This is also a 'prologue' of sorts; a taste of what to expect in the future when the next generation of Aspen Valleyans take over.
NOTE: To avoid SPOILERS be sure to read the entire 5 book Aspen Valley series first!
LAST MILE HOME:
Lucy shifts on the couch in Jack and Pippa’s living room and grimaces. ‘I’m not feeling so good,’ she mumbles, placing a hand on her swollen belly.
Pippa, with the five-week-old Ella wrapped in her arms, looks up in concern. ‘Was it the turkey? I couldn’t even look at meat with any of these three.’ She nods to a toddler playing on the rug and a four-year-old boy pulling the plaits of a little blonde girl of a similar age.
‘No, lunch was amazing,’ Lucy assures her. ‘I don’t know how you do it.’
‘Well,’ Pippa leans across in confidence, ‘here’s the trick…’
* * *
In the kitchen, Jack, Finn and Rhys are manning the cooking. Jack wears Pippa’s daisy-pattern apron and looks stressed.
‘What do you mean there’s no non-alcoholic brandy butter pudding?’ he says then lowers his voice to speak through clenched teeth. ‘We’ve got Kate and Ben here!’
Finn shrugs, not in the least bit anxious, and takes a slurp of the rum sauce he’s stirring. ‘I wasn’t to know they’d be comin’. It’s your house.’
‘Which you’re living in,’ Jack points out with a spatula. ‘Remind me when you and Lucy are moving into your own place?’
‘January second we get the keys. That’ll give us a few days at least before the baby arrives.’
Jack groans and falls back against the counter. ‘God, I’m too young to be a grandfather.’
‘Nonsense,’ Finn says with a grin. ‘Have you looked in the mirror lately?’
Before Jack can retaliate, they’re interrupted by the entrance of three-year-old Skyla, the girl with blonde plaits tearing around the central island, screaming, with Lucas chasing her, a mischievous glint in his blue eyes.
‘Lucas, take it outside!’ Jack yells at his oldest son.
‘Uncle Jack! Uncle Jack!’ Skyla screams.
‘It’s okay.’ Jack’s voice is world-weary. ‘Sky-’
Skyla aims her water gun at Jack and fires.
Finn roars with laughter as Jack stands, dripping in the middle of the kitchen. Rhys, trying to swallow his amusement, hands his boss a hand towel.
‘TESSA!’ Jack roars. ‘WILL YOU COME GET YOUR DAUGHTER!’
* * *
Upstairs in the nursery, Tessa and Frankie sit in the quiet while Frankie rocks two-year-old Jamie to sleep in his pram. The freckle-faced boy is restless, but slowly his eyelashes sweep lower over her cheeks as he falls asleep.
‘Skyla is also a nightmare to get to sleep,’ Tessa says in a hushed voice.
‘Jamie’s just sensitive,’ Frankie replies. She smiles at a thought. ‘He’s going to be just like Rhys when he’s older.’
Tessa regards her with heavy lids. ‘Rhys is sensitive?’
‘Well, he has his sensitive moments,’ Frankie defends her husband as honestly as she can. ‘He’s more intense. Jamie’s the same.’
‘Sounds like Sin,’ says Tessa with a mirthless chuckle. ‘Keeps everything bottled up, preferably of the Johnny Walker Black Label variety.’
‘Things going okay?’
Tessa shrugs and looks away. ‘Yeah, they’re fine. Or they will be eventually. Ever since the accident things have been a bit strained in the Sinclair household. And Skyla, well…’ She shakes her head. ‘She’s a handful, as you can imagine.’
Frankie looks down at Jamie, her expression grateful. ‘How long will Sin be on crutches?’
‘Another month at least.’ He’s banned Skyla from pogo-ing in the house now. It wasn’t her fault, not really. I mean she wasn’t actually using it at the time. He should have been looking where he was going.’
They hear Jack yelling from the other end of the house.
‘You think I should go check on things?’ Tessa asks reluctantly.
Frankie shakes her head. ‘There’s enough adults downstairs to look after them.’
‘Are you sure? I’m guessing it wasn’t Jack’s idea to have fifty children round for Christmas lunch.’
Frankie laughs quietly. ‘He loves it really. Hell, most of them are his.’
‘Lucas adores him, doesn’t he? Have you seen him when Jack’s around? God, I wish Skyla could be more like that,’ Tessa says wistfully. ‘Does Sophie have a favourite?’
‘Peace Offering.’ Frankie grins. ‘Rhys and I can go to hell for all she cares. She’s more pony mad than I was.’
Tessa laughs without humour.
