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Rich Seaborne stretched his long legs towards the glowing fire and gave a contented sigh as he finally allowed himself to relax. It had been a long day crowded with tasks and responsibilities, but they all were nowadays. He wondered what his old friends and family would say if they could see him now and marvelled he'd ever been the man they would remember. Mr Richard Seaborne had also gone to bed late and never risen early for the simple reason he was seldom even home by the time most of humanity were ready to begin a hard day's work.
'Idle young idiot,' he chastised his old self, feeling as if his very bones gave a sigh of relief at the luxury of sitting still at long last.
The careless young wastrel he'd once been seemed a puzzling stranger to him now. Despite the hard work and heavy responsibilities, Rich couldn't imagine going back to his old, useless life of a careless beau about town. Back then he never knew the satisfaction of earning his family's bread by his own labour. He'd never earned a penny in his life until he had to learn how, or starve and watch them go hungry as well.
He leaned back against the well-worn cushions his wife had made to soften the larger of the two Windsor chairs he'd crafted with wood from the forest. Content by his own fireside, watching a fire fuelled with wood he'd felled, seasoned and chopped himself, he let himself enjoy the pure pleasure of sitting still for ten precious minutes before he climbed the steep stairs he'd built when they restored the derelict cottage so deep in the woods he hoped everyone else had forgotten it was here and sought his bed after a hard day's work.
If the old Rich could see himself six years on, he'd marvel at this homespun fellow with marks of labour on his hands, a day's growth of beard on his chin and a streak or two of dirt across his face where he'd rubbed his nose when thinking. A bittersweet smile lifted his mouth as he recalled his Anna doing her best to break him of the habit with a combination of tenderness and nagging, but at the end of the day he would look in the small square of mirror over the mantel and see the proof that, whilst his ears heard her, his mind went its own way as soon as he was intent on something else.
Without her at his side to encourage, chide and push at him to be a better man it felt as if he was trying to move the world with a teaspoon. There wasn't any balance to it all, even with their children asleep and reasonably clean, decent and well fed upstairs. No wife on the other side of his fireside, no warm body and acute mind relaxing in the smaller chair he'd made for her to wrap herself snugly into at the end of a hard day. No lover in his bed at the ultimate end of that day to welcome him, love him and, after they made love softly so as not to wake the baby, snuggle against him and fall so absolutely asleep he used to marvel at the quick neatness of her slumbers.
He felt the familiar deadening pall of hopelessness drive out his earlier contentment and frowned at the fire, shifting impatiently in his chair as if he might physically fight off the darkness his life could become without her. For months after Anna died he'd sat and brooded alone over the fire at the end of the day and despaired. In those dark days he felt no satisfaction in his isolated life. He'd silently rail at God, the devil and the world in general for letting his wife die and leave him behind, a useless hulk who couldn't even quiet his crying children, let alone make up the loss of their mother in some way he still couldn't fathom.
During those endless nights it had sometimes seemed stupid to carry on, looking over his shoulder and battling to be father and mother to two tiny mites who shouldn't have to grow up in a hovel in the forest. Night after night he'd sat here and agonised over his decision to walk away from his loving family and privileged youth. If he went home, he told himself, his mother would raise his two motherless children so they hardly felt the loss he could barely live with.
Lady Henry Seaborne could fill the gaps left by a mother they lost so young with all the love they would ever need. His younger brother and sisters would enjoy their niece and nephew and help bring them up as a Seaborne should be raisedwith full knowledge of a long and proud tradition at their backs, and a sense of responsibility their father had lacked until he met Anna. He wanted his son and daughter to possess the steadiness of character he would probably have mocked as tedious in another until the memorable day he met his fate in the Strand and his whole world changed between one breath and the next.
He sighed now for the hugeness of losing her, but three slow, hard years had gone by and somehow he'd learnt to go on from day to day for the sake of his children and not fume quite so hard or so often at her, the world and the devil about her untimely death. Now he could even recall meeting his love with a smile, not feel that terrible wall of grief tumbling on to him every time he triggered the slightest memory of falling in love with his wife. It had all begun as a gallant impulse to help a lovely but painfully young girl in dire straits; after five minutes in her company he had continued in heady exaltation at finding the love of his life and the memory woke an echoing thrill in his heart even now.
Even romantic love couldn't sustain itself on fairytales, but somehow they had truly grown up together and it had only made them stronger. Once he and Anna had realised they would have to make their own way in the world, neither had had much of a clue how, he recalled with a wry grin. Yet they were stubborn, passionate people and managed to make new lives by hard work. Somehow it had built even firmer foundations as their feelings grew beyond that first heady passion for each other into a true, enduring love he doubted could ever fade, even with Anna's death yawning between them like some unbridgeable void.
Their love had stood every test when she was alive, he reflected, and thanked God for it, although their time together was painfully short. He missed his wife so much it physically hurt at times and the only way to take the edge off his longing for her wisdom, loveliness and sheer, bright optimism in the face of hardship was to work so zealously he didn't have chance to linger on how little his life felt without her.
She'd been slender as a whip when she wasn't with child and so small a fool might take her for a child at a distance, but she'd proved as strong as steel when life tried them as they had never been tried before. Anna was a lioness in defence of her own and her own lay upstairs fast asleephis own now, both of them. Her child, and her child and his child, two children he loved as dearly as he could ever imagine any father loving his brood, king or pauper, and Rich Seaborne lived as a poor man, despite the rich estate and comfortable fortune awaiting him if he ever dared reclaim them.
