Ten Years Later
Snow fell outside the windows of the carriage as it traveled up the steep and winding incline of Raven Mountain.
“Jacob, stop leaning out of the window. It’s freezing in here,” Gus said to his youngest son.
“Uncle James told me to look out when we drove up, to see the flags.”
“I’m sure he did not mean for you to do so in the middle of winter.”
“What do you see, darling?” Somer moved to sit beside her four-year-old son.
Ten years had passed since she’d pushed Gus into that wall in London, saving his life. Ten years with the amazingly wonderful and sometimes irritating Somerset Sinclair, now Charlton.
She wore a thick sable coat with fur trim. To him, she had not aged, but this morning she’d told him she’d found a few gray hairs that she vowed her children had put there.
They had three. The eldest was asleep in the corner. Benedict could sleep anywhere like his uncle Cam, and at nine, he was growing up fast. Melinda was seven, and their middle child, and like her uncles and aunts, and of course her father, she liked to learn. Finally came the baby, Jacob.
They were variations of Gus and Somer, and an extension of the love they shared. His life was never quiet, that much he could state with assurance, but he loved it that way.
“I see the flag!” Jacob shrieked.
“Must he shriek?” Benedict opened an eye to glare at his young brother.
“You used to shriek,” Somer reminded him.
The eyelid shut once more.
Max had found a house on the same street in London that all the Sinclair and Raven families he knew lived on. Secretly, Gus thought he’d offered so much money the occupants could not resist. So when in the city, they lived there. But now they were to spend Christmas at Raven Castle with everyone.
“Do you have your earplugs, my love?” Somer looked at him with a secret smile that told him she remembered where they’d last discussed this subject.
“I am used to the noise now and do not have the hearing of some,” he said, returning the smile.
They’d been in bed, wrapped in each other’s arms after making love, when he’d told her his ears often hurt when they were all together. She’d laughed and said she could find him some earplugs like those that Eden, Alice, and Warwick wore.
“Uncle James said the crenelations were where the armies of his ancestors had stood ready to defend the family.”
When he moved his daughter, who was reading beside him, to the opposite seat in the carriage, she never looked up from her book. He peered out the window. The Raven flag flew high, as it had for generations, fluttering in the gentle morning breeze.
“The crest etched in maroon depicts patience yet victory in battle. The three heraldic lions denoting bravery, strength, and valor, and finally, the cross fitchée announcing Uncle James’s and Daddy’s ancestors’ belief and unshakable faith,” Jacob said.
His cousin had not always had unshakable faith, but the Sinclairs had changed that within him, as they had in Gus, as had the Ravens who shared his blood.
“Now, I did not know that,” Somer lied to her son. “Thank you for telling me.”
She was an amazing mother. Firm and yet fun. She was often seen running around the house after her children playing games or with one of them in her lap or pressed to her side while she read to them.
The carriage drew closer to the castle, and he saw the excitement build in his wife’s eyes.
“You love it here.”
She held out her hand to him, and he took it. Clasping it in his, he squeezed gently. He loved this woman more with every day they spent together. It wasn’t the wild rush of emotion it used to be. This was steadier, a blooming of feeling that settled inside him when she was near.
“I do love it, but not because of the pile of stones. It is the memories we have had here over the years that make me smile. Inside these walls, we have found and will continue to find love and laughter with our families.”
“And the squabbling and need to be constantly right, you Sinclairs have.”
She laughed. “And that.”
“Never have I known such a fiercely competitive group of people,” he teased her.
“Except us, that is.” Benedict opened his eyes then yawned loudly.
Gus leaned over and grabbed his son, wrapping him in a hug to loud protests that his son was too old for such carry ons, and yet he felt his eldest rest briefly on Gus before releasing him.
The carriage rolled into the courtyard and then stopped.
“Let the games begin,” Gus said. “Lower your book now, Melinda. We have arrived.”
His daughter let out a loud sigh but did as she was told.
Somer greeted her family with hugs and a few tears, as it had been several weeks since they’d last all been together. Their numbers had swelled, and with each addition, their happiness grew.
It was hard to remember when she’d lived in Oaks Knoll with her six siblings. A small house on the land below Raven Mountain. So much had changed for all of them in the years since she’d left.
“Hello, little sister.” She walked into her eldest brother’s arms, wrapping hers around his waist. She then inhaled the familiar scent of the man who had raised her. “’Tis pleased we are to have you here with us at last.”
Somer looked up into the face that was more lined with every year that passed. His hair was now gray, and yet he would always be her big, strong brother.
“’Tis good to be here with you, brother.”
He placed a kiss on her forehead like he always did.
Her twin was next, Dorrie, and they simply held onto each other for long moments.
“Let’s go. They’ll stand there like that for ages, and I’m hungry,” Cambridge said from somewhere behind them.
Somer felt a hand on her back and knew it was Gus’s. Her husband was, simply put, an extension of her. She loved him for his fierce loyalty and love of their family and for his stodginess upon occasion when she attempted to do something outrageous. There was also the fact he let her rant and rave until she calmed down when something riled her. He usually then laughed at her.
