This finally got pulled together with huge thanks to Open Hearts Catch Dreams who has injected a bit of a different style in places. The last few scenes underwent too many re-writes to count. I hope you enjoy … and by the way it is longer than my other chapters too.

.

Part 55 - Epilogue

Loose strands of hay blew across the open corral with the light summer breeze. The earth had dried out quickly after the overnight rain, leaving partially visible horses hoof prints on the paths from the meadow. The ranch was quiet. With all the horses out and the cattle in fresh pastures, the family had time to simply be. A moment of calm before the chaos began and everyone arrived for a Hammersley reunion and a birthday party.

Elena stood by the entrance to the huge barn with Goose, a proud Medicine Hat tovero gelding. He'd been brought in to be shod and was not entirely happy with being kept from the free running herd in the far meadow. To appease him until the loose shoe was fixed, Elena had cross tied him in the entry way and settled in to give him a good brush down; something he enjoyed very much no matter what else he might be missing.

A cool breeze blew through the barn from one open entrance to another and the smell of warm hay and oats was carried to the quiet pair, inducing a drug like haze that was entirely too relaxing. Especially now that Elodie was old enough to unlock the back door on her own and let herself into the corral.

Elena welcomed the reprieve from constant supervision, knowing that for the next two hours; the three horrors, also known as their children, were Dutchy's responsibility.

And that was the secret to surviving motherhood. Hand off all attached children to a third party while you hide in the barn and groom your horse. But even though thinking it felt like being a little free, the reality was not as easy, and she could still see the three children from her shady spot.

A plump flaxen chestnut Shetland was tethered loosely to the post in the centre of the corral, his thick mane hiding his eyes. Elodie was sat happily on the floor directly behind him, and while one could argue allowing it was bad parenting, Elena knew Savvy well enough to know it would take a nuke going off before he so much as shifted his stubborn little hooves. Elodie's tiny, clumsy fingers were patiently prying at strands of Savvy's thick blonde tail, winding it surely into a lopsided, uneven plait. Lucy stood at the little pony's neck, only just able to see over his rounded withers and was happily brushing away with a large dandy brush. Her slender build and arms didn't have the muscle power to use the brush firmly enough, and it was probably tickling the Shetland something fierce, but he stood resolute, munching away on the hay net before him. Elena had often thought Savvy to be incredibly patient and forgiving, but lately she'd begun to wonder if he was just too lazy to move away from the children's attentions.

She turned her attention back to Goose, she'd always found brushing a horse was relaxing. Methodical strokes, follow the coat, breathe in, breathe o-

"Zachary! Give it back!"

Elena closed her eyes, the voice of her oldest daughter breaking through the warm haze.

"No!" her son yelled in response, further shattering her peace and quiet. She leant around Goose, the brush stilling against his shoulder.

Zach, at just four years old, looked so much like his father that Elena sometimes had to stop herself from calling him Dylan.

He was standing by the open gate of the corral, untidy hair tousled from the breeze and, quite likely, also from whichever hay bale he had decided to climb today. At least this time he'd managed to get down from it in the same state of physical health as he had been getting on it. With Zach, it was not always a given.

He was clutching the dandy brush Lucy had been using close to his chest and wearing the kind of smirk that promised you would still be annoyed and scowling when dinner time came. It was a smirk every girl who had a younger brother knew all too well.

Lucy was brandishing a small hoof pick at him, her delicate features – similar to her mother's, though she had her father's eyes – set into a dark scowl. Elodie's fingers still clutched at the tangled weave she had made of Savvy's tail, but they were still, her small, round face bearing an expression of uncertainty and her large eyes shining. The tiny three year old did not like her siblings arguing near her and Elena found that she could forestall most feuds between her older two if she kept an eye out for the littlest one racing from a room with her hands pressed to her ears. Just as it seemed Elodie would burst into tears and Lucy would throw the hoof pick at Zach, Dylan stepped around the corner of the house, his tool box in hand and over-shirt knotted about his waist.

"Daddy!" Lucy yelled the instant she'd spotted him. Zach shot her a dark look, dropped the brush and his fingers instantly began toying with the hem of his Spiderman t-shirt. "Daddy, Zach took the brush I was using!"

Dutchy sighed, set the tool box down and snatched Zach up as he made his way into the corral at an easy walk.

Elena didn't notice a soft smile settle on her own features as she continued to watch the scene before her.

"Zach," Dylan said gently, crouching and placing Zach on his knee. "You know not to take things your sister is using. What do you say?"

The small boy squirmed, avoiding his father's eyes.

