Daphne pulled up short the moment she saw Major Blackpool. She couldn’t help it. Her limbs had frozen in place. For a moment, she even forgot how to breathe. Her heart was the only part of her that still moved, and it was clamoring loud enough to tumble right out of her chest.
Ten years. That was how long it had been. Ten years.
The last time he’d seen her, she’d sported a pinafore and pigtails. And the last time she’d seen him…
There had been two of them.
He and Edmund had been inseparable. Indistinguishable. Always playing tricks and trading places with the other. She’d been one of the few who could tell them apart, although it didn’t matter anymore.
Now there was only one.
“Tolly,” she breathed.
The corner of his mouth quirked. “Laughy Daffy.”
Her heart thundered. His voice was so deep. So… manly. Like the rest of him. She tried not to blush. She couldn’t help but drink him in.
He was taller than she remembered. Her heart beat faster. Of course he was taller. She’d been ten or eleven years of age, and he’d been, what? A lad of fifteen, perhaps? Of course he was taller. And older.
The years had been more than kind. His brown hair was longer. Wilder. His crystalline blue eyes now had laugh lines at the edges, although she doubted he’d found much humor recently. His face was more chiseled, more defined. A faint hint of stubble darkened the line of his jaw.
That brief little quirk was already gone from his lips. She missed it.
He didn’t look like Tolly, puller of pigtails. He looked like Major Bartholomew Blackpool. Soldier. Survivor.
Everything about him was more than she’d expected. His youthful reediness was gone. Broad shoulders and thick muscles filled out a coat that looked as though it had been tailored for someone less powerful.
She’d heard he’d become a rake and a dandy. His more passionate exploits had graced every scandal sheet in the country. As for his sense of fashion… He could not have appeared more handsome if this were his wedding day.
Despite what must have been an entire day’s journey, his cravat was starched perfection. His greatcoat was similarly pristine and devoid of wrinkles. The buckskin of his breeches looked buttery soft and clung to every muscle of his thighs. His Hessians gleamed, as though they had been freshly polished moments before he walked through the door.
She blinked. Hessians. Plural. She’d heard he’d lost a leg in the war trying to save the life of his fallen twin, but as far as she could tell, the boy next door looked nothing short of perfect. No wonder he’d cut a swath through the ton as a dashing rake before setting off for war. She doubted a single bosom failed to tremble in his presence.
Heavens. Daphne wouldn’t have the slightest trouble feigning a betrothal with him. The difficulty would be pretending she wasn’t truly interested. No doubt her flushed cheeks and racing pulse had already given her away…