Giant Johnny stuck his head into the office. “Come with me.”
Louisa glanced up from the accounts. “What for?”
He sighed. “Just come. I only have a few minutes. Please,” he added.
With a frown, she stood and followed him out through the noisy kitchen towards her cottage. The carpenters had finished for the day, the sun already beginning to set. “What is it, Mr. Taylor? Dinner patrons will be arriving shortly. I still help to prepare and serve meals, as you well know.”
“First off, I think being partners means we can address each other by our Christian names. John is mine.”
“I know what your name is. And I disagree, as the use of our Christian names implies an intimacy that does not belong in a business partnership.”
“What about all those husband-and-wife partnerships? We are hardly the only couple to run an inn together.”
Louisa lifted her chin. “You have hit upon the difference. We are not married.”
“No, we are not.” He had stopped next to the ladder up to the roof and looked at her, his dark eyes smoldering. She knew what that look was for and it sent a wave of heat directly to her womb. Good Lord, it had been some time since she had had such a reaction to a man. She couldn’t remember it being so powerful.
She crossed her arms over her chest, hoping to hide how her nipples had tightened. “Why did you bring me here? Is there something the matter with my cottage?”
Giant Johnny shook his head. “Nothing is the matter. I just thought to show you something.”
“What is it?”
“How to shingle a roof.” He gestured to the ladder. “Up you go.”
Her eyes widened and she felt her jaw drop. She just stared at him for a moment before regaining her wits. “I beg your pardon?”
He grinned at her, making her stomach tighten. “You looked so unhappy to not be able to repair your own roof. I thought you might like to learn the basics, at least.”
Louisa glanced warily at the ladder. “You expect me to climb that thing in a dress?”
“I would lend you some of my trousers, but I doubt they would be your size. Even with a belt, they would be so big on you they would be a danger.” He leaned into her with a cheeky grin. “I won’t look if you don’t want me to.”
Her face reddened and she pressed her lips into a thin line. “You will proceed before me,” she stated.
“Have you climbed a ladder before?”
She sniffed. In stables, yes, but not for many years. “How difficult can it be?”
“The ladder wobbles.”
“Thank you for the warning. I am sure that I will be fine, if it holds you. Now if you please.” She nodded at the ladder and waited.
With a shrug, he scaled the ladder until he could swing up onto the roof. He leaned over to watch her ascent. Pressing her lips together, she held her skirts up by one hand and with the other clasped the wood of the ladder. Leaning in to compensate for her one-handed rise, she climbed up rung by rung, using the heels of her shoes to secure herself more firmly to the ladder. When she reached the top, he offered her his hand, which she refused until she noticed that half the roof was missing. Deciding the loss of pride was preferable to the loss of her life, she took it.
When his fingers encircled hers, the sensations from earlier that day came rushing back. His calloused skin scraped against hers, making all of her nerves stand at attention, focused on him. Thoughts of how his hands would feel against her belly, her breasts, her thighs and she felt a tingle tease her core.
He didn’t release her hand, instead pulled her closer to him, his arm sliding around her waist. “Be careful.”
“I am fine,” she said, but didn’t pull away, not when his hand felt so nice against her hip.
“Allow me this,” he murmured in her ear. “It is dangerous up here for even the most sure-footed of men.”
She nodded, still focused on the heat coming from his side and seeping into her body. A part of her mind whispered that she should move away, that she did not need to lean against him so, but the instinct to survive had her relishing his support.
Giant Johnny gestured with his free hand, covering the whole roof and pointing at the exposed wood. “We had to reframe most of the roof. The wood was rotten and you would have found yourself with one big hole, hopefully one that didn’t fall on your head.”
“I know what happens to rotten wood.” She found her voice again.
He ignored her and continued explaining their progress on the roof to her, carefully maneuvering her toward where shingles had already been laid, watching to see that she stepped carefully along the exposed wood and providing her support.
He glanced down at her and smiled. John released her to pick up a hammer and held it out to her. “Want to shingle your roof?”
