Sarah Fairfax was the sole thought in Edmund Blackpool’s mind as he hurried off the rancid passenger ship onto the overcrowded London docks.
She had been the sole thought in his mind from the moment she’d met him in Bruges, during his brief days of leave before heading to Waterloo.
She had been the sole thought in his mind when the bullet had ripped into his chest and he’d collapsed to the trodden ground in a pool of his own blood.
When he awoke a week later amongst an endless row of narrow cots in an austere Flemish convent, his first thought was still Sarah Fairfax.
His second thought was pain.
Oh, God, the pain. His wounds had taken months to heal. The bullet had come from a great enough distance that it cracked two of his ribs when it lodged between them. Fortunately, it hadn’t penetrated his lung. In fact, the bullet was the least of his concerns. He and many others had apparently been trampled in the ensuing melee. Every limb was splinted, every inch of skin mottled with contusions. Just lying there breathing caused more agony than he’d have imagined possible.
And so he’d thought of Sarah.
Dark brown hair the deep hue of fine chocolate. Wide brown eyes, gazing up at him from beneath long dark lashes. Rosy lips, rosy cheeks, a waist he could nearly span with his fingers. She was a perfect pixie, bewitching him with her porcelain skin and teasing smiles from hundreds of miles away.
In London at last, Edmund pushed through the crowded dock and made his way to the street. He had no baggage to slow him down. No coin with which to hail a hack. He would make his way to Mayfair the same way he’d traveled across Flanders to the coast: on foot.
His fraying boots would fall apart before he did. His slowly mended bones might be weaker, but Edmund was stronger than he’d ever been. His feet, and his determination, could take him anywhere.
The question was where.
His first impulse was to go straight to Sarah. He hadn’t seen her in eight months, two weeks, and five days. Not since promising to wed her the moment he returned from the war.
Well, he was back. He was also wearing the same clothes he’d left Belgium in. He’d washed up as often as he could aboard the freezing ship, but a comb would be welcome. His chin hadn’t seen a razor for a month. He couldn’t recall a single time that Sarah had ever turned away from him in disgust, and he certainly didn’t wish for her to see him like this.
Which left what? His rented townhouse was no doubt long gone, and there was no time to waste on fabric and a tailor. He was, however, possessed of one asset most gentlemen could not boast.
An identical twin.
He hunched forward into the bitter wind and told himself the sudden chill had nothing to do with his fears for his brother.
Eight and a half months since he’d seen his twin. If Bartholomew was still alive—of course Bartholomew would still be alive!—his clothes would be a perfect fit. His valet would have Edmund dandified within an inch of his life in a matter of minutes. He could be off to woo Sarah in less time than it took to boil a kettle.
Of course, if Bartholomew was still alive, that would also mean he’d done the one thing he’d sworn never to do. It would mean Bartholomew had abandoned his twin right when Edmund needed him most.
And then left him for dead.
An insidious thought. An impossible thought. Edmund flung the idea away like so much rubbish. His twin would never consign him to such a fate.
On the other hand, if Bartholomew hadn’t made it off the battlefield alive… If he’d been captured by the French, or trampled into jelly by the fleeing horses…
Edmund walked faster. In eight long months, he still hadn’t managed to reconcile his hurt and fury at being left to die with his abject terror that perhaps it hadn’t been by choice. Both possibilities were awful. Soon, he would arrive at his brother’s townhouse and find out the truth, one way or another. Soon, he would be back in Sarah’s arms.
Sarah would never leave him. Of this, Edmund was certain. She had been his constant shadow since they were old enough roll down hills together, between their parents’ adjoining country estates in Kent. Her affections had never wavered.
His hands went clammy despite the winter chill. What if she was not in London, but in Kent? What if he were still weeks away from seeing Sarah again?
He couldn’t bear to be apart another moment. He already regretted the lost years of his youth, when he’d thought catching bugs and kicking balls—and, later, boxing and carousing—were more important endeavors than spending time with a girl he could see anytime he wished.
Until he couldn’t.
If he had but known that night in Bruges would be the last time he’d see her, he would have… Oh, who was he fooling? He would have done nothing different. He’d wanted to marry her then, and he wanted to marry her now. He’d desired her then, and he desired her now. If he could change anything at all, it would be to have held her in his arms a few moments longer.
This time, he would never let her go.
Edmund ignored his blistered feet and increased his pace. By the time he reached his brother’s crescent row of terraced houses, snow swirled down from the sooty gray sky, blurring the air. He blew on his chapped fingers to warm them enough to uncurl, then gave the knocker a hefty bang.