"Oh, well then," Dylan said brightly. "You know people who can't apologise have to sit in the kitchen to eat their dinner."

Zach scrunched his nose in distaste. The kitchen, nice as it was, all of the children thought was creepy late in the evening when it was supper time. It had the older, country feel to it and it looked out onto one of the old paddocks which desperately needed to be de-weeded. The fridge issued a quiet whirring noise and there was the slight whistle of wind that passed right by the back door.

"I'm sorry," he forced out petulantly, looking at the ground.

Lucy sniffed and turned to Savvy's neck, using her small fingers to flatten his thick mane some more.

"Lucy," Dylan said, in the same low, chiding tone. "What have we told you about yelling at your brother?"

"Well he doesn't listen if I don't," she said quickly, talking to the Shetland pony.

"I am not dead," Zach jumped in adamantly, closing his hands into tiny fists.

"Deaf, Zach," Dylan corrected, trying to hide his smile. "There you go. Zach, you listen to your sister and Lucy, you don't yell at him. Does that sound fair?" reluctantly, they both nodded. "Now what do you say?"

Lucy let out a large breath. "But-"

"No buts. Come on. You all lost Mud Pie today; let's try not to fight for a while?"

"Sorry," Lucy muttered. Having forced that out, she turned from the Shetland to look at her father with bright eyes. "Is Mud Pie in heaven, now, Daddy?"

Dylan nodded sympathetically, "yes. He's in heaven."

"No he's not!"

Dylan started at the tiny voice of Elodie. Her features were set determinedly. "He bit me. He went to that other place," she looked around, as though one of the fence posts might be listening. "The bad one," she whispered.

"No he did not!" Zach said, leaping off his dad's lap. "He's in heaven. He only bit you because you held him too tight."

"Can we have another hamster, Daddy? Can I get one for my birthday?" Lucy interrupted. Zach and Elodie fell silent, both turning to look at him in anticipation.

It seemed as if Zach was about to complain, but their father quickly stalled any further discussion as he sighed. "How about if you lot can make it to dinner time with no more arguments, I will try to persuade your mother?"

The three children traded looks until Elodie nodded sharply and said in a tiny voice. "I want to call him Sparkle."

Zach's expression of outrage told Dylan this was probably not going to last.

…..

Dylan's idea of a quiet two hours supervising the three horrors quickly exploded into several more heated debates between the children as he worked nearby. All of them had inherited their parents' stubbornness and the older two never backed down easily from an argument. The one over the dandy brush was minor to the one that erupted over the naming of a possible new hamster. What surprised him most though was that for the first time, Elodie seemed to stand her ground against her older siblings. Until now she had been the baby, but in the last few weeks he'd noticed a change in her. He just dreaded the moment when she started fighting back, especially with Zach.

While peace reigned for a few minutes he collected his tools from fixing a broken hinge on the corral gate and headed towards the barn to store them safely and noticed Elena hand off Goose to one of their ranch hands to return him to the field. She waited for him to join her.

"Why are they such angels for you, but when I'm in charge World War Three breaks out?"

"Because they know they can't get round me as easily," he saw the look of triumph cross her face as she had a playful dig at his parenting skills.

"They get round you just as easily, they just have me to do it for them," he grinned as he replied, knowing full well that if they got him on side Elena didn't stand a chance at saying no. "Lucy wants a new hamster for her birthday and Elodie insists on calling him Sparkle, you probably heard Zach's reply."

"I think we should wait a while before we bring any more animals into this house. They've already named half the herd and the chickens, not to mention the rat that's been lurking recently. Which, by the way, you were going to set a trap for."

"I did a couple of days ago, every time I think I've found the way it gets in he abandons it and finds a new one. I'll ask Dad to pick up some extra traps when he goes into Port Douglas for the feed tomorrow."

"Are we all set for the invasion? I hope so, because I've got no more energy to go in search of pink bunting or fairy cakes to placate the girls," she responded as she turned to clear up after the farrier.

They fell quiet for a minute while he stowed his tool-box in the cupboard, so high up that even Lucy using a frayed schooling whip or Zach climbing onto an old saddle rack could still not hope to reach. Dylan had a sneaking suspicion that Elodie would manage to get her tiny fingers on the box first, but it was not a day he was looking forward to. At all.

