The Duke of Hearts (1797 Club #7)

By: Jess Michaels
(The 1797 Club Book 7)





Dedication




For Leora Hansen. A true embodiment of class, dedication and kindness. Thank you for all you did for the hundreds of students who loved you. Rest well, dear friend.



And for Michael, who I met in her class. Debate kids make the best marriages.





Chapter One





Spring 1812

It could have been called a 1797 Club party, thanks to the number of friends Matthew Cornwallis, Duke of Tyndale, had in attendance. Dukes abounded, in seemingly every corner. Once upon a time, he would have enjoyed this moment when they were all together. It had become so rare over the years as his friends grew into their titles, their marriages, their responsibilities. But at present, it was not joy in Matthew’s heart as he watched them from a distance.

It was something far darker, far uglier. Something he did not wish to name. More than half of his friends were here with their wives. They spun around the dancefloor in pairs, eyes locked, hands inappropriately low, laughter echoing, cheeks filling with color thanks to whispered words.

They were all happy. He should have been happy for them. He was. And he wasn’t. Because he was standing on the outside now, looking in on a world he should have joined years ago. Except Angelica had died.

All he was left with were regrets.

Suddenly Robert Smithton, Duke of Roseford, slid up beside him. Wordlessly he handed Matthew a scotch and then lifted his own glass to clink it against Matthew’s.

“To the bachelors,” he said, staring out at the dancefloor and their friends. “Those of us left, that is.”

Matthew shut his eyes. There were days when his grief still felt so raw, no matter how many years had passed since the death of his fiancée. Today was one of them, and Robert’s words were like a knife in his heart.

“Sorry,” Robert said softly.

Matthew’s eyes flew open and he stared at his friend. Robert was almost his polar opposite, a man driven by pleasure and nothing more. He didn’t allow deeper emotions, so he never experienced the pain that went with them.

But he was also a brilliant mind, a loyal friend and someone Matthew cared deeply for, regardless of his judgment of Robert’s decisions.

“I must look like hell if you’re apologizing to me,” Matthew croaked out before he took a sip of his drink.

The tension on Robert’s face bled away and he grinned, the rogue in full force at that moment. “I’m apologizing because I’m an ass,” he said. “But you know that. You’re always telling me much the same.”

Matthew drew in a deep breath as the pain faded a fraction. Leave it to Robert to do that. He did appreciate it.

“Well, you’re no more an ass than usual,” he said softly. “So I forgive you this once.”

Robert tipped his head. “Much obliged, Your Grace.”

Matthew sighed as his attention returned to the others. The music had faded now and they were joining up in little clusters, the women comparing gowns and smiling at their husbands. Every once in a while, Ewan, Duke of Donburrow, brushed his hand over his wife Charlotte’s swollen pregnant belly, and a shadow of a smile crossed his normally serious face.

“It’s the end of an era,” Robert mused.

Matthew jolted from his own thoughts and nodded. “I suppose it is. They have all found their matches, leaving only a handful of us without such happiness. But it was bound to happen, wasn’t it? We’re of an age to do such things. Someone will be next.”

Robert snorted out a laugh of derision. “It won’t bloody well be me,” he said, and downed his entire drink in one slug.

Matthew laughed with him. “No, my assumption is that you will be last—you enjoy your life too much to surrender it willingly.”

For a brief moment, a shadow crossed Robert’s face. Matthew tilted his head at the sight of it, for it was an expression he’d never seen before on his old friend. Before he could press, Hugh Margolis, Duke of Brighthollow and another of their bachelor friends, approached.

Matthew’s concern shifted. In the past six months, he’d seen a change in Hugh. His hair had grown out, his cheeks were slashed with stubble more often than not. More than that, there was something deeply troubled in his dark gaze. Whenever he was asked about it, he waved the question off.

But tonight some of that trouble seemed faded. He grinned at his friends, back to the light and lively companion he’d always been. He even slung an arm around Robert. “And what are you two talking about so seriously, eh?”

Robert rolled his eyes. “How very romantic our friends have all become. We were debating who would enter the snare of marriage next.” He winked at Matthew. “And we were discussing how miserable Tyndale is.”

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