Michael Riley looked out over the crystalline lake, pushing up his tan angler’s hat with its wide, flimsy brim to get a better view of Jane. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the scent of sun-soaked earth, freshly cut grass and water. His twelve-year-old charge was walking on a narrow arched bridge that spanned the narrowest part of the lake, about thirty metres in length. It was one of her favourite haunts, especially since she hated fishing. Jane Arlen, daughter of Viscount Geoffrey Arlen, had been in his life since he could remember. He had been there to greet her a few days after her birth and had developed a special place for her in his heart over the years.
She seemed to sense his eyes on her, and she turned around and waved at him in her usual cheerful manner. At least, it was her usual way with him. She was a shy girl, introspective and thoughtful. Jane took a long while to warm up to strangers, but with him, she was warm and confident—his closest friend in the world. For a girl, anyway. At eighteen, he was starting to wonder if he was spending too much time with Jane. It was true that they had been friends for nearly all his life, but he was at an entirely different place in life now. Indeed, with his last few weeks of university, he had started to ponder if it was time to begin looking for a wife. How would Jane react to such news?
He turned his attention back to the water as his pole tugged down in his hand. He gave a whoop of excitement and threw his hat to the side, reeling slowly but steadily as he drew the fish to the surface.
“Must be a big one!” he yelled over the water. He continued fighting with the fish, taking his time so the line would not break.
All of a sudden, he heard a crash in the distance and a giant splash soon thereafter. Fish forgotten, he looked out over the water to see that Jane was no longer on her perch on the bridge. His heart froze as he saw a gaping hole in the railing, and Jane was nowhere to be seen.
“God, no,” he prayed. He dropped his fishing pole and ran around the lake’s edge toward the bridge. “Jane!” he cried, his voice hoarse with worry. “She cannot swim!” he said to himself, searching the surface of the water frantically.
He stripped off his vest and rolled up his sleeves as he started up the arched bridge. Finally, Jane resurfaced, her strangled, gurgling cries sending a shock of lighting through his limbs. He burst into action, diving into the water just a few feet from her. He kicked with all his might. He had to dive even further down when he got to the place where he had last seen her, for the weight of her waterlogged skirts dragged her down to the lake’s murky depths. He wrapped an arm around her waist and pushed off the bottom of the sandy lakebed, using powerful kicks to get her back to the surface as quickly as possible.
He gasped when they reached the surface. “Jane!” he called again, for she was limp in his arms. He struggled to swim back to shore—no wonder she had sunk so quickly.
Michael turned over on his back, tucking Jane into his chest so he could kick easier. “Jane, wake up,” he said through clenched teeth. “Oh, God, please—”
For several minutes, he struggled to swim to shore. But finally, he was able to drag her through the reeds and onto the grass, motionless and ghostly white. He moved the wet tendrils of hair from her face, at a loss for what he should do. He leaned his ear close to her mouth, listening for breath. None came.
He took her up in his arms and shook her gently. “Jane, please. Do not leave me,” he pleaded. He shook her again, a little harder this time, and her body gave a convulsive spasm. She began coughing up water, and he allowed her to roll onto her side on the grass. He propped himself up on his knees, relief flooding over him. She continued to cough for several seconds as she expelled the water from her lungs. He patted her back, trying to speak comforting words. His hands shook. Closing his eyes for a moment, he thanked God that He had seen fit to spare her life.
“There, there. You are safe now, Jane,” he whispered.
She turned on her back, looking at the sky for a moment. When their eyes met, she gave a shaking sob. “You saved my life!” she said, her voice hoarse, no doubt from sucking so much water into her lungs. He gathered her into his arms again, needing to be sure she was alright.
“And you scared the life out of me,” he said, giving a short laugh. He touched her cheek tenderly, a spark of lightning tingling through him. He grew serious again as if seeing her with fresh eyes.
She closed her eyes and clung to him. “I was pretty terrified myself,” she admitted. She buried her face in his chest. Her fingers spread over his chest and gripped his shirt as if she feared she might fall in again. He wrapped her up in his arms more tightly.
