~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~

 

“Impressive, isn’t it?”

 

Lucas glanced back at Kristin and nodded before turning back to stare at the towering white cliffs.  “Is this where you live?”

 

“No, I live in Cornwall which is in the southwestern part of England.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“It’s quite lovely there,” Kristin told him.

 

“But we’re not going there.  We’re going to that London, right?”

 

“Yes,” Kristin answered.  “I have a townhouse there and a small house just outside the city as well as the estate in Cornwall.”

 

“Do you think Cynthia is there?  At the London house?”

 

“She should be,” Kristin replied.  “At this time of the year her grandparents will be in the city and I am sure that she is with them.”

 

Lucas turned to look at her again.  “Mama?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Do you think Cynthia will like me?”

 

Kristin smiled and nodded as she slipped her arm about Lucas’ shoulders.  “She will adore you.  She’s always wanted a little brother.”

 

Lucas grinned.  “What about dad?  Do you think she’ll like him too?”  The smile fell from his face.  “I’m sorry…”

 

“What for?”  Kristin asked.  “It is all right to talk about your father, Lucas.  I won’t get upset.”

 

“Are you sure?”  Lucas questioned.  “I know how much you miss him.”

 

“I do miss him… something fierce,” she told him.  “But that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about him.”

 

Lucas smiled and nodded.  “So… do you think she’ll like him too?”

 

“Yes.  I think she will.”

 

His questions answered, Lucas turned his attention back to the water and the cliffs that were steadily growing closer.  “I miss him too,” he said in a quiet voice.

 

Kristin wrapped her other arm around him and drew him into her arms.  “I know,” she said and hugged him tight.

 

“How long till we get to London from here?”  Lucas asked as he moved out of her arms and leaned on the railing.

 

“It’s two day ride by carriage,” Kristin told him.  “And depending on how far behind us the seaQuest is will determine when we leave for London.”

 

“According to Captain Keller, they’re only about two hours behind us.”

 

“Good,” Kristin nodded.  “Then we should be on our way later today and be in London before we know it.”

 

“Mama,” Lucas turned to look at Kristin.  “When we get to London, do you think we can find something to eat other than stew?”

 

Kristin laughed.

 

~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~

 

“Do you think sending the seaQuest off to your shipyard like that was a good idea?”  Kreig asked Kristin as he settled into the seat across from her in the coach.

 

Kristin nodded.  “Yes, I do,” she said.  “You said the main mast was splintering again, right?”

 

“Mmhmm…”

 

“John Peterson is the best ship builder in England,” Kristin told him.  “And I would trust no other person with my husband’s ship…”

 

“But what if he recognizes it?”

 

“That is why I sent that note with Mr. Shan.”

 

“What if he thinks it’s a forgery?”

 

“He won’t.”

 

“How can you be sure?”

 

“Because I put a special mark on the letter that only I would use,” Kristin told him.  “When John sees that, he will know the note is authentic.”

 

“Ah,” Ben said.  “So, how long till we get to London?”

 

“Two days.”

 

“Two?  With or without a stopover?”

 

“With.”

 

Ben shifted around on the seat and laid his head in Katie’s lap.  “Wake me when we get there.”

 

~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~

 

“Ben… Ben… wake up!”

 

Ben’s eyes fluttered open as his wife gently shook his shoulder.  “Wha…?”

 

“We’re here!”  Katherine told him excitedly.

 

Ben slowly sat up then leaned in to give Katherine a quick kiss.  “You are by far, way more comfortable than that bed at the inn last night!”

 

“Thank you,” Katherine blushed slightly.

 

“So… we’re here?  Already?  That was fast!”  Ben said.

 

“To you maybe,” Lucas said from across the coach.  “You slept the whole way.”

 

Ben just grinned at the teen then looked out the window at the elegant home the carriage had stopped in front of.  “Nice house, Countess,” he said.

 

“Thank you,” Kristin replied and slipped out of the coach.

 

“Kristin?  What is it?”  Katherine asked as she climbed out to stand beside the older woman.