“I have missed you,” she and Dorrie said at the same time.
“Come,” Somer said, taking her sister’s hand. “Let’s go inside because it is freezing out here, and also, if we don’t, the food will all be eaten and the tea drunk.”
They chatted about anything and everything as they walked, until they entered the room her family were gathered in. Huge chairs and sofas had been drawn close to the roaring fire, and food placed on trays to one side.
Large boughs of greenery emitted wonderful scents, as did the enormous tree they would decorate later that took center stage in the room.
“They will start preparations for the fair this afternoon. The villagers will arrive and start erecting stalls and booths,” Dorrie said. “We are in the kissing booths first.”
“That will be fun.”
“I’m not entirely sure I like the idea of anyone but me kissing my wife,” Gus said, taking her hand as she moved to his side.
“It’s for a great cause, Gus,” James said. “The money is to go for a larger schoolhouse in Crunston Cliff.”
Like Dev, James had aged well. His shoulders were still back, and he was still a formidable man.
“Do not eat that last piece of spiced cake, nephew,” Cam said.
Somer then watched her eldest take it, and bite into the cake. He then smiled at his uncle. Cam lunged at him, and Benedict ran behind the sofa.
They sat, caught up on news, and simply spent time with each other as around them, children ran wild.
Later, they helped the children bake gingerbread men and then strung popcorn and pomanders made from fruit spiked with cloves from lengths of ribbon.
Cam’s cornucopia was terrible, but he hung it anyway, and of course Rory’s wooden angel sat on top of the tree, as it had since he had joined their family.
Somer stood back with Gus, their children before them, and looked at what they’d done.
“It’s the most beautiful tree ever,” Jacob whispered.
“The lower half certainly is,” Gus whispered in her ear.
“Good morning, Daddy.”
Gus woke with a start at the words. The warm weight pressed to his side told him his youngest had joined them at some stage during the night.
“Hello, son.” Gus looked into the cheerful and alert face of his youngest. His eyes then went to Somer. She wasn’t there.
“Where is your mother?”
“She told me to stay in bed as she had something to do,” he said with a sleepy smile. “Then she dressed, stoked up the fire, and left.”
“It’s early, so you go back to sleep, and I’ll find her.”
Gus swung his legs out of bed. The cold rushed through his body as his bare feet contacted with the cold floor.
“I was cold.” His son’s hair was tousled, and he looked as he always did in the morning, adorable. “That’s why I came in here.”
They both knew that wasn’t the truth. Most nights, he appeared at some stage.
“Well, get under the covers while I find your mother.”
It took little urging. Soon, he could only see Jacob’s face. Melinda came in as he finished dressing.
“Why are you awake?” He hugged her close briefly.
“Get into bed with Jacob. I will return soon. I just need to find your mother.”
Melinda climbed into bed and snuggled beside her brother.
Gus was soon walking the floors that had been here for centuries. The scholar in him loved it here. Loved that he trod the same path as those who had fought to keep the castle and surrounding lands in the Raven family.
“Gus. What has you up at such an hour?”
“I’m attempting to locate my wife, cousin.”
James’s hair was ruffled, but there was no doubting his lineage. To Gus’s mind, the Duke of Raven omitted power and a calm that had been challenged since the day he’d encountered the Sinclairs.
“As am I. Come, I have a feeling they are somewhere together.”
They walked down the stairs and did not find them on the lower floors after a thorough investigation.
“Surely they have not left the castle?” Gus asked.
“It seems they have.” James made for the enormous front doors that would take them outside into the icy cold of a new day.
The sun had yet to rise fully, but Gus made out the shadows of stalls and tents that had been erected for the fair. A fair, in the middle of winter. Strangely, that did not surprise him, knowing the family he lived among
They walked into the courtyard and toward the cliffs.
“Why this way?” Gus asked James.
“Because if we can’t find them, the view will have been worth freezing our ears off.”
Gus raised the collars of the overcoat he’d thrown on over his shirt and stuffed his ungloved hands into the pockets.
“It seems not only our husbands have gone missing.”
Gus turned to find Essex’s husband, Max, Emily, Cam’s wife, and Lilly, Dev’s, and Samantha. They were dressed in coats with scarves around their necks.
“Why did you rise?” he asked.
“I felt I needed to,” Emily said in that quiet way she’d always had.
“As did I,” Lilly added.
“And me,” Max said.
“How odd. I felt it too.”
They walked together around the stables, then saw the reason they’d risen. All the Sinclair siblings stood on the edge of the cliff. Hands clasped as they watched the new day arrive. Gus wasn’t sure why his throat had a lump in it, but it did. He felt Em take his hand, then Max’s. Lilly took Max’s other hand and connected to James as they moved to stand behind the others.
This wasn’t a ritual, or Somer would have told him about it. His guess was that they’d each known the other was here, felt them, and needed to be together. He also knew the Sinclair siblings were aware of who stood at their backs without turning to check.
“I need you all to know how proud I am of you. Proud of who you have become and for what we are together,” Dev said.
