Four years later
“Michael! Are you ready yet? The guests are arriving!” Jane called to him from the foyer. He stood up and stretched his back, having settled in a reading nook in her parent’s library as she saw the last-minute details for the garden party. They were helping host a small birthday celebration for Jane’s mother, and he had taken a few minutes to read in the sunshine pouring through the windows. It was better for him to stay out of the way while she worked, as he would have only been in the way.
Michael folded the newspaper and set it in the window seat, walking out into the hall and making his way to the foyer. Jane looked slightly frazzled, looking this way until her eyes settled on him. He put a hand on her shoulder and pulled her close for a kiss. “Everything is lovely, Jane. Your mother will be very pleased,” he encouraged.
“I hope so,” she replied. “Where is Anna?”
“Here she is, my lady,” the nanny said, walking down the stairs with their two-year-old daughter on her hip. Jane walked over to meet them at the bottom step and took Anna into her waiting arms. She nuzzled Anna’s plump cheeks, drawing a bout of laughter from her. Michael’s heart warmed at seeing his wife and daughter’s closeness. He hoped it would carry over into Anna’s growing-up years, as he was sure it would. Jane was naturally affectionate and kind. And although her mother had not given her an excellent example of what it meant to be a gentle influence in her daughter’s life, Jane was already a superb mother. And her own mother was also learning to be gentle, led by Jane’s example. Perhaps there was nothing in life that was too far gone or too late for redemption.
Michael smiled and joined the ladies at the railing. “How is my favourite girl this afternoon?” he asked, reaching for Anna. She came excitedly into his arms and wrapped her chubby arms around his neck.
“Papa!” she squealed in delight. His heart melted as she gave him a slobbery kiss on the cheek.
“My darling girl, how did you get more beautiful since breakfast?” he asked teasingly.
Anna put her head on his shoulder, smiling at Jane.
“Come along, you two. Everyone is already out in the garden. It would not do for the hosts to be absent for much longer,” she said.
Michael followed Jane to the garden where her parents, the Duchess, Alex and Phoebe, and their two children waited. It was an intimate party but would be full of no little amount of laughter.
“Hello, everyone!” Jane said as they came out onto the patio. Everyone returned and waved at them as they came down the steps. Michael set Anna down when they came to the bottom step, and she toddled over to Phoebe and Alex’s two children. Their eldest, Frederick, was nearly four and bent to give Anna a hug. Their youngest, Julia, was not yet two but was already an inch taller than petite little Anna. They could already see that the girls would be fast friends, and Alex had already voiced suspicions that Frederick and Anna might end up together later in life.
Phoebe and Alex approached them, and the ladies embraced, kissing each other’s cheeks. Michael stepped up and shook Alex’s hand. “So glad you and Phoebe could make the trip down from Dillmont. How are you, friend?”
Alex’s smile was brilliant. “Never better. And you?” he asked.
“Same,” Michael replied. He glanced at Jane, who had walked over to greet the children. His heart sank. She longed for more children, but Anna’s birth had been horrendous, and he had nearly lost both of them. The doctor had warned that Jane would likely never conceive again since there had been so much trauma, including a long recovery from Anna’s birth. Of course, he had hoped for a son and heir to carry on the Riley name and title for him, but he reminded himself that Jane had lived, which was more important than anything else. They had a beautiful daughter, and that would have to be enough. It was enough—for him.
He joined Jane and Phoebe and said hello to the children, keeping a close watch on Jane. It might have been imperceptible to anyone else, but he saw the sadness leaking into her eyes, and he wished there was something he could do to take away her disappointment. He helped Jane rise, taking her hand and tucking it into the crook of his arm.
“Shall we head down to the lake?” he suggested.
“Yes, let us,” Jane agreed. She directed everyone to start out over the green, and soon, they were all walking down the gently sloping hill toward the lake shore. Geoffrey and Teresa took the children and walked ahead while the Duchess, Jane, and Phoebe walked together. Michael and Alex took up the rear, chatting softly as they walked in the late May sunshine.
“We are lucky men, are we not? Both of us ended up with beautiful wives who adore us,” Alex said with a contented sigh.
“Not to mention we adore them,” Michael said.
“Of course. And a fine gaggle of children. What could be better?” Alex said cheerily. Michael quieted, and Alex seemed to sense his sadness. “What is it, Riley?” he asked.
Michael raised a brow, doing his best to wipe the seriousness off his face. He smiled. “Nothing. I was just thinking how beautiful a day it is. I am glad it is not raining. Jane has worked so hard on this party for her mother.”
Alex nodded, shoving his hands in his pockets. “But you are still upset about something. Will you not confide in me?”
“I do not wish to bring it up, for I know there is nothing I or the doctors can do. I just wish that the pregnancy and birth had not been so difficult for Jane. I know she longs for another baby.”
“The Lord works in a mysterious way, my friend. You are both young, and who knows whether there may not be another child someday. Give it time,” Alex encouraged.
Michael smiled. “I know. Thank you,” he replied. “Well, tell me everything that is going on at Dillmont,” he said, trying to steer the conversation to happier subjects.