He helped her sit up, but she kept her fingers intertwined with the damp fibres of his white shirt. His eyes travelled down her person, and for the first time, he noticed how beautiful of a young woman she was becoming. She was a child no longer, with doe eyes that held the look of a woman far beyond her years. He had only ever seen those looks in the eyes of young women at the balls and galas he attended. All of them were hunting for husbands. But Jane was different. Her emotional innocence was not something he ever wanted to take advantage of.
Clearing his throat, he looked away. “Do you think you are strong enough to stand?” he asked.
“If you will help me,” she said softly. She batted her eyelashes, and his heart again skipped a beat–this time, not with fear but with longing. He helped her stand, and still, she would not let him go. He covered one of her hands with his and was surprised by how cold her skin was despite the warm July afternoon.
“You are in shock. Here, we must get you to the house and warmed back up as soon as possible. Do you think you can walk?”
She nodded silently, but she was already starting to shiver badly. Her lips had the faintest tinge of blue to them, which alarmed him even more. Without hesitating, he scooped her up in his arms and started toward the house.
Jane gasped, wrapping her arms around his neck. “You do not have to carry me,” she protested, albeit unconvincingly.
“Nonsense. You will freeze by the time we walk to the house at the pace you can keep up with.” Michael kept his eyes trained on her, knowing the ground of the Arlen garden like the back of his hand. He had spent practically every other day with the Arlen family since he was a small child. He watched the gentle rise and fall of her chest, trying not to be reminded of the changes happening there. Indeed, they had been happening for the last year or so, subtle at first. But now glaringly apparent to his male eyes. He looked away again, feeling ashamed. Jane was his best friend and in need of help, not gawking.
He hurried through the maze of hedgerows and rose bushes that abutted the house and hurried into the parlour, calling for Lord and Lady Arlen. They rushed into the parlour as he set her down on a settee.
“What in the name of all that is holy happened?” her mother asked in alarm.
Michael stepped back, looking for a blanket that he could wrap around her shoulders. “She fell into the lake and nearly drowned. She is in shock, I think.”
Jane looked up at her parents and shook her head. “Michael saved me. He was so brave,” she said through chattering teeth.
“We should move her up to her room,” her father said, taking charge. He lifted his daughter into his arms and started out of the room. Lady Arlen followed them, and Michael after her.
“I apologise for dripping all over the carpets, my lady,” he said.
Lady Arlen paused for a moment and then waved him off, halting to allow him time to catch up.
“Nonsense,” she said tightly. “I am grateful you were there to save my baby girl,” she said. Her face was drawn into a worried frown, her hand slightly shaky on his arm.
“Shall I go for the doctor, Lady Arlen?” he asked. He was unsure where he stood with Lady Arlen. Things had always been strained between them, but he was uncertain of the reason.
She halted on the stairs, looking up at her husband’s retreating form. “Perhaps that would be best,” she said. “If you do not mind riding in your state? I can have some of Lord Arlen’s clothes sent to one of the guest rooms if you like, but I am afraid you will be swimming in them, thanks to his gut.”
“That is not necessary, Lady Arlen. I shall ride into town and be back with the doctor as soon as possible.”
She let out a relieved sigh. “Thank you, Michael.” She turned and hurried up the stairs and was soon out of sight. Michael turned and walked back down the steps, heading out to the stable to get his horse. He could only pray that Jane would be alright.
Michael knocked on Jane’s bedroom door later as the sun began to set. His heart hammered in his chest at the thought of seeing her again, for he had waited outside her door in the hall for what seemed like hours after bringing the doctor.
“Come in!” came her sweet voice, and he opened the door. She lay upright in bed with the covers pulled up over her chest. Her strawberry blonde hair framed her face, hanging loose and natural. It made her look like a nymph, which was the furthest thing from the truth, especially after the events earlier in the day.
Her parents sat on either side of the bed, keeping watch like hawks. And how could he blame them? They had almost lost their daughter to the watery depth just a hundred yards from their home. His stomach recoiled at the thought of what would have happened had she been alone. A vision of her still form floating face down on the surface of the water made his heart clench, bringing with it another picture of death. In truth, it was the memory of his mother’s stone-cold face, her grey eyes staring up at the ceiling. To his six-year-old mind, it had been traumatic, to say the least.
