Louisa turned her head at the young voice that called her name. “Yes, Timothy?” Suds were up to his elbows as he scrubbed the pots from the morning’s cooking.
“Kin I asks ye a question?”
She closed her eyes briefly at his grammar. “Of course.”
“Yer smart, right? Me mam’s day is coming up and I been saving bits of me wages to git her somethin’ pretty. Kin ye tell me what mams like?”
Louisa looked up from the tray she was preparing for Mr. Taylor. She had taken to bringing him a board of cheese and bread along with a pint. He worked in his office every afternoon and invariably grew hungry when he did.
And it always happened when Mr. Packard was out of the kitchen.
“You want to buy your mother a birthday gift?” Louisa asked. “That is very sweet of you, Timothy.”
He blushed and scratched his cheek, leaving some suds on his skin. “T’aint nothing. I only gots a few pennies.”
“Well, what ideas have you been thinking of?”
“Mebee some flowers, buts she kin get those in any field ’round here. Mebee a pretty dress? Or one them bonnets that them ladies wear. Buts I can’t go into one of them girl stores.”
“Are you asking me to go shopping for you?”
Timothy shrugged. “How much do them dresses and bonnets cost?”
Louisa’s eyes were sympathetic. “More than a few pennies.”
His face fell. “Well, what else do mams like?”
Louisa lifted the tray. “They like nicely behaved, handsome sons that do the dishes instead of going out and playing after dinner.”
A cheeky grin covered his face. “I got the handsome stuff down pat!”
She smiled back at him. “That you do, Timmy boy.” She turned and carried the tray to Giant Johnny’s office. “I will keep thinking about your mother’s birthday gift.”
“Thank ye, Mrs. Brock,” Timothy called out, the cheeky grin still on his face.
Giant Johnny looked up with a frown as she entered the office. “What was that about?” he asked.
Louisa shook her head. “Nothing important. Timothy wants to buy his mother a birthday gift.”
“Hm” was all the response she got as he turned his attention back to his books, rubbing his head.
She stood in the doorway for a moment, looking at Giant Johnny hunched over his desk. He looked awkward, uncomfortable, as he scratched away at the paper. He didn’t normally ignore her like this. Usually he stood and offered her a smile and a seat. She had become used to these offers, even put more on the tray when she was of a mind to accept.
She didn’t often get the opportunity to watch him. Her days were too busy and in the evenings he was dedicated to the pub, serving and entertaining the customers. Regulars, mostly, all men. None came who expressed interest in needing a room; she had yet to clean the rooms again, for which she was thankful.
Now as she stood here, looking at him, she wondered at the tiny ball of disappointment at how he barely glanced up and didn’t even smile at her.
Louisa watched his hand running back and forth over his bare pate. She had run her hands through a man’s hair before, and she was curious about how her hand would feel in the same place as his now. Would his skin be soft? Smooth like the skin on her stomach or more rough, given the hair follicles that covered a human scalp? Would it be warm or cool? Would she be able to determine just by touch if he was naturally bald or if he maintained it that way?
She imagined herself standing beside him and sliding her hands along that bare skin, down his neck to settle on his broad shoulders. She had never seen a man of his size. Serving in the pub, she noticed how the men instinctively cowered when near him, but she found it intriguing. Ever since the pot incident when he had effortlessly held her by the waist, a part of her longed for it to happen again. Her skin tingled at the thought of being held in his arms again where she could lean into him and learn his body, his heat, his smell. Her shoulders ached to be surrounded by him, her throat drying at the prospect of being able to lean into him and pull his head down for a kiss.
She was not a maiden, having indulged with two footmen since becoming a governess. They had both been pleasant and attractive—she would have nothing less—and, most importantly, discreet. She never would have considered them if she had thought they would spread tales about her. The experiences had been enlightening, if dangerous. She gave a brief whisper of thanks she had never been caught with child. She was not a stranger to feeling lust, but the force of this particular lust for the giant sitting awkwardly at his desk took her off guard.
She was torn between indulging her lust and denying it. She was unsure if he was feeling the same attraction to her and he was her employer; that alone could complicate matters. As a governess, she had never allowed her employers any possibility of a sexual relationship, but those gentlemen had all been married with children. Such an arrangement would have made her more than uncomfortable in regard to her dignity and having to face his wife.
But her giant here was unmarried, no children in sight save for the two boys he employed. And if things became awkward, she had more freedom to leave than she had felt as a governess. She did not have a formal contract to stay at the inn and he paid her on a weekly basis instead of monthly.