Alex sighed. “There is no end to the work that must be done around the estate. And Frederick is a firebrand if I ever saw one. He rips about the castle causing all sorts of ruckus, and I know he runs his nurses ragged.”
“It is precious to see how gentle he is with Julia and Anna, though,” Michael chimed in. He looked ahead to where the children walked along slowly with Jane’s parents. Frederick stood in the middle, holding Anna’s hand on the right and Julia’s on the left. “He is a good big brother.”
“Yes, he is,” Alex agreed. “He has all the markings of a great leader, too. If I had known being a husband and father would be this good, I would have set my mind on finding a wife much sooner.”
“Yes, but then you might not have ended up with Lady Phoebe,” Michael argued with a chuckle.
“True. I suppose everything happens when it is supposed to. I tell you, Michael, it has been four years and I love her even more than I did on our wedding day.”
“I feel the same for Jane. I did not think it was possible when we stood at the altar together. I am not certain that every married couple gets to feel this, but I am thankful every day that we get to share this life with one another.” Michael sighed contentedly as they came to the lakeshore. The children and Jane’s parents settled at one of the round tables that had been set out. Teresa and Geoffrey always insisted on spending as much time with their grandchild as possible. Since Alex’s parents were deceased, and Phoebe’s parents rarely visited them, Jane’s parents had stepped in as surrogate grandparents to Frederick and Julia.
Jane and Phoebe joined her and Alex at the other table a few feet away from where the grandparents and children sat. Michael pulled out Jane’s chair for her and Alex did the same for Phoebe. Alex’s eyes alighted with mischief as he was seated.
“Well, have you heard the latest scandal from London?” he asked.
“We do not like to read the scandal sheets, you know that Lord Hayden,” Jane laughed. “But I can see that you are eager to tell all, so please continue.”
Jane started to pour the tea, and Phoebe helped pass the cups around to the gentlemen first.
“Well,” Alex began. “It is about an acquaintance of yours, Michael. An old nemesis, actually.” Alex danced his eyebrows, and Michael shot a glance at Jane. She stilled, looking between Alex and Phoebe with a questioning look.
“Who?” she asked carefully.
“Sir Nolan Fitzhugh. That is, the late Sir Nolan Fitzhugh.”
Jane’s eyebrows shot up. “Sir Nolan is dead?” she asked, surprised. They had not seen the man since Michael had interrupted the wedding. Sir Nolan had threatened to get his lawyers involved, but, as Michael had guessed, they had never heard another peep from him or his mother.
“No, forgive me. I meant to say that the queen has taken away his title. It appears that he was involved in a scandal with a young woman from India. Apparently, he and his mother sailed there shortly after the wedding to let the gossip die down. However, it seems that he got involved with a young woman while he was there. She is to receive a large dowry, but he did not know that she was the daughter of a Colonel, and one that is apparently very close with her Majesty.”
Michael reached over and squeezed Jane’s hand. She did not let go. “And then what happened?” she asked.
“Well, he married the girl. All was fine and dandy until he got his hands on her dowry and promptly skipped town. The Queen was outraged, of course. She called Sir Nolan out, revoked his title, and brought him into custody. He is to pay restitution to his wife’s family and has had to get a job as a clerk in a shipping firm to make his way in the world.”
Jane glanced at him, and he knew she was trying to hold back a smile. “And his unfortunate wife?”
Alex waved her off as if to reassure her. “Oh, the Queen has granted her an annulment. She dodged a bullet, do not worry about that.”
Jane let out a sigh of relief. “I have not thought of Sir Nolan in years. But I suppose it is good that his true character is finally known. Hopefully, he will not be able to dupe any other unsuspecting girls into marrying him,” she said. She tightened her grip on Michael’s hand. “And thankfully I had a champion who came to my rescue before it was too late.”
Michael leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “I would do it all again if I had to. You are worth it, my dear.”
Jane and Michael looked over at their friends, and the luncheon passed with more tidbits of gossip from the capital and talk of ordinary things from estate business to child-rearing. When the light meal had come to a close, and the children were sent off to the house for their naps, Michael stood up and clapped his hands together.
“Well, I have arranged for us to take the rowboats out. What say you to that?” he asked, turning to see what Phoebe, Alex, and Jane’s parents thought of the plan.
Lady Arlen smiled but shook her head. “You will not get me out on one of those rickety old boats. If I fell in, I would sink to the bottom like a boulder,” she laughed. “But thank you for the birthday celebration, my boy. It was wonderful,” she said.
“You are most welcome, Mother Arlen,” he said. He kissed her on the cheek as the Duchess stepped up beside them. He turned his attention to her, his eyes dancing with mischief. “And what about you, Your Grace? You would be most welcome to accompany Jane and I in our boat.”
The Duchess shook her head, and for a moment, he wondered if she might beat him with her walking stick. “Nonsense, I am much too old for rowing. But you go and enjoy yourselves,” she said with a wink.
Lord and Lady Arlen headed up to the house with the Duchess, following after the children. At the top of the hill, Michael turned to Jane, Alex and Phoebe.
