Late October, Ridgestone Manor
Jacob stepped out of the carriage to see Claire, Bonnie and Sara all standing in the drive. Even in the twilight, he could see the anxious look on their faces. Claire pulled her shawl tighter when Stephen and Nathan exited the carriage.
Without Louisa. Their disappointment was palpable.
Grooms and footmen were already seeing to the luggage and Jacob strode to the waiting women. He kissed Claire on the cheek and put his hand on her growing belly. “You should not be outside in such cold weather, sweetheart. Not with just a shawl.”
“You didn’t have any success?” Bonnie asked.
Sir Stephen shook his head, his face grim. “I must echo Jacob’s sentiment, wife. You must take care.”
Bonnie glared at him, even as she accepted his embrace, angling her body to accommodate her large stomach. “I cannot think of such things at this time.”
“You are nearing your time,” her husband pointed out. “You will not have a choice regarding what to think about. Where are the boys?”
“In the nursery, preparing for bed. I was about to go lumbering up when we received word of the carriage. You would not believe how difficult it is to carry all this around.” She rubbed her stomach.
“I will accompany you.” Stephen left his arm around Bonnie, supporting her as she walked.
Sara stood with Nathan’s hand entwined around hers. “You must all be hungry. I will see if Cook has something warm for you.”
She moved to do that, but Nathan tightened his grip on her. “Send a maid.” He nodded at Greaves, the butler, to do so. “I wish to not have my fiancée run away just as I arrive.”
“Is the fire in the drawing room lit?” Jacob asked.
Claire nodded and linked her arm around him, bringing their bodies close as she led them inside. “It is nice and toasty tonight.”
“Your leg is paining you?” Sara asked as Nathan leaned on his cane more after divesting his cloak.
He grimaced. “Just the cramped coach ride. And it is going to snow soon, or so my leg tells me. I will be fine . . .” He leaned in and whispered the rest of his sentence in her ear that had her face turning scarlet.
“I missed you too,” she said softly, fingering the lapels of his coat. “I just wish you had returned with Louisa.”
“As do I. I do not relish leaving you behind as I continue on to Windent.”
Her blush did not lessen. “I am sure we can have a room prepared for you tonight. Claire and Bonnie would serve as chaperones.”
Nathan flashed a grin at her. “They are worse than we are. You hear how they encourage us.”
Sara stopped just outside the drawing room and looked up at him with worry lining her face. “Nathan, I know I said I wished to postpone our wedding until Louisa was found. And—and I thank you for your patience. But if you wish—I mean, if you need—want to, it’s not that import—we could—”
He placed a finger over her mouth. “Stop. We will wait. There is no issue. The purpose of the wedding is to tell the world what we already know: You are mine and I am yours. If your friend is not there, then not all the important people will know.”
Relief flooded through her and she pressed her forehead to his chest. “I am so concerned for her. It has been four months and we still have heard nothing. I feel as though we drove her away, you and I, with what we did. This is a punishment.”
He rubbed her back. “That is foolish thinking. Come into the drawing room and hear our news. It is not encouraging, but the good side of it is that we still have not uncovered anything to indicate she is not enjoying good health. We will resume our search next week once we hear from some inquiries we made.”
He led her into the drawing room to join their friends.
“Pull your hat down more,” Louisa whispered. “We don’t want to be recognized.”
“I would think my size is revealing enough,” John muttered, obediently tugging his brown cap down as much as possible to hide his bald head. The fake mustache she gave him itched like the devil, but he was glad to have won in not wearing a wig to match it.
She adjusted his clothing, standing so close to him that he could smell the soap she used. Lemon. Tart, just like her, but able to be sweetened with the right ingredients. She said, “I ensured the clothing was purposely large, even on you, to give the impression that you are smaller than you actually are. As I am dressed as your ladybird, I think our disguises are foolproof.”
He glanced down her body. “Your right breast is falling down.”
“Oh good Lord.” He watched in fascination as her hand disappeared down into her bosom to adjust whatever it was she put in her dress to increase the size. The dress itself was a dark blue with lace trim along the hems and bosom and clung to her curves. Her blond hair was arranged in artful disarray, giving the impression of just rising from bed—or coming from a back-alley tup. Her face was heavily adorned with rouge and other coloring, a mole patch placed jauntily below one of her eyes. Seeing her display herself in such a manner, John had to fight the urge to hide her under his coat or, better yet, drag her back to the cart and return to the Beefy Buzzard.
