Earl of Hearts

By: Meara Platt

He ran his knuckles lightly along the curve of her jaw, unable to pull away just yet. This was Nicola, beautiful and vulnerable, and at the same time, hardheaded and determined. “The Somersby hunting lodge is one of the finest in all of Scotland. Why won’t you go back there?”

She leaned into his touch and closed her eyes. “I caught the Marquis of Somersby with another woman. Oh, John, he’s going to announce our betrothal at tomorrow evening’s ball and I can’t go through with it.”

He stifled the urge to cheer. He had no right, for he’d chosen duty over love, taking on dangerous assignments to protect England instead of courting Nicola. He should have been the one to offer for Nicola, but he still had too much to accomplish and could never let on how he felt about her. “Are you certain? You might have mistaken—”

“I didn’t. He wasn’t just with this other woman. He was with her in that sort of way. They were in an alcove beside his library. I was on my way there to find a book to read when I heard sounds.” Her cheeks flamed a hot, bright red. “I’m such a naive fool. It never entered my mind that he would do such a thing on the eve of our betrothal.”

John had never liked Thomas Mooring, the Marquis of Somersby, but he could not blame the man for needing to release his pent-up desire. Nicola was innocent, but also incredibly luscious. Any man would ache to have her. How many nights had he lain in bed, dreaming of her beside him, soft and responsive as he stirred her to passion? “Nicola, sometimes…” Bollocks. He did not want to have a conversation about men and lustful urges with the girl.

Or his own lustful urges.

She was his best friend’s sister. If he touched her, he would be honor bound to marry her. Not that it would be so terrible, but he was on a dangerous mission at the moment, one he meant to see through to the end. There would be more missions for him when this one was over, perilous ones that were given only to unmarried agents of the Crown. That was the rule when working in this elite unit: marry and you’re out. He’d made his choice. He was all in. England needed him more than Nicola did.

He ran a hand through his hair once more in dismay. “Nicola, men have… urges.”

She frowned. “You don’t.”

“What?” The hell he didn’t. Right now, he was having a violent urge to throttle her. Did she think he was a eunuch? That his entire body did not roil in agony every time she was near him?

She rolled her eyes. “You’ve taken offense. I don’t mean it that way, John. My point is, if you were a day away from announcing your betrothal to me, would you be satisfying yourself in the arms of another woman?”

She looked up at him, suddenly distraught. “Would you?”

“No.” He meant it, too. When he married, it would be for love and there would be no other woman for him but his intended bride.

Nicola cast him a wistful smile. “I knew you’d be faithful. You’d be in love and would treat her with respect and affection. That’s the good sort of man you are. The best sort. Any young lady would be proud to marry you. But the Marquis of Somersby is nothing like you. He is an evil viper and he has a dark, odious heart.”

Her composure began to crumble again. “So you see, I’ve made a terrible mistake.” She buried her hands in her face and quietly sobbed.

He allowed her a moment before drawing her into his arms to console her. He wanted to continue asking his questions. Nicola could, at times, be theatrical in her descriptions. But he supposed she’d been terribly hurt and more than a little shocked to realize that the man to whom she was about to give her heart was stomping on it by dallying with another woman.

This was just the sort of thing Somersby would do.

For this, and other reasons, John had never liked the man. But he doubted Somersby was evil incarnate. “Has your uncle signed the betrothal contract yet?”

She sniffled. “No, I ripped it up and tossed the pieces into the fire before he could put quill pen to paper.”

“And then you ran off into the stormy night?”

She nodded. “I couldn’t very well stay under the same roof as that villain, could I?”

John frowned. “You’re fortunate you weren’t killed by a falling tree or set upon by smugglers or swept away in a sudden flood. Anything might have happened to you.”

“I know, but I had to find you. You’re the only one who can help me. The marquis will drag me back to his lodge and force me to agree to the betrothal. He wants my dowry. He doesn’t want me. I think I knew it all along but refused to admit it to myself.”

John leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. He and Jordan had come up to Invergarry a few days ago under the guise of grouse hunting along with the rest of London’s elite. But they were quietly working to break up a rather nasty ring of rebels who were financing their operation by smuggling goods through Invergarry. He dared not allow Nicola to interfere with his mission. “I’m sure he won’t drag you back or force you to do anything you don’t wish to do. Besides, now that you’ve made your wishes known to your uncle, he’ll support you. He won’t agree to the betrothal. Nor will Julian ever allow it,” he said, referring to her brother, Viscount Chatham, who had been in this elite unit with him until he fell in love with Rose Farthingale and married her.

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