Lord and Lady Rosington had never worked so hard in all their lives before. The rest of the week passed in a blur of dust, filth and cleaning. Miranda found the pantry, just off the kitchen, by smell, and recognised the faint disgusting odour that had plagued her for days. When she demanded it completely emptied and cleaned, Mrs. Wilson regarded her as though she were a madwoman. "No one goes in here but the staff," she pointed out. "What do the customers care?"
Miranda wiped her hands, damp from scrubbing, on her sturdy apron. "I would care. We have decided to provide the best food and drink we can, and no good food ever came out of this place." She indicated the pantry with a dismissive wave of her hand.
It was almost a building in itself, a large outhouse backing on to the yard, the better to keep the contents cool. However the once clean wooden shelves were dirty and stinking with unmopped spills and the floor was crunchy with mouse droppings. Probably rats as well, Miranda thought with a grimace.
A half-stifled exclamation behind her made her look around. A plump woman stared over Miranda's shoulder, her mouth wide with horror. Miranda smiled mirthlessly. "Dreadful is it not, Mrs. Merchant?"
"Yes." The reply was almost whispered, then the formidable Mrs. Merchant cleared her throat and found her voice. "May I take care of this?"
Miranda nodded. Mrs. Merchant had taken the old polish off the floorboards with her efforts. She could think of no one better. "I'd be delighted if you did. It needs emptying, cleaning and traps laid for the vermin."
With a lurch of her stomach, Miranda realised they had been eating out of this place for the last few days. She wished they'd sent out for their food. She went to find her husband, determined to share the news.
When she told Daniel, he visibly blenched. "I was sick this morning. I didn't like to say anything, but I've not been feeling well since we arrived." He was busy in the taproom, supervising the stacking of new barrels on the shelf, but at the moment he was alone. Now, with the windows cleaned, the main room of the inn shone cheerfully with daylight, far from the murky space they entered on their first day.
He glanced over his shoulder at her and then gently put the heavy mallet down beside the new barrel. "What's wrong?"
"You should have told me you were ill. You haven't seen it. It's awful, Daniel. You weren't seriously sick, were you?"
He came over to her and put his hands gently on her shoulders. "Not really, but I'd appreciate some decent food."
"How are you now?"
"Better. I washed, rinsed and scrubbed my teeth to within an inch of their lives." He laughed and ran his tongue over his white teeth.
Miranda stared at him, mesmerised. With a small mental shake she recalled herself to the present. "Why don't you go and see the children?" She lowered her voice when she said it. "You can go, bathe, eat properly at the mansion and come back in the morning."
Hope lit his eyes. "I could, couldn't I? But you should go first. We can't go together, we've agreed on that, so you should be the first to go."
"I'm fine." She reached up and touched his face, drawing her hand away again immediately. "You look tired. Go and rest and come back refreshed. One of us should go. They're not used to not seeing us."
She loved Daniel's personal devotion to their children. The boys meant far more to him than the "heir and the spare". He liked to keep them with him, and see them at least once a day. Not the formal presentation in the drawing room either that peers insisted on, inspecting their offspring as they might inspect their other possessions. He usually went and joined them in the nursery, romping with them on the floor. When Miranda came upon them like that, he got to his feet at once, leaving her with a yearning to join them that he never indulged.
She pulled her hand away and he caught it, and brought it to his lips, to bestow a gentle kiss in the palm. Miranda warmed to the kiss. He kept hold of her hand but lowered it. "Will you be all right on your own?"
"I'm not on my own. I have the Wilsons."
He frowned. "We'll ask Jevins to stay over." Jevins was a large, useful man they employed recently. He would prove an effective guard. "I don't intend to take any chances with you. I'd always planned to take more people on the staff." His slow smile warmed his eyes. "I have to confess I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you too." She said it without thinking; the simple truth escaping her before her mind could keep up with it. His hand crept around her waist and with a thrill in her heart she felt him pull her closer.
Miranda couldn't remember when Daniel last kissed her like this, if he ever had. She opened to him as soon as his tongue touched her closed lips, and leaned her head back, the better to allow him access, hearing the moan, low in his throat, when she did so. Her head came to rest against his shoulder, imprisoning her. Sweet imprisonment! What was freedom when compared to this?
He took his time, exploring her, coaxing her to respond, and when she did, shyly touching his lips with her tongue, he pressed her closer with more fervour, giving Miranda a wonderful sense of his possession. If he laid her on the floor and pushed her skirts up she wouldn't have done anything to stop him.
His hands moved over her, touching her with a need she felt through her clothes, burning through her boned stays to the soft skin beneath. She felt free, free of the position she always held that dictated every minute of every day, free of being anything but Daniel's wife. She let her hands wander across his back, slipping her arms under the coarse fabric of his coat. His heat burned her.
Daniel kissed his wife senseless, as he had longed to do for years. Years. Ever since he'd sworn off her, for her own good. It killed him every day to see her across the length of the dining table, to know only two doors lay between her chamber and his, both unlocked. Now they shared a bed, and his restraint nearly destroyed him. To feel her warm body next to his and be unable to touch her. Not to tell her how he felt, lest she become as unhappy as he was.
And she was right, he was tired. Daniel lay awake long after Miranda fell asleep at night, watching over her. This time would never come again and he couldn't bear to waste any of it. Even holding her was better than staring at her, so lovely, knowing he could never take his desire any further.
With his kisses, Daniel tried to communicate his desperation and his need, all the things he could never say to her, all the things he shut away. When she responded, he was lost. What were they here, newlyweds, people of no importance? Who would care if he swept her up to their small room and stayed there all afternoon, loving her as he'd longed to do for so long?
At the thought, something inside turned cold. Slowly, Daniel removed his mouth from Miranda's, softening the withdrawal with a gentle, closed mouth kiss, and straightened. He stared at her, seeing the half-closed eyes, the rich, pink depths of her mouth. With a groan he swept her tightly against him.
"Ahem!" Someone cleared his throat with a deliberately noisy cough.
Daniel released his wife.
"I see this place ain't goin' to change under new ownership.