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Not Another Duke
Author: Jess Michaels





Fall 1815



Roarke Desmond made a slow count of ten in his head and schooled his expression so that his utter disgust with his surroundings would not be clear. It was something he had been doing for most of his life when he was forced to visit his three hateful cousins, so he was very good at it. After all, he had no other choice.

“Do you remember little Gregory Parson?” his cousin Thomas was asking now, drawing Roarke back into the conversation.

Roarke inclined his head. “Er, yes. I think so. He lived out near your father’s estate in Sidmouth, did he not?”

“My estate in Sidmouth,” Thomas snapped, and Roarke clenched his jaw.

His eldest cousin had been impossible to take for his entire life. Thomas was always lording his elevated position over Roarke and anyone else he deemed less than worthy. Roarke had hoped he might grow out of such immature nastiness, but Thomas’s entitled posturing had only increased in the three years since Roarke’s uncle Stuart had died and his oldest cousin had become duke.

There was almost no bearing him now.

“Of course,” Roarke soothed with a stifled sigh. “Your estate. What about him?”

“Do you know that Gertrude saw him scuttling about Cheapside the other day?” Thomas pivoted his head and speared his younger sister with a glare. “Tell him.”

Gertrude had been staring into her tea, apparently as bored by all this as Roarke was, but now she lifted her gaze and gave a smile. It seemed cruelty was a trait all his cousins shared. “I did. He owns a shop there—can you imagine?”

Roarke drew in a long breath and once again schooled his tone. “It’s a very successful mercery, if I recall. They import and sell the finest fabrics for furnishings. He and his wife run the shop.”

All three of his cousins pulled a face, clearly unimpressed by the success of their old neighbor’s business. But of course, so many of their rank were like that.

“Well, that’s quite a fall from his upbringing,” his third cousin, Philip, snorted as he chewed a biscuit from the tea set on the sideboard, little flecks of food flying from his mouth as he did so. “Then again, I suppose you know about that, don’t you, cousin?”

The three of them laughed, as if this were good-natured ribbing, not cruel taunting. Roarke shifted in his seat. It wasn’t as if he could deny the charge. He had certainly fallen far further than the man they were discussing. Although his connection to their family was on their mother’s side, rather than their duke father, Roarke had still been raised with a level of privilege and expectation.

Both of which had been ruined over the last two years. His father had started it. Francis Desmond had been a kind man, a good man, but he was a dreamer. Sometimes that led him to be too trusting or too certain of an investment. He had whittled down every bit of money he had available to him by the time of his death in a carriage accident.

Roarke had done little better. His mother had been left behind and was not well. She needed constant care—some days she didn’t even know who he was. Desperate, he’d followed in his father’s footsteps, trying to catch up, trying to make enough that he could take care of his responsibilities. To keep her comfortable.

He had failed. Almost as spectacularly as his father had. Which was why he had to come here and listen to his snobby cousins gossip about people they knew and be generally unpleasant. He was, for all intents and purposes, a dependent person now. If he wanted their continued financial support, this was the only way.

His stomach turned at the thought and he set his own teacup down. “What are your plans now that the Season is coming to an end?” he asked, hoping this would change the subject from one vapid subject to another more palatable one.

“I would say I was happy to be returning to the country estate,” Thomas groaned, and rolled his eyes at his siblings. "But I feel as though we are always working there to undo the damage that dreadful woman did before our dear father’s death.”

Roarke wrinkled his brow. “Are you talking about the dowager? Your stepmother?”

Gertrude slammed her cup down on the sideboard and let out a little pained cry. “My God, but I hate that she gets to claim any title that has to do with my father. Hateful, wretched thing. She married my father at his lowest point and did everything she could to turn him against us.”

“She used her grubby hands and smutty charms to grab everything she could,” Philip agreed, and Roarke recoiled. He was shocked his cousin would use such plain language with Gertrude in the room. She was a lady, after all, and an unmarried one at that. It was unseemly.

He shook his head. “I know she was a good deal younger than your father—”

“Younger than me,” Gertrude said. “By two years. So what does that tell you?”

Roarke didn’t respond. He had some thoughts about what that said, most of which were a bit more judgmental of his uncle than the young lady he had wed. After all, women had fewer choices when it came to their fate. And from what he knew of the lady, she had come from a good family, one that would see a union with a duke, old or young, as a triumph for her.

And though he hadn’t spent much time with his uncle after the death of his aunt, his father’s sister, the few times he’d bumped into him at a club or gathering, Uncle Stuart had seemed vastly content with his choice of second wife. He always spoke warmly of her, at least, in their brief encounters.

“But you know, you must have seen her,” Thomas was continuing, and Roarke realized he had blocked out much of their complaints.

He forced himself back to the present. “Er, no. I never met the lady, I’m afraid. Though you’ve made it no secret how little you three think of her, before or since your father’s death.”

“I should think we wouldn’t,” Philip said, his brow lowering. “After all she has taken from us. Her settlement was outrageous. Absolutely outrageous. If I had been in charge—”

“Philip,” Thomas said sharply, and Roarke’s younger cousin snapped his mouth shut with a sullen glare.

Roarke couldn’t help but look around the opulent home they all sat in at present. He didn’t think his cousins were hurting for funds, no matter how much their uncle had gifted for the widow he left behind.

“It has been three years since his death,” Roarke said as gently as he could. “And it seems the lady is no longer in your lives. Thomas is happily in place as duke, so he makes the decisions for the future of the family, and there were no children from the second union to take anything from you. I am surprised you are still so bitter toward his second wife.”

Thomas let out a long sigh and the three cousins exchanged a look heavy with meaning. It immediately put Roarke on edge. He knew that look, had seen it dozens of times as a child. It almost always meant his cousins had a plan of some kind, usually a cruel one, and they wished for him to be part of it. Probably so he could be blamed if the entire thing went wrong.

And once again Roarke cursed the fact that he had to grovel to them for money three times a year for the upkeep of his ill mother. Why had he not been more prudent? Why had he inherited his own late father’s penchant for risk when it came to bright ideas of the future? There had been so little left to inherit, but perhaps if he had been prudent and guarded, he might be in a different position now.

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