 

“I… I don’t know.  Something doesn’t seem right.”

 

“What?”

 

Kristin shook her head then gave Katherine a small smile.  “I guess I’m just anxious to see Cynthia again.”

 

“Well, you’re not going to see her if you remain standing here.”

 

“Good point,” Kristin laughed softly then walked up the few steps to the door and reached out to grab the handle.  “What the…?”

 

“What is it?”  Katherine asked as she quickly moved to Kristin’s side, Ben and Lucas right there with her.

 

“The door is locked,” Kristin said as she tried again to open it.  “It shouldn’t be…” she told them as she raised her hand to knock on the hard wood.

 

“Let me, Countess,” Ben said and gave the door a few solid raps.

 

Several minutes later the sound of a lock sliding away could be heard and then the door slowly swung open.

 

“Yes…?  Lady Westphalen?!”

 

Kristin smiled.  “Hello, Stephens.”

 

“Lady Westphalen?!”  He repeated.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Is it really you?”  Stephens asked in disbelief. 

 

“Yes, it’s really me,” Kristin chuckled.  “Why are you so surprised?”

 

“Because… we were told… we assumed that you were… that, that pirate killed you,” Stephens told her.  “We hadn’t heard anything since you were taken…”

 

“Hadn’t heard?  But I sent Cynthia a note a couple months ago…” Kristin told him as she moved past him into the house.  “Where is everything?”  She asked as she stepped into the almost barren room.  “Stephens, what is going on?  Where is my daughter?”

 

“All the furniture has been put into storage,” Stephens answered his mistress.

 

“On whose orders?”

 

“Lady Carruthers,” the man answered, his dislike for the woman obvious in his voice.

 

“What!?”  Kristin spun around to face her butler.

 

“When you didn’t return as scheduled from the test sail, your father sent out a ship to search for you.  They found nothing,” Stephens began to explain.  “A few weeks later, Captain Peterson and your crew returned to the shipyard where he informed your father that the ship had been attacked and that you and Miss Hitchcock has been taken by the infamous Blue Rogue.”

 

The hint of a smile flashed across Kristin’s face at the mention of her husband before she masked it.  “Then what happened?”

 

“At that point, you were presumed to be dead…”

 

“And Cynthia has not yet reached her majority,” Kristin nodded with a frown on her face.  “So Lavinia swooped in like a buzzard and took control.”

 

“That is about the size of it, milady,” Stephens replied.

 

“But I sent Cynthia a note,” Kristin said,  “letting her know I was all right and that I would be home as soon as I was able.”

 

“There was no such note delivered, Countess,” Stephens said.  “Unless…” he began thoughtfully then shook his head.  “No.  She wouldn’t…”

 

“You’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking are you, Stephens?” 

 

The old butler nodded.  “I’m afraid so.  I do recall coming into the room to see her slipping something in her pocket,” he said.  “Now it could be anything, but she did have this… almost triumphant look on her face.”

 

“No.  She wouldn’t…” Kristin began.  “I know Lavinia Carruthers can be a cold-hearted bitch on the hottest of days, but Cynthia is her granddaughter.  She wouldn’t let her believe… Where is my daughter?”

 

“At the summer house,” Stephens told her with an uncomfortable look on his face.

 

“What is it?”

 

“In,” he pulled out a pocket watch and popped it open,  “about four hours, Miss Cynthia is getting married.”

 

“Married?!  To whom?”

 

“Some… wet behind the ears pantywaist the dowager countess dug up from somewhere,” Stephens answered.

 

“Are you telling me she’s forcing my daughter to get married?!” 

 

“Yes, milady.”

 

“That no good…” Kristin began angrily.  “Where is this wedding taking place?”

 

“At the church in the village.”

 

“Are my parents there?”

 

“No, milady.”

 

“They obviously know about it though?”  Kristin stated then swore silently at Stephens’ answering nod. 

 

“Your mother hasn’t been well lately.  I heard that she took a fall and hurt her ankle.  Perhaps she didn’t feel well enough to travel to the wedding.”

