Earl of Hearts

By: Meara Platt


He should never have allowed her to return to that villain’s lair.

“Lord Bainbridge,” one of the ruffians who’d accompanied Somersby this morning called out with gloating malice. He lit a lantern and set it atop a dusty worktable. “Come out, my lord. We need to have a little talk.”

John did not respond, but the man must have seen his shadow cast in the lantern’s dim, orange glow. He gave a bark of laughter and slowly began to walk toward John, his footsteps cautious as they crunched on the straw that littered the floor.

The man’s confederates shuffled behind him, and as they approached John, their leader motioned for them to surround him. Despite having him outnumbered five to one and the stable doors securely shut, their movements were hesitant and halting.

Good. They were afraid of him, as they ought to be.

Their boots scuffed along the dirt floor and he heard one of them curse when he tripped over a loose floorboard.

Had they harmed Larkins and Bigwell? No wonder those grooms hadn’t responded to his call. “And what are we to talk about, gentlemen?”

One of the men now stood between him and his rifle that was resting against the wooden slats of Valor’s stall. The man was apparently unaware that he’d set down his weapon. Still, it was out of reach and of no use to John at the moment. But he still had the pistol hidden in his boot if it proved necessary to shoot his way out. The odds would turn in his favor if Jordan ever got himself down here.

Five assailants in all. He could take down two. Jordan could take down two. And there was always one coward in the group who would hang back and then run off to report their failure to Somersby.

But Jordan wasn’t here yet.

Bollocks.

As the boldest assailant took a step toward him, John noticed the blacksmith shovel clenched in his gnarled fingers. “Our master was concerned that ye hadn’t heard his warning.”

“I heard it loud and clear,” he said, watching each man as they completed a circle around him. No doubt, they believed they had him trapped.

“Very good, m’lord. But we just want to make certain ye never forget it.” He raised the shovel and swung it hard, managing to strike John on the shoulder with a glancing blow. He’d been aiming for John’s head, but John had parried to avoid it.

John grabbed one of the other assailants and hurled his scrawny body into the man with the shovel, grunting in satisfaction when the two fell in a heap at his feet. But they’d be up in a moment, and two others were coming at him, attempting to grab his arms to hold him down.

Where was Jordan?

He could do with his help about now, for these were big fellows, even for hired muscle.

He kicked one hard in the groin, then grabbed a bridle that was dangling on a nearby beam and slammed it into the other man’s face. The man cried out in pain and grabbed his nose as blood began to spurt from it. But their leader and his scrawny companion were back on their feet and charging at him, so he had no time to enjoy his small victory.

As John reached out to grab the scrawny one and toss him again, the fifth man suddenly found his courage and heaved a barrel at him, managing to catch him on the hip. That threw John off balance long enough for the assailant with the shovel to land another glancing blow, this time to his ribs.

John was not a man of violence, but neither did he believe in meekly accepting his fate. He kicked the fellow hard in the gut and then wrestled the shovel out of his hands, easily accomplished as the air rushed out of his assailant and left the man unable to breathe. He then struck his scrawny companion under the chin with the shovel, satisfied when the man keeled over with a whimper.

Breathing hard himself, John glanced around in satisfaction. He’d put all but one of them out of commission. Shovel man was on his knees still trying to catch his breath. The scrawny one was writhing on the ground and holding his possibly broken jaw. Of the first men he’d taken down, one was still clutching his inflamed balls and the other still crying over his broken nose.

The coward who’d tossed the barrel at him was nowhere in sight, but the stable door was now flung open, allowing sunlight to stream in. John knew the whimpering scum had run back to Somersby.

He turned back to the leader of this rabble, who did not seem quite as brave as he had been a moment earlier when he’d held the iron shovel. John now had it. “Tell Somersby if he sends you idiots after me again, I’ll have his guts for garters.”

“Ye’ll be dead,” the man growled and withdrew a pistol hidden beneath his jacket.

John groaned. “Put it down before I kill you.”

“Ye have it the other way around, m’lord. I’m going to—”

John swung the shovel down on the man’s hand with enough force to break it, and probably had broken it judging by his shriek of pain. The pistol discharged, its shot landing harmlessly in the floorboards.

Jordan strode in just then, carrying the unconscious fifth man over his shoulder. He dumped him on the ground beside his writhing companions. “What’s going on?”

“Took you long enough,” John grumbled.

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