Earl of Hearts

By: Meara Platt

He ignored her scowl and nudged her behind him. “You’re still angry. The two of you need to calm down and talk this through.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. He’s a monster. He won’t listen to me. Besides, I’m not taking wedding advice from you.”

John rolled his eyes. “Did you ever hear the adage about not biting the hand that feeds you? I’m trying to help you and you’re insulting me.”

She stepped in front of him even though he’d been trying to gently push her behind him for her own protection. “Nicola, do as I say.”

She cast him the defiant glare that she’d perfected, that pouty-lipped, chin up in the air and sultry, eyes blazing look that made him want to throttle her and at the same time kiss her into eternity.

Lord, the girl was a nuisance.

Her chin tipped up a notch higher. “Talking to him is a waste of time. He won’t listen. He means to drag me back to his lodge and punish me for running off. He has a cabinet full of whips of all shapes and sizes.”

John growled. “You’re making that up.”

A rose blush stained her cheeks. “Perhaps. So what if I am? I’ll wager that he does. All depraved villains have them. Whips and chains and black masks and lots of naughty leather things that must serve a shocking purpose, although I have no idea what that purpose could be. Not to mention the other wicked instruments of—”

“Where did you hear such nonsense?” He ran a hand through his hair in consternation. “Just get behind me and keep quiet. Can you do that? I’m trying to get us both through this encounter without fists flying.”

She nodded and stepped behind him, resting her hand against his back as though needing to hold on to him. “And I don’t like the way his lips curl upward in a sneer.”

He dismissed her comment as her touch rippled through him. He wanted to tell her not to do that, for his concentration fell to pieces whenever she touched him. “Nicola, wait by the back table where we sat last night. I want you well out of the way while I first approach him.”

“Oh, all right. But don’t trust him, John.”

“Right. Got it. He’s a depraved viper.” He was glad that Nicola no longer cared for the man and refused to marry him, but was also disgusted with himself for wanting Nicola to be his without any intention of offering for her.

If anyone was a depraved viper, it was him.

The girl deserved happiness and a good man to love her.

“Somersby,” he said, approaching the scowling marquis who stood in the entry hall with five rough-looking men. “You needn’t worry. Lady Nicola is safe. Mr. Drummond and I will return her to your lodge in a little while. I’m sure her aunt and uncle must be wringing their hands in concern.”

Somersby sneered at him, bringing Nicola’s words to mind. Whips and chains and toss in a wicked sneer. “She comes back with me now, Bainbridge. Don’t interfere or you’ll regret it. This is between Lady Nicola and me.”

“Are you threatening me? Because I don’t take kindly to threats.” Gad, had Nicola been right about this arse?

“Where is she?” Somersby raised his hand, about to motion for his ruffians to search the inn, but he must have noticed the lethal glint in John’s eyes, and stilled his hand in midair. “Very well, what do you propose?”

“Merely that you speak to her. She was caught unawares last night and was shocked by what she saw.”

Somersby nodded. “So she told you.”

“She would have sought out her brother had he been here. I was the next best thing. That’s all. I am neither condoning nor condemning what you did, nor am I in the habit of gossiping. What matters is how you address the situation this morning. Treating her with kindness and respect will help. She’s to be your wife, after all.”

“That’s right. My wife, not yours. She will never be yours.”

Never. That one word struck like a knife to John’s heart and momentarily stole his breath away. Had he imagined it, or was there a purposeful malice in that statement? A wicked sense of glee in twisting the knife in him?

What had he ever done to offend the man?

Somersby was too busy glancing around and scowling at the small crowd of men now gathered around them to notice that he’d struck deep. Nor did he appear pleased to have these men as witnesses, but John was glad they were present if only to keep the man’s temper in check, for he was still riled. “Mine. I will not allow her to make a fool of me.”

“No need. You’re doing an able job of it all by yourself.” John knew he should not have goaded him, but the man needed to be taken down a peg or two. He willed himself to remain calm and not curl his hands into fists, but it was no easy thing. He itched to plant the pompous oaf a facer. One solid punch to lay him low. “You’re mistaken if you believe Lady Nicola can be threatened or intimidated. You are dangerously mistaken if you believe I will stand back and do nothing to protect her.”

Somersby poked him in the chest with his finger. “And you’re mistaken if you think to interfere. She is my betrothed. She will be my wife. Do we understand each other?”

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