Earl of Hearts

By: Meara Platt
CHAPTER 1





Scottish Highlands

October 1814

JOHN RANDALL, THIRD Earl of Bainbridge, reached for his pistol as the howling wind caught the door to MacNaughton’s Tavern, flinging it open with a slam that rattled the rafters. All conversation in the crowded establishment suddenly came to a halt as everyone turned to gaze at the rain-soaked stranger standing in the doorway. John tightened his grip on his pistol, wondering what new trouble was about to unfold on this dark and deplorable night.

“What idjut would be out in such a storm?” his companion, Jordan Drummond, grumbled, setting down his tankard of ale with a thunk on the stained oak table as he reached for his own weapon. But he eased back in his chair a moment later and picked up his tankard once more to resume drinking. “Bah! It’s just a scrawny lad.”

John gave a distracted nod, his attention now riveted to the new arrival, who was not a lad at all but a slender young woman who appeared to be desperately searching for someone. His heart took a leap into his throat. “Bollocks, what’s she doing here?”

Nicola.

The wind chose that moment to gust again. It blew the hood of Lady Nicola Emory’s cape off her head to reveal the magnificent tumble of her wet, auburn curls and the blaze in her gorgeous, cat-like green eyes. “Better take cover,” he said with a groan, his gaze still fixed on the beautiful girl. “She looks angry.”

Indeed, Nicola in a temper was a thing to be avoided at all costs. Any man in his right mind would steer clear of her if he valued his life.

John hadn’t been in his right mind over Nicola for years now. She’d gotten into his heart long ago and he hadn’t been able to get her out no matter how hard he’d tried. But she was his best friend’s sister, so it was hands off for him.

Seeing her standing alone, still searching, brought his protective instincts surging to the fore.

What had happened to bring her out on a night like this? He drew back his chair and rose to make his way to her before any of the drunken sots in the taproom approached her.

He wasn’t worried about her safety, but theirs. Nicola riled was a force of nature.

She noticed him and was about to start toward him when someone called out, “Shut that door! Dinna ye hear me, lass? Are ye daft?”

Her hands curled into fists. “Shut it yourself, you rum-soaked, tub of—”

“Nicola!” John strode to the door and shut it before a brawl erupted with her in the center of the drunken melee and giving twice as good as she got. For a little thing, she had a stubborn determination and an impertinent mouth, which he’d ached to kiss for longer than he could remember. But that was never going to happen.

Certainly not now.

He’d never seen Nicola this overset. Mingled with her anger was an unmistakable desperation. That worried him. What had happened to leave her so distraught? “Nicola,” he said more gently, wrapping his arm around her as he guided her to his table.

She glanced up at him with her big, green eyes, and in the next moment, her entire body crumbled in defeat. She gazed downward and her slight shoulders sagged. Lord, he was an idiot. What she was feeling was anguish, not anger, and that troubled him even more. His stomach roiled. Had something happened to her uncle? He’d always thought the Earl of Darnley was quite fit for a man his age. But the Highlands winds and bone-chilling rains that rolled in from the North Sea could lay a man low. “Why are you here?”

He helped her to slip off her damp cape and settled her at the table he and Jordan occupied. Fortunately, it was in a quieter corner of the tavern. A quelling glance at the curious onlookers had them quickly turning away to stare into their tankards of ale. Good, he wanted privacy, for he was concerned about Nicola and eager to know what had brought her running to him on a night like this.

While John held out a seat for Nicola, Jordan took her cloak and muttered something about hanging it up by the hearth so it would dry.

John cast him an appreciative nod, knowing his companion meant to give him time alone with the girl. His heart lurched once more, for her shoulders were shaking not from the cold but from sorrow. Nicola rarely cried, she simply wasn’t one of those simpering, weepy misses. But tears were streaming down her face and mingling with the cold rain on her cheeks. “Answer me, Nicola. What has happened?”

“John.” She looked up at him with such an expression of agony etched on her face that his heart shot into his throat again. “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

He frowned. “What did you do now?”

Her eyes widened in obvious surprise, more than a little hurt by his remark. “Why do you think I did something wrong?”

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