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Earl of Hearts

By:Meara Platt

CHAPTER 1


Scottish Highlands

October 1814

JOHN RANDALL, THIRD Earl of Bainbridge, reached for his pistol as the  howling wind caught the door to MacNaughton's Tavern, flinging it open  with a slam that rattled the rafters. All conversation in the crowded  establishment suddenly came to a halt as everyone turned to gaze at the  rain-soaked stranger standing in the doorway. John tightened his grip on  his pistol, wondering what new trouble was about to unfold on this dark  and deplorable night.

"What idjut would be out in such a storm?" his companion, Jordan  Drummond, grumbled, setting down his tankard of ale with a thunk on the  stained oak table as he reached for his own weapon. But he eased back in  his chair a moment later and picked up his tankard once more to resume  drinking. "Bah! It's just a scrawny lad."

John gave a distracted nod, his attention now riveted to the new  arrival, who was not a lad at all but a slender young woman who appeared  to be desperately searching for someone. His heart took a leap into his  throat. "Bollocks, what's she doing here?"

Nicola.

The wind chose that moment to gust again. It blew the hood of Lady  Nicola Emory's cape off her head to reveal the magnificent tumble of her  wet, auburn curls and the blaze in her gorgeous, cat-like green eyes.  "Better take cover," he said with a groan, his gaze still fixed on the  beautiful girl. "She looks angry."

Indeed, Nicola in a temper was a thing to be avoided at all costs. Any  man in his right mind would steer clear of her if he valued his life.

John hadn't been in his right mind over Nicola for years now. She'd  gotten into his heart long ago and he hadn't been able to get her out no  matter how hard he'd tried. But she was his best friend's sister, so it  was hands off for him.

Seeing her standing alone, still searching, brought his protective instincts surging to the fore.

What had happened to bring her out on a night like this? He drew back  his chair and rose to make his way to her before any of the drunken sots  in the taproom approached her.

He wasn't worried about her safety, but theirs. Nicola riled was a force of nature.

She noticed him and was about to start toward him when someone called  out, "Shut that door! Dinna ye hear me, lass? Are ye daft?"

Her hands curled into fists. "Shut it yourself, you rum-soaked, tub of-"

"Nicola!" John strode to the door and shut it before a brawl erupted  with her in the center of the drunken melee and giving twice as good as  she got. For a little thing, she had a stubborn determination and an  impertinent mouth, which he'd ached to kiss for longer than he could  remember. But that was never going to happen.

Certainly not now.

He'd never seen Nicola this overset. Mingled with her anger was an  unmistakable desperation. That worried him. What had happened to leave  her so distraught? "Nicola," he said more gently, wrapping his arm  around her as he guided her to his table.

She glanced up at him with her big, green eyes, and in the next moment,  her entire body crumbled in defeat. She gazed downward and her slight  shoulders sagged. Lord, he was an idiot. What she was feeling was  anguish, not anger, and that troubled him even more. His stomach roiled.  Had something happened to her uncle? He'd always thought the Earl of  Darnley was quite fit for a man his age. But the Highlands winds and  bone-chilling rains that rolled in from the North Sea could lay a man  low. "Why are you here?"

He helped her to slip off her damp cape and settled her at the table he  and Jordan occupied. Fortunately, it was in a quieter corner of the  tavern. A quelling glance at the curious onlookers had them quickly  turning away to stare into their tankards of ale. Good, he wanted  privacy, for he was concerned about Nicola and eager to know what had  brought her running to him on a night like this.

While John held out a seat for Nicola, Jordan took her cloak and  muttered something about hanging it up by the hearth so it would dry.

John cast him an appreciative nod, knowing his companion meant to give  him time alone with the girl. His heart lurched once more, for her  shoulders were shaking not from the cold but from sorrow. Nicola rarely  cried, she simply wasn't one of those simpering, weepy misses. But tears  were streaming down her face and mingling with the cold rain on her  cheeks. "Answer me, Nicola. What has happened?"