That afternoon, he had almost lost the only other woman he had ever cared about with as much devotion as he had felt toward his mother.
Jane opened her eyes, a tired smile spreading over her lips. He cleared his throat as she reached out her hand to him. “Michael,” she greeted. Never before had his name sounded so sweet falling from her lips. He had never noticed just how red and inviting those lips were until now.
Lord Arlen stood, smiling, as he offered him the seat he had occupied.
Michael held up his hand. “Please, I did not mean to break up a family gathering,” he said.
“Nonsense. You are practically family, son. Please, sit down.” Lord Arlen moved out of the way, and Michael gave no further argument. Lady Arlen, however, did not echo the sentiment, keeping back a few paces as Michael approached the bed.
Jane smiled at him. Her blue eyes seemed to stare right through his soul until it was hard to breathe. “Thank you again, for what you did today.”
Michael hung his head. “It is what anyone would have done, if put in the same position.”
“Well, whether that is the case or not, I am still grateful,” she said. Michael could hardly breathe when she looked at him like that. He smiled and took her hand.
“I would do it a thousand times over, if I had to. I hope you know how much you mean to me,” he said. At that moment, he wished they could be alone. He glanced at Lady Arlen, a strange look spreading over her features. Michael let go of Jane’s hand. “Well, I suppose I should let you rest. No more walking on the bridge, huh? At least, unless one of us can be with you,” he teased.
Lord Arlen stepped forward, blustering. “I assure you the bridge will be torn down immediately and a new one put up in its place. I had no idea that thing was such a death trap,” he promised.
Jane barely acknowledged her father’s words. “Well, thank you again. Will you come back tomorrow?” she asked, her voice filled with hope and longing.
He nodded, giving her a brilliant smile. “Of course, I will.” He then bowed to Lord and Lady Arlen, his eyes flickering over Jane once more before turning to leave the room. Neither of them could have known before the incident, but he surmised that they would never see each other the same way again.
“Excuse me, Lady Jane. Lady Phoebe is here to see you.”
Jane looked up from her needlework at the butler, who had stepped into the room with the silence of a cat. She set her project aside and rose gracefully from her chair. “Thank you, Reeves. Please show her in,” she replied.
“This way, Lady Phoebe,” Reeves said, waving her in with an air of solemn dignity. Phoebe soon appeared, her jovial expression lighting up the room. She gave Reeves a slight frown.
“Cheer up, Reeves. It is not as bad as all that, is it?” she asked.
Reeves bowed. “No, my lady.” He then turned on his heels and walked out of the room.
Phoebe laughed and approached her, leaning in to kiss Jane’s cheeks before they sat down. “He is a grumpy old curmudgeon, is he not?” she asked gleefully.
Jane answered with a laugh of her own. “You do take pleasure in teasing Reeves, do you not? I wonder why that is?”
“Oh, he and I go way back. I do not know why, but I have always drawn amusement from trying to make him smile. He wears such a serious demeanour most of the time.”
Jane shook her head. “Tea has not arrived yet. Shall we go for a stroll in the garden?”
“Yes, perfect,” Phoebe said. She took off her hat and gloves, and they walked out into the sunlit patio. Phoebe linked her arm through Jane’s as they walked down the steps and onto the cobblestone-covered walkway.
“Are you looking forward to leaving for town in a few days? I am sure your house has been like bedlam, if it is anything like mine at the moment. I swear, my mother makes such a fuss every year, as if she forgets that the Season is coming up.” Phoebe sighed, looking up at the blossoming trees.
Jane followed her gaze. “My mother has been much the same. I am afraid I will have several visits to the modiste ahead, which you know I dread. The seamstress here was not able to get all the hemming done on a few of my new gowns.”
“You sound as if that were a bad thing? Most ladies love going to the modiste. It is where the most juicy gossip is shared,” she added with a mischievous whisper.
Jane giggled. “You know that I do not care for gossip. I would much rather sit at home, here in the country and read to my heart’s content.”
Phoebe eyed with a wry smile. “I know you. You would rather have Michael Riley all to yourself. That is more like it, is it not?” she asked.
Jane pushed her gently to the side, extricating her arm from her grasp. Phoebe knew her better than anyone, save for Michael. However, she was unsure how to read him. Did he care for her simply as a little sister and friend? Or was there more to his looks and almost constant visits?