‘Lucas isn’t the only one who idolises Jack, apparently,’ Frankie goes on. ‘Sebastian said his first word a couple of weeks ago. “Dada”. Pippa’s most put out. She reckons she had to give birth to them, she’s had the sore nipples and she’s changed more nappies than him, the least they could do is learn her name first. She’s determined Ella’s first word will be “Mama”.’
They hear a distant roar from Jack that almost makes the toys lining the shelves to shake, and then a child crying. They look at each other and reluctantly Tessa gets up.
‘I’d better go see what’s happening.’
* * *
In the kitchen, Finn is on his knees, scraping a broken dish and the scattered remains of a bread and butter pudding into a brushpan. Jack, looking somewhat guilty, is picking pudding out of a screaming Skyla’s hair.
‘What’s going on in here?’ Kate de Jager and Aspen Valley’s head lass appears in the doorway. She spots the blubbing little girl. ‘Oh, poor Skyla. Come here, darling.’
Skyla goes to Kate and buries her face in her stomach. Kate picks out a raisin from her hair and glares at the men, then guides Skyla back to the living room.
‘Less temptation, at least.’ Finn dumps the remnants of the pudding into the bin and puts the brush and pan away.
Jack looks unenthusiastically at the bin. ‘My mother-in-law’s going to kill me. She bought us those dishes.’
‘Blame it on Skyla, it was her fault,’ says Rhys.
‘Yeah, it usually is,’ Jack mutters in reply.
A moment later, a boy of no more than eight peeps around the doorway. It’s Sam, Emmie and Billy’s son. Jack winks at him and the boy summons the courage to step into the room.
‘Uncle Jack, Mum said I must come ask if you need any help.’
‘If you can find a cloth, the floor can do with a wipe,’ Jack replies.
‘Sure. This one okay?’ Sam goes to the sink and takes out a cloth.
‘Er… better cut some fresh cloth. Pippa will probably have something to say if we use her washing up cloth on the floor.’ He opens the utilities cupboard and pokes around. ‘Dammit, she’s probably left the roll in the studio.’
‘I can go get it,’ offers Sam.
‘Put some shoes on first,’ Rhys says, pointing at the boys reindeer socks. ‘You’ll get frostbite otherwise.’
Sam puffs out his chest. ‘Nah, I’m tough, Uncle Rhys.’
‘No, I’ll get into trouble with your mother,’ says Jack. ‘Use my Wellington boots by the door there.’
Sam’s eyes widen as he looks from Jack to the boots and back again. ‘Really? Can I?’
‘Course you can. Go on now,’ Jack says, totally missing the honour in the boy’s voice.
Looking like he’s just been awarded the key to the city, Sam steps into the too-big boots and stomps proudly out through the back door.
‘Nice kid,’ remarks Finn, watching his departure.
Jack sighs. ‘Yeah, wants a father figure though.’
‘Billy still not come back from Lambourne?’ Rhys asks.
‘No,’ replies Jack. ‘Thought he might for Christmas, but seems not. Pippa said she thought Emmie and Billy might be getting back together, but it doesn’t look like –’
He’s interrupted by the smoke alarm going off and Finn jumps into action.
‘Shite! I forgot the rum sauce.’
* * *
Through in the lounge, Pippa, Lucy and Emmie look up from their conversation at the sound of the alarm.
‘Do you think they’re managing in there?’ Lucy asks, her expression doubtful.
‘They’ll be fine,’ says Pippa with her usual optimism. ‘It was either that or look after the kids. Skyla, are you feeling better?’
Skyla looks over from the opposite armchair where Kate is replaiting her hair for her and nods, her face still stained with tears.
‘It was Lucas’s fault. He pushed me.’
Lucas glares at her from where he’s playing with his younger brother on the rug. ‘Did not.’
‘Enough, Skyla. God!’ Sin looks up from his chair. He’s resting his leg, encased in a support boot, on an ottoman, and playing poker with Ben.
Skyla’s lower lip trembles.
Sensing tears afoot, Pippa smiles brightly. ‘I know. Lucas, why don’t you show everyone what Santa got you for Christmas?’
Lucas is up and running out of the room without needing to be asked twice.
‘What about you, Sin?’ says Emmie, playfully. ‘What did Santa get you for Christmas?’
Sin opens his mouth to give a droll response but is pipped by Skyla, who says with a pout, ‘Mummy says you have to be good to get presents from Santa.’
‘And you are living proof that that rule is flexible.’
Father and daughter glare at each other.
‘Crumbs,’ Emmie mutters, retreating. She catches sight of Lucy, still looking uncomfortable. ‘Lucy, you okay?’
