Dukes of War Series #4
When Major Bartholomew Blackpool learns the girl-next-door from his childhood will be forced into an unwanted marriage, he returns home to play her pretend beau. He figures now that he’s missing a leg, a faux fiancée is the best an ex-soldier can get. He admires her pluck, but the lady deserves a whole man—and he’ll ensure she gets one.
Miss Daphne Vaughan hates that crying off will destroy Major Blackpool’s chances of finding a real bride. She plots to make him jilt her first. Who cares if it ruins her? She never wanted a husband anyway. But the major is equally determined that she break the engagement. With both of them on their worst behavior, neither expects their fake betrothal to lead to love…
Regency-set Historical Romance Novel
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Despite the icy wind pelting the windows with snow, hot rivulets of sweat dripped from Major Bartholomew Blackpool’s skin.
He was facedown in the center of his town house parlor, the muscles of his upper arms trembling as he pushed his prone body up from the faded Oriental rug again and again. As he did every morning. Balancing on the toes of just one foot.
Not that Bartholomew had much choice. Half his right leg was missing.
He’d lost the limb—and everything else he’d ever cared about—seven long months ago, at the Battle of Waterloo. His pride. His twin brother. His very identity. All gone, in the space of a few seconds.
Bartholomew gritted his teeth and increased his pace. He couldn’t replace his brother or his missing leg, but he wasn’t going to sit around weeping about it. He’d lived through the pain thus far. He could survive a great deal more.
A loose floorboard squeaked in the corridor. Someone was approaching the parlor.
With a muttered curse, Bartholomew flung himself off the rug and behind the pianoforte. He snatched up his discarded prosthesis and barely got the wretched thing secured before the parlor door slowly creaked open.
The fury in Bartholomew’s tone could have melted iron as he hoisted himself up from the floor to scowl at his butler. “What the devil is so important that you would disrupt me when I have expressly forbidden all interruptions?”
Only the slightest twitch of his nose betrayed Crabtree’s affront at this rebuke. Impassive, he strode into the parlor bearing the morning missives on a burnished silver platter, just as he’d done every single day of his seven years in Bartholomew’s employ.
Every day until his master left for war, that was. Upon returning home, Bartholomew had requested all incoming correspondence be delivered directly to the closest fireplace.
“Who put you up to this?” he demanded, although there could really only be one culprit. “Fitz, don’t you dare hide around the corner like a coward. If you’ve stones enough to order Crabtree about, you’ve stones enough to bring me your complaints in person.”
Silence reigned for a few moments before Bartholomew’s thin, excitable valet appeared in the doorway, wringing his pale hands and casting beseeching looks at the ever-stoic Crabtree.
Bartholomew let out a slow breath. This was his own folly. If he had been less vain and self-important when he left for war, he would not continue to pay his sought-after valet’s exorbitant fees, just to keep Fitz out of the clutches of the two-legged dandies.
And if Bartholomew hadn’t been the most shameless braggadocio, the most infamous rake, the most imitated Corinthian—Fitz might not still be here, hoping against hope that someday, he might once again fluff and pluck and adorn his master back into his rightful place as the most celebrated pink of the ton.
Foolishness, of course. Without two legs, a man couldn’t ride, box, waltz, or whisk pretty young ladies into shadowy corners. Nor did he wish to. Not anymore. Without his twin, Bartholomew couldn’t even smile, much less face the judgmental countenances of his peers.
What was life now, but solitude and phantom pains and locking himself in his chambers whilst he attended to his own toilette? He could no longer stand for his valet to glimpse what had become of the once-perfect body he had been so arrogantly proud of. It was nothing, that’s what it was. ’Twas pride that kept him from allowing any help. And it was pride that kept him from letting Fitz go.
Or allowing anyone to see him, now that he was less than perfect.
“Whatever those missives are, you know what you can do with them.” Bartholomew wiped the sweat from his face with his towel. When he glanced back up, neither of his servants had moved. “If you need suggestions on where to put those letters, you might start with your—”
“’Tis the Season,” Fitz blurted.