“I sometimes wonder if so much happiness is good for a person,” Cambridge said. “And yet, I stand here with you, my siblings, and my heart is full, knowing that it is. Knowing that what makes us strong stands behind us and also sleeps inside the walls of the castle.”
“Love for you, and those that have joined us, has chased away the darkness and made us all step into the light,” Essie said.
“It is more than I ever believed we could have. My heart is full,” Eden said.
“Our mother would be proud of this, us. Proud to know we have found our places together, and yet surrounded by others that complete us,” Dorrie said.
Gus watched Somer’s shoulders rise and fall.
“I sometimes am unsure if my heart is big enough to hold so much. But I have never been happier than I am at this moment.”
His chest warmed at her words.
“There is comfort and strength in love—”
“Wordsworth? Really, Warwick, you couldn’t come up with something original?” Somer demanded.
“You lot roused me from my bed, forced out into the cold, and you want originality from me?” her brother snapped.
“We all managed,” Dorrie muttered.
“Food, I think,” Dev said as he always did, intervening when his siblings were about to launch into an argument.
And just like that, the moment was over.
“God, yes, food.” Cambridge let out a loud sigh. “I’m starving.”
“You’re not even usually awake by now. How your stomach can know it’s hungry is beyond me,” Somer asked.
They turned as one and smiled. Somer moved into Gus’s arms and raised her face for a kiss.
“You’re frozen.” He opened his coat and wrapped it around her. “And foolish for coming out here, but I enjoyed your words.”
“I love you,” she whispered, and really there was nothing more to add after that.
The day of the fair was bleak and overcast, but the spirits of those attending were high. The courtyard of Raven Castle was overflowing with people. Stalls and booths were full of things they could buy, from cakes to scarves. The scents of food and spice filled the air. Somer walked with Melinda to where Gus stood.
“You cannot honestly expect me to bob for apples in this weather?” He was with Benedict, who had damp hair around the edges of his face. Her eldest son was turning into Cambridge. He would need to be watched closely.
“Don’t be provoked, Gus,” Rory said, joining them. “This is where I first met your aunt Kate and where I also realized how truly brainless your uncle Cam can be as he was doing exactly what you have, Benedict.”
“I heard that,” Cambridge said with a mouth full of something.
“My father is not as brave as us, Uncle Cam,” Benedict said mournfully, which Somer knew was an act. He worshipped his father.
“I don’t have the competitive instinct like the other idiots in this family, so that doesn’t work with me,” Gus said.
“I do.” Somer nudged him aside.
Ignoring his warning, she lowered her head into the barrel of frigid water and bit into an apple. The cold was like a slap in the face, and she wasn’t entirely sure her nose wouldn’t fall off, but she raised her head. Spitting the apple into her hand, she smiled at her son. She then took the cloth he held out and patted her face calmly.
“And now I am due at the kissing booth, if you’ll all excuse me.”
“She’s always been like that. Has to go one better than everyone else,” she heard Cam mutter as she walked away.
“So, is your face now numb?” Gus slipped an arm around her waist as they walked.
“I’m not sure I will ever recover,” she hissed. “My nose actually aches.”
“And yet your son is looking at you with hero worship.” He laughed.
“Considering the consequences, I don’t think it’s worth it. I need some mulled wine, Gus.”
“Come here.” He tugged her to the right, behind a tent.
He stripped off his gloves and placed two large hands on her face. The warmth was bliss.
“Oh, that is truly wonderful.” She moaned. “You know I love you, don’t you.”
“I do.” He lowered his hands when the feeling was back. “As I love you.”
He leaned in to kiss her softly. A slow and achingly sweet kiss that still made her knees go weak. They stood there for a long minute, Somer resting her cold face in his chest, his big arms holding her.
“I need to go to the kissing booth.”
“Can I just pay for the entire time and kiss you constantly?”
“It really doesn’t work that way.”
“All right. I’ll just stand to the side and look menacing.”
She sent him away to find their children and ensure they were not getting up to trouble, which they surely would be with their cousins, and took her place in the booth beside Dorrie.
“I heard you bobbed for apples?”
“I did, and I’m still not entirely sure my nose will recover,” she told her twin.
Somer’s first customer was her son, who wanted to kiss her on the cheek, which he dutifully did and handed over his money. Next came Jacob, who Benedict had to lift to kiss her other cheek. After that was a stream of her nephews and nieces. Looking around, she found Gus standing, arms folded, watching. He’d put them up to this. Made sure no man, but he, kissed her. She should be angry; instead, she was warm in every part of her body, except her nose.
“Gus told me I had to kiss you on the cheek,” James said, approaching with a smile.
“The man’s foolish,” Somer said, accepting the kiss.
“He loves you.”
A local managed to slip into the line. He paid his money and puckered his mouth. Somer kissed his cheek and sent him away. Much to his disappointment, she did not touch his lips with hers.
She then looked at her husband, who had Jacob in his arms, and Melinda leaning on his long legs. The man she loved, who had given her so much.
Around them were their families, laughing, and arguing, and in that moment, Somer could say she truly understood what it was to have a full heart.