‘Hmm? Oof, this indigestion is getting a bit worse, that’s all,’ she says, fobbing off their concern with her hand. ‘You got any Rennies, Pippa?’
‘I think so. Here, hold Ella while I go find some. It’ll be good practice for you.’
Pippa hands over her baby to Lucy and gets up. She curses as she stands on one of Sebastian’s toys on the floor as she exits.
Ella starts to wail at the disturbance to her nap.
‘Better get used to it,’ Emmie tells Lucy over the noise.
Lucy looks helplessly down at Ella and jiggles her up and down. Ella just wails louder.
‘Here, do you want me to hold her?’ offers Kate, coming over.
Lucy gladly hands over the baby. Ella quietens as Kate sways her in her arms.
‘Jeez, you’re good,’ says Emmie in amazement. ‘When are you and Ben going to have kids?’
Kate hesitates. Lucy elbows Emmie in her side. Emmie frowns at her in puzzlement.
‘Oh, you know,’ says Kate. ‘When the time is right.’
‘There’s never a right time,’ drawls Sin from the corner. He adds a couple of counters to his bet and nods to Ben.
‘Sin’s right,’ says Emmie. ‘There isn’t a perfect time. You’ve just got to get on and do it… Maybe not like I did, but you’re not nineteen,’ she adds with a laugh. ‘You must be what thirty-three, thirty-four?’ Lucy kicks Emmie’s ankle. ‘Ow. What was that for?’
‘Thirty-five,’ replies Kate.
‘Plenty of time yet,’ Lucy reassures her.
‘Yeah,’ says Kate, looking sadly down at Ella.
Sin clicks his fingers in front of Ben to get his attention. ‘Your go. You going to fold?’
‘Actually, we’re thinking of adopting,’ Ben says.
* * *
The awkward silence that follows is relieved by Lucas scampering back into the room carrying a huge box. He shoves Sebastian and his toys to one side so he can set things up. Sebastian yells in anger.
Sin leans forward, showing overt interest to overcome his embarrassment. ‘What have you got there, Lucas? Scalectrix?’
‘No,’ says Lucas, like Sin’s stupid. ‘It’s a racing stable!’
He upends the box in triumph. A three-sided plastic model stable block and a dozen horses fall out.
Lucas throws the box aside, hitting Sin’s leg and making the man gasp with pain. ‘This one’s my favourite. He’s called Kauto Star. And this one, this is Denman. Have you heard of Denman, Uncle Sin?’
Sin leans back, groaning and throws his cards down. ‘Horses, horses, horses. Does it ever end?’
‘Not round these parts, mate,’ says Ben. ‘I’ve a flush. Beats two pair, thank you very much.’
Pippa returns with Lucy’s Rennies and steps around the mess on the floor. ‘Here you go, love. Pudding will be ready in a minute.’
Lucy takes them gratefully and pops one into her mouth. ‘I don’t think I can handle pudding.’
Sebastian abandons his toys in favour of his brother’s and picks up Kauto Star. He gnaws sloppily on the horse’s head.
‘Sebbie! Stop!’ cries Lucas. ‘Mummy! Tell him to play with his own toys!’
‘Sebastian, stop eating Kauto Star. Lucas, share with your brother.’
Jack, Finn and Rhys appear from the kitchen bearing puddings and sauces in their oven-mitted hands and lay them on the table.
‘Pudding!’ Jack announces to the whole of Somerset.
Ella wakes up and bawls. Pippa sighs and gives Jack a dark look.
* * *
It doesn’t take long for everyone to assemble at their places around the table. The smell wafts across the table and the kids aren’t the only ones to be licking their lips.
‘Is everyone here?’ Jack asks from the head of the table.
They all look around. There is one empty seat beside Lucas.
‘Who’s meant to be sitting there?’ Pippa asks.
‘Skyla?’ Tessa says, looking around.
‘Yeah?’ Skyla pouts from her place beside her new best friend, Kate.
‘Oh, there you are,’ Tessa says with a sigh of relief. ‘Okay.’
‘Who’s meant to be sitting next to Lucas?’
‘Sophie?’ Frankie says.
‘Where’s Sophie?’ Rhys says, exhaustion creeping into his tone. ‘I thought you were looking after her.’
Frankie turns to the children. ‘Lucas? Skyla? Wasn’t Sophie playing with you?’
Lucas looks longingly at the steaming pudding on eye level with him. ‘No.’
Frankie stands up hurriedly, dropping her napkin on the floor. ‘Sophie? Where are you?’
‘It’s okay,’ Emmie says soothingly. ‘She can’t have gone far.’
‘Sophie?’ ‘Sophie!’ ‘Sophie!’