Bartholomew shook his head. “Twelfth night is long past. It’s February.”
“Not that season, sir.” Fitz looked horrified. “The Season that matters. The London Season. It’s here. You’re here. All we have to do is—”
“I said no.”
“You should be out in Society. You were made for Society.”
Bartholomew snorted and gestured at the awkward wooden prosthesis strapped to his right knee. “With this leg, Fitz? What would be the point?”
“Not every moment must be spent dancing.”
“Or sparring in Gentleman Jackson’s, I suppose, or riding hell for leather through St. James Square, or hiking to remote follies, or sweeping ladies off their feet?” Bartholomew tossed his towel over his shoulder.
“You don’t have to literally sweep them off their feet,” Fitz said earnestly, his thin hands wringing without cease. “You could use your… your charm, sir. Surely you didn’t lose that in the war.”
“My charm? What I had was good looks, two legs, and plenty of arrogance.” Bartholomew crossed his arms. “That was then. This is now. If wooden pegs haven’t suddenly become an aphrodisiac to gently bred ladies, I fail to see—”
“You do fail to see, sir! Your apparatus is scarcely an eyesore. It’s got moving ankle joints and five cunning little toes—”
“—and one cannot even discern it beneath your breeches and stockings and boots. Truly.” Fitz took a deep breath and rushed forward, his fingers stretching toward his master’s chest. “If you would just let me do something about this hideous waistcoat—”
Bartholomew batted away his valet’s hands. He glared over Fitz’s shoulder at the butler, who hadn’t changed position or expression since entering the room. “Crabtree, if you’ve nothing to say for yourself, could you at least brain Fitz with that silver platter until he recovers a modicum of sense?”
“What about your brain?” Fitz put in before Crabtree could respond. “If your charm is rusty, surely your mind is not. Do not discount yourself so easily, sir. You went to Eton and Cambridge, and you were a major in the King’s Army. If you would use—”
Bartholomew scoffed. “My brain is irrelevant. The ton has never held the least interest in intellectuals. My conversations with men centered on sport, horseflesh, and women, and my conversations with ladies were limited to ballroom gallantry and bedroom whispers. Attempting to force a crippled, but intellectual version of myself upon Society would be a nightmare for all involved. No, thank you.”
“I’ve no wish to be part of that world anymore, Fitz. Not from a distance, and not as an object of pity.” He lifted his chin toward Crabtree’s silver tray. “Why do you think I receive so much correspondence? Because no one wishes to visit. No one wishes to see me in person. Not with this crippled leg. The ton sends letters to make themselves feel better, not because they long for the presence of a broken soldier.”
“You did so have an invitation,” Fitz stammered. “Last month, for the annual Sheffield Christmastide ball. I saved it.”
Bartholomew sighed. “The sister of one of my best friends sent me that invitation.”
“You receive many invitations, sir,” came Crabtree’s bored voice. “It’s simply difficult to respond to them once they’ve burned to ash. Are you certain you wish the same fate for these?”
“I do.” Bartholomew smiled tightly. “’Twould be embarrassing for all parties to have me show up and clomp about their lymewashed floors as they try desperately to think of something to say that doesn’t involve my missing leg or my missing brother. Coping with my own grief is hard enough. I bloody sure won’t waste my time scribbling platitudes to people I hope never to see again. And I’ll be damned if my name pops up in the scandal sheets for stumbling on my prosthesis and falling on my arse in front of all and sundry.” He gestured toward the fireplace. “Go on. Toss them in.”
“Only once you’ve verified they’re all rubbish.” Crabtree lifted the first missive from the pile. “Addington? It certainly looks like an invitation.”
Bartholomew cut him a flat look.
Crabtree tossed the folded parchment into the flames and squinted at the next. “Grenville? I’m told that family still has unwed daughters.”
Bartholomew crossed his arms and turned toward the windows. Snow clung to the panes and whirled past in clouds of white, blocking his view, but anything was better than enduring the ritual of his unwanted correspondence. He refused to read any of it, and his butler refused to destroy a single word without first ensuring he wasn’t tossing anything of importance.