In truth, she was worried about her debut in society. She was in love with Michael Riley and did not wish to be courted by any other man. Jane had been worrying over her fate for the last few weeks, especially with regard to her future as a married woman. What if he had not spoken because she was not out yet? Or what if he truly did not care for her in that way?
Phoebe tugged on her arm and linked hers through the crook of Jane’s once more, forcing her to turn down a little winding path next to a section of roses that were only just beginning to bud. Soon they would unfold their petals in the most beautiful shades of pinks, yellows, and deep reds. But she would not be here to see them or enjoy their bracing scent.
“Do not look so glum, dearest. All will be well, I assure you. Lord Michael is due to come to London with us all, and when he sees how exquisite you look during your debut ball, he will have no choice but to fall at your feet with love of you.”
Jane again shook her head. “I do not know—” she said hesitantly. “Am I the kind of woman a man like Michael would fall in love with? I fear he will only ever see me as his “little friend,” as he was so fond of calling me when we were coming up.”
“Does he still call you his ‘little friend’?” Phoebe asked.
Jane shrugged. “Not as often as he used to. But every time he does say it, it feels like a dagger in my heart.”
Phoebe looked down at her feet as they continued to stroll along the path. “There is only one way to find out if he returns your feelings, Jane. You must ask him.”
Jane immediately bucked against this notion. “I could never do that. It would be too forward for a woman to declare herself first.”
Phoebe made a clicking sound with her tongue. “Such a demure young woman. Well,” she said, throwing up her hands. “You cannot say I did not advise you.” She walked ahead of Jane, coming to the end of the path. They walked out onto the green surrounding the garden and the rest of the house and started toward the lake.
True to his word, her father had swiftly torn down the old bridge that her grandfather had built back in the early part of the last century and replaced it with a new one. It was still her favourite place to go, but a small piece of Jane would always be fond of the old bridge. Her brush with death had set her on a course she had never even thought possible. From the moment she had awakened in Michael’s arms, she had fallen madly in love with Michael.
Phoebe seemed to sense her heartache and offered comfort as a true friend. “I am sure he will declare himself as soon as you are out. He is a man of honour, after all, and he will not want to seem too forward in speaking for a young woman’s hand when she has not yet been presented.”
“Perhaps,” was all Jane could say. She had to wonder, however. He had never been the shy type, always saying what was on his mind. If he had had any intention of speaking for her hand, there was no reason he should not have felt comfortable going to her father.
“No matter. What will be, will be. There is no use fretting about it now. I am determined that this Season will be the best yet, for both of us.”
Jane smiled sadly. Phoebe was always looking on the bright side. And while Jane preferred to do the same, for some reason, Jane could not shake the feeling of uneasiness. “I suppose it is normal to be a little nervous before the presentation ceremony. I do so want to please Papa and Mama—to make them proud.”
Phoebe patted her hand. “You will do. You always have,” Phoebe smiled. “And you are right in that it is normal to be nervous. I remember when I came out last year, I thought my heart was going to beat right out of my chest. But their Majesties are not so severe as we have been brought up to believe. Indeed, the queen was very kind to me.”
“I can only hope for half of your good luck. I believe the queen paid special favour to you, did she not?”
Phoebe nodded, sighing. “She did. A lot of good it did me,” she replied.
Jane was sorry she had brought it up. Phoebe had started her first Season with shining colours, having several gentlemen pay call to her. There were even a few gentlemen who wanted to court her. But none of them had been the right fit, as she had called it. Now it was her turn to cheer up her friend. Jane pulled her toward the lake shore, and they walked up the bridge and stood at the railing. She took a deep breath, loving the scent of the gently lapping water and the soft pink blossoms on the cherry trees.
“You are right,” Jane said with decision. “We cannot worry about tomorrow. Does the Good Book not say that tomorrow will worry about itself?” Phoebe perked up at her encouraging words. “We will have to simply do our best this Season and hope and pray that God will bring us both a love match of our choosing.”
“From your lips to God’s ears,” Phoebe said with a laugh. “I am not sure He cares about such trivial things, when He has the whole world to worry about.”