“I thought we were supposed to be making ourselves unremarkable. That”—he indicated her bosom—“is guaranteed to catch every man’s interest.”
Louisa rolled her eyes. “Yes, but they will not be looking at my face, will they?”
He had to give her that. “Yea gods, she will be the death of me,” he said under his breath. Louder, “Remind me again why we can’t just go into the Rose and Crown all normal like.”
She gave an impatient huff. “They are our closest competition for a pub. They don’t offer rooms, so we have the advantage there. But from what I have heard, their ale is superior. I want to find out what they serve. I told you I suspect our brewer is cheating us. Perhaps we can discover something here.”
“But why must we resort to subterfuge? Why can we not just go in as though we are ordinary customers?”
“Because,” she said, as though he were a young child, “we are not ordinary customers. What do you think would happen if word got out that the proprietors of the Beefy Buzzard were frequenting another pub?”
“That we needed a diversion?”
“No, that the quality of our inn is so low we won’t even partake there.”
He frowned. “You don’t drink ale. How do you know it’s bad?”
“Because I serve it. I hear the men making comments about it. And they drink it more slowly the more sober they are.”
“Every man drinks more slowly when he is sober, regardless of the drink.”
“And I see you grimace into your pint every time.”
True, he did that. John heaved a big sigh. “Let’s get this over with then.” He wrapped his arm around her waist and held her close, enjoying the feeling of her soft curves molding into his side.
“I think this part is unnecessary,” she protested.
“No one will believe you are my ladybird if I don’t hold you like this,” he pointed out. “You are too beautiful not to be touched.”
She fought to ignore the blossom of pleasure in her chest at his compliment. “Remember to hunch, make yourself shorter.”
If she didn’t know better, Louisa would have sworn he just huffed like a little girl. They approached The Rose and Crown, the chatter and laughter already spilling out into the street. John swung open the door and led her in, quickly scanning for a table where they could sit as unobtrusively as possible. Finding one, he pushed through the crowd, holding her close to his side. He told himself it was for her protection, but he knew better.
As they walked, he noted several men turning their way. But, as she predicted, their eyes were not on either of their faces. John felt his blood simmer with annoyance when he saw the lust in the men’s eyes. One was foolish enough to grab Louisa’s arm to halt their progress.
“Hullo, honeypot,” the man slurred, his eyes and words directed at her bosom. “Lemme git ye a drink.”
John pushed the man away, causing him to stumble and fall onto another man. “She’s with me,” he growled and resumed their progress through the room. When the overturned men tried to make a fuss, he discouraged them with a dark look and they went back to their own business.
When they reached the table, he sat with his back in the corner and maneuvered her onto his lap before she could get her own chair. He wasn’t about to give any man in the room the impression she was still up for grabs. Having her close and learning the feel of her body was merely an added bonus.
She gave a little squawk. “I know this is unnecessary.”
He held her firmly, forcing her to stay. “Ladybird, remember. Put your arm around my neck.”
With furious eyes that promised retribution, she obeyed. “You must at least try to look like you’re enjoying yourself, Louisa,” he muttered. It’s not like he enjoyed having an erection in public, but with her bottom nestled nicely against his member, it would soon be unavoidable. His thighs could easily discern the shape and softness of her buttocks and his hands ached to explore and massage the cheeks.
A serving wench approached them. “What’s it to be?” She eyed Louisa up before settling her eyes on John. They held more than a hint of interest and invitation.
“Well, luv, what do ye fancy?” John asked Louisa, patting her hip possessively.
She didn’t even notice the pat on her hip, so focused was she on the wench’s interest in the man underneath her. Hmph, two can play at that game. “Anythin’ ye want, Johnny,” she purred in his ear, caressing his chest. She glanced at the serving wench, the challenge clear in her eyes as any good ladybird would do.
“Two pints of yer best ’n a nibbles board. ’N quick too,” he ordered.
“One pint,” Louisa corrected him. She ran a finger down his cheek to under his chin, following his beard to make him turn his face toward her. She leaned in closer to him and gave him a sultry smile, lowering her eyelids seductively. “We kin share.”
John didn’t look at the wench. “One pint,” he amended. The girl turned away with a twirl of her skirts and disappeared into the crowd. He swallowed, his mouth dry as she looked at him with that hooded seductiveness.
She immediately leaned back, peering around the room. “It’s a smaller space than ours, but it has the same number of tables. But that makes it more cramped.”