“Montgomery… Blaylock… Kingsley…”
Seven months. Bartholomew closed his eyes and let the names fade to silence.
His closest friends had visited when he’d first returned from war. The Duke of Ravenwood. Lord Carlisle. Captain Grey.
Bartholomew hadn’t been fitted for a false leg yet, so he’d refused to let them in. He wouldn’t let them see him as a bedridden invalid.
Even once he got his expensive prosthesis—a fully articulated contraption designed by James Potts, a true craftsman and a visionary—it had taken months for Bartholomew to accustom himself to the strangeness of its weight, to its lack of feeling and sluggish behavior. But he’d never stopped exercising. Never stopped trying.
His arms, chest, and stomach were in the best shape of his life from all the strengthening exercises. He did his damnedest to ensure there was no muscle loss in his good leg or what was left of the other. But he couldn’t run. Couldn’t ride. Would have to carry a cane if he ventured out-of-doors in the winter because his articulated wooden miracle couldn’t be trusted on snow or ice, even when ensconced in a boot.
Not that he’d be going anywhere. He had alienated all his friends. He wouldn’t even be visiting his parents. His mother was too distraught to leave her bedchamber, and the one time Bartholomew’s father had visited, he’d barely muttered a single word. Not that it had been necessary. The accusation in his father’s eyes had spoken volumes in the brief second he’d gazed down at his one remaining son before turning around and walking away.
Bartholomew had rid the house of all the mirrors the next day. His father couldn’t bear to look at him and he couldn’t bear to look at himself. He was no longer a whole man.
Worse, he’d let Edmund die.
“Jersey…” Crabtree droned on. “Vaughan…”
Bartholomew spun around, his good leg catching him in time. “What did you say?”
The butler’s fingers paused, mere inches from the flames. He lifted the missive from harm’s way. “Vaughan, sir. Would you care to peruse this one?”
Bartholomew hesitated, then shook his head. “Hamish Vaughan was our parish vicar when I was a child. He was a kind man, but even the good Lord cannot return what I have lost. Burn it.”
Crabtree didn’t move. “It says Miss Daphne Vaughan, sir. Not Hamish.”
Daphne? Red-gold plaits and a sunny smile sprang to Bartholomew’s mind. How old was the chit now? Twelve? He hadn’t laid eyes on her since he’d left for Eton back in…
His eyes widened as he did the maths. She had to be twenty-one, or near enough. A grown woman. If she’d had a Season, it had been while he was at war. And if her name was still Miss Daphne Vaughan, it must not have been a successful one, although he couldn’t imagine why. She’d been too clever for her own good. A pretty child with a heart as big as the sea.
“Give me that.” He stalked over and snatched the missive from his butler’s fingers.
He ought to toss the letter into the fire with all the others, but… Daphne. He smiled at the memories. Laughy Daffy. The girl next door.
She’d been a few years too young to be part of his immediate circle of friends, but that hadn’t stopped her from following them around and trying to rope them into charity missions and knitting brigades. Why on earth would she be writing him now?
His smile faded. If this was just another rotten luck about your amputated leg and dead brother letter, he would never again stop Crabtree from tossing anything into the fire. He unfolded the parchment and began to read.
I’m sorry to write you while you’ve so many troubles of your own, but I don’t know to whom else I could turn. My father passed unexpectedly some months back, and my new guardian has no desire for a ward. In fact, he will commit me to an asylum if I do not take a husband forthwith, and has given me a sennight to decide which fate it shall be.
He has arranged for the single men of his acquaintance to visit the vicarage and press their suits. I’ve no doubt that they are just as disreputable as my guardian and I have no wish to become anyone’s property. Yet my guardian intends to sign a marriage contract by Saturday. If I do not choose a name, he will do so for me.
Do not fear I’m asking you to marry me. I merely hope you might feign an attachment. Once I come into my majority, we may quietly cancel the engagement. I shall come into a small bit of money on my next birthday, and will be no burden to anyone from that day forward… if I can avoid asylums and forced marriages until then.
