“You want to what?” John barely kept his voice at an appropriate level.
Louisa sniffed. “It is not asking much.”
“I hardly think buying four linen sets per room qualifies as not asking much.”
She put her hands on her hips. “Trust me, it will make things easier for everyone.”
She ticked off her fingers as she listed her reasons. “It will guarantee fresh linens for guests. It will space out the need for laundry. If one set gets dirty, there will immediately be clean ones. It will reduce the wear on any single set, thus making them last longer and saving money. It will help establish our reputation for being a clean inn.” She looked at him triumphantly, daring him to contradict her.
“But four each? And of the quality you are suggesting? The expense is too high.”
“It is an investment, Mr. Taylor.”
“An investment of my money. Of which there are not copious amounts.”
“You will recoup your losses, you will see. And I know the state of your finances. You can afford this, along with the tea services and private dining room.”
John sputtered. “Tea services and private dining room?”
She nodded. “Yes. Offering tea will appeal to the ladies of the town and travelers who just need a place to refresh themselves. And a private dining room will appeal to those of quality who prefer not to mix with lower classes as well as offer a place for meetings, such as the town council and ladies’ charity.”
John rubbed both hands along his head. “And where would this private dining room go? There is no room.”
“I know. That is why I took the liberty of talking to some carpenters in town and they quoted me a price. It is most inexpensive.” She lifted some papers off the desk and presented them to him.
John took them from her, giving her a glare. He glanced down at them and felt the blood drain from his face. “No. Absolutely not. This is too expensive.”
“It is necessary.”
He thrust the papers down onto the desk and folded his arms across his chest. “Perhaps in a year or so, once the inn starts to show a profit. But not now. The linens, yes to three sets each, and the tea services. But not the private dining room.”
He blinked when she burst out into a grin. “I was hoping you would say that. For now you cannot object to the carpenters repairing the tables and chairs in the pub. Here is that quote.” She held out another paper to him.
“What?” He was reeling from her abrupt change.
Louisa’s eyes twinkled wickedly. “I thought the private dining room was too expensive at this time as well. But we do need to repair the furniture. The chairs are weak and tilt and several of the tables look as though they will collapse after one more round of heavy cheering. I thought if I showed you the higher quote first, you would be more amenable to this.”
He stared at her. “Why did you not just consult me?”
“This is me consulting you.”
“By manipulating me?”
She frowned. “That is an unpleasant word. I prefer guiding or directing.”
“And I would prefer if you approached me with the respect afforded to me as the owner of the inn.”
“We are partners.”
“The word ‘partner’ calls to mind working together. Which won’t be us for much longer if you choose to continue to manipulate me.”
“You would terminate our agreement? That would be breach of contract.”
John pressed his fists into the desk and leaned in toward her. Something flickered in her eyes—he didn’t think it was fear—but she mimicked him, a move that sent his blood pulsing.
“There is no formal contract, Mrs. Brock,” he gritted out, staying focused on the issue at hand. “You cannot breach what does not exist.”
“We have a signed document,” she countered with a hiss, her voice as tight as his. “It may not have been written by a barrister, but it is still legally enforceable, such as IOUs between gentlemen.”
He smirked. “I have been around gambling enough to know that such IOUs are only enforceable by the gentleman’s honor, not the law.”
“Then you would admit to having no honor?”
“Funny to hear that word come from you after what you just did.”
“I want this inn to be the best and will do whatever is necessary to achieve that.”
A loud knocking on the door interrupted them and John realized how much their voices had risen. He glanced back to see Packard standing there. “What?” he barked.
The man stood straighter, bringing to John’s mind Packard’s naval experience. How had John not seen it before? Every time he spoke in an authoritative tone, Packard sharpened up. “The new casks of ale have arrived, sir.”
“Thank you, Packard.”
“With all due respect, sir, all the shouting is making the boys jumpy.” Packard jerked his thumb in the direction of the kitchen where Timothy and Alan were likely working.
Louisa straightened, suddenly feeling foolish and ashamed of her behavior. To think she had been screaming at Mr. Taylor like a fishwife. She had not been able to stop herself after his accusation of manipulation. Which, in hindsight, she had been doing. It had seemed like a clever idea at first, but she could see now the error of her thinking. He had yet to display the unreasonable behavior she expected of men, so she had little reason beyond her prejudices to treat him so.
