The Duke Always Wins
By Jessie Clever
On Sale 14 September 2023
Lady Anna Elmont, the dowager Countess of Wexford, did not mourn her dead husband.
She didn’t celebrate the fact that he was dead though. There was something wrong about that, but she did start each day by expressing her gratitude for the fact that her life had taken an unexpected turn.
When Gabriel Phelps, the Duke of Grimsby and Roger’s close friend, had come to tell her her husband was dead, Annie had thought it a dream. Roger couldn’t be dead. She wasn’t that lucky.
But then Gabriel had explained, and it all made a perfect kind of sense.
Roger had died in an illicit boxing match. One blow had been all it had taken. They had thought him fine at first. He had fallen to the mat and got back up. It was all terribly normal. But then he’d staggered against the ropes and slumped. A doctor had been called, something about swelling of the brain, and that was it.
Lady Anna Bounds was a widow.
That was how she thought of herself, as still a Bounds. Roger’s name had never settled quite right on her, feeling not like a union of two people but rather one branding the other as property.
Because she had been his property. He’d always been careful to remind her of that.
She preferred it when people addressed her as Annie when their relationship allowed for it, and then when something more proper was called upon, she insisted on Lady Anna even though it wasn’t correct. She just couldn’t bear her title, the one she had been given when she married. It was worse when it was extended to include dowager.
Roger’s heir had moved into the Wexford London townhouse before she’d even had time to pack her trunks, and this finally had caused the scandal Gabriel had feared, the one he had worked so tirelessly to prevent.
The boxing match in which Roger had died had not been sanctioned by the gentlemen’s club where it was staged, and the entire thing contained the volatile nature of a bomb. But Gabriel had hushed it up, and suddenly her husband had died of nothing more extraordinary than a fall from his horse.
But then the heir had moved in, a second cousin to Roger, and ordered her from the house. Her parents had been waiting for her, of course, their arms open and ready to comfort her when really she wanted nothing more than to bask in the sudden peace she found inside her childhood home. But it didn’t matter how she felt about it. It was still a scandal, and it had taken months to die down.
Still, she heard the whispers.
The poor widow Elmont, the poor dowager countess.
It made her sick every time.
There was nothing poor about Annie’s situation. In fact, she’d never been happier. Finally she had the chance to discover who she might have been had she not married Roger. That was the thing people didn’t understand. She had more advantage as Roger’s widow than as his wife, and she planned to embrace every minute of it.
Finally she would know who she really was.
Her sister Gwen had given her the idea. Annie could admit that the shock of suddenly being a widow, of being free of Roger, had left her numb for the better part of a year. It had taken something her sister had said, an off-hand comment about how once Annie had been the strong one of the three Bounds sisters, that had reminded Annie of the truth.
She had been the strong one.
This then had led to another, far more worrying thought.
How had she let Roger defeat her?
The answer was swift, of course. As his wife, Roger held complete power over her. It didn’t matter how strong she was. Roger had had the law, society, and custom on his side. But not any longer, and never again. Annie would remain a widow for the rest of her life. Anything else was unimaginable.
But then the unimaginable had happened. Two dukes were looking for wives that season. Two dukes. In the same season. It was unheard of. Annie’s mother had clapped with glee—clapped—when the day marking the formal end of Annie’s year of mourning had arrived, releasing Annie from its clutches. Annie had never seen the woman more excited than when she’d faced the season with three eligible daughters for two eligible dukes.
Then their father had married off Gwen, and that had left only Annie and Eloise, the youngest Bounds daughter. It had been easier to deflect their mother’s whims when there had been three of them, but now Annie could feel the noose tightening.
Nancy Bounds, the Countess Stoke Bruerne, mother to Annie and Eloise, was determined to have a duchess for a daughter, and Annie was determined to remain a widow.
But she would never disappoint her mother, and so she went along with it. She allowed her mother to order new gowns for half mourning and accepted invitations on her behalf. Annie was once again out in society, and she felt the bristle of it at every function.
She hated lying to her mother, although she hadn’t technically lied. She had just let her mother believe she would remarry. When in reality, Annie had every intention of getting Eloise hitched to one of the dukes. Poor Eloise. No, Annie couldn’t think like that. Her widowhood was too precious for such sentimentality.
If only her mother was the single problem she had that season, but she wasn’t. Annie had a far worse problem.
She wasn’t a debutante.
She was something much more terrible. An unencumbered widow with a title of her own, social standing, and experience as the wife of a peer.
Annie had the power to stop a conversation dead by merely entering a room, the Marrying Mamas flinging daggers of envy at her with their stares. A game of croquet was suddenly over when she stepped up to the pitch, the participating ladies just as suddenly requiring a bit of refreshment in the shade. A buzzing conversation about fashion and embroidery ceased when Annie wandered by.
No one wished to consort with the enemy, and there was no enemy greater than a woman with much to commend her.
Being a widow was absolutely the best and the worst.
Annie hoped with everything she had left in her that her sister Eloise would snare the Duke of Ardley, one of the dukes on the market that season. With a duke in tow, perhaps their mother would relinquish Annie to the throes of widowhood.
No, it was only Eloise that could save Annie now. Or at least, that had been her hope up until approximately seventeen seconds ago.
Because seventeen seconds ago their butler, Hickinbottom, had presented Annie with a pristine white calling card on a silver tray. It was calling hours, but Mother and Eloise were out. Mother had secured an emergency session with the modiste to fix Eloise’s gown as she’d torn it the other night at Gwen’s ball. It was only Annie and her chaperone receiving visitors that day, and Annie hadn’t expected any at all.
Annie looked up from the card that had so unsettled her to eye her chaperone. Grandmother Bitsy was hardly more than five feet tall, weighed more than seven stones only with her knitting in her lap, and was currently snoring in her chair by the fire. It was nearly June, and the fire was not necessary except Grandmother Bitsy was always cold. Annie had had the windows at the front of the room opened, and that was where she sat with her embroidery hoop, allowing what little breeze there was that day to keep her from wilting like a plucked flower.
She looked back down at the calling card, her heart thumping so loudly it echoed in her ears until a rustling sound broke through the pounding, and she glanced to the side to find her hands shaking, her embroidery needle still clutched in her fingers. She swallowed and stuck the needle into the linen stretched in the hoop before she could injure herself.
“Please tell the duke I am in,” she said and pushed to her feet as Hickinbottom left to escort their guest to the drawing room.
Gabriel Phelps, the Duke of Grimsby, had come calling.