James Rylon stiffened as he watched his father stride across the lawn at Braxton Academy toward him and his two best friends. His heart began to race, he felt the blood drain from his face. The once monthly visits from the Duke of Abernathe were something he dreaded immensely.
“He always looks so cross,” James’s best friend Graham muttered.
James swallowed, trying hard not to allow his fear to enter his face. At fourteen, he didn’t like showing that kind of weakness, even to his best friends. “He is always cross,” he whispered.
His other best friend, Simon, shook his head. “Makes me appreciate my own father a bit more. He mostly just ignores me.”
James bit his tongue, unwilling to say what was on his mind. Unwilling to let a crack enter his voice when he admitted that his own father despised him.
The Duke of Abernathe reached them at last and scowled at his son. “Pulham.”
James flinched. Since he was ten, his father had insisted on calling him by his courtesy title. But he wasn’t the Earl of Pulham. He was James. His sister called him James. When his mother was sober enough to be awake, she called him James. All his friends and teachers called him James.
The title felt like a yoke his father put around his neck. A weight he could hardly bear with his skinny body.
“Father,” he responded.
His father reared back and slapped James across the face hard enough that for a moment James saw stars before his eyes. He couldn’t hold back a humiliating gasp of pain as he jerked his hand up to cover his stinging cheek.
“You shall call me Your Grace or Abernathe, or at minimum, sir.” His father shook his head. “You are far too old for this Father nonsense.”
James jerked out a nod. “Y-yes, Your Grace.”
The duke quickly glanced at his friends, and James did the same. Simon had turned his face and was staring intently at a spot far off in the distance. Graham, on the other hand, was standing ramrod straight, hands fisted at his sides, glaring at James’s father. And being the only one who had begun to grow into a man’s body, it was a rather intimidating sight.
But Abernathe only chuckled at the challenge in the other boy’s stare. “Mind yourself, boy. You’re not a duke yet.” He turned his attention back to his son. “Come, Pulham. Walk with me.”
James swallowed past the lump in his throat and did so, stepping into line beside his father as they took their monthly turn around the garden behind Braxton Academy. As always, his father did not ask after him or his studies. He simply barked out questions, ones about the House of Lords, ones about managing estates, ones about title. And, as usual, James stammered answers, most of them wrong, while his father screamed and threatened.
When the customary quarter of an hour visit was over, Abernathe stopped in his tracks and turned to look down at James.
“You are hopeless,” his father said with a shake of his head. “Not all my sons were failures. A shame the one who will take my title is. Good day, Pulham.”
He turned on his heel then and walked away without so much as a backward glance. James stared after him, his chest brewing with a combination of rage and heartache and guilt. Tears stung his eyes and he bent at the waist, breathing shallowly as he tried to fight them. Fight the weakness. Make it go away.
The bell at the door was being rung, signaling the time had come to cease in sport and exercise and return to classes. James let out a pained grunt. He had to go back. He’d have to face all the others in his classes, his teachers. They would see this weakness. The one he usually hid with good humor and playfulness.
The weakness that rotted him out from the inside where no one could see.
He tensed, straightening at the mention of his name. He turned to find Simon and Graham standing a few feet away. He wiped at his eyes, heat filling his cheeks that they’d seen him in such a state.
“What?” he barked, much louder and more urgently than he should have.
Simon stared at him a long moment, then came up and slung an arm around James’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s sneak off to the creek.”
Graham’s face lit up. “Oh yes, let’s do! I don’t want to go listen to Old Comey drone on and on about figures for the next hour and a half. I’d much rather fish.”
James nodded. “All right.”
They began to walk away from the school, through the garden, over a low spot in the wall that enclosed it and out into the countryside that surrounded Braxton Academy. They had been walking for over five minutes before anyone spoke.
“Why is he so cruel to you?” Graham asked.