Louisa stared at him. He could not be serious? She had never shingled a roof before. It was a task reserved for m—
On that thought, she took the offered tool and lifted her chin. “Tell me what to do.”
A grin covered his face and he led her to the laid shingles, walking onto the roof. She followed, holding her skirts in one hand, stepping cautiously. She eyed him walking confidently and forced herself to relax. If the wood supported his weight and size, it would do the same for her. Except that statement was something her logical mind failed to communicate fully to her still tense body. A part of her wished he still held on to her hand. Just for the support, she told herself.
He bent down and picked up a shingle. He knelt down and showed her the layering. “When it rains, you want the water to be able to run unobstructed down the roof. By layering the shingles, it keeps the water from entering the house, but if the first layer was at the peak—”
“The water would pool in the ridges instead of flowing down,” Louisa interrupted. “Yes, I see. That is quite logical.”
He grinned at her. “Yes, we men are known for our logic.”
She glared at him. “Do you really want me to respond to that?” She belatedly recognized the tease.
The grin remained. “The shingles are to be nailed down, like so.” He crouched, overlapped the new shingle over the top half of the already placed one and put a nail in each of the four corners, ensuring they entered both wood and shingle. “Easy as that.”
She eyed the shingles uneasily and glanced down at her green dress. She would have to be careful if she did not want it ruined. She hunched down beside him and took four nails from the nearby bag. He handed her a shingle, which she adjusted to overlap as he had. Nailing it in was challenging, as she did not want to hit her fingers. But when it was done, she looked up at him with a smile. “Easy as that.”
They continued that way, John handing her the shingles to nail in. Their progress was slower than it had been with Robbie and Joe, but he did not mind the view of her crouching on the roof and swinging a hammer.
It was oddly arousing, watching her confidence with the task increase. He gave a brief prayer of thanks that she hadn’t helped them during the day; it would have been difficult to explain the allure of a hammer.
Their pace picked up. “Not so hard, is it?” he said after several minutes.
“So easy even a woman could do it, is that what you are saying?”
“Easy, don’t get all prickly.” He spread more tar around. “It was just a comment. I happen to like conversation.”
“We can converse about the inn. I had some thoughts about the drink selection.”
“What about it?”
“We could purchase a variety of alcohols and different qualities as well.”
He glanced at her and checked her placement of the new shingle. “Make sure you cover as much of the laid shingle as possible. Don’t leave any spaces. What would having different drinks accomplish?”
She fixed the mistakes he indicated. “It would create an exclusivity. We could charge more for the higher-quality drinks. The color of money is all the same, so anyone with coin could purchase it, but the chances of a farmer being able to afford a dram of fine-quality Scotch is rare. It would cater to a higher class of client and keep the inn from being a gin-and-ale-only establishment.”
“You have thought this through.”
Louisa turned her head so he wouldn’t see her blush with pleasure at his comment. “Yes. We could even do the same with the gin and ale. Have different brands and qualities, charging more for the good stuff.”
The bare wood was now out of reach. John moved the nail bag and some shingles over and Louisa followed, hobbling over in her hunched position.
“You might be more comfortable if you kneel.” He indicated his stance.
She shot him a look that said Don’t be foolish. “I have no wish to ruin my dress.”
John threw his head back and laughed. “That is such a womanly thing to say.”
She glared at him. “I am a woman, in case you have failed to notice.”
“Aye, that is one thing I noticed about you straightaway.” His voice dropped and when she looked up at him, his eyes had that smolder in them again. Of course her body responded with an ache between her thighs accompanied by a rush of wet heat. He continued. “Getting a little dirty can be pleasurable.”
She turned her attention back to the tar. “There is no excuse for not taking care of one’s clothing, be they male or female. A little caution is a more affordable expense than new clothing.” She deliberately misunderstood his innuendo.
“I would buy you a new dress.”
“No, you would not.”
He fell silent at her quick response and Louisa could feel him looking at her. She kept her attention on the task. When he resumed his painting and spoke, it was something she was not expecting. “Did your husband refuse you new clothes?”
