James stood on the edge of the cliff and looked into the grey swirling depths below. The memory of being tossed off them many years ago was etched into his memory.
He’d recently returned home from war after being notified of his father's death, which had given him only relief and no grief. It had also been the day he met his beautiful Eden. The woman who held his heart in her hands and had made him understand that life was, in fact, for living. That day he’d started living, at the time he just hadn’t realized it.
Wind swirled around him, and gulls cried. It was a rugged setting. The cliff face lined with sharp-edged, craggy rocks. It was home, he thought. Turning, he looked over his shoulder at the castle perched above him. He’d never thought he would call it that, but inside that ancient pile of stones was everything. His people, and his heart.
The deep scars inside him had healed, and his cold soul had warmed because of those that were up there awaiting him.
He owed anyone carrying Sinclair's blood a debt of gratitude, and not just for keeping him alive. They had foreseen in him what he’d never been able to. A man of passion, love, and honor. They’d shown him how to find all those things inside him.
Not his evil father, but complete strangers.
The thunder of hooves told him his solitude was over, and he saw his son coming toward him as he did most things on horseback, at breakneck speed. James admired Simon’s horsemanship with paternal pride. Even for one so young, he could ride with far more skill than he’d had at that age.
James had once wondered if he had more love inside him to give, but his children had dispelled that. The children he shared with Eden were simply an extension of them. One look into each of their faces and he’d know he would lay down his life to keep them safe. He loved them with everything that was inside him.
“Hello, Simon. Has something happened?”
His son’s hair stood on end. Even cut short, it had a curl he’d been born with that refused to be tamed.
“Mother told me to come and fetch you. She fears you will freeze to death out here alone, and then it would be she who was forced into the water again to save you.”
He snorted. Those words would have been the exact ones Eden spoke. His fiery wife said exactly what she felt.
“Plus, seeing as she is a great deal older, it takes her longer to warm her aged bones.”
“You made that part up. Your mother would never call herself old.”
His son grinned.
“What’s the real reason you’ve come for me, Simon?”
His son’s hair was the same color as James, but his eyes were Sinclair green.
“There is no surprise awaiting me, I hope? I have told everyone who will listen that I do not wish to celebrate my birthday in any other way than a dinner with family. Gifts, of course, are acceptable but must be kept small, as I have everything I need.”
“Kat made you a scarf which you will have to wear, Father. It is truly hideous, so I thought to warn you.”
“I’m not sure she’d be happy with you telling me that, but thank you just the same.”
“It will be our secret,” Simon said. “Between the men in the family.”
James nodded solemnly and wondered when his son had grown so big.
He had three children, Isabella, Simon, and Kathryn. The last had been born screaming and demanding, and as yet had not stopped. James loved her fire and passion, because she was just like her mother, just as he loved Isabella’s quiet serenity as she was like his sisters Samantha and Emily. And then there was Simon, part him and part his Uncle Dev. Stoic, determined, and fiercely loyal. He could also be reckless when provoked.
“So there is nothing else about what is going on in the castle that you feel you need to tell me?” James asked.
“Nothing.” Simon shook his head, his eyes dropping, a sure sign of his deceit. “We know that is your wish.”
“But will you grant it?”
His son’s lips twitched but all he said was, “Come on, father, I will race you back. Perhaps I should give you a head start, considering your advancing years.”
“Advancing in years, am I?” James took his horse’s reins and vaulted on its back. “I’ll show you who’s old!” He took off, crouching low over its neck, urging his mount on.
The thunder of hooves told him Simon was closing in. Reaching the small town of Crunston Cliff, James checked the street and found it empty, so he galloped through.
“Happy birthday, Duke!”
“Thank you, Mrs. Radcliff!” He returned her greeting with a raised hand. The woman was always seated outside her small house, watching the goings on. It was only since Eden had stormed into his life that he’d taken the time to speak with her, and others in his town. Before, he’d been the mean duke’s son. Pitied, but never spoken to. He was no longer that.
The steep and winding road up Raven Mountain was in his sights. He reached it as his son drew alongside. Laughing, James slowed to climb with his son.
“I believe that is my win?”
“I think it was a draw,” his son said.
“Very well, we shall call it a draw, then.”
Raising his eyes as they began the winding journey up, he saw the flags fluttering from the castle turrets. The knowledge that his ancestors had built it to withstand much, and that it still stood, humbled him. The foundations stood strong even after battles fought.
They reached the courtyard and dismounted, handing their horses to a groom.
“Where is everyone?” James asked. It was usually crowded with children and animals.
“A shrug is not an answer, son.”
“Maybe inside?” Simon walked away, and James followed.
Something was about to unfold, and it was waiting for him inside the castle walls. Life, James had fast realized, was never simple when you were wed to a Sinclair.
