Earl of Hearts

By: Meara Platt

John folded his arms over his chest. “She isn’t your betrothed yet, nor will she ever be if this is the way you intend to treat her. Put your hand on me again and I’ll break it. Put your hand on Lady Nicola and I’ll kill you. I think we understand each other very well.”

Somersby noticeably blanched at his remark. Good, he wanted to leave no doubt that he’d be watching the marquis. He could tell by the man’s nervous glance that he was reconsidering his approach. John smothered a grin, glad that he’d gotten his point across. Even the curious onlookers had hurriedly moved off, obviously not intending to be caught in the crossfire if shots were fired.

“Bainbridge, I am obviously out of sorts. What happened last night distressed me as much as it did Lady Nicola. Of course, I will respect her. She’s to be my wife. She will bear my children. She’ll be my duchess when I inherit my father’s title. I will talk to her. I will apologize to her on bended knee if I must. I’ll do whatever it takes to make things right.”

John dared not believe a word of his pretty speech, but Nicola must have been listening and did appear to accept what the bounder had just said. She stepped into the hallway and came to his side. “Lord Bainbridge, it’s all right. I’ll return to Lord Somersby’s lodge with him now.” She cast both of them a wan smile. “I’m so sorry I worried everyone. How is my uncle? And Aunt Bess?”

Somersby’s anger seemed to fade away as Nicola reached his side. “Lord and Lady Darnley are quite distressed, my dear. The sooner we return to the lodge, the better.”

She nodded. “I’m ready to go back now. I behaved like a child. Can you ever forgive me?”

A meek and biddable Nicola?

One who was now apologizing to a man she’d called a viper and a monster only moments ago?

John knew her better than to believe his own ears. What was she up to?

“Thank you for everything, Lord Bainbridge,” she said, the soft sparkle in her eyes causing his heart to beat a little faster. “Please extend my good wishes to Mr. Drummond. You will both attend this evening’s party, won’t you? I insist on it. My uncle will be devastated if you refuse.”

What? No, he and Jordan were on the hunt for dangerous smugglers. The last thing they needed was to lose a night sipping champagne and listening to Society’s elite grumble about how sparse the grouse were this year.

But the short hairs at the nape of his neck were prickling.

Despite Nicola’s presently demure appearance, she was going to refuse the marquis’ proposal of marriage. Perhaps this was her way of asking for his help in keeping her and her family safe when Somersby’s anger erupted. “Of course, Lady Nicola. We look forward to it.”

Somersby shot daggers at him with his gaze. “See you tonight then, Bainbridge.”

“Count on it, Somersby.” Hell. Hell. Hell and damnation. He’d have to pack an armory of weapons on his person because the evening was going to turn ugly. So much for catching rebellious smugglers. King and country would have to wait while he rescued Nicola.

He remained in the doorway, his arms folded across his chest and the cool breeze blowing through his hair. The sun was out and beginning to dry the wet roadways. The marquis’ carriage kicked up little dust as it disappeared around the bend and made its way toward his grand lodge. His so-called footmen rode behind the carriage, but he noticed one or two of them glance back at him.

He did not like the look of menace in their smiles.

Did they plan to do something to Nicola?

He doubted Somersby would be so foolish as to order her punished in any way. Not when he and Jordan would see her this evening and immediately know if she’d been harmed. Nor would he dare return her to Lord and Lady Darnley with so much as a scratch on her delicate skin. No, he wouldn’t dare.

Still, John did not like to think of her alone with that oaf.

He climbed the stairs two at a time and entered Jordan’s quarters. “Get up. We have work to do.”

“Bollocks, stop shouting at me. My head’s about to explode.” Jordan slowly rolled to a sitting position and rubbed his hands across his face to wipe the sleep from his eyes and the fog from his brain. “What’s wrong? What did I miss?”

John frowned. “Nicola left with Somersby.”

That seemed to catch his friend’s attention. “And you let her go with that Sassenach horse’s arse?”

“I couldn’t interfere. She wanted to go.”

“Since when has that stopped you?”

John checked the pistol in the hidden holster in his boot, donned his jacket, and grabbed his hunting rifle.

“Ye bloody fool! What are ye planning to do?” Jordan sprang from his bed with a rasping groan and crossed to the door to block him. “I thought you just said you weren’t going to interfere.”

They were both big men, Jordan a little bigger, but John was more determined. “I won’t, unless he stops the carriage and has his men…” He couldn’t finish the thought, for it was too gruesome to endure. As much as he detested Somersby, he knew the man would not show his true nature now. And who was to say he would ever harm Nicola? Most men were all bluster. In any event, Nicola was no meek sparrow. “All I wish to do is make certain she is safely returned to Somersby’s lodge. Lord Darnley will watch over her after that.”

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