 

Kristin twisted the sapphire ring on her finger for a moment then moved towards the door.  “Get back into the carriage,” she told Lucas, Katie and Ben then turned to Stephens.  “I want you to go to my father, tell him I am alive and well, and on my way to the summer house to put a stop to this… travesty of a wedding.  Have him join us as soon as he is able.”

 

“Yes, milady,” Stephens nodded,  “And good luck.”

 

“Thank you, Stephens,” Kristin said then looked up at the coachman and told him where she wanted him to take them.  “And if you can get us there in less than four hours, there will be some generous coin in it for you.”

 

~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~

 

“We are gathered together today in the sight of God to witness the joining of Percy and Cynthia in holy matrimony,” the reverend said.  “If any among you can show just cause why these two persons should not lawfully be joined together this day, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”

 

After a moment of silence, the reverend continued.

 

“Percy, wilt thou have this Woman to thy wedded Wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”

 

Percy nodded.  “I will.”

 

“Cynthia, wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded Husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”

 

Cynthia glared straight ahead, her lips set in a grim line that turned into a frown at the poke in her side.

 

The reverend looked at her.  “I ask you again child, wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded Husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”

 

“No she will NOT!”

 

The heads of the few people in attendance whipped around to see a windswept, travel-stained Countess of Kilhairn standing in the now open doors of the church.

 

“Mummy?”

 

A low murmur hummed through the small church as Kristin smiled and slowly walked down the aisle towards the alter, Lucas, Katie and Ben right behind her.

 

“Mummy?”  Cynthia repeated.  “Is it really you?”

 

“Yes, my darling.  It’s really me,” Kristin answered and then she was pulling her daughter into her arms; holding her tight as Cynthia began to weep.  “There, there… it’s all right…”

 

“I thought… they told me…” Cynthia sobbed.

 

“I know,” Kristin told her as she stroked her daughter’s auburn hair through the lace of her veil and shot an angry look at her mother-in-law.

 

“How… when…?”  Cynthia asked through her tears.

 

“I’ll tell you when we get back to the house,” Kristin answered then turned to Katie.  “Will you take her back to the manor?  I’ll be along once I take care of a few things here.”

 

“Yes, Kristin.”  Katie put her arms around a stunned Cynthia’s waist and led her down the aisle, Ben following close behind.

 

“Lucas, go with them,” Kristin told the youth.

 

Lucas shook his head.  “I’m staying here with you.”

 

Kristin smiled slightly at the determined look on his face then nodded before turning to face the small congregation where she recognized some of the faces.  “Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize… but there will be no wedding today.”  Kristin turned to face the minister.  “Reverend Hawkins, I am sorry we’ve wasted your time.”

 

“You can’t do this!” 

 

“You have no right!”

 

Lavinia and Percy called out at the same time as Kristin began to head up the aisle.

 

Kristin stopped then slowly turned.  “Oh, but I can,” she said in a low, calm voice.  “You see, I am the countess; I control Cynthia’s estate until such a time as she reaches her majority.  Without my permission she may not marry, and I do not give my permission for this union.”  Kristin smiled sweetly at them.  “Good day.”

 

Lucas grinned as Kristin turned her back on the assembled company and once again glided up the aisle with her son following after her.

 

~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~

 

“Where is she?”  Kristin asked as soon as she stepped into the house.

 

“She’s in the front room with Katie,” Ben told her.

 

“Thank you, Ben,” she said then turned to Lucas.  “I know you’re anxious to meet your sister…”

 

“But you two need a little time to catch up,” Lucas finished with a smile.  “I understand,” he said.  “I was actually going to ask you if I could go find the kitchen and get something to eat.”

 

Kristin laughed and pointed off in the general direction of the kitchen.  “Go… I’ll call you when it’s time.”

 

“Thanks, Mama,” he said and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before tearing off down the hall.

 

“I’ll go with him,” Ben told her as he followed the teen at a much slower pace,  “and keep him out of trouble.  Tell Katie to come join us.”

 

“Thank you, Ben,” Kristin called out to him as she moved to the parlour door.