He knew it had been quite a strain on Elena recently managing the reunion of his old crew and their families, especially doing most of it alone while he was off completing his annual Naval Reserve duties. It still kept him in touch with his former life, but he didn't regret the decision he had made after Elodie was born, to give up full time Navy life for one raising their family at the ranch. The place was thriving and it had grown more since his parents moved up to help out a couple of years before. Bob and Jean, the ranch managers in his father in law's time, had retired then, which had further prompted their move north. It also gave them a chance to spend more time with their Grandchildren which they loved.

He locked the cupboard and turned to watch Elena, she had given up the Navy after Zach was born, but like him kept her ties by joining the Naval Reserve, it meant they were separated for a couple of months a year, unless they were fortunate that their duties coincided.

She seemed oblivious to his observation, but didn't seem surprised when he removed the broom from her hand and spun her around, wrapping his arms around her. Things hadn't been easy for them at the beginning and either of them could have walked away, but they always seemed drawn to each other and now 8 years later, they were a strong united team, something that was needed often when the children tested their patience.

He picked a strand of hay from her hair and smiled at her. "You been climbing the hay bales again after Zach?"

"Not this time," she answered simply, offering no further explanation, although he guessed there was one. He gave her one of his quizzical looks and she caved, "Elodie."

The thought of his youngest doing something so dangerous scared him, "but she can't even see over one."

"She's growing up, she must have followed Zach, I found an upturned bucket at the bottom, which he swears he never put there, so she must have done it. Don't give me that look, I've been telling you for months that she's bright, give it a little bit longer and our baby will be showing up her older siblings," Elena answered while running her fingers across the crease that had appeared on his forehead.

"We can't leave them alone for a minute," he sighed.

"Which makes me wonder why it's so quiet now." Elena peered around him to the corral which was now empty except for a partially brushed Savvy, who was absently munching at the hay net.

Dutchy drew her attention back to him. "Mum called them in to get drinks and more sun cream; I figure we've got about half an hour for just you and me."

A shrill scream shattered the quiet air and they both turned to see Elodie racing towards them, her pigtails bouncing on her shoulders. "Daddy! Zachy calleded me Celery again," she cried as she ran straight to him and he scooped her up, her little arms wrapping tightly around his neck.

While he attempted to calm her down and dry her tears, he heard Elena sigh, "you'll have to talk to him about that. When he was little and couldn't say her name it was one thing, but now he just does it to tease her."

"Alright, Elodie, I'll talk to him," he reassured his daughter, rubbing her back gently as her sobs eased.

"You'll make him stop?" Elodie had calmed down a little and looked up to him with awe, her eyes still holding unshed tears.

"I'll try sweetie, but if you pretend you don't mind he'll soon stop because he only does it to upset you. If you don't get upset then he doesn't get any fun out of it."

"Can I call him bad things?" she asked and he felt himself cast an agonised look at Elena.

"Tell me why we wanted three monsters," he said, knowing the response he would get; it had been a standing joke ever since they knew she was pregnant with Elodie.

Elena laughed briefly then gave him one of her coquettish smiles, "it was all your idea."

"We'll discuss that later," he answered grinning at her before leaning towards her, cupping her cheek and planting a searing kiss on her lips as Elodie's arms tightened around his neck to hold her balance at his movement.

"Zach and Lucy say kisses are yucky," Elodie's tiny voice in his ear made him pull back. Sometimes there just wasn't enough time for him and Elena anymore. Every time they found themselves alone something seemed to interrupt them and this was no exception.

"I'd better sort this out," he sighed apologetically as he planted a final kiss on Elena's lips as a plan began to form in his mind.

…..

Dutchy looked over the assembled crowd as they gathered in the back yard of the house, the barbeque was in full swing, feeding the adults while the children were under the veranda having a picnic. Lucy as the birthday girl was effectively head of the table and had organised everyone so the girls were all closest to her and the boys furthest away, not that they seemed too bothered.

It was hard to imagine that apart from Swain's girls, Chloe and Serena all the children had joined the Hammersley families in the last seven years. He glanced over his own three and then gradually picked out the others, the one to stand out was Max, he was twelve now, like Chloe and easily stood head and shoulders over the others. He had arrived six years before when Megan and Razor first fostered him and later adopted him after being taken in by social services. He had taken a long time to settle but now as he mixed with the other children he seemed at home.

Footsteps on the wooden veranda drew his attention as Mike stopped next to him.

"That's quite a haul we've got," Mike commented waving his drink in the direction of the children's tea-party.

"Sure is. I'm glad you and Kate could make it boss, having this get together is good for the kids, especially ours, they can get a little isolated here at times."

"Dutchy I'm not your boss any more, I've told you a hundred times you can drop the formality."

Dutchy grinned, "goes both ways Sir."

