A Duke Won’t Do
Dueling for Dukes Book 1
By Jessie Clever
Lady Gwendolyn Bounds had just taken a bite of her eggs when she learned her father had sold her to a sheep farmer.
That wasn’t precisely how it went, but that was certainly how it seemed.
Because it wasn’t only her father’s news that was so unsettling but also the fact that Gwen and the word marriage had never been uttered in the same sentence before. In fact, it took all her strength not to involuntarily touch the smallpox scars that marred her cheek the moment her father spoke the very word.
It was enough that it felt as though everyone’s eyes drifted to her, that briefest of moments when their faces registered disbelief and not a small degree of pity—for Gwen or for her prospective husband, should he be saddled with a disfigured wife, she couldn’t be sure.
When it had become apparent that people of society were repulsed by Gwen’s scars, her family had closed ranks around her, protecting her from the outside world, and assuring her she would always have a safe place within the family. Although no one ever spoke of it aloud, it was a tacit understanding in the family that Gwen would remain unwed, a spinster and comfort to her mother in later years. Even though she understood and appreciated her family’s protection, she couldn’t help but feel as though she were missing something important. She had not even had a season, and now at the age of six and twenty, only extraordinary circumstances had led Gwen’s mother, Nancy Bounds, Countess Stoke Bruerne, to consider presenting Gwen to the ton.
Because if the gossip were true, there was not one but two dukes looking for a bride that season.
As the mother of three unwed daughters, Countess Stoke Bruerne would have been branded an utter failure as a matriarch had she not immediately decamped the family from their country home in West Northamptonshire and proceeded directly to their London townhome to begin preparations. But now, it seemed, it didn’t matter so much as far as Gwen was concerned.
This was probably why Gwen’s mother spluttered in her tea when her father made the announcement of Gwen’s impending marriage over breakfast. Because if a Bounds daughter should marry anyone that season, it was going to be one of the dukes on the Marriage Mart and certainly not some obscure sheep farmer in the far-flung regions of England.
“Henry, you cannot mean it. You’ve signed a wedding contract for Gwen?” Nancy asked as if her husband had just announced his intentions to join a Bavarian circus.
Henry Bounds, Gwen’s father and Earl Stoke Bruerne, was unfazed as he spread marmalade on a piece of toast. “Yes, it’s all settled. You needn’t thank me, Nancy. The opportunity arose, and I took advantage of the situation.” Stoke Bruerne had just passed his sixtieth year, but his dark hair remained largely untouched by gray, and he still wore it in a severe style, swept back from his forehead where two horizontal creases appeared every time he made a pronouncement such as this one. Today the creases might have been a pair of moats protecting a medieval castle.
Gwen set down her fork and looked across the table to where her youngest sister, Eloise, sat, hoping to gain comfort from her sister’s ubiquitous smile, but Eloise was looking at their mother, her face decidedly drawn.
Gwen shifted her gaze and felt an immediate spike of concern. Her mother’s mouth was open, her jam knife forgotten in her hand, her eyes huge pools of disbelief. Horribly, Gwen was fairly sure her mother wasn’t breathing.
She reached out a hand. “Mother,” she said softly, placing her fingers against her mother’s wrist.
The woman jerked, and Gwen was only too glad she hadn’t been touching the wrist of the hand that held the jam knife.
“Henry, what have you done?”
Gwen turned, casting her gaze down the length of the breakfast table to where her father sat at the opposite end. This afforded her a view of her other sister, Annie, who poked at her sausages, clearly hoping not to be noticed and drawn into the conversation at hand, and Grandmother Bitsy who continued to shovel clotted cream on her scone as if the conversation around her had nothing to do with her. Which perhaps it didn’t, but at least the woman could show some support.
Henry touched his napkin delicately to his lips although Gwen was certain the man never allowed a crumb to stray into his bristly mustache. “What have I done?” He gestured vaguely in Gwen’s direction. “I’ve reduced the number of daughters for whom you must find husbands from three to two. I am sure you will appreciate the effort.”
Finally Nancy set down her jam knife. “I certainly will not appreciate the effort.”
Henry Bounds was not one to react to such an affront, but at his wife’s words, he set down his napkin beside his clean plate with the precision of a naval captain plotting a defensive maneuver. “I beg your pardon, Nancy.”
“She said she doesn’t appreciate your meddling, Henny.” Grandmother Bitsy didn’t look up from her plate as she scolded her son. “If you pulled your head out of your newspapers for once in your life, you would know what’s going on this season.” She stuck a fork in the direction of the Bounds daughters. “There are two dukes on the auction block this season, and you’ve just reduced Nancy’s chances of securing a duke by ninety percent.” Bitsy waved her fork in triumph and returned to her sausages.
“I’m not sure that’s correct, Mother,” Henry stated in a low voice as he adjusted the placement of his knife and fork at the rim of his plate. His careful movements and casual tone revealed just how timid he was when it came to his formidable mother.
Even at eight and eighty, Bitsy Bounds was still prone to pinch her son’s ear.
But this wasn’t what had Gwen’s attention then. It was the slight tremor in Annie’s hand as she moved her fork amongst the sausages on her plate, the way the silver cut across the porcelain and made an unbearable sound should anyone have been listening. Gwen wanted to reach out and take her sister’s hand into her own, assure her that their mother wouldn’t force Annie to marry when she was still grieving for the husband she had lost the previous year, but Gwen couldn’t make that promise. Her mother was on the hunt, and Gwen feared no one would be spared.
Henry looked down the table at his wife again. “I am sorry if I meddled, Nancy,” he said, his mustache twitching. “I was unaware of the possibility of one of our daughters courting a duke this season.” He gestured again at Gwen. “At least I’ve had the presence of mind to secure a match for the unattractive daughter.”