Eden looked around the room, from the huge, vaulted ceilings and paintings dating back centuries, to the people waiting expectantly. The day was not overly cold, but because of the size of the room and how draftee it could be, they had the fires lit. Dogs now lay before them, warming their bellies.
The noise level had not lowered, even though she had tried to call the children to order. A few still shrieked as they chased each other around the large room.
“He is coming,” Emily, one of James’s half sisters, hurried into the room.
“I hope he is happy with what we have done,” Eden said, feeling nerves flutter in her belly, which was not something she often experienced. She wanted this to be perfect for James.
He’d once confided in her he’d had no one to acknowledge his birthday. Of course, they had made a fuss of him ever since, but today was going to be special… she hoped.
Eden’s life was exactly where she wanted it to be, and most of that was due to the man about to walk through the door. The love of her life, James Duke of Raven. Her hero.
He understood her as she did him, and if possible, her love for him had grown over the years. There were moments she wanted to shake him for his stubbornness, but for the most, their existence was wonderful, especially as they were surrounded by their large, noisy family.
“He will love our gift, Eden. Never doubt that. This will make James so very happy.” Emily hugged her. Once she’d shied away from that kind of contact, but no more. Em now laughed freely and loved with her whole heart. Happy memories had replaced the stain the late duke had left on their lives.
“I hope you are right, Em.”
“I know I am.” Emily wore buttery lemon today, and it suited her fair coloring. Her cheeks had filled out, and she looked as any young lady should. Happy and healthy.
“We are all in place, Mama.”
“Thank you, Kat,” Eden said to her youngest. “How is it you have cake smeared around you face when I expressly said the cake is not to be eaten yet?”
Her daughter smiled, flashing her teeth. “Cook gave it to me.” She then skipped away, leaving her mother shaking her head.
“I was just like her.” Eden sighed, pulling out her earplugs.
“James is telling Simon that the castle seems far too quiet and that is worrying him.”
“He will be suspicious,” Emily said.
“He is always suspicious. It’s his nature.”
Looking around the room, Eden found her family all standing in a cluster awaiting the duke’s arrival. Dev gave her a smile. He was her other hero. The man who had been like a father to her.
The door latch rattled, and she watched James walk in with their son. His eyes found hers first, and then the noise started. The children ran at him, hugging him and wishing him happy birthday. Next came the adults. Eden hung back and waited until there was an opening. She then stepped forward.
“Happy birthday, my love.”
“I thought we said it would be a simple affair.” He leaned down to kiss her. Soft and lingering.
She loved this man so much.
“Now, when have I ever obeyed your wishes?”
He smiled. “Silly me, and yet still I live in hope.”
“But it is only family,” she added.
“Raven. I believe this makes you older than me?” Dev said, clapping him on the shoulder.
“Still more handsome, however.” He shook his brother-in-law’s hand.
“And now for presents,” Isabella, their daughter, said. Her hair had darkened, and she now too had the Sinclair coloring. “Come, father, you need to sit.”
“Do I?” James narrowed his eyes at Eden, and she returned the look with a smile.
He sat, and they handed out gifts.
“Open mine first, Papa,” Kat said loudly, like she did everything.
He opened the parcel and pulled out the scarf. It had taken their youngest daughter days to knit, and there were holes so large in it you could put your fist through them. The color was a cross between grey and mud brown.
James smiled. One of those wide ones that lit his eyes and made him look years younger. He wrapped it around his neck.
“This is the most beautiful scarf I have ever owned, Kat. Thank you, sweetheart.”
Their youngest daughter preened, before running off to play with her cousins.
“Brace yourself, Raven, there is more.”
“What more?” He whispered back to Dev, as her brother took the seat on his left.
Eden slipped into the seat on his right and took her husband’s hand.
“What more?” he demanded when Dev remained silent.
“If I can have your attention, please!”
“Oh, dear God,” James moaned as Cam appeared before him in a large top hat and back cape.
“Today we are honoring a man we all love and respect. A man who helped mould me into the person before you today.”
“Irritating,” Dev called.
“Boastful,” Essie said.
“What’s a word for someone who eats too much?” Eden whispered.
“Glutton,” James whispered back.
“Glutton!” Eden called.
“Yes, yes, I love you all too,” Cam grinned. “Now, James, it is an honour to call you brother, and you have all my sympathy, of course, for being married to that harridan.”
Eden poked out her tongue.
“Please sit back, your grace, as we treat you to a rare spectacular performance.”
“Sssh,” Eden hissed.
“I think this scarf is making me break out in a rash,” he added under his breath.
“And yet you must wear it. Kat went to a great deal of trouble to make it,” Eden said.
“I know, and that was for your lovely ears only,” he added.
“Thank you,” she patted her ears, and then reinserted her ear plugs.
They had set up a screen, and that was now carried away by two footmen. Behind it were their children and some of their cousins.
“I wondered where they’d all disappeared to,” James said. “I didn’t know they all played instruments.”
