Earl of Hearts(7)

By: Meara Platt

“Oh, all right. But don’t trust him, John.”

“Right. Got it. He’s a depraved viper.” He was glad that Nicola no longer cared for the man and refused to marry him, but was also disgusted with himself for wanting Nicola to be his without any intention of offering for her.

If anyone was a depraved viper, it was him.

The girl deserved happiness and a good man to love her.

“Somersby,” he said, approaching the scowling marquis who stood in the entry hall with five rough-looking men. “You needn’t worry. Lady Nicola is safe. Mr. Drummond and I will return her to your lodge in a little while. I’m sure her aunt and uncle must be wringing their hands in concern.”

Somersby sneered at him, bringing Nicola’s words to mind. Whips and chains and toss in a wicked sneer. “She comes back with me now, Bainbridge. Don’t interfere or you’ll regret it. This is between Lady Nicola and me.”

“Are you threatening me? Because I don’t take kindly to threats.” Gad, had Nicola been right about this arse?

“Where is she?” Somersby raised his hand, about to motion for his ruffians to search the inn, but he must have noticed the lethal glint in John’s eyes, and stilled his hand in midair. “Very well, what do you propose?”

“Merely that you speak to her. She was caught unawares last night and was shocked by what she saw.”

Somersby nodded. “So she told you.”

“She would have sought out her brother had he been here. I was the next best thing. That’s all. I am neither condoning nor condemning what you did, nor am I in the habit of gossiping. What matters is how you address the situation this morning. Treating her with kindness and respect will help. She’s to be your wife, after all.”

“That’s right. My wife, not yours. She will never be yours.”

Never. That one word struck like a knife to John’s heart and momentarily stole his breath away. Had he imagined it, or was there a purposeful malice in that statement? A wicked sense of glee in twisting the knife in him?

What had he ever done to offend the man?

Somersby was too busy glancing around and scowling at the small crowd of men now gathered around them to notice that he’d struck deep. Nor did he appear pleased to have these men as witnesses, but John was glad they were present if only to keep the man’s temper in check, for he was still riled. “Mine. I will not allow her to make a fool of me.”

“No need. You’re doing an able job of it all by yourself.” John knew he should not have goaded him, but the man needed to be taken down a peg or two. He willed himself to remain calm and not curl his hands into fists, but it was no easy thing. He itched to plant the pompous oaf a facer. One solid punch to lay him low. “You’re mistaken if you believe Lady Nicola can be threatened or intimidated. You are dangerously mistaken if you believe I will stand back and do nothing to protect her.”

Somersby poked him in the chest with his finger. “And you’re mistaken if you think to interfere. She is my betrothed. She will be my wife. Do we understand each other?”

John folded his arms over his chest. “She isn’t your betrothed yet, nor will she ever be if this is the way you intend to treat her. Put your hand on me again and I’ll break it. Put your hand on Lady Nicola and I’ll kill you. I think we understand each other very well.”

Somersby noticeably blanched at his remark. Good, he wanted to leave no doubt that he’d be watching the marquis. He could tell by the man’s nervous glance that he was reconsidering his approach. John smothered a grin, glad that he’d gotten his point across. Even the curious onlookers had hurriedly moved off, obviously not intending to be caught in the crossfire if shots were fired.

“Bainbridge, I am obviously out of sorts. What happened last night distressed me as much as it did Lady Nicola. Of course, I will respect her. She’s to be my wife. She will bear my children. She’ll be my duchess when I inherit my father’s title. I will talk to her. I will apologize to her on bended knee if I must. I’ll do whatever it takes to make things right.”

John dared not believe a word of his pretty speech, but Nicola must have been listening and did appear to accept what the bounder had just said. She stepped into the hallway and came to his side. “Lord Bainbridge, it’s all right. I’ll return to Lord Somersby’s lodge with him now.” She cast both of them a wan smile. “I’m so sorry I worried everyone. How is my uncle? And Aunt Bess?”

Somersby’s anger seemed to fade away as Nicola reached his side. “Lord and Lady Darnley are quite distressed, my dear. The sooner we return to the lodge, the better.”