Earl of Hearts

By: Meara Platt

John trusted very few people.

He liked even fewer.

Julian was the exception. He and Julian were as close as brothers, so he owed it to him to protect Nicola.

He’d died a little inside when her brother had told him of her impending betrothal.

But he had only himself to blame.

Only himself and the torment that had formed him into the man he was.

One who was not fit to declare his love for Nicola.

“You don’t understand, John. A simple refusal won’t stop the marquis. He has everyone fooled with his charming ways, but he isn’t a nice man. He’s dangerous and depraved.”

John did not know what to do with the girl. She was obviously overset and allowing her fears to run amok.

She stared at his expression and gasped. “You don’t believe me.”

“Nicola, he made a mistake. That’s all.”

Her eyes were blazing again. “You didn’t see the way he looked at me when he realized I had caught him in the act. There was no contrition. There was no embarrassment or shame. He made no attempt to apologize. Doesn’t that speak to the sort of man he is?”

“I don’t know. Not everyone reacts the same way when feeling trapped or embarrassed.”

“But that’s my point. He didn’t feel trapped. He made me feel as though I were the one trapped under the force of his arrogant gaze. He frightened me with that look. I don’t want any part of him, for I know what he’ll do to me once I’m married to him. He’ll break my spirit and force me to be a biddable, unquestioning drudge of a wife. He won’t be gentle about it either.”

John slapped his hands on the table and rose with a groan. His attempts to calm her were only serving to further rile her. “I’ll have the tavern keeper send a boy up to the lodge to let everyone know you’re safe. There are guest chambers upstairs. I expect they’ll all be taken by now, but I’ll give you mine. Use one of my shirts for a nightgown. Get out of your wet clothes, and try to have a good night’s rest. We’ll discuss your situation over breakfast in the morning.”

She remained seated. “Why won’t you believe me?”

He did not know what to believe. In truth, he was practically senseless at the moment, for the thought of Nicola in his bed, wearing nothing but his shirt against her soft, wet skin, was not helping him come to any logical conclusions.

Fortunately, Jordan returned and set his large frame on the chair beside Nicola’s, putting an end to John’s attempt to escort her upstairs. “Are ye hungry, lass? Perhaps a bowl of stew to fortify ye.”

She smiled at Jordan. “That’s very thoughtful of you. I’d like that, Mr. Drummond.”

John stifled the flood of jealousy that washed over him when Nicola returned his companion’s smile with a sweet and openhearted one of her own. What was wrong with him? Nicola wasn’t his. He had no claim to her. Yet his heart was pounding violently in his chest and idiotic thoughts were whirling in that empty head of his. Idiotically possessive thoughts. Mine. Nicola is mine. No one else can have her.

But he’d kept silent when he ought to have been courting her.

He’d kept silent when Somersby had shown interest in her.

Nicola blamed herself, but he was the one at fault.

“One of the maids will bring the stew up to my chamber,” he said, reaching out to take Nicola’s hand. “Come on, I’ll help you settle in.”

Jordan cast him a questioning look, his beefy hands curling into fists. “Where do ye intend to spend the night?”

“I’m giving her my room. I’ll share yours. I can make a pallet for myself by the hearth.”

Jordan nodded. “Aye, that’ll work.”

“Thank you, Mr. Drummond. I appreciate your protecting me, but you needn’t worry. Lord Bainbridge has no interest in me other than that of a protective brother.”

Jordan arched an eyebrow. “Lass, he isn’t your brother.”

“No, but…” She sighed. “I would like to go upstairs now. My gown is soaked and I’m chilled to the bone. I don’t like the way some of these men are looking at me.”

Neither did John.

He cast them a lethal scowl that had them hastily turning away to stare into their tankards once more.

The girl was too pretty for her own good.

She was too pretty for his own good.

He was on an important assignment.

He needed to concentrate on destroying those smugglers.

But all he could think about was Nicola. In his shirt. In his bed.

The storm outside was nothing to the one raging in his heart.

NICOLA ALLOWED HERSELF to lean against John as he escorted her upstairs to his chamber. Fatigue overcame her the moment she rested her head against his big, comforting shoulder. She’d been so tense and overset ever since reaching Invergarry, sensing things were not quite right with the Marquis of Somersby. No doubt her uncle and John believed she was merely being a fickle maiden, but it wasn’t that at all.

She would have gone through with the betrothal and the wedding had the marquis been a moderately decent man. She would have vowed to honor and obey him—although she would need to work a little harder on the “obey” part—and agreed to become his wife. Once married, she would have tried her best to make their marriage work. “Thank you, John. I know I’ve been a bother to you. But I had nowhere else to turn.”

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