The apology she knew he deserved stuck in her throat. She swallowed, trying to find a way around it. “I just have the best interests of the inn in mind,” she finally managed, staring at the wall.
In her peripheral vision she saw him straighten and put his hands on his hips, hanging his head for a moment. He let out a big sigh, one that would have heaved any other body. “As do I. We are supposed to be working together. Trust me enough to approach me directly regarding changes. I will listen, as I expect you to listen to me, and we will determine the best course of action together.”
She nodded her agreement. She did not speak but transferred her gaze to the desk, fiddling with some of the papers there.
“Where did the idea of serving tea come from?” he asked, breaking the silence.
Louisa glanced up. “From Timothy, really. He wanted to do something nice for his mother’s birthday and I was thinking it would be a treat for a farmer’s wife to come to a place where she would be served just like she was a lady. It wouldn’t take much to add a high tea to the menu.”
He stared at her for a moment before nodding with a small smile. “That is a very good idea. A smart one.”
Pride and pleasure warmed her chest at his acknowledgment. “Thank you.”
He shuffled his feet. “I ought to go help Packard with the ale delivery.”
“Could you ask Maisie to send in some tea for me, please?” she asked.
“I will. She was a good choice for cook, I think,” he said. “I don’t think my stomach has been this happy since I bought the inn.”
Louisa smiled at him and sat back down at the desk. “Yes, she is working out fine.”
Mr. Taylor pointed to the door. “Well, I am going to help with the delivery.” He turned and moved to the door.
“Mr. Taylor,” she called out, stopping him. When he looked over his shoulder, she said, “About the ale . . .”
“Yes?” He sounded wary.
“I think the brewer is cheating you. Us, I mean.”
She indicated a pile of receipts. “Based on what we are paying, the quality does not appear to match.”
“What do you know of ale?”
His comment held a note of teasing, but she bristled at it still. “Enough to know when it tastes good or not. I am surprised the men don’t complain about that horse—”
He held up his hand. “I will look into it.”
Louisa nodded, grateful he had saved her from another less than ladylike display. When he disappeared from the doorway, she sat back in the chair and wondered why she was concerned about appearing a lady for him. It had been years since she thought of herself as such and to have the idea resurrect itself now was unsettling.
Louisa fell into bed, willing to lose the battle against exhaustion. Oh, but it was a good exhaustion. Two weeks had passed since she and Mr. Taylor began their partnership and the improvements were already noticeable. The rooms were clean with new linens on their way; the carpenters had repaired all the pub furniture and were now making a new large hidden closet on the sleeping floor to store linens and cleaning supplies so the maids would not have to fetch these things from the ground floor; the new cook, Maisie, was proving to be worth the price it took to lure her away from the large house; and the new maids were settling in decently well.
She and Giant Johnny had not fought since that first time; disagreed, yes, but no outright fights or arguments. One that she was glad to have won was in regard to the services the maids were to provide. Insistent upon the inn not being labeled a brothel, Louisa had convinced him that any such services would be at the maid’s own discretion and preference, and not promoted by the inn. Even that had been a compromise, as he had pointed out that the possibility would draw male customers. After their decision, she had spoken with both Rose and Fanny individually, emphasizing the matter of their choice and that they would have the protection of the inn should they refuse such attention at any time. Giant Johnny had not been privy to that aspect of their agreement, but she felt confident he would agree if he knew.
But her days were long. Not as physically demanding as when she was working as a maid, but more required her attention, from the accounts to menus to supplies to training and directing employees. It seemed that from the moment she left her room, people were demanding decisions from her.
It was lovely, having people look to her for leadership and seeing the inn evolve under her guidance. Under their guidance.
