Dukes of War Series #5
Miss Sarah Fairfax is having a wretched year. Her intended perished at war. His child is in her belly. To secure her future, she resigns herself to a loveless marriage. Just as she’s about to say I do, her fiancé returns from the grave to crash the wedding… but he’s no longer the charming, carefree man she remembers.
After being left for dead on the battlefield, Brigadier Edmund Blackpool is scarred inside and out. He fights his way home only to discover his intended before the altar with his best friend. He’ll be the one to marry her, no matter what she wants! But when his new bride disappears with his child, he must reopen his wounds to win the most important battle of his life.
Regency-set Historical Romance Novel
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Most women would be delighted to find themselves mere moments away from becoming a duchess.
Miss Sarah Fairfax, as it happened, was not most women.
For one, she stood before a temporary altar in a private alcove of the Duke of Ravenwood’s London estate with her shoulders back, her chin up, and her belly swollen with child.
For two, Ravenwood—the handsome, eligible duke with whom she was about to wed—was not her unborn child’s father.
That had been Edmund Blackpool. The boy whose tousled golden brown locks and dreamy blue eyes had stolen her breath and her heart even when they were children had gone off to war three years ago, intending to make the world a better place. After two years of agonizing separation, last June, she had met him in Bruges, mere days before his company had been sent to Waterloo.
A sharp kick jabbed the wall of Sarah’s belly and she smiled to hide a wince of pain. Masking her emotions was all she’d done for the past eight months. Smiling was automatic now. No matter what happened.
Everything traced back to that fateful, impulsive night.
Edmund was no longer plain Mr. Blackpool, but a dashing brigadier with shiny epaulets and matching stars upon his uniform. He was beautiful and passionate and irresistible, and when he’d confessed his wish to marry her if only she’d wait for his return… She was in his arms before he had finished speaking.
He hadn’t made it off the battlefield alive.
Next had come the nausea, the dizziness, the desire to do nothing but sleep… and the realization that depression was not the sole cause. She was beyond ruined. She was pregnant. Her child would be born a bastard, and live the rest of his life in ostracized infamy, just like his mother.
Sarah faced the vicar and struggled to keep her breaths even, to not betray the weight of the endless pressure of everyone else’s expectations. Society. Her peers. Her parents. Herself. She was in this position because she’d expected to wed Edmund as soon as he returned from war.
Well, now she knew better than to count on expectations. She was in charge of her own fate now. No, make that two fates. Her knuckle traced the curve of her belly. Their future was up to her.
“Lawrence Pembroke, Duke of Ravenwood,” the vicar intoned. “Wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor and keep her in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”
Sarah’s throat convulsed. This was a nightmare. She touched her palm to her swollen belly. Was she really going to go through with this? Would Ravenwood?
“I will,” the duke replied before Sarah could interrupt.
If she would have done so.
Her fingers stroked her belly, trying to calm the infant inside. Truth be told, they were moments away from a miracle. The child would be legitimate, not a bastard. Even once Society inevitably did the maths and realized the baby had been conceived long before the ducal wedding, the power of the Ravenwood name would protect them from all but a few whispers.
No one would dare cut them. The baby would be fine.
If the child was a boy, he would inherit a dukedom some day. If the child was a girl, she would be welcomed into Society with open arms. Perhaps marry a duke herself someday. What did it matter if her parents were not in love? If part of Sarah had died on that blood-soaked battlefield alongside her lost lover, did it matter, so long as her child was safe?
The vicar fixed his dark eyes on her. “Miss Sarah Fairfax.”
She swallowed. ’Twas a miracle and a nightmare, this union.
Sarah slid the duke a furtive glance. She’d never wished to be a duchess. She’d just wanted Edmund. And now the only way to save her baby’s future was to raise his baby as someone else’s child. Someone who wasn’t doing this for her—or for the baby.
Ravenwood was sacrificing himself at the altar for Edmund. Because for all their lives, they had been the best of friends.
Because Ravenwood hadn’t been there that day to save him.
The vicar stared at Sarah. “Wilt thou have this man to be thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love honor and keep him in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, keep thee solely unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”
She froze, her lungs suddenly incapable of breath. Her gaze flicked over her shoulder, toward the few souls in attendance.
She hadn’t been the only one who had lost Edmund. His twin brother Bartholomew stood at the back of the alcove, his face unreadable. Her stomach twisted. Did he hate her for marrying Ravenwood? For depriving him of a niece or nephew he could claim as his own blood? For being a distraction to Edmund? She turned back to the vicar before her eyes could sting with tears. Crying wouldn’t change the past.
The future was her sole concern.
It didn’t matter what anyone thought. Not Bartholomew, not her parents, not even the vicar. All that mattered was the baby. She would be the best mother in the history of mothers. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to provide for her child.
She set her jaw. As bad as things were, she and the baby were devilish fortunate. Despite so many tragedies—or, perhaps, because of them—her child would have a better future than Sarah would ever have dreamed. She would ensure her child never felt unloved or unwanted for a single moment.
Sarah lifted her gaze toward the vicar. “I will.”
The vicar nodded. “I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, ye do now confess it.”
The alcove was still.
In the ensuing silence, Sarah was suddenly aware of a dozen tiny sounds. The vicar’s finger, smoothing a crinkled page. The slight change in Ravenwood’s breath, as if he, too, felt the weight of the future upon them. A shuffle in the rear of the alcove as Bartholomew shifted his weight. Or perhaps that was the Earl of Carlisle, who had been stone still throughout the entire ceremony.
The earl hadn’t just lost a friend. He’d been with them on the battlefield when the twins had been injured. There had scarcely been time to save one of them.
He’d chosen Bartholomew.
Not Edmund. Not the father of her child, the love of her life. The earl had let her betrothed die.
Sarah fixed her gaze on the altar. She could not be angry at Oliver. Or at least, she would not let her bitterness show. He had been faced with a terrible decision, and he’d made the only choice that he could. Edmund had been mortally wounded. His twin was not. Oliver deserved her respect and her sympathy.
He had saved a life. The war was not his fault. The earl had done his best to save everyone he could.
Just like Ravenwood was doing his best to rescue Sarah and her child.
This was her last hope. There was no going back.
The vicar’s clear voice echoed through the alcove. “Forasmuch as Lawrence Pembroke, Duke of Ravenwood, and Miss Sarah Fairfax have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and have declared the same by giving and receiving a Ring, and by joining Hands; I pronounce that they are—”
A crash filled the alcove as the well-oiled mahogany doors swung inward and slammed into the walls hard enough to knock the paintings askew.
“Stop!” bellowed a deep, familiar voice.
Sarah jerked around in shock and disbelief. The imbalance of her extra weight coupled with her sudden movement sent her careening into Ravenwood, who caught her in his arms as a sun-worn gentleman with a scruffy beard and tattered clothing stalked up the aisle.
’Twas her ex-lover, Edmund Blackpool.
Back from the dead.
Three Hours Earlier
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.”