If anything, it would rid her of the ache between her legs and along her skin whenever he was nearby. She was certain that even if he didn’t exactly feel lust for her, he would be able to perform when the time came.
She just had to decide what it was she wanted.
“I’ve brought your tray, Mr. Taylor,” Louisa said and moved to put it on his desk.
He muttered absently, “Thank you.”
“Is something the matter?” she asked, glancing at him.
“Nothing you can help with,” he replied.
She stiffened at the dismissal in his tone and turned on her heel to stalk out of the room. His voice stopped her.
“Wait, please, Mrs. Brock.”
Louisa looked back at him. Mr. Taylor stood, the chair scraping loudly against the wood floor. He ran his hand over his head again. “I apologize. I should not have spoken like that to you. I only meant that it is an accounts issue, one that a maid does not need to be concerned over.”
She lifted her chin. “A maid can have some knowledge beyond cleaning.” At least she did. Not many others she had met did.
He nodded. “Of course.”
At his agreeable tone, she took a step forward, softening a little. “I do, for instance.”
A smile tugged at his lips. “I did notice that you were not the regular run-of-the-mill maid. Perhaps you can help me with this?” He gestured to his desk.
She looked at him warily before glancing down at the books. He shifted and held the chair out for her. Keeping her chin in the air, she moved and sat down, settling her skirts around her legs. He helped her shift closer to the desk and she peered down at the books.
“Good Lord, these are a mess!” She looked up at him.
He gave her a sheepish shrug. “I didn’t think they were that bad.”
“Do you even know how to do accounts?”
It was his turn to look offended. “I kept my own accounts from my fighting days.”
She sniffed. “That is hardly the same as accounting for an inn, sir.”
His offended look turned to a cajoling one. “I have become aware of that. Hence my asking you for help.”
She blinked at the sudden rush of warmth that washed through her at his smile. There, that was what was missing when she first entered the office.
But she was foolish to give him any indication of pleasure at such a thing. She looked back down at the books. “Well, if I am going to make any sense of this, I am going to need some tea.” She looked up at him and pierced him with one of her governess looks. “Please bring me some.”
His cajoling smile turned into a full-fledged grin and the warmth exploded into a fire inside her. He sketched her a bow. “As you wish, my lady.”
She sniffed and turned her attention to the books, watching out of the corner of her eye as he left the office. When his back was turned, she took a longer glance at his retreating form, her eyes settling on his bottom.
Good Lord, but the man was finely built.
Hours later, Louisa dropped the pencil on the desk and leaned back in the chair, rubbing her eyes. “Well, I think I managed to save the accounts from your mismanagement.”
John was in the chair on the opposite side of the desk. His posture was relaxed, leaning back with his chin in his hand and one ankle over the other. He had enjoyed this, watching her wrestle with the accounts. Once it became clear it would be a long, tedious job, he had not waited in the office but popped in from time to time to check on her. Evening customers would be arriving shortly and he had stolen a few minutes to just sit and watch her.
She was always flitting about the inn doing this and that and he had yet to observe her being still; even their occasional teatimes had been brief and awkward, with his tongue more often than not glued to the roof of his mouth. It had been pleasant to look at her, completely with her knowledge, for she was aware of his presence, and not have to worry about making conversation. It was a novel experience for him, to not know what to say around a woman.
He milked this opportunity for all he could get, from her wheat colored hair glowing in the light to the expanse of her bosom revealed in how her dress gaped open as she leaned over the desk and account books.
Oh, how he stared. He had never wanted for a woman, especially as a champion. He had made the choice several years ago to be more discerning in his choice of bed partners and it still surprised him to know that he had yet to end the spurt of celibacy that decision had precipitated. Seven years ago, if someone had told him he would not bed a woman in so long, he would have laughed his head off, for women had always made themselves available to him. Only after purchasing this inn several months ago did he find himself without access to the fairer sex. The women of Grompton-Upon-Tweer did not frequent the Beefy Buzzard and none had approached him outside the premises either. Add to that to the decided lack of maids working at the inn and he found himself staring unabashedly at Mrs. Brock’s lovely bosom.
Fine apples they were, perhaps even as big as some oranges he had once seen at the docks in London. His mouth watered now just as it had when he had bitten into one of those orange slices. Thinking about pulling the chair out from the desk and kneeling between her legs to nuzzle the creamy mounds had his free hand gripping the arm of his chair tightly to keep him from doing so.
He wondered how she would react if he did that. Or more, lifted her up and carried her through the door in the corner to his room to let her have her way with him.