She could not in good conscience deny the efforts John Taylor was contributing to the inn. Now that he was free of the paper encumbrances of management, he was flourishing even more in regard to customer satisfaction. He had consented to putting a sign in the window stating that the Beefy Buzzard was home to the Five Hit Wonder and already business had increased. They even had their first overnight guest this evening, a well-heeled gentleman traveling to London. The gentleman had appeared to enjoy his evening in the pub, listening to Giant Johnny regale them with a story of one of his early victories, blow by blow. Not that she would admit it to him, but she had enjoyed watching him tell the tale, if not the tale itself. He had become so animated, using his fists to punch the air in embellishment. A part of her had been mesmerized, rooted to the spot where she could watch him in his element. Thankfully she had managed to push that part of her down so she could focus on her duties, even if her eyes and attention kept drifting back to the large man, graceful and captivating in his storytelling.
And tonight was her last night in the inn itself. Tomorrow she would begin making the cottage livable, starting with her bedchamber.
She drifted off to sleep, a smile on her face, and dreamed of a bald gentle giant telling a story just for her.
John hammered in a shingle on the cottage roof and accepted another one from the carpenter, Robbie. Mrs. Brock had inspected the cottage for residency earlier in the week and the disappointment on her face ate at his gut. He directed the carpenters to halt whatever project she had them currently working on and to begin repairs to make the small residence habitable. He contributed when he could step away from the inn to help the project along. He decided the entire roof ought to be reframed and replaced, given the amount of leaks and rot they had found. They had already completed the reframing and were now laying the slate shingles.
It felt good to be doing physical work again. He enjoyed tending to his pub and inn, but after a decade of living by the strength of his body, the inaction of his new profession was difficult to accustom himself to. The ringing of hammers filled his ears, proclaiming to the world that men were at work. Robbie Brown and Joseph Smith were good at their jobs, working with conversation and laughter. Joe, the older one, was married with a third child on the way and Robbie was betrothed to a young lady in town.
Robbie handed John another shingle with a grin and a nod toward the inn. “We have a Peeping Tom over there.”
John glanced in the direction Robbie indicated and saw Mrs. Brock standing at the rear entrance, her arms crossed and her lips pressed into a line even visible from here. He paused in mid-swing and took in her green dress and hair pulled back into a simple knot. He enjoyed looking at her slender stature, his eyes drifting to her curves with mouthwatering enthusiasm. She was taller than the average woman, which would aid in their intimacy. He knew that if he were to pull her back against him, her head would be able to rest on his shoulder and her bottom would nestle into his groin. In such a position, he would have easy access to that spot just below her ear that he longed to kiss and make his way down her neck to her shoulder, pulling away the fabric shielding her skin from his attention. She would lean back into him, perhaps even wrap an arm back to hold his head to that place where her shoulder met her neck and allow him to pay homage to her beating pulse. He wondered if she would be the type to give breathless sighs or heartfelt moans or . . .
“She’s a piece of work, ain’t she?” Robbie said, breaking into his fantasy.
John tore his gaze away from the object of his lust and reined in his wayward thoughts. “Eh?” He finished nailing in the shingle and shifted over, accepting a new one.
“Mrs. Bristly, some are calling her.” Robbie grinned at him.
“Bristly?” More hammering helped him regain his focus. He stole a glance back to see that she had disappeared.
The younger man shrugged. “She’s just so prickly. Like a hedgehog, I figure. Can’t get close to her without risking your blood.” He held out another shingle. John took it, but did not resume work. Robbie kept speaking. “I mean, she looks good and all, but as soon as she starts talking to you, your little boys curl up and hide, know what I’m saying? What man wants that? You must have balls of steel to be working with her.”
Never mind that his initial impression of her had been similar. John took issue with the man’s comments. “Oi, that’s a bit much, don’t you think?”
“Come on, mate, you telling me she ain’t a fishwife to you?”
“Quit your jabbering, Robbie,” Joe called from down on the ground with a fresh load of shingles.
“Aw, Joe, ain’t no secret ’bout it,” Robbie complained, lifting the load up by a rope. He untied the bundle and carried some back to where they were working, walking along the frame. “Likely nagged her husband to death, Mrs. Brock did. Glad my Amelia is biddable. All I hears from her are ‘Yes, Robbie, oh, Robbie, yes, yes, oh yes!’” The young man grinned and laughed at his crude joke.