His heart stuttered when the door swung open to reveal his twin’s stoic butler. Relief flooded him. If Crabtree still ruled the roost, Bartholomew must have survived! It took all Edmund’s restraint not to elbow past the butler and dash into the townhouse to find his brother.
Crabtree’s jaw dropped. “Master Blackpool?”
Edmund’s body shook, he was so giddy to be among familiar faces at last. It had been so long since anyone had so much as recognized him. He’d almost forgotten the simple pleasure of seeing, and being seen. Of being anyone at all, other than a nameless, voiceless nothing lost in a foreign land.
He was finally home at last. Life would not only return to normal; life would return. His family, his friends, his secret fiancee… Even his brother’s imperturbable butler was a sight for sore eyes. Edmund had never seen Crabtree so much as blink in surprise, and here the man was, gaping in astonishment. Edmund pressed his lips together. He could hardly wait to see his twin’s reaction!
“Is my brother at home?” he asked, trying to hide his grin.
Before Crabtree could respond, a tall thin man with tightly curled locks skidded into the entryway squealing, “Master Blackpool!” at a pitch high enough to break glass.
Edmund’s lips quirked at his brother’s valet. “Wonderful to see you, Fitz, old man. I trust you haven’t allowed my twin to gad about in Society looking anything less than his best? Reflects badly on me, you know, what with them mixing us up all the time.”
The valet spluttered speechlessly, his eyes bulging so wide as to be comical. “I—He—You…”
Edmund’s elation began to dim. “I say, as lovely as it is to chat, would one of you mind terribly running to fetch my brother? I haven’t seen him in eight months, and I’d really like…” His voice trailed off as a familiar looking young woman with red-gold hair and a shocked expression rushed into the entryway. He blinked in surprise. “Daphne?”
Her eyes widened in disbelief. “Edmund?”
He tried to reconcile the girl he hadn’t seen since his youth with the elegant young lady now standing before him. In the entryway to his brother’s townhouse. Along with the butler and the valet. “Daphne, what are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?” She ran to him and threw her arms around him and hugged him as if they were family. “I can’t believe you’re alive!”
He patted her on the shoulder awkwardly. He hadn’t been hugged in eight long months, and he’d rather hoped his twin would be the first to earn the distinction. “Where’s my brother?”
Still hugging him, Daphne’s voice was muffled by the ragged shirt covering Edmund’s chest. “At the Duke of Ravenwood’s wedding.”
Edmund grinned despite himself. Finicky Ravenwood, married? Edmund had doubted that day would ever come, and was truly pleased to find it had. “Ravenwood finally found his love match? I cannot wait to meet the debutante charming enough to ensnare His Grace’s romantic heart.”
Daphne’s fingers dug into Edmund’s arms as she jerked her pale countenance away from his chest.
“No,” she gasped. “It’s much worse than that. Edmund, the duke is going to marry Sarah.”
Edmund’s stomach dropped. He shook off Daphne’s fingers. “My Sarah?”
Daphne nodded. “She’s—”
“Where?” he barked.
“At Ravenwood House. Right now.”
“Over my dead body.” Edmund snapped around and marched down the front steps. There was no time to spare for starched cravats and polished boots. He had to stop a wedding.
“Where is your carriage?” Daphne called after him. “Do you mean to summon a hack?”
Damn it. Edmund’s fists tightened at his powerlessness. In the long months it had taken to finally return home, he had never felt his lack of coin as keenly as he did right now.
“I arrived on foot,” he admitted through clenched teeth. He would not let that prevent him from stopping the wedding. “If I hurry—”
“You’ll never get there in time.” Daphne’s face brightened. “Bartholomew left in his curricle. You can take the landau.”
“Too slow.” Edmund shot a glance over his shoulder at the waning sunlight. “I’ll get there faster if you just loan me a horse.”
“Done.” She turned toward the butler. “Crabtree?”
The butler had resumed his hallmark bored expression. “Already sent a footman to the stables, ma’am.”
Horse hooves clopped against the cobblestone road as a stableboy raced a black stallion straight toward them.
Edmund’s blood raced. The moment the stableboy slid onto the ground, Edmund launched himself up and into the saddle.
“Wait!” Daphne called out, her voice urgent. “You should know why Sarah is marrying the duke. She—”
“She’s not marrying him,” Edmund shouted back as he pointed the stallion toward Ravenwood House. “She’s marrying me.”