"John." She looked up at him with such an expression of agony etched on  her face that his heart shot into his throat again. "I've made a  terrible mistake."

He frowned. "What did you do now?"

Her eyes widened in obvious surprise, more than a little hurt by his remark. "Why do you think I did something wrong?"         

     



 

"You just said you'd made a mistake." He sighed as he raked a hand  through his hair. "Never mind, just tell me why you're here and not warm  and dry at Somersby's hunting lodge with your aunt and uncle."

She stiffened her spine and tipped her chin up in that mark of defiance  he knew quite well. "I refuse to go back to that snake pit."

"Snake pit?" He reached out and brushed back a stray lock of her auburn  hair that was wet and pasted to her cheek. He wasn't certain why he did  it other than the need to touch her. Her cheek was soft and delicate.

He ran his knuckles lightly along the curve of her jaw, unable to pull  away just yet. This was Nicola, beautiful and vulnerable, and at the  same time, hardheaded and determined. "The Somersby hunting lodge is one  of the finest in all of Scotland. Why won't you go back there?"

She leaned into his touch and closed her eyes. "I caught the Marquis of  Somersby with another woman. Oh, John, he's going to announce our  betrothal at tomorrow evening's ball and I can't go through with it."

He stifled the urge to cheer. He had no right, for he'd chosen duty over  love, taking on dangerous assignments to protect England instead of  courting Nicola. He should have been the one to offer for Nicola, but he  still had too much to accomplish and could never let on how he felt  about her. "Are you certain? You might have mistaken-"

"I didn't. He wasn't just with this other woman. He was with her in that  sort of way. They were in an alcove beside his library. I was on my way  there to find a book to read when I heard sounds." Her cheeks flamed a  hot, bright red. "I'm such a naive fool. It never entered my mind that  he would do such a thing on the eve of our betrothal."

John had never liked Thomas Mooring, the Marquis of Somersby, but he  could not blame the man for needing to release his pent-up desire.  Nicola was innocent, but also incredibly luscious. Any man would ache to  have her. How many nights had he lain in bed, dreaming of her beside  him, soft and responsive as he stirred her to passion? "Nicola,  sometimes … " Bollocks. He did not want to have a conversation about men  and lustful urges with the girl.

Or his own lustful urges.

She was his best friend's sister. If he touched her, he would be honor  bound to marry her. Not that it would be so terrible, but he was on a  dangerous mission at the moment, one he meant to see through to the end.  There would be more missions for him when this one was over, perilous  ones that were given only to unmarried agents of the Crown. That was the  rule when working in this elite unit: marry and you're out. He'd made  his choice. He was all in. England needed him more than Nicola did.

He ran a hand through his hair once more in dismay. "Nicola, men have …  urges."

She frowned. "You don't."

"What?" The hell he didn't. Right now, he was having a violent urge to  throttle her. Did she think he was a eunuch? That his entire body did  not roil in agony every time she was near him?

She rolled her eyes. "You've taken offense. I don't mean it that way,  John. My point is, if you were a day away from announcing your betrothal  to me, would you be satisfying yourself in the arms of another woman?"

She looked up at him, suddenly distraught. "Would you?"

"No." He meant it, too. When he married, it would be for love and there would be no other woman for him but his intended bride.

Nicola cast him a wistful smile. "I knew you'd be faithful. You'd be in  love and would treat her with respect and affection. That's the good  sort of man you are. The best sort. Any young lady would be proud to  marry you. But the Marquis of Somersby is nothing like you. He is an  evil viper and he has a dark, odious heart."

Her composure began to crumble again. "So you see, I've made a terrible  mistake." She buried her hands in her face and quietly sobbed.

He allowed her a moment before drawing her into his arms to console her.  He wanted to continue asking his questions. Nicola could, at times, be  theatrical in her descriptions. But he supposed she'd been terribly hurt  and more than a little shocked to realize that the man to whom she was  about to give her heart was stomping on it by dallying with another  woman.

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