 

Cynthia and Katherine looked up as the door opened.  Katie gave Cynthia a quick hug then stood and made her way across the room.

 

“Lucas and Ben are in the kitchen,” Kristin told the young woman.

 

Katherine nodded and left the room, pulling the door shut behind her as Kristin moved deeper into the interior. 

 

Mother and daughter met each other halfway; arms wrapping around each other in a fierce hug as tears poured down their faces.

 

“What happened?  Why were you gone so long?”  Cynthia sobbed into her mother’s shoulder.  “Why didn’t you let me know that you were alive?”

 

“Come… let’s sit down,” Kristin said as she guided Cynthia over to the lounge,  “and I’ll tell you everything.”

 

“You were taken by pirates… more specifically, the Blue Rogue,” Cynthia told her.  “John told us that much.”

 

Kristin nodded.  “Yes, both Katie and I were taken by the Blue Rogue.”

 

“That must have been horrible!”

 

“At first, yes… it was…”

 

“At first?”  Cynthia gave her mother a questioning look.

 

“I’d fallen and hit my head and when I woke up, I found myself trussed up in the Rogue’s cabin…”

 

“Did he?”

 

“No,” Kristin shook her head quickly then went on to explain about the first couple of weeks on the seaQuest, the battle of wills between her and Nathan.  “And then Lucas got sick.”

 

“Lucas?  Is that the young boy you brought with you?”

 

“Yes,” Kristin nodded.  “When he got sick, the Rogue and I took care of him… then I got sick and he took care of me…”

 

Cynthia watched her mother carefully, seeing something in her eyes she couldn’t identify.  “And then…?”

 

“Then he got sick and I took care of him,” Kristin told her and continued with the tale, leaving out her and Nathan’s stay on Monito, moving on to the attack on the British naval vessel and the rescue of William.

 

“He attacked a British ship!?”

 

“Yes, to save his godson who’d been taken by a press gang,” Kristin explained.

 

“Damned press gangs!”  Cynthia hissed and shook her head.

 

Kristin couldn’t help the small smile that came to her lips.  “So, once he found William, he sailed away.”

 

“After looting the ship and killing the crew no doubt,” Cynthia said sarcastically.

 

“No.  No one was hurt.  No one was killed,” Kristin stated.  “He’s never killed anyone, only freed those who’d been pressed into service.”

 

“But… but the rumours…”

 

“Are just that.  Rumours,” Kristin told her daughter.  “Nathan is not that kind of man.”

 

“Nathan?”  Cynthia raised her eyebrows at her mother.  “You’re on a first name basis with this pirate?”

 

“Yes…” Kristin answered as she unconsciously began to play with her sapphire ring.  “I got to know him quite well…”

 

“How well?”  Cynthia asked as her eyes drifted down to her mother’s fidgeting hands.

 

Kristin lifted her left hand and showed Cynthia her rings.  “Very well.”

 

“You married him!?  How could you?  He’s a pirate!  Just like the one that killed daddy,” Cynthia said,  “and Uncle James.”

 

“Nathan is nothing like the pirate that killed your father!”  Kristin fairly shouted.  “The man that killed your father and your uncle is an odious, vile and evil bastard!  Nathan is a kind… loving and gentle man,” she told her daughter.  “He’s generous and caring…”

 

“He’s a bloody pirate!”  Cynthia stated.

 

“No… he’s not.  Not really,” Kristin replied.  “He’s a man, who lost his only son to a press gang… who vowed revenge but in the end, couldn’t take that final step and kill the men on the ships he attacked.  He instead resorted to rescuing any men who’d been pressed into service…”

 

“You’re making him out to be some kind of hero!  He kidnapped you for heaven’s sake!”  Cynthia retorted.  “And left Captain Peterson and your crew to die on some island in the middle of nowhere.”

 

“He didn’t leave them to die,” Kristin said.  “He left them food and damaged the ship in such a way that they could repair it.”  A large smile formed on her face and she chuckled.  “But yes… Nathan did kidnap me, and I thank God every night that he did.”