The house is filled with shouts as everyone abandons the table and goes off in search of Rhys and Frankie’s four-year-old daughter.
Lucas looks around to make sure no one is looking then whips out his spoon and attacks the sticky toffee pudding. Skyla sticks a finger in the rum sauce and sucks it clean. She and Lucas laugh at each other’s daring and tuck in.
* * *
Five minutes later, everyone reconvenes in the living room.
‘Any sign of her?’
‘No. Has someone checked upstairs?’
‘What about my studio?’ Pippa suggests. ‘Anyone check in there?’
‘Nothing,’ says Rhys. Even he is sounding a little breathless. ‘When did anyone last see her.’
They all exchange dubious glances.
‘But that was nearly an hour ago!’ Frankie cries.
‘What were you doing for an hour to allow her to be gone so long?’ Rhys demands.
‘I was trying to get Jamie down, all right?’ Frankie replies tearfully.
‘Okay, okay,’ Pippa says, placing a calming hand on each of them. ‘Where are you going, Jack?’
Jack is already striding to the front door. He unhooks his jacket from the coat stand and shrugs it on.
‘The stables. Come on.’
‘Sam, you’re in charge til we get back,’ Emmie says to her son.
Sam stares at her in horror.
‘You can’t leave an eight-year-old in charge of everything,’ says Ben.
‘I’ll stay,’ pipes up Sin wearily. ‘It’s not like I’m going anywhere quickly.’
‘Good thinking,’ says Pippa. She hands Ella to Sin. ‘I think she might need a nappy change. Do you think you can manage?’
* * *
Three sets of headlights roll down the misty Gallops to the deserted stable yard. The place is eerily quiet, staff having left for their Christmas lunches. At the sound of the people descending on the yard, horses – bay, chestnut, grey – look out over their stable doors. They prick their ears at the sound of their desperate calls for Sophie.
Rhys limps over to the entrance of the indoor school. ‘Sophie?’ His voice echoes around the empty space. Frankie and Finn catch up.
‘Think,’ says Finn. ‘Where would she go?’
‘She could be anywhere,’ cries Frankie. ‘She could be on the road. And in this mist…’
‘I know.’ Rhys strides away from the school with purpose and the others run to catch up.
‘Where – where are we going? Frankie gasps.
Rhys doesn’t respond. He hurries to the other end of the yard to the least populated block of stables. They round the corner to see Jack, Pippa and Lucy already crowded around a stable.
‘Have you found her?’ Frankie’s voice is desperate.
Pippa nods, smiling, and puts a finger to her lips. Jack is also smiling. He waves them over and moves aside to allow them access.
The three hurry over and look inside. They find Peace Offering lying down on a thick bed of straw, warm in his winter rug, his unclipped temples white with age. The old bay horse looks up, long ears pricked at the audience at his door, but doesn’t move. He lowers his muzzle to the sleeping form curled up against his chest, and breathes warm breath over the girl’s pink cheeks.
‘Oh!’ Frankie cries in panic. She scrambles for the door latch and Rhys puts out a hand to stop her.
‘It’s okay,’ he says quietly. ‘He won’t hurt her.’
Ben, Kate, Emmie and Tessa suddenly hurtle around the corner.
‘Have you found her?’
‘Is she okay?’
‘Where is she?’
They’re greeted with a chorus of ‘shhh!’ and they continue with more stealth. Rhys opens the stable door and approaches Peace Offering. Peace Offering raises his head to his old partner and whickers.
Rhys strokes the blaze on his nose then bends down to pick up Sophie.
Thumb in mouth, Sophie stirs as her father takes her in his arms. ‘Daddy’s horse. Daddy’s Nash’il horse,’ she murmurs sleepily.
‘That’s right, sweetheart,’ Rhys says with a small smile. ‘Daddy’s one and only Grand National winner. Thanks, old pal,’ he says to Peace Offering.
He leaves the stable and everyone breathes out a sigh of relief.
‘Okay, time for pudding,’ announces Jack.
Lucy clutches the stable door and grimaces. ‘Ooh, maybe not.’
‘I told you not to eat so much turkey,’ Finn scolds her.
‘No Finn, not that,’ she says through gritted teeth.
Jack is the first to cotton on. His expression turns to horror. ‘What do you mean?’
Lucy holds her belly and pants. ‘I think – we need – to go – to the hos – pital.’
‘What?’ Finn cries.
‘It’s okay, Finn,’ Pippa says, stroking his shoulder like he’s a nervy horse. ‘It just means it’s time for the baby to come.’
‘No, no, no, no,’ Finn says, backing away and waving his hands. ‘It’s not due for another ten days. It can’t be time.’
