Earl of Hearts(3)

By: Meara Platt


“And then you ran off into the stormy night?”

She nodded. “I couldn’t very well stay under the same roof as that villain, could I?”

John frowned. “You’re fortunate you weren’t killed by a falling tree or set upon by smugglers or swept away in a sudden flood. Anything might have happened to you.”

“I know, but I had to find you. You’re the only one who can help me. The marquis will drag me back to his lodge and force me to agree to the betrothal. He wants my dowry. He doesn’t want me. I think I knew it all along but refused to admit it to myself.”

John leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. He and Jordan had come up to Invergarry a few days ago under the guise of grouse hunting along with the rest of London’s elite. But they were quietly working to break up a rather nasty ring of rebels who were financing their operation by smuggling goods through Invergarry. He dared not allow Nicola to interfere with his mission. “I’m sure he won’t drag you back or force you to do anything you don’t wish to do. Besides, now that you’ve made your wishes known to your uncle, he’ll support you. He won’t agree to the betrothal. Nor will Julian ever allow it,” he said, referring to her brother, Viscount Chatham, who had been in this elite unit with him until he fell in love with Rose Farthingale and married her.

John trusted very few people.

He liked even fewer.

Julian was the exception. He and Julian were as close as brothers, so he owed it to him to protect Nicola.

He’d died a little inside when her brother had told him of her impending betrothal.

But he had only himself to blame.

Only himself and the torment that had formed him into the man he was.

One who was not fit to declare his love for Nicola.

“You don’t understand, John. A simple refusal won’t stop the marquis. He has everyone fooled with his charming ways, but he isn’t a nice man. He’s dangerous and depraved.”

John did not know what to do with the girl. She was obviously overset and allowing her fears to run amok.

She stared at his expression and gasped. “You don’t believe me.”

“Nicola, he made a mistake. That’s all.”

Her eyes were blazing again. “You didn’t see the way he looked at me when he realized I had caught him in the act. There was no contrition. There was no embarrassment or shame. He made no attempt to apologize. Doesn’t that speak to the sort of man he is?”

“I don’t know. Not everyone reacts the same way when feeling trapped or embarrassed.”

“But that’s my point. He didn’t feel trapped. He made me feel as though I were the one trapped under the force of his arrogant gaze. He frightened me with that look. I don’t want any part of him, for I know what he’ll do to me once I’m married to him. He’ll break my spirit and force me to be a biddable, unquestioning drudge of a wife. He won’t be gentle about it either.”

John slapped his hands on the table and rose with a groan. His attempts to calm her were only serving to further rile her. “I’ll have the tavern keeper send a boy up to the lodge to let everyone know you’re safe. There are guest chambers upstairs. I expect they’ll all be taken by now, but I’ll give you mine. Use one of my shirts for a nightgown. Get out of your wet clothes, and try to have a good night’s rest. We’ll discuss your situation over breakfast in the morning.”

She remained seated. “Why won’t you believe me?”

He did not know what to believe. In truth, he was practically senseless at the moment, for the thought of Nicola in his bed, wearing nothing but his shirt against her soft, wet skin, was not helping him come to any logical conclusions.

Fortunately, Jordan returned and set his large frame on the chair beside Nicola’s, putting an end to John’s attempt to escort her upstairs. “Are ye hungry, lass? Perhaps a bowl of stew to fortify ye.”

She smiled at Jordan. “That’s very thoughtful of you. I’d like that, Mr. Drummond.”

John stifled the flood of jealousy that washed over him when Nicola returned his companion’s smile with a sweet and openhearted one of her own. What was wrong with him? Nicola wasn’t his. He had no claim to her. Yet his heart was pounding violently in his chest and idiotic thoughts were whirling in that empty head of his. Idiotically possessive thoughts. Mine. Nicola is mine. No one else can have her.

But he’d kept silent when he ought to have been courting her.

He’d kept silent when Somersby had shown interest in her.

Nicola blamed herself, but he was the one at fault.

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