John forced himself to look at her face. It had simply been too long since he had had a woman, although he had always been able to control himself during his celibacy before now. Perhaps it was Fate or God telling him it was time to end his self-imposed penance. Mrs. Brock was a widow and generally widows were open to discreet arrangements once the cold loneliness of their beds seeped into their bodies. True, she had thus far shown a decided lack of interest in such an arrangement with him, but after seven years he could wait. It could be that she had not yet reached that point in her widowhood; a lack of black clothing did not necessarily indicate an end to grief, as he well knew.
His eyes met her brown ones, noticing the shade of mahogany tinged with gold around the pupils. Lovely eyes they were.
He recalled her statement. “You are successful?”
She nodded. “I believe so.” There was a hint of red on her cheeks, a flush of pleasure at her accomplishment.
“What was the issue?”
“There were many, but the largest one was the confusion between credits and debits. Comparing the entries in the columns with the receipts showed the inconsistencies. See here”—she turned the book around for him to see better—“you had even mixed up the different accounts. This entry here is for the candles, but the only receipt I could find to match the date and number was for the butcher. And many of the entries were not entered properly. They had the same numerals, but in different arrangements than the receipts. Had you not noticed this?”
He shook his head. “Maths never was a strong suit of mine.” Even as a child, he had confused his numbers. He managed to get by, but it was never easy or a pleasant task.
“Well, it is sorted now.” She closed the book and sat back in the chair, giving no sign of relinquishing it to him. She gripped the arms, curling her fingers around the wood and pressing her lips together. Her gaze did not leave his and he got the impression she was gathering her courage.
John raised his eyebrows in question. “You look like you have something to say, Mrs. Brock.”
She lifted her chin. “I do.”
Her grip tightened on the chair. “You were right before.”
“I was? On what?”
“I am not a maid. I have never been a maid. It has been . . . a challenge to adapt to such a position.”
He grinned and a spark of pleasure pulsed in his chest when he saw her blink and momentarily lose her focus. “I assumed as much. You are the worst maid I have ever seen.”
Her lips pressed together and the focus returned to her eyes, this time accompanied by anger. “I believe I have done the best I possibly could.”
John held up a hand. “I am not holding it against you. I could tell you were working hard and that is enough for me.”
“Yes, that is what I wanted to speak of.” She flexed her fingers on the chair, but did not release her grip. “I have been watching you too and I have noticed things.”
More pleasure sparked at that statement. “Such as?” My physique? My stature? My hands? My shoulders? Women like my shoulders.
“You are good with the customers, quite good.”
The pleasure dissipated. He had not been expecting that.
She continued. “True, they are intimidated by your size, but they do not actually fear you. You make them laugh and feel comfortable here. That is why they keep coming back.”
He gave her a wry grin. “I rather think the ale is more of a reason for their loyalty.”
She shook her head. “The Rose and Crown is a half-hour’s horse ride away and I heard their prices are similar to ours. If it was a better pub, they would not hesitate to go there. They choose to come here, despite all the flaws.”
John raised his brows at her words, but she continued, gesturing to the books. “One of your obvious weaknesses in management is your bookkeeping. It is atrocious, yet I see you working on them every day. They should never have achieved this state with the amount of effort I have seen you put into them.”
He linked his hands together and settled them on his stomach, curious as to where she was going with this. “Your point?”
Mrs. Brock took a deep breath. “I have been raised and trained to run a household, including the bookkeeping. I could be your partner. I would handle the details such as employees, accounts, things similar to a house. You would be in charge of customers, running the pub and being the face of the inn. I would be the housekeeper to your butler.”
He looked at her for a moment. The idea had merit. And appeal. If it meant he never had to look at those damned account books again, he would just about hand over the keys to her entirely. “My lord to your lady,” he said.
A small flush covered her cheeks at the implications of such a metaphor. She lifted her chin. “Not in a true sense of the words, however.”
“Of course not,” he demurred. He still needed some convincing, though. “Tell me, what would be your first action, were we partners?”
“Remove Mr. Packard from the position of cook.” Her response was so quick and automatic John had no doubt she had been thinking of that for some time.
“Why? He does the job competently.”
“Have you actually tasted his food?”
He shrugged. “I have had worse.”
“The point is that you do not want a merely competent cook,” she replied. “One’s cook is an attraction to visitors; a bad one will give people doubts when considering a stay. You want a stellar cook.”
“But he cooked for Captain Wallace for four years before coming here. He cannot be that bad.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “And who is Captain Wallace?”