 

Cynthia sat back in her chair, stunned.  She didn’t know what to make of her mother’s revelation that she’d married the man… the pirate.

 

“May I finish the story?”

 

Cynthia nodded.

 

“Once we’d rescued William, another ship attacked us,” Kristin told her.  “Nathan and I were taken prisoner by the pirates…”

 

Cynthia reached out to grab her mother’s hand at the visible shudder that passed through her.  “Mummy?”

 

“It was the pirate that killed your father… and your Uncle James,” Kristin whispered.

 

“Oh God…” Cynthia uttered and slipped her arm around her mother’s shoulders.  “How did you know… find out this was the pirate that…”

 

“He kept me in his cabin… and when he went down to the hold where he’d tossed Nathan, I looked around the room,” Kristin told Cynthia.  “I found your father’s pocket watch and your uncle’s signet ring in the desk… and it was the desk that made me realize that he’d kept your father’s ship.”

 

“How?”

 

“Your father built a chessboard into his desk… it was your father’s ship,” Kristin repeated in a quiet voice.  “Zellar killed Oliver and kept his ship.”

 

“Zellar?  It was Zellar who…?”  Cynthia’s eyes widened and she tightened her embrace.  “You don’t have to tell me anymore…”

 

“Needless to say, we managed to escape… actually, Zellar made Nathan walk the plank and I dove after him…”

 

“You dove after him?!”

 

“Yes.  We managed to swim to a nearby island, where Nathan’s crew rescued us,” Kristin said.  “And then we sailed to Nathan’s island… where, after some talking, we got married.”

 

“About that… I’m sure if you talked to grandfather, you could get the marriage dissolved,” Cynthia told her.

 

“Dissolved?  Why on earth would I want to do that?”

 

“You obviously were coerced into it…”

 

“I wasn’t coerced…”

 

“Mother…”

 

“Cynthia… I married Nathan of my own free will,” Kristin told her.  “I married him because I am in love with him.”

 

“After only a month?  Come on, Mother, be realistic,” Cynthia sighed. 

 

“Where love is concerned… there is no such thing as realistic,” Kristin smiled at her daughter.

 

“Then where is my new step-father, this noble paragon of virtue?”  Cynthia asked.  “Why didn’t he come with you?”

 

“Nathan had some business he needed to take care of,” Kristin answered.  “He will be joining us as soon as that’s been concluded.  Cynthia, the information that I’ve given you about Nathan could be very dangerous for him if the wrong people found out.  I trust you to keep it a secret.”

 

Cynthia merely nodded.  “So… who is the boy?  My new step-brother?”

 

“No.  He’s your new brother,” Kristin answered.  “Well, he will be as soon as Nathan and I can officially adopt him.”

 

A knock at the door stopped Cynthia from commenting.

 

“Come in,” Kristin called out.

 

“I thought you could use a cup of tea,” Katherine said as she entered the room carrying a tray.

 

“That sounds wonderful,” Cynthia smiled at her friend.

 

“Ben and Lucas are following with some sandwiches,” Katie said as she laid the tray on the coffee table.  “That is unless Lucas has eaten them all.”

 

“I didn’t touch any of them,” Lucas said as he walked into the room.

 

“You better not have,” Katherine retorted.

 

“He didn’t,” Ben said as he set the plate he was carrying, down beside the tea then sat next to Katie on the love seat. 

 

Cynthia watched curiously as Ben and Katherine’s hands laced together then turned her attention in time to see Lucas sit on the floor beside her mother and watched her mother reach out to ruffle the young man’s messy brown hair.

 

“Cynthia, this is Lucas… your new brother,” Kristin told her then turned to Lucas.  “And this is your new sister, Lucas.”

 

Lucas grinned at Cynthia as he quickly got to his feet and walked over to her.  He stretched out his hand to her as he continued to smile.

 

Cynthia regarded the gangly youth for a moment before placing her hand in his, surprised when he leaned down and pressed a quick kiss to her knuckles.