Please, Tolly. Come at once. I am begging you.
I trust no one else.
“Sir?” came Fitz’s anxious voice.
Bartholomew glanced up from the letter with a frown. “What day is it today? Tuesday?”
“Thursday,” Crabtree corrected impassively.
Fitz clapped his hands in excitement. “Why, sir! Do you realize that’s the first time you’ve cared about the day of the week since—”
“Crabtree, summon the landau. Fitz, find a trunk and stuff it with a few days’ worth of clothing.” Bartholomew tucked the letter into his waistcoat pocket and turned toward the door. “We leave at once.”
Later that night, a heavy fist crashed against the surprisingly sturdy door to Daphne Vaughan’s bedchamber. Her stomach tightened. That fist could only belong to her second cousin and new guardian, Captain Gregory Steele.
He didn’t enjoy being called “cousin” or “guardian” or even “captain,” however. Since returning from war, the epithet he most frequently responded to was Blackheart. Rogue. Renegade. Pirate for hire.
The door rattled in its hinges as Captain Steele’s fist rained hell upon it. He was big enough and strong enough to shatter it with one square kick. That he refrained from doing so was even more unsettling.
His boots clipped against the floorboards, indicating his departure from the corridor, but Daphne knew better than to believe he’d decided to give in. Not a pirate. Anyone who spent months at a time at sea had mastered the art of waiting for the right opportunity.
Before becoming a full-blown pirate, he had started his career as a ruthless barrister, then a Royal Navy captain, and then a merciless privateer. His familiarity with the courts meant he knew he couldn’t legally force her into a betrothal—but his experience in skirting the law meant he’d have no problem finding a way to make her acquiesce on her own.
Hands trembling, Daphne adjusted her reading spectacles and tried to focus her attention on her correspondence.
There were a dozen loose threads of even more importance than Captain Steele’s desire to rid himself of his ward by end of week. There were the miners to think of, and hundreds of weavers, and the squalid conditions in various London rookeries. She couldn’t abandon them.
She hoped the choice wasn’t taken from her, but she wasn’t one to waste tears fretting about things she could not change. Her time was better spent focusing on the things she could.
This was what she’d been born to do. Fight for the less fortunate. It would be easier to accomplish had she been born wealthy, male, and titled, but one did what one could with what one had been given. In her case, the power of words. No one knew who stood on the other end of a quill pen.
Yes, very well, perhaps the daughter of a vicar shouldn’t falsely imply she was a reclusive landowner of middle age and deep pockets, but if a wee misrepresentation here and there reduced the occurrence of disease or circumvented injury or saved the lives of innocent children, then it was precisely what she should be doing. What anyone with a brain or a heart ought to do.
She dipped her quill in the standish and began to write.
Moments later, another knock sounded upon her door. Not the hamfisted pounding of Captain Steele—he’d stormed off some minutes earlier. This knock belonged to a lighter hand. A friendly hand.
“Come in, Esther. ’Tis unlocked.”
Which might be proof that Captain Steele wasn’t one hundred percent irredeemable. Or that he’d decided to grant Daphne’s privacy now, because in another few days she wouldn’t have any. Her shoulders tightened. Either she’d become betrothed to a man who refused to let his wife dedicate her life to something so vulgar as charity work… or she’d find herself on an extensive holiday in Bedlam.
“You’ve a visitor,” came Esther’s rushed whisper from the open doorway. “It’s Major Blackpool.”
The quill tumbled from Daphne’s limp fingers, splattering her careful script with specks of ink. Her breath caught as her pulse galloped wildly. Major Blackpool. She splayed her trembling hands atop her escritoire and pushed to her feet. He’d come. He’d truly come! Her heart sang. For the first time, she dared to let herself feel… hope.
“Where is he?”
“In the entranceway. He says he won’t take another step until he sees your face.”
She tossed her spectacles onto her correspondence. “Then I mustn’t leave him waiting.”
Daphne slipped from her bedchamber and glanced both ways. No sign of her guardian. The corridor was empty. Captain Steele was undoubtedly interrogating the new arrival.