John shrugged, having not asked Packard about it.
“He was captain of the HMS Liberty. A naval captain. Mr. Packard is used to making due with hardtack and fish heads. He does not belong in the kitchen of an inn.”
He took a deep breath and contemplated the situation. He was beginning to see his folly now. “What do you suggest? I have no wish to dismiss the man, for he is a reliable employee.”
“Move him to assist you in tending to the bar. He is a large enough fellow to discourage rabble-rousers and to assist with the casks and whatnot. As for the cook, I am sure there are some large houses around here. We could entice an undercook or two to come run the kitchen. It won’t have the prestige of nobility, but they will have their own kitchen to oversee.”
John looked at her, at the remaining flush on her cheeks now accompanied by an excited light in her eyes. Her lips were pressed together, but he thought it was more because she was trying to contain her enthusiasm than displeasure.
Her excitement was contagious. He felt himself responding to it, being drawn in. Her ideas were strong, the logic was sound. He felt like a half-wit for not researching Packard more thoroughly, but at the time he had just wanted to open as soon as possible. And look to the large houses for employees? Again, he was a half-wit.
He felt a smile grow on his face. “Maids too can be lured away from their positions.”
Mrs. Brock nodded slowly. “They might be more difficult, but we can try. To give up the training to be a lady’s maid is more difficult than that of a cook. There is only ever one head cook in a kitchen, whereas there can be several lady’s maids. Farms would be a better starting point, I think. Those girls are used to hard work and their families can use the money. We can split them between the cleaning and serving duties.”
“That makes sense.”
“We would need an ostler for the horses and carriages. That may be a bit more difficult. For grooms we can look to the farms as well, but they work with their fathers, so it may be challenging. Sons of the merchants may do as well. But we can make do with Timothy and Alan for now to serve both as grooms and kitchen help.”
“Ostlers and grooms?” he interjected. “But we have no need for that. No overnight guests save yourself have stayed who might need carriages or horses seen to.”
“But that will change,” Mrs. Brock said confidently. “The weather and daylight are changing and you will have travelers such as I who will need shelter. You do not want them to move on to the next inn.”
“But just like you, they will have no choice but to stay here if the weather is so unpleasant. The next closest inn in any direction is at least an hour away, even in a carriage.”
“But you don’t want people to stay here because they have to, you want them to stay because they want to. The first time they will have no choice, but when the weather improves, we will have a good enough reputation that travelers will deliberately seek us out for accommodations. It will only grow from there.”
Yea gods, when she spoke like that, it was easy to believe her. With those ideas and enthusiasm, John could clearly see the Beefy Buzzard in a year’s time, two and three, thriving and successful, just as he wanted it to be. It would prove to the naysayers that he could be successful outside the boxing ring and justify what they had said was his ill-advised retirement.
He loved his inn, loved his patrons and the stable community it had provided him thus far. But he was intelligent enough to recognize that he was not meant for the responsibilities of running an inn. As Mrs. Brock said, he was good to be out front, being the face of the operation, but his skills in other areas were lacking.
Which made her partnership proposal so alluring. It would allow both of them to focus on areas they were good at while bringing the inn to the thriving establishment he knew it could be.
And it would guarantee her staying in the area. One more benefit to the arrangement.
“What do you expect in return?” he asked.
“Half of the profits and that cottage I saw out back.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Seventy-five, twenty-five. This is my inn, after all.”
“It will become our inn. Fifty-fifty.”
“You are getting the cottage out back, I get the tiny room right here. Seventy-thirty.”
“That cottage is run down and will need much work and effort to make it habitable. Fifty-fifty.”
“It is all of my money invested into this establishment. Sixty-forty.”
Mrs. Brock stuck out her hand. “With the option of renegotiating in a year’s time.”
John leaned forward and wrapped his hand around hers. It engulfed her smaller one, her fingers barely managing to peek out around the side of his. He held it in a carefully firm grip, ensuring he contained his strength so as not to harm her. “Deal, Mrs. Brock. I will draw up an agreement.”
“I can do that. It is something that will fall under my purview, after all.”
He nodded. “Fine. We can start enticing those employees away tomorrow.”
“I will continue to see to the maids’ duties until those positions are filled. You will not regret this, Mr. Taylor.” She tried to extract her hand from his, but John held firm, enjoying the softness against his palm.
He smiled at her, enjoying how her eyes dipped down to his lips and lost some of their focus. “Neither will you, Mrs. Brock,” he murmured. “I am certain we both will be pleased with our new arrangement.”