Humiliation flowed through him. He’d spent a lifetime having his father harangue him in front of others, but never in front of Graham and Simon. He liked both boys—they had become fast friends, along with a group of others, since he began at Braxton Academy the previous year. He had thrived at the Academy, out from under his father’s shadow, out of his house where he felt so unwanted and unloved.
“No one else saw or heard him,” Graham assured him. “Simon and I simply followed. I was worried.”
“Worried about what?” James whispered.
“That he might strike you again,” Graham said, this time through clenched teeth.
Simon shot their friend a look before he said, “James, what did he mean when he said not all his sons were failures? You don’t have any brothers, do you?”
James took a long breath as they crested a low hill and reached the creek at the outer edge of the school property. As Graham dug behind a tree for the fishing poles hidden there, James pondered his response.
He had never felt safe to discuss his family dynamics. They were complicated and ugly. But with these two boys, he knew he could be more open. And at the moment he was too exhausted to be anything but.
He sat down on the creek’s edge and stared at the bubbling water as he said, “I did have an older brother, older by fifteen years. A half-brother, Leonard. I never met him, though. He died before I was born. That’s why my father married my mother at all, to produce another heir.”
Simon stared at him. “How did he die?”
“An accident,” James said with a shrug. “My father doesn’t speak of him, except to compare me to him. And I never win in the comparison. Apparently Leonard was perfect, you see.”
“So you’re the replacement?” Graham said as he handed over a pole, now ready with a worm on its hook.
James flinched and Simon reached out to slap Graham’s arm. “Bloody hell, Graham.”
Graham glared at him. “I don’t mean it to be cruel.”
“And he’s right, anyway,” James said as he tossed out his line into the waves. “I’m not the heir, I am the replacement. My father will never forgive me for that.”
“That’s why he’s so cruel,” Simon said softly.
The boys were all silent for a long beat, and then James shrugged. “It’s not fair. He’s despised me from the moment I was born and wasn’t Leonard. Actually, he despises all of us, including Meg and Mother. We’re not the family he wanted and he’s made it clear from as early as I can recall. He hates me so much, he won’t even teach me what I need to know, then he screams at me for not knowing it.” He shook his head. “I have no idea how to be a duke.”
Simon sighed. “I do. It’s all my father talks about with me, how to be the Duke of Crestwood one day.”
Graham nodded. “I, too, get the Duke of Northfield lectures on a regular basis. Mine even come in letter form.”
Simon and Graham exchanged a grin, and then Simon’s eyes went wide. “Wait, what if we helped you, James?”
James looked at him. “What do you mean, help me?”
“If he won’t teach you, why couldn’t we?” Graham said, sitting up straighter as he took to Simon’s plan. “We could form a little group, a club.”
“A Duke Club?” Simon said with a roll of his eyes. “Well, isn’t that a little trite?”
“There are quite a few boys in our class who are going to be dukes,” James said, setting his pole aside and rising to his feet. “There’s Baldwin…Lucas…”
“Hugh…not the future baron Hugh. The Duke of Brighthollow’s son Hugh,” Graham added. “And a bunch more in classes just below and just above our own.”
James rubbed his chin. All these boys, all with their knowledge, all helping each other as they prepared to take what was the highest title of the land without being royalty…just the idea gave him hope.
“We can’t call it a Duke Club,” James said. “Simon is right that it’s silly. But I like the idea of us banding together. Our fathers can be so useless…but together we could be stronger and better than they are.”
Simon grinned. “I certainly like that idea. But if not a Duke Club, what do we call it?”
James considered for a moment, then smiled. “The 1797 Club. For its founding year at this creek side.”
Graham tilted his head. “I like that.”
James let out a laugh, the sting of his father’s rejection fading for the first time thanks to the excitement of their plan. He paced the water’s edge, his mind racing.
“There will be much to do. We need to figure out who to invite. And what to do. Where to meet…”
Simon laughed. “Well, first you have a fish on your line. So catch that and then we’ll talk.”
James lunged for the jerking pole and began to drag his fish in. But he didn’t care about the wriggling beast. He only cared about what plans he and his friends had set in motion.