A Most Unlikely Duke – Chapter One

London, 1818

Thick clouds darkened to shades of grey as they rolled across the London sky. Beneath them, standing in the middle of the Black Swan courtyard, Raphe Matthews drew back his fist, his muscles bunching tightly together—just long enough for him to assess the angle and speed with which to release all that power. Instinct made it a brief calculation. Less than a second, and then he sent his fist flying.
The punch snapped his opponent’s face sideways, producing a spray of spit and blood that painted the air with specks of crimson. A cheer erupted from those who’d come to witness the fight—a motley selection of hardened individuals. This place was not for the weak or the wealthy. It reeked of filth and the daily struggle to survive. This was St. Giles, but it might as well have been the bowels of hell for all the difference it made.
“Come on!” someone shouted.
Raphe’s other fist met a hard chest with a crunch. His knuckles ached, the force of the punch vibrating through him.
“Matthews, Matthews, Matthews…” The chant shook the air while Raphe shifted his footing, regaining his balance just in time to accept the blows that followed. He didn’t mind, for it only revealed his opponent’s sudden desperation.
Raising his fists to block the attack, Raphe bobbed to the side, turning away, just out of reach. And yet, he was close—so close he could smell the sweat on the other man’s skin, see the fear that shone in his eyes, the beads of moisture clinging to his hair that dripped onto his brow.
More shouts flooded the air, drowning him in a cacophony of unintelligible noise. The wave of encouragement shifted, alerting him that support had changed—no longer in his favor.
Forcing it into the background, Raphe focused on the man he was meant to beat. Today his name was Calvin Butler. Raphe launched himself forward, surrendering to the rage and let the punches fly, beating back pain and anger until Calvin Butler lay stretched out on the ground, hands covering his face in surrender. A fleeting second of silence passed, just long enough to be sure of the outcome, and then the spectators sent up a roar in response to Raphe’s victory.
Exhausted, he stumbled back, a light drizzle dampening his skin. A coat was draped over his shoulders while Butler was helped to his feet—a sorry sight, with his blackened eye and swollen lip distorting an otherwise handsome face.
Turning away, Raphe pushed his way in the direction of the taproom. All he wanted right now was a drink.
Fast.
“Butler ain’t lookin’ too good,” Raphe’s friend, Benjamin Thompson, said as he came up beside him. A couple of inches shorter than Raphe, his green eyes were a handsome compliment to his ginger hair and freckles. He was without a doubt the kindest and most dependable person Raphe knew, besides his own sisters. Together, they made their way to the bar, where Ben promptly called for a server. “Give us a couple o’ pints.”
Resting his elbows on the counter, Raphe grunted his response to Ben’s question. “He knew what ‘e was in fer.”
Ben nodded. The beer arrived, and both men took a healthy swig. “Ye could ‘ave been gentler, though. The man was done. No need to keep beatin’ at him like that.”
Stilling, Raphe slid his gaze toward his friend. “I couldn’t ‘elp it.” The rage had burned its way through him, driving him forward and filling his mind with one singular purpose: The need to win. “I don’t know ‘ow to fight any other way.”
“I know,” Ben said softly.
No, you don’t. You have no bloody idea.
In this, he’d never been completely honest, not even with Ben. “In any case, the blunt’s pretty good—lets me keep a roof over me sisters’ heads.”
“Aye, an’ a decent one at that.”
Raphe couldn’t argue. He’d visited Ben’s home once—an overcrowded single room that he shared with his parents and five siblings. By comparison, Raphe and his sisters lived like royalty. “Have ye ever thought of gettin’ out of this place? Out of St. Giles?”
Ben shrugged his shoulders. “An’ go where?”
“Somewhere better. Christ, Ben, anywhere’s better than this. Ye’re a likeable man. Ye could probably snatch up a job at one of ‘em fancy ‘ouses in Mayfair.”
His friend snorted. “An’ ‘ave some nob lookin’ down on me, demandin’ I polish ‘is boots—or worse, empty ‘is chamber pot? I’d rather stay by the docks, thank ye very much. At least there I can take some pride in me work.”
“Understood. But the pay there’s never goin’ to afford ye with yer own home. Don’t ye wish to marry one day?”
