Ten Years Later
Ash rode up Raven Mountain, tired and hungry, as the sun rose. But the emotion that rode the hardest was his need to see his wife and sons.
Beside him, Gus looked equally determined.
They’d stopped conversing and communicated in grunts two hours ago, and now just wanted to reach the castle that rose above them.
When word arrived that their father had passed away, the brothers had left for America. Once there, they’d sold his property and settled his debts, of which there were many. The man who had sired them had clearly gone downhill steadily over the years since Ash had last seen him. There was very little left with which to remember him or their mother by.
He and Gus had done what was needed, but it had still taken weeks.
Ash missed his wife so much it was a physical pain under his ribs. Dorrie was his other half. The keeper of his soul. Without her, he felt cast adrift. His sons, too, seeing their smiles and laughter. Watching them grow. He’d hated being away from his family.
“I’m not leaving again without them,” Gus snarled from beside him.
Ash grunted his agreement.
“We’ll be waking them all up,” Gus said, looking to where the sun was rising.
“Not the children. Most of the little ones wake with the sun.”
He’d married Dorrie ten years ago and had spent every day loving the woman who had brought light and hope into his life again. Her family and his had embraced him. Helped him to believe he wanted to live in their world.
He and Gus, too, had reforged their bonds and were once again the brothers they’d been.
Someone was already feeding horses when they rode into the stables, so he took theirs, and soon they were heading to the castle.
The brothers were running when they left the stables. Gus opened the castle door when they reached it.
“Well now, this is a pleasant surprise.”
“What the hell are you doing out of bed, cousin?” Gus grabbed James and hugged him hard. Ash was next.
“I always rise early, and today, for some reason, I felt the need to leave my warm bed. Now I know why.”
The Duke of Raven’s hair was greying. His face carried more lines, but his bearing was as regal as it always had been. He was part of the foundation that was their family.
“All is well, James?” Ash asked.
“All is well, Ash. Everyone in this large, rambunctious family is as you left them. Although they will now be a great deal happier as you are back. Dorrie and Somer have missed you both desperately, as have your children.”
“I need to see her,” Ash rasped.
“Go.” James waved the brothers to the stairs. “I will have breakfast started, and water heated for baths. It’s good to have you both home.”
They took the stairs two at a time. Gus turned at the top and hugged Ash hard. Gus slapped his back. He then disappeared down a hall.
Ash reached the room he and Dorrie always stayed in when they were here. Opening the door, he slipped inside. Light leaked in around the edges of the curtains as he walked to the bed. Once there, he found her. She lay on her side, covered up to her chin. Dorrie slept neatly, barely moving, while he sprawled. His heart sighed and the tension inside him eased as he looked down at her.
“I’m home, love.” He leaned over the bed and pressed his lips to her head. She never stirred. The emotion inside him was so strong it nearly choked him.
Heading to the fire, he stoked it to life and stripped off his clothes. After washing in cold water, he returned to the bed. Lifting the covers, he slipped beneath.
“Dorrie.” He inhaled her scent. His wife. His love. “I’m home, sweetheart.”
She moved slowly, her body waking. Ash slipped his arms around her.
“Open your eyes, love.”
She did and found him. Her shriek was muffled in his neck as she threw her arms around him. Tears came next, so he simply held her, stroking her lovely, soft, warm body until she’d calmed.
“I love you.” He kissed her.
“I love you too. I missed you so much,” she whispered into his neck. “The boys too. Lewis cried last night.”
“I’m home now, and not leaving again. I had Gus and he me, but it was hell without you and the boys.”
Ash rolled and pinned her beneath him. Felt his body stir to life as Dorrie’s hands touched him.
“I need you.”
“I need you too,” she replied. “Now.”
His hands roamed her body, touching, reacquainting, but what he wanted most was to be connected. Sliding inside her, he shuddered.
“So good,” Ash rasped.
“I missed you so much,” she touched his face.
The only sound in the room was their harsh breathing as he took her slowly, savouring the feel of her. When it was over, he lay with her on his chest and only then did Ash sleep. A deep, cleansing sleep.
He woke to the sound of voices outside the door. Easing Dorrie aside, he pulled on his breeches. Opening the door, he found his sons.
“Father!” Their shrieks were no doubt heard throughout the castle.
He caught them as they lunged at him. Dropping to his knees, he held their small, warm bodies close. Reassuring them, he was here.
“Don’t go again.” Their youngest son was the image of Gus. Phillip’s hair stood on end and his eyes were still sleepy. At six years old, he was shaping up like his mother. Gentle and yet ruthless when required.
“I won’t. I promise.” He kissed a soft cheek.