How in blessed Mary’s name can she think of business right now? John was struggling to keep his physical awareness of her under control. “There’s a private dining room down that hallway.” He used his nose to push her gaze in the direction he meant, using the moment to inhale her tasty scent again. All he could seem to think about was how her mouth would taste.
“Hm, I wonder how often it is used,” she said absently. “We are too far from Grompton for the town to use it.” Did she notice she was still caressing his chest? The small circles her fingers made burned through his waistcoat and shirt and onto his skin.
“But they do have an assembly room above stairs,” he pointed out. He wondered how she would look twirling down a dance line with him.
“Yes, that is an advantage of theirs. I wonder what the cost would be to add one.”
“I disagree that we should have one. There is no space, not unless we eliminate the rooms, which would be a larger source of revenue than an assembly room that is only occasionally used.”
She grimaced and tilted her chin to the side. “You are right about the revenue. But we can discuss it again in the future. They don’t have as much light as we do. It’s easier to hide the uncleanliness.” She wiped the table with her finger to prove her point.
“But sometimes people prefer an atmosphere with less light,” he said. The corner they were in was decently dark and John knew that he could fondle her without being seen. The thought shot straight to his cock and he shifted his hand from her hip up her rib cage until his thumb was nestled under her breast.
Louisa looked at him, her lips pressed together in displeasure. “None of that, thank you very much.” Her words belied her interest. Sitting on his lap, she could not help but be aware of the solid body beneath her. Her experience was with well built, but slender footmen, and she could feel the full-bodied strength of the man she was sitting on. He was big, but any doubt she had in regard to his muscles was now banished. She had to fight from leaning into him and reveling in that physical power. She was thankful the padding around her breasts prevented him from noticing how tight her nipples had become.
His free hand brushed some of her hair away from her face, the long ends trailing along her bared shoulder. “Ladybird, luv. We must act our parts. I am just demonstrating the advantages of a darkened pub.”
She was distracted for a moment by noticing a small faint scar that ran from the corner of his lip and disappeared under his beard. She never would have seen it if their faces weren’t so close together. “This is—”
“Don’t be alarmed, but I am going to kiss you now. The wench will be back at any moment and I don’t want my manhood questioned.” His hand slid into her hair, holding her head in place.
John cut off her protest by pressing his lips to her and sliding his tongue into her open mouth. Yea gods but she tasted sweet. Smooth like honey, this sweetness was what he was looking for to balance out her tartness. He delved in again, eager to draw more of it out of her, eager to have her flavor fill his mouth.
He held her head firmly as he explored her, holding her to him, learning the crevices of her mouth, the contours of her lips and teeth. She held herself stiffly, but didn’t attempt to push him away; he thought it may have been from the surprise of his kiss, but he didn’t care, so long as she allowed him to continue in his quest. His first kiss in more years than he would publicly admit and he wanted to draw out every moment of it. With this woman, none other. John yearned to know her more, to study the nuances of her pleasure. He touched her tongue gently, coaxingly, and a thrill ran through him when she finally responded.
It likely hadn’t taken long, moments really, but he felt he had been begging for her response for hours. The relief when she finally did coalesced in his bones and intensified the kiss. Her body sighed into his and she tightened her arm around his neck, letting out a small moan he felt all the way down to his cock. Her tongue lifted up to meet his, touching it fleetingly over and over as she learned its texture. Her free hand came up to settle against his cheek, her fingers lightly running along his beard down to his chin and up again, sending shivers down his neck and spine. She teased him, this woman did, teased him with her quick touches and soft lips, inflaming him beyond reason.
Their breaths mingled as they kissed and they grew bolder the longer it lasted. She drew his tongue into her mouth again and sucked on it, eliciting a deep groan from him. The wet heat of her mouth reminded him of her lower regions, of how her softness would surround him, welcoming him. His half cockstand graduated to a full one, straining against his breeches as it became hard as granite, seeking the sweet delicacy it knew existed between her legs. He shifted her bottom on his lap, positioning her to leave her no doubt about how she affected him.
His blood was racing through his body to pool at his groin. For so many years he had denied himself and knowing his self-imposed celibacy could soon end sent his mind scattering. He did not know how long she had been a widow, but her kiss clearly spoke to him of loneliness and desire. This was a woman who had been denied a pleasure her body knew and craved, and now together they would find relief.