Jane shook her head. “I do not think that at all. What could be more important than whom one marries?” While her parents were not necessarily religious folks, Jane had developed her own ideas about God. “Did not Jesus Himself say that not a sparrow falls from the heavens without Him knowing it? I have to believe that a God who cares about such seemingly trivial matters as the welfare of sparrows, cares about our so-called trivial matters, too.”
Phoebe linked her arm through Jane’s and smiled. “You are right, of course. I am glad you are here to remind me of my faith—and push me to be better.” She pulled her away from the railing, and they walked down the opposite side of the bridge. “Now, tell me all about the gown you are going to wear to the presentation.”
Jane let the subject go and obliged her friend, even though she usually had no interest in talking about clothes and hairstyles. However, she was willing to do anything to keep her anxiety at bay. With any luck, Michael would decide to come to the presentation. Just seeing him there would put her mind at ease.
Michael entered his family home, letting out a deep breath of relief. It had been a long journey home from the Duke of Bridgewoode’s estate. His friend, Her Grace the Duchess of Bridgewoode, had relied on him to handle affairs since her husband’s passing. And while he did not mind helping an old family friend in her time of need, he was always happy to return to familiar surroundings.
“Well, I must say, I am surprised.”
Michael turned around and gave his friend, Alex, a sideways smile. “Why would you say that?”
“For a bachelor’s home, it is very—” Alex paused for a moment. “—feminine?”
Michael chuckled softly. “My mother decorated the house. And since her passing, neither my father or I have had the heart to redecorate.”
Alex nodded. “I am sorry. I should not have said that.”
Michael held up his hand. “There is no need to apologise, my friend. I like to talk about my mother. I was only six when she passed, and I did not know her as I would have liked to. Speaking about her makes it feel as if she is still watching over me in some small way.”
Michael waved him into the drawing room and rang the small silver bell that sat atop the mantle. He ordered tea and refreshments to be brought up, and they were soon relaxing, their legs stretched out in the absence of any ladies. Michael gave a contented sigh. “It is good to be home.”
“You are quite the homebody, are you not?” Alex asked. “I remember that from our time at Eton.” His friend straightened slightly, looking around the room. “I like this room. It is very elegant.”
“My mother adored the French fashion of her time. I quite like it, too.” Michael joined his friend in admiring the room. The tall windows allowed for ample sunlight, making it feel larger than it actually was. The blue and gold wallpaper tied perfectly with the white chairs and settee in the sitting area. The oriental rug had strains of blue, ivory, and gold woven throughout, completing the lavish style of the room. And despite the space’s elegant feel, his mother had been sure to incorporate comfort as well. Even still, his old wooden toybox sat in the corner, and blankets that his mother had knitted were hanging over the settee and a few of the chairs. He had never felt out of place in the drawing room.
“Well, how long are we staying?” Alex asked.
“Only a day or so. I only wanted to stop off here on my way to London. You know everyone will be travelling to town for the opening of the Season.” Michael tried to sound nonchalant, but he had planned to stop off at the Arlen estate on his way into town so he could see Jane. He had been gone since April, working to tie up the last few things for the Duke of Bridgewoode’s estate. Not a day had gone by that he did not think of Jane.
“Well, I am certainly glad we ran into each other at that inn. Your carriage is much more comfortable than the public stage,” Alex said. He sat straight as the drawing-room door swung open, and the housekeeper appeared with the tea tray. “It was very good of you to invite me to your home and to travel to London with you.”
“Not at all. I would enjoy making the trip with you for company than doing so alone.” Michael sat up as well as his housekeeper poured each a cup of tea and then departed. “I shall take you riding tomorrow, if you like, and show you around the countryside. Then we will depart for London and the festivities,” Michael raised his brows, giving a tired sigh.
“I take it you do not like all the festivities,” Alex laughed. He plucked a petit four from the silver tray and popped it into his mouth as he leaned back in his chair. “I admit that I do not care for all the hubbub generally. But my father is pressing me to get married as soon as possible. I will not live forever, you know, Alex.” His friend mocked his father’s tone, deepening his voice and frowning, waving his fist in the air.