“Did you bring us anything?”
Lewis, their eldest at eight, differed vastly from his brother. He woke ready to start the day and with the first question on his lips. By day’s end, he would have asked at least one hundred more. His was an inquisitive nature, and a great deal like his Aunty Somer.
“Get your slippers and dressing gowns on boys. It’s cold.”
He released them as Dorrie spoke from behind him. They scampered off to do as their mother asked. Ash rose.
“How is it you get more beautiful?”
She wore her white nightdress, hair in a long braid. Age had done little to diminish her beauty and to Ash’s mind enhanced it. Their life was full of love, laughter and plenty of debates. They could both be strong willed when their minds were set on a course.
“It was living a half-life being away from you for so long.” She walked into his arms.
“For me also. I’m not sure how it happened, but I can’t exist without you.”
Her smile lit the room.
Dorrie couldn’t seem to stop smiling. Her husband was home, and she felt full inside once more.
After a quick wash, she and Ash had dressed.
The hour was early, but her boys wanted food, as they always did when they woke. Ash held Phillip’s hand as he skipped along beside his father, chatting as they made their way down the stairs.
Entering the parlor where the family most often gathered when they were at the castle, they found Dev, Max, and James awake.
“So this is why I was dragged from my slumber?” Max came forward. “Welcome home, cousin.”
Ash had taken a while to settle into life with the Sinclair and Raven families, but now he had, he was a full participant. His business interests were aligned with the others, and he still lectured twice a week when he was in London with Gus.
They sat, and tea was brought, along with crumpets for the children to toast in the fire.
“It is good to see that smile reaching your eyes, sister.” Dev sat down beside her.
“My heart is full.” Dorrie rested her head on her big brother’s shoulder.
She sat there watching Ash as he toasted crumpets for their sons and waited for the others to arrive. It did not take long.
Eden staggered in, wearing her dressing gown. Emerald green with gold trim.
“How is it she still looks regal when her cheek has a crease down it from the pillow, and her hair is in a messy braid,” Dev asked her.
“I always find that vastly annoying considering we came from the same parents. Why is her beauty so effortless?”
Eden yawned, mouth open. James reached for her, pulling her into his arms. They heard her sigh from here.
Next into the room was Cambridge. His face was screwed up with sleep as well. He’d not stopped to run a brush over his hair either. With him was his daughter, Beth. She held his hand and was leading him to a chair.
“He’s got his overcoat over his nightshirt.” Dev snorted.
Beth made her father a cup of tea.
He took it with a smile. Cam then touched her cheek before burying his face in the cup.
“About five more minutes, by my reckoning,” Dorrie said from her position still resting on her big brother’s shoulder.
“I say four.”
It took three before Cam’s voice started working.
“I’ll take one of those, Ash. Welcome home by the way,” Cam said, waving to the crumpet her husband was slathering with jam. “If I must be roused, then you must feed me.”
“I’ll point out that I did not rouse you, Cam.” Ash handed Phillip a crumpet to take to his uncle.
Cam waved a hand about. “I was roused as I felt the excitement stirring inside this pile of crumbling stones.”
Phillip held out the crumpet.
“Well now, thank you, nephew. Give your uncle a hug.”
Phillip leaned in to hug Cam before returning to the fire.
“Bet you the next crumpet that Nicholas will walk through that door any second. He’ll be dressed and immaculate,” Dev said.
“I’ll take that bet,” Dorrie said.
Minutes later the door opened and in walked the immaculately turned out Lord Braithwaite.
“Damn,” Dorrie sighed, getting to her feet.
“One wonders when you will understand that your brother is always right,” Dev drawled.
She ignored him and went to her husband.
“I lost a bet with Dev and need the next crumpet, Ash.”
He held out a hand, and she took it. Seconds later, she was in his lap.
“Your brother can get his own crumpet. You’re too far away from me over there.”
Their family arrived over the next hour in various states of dress. Children ran about the place. Ash toasted crumpets for them and the adults with Dorrie’s help.
“I’m glad you are back for today, Ash.”
He ran a hand over her hair. “I wanted to be here for you today.”
“Where is Baron?”
“He will arrive shortly. Gus and I left immediately, but he had a few things he wanted to do in London. He also has a surprise for you.”
She turned in his lap to look at him.
“This family has been attempting to find Baron a wife for many years, to no avail.”
“When he saved me all those years ago, he and my father’s housekeeper became friends. She and two other staff were the only people that stayed with him when his finances turned dire.”
“I’m sorry you had to go back and face that, Ash.”
“I had Gus with me,” he smiled down at her.
Everything about him was so different from the cold, emotionless man she’d met all those years ago.