“Sure. But there’s a limit to what I’m willing to do for a bit of blunt, Raphe.” He took another sip of his beer. “I’ll not lose me dignity by workin’ for a class o’ people I can’t abide, ‘nor by lowerin’ meself to doin’ demeanin’ work.”
The words speared Raphe to his soul, filling him with shame. “I know,” he muttered with admiration. If only he could be more like him, not wanting anything beyond what life had tossed his way. Perhaps, if he didn’t have his sisters to consider, he wouldn’t care so much.
“Ye fought well today, lad,” a man’s voice suddenly spoke from directly behind him.
Bristling, Raphe set down his beer on the counter and turned to face his handler, whose attire—a purple velvet jacket and matching top hat—lent an air of flamboyance unmatched by anyone else. And yet, in spite of the fine attire, there was nothing cultured about this man, a scoundrel who’d gained his wealth through illicit deals and by taking advantage of others. His origins were questionable, but rumor had it he’d killed more than once in pursuit of power. Raphe didn’t know what to believe. All he knew was that in spite of his own prejudices, crime in St. Giles had decreased since Carlton Guthrie’s arrival eighteen years earlier. Or so he’d been told.
“Mr. Guthrie. Good to see ye.” A blatant lie, if ever there was one.
Guthrie’s moustache twitched. “Likewise.” He sounded jovial, but only a fool would mistake that for kindness. Least of all when his henchman, a scarred boulder of a Scotsman by the name of McNeil, stood at his right shoulder. Guthrie nodded toward Ben, who returned the salutation.
“Come. Share a drink with me,” Guthrie said, addressing Raphe. “We’ve much to discuss, you ‘n I.”
“And Thompson?” Raphe asked, not wanting to abandon his friend.
“I’m sure he’ll be willin’ to wait for ye till ye get back.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a gold coin and dropped it in front of Ben. “For yer trouble. What I ‘ave to say to Matthews ‘ere doesn’t concern ye. Understand?”
Raphe glared at Guthrie for a moment before looking at Ben. “I’m sorry. I—”
“No worries,” Ben said, pocketing the coin that would keep his family fed for the next few days. “I’ll see ye tomorrow at work, aye?”
Nodding, Raphe watched him go.
“Well?” Guthrie’s voice drew Raphe’s attention back to him. “’Ow about that drink then?”
Eyeing first Guthrie and then McNeil, Raphe gave a curt nod. “By all means.”
Guthrie’s eyes sparkled. “Excellent.” His lips stretched into a smile. “Follow me.” Turning away, he led Raphe through the taproom, where tobacco smoke mingled with the smell of roasting meat and beer. Dice rolled across one table in a game of Hazard. A hand touched his thigh, inappropriately stroking upward until he pushed it away.
“No’ in the mood, Luv?” the woman to whom it belonged asked. She was sitting down, her legs spread across the lap of a man who was busily burying his face between her half-exposed breasts.
Pitying the life she’d been dealt, he told her gently, “I’ve not the time.”
“La’er then?” she called as he strode away, not answering her question. Blessedly, his sisters had managed to avoid such a fate.
“’Ave a seat,” Guthrie said moments later as they stepped inside a private room at the end of a hallway. It was sparsely furnished, with just a plain wooden table and four chairs. On top of the table stood a pitcher and a couple of mugs. “Some ale for me champion?” Guthrie asked, indicating the pitcher.
Grabbing a chair, Raphe dropped down onto it and poured himself a drink, while Guthrie claimed the other chair with more finesse. “Will ye ‘ave some?” Raphe asked, indicating the same pitcher.
Guthrie beamed. “Don’t mind if I do.” He waited for Raphe to pour before reaching for the mug and raising it. “To yer victory today.”
“To me victory,” Raphe muttered, downing the bitter resentment he felt with a brew to match.
“I’ve ‘igh ‘opes for ye,” Guthrie said, tapping a finger against his nose. “Unbeaten for the fifteenth time. That’s unprecedented, tha’ is.”
Raphe saw the spark that lit his eyes, like the promise of treasure or some such thing. “Wha’ do ye want, Guthrie?”