"Touché, I thought Kate said your predecessor was going to be here," Mike scanned the crowd. "I see his step-daughter's here."

"They arrived just before everyone else, he's taken Jessie down to the cemetery, they'll be back soon."

"It'll be good to see what he's up to now; I haven't spoken to him in a while."

Swain and Charge joined them, casting fatherly eyes over the children chatting and eating nearby.

"Looks like the feeding of the 5,000 is keeping them entertained," Charge commented as he turned from the children to join the male conversation.

"Probably for all of 5 minutes," Dutchy sighed, "although with the others here we might survive an afternoon without ours starting World War Three again."

Swain laughed, "it does get a little better when they get older."

"Depends on how old you're talking, took Jamie quite a while to come around to the fact that he's old enough to be Lola's father. Mind you it was quite a shock to my system when Lani told me, but the last 3 years have been some of the best of my life. So boss, you and the Mrs going to have any more?" Charge's estranged first family were no secret to the Hammersley crew, and it was no surprise that Jamie found the new family hard to accept.

Mike rubbed his hand through his hair and sipped his beer as if carefully considering his answer. "I don't think so Charge, two boys at 5 and 3 keep me on my toes while Kate's at sea and we're not getting any younger either."

"What about you Dylan? Think you'll go for number 4? Elena's looked pretty cosy with Ryan and Birds' baby this afternoon." Swain was the only one to call Dutchy by his real name, a feature of the way the families had remained close over the years and to a degree left the naval life behind. For some reason it still seemed natural for the others to retain their old Hammersley nicknames.

Dutchy looked over to where Kate, Sally, Bomber and Jess were standing engrossed in their own conversation. He was surprised Elena wasn't with them, but then seeing her move through the crowd towards them, he felt the smile cross his lips, "there's hardly enough time for us now, I don't think we'd cope with another one." While he denied it to his former ship mates, he secretly wondered if they should consider another, it would break up the threesome a little bit and perhaps give Elodie a playmate so she didn't have to be the middle man between Lucy and Zach all the time. He watched Elena as she walked towards them.

"Hey, there's my girl," he greeted as she stopped next to him and they wrapped their arms around each other.

"Elena, this is great. If we hadn't got this place I don't think we would have had such a good turn out," Mike acknowledged.

"Any reunion you want to hold you're welcome here, just give us the notice so we can have the cabins free for you for the weekend."

"It was a great idea, there's some great fishing in the river over there," Charge agreed.

"Not quite the one that got away though," Swain teased, a reflection back to when Charge hooked something big then lost everything when they were buzzed by a hijacked plane at sea.

Everyone laughed. Charge gritted his teeth, "Don't remind me."

…..

It was late when Kate and Elena snuck away from the crowd to check on the children. As they reached the top of the stairs they could hear the noise of excited voices from one end of the hallway while the other was quiet.

"Sounds like the little ones might be asleep," Elena stated with a relieved smile.

"I bet they'll all look cute, it's something you don't get with boys," Kate commented as they started to open the door to the youngest Mulholland's bedroom.

"I don't know," Elena whispered. "Zach can be pretty cute sometimes, although granted, not often."

"They're adorable," Kate murmured as Elena covered up Cassidy, Bomber's daughter who had kicked off her covers. "It must be good for Elodie to have someone about her own age to play with."

"It gives her a break from the older ones and the cabins wouldn't be the hit they are if wasn't for Bomber and Drew managing everything for us and helping to provide that whole ranch experience for the tourists."

Kate checked Lola as Elena kissed her daughter goodnight then they tiptoed out of the room to tackle the noisy older ones.

Deciding to divide and conquer Kate took the boys room, seeing as 2 of the 3 in there were hers and Elena opened the door to the girls' room to hear, Lucy, Serena and Nikki giggling wildly over some pin up in a magazine Chloe had left lying around. After a few brief words she was backing out the door when Lucy stopped her.

"Can we have a midnight feast?"

Elena shook her head. "Not tonight, you've already eaten enough to make you sick; I think it's time for lights out."

"But it's my Birthday; we can't have a sleepover and not have a midnight feast." Elena smiled as her daughter pouted.

"Maybe tomorrow if you're good, Kate's tucking the boys in and everyone's already asleep in Elodie's room so if you must talk keep it quiet, but you should go to sleep yourself or you'll miss the round up tomorrow."

After a few more disgruntled moans the girls allowed her to turn the lights off, except for a small one by Chloe's camp bed so that she didn't disturb them later. Finally backing out she met Kate creeping out of the boys' room.

