Earl of Hearts(5)

By: Meara Platt

But she was cold and now shivering despite standing beside the fire. Its heat was not enough to warm her, not while she was still in her soaked gown.

“Raise your arm,” he said when he reached her side, the request sounding more like a tersely barked order. He bent his head to look at the wet, gnarled lace strings, his breath warm against her neck as he leaned closer. He’d been drinking ale, but the steel glint in his eyes revealed he was quite sober.

Indeed, this was John. Always in control of his surroundings and of himself.

A bolt of heat shot through her as his fingers grazed her waist while unknotting the laces. She tried to hide her response to his touch, but it felt too exquisitely good. It wasn’t his fault that he was big and handsome or that she found his touch intoxicating.

Curiously, he always tried to make himself look unexceptional. He wore the most unattractive spectacles, for one thing. But she’d long ago seen through that ruse. His keen eyes and senses rivaled those of any beast on the prowl. Most young ladies in Society considered him a crushing bore. That was the face he showed to all but his closest friends, that of a scholar and a small game hunter who loved the dullest, most esoteric topics imaginable, ones that were purposely intended to have everyone yawning within moments of meeting him.

She wasn’t sure why he felt the need to push everyone away.

It hadn’t worked with her. She knew the sort of man he truly was. Well, no one truly knew John beyond the few surface layers he deigned to reveal. She’d pierced a few more layers than most, but she still had not come close to penetrating his heart.

She was amazed and honored that he’d allowed her to see in that far. Surely, he must have felt some level of comfort with her.

Perhaps he even liked her a little.

She wasn’t sure, for he did not appear to be particularly happy with her at this moment. In truth, she sensed nothing but coiled tension.

“There, done.” His voice was raw and husky, sending tingles through her body, which showed how pathetic she was to respond to a man who barely tolerated her out of duty to her brother.

He turned away quickly and headed for the door.

“Thank you, John,” she called after him.

He nodded. “Get some rest. We’ll discuss what to do about your situation in the morning.”

Nicola knew what she was going to do. She was going to pack up her aunt and uncle, and then cut all ties to the Marquis of Somersby.

The only question in her mind was, would John help?


JOHN AWAKENED AT the cock’s first crow, too on edge to sleep any longer. Not that he ever got much sleep. His nights were always fitful, sometimes harrowing, and last night had been particularly bad knowing Nicola slept in the room next to his. He wasn’t certain which dreams were worse, the nightmares that had begun in his childhood or the hot, wild dreams of Nicola. He always awoke with an ache from those of her, a burning ache that he wanted to dismiss as purely carnal. But he couldn’t, for the girl had a way of slicing through his empty heart.

He quietly rose from his pallet and crossed to the window to peer out of it.

The rain had ended shortly after midnight, and a quick inspection of the road that stretched out from the tavern into the hills revealed it would be passably dry within a few hours. It would only take the heat of the morning sun to dry out the lingering puddles and mud.

His gaze drifted to the distant hills that were filled with rolling waves of purple heather. He loved the Highlands, the heather and thistles, the rowan and gorse growing wild. There was abundant life hidden beneath the blanket of shrubs.

His gaze lifted to the sky and the goshawks quietly circling overhead on the hunt for prey. The clouds gathering over the hills resembled gray-clad clansmen on the march to war, and the wind whistling through the valleys brought to mind the keening wail of bagpipes.

The Highlands suited his temperament, appearing serene on its hard, cragged surface, but scratch below the layers and one would find the wildness simmering beneath. John had learned early on to survive on his feral instincts, much like the wild game that nested in these hills. He’d had no choice. It was the only reason he’d survived.

That was him, the lone survivor.

Those childhood memories still haunted him.

Back then, he’d been too young to protect those he loved, but he was a man now. This was how he awoke to each new day, with a solemn vow to fight anyone who would harm those dear to his heart.

He silently vowed to protect Nicola to his dying breath.

He shook his head and groaned, knowing he was being as ridiculously dramatic as Nicola had been last night. She wasn’t in any danger, but if she was firm in her decision not to marry Somersby, there could be some unpleasantness. He would arrange for her and Lord and Lady Darnley to be safely returned home.