Earl of Hearts(6)

By: Meara Platt

After sparing a glance at Jordan, he set about quietly washing and dressing. But perhaps he didn’t need to tiptoe about the room. Jordan had remained in the taproom well into the wee hours and was now sleeping like the dead, stretched diagonally across the bed, fully clothed with his boots still on. A thundering herd of horses could have galloped through these quarters and Jordan would not have heard a single hoofbeat.

John could not recall a time when he’d ever let down his guard that completely.

No, he never had.

He left the room to go downstairs for a light repast, but paused first beside Nicola’s door. Was she awake yet? He hesitated a moment and then knocked lightly.

He heard Nicola’s graceful footsteps moving toward the door. “Who is it?”

“John.” He shouldn’t have disturbed her at this early hour, but was glad that she was already up and about. He wanted a little time alone with her. He always wanted time alone with her, but never allowed himself to give in to the urge. This was different. She’d come to him so obviously distraught last night.

“Oh, thank heaven.” She opened her door and cast him an angelic smile. “I need your help to tie me up.”

“Tie you up?” He quickly dismissed the notion that rushed into his head which was too obscene to reveal to Nicola. “Ah, your lace strings.”

She nodded. “My gown is dry but the laces are still a little too stiff for me to manage.”

“I’ll do it.” He stepped into her chamber and shut the door behind him. No one would know. No one would see them. Only the guests embarking on their hunting expeditions would be up at this early hour and most of them were downstairs already. “Did you sleep well?”

Nicola sighed. “No. How about you? I’m sorry you had to sleep on the floor. Between that and Mr. Drummond’s snoring, I doubt you got any rest.” She cast him another smile, this one more impish. “I could hear his snores through my wall after he came upstairs. I thought a flock of geese had taken up lodgings in your chamber, he honked so loudly through the night.”

John shook his head and laughed. “He was a bit loud, but he’s sleeping like the dead now.”

He forced his hands to slip off Nicola’s luscious body the moment he was done. “Are you hungry?”

She nodded.

They made their way downstairs and had no sooner finished a breakfast of oatmeal, bangers, and tea than John heard a commotion at the entry. “Where is she? Tell Lady Nicola she’s to come downstairs at once.”

John shot to his feet at the sound of Somersby’s arrogant voice. “Nicola, get behind me. Seems your husband-to-be is here and he doesn’t sound happy.”

“I told you last night, that loathsome snake will never be my husband.”

He ignored her scowl and nudged her behind him. “You’re still angry. The two of you need to calm down and talk this through.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. He’s a monster. He won’t listen to me. Besides, I’m not taking wedding advice from you.”

John rolled his eyes. “Did you ever hear the adage about not biting the hand that feeds you? I’m trying to help you and you’re insulting me.”

She stepped in front of him even though he’d been trying to gently push her behind him for her own protection. “Nicola, do as I say.”

She cast him the defiant glare that she’d perfected, that pouty-lipped, chin up in the air and sultry, eyes blazing look that made him want to throttle her and at the same time kiss her into eternity.

Lord, the girl was a nuisance.

Her chin tipped up a notch higher. “Talking to him is a waste of time. He won’t listen. He means to drag me back to his lodge and punish me for running off. He has a cabinet full of whips of all shapes and sizes.”

John growled. “You’re making that up.”

A rose blush stained her cheeks. “Perhaps. So what if I am? I’ll wager that he does. All depraved villains have them. Whips and chains and black masks and lots of naughty leather things that must serve a shocking purpose, although I have no idea what that purpose could be. Not to mention the other wicked instruments of—”

“Where did you hear such nonsense?” He ran a hand through his hair in consternation. “Just get behind me and keep quiet. Can you do that? I’m trying to get us both through this encounter without fists flying.”

She nodded and stepped behind him, resting her hand against his back as though needing to hold on to him. “And I don’t like the way his lips curl upward in a sneer.”

He dismissed her comment as her touch rippled through him. He wanted to tell her not to do that, for his concentration fell to pieces whenever she touched him. “Nicola, wait by the back table where we sat last night. I want you well out of the way while I first approach him.”