“So cynical, Matthews.” Guthrie’s upper lip drew up, revealing an uneven row of yellow-stained teeth. “Must a man always want some’in? Can’t ‘e simply enjoy a drink wi’ an old friend?”
Old friend?
Hardly.
“Not when ‘e’s got ‘im by the bollocks.”
Guthrie’s mouth tightened, his eyes darkening just enough to offer a glimpse of his true nature. “Is tha’ ‘ow ye see our relationship, laddy?”
His demeaning tone made Raphe’s muscles flex. He glanced at McNeil, who stood by the door, running his thumb along the edge of a wicked blade, and was instantly reminded of the punishment he’d suffered the one time when he’d been foolish enough to try and thwart Guthrie’s wishes. Shoulders tensing, Raphe returned his gaze to the man who owned him. “’Ow else should I see it? I’m yer puppet, ain’t I?”
Guthrie nodded. “Aye, but ye’re me favorite one. Which is why I’d like to offer ye a deal.”
Raphe stiffened. “What sor’ of deal?”
“The sor’ that could set ye free, laddy.”
A tempting notion, but surely too good to be true. Still, he couldn’t help but ask. “What do ye have in mind?”
Leaning forward, Guthrie placed his elbows on the table, the fingers of his right hand reaching up to stroke his chin. “Ye see, there’s goin’ to be an opportunity soon—a grand one, at that.”
Raphe crossed his arms. “Ye don’t say.”
The corner of Guthrie’s eye flinched. “No need to get cocky, now.” Snapping his fingers, he drew McNeil closer. “Give the laddy ‘is earnin’s.” There was a pause, and then a pouch dropped onto the table with a jangling thump. “Naturally, we’ve kept our share.”
A fat ninety-percent.
“Naturally,” Raphe echoed. He didn’t bother to hide his displeasure.
“But…” Guthrie took another sip of his ale. “Word ‘as it, The Bull will be comin’ to town in a month or so.” Raphe straightened in his chair, while Guthrie swiped his mouth with the back of his hand, removing a line of foam. “If ye figh’ ‘im and ye win, ye’ll be debt-free. The winnings are gonna be that huge.”
Raphe didn’t doubt it. The Bull was, after all, the bare-knuckle boxing world champion—undefeated since beating Tobias Flannigan several years earlier. Since then, he’d crippled several of his opponents. The man was a legend. “I’ll do it,” Raphe said without blinking.
“But if ye lose…”
“I won’t,” Raphe assured him.
“But if ye do…”
Grabbing the pouch that still sat on the table, Raphe pocketed his money. “I know the risk, Guthrie, an’ I’m willin’ to take it.”

It was past eleven o’clock in the evening by the time Raphe returned home, his knuckles tender and his body still sore from the fight. Glad to get out of the cold, he closed the door on the rain that now poured from a thunderous sky, shrugged out of his coat, and hung it on a hook behind the door just as his sister, Amelia, entered from an adjoining room that served as a small parlor.
“Good evenin’,” she yawned, leaning against the doorframe.
Squinting through the darkness, Raphe echoed her salutation. “I thought ye would be asleep by now.” Stepping past her, he entered their tiny kitchen and snatched up the tinder box.
“I was,” Amelia said, following him into the chilly room.
A threadbare shawl was draped across her shoulders, and as she pulled it tighter with pale and trembling fingers, Raphe felt his heart lurch. This wasn’t right. His sister did not deserve to live like this. None of them did.
Pushing aside such fruitless ponderings, he found a candle, struck a flint and held it to the wick until a flame began to bloom, driving the darkness toward the walls where it struggled against the light.
“If it makes any difference, Juliette’s safely tucked into bed.” Amelia said, referring to their younger sister, whose weaker disposition was a constant cause for unease. When Raphe lifted the lid of a nearby pot and peered inside, Amelia added, “I made soup for dinner.”
“Smells delicious,” he dutifully told her.
“We both know ‘ow untrue that is, bu’ I appreciate yer optimism.”