Rhys looks down at his sleeping daughter in his arms. ‘They keep to their own schedule, mate.’
‘Well, what are we waiting for then?’ says Frankie when shock keeps everyone rooted to the spot.
‘Yes, come on!’ says Pippa, dragging Jack by his arm.
‘You’re comin’ too?’ says Finn as they all hurry to the vehicles, and leaving Peace Offering without a backward glance. ‘And you? And you?’
‘If you need us there, sure,’ says Kate.
‘Ooh,’ moans Lucy. ‘Can we decide this in the car?’
‘Are we just going to leave Sin to help with all the children?’ says Ben.
‘Well, we’ve taken one off his hands,’ says Rhys, gesturing to the bundle in his arms.
‘She can’t come to the hospital,’ Frankie exclaims. ‘We might be there for hours.’
‘I’ll stay,’ says Tessa. ‘I’ll take her. I don’t mind.’
‘I’d better stay as well.’ Pippa puts her hand up reluctantly. ‘They might think I’m trying to take Ella back or something if I pitch up there so soon.’
‘Come on, get in everyone,’ says Jack, waving them all into the open door of his Land Rover. ‘Hurry up. No, not you, Lucy. You take your time. Do you want to sit in the front?’
Finn’s eyes are enormous as he’s bustled towards the car. ‘But-but-but we haven’t had puddin’ yet.’
‘Ah, Finn, bless,’ says Pippa, pushing him towards the car. ‘You’re in denial.’
‘You’re riding tomorrow.’ Jack points sternly at Finn. ‘You’re not having pudding.’
‘He is not riding tomorrow,’ Lucy growls. ‘He’s going to be at the hospital with me.’
‘Damn.’ Jack tuts. ‘I’ll need to find a replacement jockey.’
‘I’m goin’ to be a father,’ says Finn, rubbing his forearms in panic. ‘Oh, shite, Pippa. I can’t be a father. I can barely tie my own shoelaces.’
‘That’s okay,’ she reponds, giving him one last push to get him in the car. ‘They’re all Velcro these days anyway. Come on, get going!’ She slams the door shut and waves them away.
* * *
As everyone bundles into the cars, two heading down the drive to the main road, one heading back up the hill to the house, Peace Offering stands forlornly in his stable then pushes the door with his nose. To his surprise, it swings open.
Hooves clopping on the walkway, the old horse visits all his pals then wanders over to the edge of the yard to look up at the Gallops and the lines of hurdles and steeplechase fences. How long it’s been since he last set foot on that track. How long it’s been since he last went to the races.
He vaguely recalls the roaring crowds of Aintree, where they were always biggest and loudest, sees the hubbub of the masses through the mist. Snorting, he turns away and walks, unhurried, down the path towards his paddock.
He knows just where to find the juiciest grass this time of year.
And if that many characters in that short a time was a bit too confusing, here's a cast list of the above story.
Jack Carmichael – champion racehorse trainer, owner of Aspen Valley Stables
Pippa Carmichael – his wife, artist and ex-racing secretary, owner of Peace Offering
Lucas Carmichael – Jack and Pippa’s older son, 4 years old
Sebastian Carmichael – Jack and Pippa’s younger son, 1 year old
Ella Carmichael – Jack and Pippa’s daughter, 5 weeks old
Rhys Bradford – champion jump jockey, first string jockey to Aspen Valley
Francesca ‘Frankie’ Bradford – his wife, ex-amateur jockey, now assistant trainer at Aspen Valley
Sophie Bradford – Rhys and Frankie’s daughter, 4 years old
Jamie Bradford – Rhys and Frankie’s son, 2 years old
Ben de Jager – retrainer of racehorses, ex-jockey, recovering substance abuser
Kate de Jager – his wife, head lass at Aspen Valley, childless, plans to adopt
Finn O’Donaghue – second string jump jockey at Aspen Valley, Irish, Jack’s son-in-law
Lucy O’Donaghue – Finn’s wife, Jack’s older daughter from previous relationship, very pregnant
F.D. ‘Sin’ Sinclair – English literature professor, syndicate owner at Aspen Valley
Tessa Sinclair – his wife, family owns land on which Aspen Valley sits, jewellery designer
Skyla Sinclair – Sin and Tessa’s only child, 4 years old, a professional terror
Emmie – work rider at Aspen Valley, Pippa’s best friend
Billy – Emmie’s on-off boyfriend, ex-Aspen Valley work rider, now based in Lambourne
Sam – Emmie and Billy’s son, conceived by accident, 8 years old
Peace Offering – Pippa’s inherited racehorse, Grand National winner, now retired
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!!