Gwen didn’t flinch at her father’s words. It wasn’t as though she were unaware of her scars. But her physical appearance hardly mattered. She had no say in what had happened when she was only eight years old, and the physical scars were hardly the ones that still plagued her. Besides, there were far worse fates than an arranged marriage.
Her eyes drifted to Annie again and away, suddenly feeling as though her gaze itself intruded on Annie’s grief.
Nancy closed her eyes briefly, and when she opened them, the heat there matched the firmness of her jawline. “What’s done is done. When can we expect the wedding, Henry? Perhaps I can use this to our advantage. A wedding so early in the season will get us unparalleled attention. That will put a bee in Rosemary Hayes-Martin’s bonnet,” Nancy said with far too much relish as she spoke of her nemesis, Viscountess Bowes.
The last time Nancy had gone toe to toe with Viscountess Bowes, the Bounds women had been banned from Spalding’s on Marlborough for three years.
“Excuse me,” Gwen managed to find her voice. “I should like to know who it is I’m to wed.” It was funny to hear the objectiveness in her voice, as though she were speaking of someone else’s impending marriage, as if all of this wasn’t happening to her. As if her entire life hadn’t changed with a single statement from her father.
As if her stomach weren’t at that very moment fluttering with anticipation. No, no. She mustn’t get her hopes up. Not yet.
Her father blinked as though her question were unexpected. “Oh, right. Logan Bender, the Earl of Gracey.”
Bitsy’s fork clattered against her plate. “Henny, no,” she breathed.
Gwen’s momentary bubble of hope dissolved at the stricken look on her grandmother’s face. She had been right not to let her hope grow. Life had taught her not to have such expectations, and suddenly learning she was to be a countess when only minutes before she had fully expected to remain alone for the rest of her life was a far too beautiful thing for Gwendolyn Bounds.
But then as Bitsy continued to stare at her son, her lips parted and her eyes narrowed in something akin to real sadness, Gwen felt something different flutter in her stomach, something very much like fear, and when Annie took her hand beneath the table, she jolted in her seat.
Henry picked up his napkin only to set it down again. “Lord Gracey is a respectable member of the ton and checks into his background and financial standings show a man of character and sound investment. Gwen should be thankful for such a match.” Only then did he finally look at her and even then, it was only a sideways glance as if he knew how hurtful his words might seem, but he was only speaking the truth.
And he was speaking the truth. That was probably what hurt the most. Gwen should be thankful for any kind of match. Her father was correct on that point.
Gwen had already resigned herself to remaining her mother’s companion. It wasn’t bad really. She would have pin money and still come into town every season when her father was required at Parliament. There were worse lives to live. She had even nearly convinced herself it was what was meant for her. That her mother should never be alone in her old age.
Her heart pinched though, just the tiniest bit, every time she thought about it, how boring and small her life would be. After surviving smallpox, she had always believed she should live a life of purpose and meaning. After all, why had she been spared otherwise? It turned out such grandness was denied to an outcast like her. It made her feel as though she had squandered the second chance she had been given.
But now that she might actually have a chance, her grandmother’s concern had her worried.
“An earl?” Her mother’s eyebrows disappeared into her auburn fringe. “Why, Henry.” Her eyes narrowed much like Grandmother Bitsy’s. “What’s wrong with him?”
Gwen didn’t know how it was possible, but this hurt more than her father’s statement. To infer that something should be wrong with the man for him to accept Gwen as his wife. It hurt. It hurt deeply.
“Do you know the earl, Grandmother Bitsy?” It was Eloise who spoke, her tone direct and accompanied with a glare in her mother’s direction.
“I know the family, dear,” Bitsy said as she sank back in her chair. The old woman looked like she’d wrestled a bull instead of simply having broken her fast. “They hail from Yorkshire, I’m afraid.” She turned her head then, meeting Gwen’s gaze directly. “They’re sheep farmers.”
Nancy knocked over her teacup, brown liquid sloshing across the pristine linen tablecloth as Eloise jumped to her feet to staunch the flow with her napkin. It was several seconds before Gwen realized what was happening and rose to add her own napkin to the pool of spilled tea.
She looked over her shoulder at her grandmother even as she helped Eloise gather the sodden napkins onto a discarded plate. “Why do you say it like that, Grandmother Bitsy?”
Bitsy had closed her eyes, and Gwen worried the woman had fallen asleep at the table again. But then she said, “Just that, shortcake.” She shrugged, her crocheted shawl riding up against the back of her chair. “They farm sheep. Dedicated bunch they are. I’ve never known a person to carry on so about wool.” She opened her eyes then and found Gwen’s gaze. “At least you won’t have to worry about the man mistreating you. You’ll likely never see him. Sheep farmers rarely leave their herd.”
“Mother.” The word was quickly spoken but hardly of a harsh tone. Still, it was the closest thing to a reprimand Gwen’s father had ever said to his mother, and for that, Gwen felt a modicum of warmth for her usually distant father.
“Surely you exaggerate, Bitsy,” Nancy said then, fanning herself with one hand as though the revelation that her daughter was to marry a sheep farmer had elevated the temperature in the room. “A sheep farmer is not what I would have chosen for my daughter, but he is an earl. We must take comfort in that.”
Grandmother Bitsy’s eyes sharpened. “I had a friend once. Lilith. I thought her a spinster until I met her husband one day. I asked him where he’d been, and he said he couldn’t leave his flock.” Shakily Grandmother Bitsy leaned forward. “Do you know when it was that I met him? What extraordinary reason could pull him from the flock?”
Gwen watched her mother swallow. “No, Bitsy. I can’t imagine. What was it?”
“His wife’s funeral,” Grandmother Bitsy uttered and collapsed back against the chair, deflated.