John moved his hand from beneath her breast and closed it over the supple mound, intent on learning its shape and weight, intent on feeling how hard her nipple had become. He growled in frustration when his hand encountered a foreign material between her dress and flesh and his fingers worked at dislodging it.
She pulled away. “No,” she gasped.
Reality descended upon him as her words registered. His mind had been so addled by their kiss he had completely forgotten that they were in a public place, and for what reason. A quick glance at the room showed the wench making her way to their table with a tankard of ale and their cheese board. He captured her mouth again, keeping the kiss more innocent than their previous one, and he adjusted her disguise back into place, making it look like a fondle.
The tankard and tray thumped down onto the table and they broke their kiss, both breathing heavily. Louisa stared at him, taken by surprise at her disappointment that the kiss had ended. Her breasts ached, wanting to know his touch. She glanced at the wench who was glaring at her and felt a surge of primal satisfaction at knowing she had properly staked her claim on this man.
Not that she truly wanted to claim him. It was the principle of the matter. No woman should seek to steal a man, not when he clearly had another woman already on his lap.
Shooting the wench a victorious smile, Louisa ran her thumb over his lips, smearing away the lip rouge. She gave him a mock apology look. “Sorry abou’ the rouge, Johnny. Yer just too eager.”
He blinked, still dazed. She didn’t blame him. Her insides were still quaking with arousal, lust pooling at her core. Swallowing, John fumbled for the payment. “What ale do ye serve here?”
The wench turned to leave. “That there’s Black Duck.”
“Same as we serve,” Louisa murmured, her wits returning.
He lifted the ale to his nose and sniffed. “Seems about right.” He took a long swallow and nodded. “That is one smooth ale. Tasty.”
Louisa rummaged in her reticule and pulled out a metal flask. “Now compare it to ours.”
John looked at her with incredulity. “You actually brought a flask of our ale?”
“Will you just drink it?” she whispered.
So much for the nice haze of the kiss. Shaking his head, John tilted the flask back and grimaced. “That pales in comparison,” he said. He washed the disgust out of his mouth with the fresh ale.
“I knew it,” Louisa said triumphantly. “We are being cheated.”
“Normal people don’t sound so happy about that.”
She took a piece of bread and cheese and popped it into her mouth. “I am not happy at being cheated. I am happy at finding the proof that we are. Now you can talk with the brewer and straighten this situation out.” She handed him some bread and cheese, which he took.
John fiddled with the food for a moment. “Louisa, about that—”
“It was just business,” she interrupted him. Now that her body was once more normal, it was easy to put that kiss into perspective.
“Just business?” he echoed. Did she truly believe that? He still had a raging hard-on and she said it was business? She was a widow; there was no way in hell she was ignorant about what was poking at her ass.
She nodded. “Yes. Nothing more. I understand why you had to kiss me.”
Oh, I doubt that.
“But we can’t allow that to complicate our partnership.”
“Of course not,” he muttered darkly. So much for my luck tonight. He popped the bread and cheese into his mouth, chewing roughly to keep from making an ass of himself.
They ate in silence for several minutes, John focusing on the table and counting in his head to regain control of his body and emotions. Louisa picked up the tankard of ale and frowned into it. “What does it taste like?”
“Try it and find out,” he said.
“Could we get some water? Or tea?”
He snorted at her. “At this time of night? Some ladybird you are.”
She sniffed. “We both know the truth.”
He shrugged. “If you would prefer tea, then I will have the wench bring some. Ale is more for men, anyway.”
John raised his hand to catch the serving wench’s eye, but Louisa lifted the tankard to her mouth and drank.
And drank. Without stopping. His jaw dropped as he watched her gulp it down, her throat working as she swallowed large quantities at once. As the ale disappeared, a part of him lamented that he hadn’t gotten more than those few sips. Any remaining displeasure toward her disappeared with each gulp she took.
She finished with a gasp, dropping the tankard back onto the table. “That was disgusting,” she proclaimed, wiping her mouth.
“You don’t have to guzzle it like that,” he pointed out. “You can take smaller sips.”
She nodded. “I will do that next time.”
She nodded and stood. She stumbled a bit, her head dizzy and stomach wavering, and John grabbed her arm to steady her. Oh good Lord. “Next time. But not here. I’ll be damned if I spend more of our hard-earned money from the Beefy Buzzard at the Rose and Crown. Take me home, Johnny.”
She made it to the cart before losing the contents of her stomach.