 

“I’m very glad to finally meet you, Cynthia,” Lucas said.  “Mama’s told me all about you and I’ve been very anxious to meet my big sister.”

 

Cynthia found herself smiling at the charming young man, despite telling herself not to.  “It’s nice to meet you too, Lucas.”

 

Lucas beamed then sat beside her on the couch, obviously pleased at her response and reached for one of the small sandwiches.

 

Kristin watched with a smile, relieved to see that Cynthia was accepting of Lucas, even if she wasn’t overly keen on the idea of her marriage.  She was just about to reach for one of the sandwiches when there was an urgent knock on the door.

 

“Yes?”

 

The door opened and the butler stepped in.  “Begging your pardon, Countess, but the dowager is demanding to see you.”

 

Kristin sighed.  She was just too tired to deal with Lavina Carruthers right now.  She shook her head.  “Godard, please tell the dowager that I will see her tomorrow.  I am currently catching up with my daughter.”

 

Godard couldn’t hide the slight grimace that came to his face as he nodded and left the room.  Moments later, shouting could be heard.

 

“I didn’t think she would take too kindly to that,” Kristin said and cringed as another loud shout could be heard.

 

Suddenly the parlour door flew open and an irate Lavinia burst into the room.  “How dare you refuse to see me!?  Me!?”

 

“Lavinia… I am tired,” Kristin told her.  “We’ve been in a carriage for the last two days.  I am dirty, hungry and exhausted.”

 

“That is of no concern of mine,” Lavinia said.  “You will explain yourself and your actions earlier in the church.”

 

Kristin rose to her feet and slowly advanced on the elder woman while the four others exchanged glances.  “I repeat, Lavinia,” she said in a deadly calm voice and stopped just in front of her mother-in-law.  “I am tired, dirty and hungry.  I am going to have a sandwich then go upstairs where I am planning on taking a bath and then I am going to bed.  Anything you’d care to discuss can wait until tomorrow when I have sufficiently rested.”

 

Lavinia’s face grew red as she lifted her hand, finger pointed at Kristin.  “No! We will discuss it now!”

 

“No we will not!”  Kristin replied and placed her hands on her hips.  “I told you what will be happening tonight and that is that!”  She said then called out for Godard.

 

“Yes, milady?”

 

“Please have the maids make up the spare room on the first floor for the dowager,” Kristin told him.  “And then you can retire for the evening.”

 

“Yes, milady and thank you,” Godard nodded and left.

 

“I will talk with you tomorrow, Lavinia,” Kristin told her as she turned and settled back on the lounge beside Cynthia.

 

Lavinia’s eyes narrowed then with a flip of her skirts, she left the parlour.

 

“Mama…?”  Lucas looked over his sister at his mother and asked in a slightly worried voice.  “With you adopting me… that doesn’t make that woman my grandma does it?”

 

Kristin bit her lip to keep from laughing and shook her head.  “No, Lucas…”

 

“Whew… thank you.  I was worried,” he said then turned to Cynthia.  “Sorry… no insult intended.”

 

Cynthia, like her mother was biting her lip.  “None taken.  Grandmother can be… quite scary at times.”

 

“You can say that again,” Lucas replied.

 

Kristin chuckled softly then suddenly yawned.  “Oh my…” she covered her mouth with her hand.  “Yes, I think it is time we all call it a night.”

 

“But, Mama…” Lucas began.  “It’s not even completely dark yet.”

 

“I know, Lucas,” Kristin said as she stood.  “But we’ve had a hectic couple of days…”

 

“I’m not tired,” he tried again.  “I don’t want to go to bed…”

 

“Then you can read a book in your room,” Kristin told him then smiled as he sighed in defeat and nodded with a muttered ‘yes, Mama’.  “And I’ll bet you’ll be asleep before you finish a page.”

 

~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~

 

Kristin and Cynthia walked arm in arm down the hall towards their respective rooms after having settled Lucas in his room and Ben and Katie in their room.

 

“I am so glad you’re home, Mummy,” Cynthia told her mother when they stopped in front of her bedroom.  “I’ve missed you terribly.”

