Earl of Hearts(10)

By: Meara Platt

Was she reading too much into his words? Was this a shielded threat that he would beat her if she questioned him after they were married? She shook her head and sighed. “Very thoughtful of you, my lord.”

There was no point in pursuing the discussion since she’d made up her mind about him and needed to develop a workable plan to get herself and her aunt and uncle away from his hunting lodge with as little fuss as possible.

He leaned forward and took her hand again. “Somersby Hall is not such a terrible stable, and the jewels I shall gift to you as my wife are quite pretty carrots. You shall have everything your heart desires as my marchioness. Give me fine, strong sons, and daughters as beautiful as their mother, and you shall have my respect, my discretion. My generosity.”

“But never your love.” She nodded. “So why choose me? I can be replaced with any of a dozen other young women with dowries as fine as or finer than mine who will not question or challenge you.”

“No. There is only one of you, my dear. It must be you and you alone. No one else will do for my purposes.” His lips twitched as they turned slightly upward at the corners. His eyes had a turbulent, but unreadable look to them.

My purposes. This was no confession of love. What was he going on about then?

Her stomach sank into her toes. Mother in heaven. He was using her to hurt someone.

Her brother? Her uncle? She had to find out what he meant to do.


JOHN DECIDED NOT to wait for his companion, who was taking too long to ready himself. They weren’t dressing for a bloody London ball or Covent Garden theater, but merely intending to race up a few hills to keep an eye on Somersby’s carriage until Nicola was returned to the arms of Lord and Lady Darnley.

Impatient to be on his way, John went to the tavern’s stable to retrieve his mount, Valor. He called for one of the grooms to saddle his horse, a new purchase from Jordan’s prime stock, for Jordan was a breeder of renown and Drummond Stables had an excellent reputation throughout Scotland, England, and even Ireland where horse breeding was serious business.

Although John had only recently purchased Valor, he’d already trained the horse to respond to him and even taught him a few useful tricks. Indeed, all of John’s plans had been going well until last night. Foil a rebel plot, catch a few smugglers, and acquire a prime horse. Perhaps bag a few grouse in the bargain. Not bad for a few weeks’ work.

It would have been all good if not for Nicola storming back into his life.

He crossed to the stall and patted Valor’s nose. “Ready for a little exercise, my restless fellow?”

The black gelding was built for power and endurance, much like the chargers bred for battle in medieval times. Valor was a beautiful beast and John looked forward to teaching him more tricks, especially those to use if they were ever in a scrape and had to make a fast getaway.

He had yet to train Valor to use his hooves as weapons, but that would come next. The beast had an impatient nature and was already stamping and kicking, eager to be led out of his stall and taken for a long run.

“Larkins? Bigwell? Anybody in here?” When neither groom responded, John shrugged it off. They’d probably gone off with the group of hunters who’d gathered around him and Somersby a short while ago. He set his rifle against Valor’s stall and crossed to the tack room to fetch the saddle himself.

He was about to grab it when he heard several men enter the stable. Something about them put him instantly on alert. They moved silently, something no group of hunters would do, for they’d all be chattering away, boasting of the grouse they were sure to bag this morning. Their hunting dogs would be barking beside them in noisy anticipation.

No dogs.

No excited barks.

No jovial boasting.

John removed his spectacles, tucked them into the pocket of his jacket, and then slipped behind one of the rear stalls. It offered him a good vantage point while waiting for these strangers to come into view. But instead of moving toward him, they closed the stable doors, effectively shutting him in with them and keeping everyone else out.

Very little sunlight had spilled in when the door had been open. Now, the entire stable was wrapped in darkness.

No matter, it gave him the advantage.

His eyes quickly adjusted to the lack of light.

He did not need to see these men to know they were Somersby’s hired scum. Nor was it hard to guess their intent. They had purposely trapped him in here to beat him senseless. Perhaps they meant to kill him. Bollocks. He ought to have taken Nicola at her word. Was she safe? Would Somersby dare harm her?

He should never have allowed her to return to that villain’s lair.