Earl of Hearts

By: Meara Platt

Jordan rolled his eyes. “Very well, give me a moment. We can cut across the foothills and take up a vantage point overlooking the lodge. Let’s just hope those smugglers don’t get away while we’re busy meddling in this marriage business that is none of our concern.”

John frowned. “We’re not going to meddle, just protect her. She’s my responsibility and I—”

“Since when is she yours to look after? Her uncle is the Earl of Darnley. He’s more than capable of attending to her care.” He grinned at John. “Although I doubt he’s fast enough to catch her if she runs away again.”

“Stop wasting time with jests. Somersby isn’t to be trusted with Nicola. If he lays a hand on her… if he orders his men to…” The words caught in his throat.

Jordan put a hand on his shoulder. “He won’t. So don’t you do anything rash. I don’t know what demons have you by the throat this morning, but you can’t let them overwhelm you. Besides, the girl can fight for herself.”

“Yes, of course.” He knew Jordan was right, but that did not stop the violent tug he felt to his heart. “I’ll keep my wits about me. You know I will.” He always did, except when it came to Nicola. The blocks of granite surrounding his heart chipped away whenever he was around her.

He didn’t like it one bit.

NICOLA’S GAZE WAS fixed on the scenery as Lord Somersby’s carriage rolled and bounced its way back to his hunting lodge. A pair of goshawks were on the hunt above the soaring crags, their massive wings outstretched and their heads down as they searched for an unsuspecting rabbit or two to fill their bellies. At the moment, she felt like that unsuspecting rabbit about to meet its untimely end.

Oh, she knew that Somersby had no intention of killing her. But he meant to cheat on her throughout their marriage. Which was why she could not marry him. There were plenty of women who would accept this sort of arrangement. Indeed, most would. He needed to find one of those biddable young ladies to pursue.

Never a coward, she turned to him. “Lord Somersby, we must speak about last night.”

The marquis was a handsome man with thick, dark hair and gray eyes that were often turbulent. She’d thought that brooding sort of stormy gray quite attractive, at first. But she now realized that this was all he was, a petulant and brooding marquis who was used to getting his own way in all things and could be cruel when he did not.

While some men took the good fortune of their stature to heart and gave back something in return for the bounty they’d been given, Somersby was not one of them.

“I suppose we must.” He nodded and leaned forward. “Your behavior last night was unacceptable.”

My behavior?

She blinked several times to make certain she was awake and not in the throes of a nightmare. “I beg your pardon? I was not the one caught with my pants down about my ankles.”

He did not have the decency to blush. “Has your aunt never spoken to you about… men?”

“Not at great length, but I am not a peahen. I understand quite well what you were doing to that woman… with that… her.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Good. Then we are clear.”

“On how things will be? Do you mean before or after the marriage? Because I find both possibilities repugnant.”

He leaned forward and took her hand in his. She expected his grip to be harsh, but he was surprisingly gentle. “You will be my wife, Lady Nicola. I mean to treat you with respect. But I am a man of hearty appetites. Do you understand what I am saying? I do not wish to satisfy my baser urges on you. I will visit your bed from time to time.” He cast her a wry smile. “In truth, I think I will enjoy your impertinent spirit in the bedchamber. But I cannot promise to visit no one else but you. I wish to be honest about it.”

She slipped her hand out of his and clenched it into a fist. “Then we are back to where we started. I will not tolerate other women in my husband’s bed. We marry for love in the Emory family. We believe in our wedding vows.”

He stared at her in bewilderment for an endlessly long moment before suddenly breaking into another smile. “Are you saying that you love me?”

Well, no. She hadn’t meant it to sound that way. Indeed, she was going to refuse his marriage offer because she now understood that she would never grow to love him. But he sounded quite gentle and could not be faulted for his attitude when most of Society felt as he did.

She did not wish to hurt him more than necessary when she rejected him. “My lord, we have not been acquainted long enough to be certain of our feelings for one another. But you seem determined to carry on with your… entanglements… much as you do now, and I am saying that our marriage will not stand a chance of surviving if that is your decision. I want a man who is faithful and who values me. I am not going to be anyone’s broodmare, no matter how fine the stable in which I’m kept might be or how plentiful and tempting the carrots tossed my way as placating treats may seem.”

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