“Surely, you know that as the son of a Marquess, you are obligated to find a wife and produce an heir. The ladies will be flocking to you this Season,” Michael said with a teasing tone. “My condolences.” He raised his teacup as if he were saluting Alex.
“I am not opposed to getting married, you know. Only the games that women play in order to entrap a husband. Perhaps I am old fashioned.”
“Is it old fashioned to want to marry for love? If it is, then I am afraid we are both old fashioned,” Michael said. His thoughts again turned to Jane. He had been in love with her since she was an adolescent, although he had never felt the freedom to come out and say it. However, his time had finally come. With Jane’s coming out, he could finally speak for her hand. His heart began to hammer in his chest at the thought of making his feelings known. What if Jane did not return his feelings? He was unsure of how to read a lady. Perhaps he had been mistaking what he had seen all this time, and she did not have tender feelings for him.
“What is the matter?” Alex asked. “You grew very quiet all of a sudden.”
Michael wiped the serious look off his face and forced a smile. He leaned forward and took a biscuit from the tray. “Nothing. I was simply thinking of all the preparations that need to be handled before we head on to London.”
“I see,” Alex said. And from his tone, Michael knew he did not believe him. Alex had always been able to tell what he was thinking. Michael ate his biscuit in one large bite and then swallowed.
“Well, what say you to a ride now? I find I am a little restless,” he smiled.
“I agree. Being cooped up in the carriage all morning and afternoon has made me antsy as well.
“Good. Well, I will have the butler show you to your room so you can change and we can meet back down here in say, half an hour?” Michael asked. They both stood, and Alex nodded in assent.
“Perfect.” Alex took one last petit four and popped it into his mouth as they walked out of the room. “Your pastry chef is a magician, Riley.” He rolled his eyes heavenward. “My mother never was very good at finding good cooks.”
“Well, you may have all the petit fours you desire while you are under my roof, Hayden.” Michael clapped him on the back, his heart warming as they slipped into their usual way of addressing each other by their surnames while at school—before either of them had inherited their formal titles.
Alex groaned in pleasure as he swallowed the delicious morsel of delicately frosted cake. “I shall be five hundred pounds by the end of my stay.” His eyes flashed with mischief. “But it shall be worth it.”
Michael laughed and parted ways with him at the bottom of the grand staircase. “I have a few matters to see to in the study. Kelton will show you to your room,” Michael said, nodding to the butler.
He headed down the hall and went into the study, his heart beating wildly as he looked at the small tray on the desk, which held several letters. On the top was a letter from Jane. He opened it, smiling at the words written in her familiar hand.
I wanted to write a short note welcoming you home. We are all eager to see you and hear all about your adventures over the last few months. Please do call as soon as you are rested and able.
Michael was somewhat disappointed at the shortness of the note, but he was sure she meant to save her news for when they saw each other next. He folded the letter and put it in the breast pocket of his vest. He had kept every letter Jane had ever written to him tucked safely away in a box in his room. He sometimes wondered if it was silly to keep them all, but he did not have the heart to get rid of a single one.
“Do not worry, Jane. Runaway horses could not keep me away from you for a moment longer than was necessary,” he whispered with a smile. He then went out of the study, leaving the rest of the missives for another time. He hurried up the stairs to his room so he could change, eagerness propelling him forward.
“An Ocean Away from Her Earl” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
The only thing Lady Jane Arlen hopes for when she embarks on her first Season, is that Lord Michael Riley, her secret love, asks for her hand. When he finally declares himself, Jane cannot imagine any greater happiness. However, this happiness is short-lived when her intended is suddenly called away to business in America…
What will happen when Jane is persuaded to accept another man’s proposal right before her long-lost love returns?
When Michael Riley is needed in America right after he confesses his feelings to Jane, his entire world is shattered. To make matters worse, when he eventually returns home, he finds out that Jane is to be engaged to someone else. Will this be the end of Michael’s chance at happiness?
Could he overcome his pain and convince Jane to choose love over duty?
Jane and Michael have found the love of a lifetime, but with Jane’s impending engagement and her mother’s conniving schemes, their future together seems like a hopeless dream. Will Jane have the courage to defy her mother’s wishes and fight for her true love? Or will they both be left with broken hearts and a future of regret?
“An Ocean Away from Her Earl” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.