Earl of Hearts(4)

By: Meara Platt

“One of the maids will bring the stew up to my chamber,” he said, reaching out to take Nicola’s hand. “Come on, I’ll help you settle in.”

Jordan cast him a questioning look, his beefy hands curling into fists. “Where do ye intend to spend the night?”

“I’m giving her my room. I’ll share yours. I can make a pallet for myself by the hearth.”

Jordan nodded. “Aye, that’ll work.”

“Thank you, Mr. Drummond. I appreciate your protecting me, but you needn’t worry. Lord Bainbridge has no interest in me other than that of a protective brother.”

Jordan arched an eyebrow. “Lass, he isn’t your brother.”

“No, but…” She sighed. “I would like to go upstairs now. My gown is soaked and I’m chilled to the bone. I don’t like the way some of these men are looking at me.”

Neither did John.

He cast them a lethal scowl that had them hastily turning away to stare into their tankards once more.

The girl was too pretty for her own good.

She was too pretty for his own good.

He was on an important assignment.

He needed to concentrate on destroying those smugglers.

But all he could think about was Nicola. In his shirt. In his bed.

The storm outside was nothing to the one raging in his heart.

NICOLA ALLOWED HERSELF to lean against John as he escorted her upstairs to his chamber. Fatigue overcame her the moment she rested her head against his big, comforting shoulder. She’d been so tense and overset ever since reaching Invergarry, sensing things were not quite right with the Marquis of Somersby. No doubt her uncle and John believed she was merely being a fickle maiden, but it wasn’t that at all.

She would have gone through with the betrothal and the wedding had the marquis been a moderately decent man. She would have vowed to honor and obey him—although she would need to work a little harder on the “obey” part—and agreed to become his wife. Once married, she would have tried her best to make their marriage work. “Thank you, John. I know I’ve been a bother to you. But I had nowhere else to turn.”

“No bother,” he said, but Nicola knew he thought of her as an unpleasant boil on his neck that simply would not pop. She did not mean to be a nuisance to him, but it wasn’t entirely her fault that she was in this mess over the Marquis of Somersby.

Didn’t Somersby have to take some responsibility for his actions?

And that was another thing. The marquis would not permit her to call him Tom or Thomas, but insisted that she always refer to him as Somersby or my lord. They’d never reached the point of amiable familiarity. She’d expected that to come in time, but now knew it never would.

John tightened his grip around her waist as she faltered on the last step. His big, muscled arms drew her close. Perfect arms, but she refused to think about their impressive strength. John did not care for her in that way and never would.

He paused in front of the fourth door on the right. “Here we are.”

She said nothing as he opened the door to reveal a cozy fire blazing in the hearth and a comfortable-looking bed that took up most of the small room. John’s travel pouch rested on a chair beside the hearth. “Where are the rest of your belongings, John?”

He leaned against the door frame as though afraid to enter his own chamber. Even at this distance, his dark gold hair managed to glow magnificently in the firelight. His eyes were a mix of pine green and lethal gray… yes, that’s what they were, a dangerous, haunting green, like the eyes of a predator. A wolf, perhaps. How many times had she lost herself in their vibrant depths? “Jordan’s farm is not far from here. That’s where I’m staying for grouse hunting season. But we’d planned to spend a few days hunting in these hills since the game is plentiful in this area, so we took rooms here to get an early start in the morning.” He nodded toward his pouch. “I have a spare shirt in there.”

“Soap and a comb, by any chance?”

He nodded. “Use whatever you need. Ask the maid to help you undress when she brings up the stew.”

“Would you mind terribly helping me now? Just a few tugs on the laces and I’ll manage the rest. The cold has seeped into my bones.”

To her surprise, John suddenly seemed panicked. No, she must have been mistaken. The man had ice in his veins. He was the coolest, most levelheaded person she’d ever known. Nothing ever rattled him, not even the threat of imminent death. She’d seen him in action at her uncle’s summer cottage when a ring of Napoleon’s spies had come after him and her brother, Julian. “Very well,” he said, walking toward her with such obvious reluctance, she wanted to tell him to go back downstairs and she’d fend for herself.