He reminded himself exactly why he was still living the life of a woodsman and bodger of everyday furniture and necessities in a remote cottage. He could go back, of course. Then he could be a gentleman again, return to his birthright as eldest son of the late Lord Henry Seaborne and his loving and gracious wife. Set in the Seaborne heartland, poised between the last of England and the first of Wales, he could take up his rich inheritance. The land there echoed with the challenges of the warrior princes and insurgent robber barons who had fought over it for centuries and he loved and sometimes longed for it as if it had a soul that cried out to his. He felt a familiar yearning to stand once more on that rich soil that was almost beyond reasoning away.
It wasn't simple homesicknessnothing as straightforward as that for a Seaborne in exile. No, it felt like a deeper sense of connection to the beautiful land of his birth, so nearly into a Celtic land and not quite fully within rich England either; which was pretty much how the Seaborne clan regarded themselves, now he thought about it. They were very nearly subject to their king, so long as he didn't interfere with them and theirs, loyal to their country, passionate about family and as determined to go their own way as any of the old Marcher lords, who had ruled their fiefdoms as if they were their own states and had often proved as stubbornly independent in thought and deed as the Welsh so-called rebels they were sent to awe in the first place.
He could go back and be welcomed like the Prodigal Son and, once he explained this isolation was not chosen but forced on him, his family would forgive all the years of not knowing he was alive or dead and he could take up his old life. No, he wouldn't go back to that hedonistic existence, but he could take responsibility for Seaborne House, accept the joys and burdens of a large landowner and lift some of the responsibility off the shoulders of the head of the family.
They were broad enough in all conscience, but Jack, Duke of Dettingham, currently carried out Rich's duties as well as his own. Jack was married and two of his own sisters and his little brother had wed since Rich had left home. The urge to see them and meet their husbands and wives was sometimes so strong he wanted to pack up his family in the cart he used for taking his goods to distant markets and drive back home, so he could watch Hal and Sally run wild with their young cousins.
Yes, he could do all of that. He could live in his comfortable home, amidst his prosperous acres, within the protective circle of his familywhere he could sit like an animal in a trap and wait for the devil to find them and tear it all apart. So he was still here, work boots resting on a battered fender used to rest the fire-irons against and dry the kindling for the following day. He would still be here tomorrow and next year and however many years it took for his family to grow up and face the world alone. None of which stopped him being afraid some harm might come to him and leave his children alone, or that he wouldn't give them the sort of childhood Anna would want for them.
Sighing as he damped down the fire for the night, Rich set his battered old watch by the clock he'd painstakingly resurrected from a box of bits thrown out by the local doctor, who had discovered he was no better at healing broken clocks than patients. Rich hoped he'd hidden the wonderful Tompion timepiece his father had given him for his twenty-first birthday well enough for it to stay there until his son reached maturity and must be told the truth, but suddenly he longed for the luxury and comfort of it in his handa reminder of the good man who'd given it to him and he wished he even half-deserved to call father.
He recalled riding away from Seaborne after Lord Henry's death, thinking he could never fill his sire's shoes so there was no point staying, little realising he would never have a second chance to prove himself wrong. No point dwelling on old inadequaciesirresponsible young Rich Seaborne became a stranger when he met his future wife. Mature Rich regretted not a step that led him to Anna later that day, even though love had brought with it such untold depths of sadness and loss after she died.
Lady Freya Buckle had endured a day of wild exertion, misery and trouble and she was now very lost. It was about time she enjoyed her right to be warm, comfortable and well fed as befitted the daughter of an Earl, but there seemed little chance of any comfort at all in this endless forest. Her father's last and least acceptable daughter had been forced to accept that money and position couldn't buy happiness over the last few years, but losing even the small comforts of her everyday life was somewhere beyond ridiculous.
Now she was alone and penniless and it was dark and cold under these infernal, unending trees. Somehow she must find some shelter for the night to rest her weary limbs and take the weight off her aching, blistered feet until daylight returned and it was as safe as it ever got in this benighted forest. Freya wrapped the remnants of her once-fine cloak about her shivering person and only just managed to resist an urge to plump down on a carpet of dead leaves under the nearest tree and cry some of her misery out.
She was a Buckle of Bowland and that meant something, even if it currently meant she was exhausted, shivering and hungry in an ever-darkening world of trees that all looked the same. Nevertheless, Lady Freya could not sink into resigned indifference and sleep like a helpless babe lost in the wood as a lesser person might. A true Buckle did not crumble under misfortune, but it was difficult to stay regally resolute when her noble family didn't care what happened to her and she frowned into the gathering darkness of the June night.
If only she had been able to marry the Duke of Dettingham, she would have a vital, handsome husband to make getting children tolerable and all would have been well with her world, but he had contrived to avoid the honour. Aristocratic marriages were seldom based on love, but it seemed the noble Seaborne family thought otherwise. Freya sighed at the contrariness of gentlemen while she walked with less and less confidence into the unknown. The Duke pretended to be a rational man looking for a well-connected wife who was pretty enough to make filling his nurseries bearable, but he turned out to be a romantic fool who fell head over ears in love with an antidote and married her instead.
So the Duke married his unsuitable Duchess and a year later her own mother, the widowed Countess of Bowland, was dead and Freya had been learning hard lessons about the world ever since. Nobody could accuse the rigidly proper Countess of being unfaithful to her lord, but the family made it clear Freya was an outsider. Mingling their blue blood with that of an East India nabob's daughter might have been a deplorable necessity, since a Buckle could not take to trade and actually earn money, but it didn't make the result a true aristocrat.