A Duke for the Road

By: Eva Devon


Rob did not know how it had gotten so bad.

Perhaps it had all begun with his older brother who had lived as if there was no tomorrow, gambling away his own estates and coin, night after night, following in their father’s footsteps. What wasn’t lost playing lou and dice, was lost to chorus girls, contracted mistresses, clothes, and vast amounts of wine.

Rob had seen the papers.

Over the years, his brother and father had had no fewer than six contracted mistresses, each one costing an absolute fortune. After all, they’d been expected to cover the ladies gambling debts. . . including their own.

Their tailor, perfume, wig, and jeweler bills had been enough to make the healthiest man keel over with apoplexy. It was frankly, a marvel that Rob was still breathing after realizing the scope of it.

It was no wonder that his mother had aged a decade in a month after the old man’s death.

The reality of it had been like receiving a horse kick in the gut. The coffers had been truly empty. Now, each day was met with a new bill. With a new negotiation with a debt collector. With a new sale of some piece of art. What art remained. For the Blackstone Dukedom had a major failing.

The vast majority of its assets had not been entailed as opposed to the majority of titled families across the land. And therefore, the Blackstone holdings were largely unprotected. Only the great House Blackstone Wells was still completely intact though it had a skeleton staff, for it was the only thing entailed.

Rob held the glimmering earbobs, necklace, and garters he’d collected the previous night in his hand. He stared at the massive empty marble fireplace that had not seen coal or wood in months, and cursed under his breath.

Paste.

Clenching his fingers into a fist, he savored the feel of the settings biting into his palm.

He should not have been surprised. But there it was. Even now, he could still be caught off guard by duplicity. The irony did not escape him, given he was a thief.

No wonder, the formidable widow had not been overly distressed to part with her earbobs. It, much like the color to her lips, was fake.

And now, he was uncertain as to what to do. He closed his eyes for a moment then shoved the baubles into the top drawer of his large desk. One of the few pieces of good furniture that had yet to be sold. Black walnut, it was carved to perfection and polished to a sheen so bright he could see his face reflected. Or he could if the surface wasn’t covered in bills. Bracing his hands amidst the piles of paper, he fought a sigh.

There was nothing for it. He supposed he’d have to go out upon the road again tonight and do much better. He’d hoped to stay by his fire, reading books with his mother and sister for a week at least. Their company was one of the few things which made life bearable, even if it was hard seeing them in worn gowns, worry in their eyes.

Truthfully, the risks of going upon the road were also getting higher and higher with each foray into the dark parks. The ruling days of the highwayman were drawing to a fast close. Fielding had seen to that. Arrests were rampant. He had to keep clearly on his toes to keep free of the gaol and the noose. The judges did love to hang a highwayman.

And it was thanks only to one man, Richard Heath, that he’d learned the tricks of the trade and how to survive.

Perhaps, he’d have to pay the experienced thief another visit in his small but important kingdom in the East End. He hated to admit that perhaps he needed advice. But only fools didn’t know when to seek help.

A soft knock on the doorframe drew his attention away from the copious mounds of papers on his desk. He checked to ensure he’d closed his drawer tightly. He did not wish his mother to see a flash of a paste diamond and grow suspicious. She worried enough.

Forcing a smile, he turned to face his beloved mother.

The Dowager Duchess of Blackstone had been a beautiful woman once. She still was really. But years ago, she’d been the jewel of her generation. The diamond of the Season. At her debut she’d been declared Incomparable. And it had won her a duke.

And hell.

If one looked past the careworn wrinkles and the weariness of her sharp blue eyes, one could still see the beauty beneath. She still bore herself with the dignity of a queen and her dark hair was only touched with a thick silver streak at her temples.

Her emerald gown faded to a sage and it had been turned.

It was hard to see, his proud mother, dressed so shabbily. But they had no credit. Not any longer. Any dressmaker or haberdasher would curse them if they dared enter their shops.

Now, she held a letter in her wrinkled hand. And from the tightness of her once gentle mouth, he knew what it was.

“How much?” he asked, refusing to wince or allow his shoulders to bend.

“Apparently,” she began with surprising firmness as her eyes crackled with an understandable anger that did not seem to be extinguishable these days, “your father had arranged for two years to pay this debt, but it has now been almost three and the merchant will no longer wait.”

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