She ran a hand through her hair and hurried toward the front door.
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.
She forced herself to meet his gaze.
His clear blue eyes were staring at her with a mixture of shock and wonder. As if he, too, was having difficulty reconciling the Daphne in his memory with the Daphne standing before him.
She wished they had weeks, or even a few hours, to sit and discuss everything that had happened since last they’d met. But for this ruse to work, she needed her guardian to believe Bartholomew’s suit was sincere. She glanced over her shoulder.
If Captain Steele uncovered her deception, Daphne had no doubt his reaction would be swift and merciless. Instead of a false betrothal with Bartholomew, she’d find herself leg-shackled to one of the would-be suitors in the parlor.
She rushed forward to close the distance between them. She could take no chances. Not with her future, or Bartholomew’s. They mustn’t look like the strangers they now were.
He took her hand in his and lifted it to his lips as if to kiss it, but paused inches before his mouth touched her fingers.
“Daphne.” This time, the corners of his eyes finally crinkled, rendering him devastatingly handsome. “You’re…”
Her hand remained in his. He didn’t kiss it. Nor did he let her go. He looked… mystified. As if he wasn’t certain whether to treat her like a girl or a woman.
Her heart thudded in dismay. What if Captain Steele found them like this? He would never believe they’d had any sort of courtship.
Panic began to crowd out her burgeoning sense of hope. “Stop that. You can’t look at me like you’ve never seen me before.”
“I feel like I haven’t.” As his eyes traveled over her body, every inch of her felt bared to his gaze. “The last time I saw you…”
“—was mere months ago, if anyone asks,” she whispered desperately. “You received my letter. You’ll play the part?”
He nodded. “If it comes to that.”
Her blood ran cold. “What do you mean, if it comes to that? It’s come to that.”
He shook his head. “I’d like to have a chat with the man first. Perhaps all he needs is for a voice of reason to talk some sense into him—”
“He would garrote the voice of reason. He’s a pirate. It’s his way or no way at all.”
Bartholomew dropped her hand. “He’s a what?”
“A pirate. My father’s cousin. He was a privateer until abiding by law and ethics became too much for him.” She failed to keep the sarcasm from her tone. “During the war, he was known as Captain Gregory Steele, but now he mostly goes by—”
Her mouth fell open. “You know him?”
“I know of him. A friend of mine hired him to abduct his wife’s—it’s a long story, really, and not relevant at the moment.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Captain Steele has a significant reputation for being ruthless to his enemies and loyal only to the highest bidder. And he’s your guardian?”
She pursed her lips. “He doesn’t wish to be. That’s why he wants me married off at the earliest opportunity.”
His eyebrows rose. “We should be thankful he didn’t throw you over his shoulder and haul you onto his ship.”
“He said women are too much bother.” She lifted a shoulder. “His misogyny is my saving grace. He wants me gone. To rid himself of me legally, his options are limited. Marriage is the least distasteful.”
“To him or to you?” He pinned her with his gaze. “Why not get married? Weren’t you planning to eventually?”
“I categorically refuse to,” Daphne answered flatly. “I’ve an endless list of goals I mean to accomplish, none of which will be possible if I’m to act like an arm bauble the rest of my life. I cannot be both a wife and a crusader—”
“A what?” he choked out.
“—and so spinsterhood it shall be.” She stiffened her spine. “I’m simply awaiting the month of March. I’ll inherit a small portion on my twenty-first birthday, and will no longer need to be anyone’s ward—or wife.”
He rubbed his forehead. “Provided you can put off Captain Steele until then.”
“Provided I can put off marriage until then.” She hesitated. “He wants the first banns read this Sunday. As soon as the contract is finalized.”
Bartholomew recoiled. “I’m expected to sign a contract?”
“You’re expected not to honor it,” she reminded him in a low voice. “It’s a lie. Nobody has to know. I certainly won’t hold you to it. In five short weeks, I’ll be out of your hair and out from under my guardian’s thumb. It’s distasteful, but my only chance for independence.” She lifted her chin. “Will you help me?”