When the Duke Found Love – Eleanor Keating

A hot dagger of pain pierced Marcus through the chest, right where his heart was situated. He looked to Lady Louisa, his fiancée, and shook his head, not wanting to understand the plain words she had spoken. Not wanting to face the consequences of her speech. Lady Louisa stood with the shine of tears in her eyes, but her cheeks were dry. “Oh, Marcus, my love, I am sorry for the situation to come to light for you in such a shocking fashion. I never meant to hurt you.” Her words and countenance, at such odds with one another, set his teeth on edge. The dagger in his heart twisted. He feared it might twist until his heart simply refused to feel anything more, and then he would be a right curmudgeon for the rest of his life. A boyhood friend’s grandfather had been that way. None of the grandchildren wanted to be around the old man as they were fearful of his sour, hateful scowls and booming voice; in fact, his own adult children wanted very little to do with him. Marcus did not wish to share the same fate; but there it was again. That blade of pain, slicing in hot, twisting, and leaving ice in its wake. Each time he looked at Louisa, his love, his future wife, another pain; another vein of ice. With no emotion in her voice, and an absolutely uncaring, and slightly scathing expression, Louisa said, “Marcus? Are you not going to speak a word? Are you only going to sit there scorching me with your fiery glare? I am in a delicate state right now, and I cannot stand to sit here in silence much longer.

It’s not good in my condition to be overly stressed, you know.” She barely hid her small smile which became a smirk. Or a sneer; he could not be sure which. “How?” That was the only word Marcus could manage before the pain took him again. He wanted to cry, scream, throw things, and pummel Louisa’s lover, who was not going to be only a lover anymore. The world spun out of control, threatening to cause an upheaval of the scant breakfast he had only an hour before. With more audacity than he had thought she could manage, Louisa chuckled. “Dear, dear, Marcus. Honestly, I don’t think I have to explain that to you.” Her cheeks pinked as she chuckled again.

Ruthless tramp, he thought. Anger bolted through him like a racehorse, pounding away the heartache, grinding it under smoldering hooves and leaving only ash behind. “How … could … you?” he asked through gritted teeth. Standing so abruptly that his chair clattered back against the hearthstones, he planted his hands palm-down on the table and leaned across, toward Louisa. “How could you go behind my back and be unfaithful? How could you get pregnant with another man’s child? If anyone had said, even a month past, that you would become only a bit of muslin, I would have taken him to duel for the slander! I am sick with grief and torn with anger at such un-righteous betrayal.” Much to his satisfaction, her eyes grew large and her mouth dropped open. She stood, her face paling. Her hand fluttered from her stomach to her breast and then back to her stomach. “How dare you, Marcus! Such insults, I will not stand for. Not from you!” Her voice was hollow and tremulous.

“How can the truth be an insult, dear Lady Louisa?” Sarcasm dripped from his words. Marcus stormed toward the door of the parlor, stopping at the threshold. “I trust you can find your way out.” He turned to look at her sideways, adding, “And don’t bother finding your way here again.” Marcus went upstairs, leaving Lady Louisa demanding an apology in a high-pitched, whining voice that set his teeth on edge. All he wanted was to be away from her. The sooner, the better. After the ugly and tension-filled scene at his home, Marcus was unable to remain there for very long. From his bedchamber window, he watched Lady Louisa’s carriage exit his property. The pain that spiraled through his chest and guts was even worse than when she had been there revealing her secret.

When she had disappeared from view, he crumpled into an armchair and dropped his head into his hands. The world spun out of control again, and he gasped for air, sitting tense and gripping the arms of the brocade chair until the spinning stopped. Sweat oozed from his forehead; his stomach flipped despite his best efforts for control. Several hours later, he found himself sitting at a large mahogany table with four of his friends. The night thus far had consisted of several—he had lost count of how many— games of whist, and more rounds of port and Blue Ruin than he had needed. Sitting with good friends at Redfield’s, and laughing with them, he knew it had worked. The pain of Louisa’s revelation had been blunted by friends and distraction, and surely by the alcohol. He looked around the table at his friends. Nathaniel, twenty-six, the same age as Marcus, came from a very wealthy peerage line and was the founder of Redfield’s. William, only three years older, was successful in the textile company he owned.

Tristan, at thirty, was a prominent London doctor, and well-respected amongst the ton. And, then there was Robert, the wealthy merchant from a broken background. Finally, Marcus thought of himself. His father, the Marquess of Glenshire, had been killed in a carriage robbery when Marcus was only fifteen. Marcus grew up under the strict rules of his grandfather, the Duke of Thurlstone. After a manner, he supposed he was from a broken background, too. What do we all have in common? Marcus wondered. He rubbed his forehead, and took another look at them each, his thoughts turning serious as he realized their profound connection. Each man was wealthy, a member of London society, and they all got on with each other famously. They were of close ages, but their interests were widely varied; yet they were still very close friends.

Each of us has reason to doubt that love can last, he thought. Nathaniel had witnessed the loveless and miserable marriage of his parents. William was once in love, but the relationship ended badly and with his heart shattered. Tristan was the doctor who could not save his wife. After only two short years of marriage, she died of an illness. Robert, for all his success and good looks, kept his emotions guarded because of his parents’ breakup. Nathaniel raised his glass and cleared his throat, drawing the collective attention to himself. “Gentlemen, I say that we should raise a toast to a future devoid of all society’s mores and expectations of us. We, as men, are more than products of our environment, are we not?” “Hear, hear!” was the resounding answer from all. “We need a new outlook on life, my friends,” Nathaniel continued.

“I propose not only a toast, but a little wager amongst us, as well.” His eyes twinkled, and he grinned. Everyone quieted. Eyeing him with a touch of suspicion, Marcus asked, “What’s this wager to be?” “I propose that we each enter into an agreement right here, right this very instant, the Year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and eleven, in the month of April. We shall never fall in love. Never shall we enter into the confines of a loveless marriage for convenience. Nor shall we, for the oldest reason of all—true love—enter into marriage. True love, which so often transforms from a loving embrace to the jailor of men after only a short while, is toxic; a trap into which we, as men with a new outlook on life, shall never fall. To the devil with society’s expectations of us as men.” He held his glass aloft.

“What say you all?” Marcus’s glass was the first to be raised, followed in quick succession by the others around the table. “I’ll gladly enter into this wager,” he nearly shouted. “To the devil with expectations!” The others shouted in unison as their glasses clinked, “Hear, hear! To the devil with expectations!” “Everyone puts in five guineas!” Nathaniel said. “Winner takes all!” They downed the port in their glasses and set them on the table, sealing the deal. Marcus had to admit that he felt lighter afterward, as if he had been freed of some horrible weight that had been riding upon his shoulders, unnoticed until it had gone.

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