“Virginia and Baron seemed happy to see each other. As it turned out, they were more than happy. In the weeks we were there, they struck up a strong friendship. So much so that Baron asked her to marry him and come back to England.”
“You’re not serious!”
Baron had been resistant to all the attempts from the women in the family to find him a wife. But one look at Virginia and he was lost.”
Dorrie was speechless, not something he achieved often.
The trip down Raven Mountain was taken in sombre silence. All carriages were full, and horses mounted with riders dressed in their best clothes.
Every year, the Sinclair and Raven families returned to Crunston Cliff to mark the deaths of those that had lost their life in the Scarlet Fever epidemic that had swept through the village.
Ash rode with Dorrie beside him. Before them, they held their sons. They were surrounded on all sides by family, but no one spoke.
This day was especially hard on Dorrie. She’d lost her friend Esther to Scarlet Fever and had been with her when she passed. The day brought those memories back, as it did for Essie, Baron, and Ash.
She rode beside him, face pale and grave, in her black overcoat. Shoulders back, spine straight. She held one arm around Phillip. Ash moved to her side, so his leg brushed hers. She shot him a small smile.
“I’m here with you.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek.
They reached the village and started down the main street. It was quiet, no kids shrieking or dogs barking. People were walking toward the church in groups. Every house had a black ribbon attached. They fluttered in the weak afternoon breeze.
They stopped outside the church and he lowered Lewis to the ground and dismounted. He reached for Phillip and did the same, and then held his arms out to his wife. Holding her briefly after she’d slid into them.
“Come,” he held out his hand. Dorrie took it, and they were soon walking with the others toward the church.
They stood outside, waiting for everyone to arrive.
“Love you,” Dev kissed his little sister.
Somer hugged her, as did the others, and then it was time to go inside.
The service wasn’t long. Dev and James both spoke, as did some of the families of those that had passed. Dorrie wept along with others. Ash kept his arm around her, holding her close to his side.
“And now we have another service if you will all remain seated,” James got to his feet along with Dev, and walked to the front of the church. It was he who spoke. “For those of you who remember the pandemic and the support and help by some during that time, I know that, like me, you were grateful for their selflessness,” James said.
The assembly nodded.
“My sisters Dorset and Essex. My brother-in-law Ashford Charlton stayed here to help,” Dev spoke next.
Everyone said, aye.
“And there was another who had no ties to Crunston Cliff. A man who selfishly gave to help those who needed him alongside our families,” he added.
Ash looked to the doorway and found Baron. With him was Virginia. She was an entire head shorter than he, with bright red hair and brown eyes. Where Baron was dark-skinned, she was pale. But she was a woman who had a strong character and did not hesitate to speak her mind. Ash liked her very much, as did Gus.
“I spoke with Mr. Clackers and Reverend Blister earlier today, and both agreed it was fitting that Baron be honored by our village today,” James said.
Ash was shocked, speechless. Dorrie clapped her hand over her mouth after shrieking.
Baron walked down the aisle leading Virginia. He stopped beside the pew Ash sat in. He then leaned over the other guests and held out his hand. Ash shook it.
“You deserve this, my friend.”
“I am humbled,” Baron said. “Hello, Dorrie.”
Dorrie climbed over everyone and hugged Baron hard. She then introduced herself to Virginia.
“Right. Now that is done, we can get on with the service,” Dev drawled.
Mr. Clackers held a plaque in his hand. He then went on to outline in detail the selfless help Baron had given during the Scarlet Fever outbreak.
The noise in the church was now raucous when he handed over the plaque to Baron. The solemn mood had changed, and there were now smiles and laughter.
“It was my honor to work alongside you all and my friends Ashford Charlton, Mrs Charlton, and Mrs Huntington. These are good people. People who look at a person no matter their standing in life, and see an equal. I am humbled to live among them.
“Here, here!” Many of the locals called out the words.
“I couldn’t be happier, my friend,” Ash said when Baron had finished.
“You are now a local,” Dorrie said.
Baron’s teeth flashed in a smile. “Perhaps I will convince Virginia to wed me here.”
“Did I hear the word wedding?” Somer arrived with Eden.
“I have asked Virginia to marry me,” Baron said.
“And I have accepted, but here is not the time to discuss that,” Virginia said.
“You’ll marry in the church on Raven Mountain, as the rest of the family do.” James added.
Ash’s throat felt tight suddenly. He managed a nod of gratitude to this cousin for indicating Baron was family.
“It would be an honor.” Baron bowed deeply and when he rose Ash saw the emotion he felt mirrored in his friend’s eyes.
Together, they all walked out into a day that was filled with sunshine and love.