Earl of Hearts

By: Meara Platt


The only question in her mind was, would John help?





CHAPTER 2





JOHN AWAKENED AT the cock’s first crow, too on edge to sleep any longer. Not that he ever got much sleep. His nights were always fitful, sometimes harrowing, and last night had been particularly bad knowing Nicola slept in the room next to his. He wasn’t certain which dreams were worse, the nightmares that had begun in his childhood or the hot, wild dreams of Nicola. He always awoke with an ache from those of her, a burning ache that he wanted to dismiss as purely carnal. But he couldn’t, for the girl had a way of slicing through his empty heart.

He quietly rose from his pallet and crossed to the window to peer out of it.

The rain had ended shortly after midnight, and a quick inspection of the road that stretched out from the tavern into the hills revealed it would be passably dry within a few hours. It would only take the heat of the morning sun to dry out the lingering puddles and mud.

His gaze drifted to the distant hills that were filled with rolling waves of purple heather. He loved the Highlands, the heather and thistles, the rowan and gorse growing wild. There was abundant life hidden beneath the blanket of shrubs.

His gaze lifted to the sky and the goshawks quietly circling overhead on the hunt for prey. The clouds gathering over the hills resembled gray-clad clansmen on the march to war, and the wind whistling through the valleys brought to mind the keening wail of bagpipes.

The Highlands suited his temperament, appearing serene on its hard, cragged surface, but scratch below the layers and one would find the wildness simmering beneath. John had learned early on to survive on his feral instincts, much like the wild game that nested in these hills. He’d had no choice. It was the only reason he’d survived.

That was him, the lone survivor.

Those childhood memories still haunted him.

Back then, he’d been too young to protect those he loved, but he was a man now. This was how he awoke to each new day, with a solemn vow to fight anyone who would harm those dear to his heart.

He silently vowed to protect Nicola to his dying breath.

He shook his head and groaned, knowing he was being as ridiculously dramatic as Nicola had been last night. She wasn’t in any danger, but if she was firm in her decision not to marry Somersby, there could be some unpleasantness. He would arrange for her and Lord and Lady Darnley to be safely returned home.

After sparing a glance at Jordan, he set about quietly washing and dressing. But perhaps he didn’t need to tiptoe about the room. Jordan had remained in the taproom well into the wee hours and was now sleeping like the dead, stretched diagonally across the bed, fully clothed with his boots still on. A thundering herd of horses could have galloped through these quarters and Jordan would not have heard a single hoofbeat.

John could not recall a time when he’d ever let down his guard that completely.

No, he never had.

He left the room to go downstairs for a light repast, but paused first beside Nicola’s door. Was she awake yet? He hesitated a moment and then knocked lightly.

He heard Nicola’s graceful footsteps moving toward the door. “Who is it?”

“John.” He shouldn’t have disturbed her at this early hour, but was glad that she was already up and about. He wanted a little time alone with her. He always wanted time alone with her, but never allowed himself to give in to the urge. This was different. She’d come to him so obviously distraught last night.

“Oh, thank heaven.” She opened her door and cast him an angelic smile. “I need your help to tie me up.”

“Tie you up?” He quickly dismissed the notion that rushed into his head which was too obscene to reveal to Nicola. “Ah, your lace strings.”

She nodded. “My gown is dry but the laces are still a little too stiff for me to manage.”

“I’ll do it.” He stepped into her chamber and shut the door behind him. No one would know. No one would see them. Only the guests embarking on their hunting expeditions would be up at this early hour and most of them were downstairs already. “Did you sleep well?”

Nicola sighed. “No. How about you? I’m sorry you had to sleep on the floor. Between that and Mr. Drummond’s snoring, I doubt you got any rest.” She cast him another smile, this one more impish. “I could hear his snores through my wall after he came upstairs. I thought a flock of geese had taken up lodgings in your chamber, he honked so loudly through the night.”

John shook his head and laughed. “He was a bit loud, but he’s sleeping like the dead now.”

He forced his hands to slip off Nicola’s luscious body the moment he was done. “Are you hungry?”

She nodded.

They made their way downstairs and had no sooner finished a breakfast of oatmeal, bangers, and tea than John heard a commotion at the entry. “Where is she? Tell Lady Nicola she’s to come downstairs at once.”

John shot to his feet at the sound of Somersby’s arrogant voice. “Nicola, get behind me. Seems your husband-to-be is here and he doesn’t sound happy.”

“I told you last night, that loathsome snake will never be my husband.”

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