Second Chances

The following short story was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Rendezvous: A Literary Celebration of Historical Romance. Please enjoy.

Michael is back.

Madeline bent low over her mare as it flew over the ground. The sky darkened as she approached the border between their properties. He had left for America six years ago, soon after her father had rejected Michael as a suitable match for her. Of course she had never gotten married and her father had been gone two years now.

Michael is back.

Her heart swelled at the thought, hope igniting inside her once again. She had wanted to go with him, to run away to Greta Green or to America…anywhere as long as it was with him. But she hadn’t been able to defy her father, whom she had adored or bear the thought of subjecting her parents to scandal. So he had left.

Michael is back.

She flinched inwardly at the thought that he hadn’t come back for her. No, he had returned to handle his father’s estate. His father, the Earl of March, who was, it was rumored, on his death bed. It was also rumored that Michael was expected to offer for Lady Juliana Treadmont, the youngest daughter of the Duke of Carlisle. A lash of pain whipped through her at the thought.

There was a loud, crashing sound, followed immediately be a bright flash of light. Suddenly, her horse reared in fright. Distracted as she had been, she reacted too late and was thrown to the ground. She lay there for a long moment, unable to breathe, tears blurring her eyes. Rain started to fall hard and within minutes, she was soaked through.

She sat up gingerly, taking stock to ensure she hadn’t injured herself.

“Madeline!”

She heard her name being called over the steady rhythm of the rain and the thunder of hoofs. She looked up at the blurred image of the man sitting atop the horse as it came to a stop before her. She blinked as she watched him descend from his perch.

Michael.

He was still as beautiful to her today as he had been six years ago, though his skin was swarthy and his hair lighter, as if he spent long days in the sun. She wondered what else had changed in that time.

His blue eyes glinted with worry as he knelt down next to her. “Are you alright?”

She opened her mouth but couldn’t speak as a torrent of memories cascaded through her: Michael holding her as she cried after a barnyard kitten had died from the cold, the way the two of them would sneak off with a bucket full of peaches during the harvest to enjoy the fruits of their loot, fishing together in the spring, swimming in the fall, then, as they grew older, dancing at country dances and lying upon the grass to look at the stars, and meeting in London during the Season after her Coming Out. He had been her dearest friend, her lover, her love. A sob escaped her as the enormity of her loss slammed into her once again.

“Madeline?” Alarmed, Michael ran his hands over her. Had she been injured and was unable to respond? He had been standing on the hilltop when he had seen the rider racing down the grassy knoll on the other side. She had been riding low, her dark hair flying behind her and he hadn’t recognized her. But then the storm had scared her horse and thrown her and he had raced down to make sure she was not injured, only to realize it was Madeline has he got closer.

It had been nearly six years since he had seen her, but he, despite coming home, hadn’t had expected to see her today. He had been in London for the past month, taking care of affairs which had fallen to the wayside after his father had taken ill six months previously. He had only returned to Castleberry last night.

Madeline was crying now and he could bear it no more now than he had been able to when she had been six and he twelve and she had cried over the dead kitten. He gathered her in his arms, holding her against him. She clung to him, her arms wrapped around his waist, her head buried in his chest.

“Tell me what hurts,” he said, urgently.

“My heart,” she cried.

He froze. “What?”

She looked up at him, her tears blending in with the rain that continued to fall around them. “You left.”

He stiffened. “You told me you couldn’t marry me, couldn’t defy your father.”

“You were supposed to fight for us!” She shuddered in his arms and dug her fingers into his back. “I waited and waited, but you never returned. And now you’re to marry Juliana Treadmont!”

If he hadn’t been sitting, he would have fallen. Stunned, he stared at her blankly. A day hadn’t passed when he hadn’t thought of her. True, he had run to escape the pain of her rejection, but he had been twenty four, so immature, more boy than man. And no matter how far he traveled, he had been unable to forget her. He had gone to America, then he had traveled to Asia, to China and India and even parts of Africa. The letters his mother had sent had caught up with him in South America, which was as wild as Africa and so remote, it had taken him months to even reach a port from which he could take a ship back to England. And now he was home, his one thought had been to look up Madeline. He had held himself off for fear of hearing that she was now wed to another and had been since he had left. He wouldn’t have borne that and so had avoided all news of her. Yet she was saying she had waited for him? Hope flared inside him. He ignored her statement about his marrying Juliana Treadmont. True, there were those who felt the match would be a good one, but he had no desire to marry Juliana and no intention of offering for her. There was only one woman he had ever wanted and she was in his arms right now.

He cupped her face and tilted it up. “What do you mean, you waited for me?”

She stiffened and tried to look away. He wouldn’t let her. “Tell me, Maddy. Are you saying you never married?” He demanded.

“How could I?” Her voice was no more than a whisper. “When I could never stop loving you?”

“Then how could you believe I would offer for Juliana when I could never stop loving you?”

She jerked and her eyes met his.

He kissed her. “I love you Maddy. I always have. I always will.”

Her arms came up to wrap around his neck and she clung to him. “I love you Michael.”

“If your brothers reject the match as your father did—”

“I reach the age of consent in four months,” she interrupted. “And there’s always Gretna Green.”

He smiled and slid his arm under her knees, picking her up as he rose to his feet. “Let’s get you home out of this rain.”

He carried her to his waiting horse and set her down on the saddle, climbing on behind her.

She leaned back against his as he picked up the reins. “You haven’t asked me.”

“And I won’t, formally, until we’re both in dry clothes and I’ve spoken to your brothers.” Regardless of what they said, he wasn’t letting her go this time.

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