“They don’t all play them,” Dev said from the side of his mouth. “But they all wanted too for you.”
Simon played the piano, and Isabella had her lute. Both had been practicing for years, and could play well. Kat played the clarinet, which she had only picked up a month ago and was terrible at. There were two flutists, only one had played before, plus a drummer.
“That drum looks like the one I saw while in the army,” Dev whispered.
“I have absolutely no idea where it came from,” Eden said.
Dorrie and Somer stood at the rear with Samantha, the youngest Raven sibling. All three were playing flutes. Cam played the tambourine and danced.
“Has there been any practice?” James asked her.
“This was decided upon two weeks ago, so not a great deal.”
“Do you have any spare earplugs?”
Dev’s tsked. “Have courage, man.”
“At least the three at the rear can actually play,” James muttered, “and our two eldest children. Perhaps they will drown out the rest?”
“Hold on to that thought, my love,” Eden said.
The music was truly terrible. Those that could play were completely drowned out by those that couldn’t. Kat’s skill comprised blowing as loud as she could and little else. Cam danced around the room like a crazed Morris dancer banging his tambourine on the nearest surface, which often happened to be a child or sibling.
After thirty minutes, Dev and James leapt to their feet as another song finished. Clapping loudly, they were soon joined by all the other adults in the room. The applause was deafening.
“Rise and take your bow,” Somerset told the performers.
“But we are not finished yet!” Kat looked mutinous.
“But all good performances have an interlude, daughter,” James said. “Surely you need nourishment after all that playing?”
She nodded slowly. “And uncle Cam will be quite faint if he does not eat after his exercise.”
“Exactly.” Cam staggered slightly. “I’m quite light headed, Kitty Kat.”
She giggled, and the crisis was averted.
“I cannot thank you all enough for that wonderful concert. It has made my birthday an occasion I shall never forget,” James said.
“I’m not entirely sure I will ever un-hear that,” Dev said from behind him.
“A birthday supper is to be served in the parlor next door,” Eden said. She was then nearly run over by the stampeding children.
“Should we hire more music tutors?” James asked the adults left in the room.
“They weren’t that bad, brother,” his little sister said loyally.
Small, slender and fair, she was the first person he’d ever loved. Samantha had been a child when he’d found out she existed, and he’d loved her from that day forth. However, he hadn’t known how to show love to the small terrified child she’d been until the Sinclair’s had entered their lives. Then he and Samantha had forged a bond that was impenetrable.
“They were wonderful,” he lied.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” the twins said at the same time.
“And now it is time for our gift to you,” Dev said.
“What gift? I said I didn’t want fuss,” James frowned.
His brother-in-law was a large man like him, and could stare him down better than most, except Eden. She excelled at it. Dev and James were brothers in every way but blood now. He respected the man hugely for resigning from the army to raise his siblings.
“Since when have we taken note of anything you’ve told us?” Cam scoffed.
“James. It is an honor to have you in our lives,” Dev said, suddenly serious.
“Listen now, my love,” Eden took his hand in hers, squeezing it gently.
“Like me, you were forced to resign your commission early,” Dev continued. “I could not have chosen a better man for Eden than you, brother,” Dev continued. “We are honored to now be part of your family.”
Essex, Cam, Dev, Somer, Dorrie, and Warwick now all stood before him. Versions of each other, they all had the Sinclair's black hair and green eyes.
“The honor is mine,” James said, placing a hand on his heart. “We Ravens would not exist without you Sinclairs.”
“It’s true they are a reckless bunch,” Cam said.
“You once told me that one of your regrets for leaving the army was because you never found out what happened to your batman.”
James nodded. Officer Lewis Johnson had been his right hand, and someone he’d respected for his intelligence and dedication.
“What did you do?” James felt his heart beat increase.
Dev stepped left and Essie right, and the door behind them opened and in walked a man he’d thought he’d never seen again.
“Johnny?” James reached the door in seconds.
The last time he’d seen this man, he’d been lying on a stretcher, bleeding from the bullet he’d taken to the shoulder. James had tried to find him many times over the years, wanting to know he had lived.
“Johnny,” he said again. Grabbing the man, he hugged him hard. “I wasn’t sure you made it.”
“I’m tougher than that, your Grace.”
“I’m pleased to hear it.” Gripping his shoulders, James studied the man. “You look good.”
“I’m married now, and have children. They’re here with me, your Grace.”
“Well, bring them in,” James released him, and Johnny hurried back out of the room.
His throat felt thick with unshed tears of relief. Johnny had lived, and he was here. He faced his family. “How did you find him?”
“We are very good at finding things, as you know. Are you happy, my love?” His beautiful wife asked.
“It is a wonderful gift, my sweet. Just when I think there is nothing more I need, or want, you find a way to give me more.”
“I love you,” Eden whispered.
“And I you. Always.”