“Well, shall we?” Michael asked.
Alex took Phoebe’s hand, and Michael took Jane’s. They walked down to the shore together, and each couple climbed into a boat of their own. Jane settled on the far end of the boat while Michael pushed off and jumped in. He took up the oars and began to row. Soon, there was a friendly contest between him and Alex as they tried to beat each other to the other side of the lake. However, Michael slowed as he saw the far-off look in Jane’s eyes.
“What is it, my darling?” he asked. Jane turned to him, flashing a small smile. “In saw the way you were looking at Julia and Frederick this afternoon. Is everything alright?”
Jane let out a heavy sigh. “I know you have said that you do not mind if we never got pregnant again, but—”
Michael put the oars across his lap and then reached for her hands. “I do not mind. Truly. I know it has been difficult for you the last couple of years. First with Anna’s birth and then with settling in as a mother. You have done a wonderful job, Jane. I do not need anything else.”
“But you need an heir, Michael,” Jane said, her brow furrowing into deep lines over her forehead.
“It does not matter. I have a distant cousin who lives near Devonshire. He is a good man, albeit young at the moment. But he will grow into the role of Lord Rilingdale, if he is ever called upon to do so.”
Jane let out a sigh of frustration. “If you would just let me finish—” she halted, smiling at him. “Oh, you oaf, what I am trying to tell you is that there may be no need.”
Michael caught his breath, straightening in the rowboat’s simple wooden seat. “What are you saying?”
Jane smiled, cocking her head to the side. “I am pregnant, Michael,” she said softly.
Michael gripped the boat’s sides, and in his shock, the small vessel dipped dangerously to the right. Jane squealed and leaned to the other side. Michael caught himself right before they turned over in the boat, and he sat there white-knuckling the sides of the boat in shock. “Are you sure?” he asked, wonder and hope swelling in his chest.
“I have missed my last two courses. I did not realise it until a few days ago, but the doctor has been here and confirmed that we are indeed expecting.” Jane finished, a shy smile creeping over her face. When he did not say anything for a moment, her face fell. “Are you not pleased?”
Michael shook his head and grabbed her hands once more. He leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on her lips. “Am I pleased? Of course, Jane! I could not be happier. My only worry is for your welfare.”
“The doctor reassured me that the first birth is usually the most difficult. He does not see why I should have as difficult a time with this next one as I did with Anna.” She beamed with pride. “I am glad you are pleased.”
“How could I not be?” he asked. He touched her cheek, trailing his fingers down her ivory-white skin. She grew more lovely with each passing day. “I love you, Jane.”
“I love—” Jane was about to respond when Alex called them from across the lake. He was standing up in the boat, and Phoebe looked like she was scolding him. She squealed when the boat tilted.
“Hey! What is holding you two up?” he yelled, his voice echoing over the crystalline waters. Michael stood up then and cupped a hand around his mouth.
“I had to let you win at least once in your life, old chap!” He chuckled. “Besides, I just found out I’m going to be a father again!”
Jane tugged on his shirt sleeve and sat down again with a thump. “Michael. That is not something you shout across the lake,” she scolded, but her eyes were alight with joy.
“It is only Alex and Phoebe, so I did not think you would mind. I am sorry, my love, I am just so happy,” he apologised.
Jane touched his face, tears welling in her eyes. “I am, too. Thank you, Michael. Thank you for saving my life all those years ago and thank you for making me the luckiest and happiest woman on earth. I could not imagine my life without you.”
Michael reached up and gently wiped her tears away. “I am the lucky one. And I do not know what I would ever do without you, Jane. You say that I saved you all those years ago, but you really saved me. Your family took me in when I had no one and you gave me a family. And now our family is expanding and growing. I cannot believe I get to be the one to live this life with you.”
They laughed, and he leaned forward to cover her mouth with kisses. She was the most precious thing in the world to him, and now he was ecstatic that Anna would have a little brother or sister. It was more than he had thought possible. But as Alex had said earlier that afternoon, the Lord worked in mysterious ways.
When they came back to shore, Phoebe was beside herself with excitement over the news. The four of them walked up to the house, chattering about the exciting news. When they arrived in the parlour, Jane told her parents, and there was even more rejoicing.
“Oh, what a wonderful birthday present!” Teresa exclaimed. She came over and kissed Jane and then him on the cheek. She stalled in front of Michael, keeping a firm grasp on his arms. “I do not know how I could have been so wrong about you all those years, Michael. But I am eternally grateful that you were the one who won my daughter’s heart. I thank you.”
“I am the one indebted to you, Lady Arlen. And to his lordship. Thank you for trusting me with her heart,” Michael said. Lady Arlen nodded and walked away, and Jane hugged him around his middle. She leaned up, put her hand on his cheek, and drew his head down. She kissed him, and he turned her into his chest. Even after all these years, her touch still sent his heart racing.
When he ended the kiss, he leaned his forehead against hers. “I love you so much, Jane.”
She beamed up at him. “I love you, too.”