Meeting her gaze, Raphe made a deliberate effort to smile. “Per’aps I can manage some meat for us tomorrow.” It would certainly be a welcome change from the potatoes and turnips they’d been eating for what seemed like forever. Christ, he was so tired of having a sore belly all the time, and his sisters…they never complained, but he knew they needed better nourishment than what they were getting.
“That’d be nice,” Amelia said. Her tone, however, suggested that she doubted his ability to manage such a feat.
Bothered by her lack of faith in him, he grabbed a chunk of bread and tore off a large piece. “A chicken ought to be possible. If we make it last a few days.”
Amelia simply nodded. Grabbing a cup, she filled it with water and placed it before him. “I miss the smell of a bustlin’ kitchen.”
The comment threw him for a second. “Wha’?”
“Meat roastin’ on the fire, bread bakin’ in the oven.” She shook her head wistfully. “It’s funny. I can’t picture Mama, but I remember Cook—plump cheeks an’ a kind smile. I remember bein’ ‘appy in the kitchen back ‘ome.”
The sentimental thought made Raphe weary. He didn’t bother to point out that she’d only been six when they’d lost their parents and there’d been nothing left for Raphe to do but turn his back on the house in which they’d spent the early years of their childhoods and walk away, taking his siblings with him. He’d been no more than eight years old and with a mighty burden weighing on his shoulders. “I know this isn’t the sor’ of life that any of us ever imagined.” Feeling his temper begin to rise at the memory of what their parents had done to them all, he added, “Hopefully, in time, things‘ll get better.”
“I’m sure ye’re right.” Could she possibly sound any more unconvinced?
He ate a spoonful of soup, the bland flavor just a touch better than plain hot water. Amelia took a step forward. “The reason I didn’t retire with Juliette earlier, is ‘cause of this letter.” She waved a piece of paper in his direction. “It arrived for ye today while ye were out.”
Frowning, Raphe stared at her. “Do ye know who sent it?” He couldn’t even recall the last time he’d received a letter. Nobody ever wrote to him or his sisters.
“The sender’s name’s smudged. So’s the address. It’s a miracle it arrived here at all.” Handing the letter to Raphe, she watched as he turned it over and studied the penmanship. Sure enough, the only legible part of the address, which even appeared to have been altered once or twice, was his name: Mister Raphael Matthews.
Curious, he set down his spoon and tore open the seal.
“What’s it say?” Amelia eagerly asked.
Reading it slowly to ensure he understood it correctly, Raphe sucked in a breath. He looked up at his sister, blinked, then bowed his head and read the letter again. Silence settled. Amelia’s feet shifted, conveying her impatience. It seemed impossible, yet there it was—an extraordinary pronouncement staring him right in the face. Raising his gaze, he leaned back in his seat, the letter rustling between his fingers. “According to this…” He shook his head, unable to fathom the absurdity of it. “I’m the new Duke of Huntley.”
The silence that followed was acute. Amelia stared at him, eyes wide with a strange blend of surprise, uncertainty, and hope. She wanted to believe him, and yet… “Really?”
“If this is to be believed, then yes.”
“But as far as I know. Papa ‘ad no title, so I don’t—I don’t understand.”
“I know. It seems inconceivable. Preposterous. But…” He handed her the letter. “Do ye think it might be a hoax?”
Amelia shook her head. “I daren’t suppose such a thing. It looks authentic enough with this seal right ‘ere and a stamp at the bottom. Squinting, she read the small print that Raphe had missed in his surprise. “Mr. Rupert Etheridge, Solicitor to the Duke of Huntley.” Amelia drew a deep breath. Expelled it again. “Bloody Hell!”
Raphe quietly nodded. “It’s the damndest thing, don’t ye think?” He stared up at Amelia, still trying to process the news.
“Yes. It is. In fact, I wouldn’t ‘ave thought it possible at all. Not ever.”
“Me neither.” Raphe set the letter on the table next to his bowl of soup and jabbed it with his finger. “But our great grandfather was the Sixth Duke of Huntley.”
“I’m aware of that. But when ‘e died, the title passed to our great uncle an’ split off from our side of the family.” She hesitated, as if trying to understand. “I thought succession ‘ad to be lineal—that it ‘ad to go from son to son. So ‘ow can it possibly jump to ye?”
