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The Duke of Nothing (The 1797 Club #5)
Author:Jess Michaels

The Duke of Nothing (The 1797 Club #5)

Jess Michaels




Prologue





1798

Baldwin Undercross watched as his father, the Duke of Sheffield, threw another coin onto the pile before him. The other men in the circle around the table mumbled and grumbled, exchanging looks that spoke of their shock and interest in what was about to happen.

Baldwin felt much the same. It was his first time in a gaming hell and he was not enjoying it, if truth be told. On the top of his mind was how he knew his mother would not approve. After all, Baldwin had just turned fifteen that very day. Without a doubt, she would be horrified and say he was too young.

But his father didn’t agree with that assertion. He’d given a very long speech about becoming a man and made Baldwin swear to secrecy where they were going. Still, Baldwin hadn’t wanted to come and his father had all but dragged him here.

Despite that, Baldwin had rather liked it…at first. There were beautiful women in abundance, the hell was loud and raucous, and there was much laughter and innuendo in the air. Only, as the hours had progressed, a sense of anxiety had gripped him, increased by the wild and sometimes glassy look in his father’s eye as the duke threw more and more blunt in on games of cards, dog fights and now dice. He’d lost more than he won until the last half an hour.

“You certain, Your Grace?” called out one of the men. “You’ve already gone double or nothing and triple or nothing. Are you sure you wish to bet again?”


Sheffield lifted his gaze and glared at the man. “Mind your business, Carter—no one’s asking you. I’ve got the luck tonight. I should bring my boy more often.”

He slung an arm around Baldwin as he spoke, and dragged him into the circle. Baldwin could smell the drink on his father’s breath and felt his drunkenness in the way he wobbled on his feet.

“You roll them, boy,” his father said, pressing the dice into Baldwin’s hand.

Baldwin swallowed hard as he stared at the dice clutched in his trembling fingers. He began to shake them slowly at first, then faster, as he prayed with all his might that he would roll the number his father had placed his bet upon. Eleven. The same age as Baldwin’s sister Charlotte.

Eleven, eleven, eleven, he repeated in his mind, as if that would make it happen. He released the dice and they skittered across the table, bouncing in what seemed like slow motion as the room collectively waited to see if quadruple or nothing was a truly good bet.

One of the dice landed first. A six, and Baldwin’s heart leapt with pleasure. Halfway there! The second bounced and the sound of it echoed in Baldwin’s ears, the only noise he heard even as the men jumped and called out around him. His father’s grip tightened on his arm as they watched the numbers skip around. Finally it landed, and all the air went out of Baldwin’s lungs.

Four.

The captain of the table chuckled and began to rake in the duke’s money as he said, “Tough luck, Sheffield.”

Baldwin felt tears stinging his eyes, and he blinked hard to push them back so he wouldn’t embarrass himself and his father in front of the room full of sneering men. Slowly he turned and found the duke staring at the money as it was pulled away.

“I’m—I’m sorry, Father,” Baldwin whispered, his voice cracking.

The duke blinked, and it was as if he were being pulled back to the present. He stared at Baldwin with a wrinkled brow and then guided him away from the table and the men and the money he’d lost. “Sorry? Why?”

Baldwin shook his head. “All that money, I-I lost it.”

The duke shot him an incredulous look. “Don’t be foolish, Baldwin, of course you didn’t. It was an unlucky roll, that’s all. It’s the game, nothing more. But we…we just have to win it back, don’t we?”

Baldwin’s lips parted. “Win it back? But…but Father, it was so much!”

For a moment, a dark shadow passed over Sheffield’s face and he glanced back at the table where the men had gone back to their games, worrying over their own fortunes rather than that of the duke and his son.

“Well, yes,” he said softly. “And that’s why we can’t leave in this state. Come, they’re starting a boxing match in the back, and it’s a far better bet than dice.”

Baldwin’s stomach turned. “I-I don’t know, Father.”

The duke draped his arm over Baldwin’s shoulder a second time and gave him a squeeze. “I do. After all, wasn’t it a thrill when you rolled those dice? Especially when the six came up?”

Baldwin shifted. “I-I suppose so. I thought I might win, after all.”

“And you will,” the duke reassured him. “You will again. Now I’ll show you how to pick a fighter and I’ll give you the money to bet. A birthday gift from me to you.”

Baldwin hesitated, but finally nodded. How could he not when his father was smiling so brightly and looking at him with such affection? They’d always been close, after all. And his father wouldn’t do anything that was wrong. Baldwin knew him too well to believe that. He was just a rich man, with the means to have some fun.

If he said it was all right, Baldwin believed him. So he pushed down the feelings of dread and anxiety, and followed his father through the twisting hallways of the hell. Toward the win his father felt so certain was coming.

The win Baldwin now desired so much that his stomach hurt. The win he wanted more than anything.





Chapter One





Spring 1811

“Are you paying attention, my love? This is very important.”

Baldwin Undercross, Duke of Sheffield, turned from his place at the window and focused his attention on his mother. She was seated on his settee, a slew of papers sprawled out on her lap, on the table before her, on the cushions next to her. She was examining one of them very closely and he barely held back a sigh at her determined expression.

“Yes,” he breathed. “So you say.”

Her gaze jerked up and held his, the brown eyes so like his own softening a bit. “I’m sorry, darling,” she said. “I know you despise this. I would not put you through it at all if it weren’t imperative.”

He pressed his hands behind his back and clenched them together. The worst part was, she wasn’t wrong in her assessment. It didn’t make him like what she was doing any more. In fact, he liked it less.

“I recognize that,” he conceded with a frown pulling hard on his lips. “After all, if our status is revealed, it could be very…bad. It is what it is. I accept it and my responsibility to remedy the problem.”

“At least Charlotte is safe from it,” the duchess breathed. “I felt like a weight was lifted from me the moment she and Ewan said their I dos.”