting the acknowledgment that they are in possession of a working mind and are capable of using it just as effectively as a man.”
John blinked, feeling as though he had taken an unexpected punch to the kidney. He didn’t know what to do: respond to her words—what was it she said anyway?—or marvel at the ferocity on her face. He doubted she knew what she looked like: eyes snapping, brows lowered, face red—even her golden hair seemed to resonate. Gone was the harpy and in her place was this woman caught up in a passion. He recognized that it was anger driving her, but there was a fine line between anger and lust and he knew which one was driving him now. He took a breath to ensure control over his body.
His mind belatedly processed some of her words. His brow lowered in confusion and he crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you saying that you want to get hurt?”
For some reason that made her angrier. “No,” she snapped. “I don’t want to get hurt. I want the respect afforded to men that I know what I can and cannot do and make decisions accordingly.”
“But you didn’t,” he pointed out. “You were about to fall from the chair. You could have been seriously injured.”
“Oh, and you never made a mistake once in your life? Never so close to accomplishing something that a little risk is worth it?”
“I highly doubt a pot is worth the risk.” He was still confused.
“Oh!” He wondered if she would stamp her foot, but she restrained herself. John watched as she took a deep breath, her breasts straining against her dress. She closed her eyes, her lips pressed together into an almost invisible line, and she was clenching her hands into fists and then relaxing them. When she spoke again, her voice was calm and flat. “Pray excuse me. Mr. Packard needs assistance.”
John automatically stepped out of her way, the woman sweeping by him in a regal swish of skirts. The hairs on his arms stood up as she passed him, every nerve wishing to touch her in some way. Yea gods, she was a firecracker. One of the world’s worst maids, but a firecracker nonetheless. Her anger had turned her brown eyes to an alluring dark mahogany, snapping with fire. Her pale cheeks had flushed with red, contrasting with her wheat colored hair that taunted him with its tempting softness. Her bosom had heaved with her furious breathing; his eyes were torn with where to look: at the rise and fall of her breasts, her delicate cheeks flaming with fury, her lips rounding on each word with deliberation or her eyes, the fire drawing him in with its promise of passion.
This was a woman who would do well in bed. In his bed.
Her pause at the door was infinitesimal. “And it is not about the pot, sir.” She finalized her parting shot with a sniff and disappeared from the office.
A large grin burst out on his face. Oh yes, she would do very well in his bed.