“That’s just it. Says ‘ere that—” leaning forward, he carefully read what had to be the most significant part, “the letters patent generally include a limitation pertainin’ to the heirs of the body, but in this instance it ‘as been left out. With this taken into consideration, we’ve looked fer the late duke’s nearest kin, and ye, Mr. Matthews, appear to be it.”
“Ye’re it?” Amelie’s eyebrows were raised, her lips parted with dumbfounded surprise.
“Apparently so.”
“Bloody hell,” she said again as she slumped down onto another chair with a dazed expression. “I can’t believe ‘e ‘ad no sons. Don’t aristocrats always ‘ave an heir an’ a spare for these situations?”
“Yes, but accordin’ to this, the Eighth Duke of Huntley’s sons perished at sea a couple o’ months ago. The shock of it was apparently too much for their father. It killed ‘im.”
“God.” Amelia paused for a moment before saying, “So there’s nobody else but ye to fill ‘is shoes.”
“No. Only problem is, I ain’t so sure I’ll be able to manage it. It’s been fifteen years since…” His shoulders stiffened and his chest tightened. He couldn’t speak of the event that had plunged them all into destitution. Refused to do so—refused to open the door to the darkness.
Thankfully, Amelia spoke, filling the silence. “Ye can ignore the letter if the thought of being a duke disagrees with ye.”
“True.” He considered the ramifications of showing up at Huntley House. And then the door to the darkness creaked open, quite unexpectedly, and he was faced with the faith that Bethany had placed in him. She’d believed in his ability to save her. He’d been her older brother, and she’d looked to him for help. Except he’d failed her, and now she was dead.
He slammed the door to the darkness and stared at Amelia. This was it. The chance to do what he wished he could have done for Bethany—a chance to get his surviving sisters out of St. Giles and back to the world where they belonged. “I can’t ignore this opportunity. I can’t deny ye the things ye deserve.” I can’t take the risk of losing you because of my own apprehensions and prejudices. “Think of it, Amelia. No more ‘ungry bellies, or worryin’ about money. No more scrapin’ to get by.”
“No more Mr. Guthrie,” she murmured.
The uplifting thought spilled through him, immediately halted by another. “Ye know, we’ll never fit in.” They’d spent too long amidst the lower classes – could barely recall what it meant to live in a fine house and to have servants. Fox Grove Manor where they’d grown up had not been overly large, and most of the servants had been gone at the end, but he a vague recollection of tin soldiers and the sound of piano music playing while Molly dusted the china. It seemed so peculiar now, the thought of hiring someone to do the simplest task.
He shook his head at the absurdity of it all and wondered if he would be capable of becoming such a person after growing accustomed to the working-class ways. And that was just the beginning. It did not take into account the ridicule they were bound to face with every misstep they made. Because if there was one thing he knew about the aristocracy, it was their cold, hard censure of those who didn’t belong.
“Here at least we ‘ave friends.” He thought of what Ben had told him earlier. Of Ben, in general. He’d never understand the decision Raphe now considered making. Worse than that, Raphe knew in his gut that claiming the Huntley title would destroy that friendship—that in order for him and his sisters to stand any chance at all of making a life for themselves in Mayfair, they’d have to sever all ties to St. Giles.
“True. There are surely people I’ll miss – people who’ve been kind to us over the years, like Mary-Ellen’s family an’ the ‘aroldsons.” She reached for Raphe’s hand and squeezed it tight. “But we also ‘ave no future ‘ere. At least none that I can see.”
“I know. It’s me greatest regret.”
“It’s not yer fault.”
“No, but I ‘ave the chance to change things now.” Mind made up, he said, “I’ll claim the title an’ make things right fer both of ye.”
She pressed her lips together and nodded agreement. “It’ll be an easier life than the one we ‘ave now.”
Even though he knew she underestimated the task that stood before them, he didn’t argue, happy with the knowledge that his sisters would soon be living the lives to which they’d both been born. But the truth of it was that they faced a daunting struggle – one in which their pride and dignity would be tested at every turn. Steeling himself for the battle ahead, Raphe bid his sister a good night, aware that the dawn would bring turbulence with it.

 

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