Earl of Hearts

By: Meara Platt

“No bother,” he said, but Nicola knew he thought of her as an unpleasant boil on his neck that simply would not pop. She did not mean to be a nuisance to him, but it wasn’t entirely her fault that she was in this mess over the Marquis of Somersby.

Didn’t Somersby have to take some responsibility for his actions?

And that was another thing. The marquis would not permit her to call him Tom or Thomas, but insisted that she always refer to him as Somersby or my lord. They’d never reached the point of amiable familiarity. She’d expected that to come in time, but now knew it never would.

John tightened his grip around her waist as she faltered on the last step. His big, muscled arms drew her close. Perfect arms, but she refused to think about their impressive strength. John did not care for her in that way and never would.

He paused in front of the fourth door on the right. “Here we are.”

She said nothing as he opened the door to reveal a cozy fire blazing in the hearth and a comfortable-looking bed that took up most of the small room. John’s travel pouch rested on a chair beside the hearth. “Where are the rest of your belongings, John?”

He leaned against the door frame as though afraid to enter his own chamber. Even at this distance, his dark gold hair managed to glow magnificently in the firelight. His eyes were a mix of pine green and lethal gray… yes, that’s what they were, a dangerous, haunting green, like the eyes of a predator. A wolf, perhaps. How many times had she lost herself in their vibrant depths? “Jordan’s farm is not far from here. That’s where I’m staying for grouse hunting season. But we’d planned to spend a few days hunting in these hills since the game is plentiful in this area, so we took rooms here to get an early start in the morning.” He nodded toward his pouch. “I have a spare shirt in there.”

“Soap and a comb, by any chance?”

He nodded. “Use whatever you need. Ask the maid to help you undress when she brings up the stew.”

“Would you mind terribly helping me now? Just a few tugs on the laces and I’ll manage the rest. The cold has seeped into my bones.”

To her surprise, John suddenly seemed panicked. No, she must have been mistaken. The man had ice in his veins. He was the coolest, most levelheaded person she’d ever known. Nothing ever rattled him, not even the threat of imminent death. She’d seen him in action at her uncle’s summer cottage when a ring of Napoleon’s spies had come after him and her brother, Julian. “Very well,” he said, walking toward her with such obvious reluctance, she wanted to tell him to go back downstairs and she’d fend for herself.

But she was cold and now shivering despite standing beside the fire. Its heat was not enough to warm her, not while she was still in her soaked gown.

“Raise your arm,” he said when he reached her side, the request sounding more like a tersely barked order. He bent his head to look at the wet, gnarled lace strings, his breath warm against her neck as he leaned closer. He’d been drinking ale, but the steel glint in his eyes revealed he was quite sober.

Indeed, this was John. Always in control of his surroundings and of himself.

A bolt of heat shot through her as his fingers grazed her waist while unknotting the laces. She tried to hide her response to his touch, but it felt too exquisitely good. It wasn’t his fault that he was big and handsome or that she found his touch intoxicating.

Curiously, he always tried to make himself look unexceptional. He wore the most unattractive spectacles, for one thing. But she’d long ago seen through that ruse. His keen eyes and senses rivaled those of any beast on the prowl. Most young ladies in Society considered him a crushing bore. That was the face he showed to all but his closest friends, that of a scholar and a small game hunter who loved the dullest, most esoteric topics imaginable, ones that were purposely intended to have everyone yawning within moments of meeting him.

She wasn’t sure why he felt the need to push everyone away.

It hadn’t worked with her. She knew the sort of man he truly was. Well, no one truly knew John beyond the few surface layers he deigned to reveal. She’d pierced a few more layers than most, but she still had not come close to penetrating his heart.

She was amazed and honored that he’d allowed her to see in that far. Surely, he must have felt some level of comfort with her.

Perhaps he even liked her a little.

She wasn’t sure, for he did not appear to be particularly happy with her at this moment. In truth, she sensed nothing but coiled tension.

“There, done.” His voice was raw and husky, sending tingles through her body, which showed how pathetic she was to respond to a man who barely tolerated her out of duty to her brother.

He turned away quickly and headed for the door.

“Thank you, John,” she called after him.

He nodded. “Get some rest. We’ll discuss what to do about your situation in the morning.”

Nicola knew what she was going to do. She was going to pack up her aunt and uncle, and then cut all ties to the Marquis of Somersby.

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