She froze, panic rising up in her. Dammit. She had never fully developed the story of her marriage, having never stayed in one place long enough for people to inquire about it. Her mind raced, trying to construct a plausible story.
At her silence, he continued speaking. “I did not mean to distress you by mentioning him. You have never mentioned him, so I am curious. But I would buy you new clothes; I don’t think I would be able to refuse you, were you mine.”
She cleared her throat, focusing on one part of his statement and keeping her eyes on her task. “That is a foolish thing to say. One should not make needless purchases simply because another has stated a desire for it. There are other factors to consider.”
“Yes. And need. For instance, if I already had ten dresses, I would hardly need another one, correct?”
“Do you have ten dresses?” The tease was back in his voice. She was beginning to recognize it.
“That is not the point.”
“Just like how the pot was not the point. Do you ever speak directly to the point, or is the extent of your conversation oblique allusions?”
“Oblique allusions? That is quite fancy coming from a prizefighter.”
“I have been known to read a book or two.” He handed her another shingle. “So if you had ten dresses, and the new one you wanted was in a new color, you would not buy it?”
“Not if I could not afford it. And did not need it.”
“Does any woman need ten dresses?”
“It has been many years since I needed or desired more than ten dresses.”
“Were you a governess at one time? You wear a lot of dull colors, green and gray and brown.”
“Can I not simply like them?”
He chuckled. “Not in my experience with women.”
Her hammering paused and John felt he was stepping into unwelcome territory. “You are very inquisitive about my past,” she said.
“We have worked side by side for nearly a month now, Mrs. Brock, two of those weeks as partners. Shouldn’t we know something about each other?”
“Can we not keep our relationship professional?” While she allowed her attraction to him, Louisa did not want him to know too much about her. It would raise awkward questions.
“I knew things about my manager’s personal life and no one doubted our professionalism. You won’t even let me use your Christian name.”
She took another shingle from him and secured it to the roof. She did so with four more shingles before she spoke again. “I was a governess once. It did not last.”
“Was that when you married?”
It was close enough to the truth. She did not invent her late husband until after she left Ridgestone. “Yes.”
“What was his name?”
She shot him a look. “Mr. Brock.”
His look in turn was exasperated. “My late wife’s name was Amanda.”
That made her stop working. “You were married?”
“Yes. She died seven years ago in childbirth.”
Louisa sat back on her heels and looked him directly in the eyes. “I am sorry to hear that.”
John shrugged. “We married because I got her with child. By the time of the birth, we had already acknowledged that we would not suit. She wanted to be with the champion at all times and not the everyday man. I wanted a wife who liked it when I stayed home. More than that, though, I did not want any child of mine to be born a bastard.”
“The child died, I assume.” At least there was none around calling him Father.
He nodded, appreciating her matter-of-fact tone. “That is what I mourned most.”
They stayed silent for several minutes, kneeling on the roof, not quite looking at each other. John had not realized before the comfort of shared silence, how it could soothe. Finally, she took a deep breath, her shoulders rising and falling, and lifted her chin.
“My name is Louisa.”
He looked at her, her raised chin and lips in a firm line. A smile tugged at his lips. “Is that a pity gift?”
She glanced at him. “Whatever do you mean?”
“You feel pity for me, so you are allowing me the use of your name. You’re tossing me crumbs, hoping it will make me feel better.”
Her face showed her exasperation. “You don’t have to use it if you don’t wish to. Hand me a shingle.” She held out her hand.
He held one out to her, not releasing it when she would have laid it on the roof. “It is my pleasure . . . Louisa.”
Was that a blush? He could not quite tell in the fading light. John chuckled as she hammered in the nail. “Let’s hurry it up, Louisa. The light is fading, Louisa. It will be time for dinner soon, Louisa. Maisie needs help preparing the meals, Louisa. I will tend the pub with Packard tonight, Louisa.”
“Oh, would you just stop already!”
His laughter echoed over the yard.