"For once peace reigns, they must have worn themselves out today, they're all nearly asleep. I left a lamp on for Max."

"Thanks. It just leaves Charlotte on our patrol, unless Mike's been checking up on his godson's new baby daughter."

"More than likely, I'm not sure Ryan and Bird have had much of a chance to see Charlotte this afternoon with all the attention. Sorry I should be calling her Jessica, but old habits die hard."

"At least it stops her getting confused with my Jess," Elena countered rationally.

"You know that was the best move we made." Kate commented with a smile as they crept down the stairs towards the family room where Ryan and Bird had taken up residence on the pull-out couch and a travel cot sat in the corner for baby Charlotte.

"All we did was to invite them to the reunion, they did the rest themselves," responded Elena trying to make it sound less like a set up.

"Who did what?" a male voice challenged from the door way as they reached the bottom steps.

"Buff, you must have known we were talking about you and Jess," Kate greeted cheerily.

"Ah, the woman you introduced me to a couple of years back and is now my beautiful wife," he commented happily.

"The very same."

Elena kept quiet as the two bantered amicably for a minute until Buffer turned to her. "I told Jess I'd check on Nikki, is that okay?"

"We've just been in; they're starting to settle down. Maybe check on them later, any disturbance now could wake them up again."

"Buff why don't we join the others, you must owe me a dance," Kate cajoled gently as she looped her arm around his.

"For you ma'am I'll grant you that honour seeing as my wife is refusing to waddle across the dance floor with me," he answered.

"You sweet talk her right and she'll let you have the last dance even though she considers herself as big as a bus with your son." Elena felt quite proud of getting the final word in, or so she thought.

"And you're the only one she would let get away with that comment," he chuckled.

"I haven't had a chance to talk to either of you, so when is the big day expected?"

"6 weeks, you'd better come outside to hear the rest; Jessie won't forgive me if I tell you our other news without her."

"I think I already know, Nikki couldn't wait to tell us when she arrived," Elena shrugged apologetically and Buffer grinned.

"She is pretty excited," he agreed.

Wandering outside the three of them joined Dutchy and Jessie at one of the tables dotted around the yard. "How are they all doing?" Jess asked as they sat down.

*"The youngest are out, the boys nearly there and the girls might be if we don't disturb them anymore," Elena answered. "And as we haven't been able to talk all afternoon, I'd better let you know now that I've already heard about your plans."

"Nikki," Jess sighed. "Do you mind?"

"I know that Niko was her father and you've done a great job with her until now, but if it gives her more security as she grows up, especially with the new baby I don't mind as long as she's happy and the way she talked about it earlier I know she is." Elena looked around the gathered group and noticed the confused looks on Dutchy and Kate's faces. "I believe you need to let everyone else in on the conspiracy."

"No conspiracy," assured Buffer looking at Elena. "It's a big deal losing that link to your brother, if you have any concerns we won't go through with it."

"I'm not losing anything, Nikki will always be his daughter, but she's happy with her new life and you're a family now, I know you're not going to stop her from coming up here to visit so I've got nothing to worry about."

"No, you haven't, I still want you all to be a part of her life. It's important she doesn't lose that," Buffer continued, then looked across at Jessie, "which is why we're moving to Cairns. I've been reassigned to patrol boats."

Before anyone could say anything else a slight commotion had broken out on the dance floor and everyone gradually grew silent and Spider's voice rose above the murmurs which still rumbled. "Uh, I'm sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to say something."

Those at the table rose and joined the crowd around Spider and the girl standing at his side with her hand held firmly in his. He looked at her and smiled before casting his eyes over his former shipmates.

"Come on Spider, spit it out, you're interrupting the party," Buffer called, as he wrapped his arms around Jessie's waist and ran his hand over the baby bump.

"Sorry Buff," Spider answered a little nervously. "The thing is, I just asked Leanne to marry me and she said yes."

A cheer rose around the crowd and soon the party was in full swing again.

Dutchy wrapped an arm around Elena and lead her onto the dance floor. As they glided around to a slow ballad he watched the look in her eyes. "What are you thinking?" he asked.

"About the night we met, you promised me it would be memorable, it's definitely been that." Elena sighed, "it's not always been easy, but you know, I wouldn't change a thing."

"I told you Cinderella and the Prince worked out alright in the end," he murmured in her ear before trailing kisses down her jaw and seizing her lips in a slow smouldering kiss.


Thank you to everyone who has been reading, if you would like details of which children belong to which parents etc let me know as there are quite a few to keep track of.