John dropped the shingle and hammer and rose to his full height. Even tilted on the roof of the cottage, balancing on the frame, he was hard to ignore. He stepped closer to the young man just barely out of adolescence, using his height to maximum intimidation advantage. He spoke softly. “Listen well, boy. I don’t want to hear no disrespect of Mrs. Brock or any other woman, you get me? I’m not keen on ending my retirement on the likes of you.”
Robbie bent his head back to look at John’s serious face. His face paled and he visibly swallowed. “Sorry, mate, I didn’t know she was your woman.”
John shook his head in disgust. “Didn’t your mother teach you no manners?”
“Excuse me, gentlemen!”
Mrs. Brock’s voice interrupted them and they all turned to see her walking across the yard with Timothy and Alan carrying tankards and a tray laden with food. She called up as they moved closer. “It is nearing time for luncheon and I thought you might be hungry.”
John turned back to Robbie and said with a growl, “Would a fishwife or hedgehog do that?” He made his way to the ladder and climbed down, Robbie following him. He met Mrs. Brock as she was nearing the cottage and took the food tray from her. “My thanks. We were just talking about taking a break.”
She gave him a strange look, but he ignored it and set the tray on a nearby log. Joe and Robbie made their way over to the food, but when Robbie reached to take a tankard from Timothy, John pushed him away. “You’re last,” he muttered with a glower. “When we’re done, you can eat. And thank the lady for her consideration in bringing your ungrateful ass food.”
“Yer joking!” the boy exclaimed.
John glared in answer and Robbie shrank down, shuffling away from the tray. He muttered what passed for a thanks.
John took a long drink from his tankard and felt her move to his elbow. “What was that about?” she asked quietly.
He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Nothing. Just a boy growing up.”
“You will inform me if there are any problems, correct?”
Her fingers lightly touched his elbow. John stilled, his senses honing in on the light pressure. He turned his head to look at her, his body following suit when his gaze met her mahogany eyes. They had the strange effect of both calming and exciting him, to be the recipient of her focused attention.
She spoke, keeping her voice at a discreet level, well aware of Joe and Robbie sitting not too far away against the wall of the cottage. “I want to thank you, Mr. Taylor, for seeing to my cottage.”
He felt a surge of pleasure at her thanks, but tried to dismiss her gratitude. “It is part of our arrangement and no bother. I enjoy this type of work. Gets the kinks out and all that.”
“Nevertheless, I appreciate it. This is something I do not have the skills to see to myself and must then depend on others.”
He grinned at the disgruntled look on her face. “Poor Mrs. Brock,” he teased. “Forced to depend on the kindness of others.” She lowered her brow, creating creases along her forehead. She opened her mouth to speak, but he forestalled her by running his thumb along those creases, smoothing them out.
He did not know why he did it. It was more automatic than anything. Under his thumb, her skin was smooth and soft, its creaminess contrasting with his own tanned skin. His eyes narrowed in on where his thumb came in contact with her forehead, focusing in on the spot. He rubbed her forehead a few times before trailing his thumb down to her cheek, learning the texture of that skin as well until he was caressing her chin with his thick digit.
Mrs. Brock’s eyes had widened when he touched her forehead, stared at him unblinkingly as his thumb traversed her cheek. Now her mouth gaped open slightly and her shoulders rose and fell with her breathing. Her tongue darted out, licking her lips and his eyes were riveted by the sight of it. When not pressed into a thin line, her mouth was pale pink, nicely shaped with her lower lip more lush than the top and the small bow along the top lip just large enough to catch a man’s attention.
But John’s attention was currently on that lush lower lip. It begged him to kiss it, draw it into his mouth to nibble and suck. Heat flooded his body at the thought of closing the small distance between them and doing just that. Based on the look on her face and her breathing, Mrs. Brock would welcome his kiss at the very least. He shifted, preparing to do just that.
A clatter broke the spell. John dropped his hand and turned to look at Joe teaching Timothy and Alan about the shingles, the boys throwing them onto the growing pile to be pulled up to the roof. Robbie had moved to the shade of a tree and was stretched out for a nap, his cap covering his face.
The sound of skirts moving reached his ears and John had to watch Mrs. Brock return to the inn. She strode quickly and did not glance back over her shoulder. He ducked his head ruefully, his body pricking with want. He had to content himself with watching her hips sway back and forth until he couldn’t see her anymore.