 

“I’ve missed you too, sweetheart,” Kristin replied and drew Cynthia into her arms for a fierce hug.

 

Cynthia pulled out of the hug and looked at her mother.  “You didn’t say you were glad to be home… you are glad aren’t you, Mummy?”

 

“I’m glad to be with you, Cynni,” Kristin told her daughter.  “But… home for me now is with Nathan.  And whether that is here in England or the Americas or even his Caribbean island, that remains to be seen.”

 

“You could leave England?”  Cynthia gave her mother a questionable look before she turned and entered her room.

 

Kristin followed, shutting the door behind her.  “Yes, I could.”

 

“How?  England is your home.  It is where you were born… raised… your family is here.  How could you leave it?  And for some man you’ve only known for a couple of months?”

 

“For my husband… a man I love with all my heart and who is the other half of my soul…” Kristin told her.  “For that reason… I could live anywhere, as long as he was with me.”

 

Cynthia shook her head as she reached behind her to begin undoing the fasteners of her dress.  Kristin stepped up behind her daughter, brushed away her hands and began to undo the tiny buttons.

 

“You’re still young, Cynni and you’ve not yet been in love,” Kristin told her.  “And when you finally find that one certain someone you’re destined to be with, then you will understand what I’m talking about.”

 

“Destined??  Are you saying that you and this pirate were destined to be together?  What about Daddy?”  Cynthia turned to face her mother.  “What was he?  Just a stop along the way?”

 

“Oh, Cynthia… I loved your father,” Kristin told her.  “And we had a very good marriage, but what I felt for Oliver is nothing compared to what I feel for Nathan, because Nathan returns my love in a way your father never could.”

 

“Daddy loved you!”

 

“Your father cared about me, and I suppose in his own way loved me,” Kristin said.  “But he was never in love with me.  You know what society is about… marriages arranged for status and profit where most women are forced to marry a man they don’t even know much less have feelings for…”

 

“Much like grandmother almost made me do today.”

 

“Exactly.  With your father and I it was a little different.  He chose me… and I was agreeable to the match,” Kristin replied.  “With Nathan… we didn’t have a choice either… our not being together just wasn’t and isn’t an option.”

 

“I don’t understand, Mummy…” Cynthia sighed as she shrugged out of her dress.  “It was a big enough shock to find out that you were still alive… and now I learn that I have a new step-father and a new brother…” her voice trailed off and she looked helplessly at her mother.

 

“I know, Cynni… it will just take time for you to get used to the idea,” Kristin said as she placed her hands on Cynthia’s shoulders.  “And you can have all the time you need.”

 

Cynthia smiled at her mother.  “Thank you, Mummy.”

 

“Nothing to thank me for,” Kristin said.  “You’re my daughter… and I love you.  Nothing will ever change that.”

 

“I love you too, mum,” Cynthia replied and hugged her mother.  “Now… go to bed.  You really do look exhausted.”

 

Kristin nodded and moved to the door.  She paused before opening it and looked back at her daughter.  “I do have one favour to ask…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“I would like it if you did not mention to anyone that Nathan and the Blue Rogue are one in the same,” Kristin said.  “At least until you have met your new step-father.”

 

Cynthia thought a moment then nodded.  “I promise.  I won’t say a word.”

 

“Thank you, Cynni.”

 

“You’re welcome, Mummy.”

 

“Pleasant dreams, sweetheart.”

 

“For you too.”

 

Kristin smiled, opened the door then left her daughter’s bedroom and headed for her own.

 

~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~

 

Kristin stepped into her bedroom, closed the door and leaned against it with a sigh.  It’d been a long day.  ‘Cynthia is right… I’m exhausted.’

 

With an obvious effort, Kristin pushed herself off the door and moved across the room to where her luggage had been placed on the settee.  She opened the case and rifled through it for one of her nightgowns until a flash of deep blue caught her eye.  She grabbed the silky material and pulled it out of the case.

 

“Oh… Nathan…” Kristin sighed his name as she brought Nathan’s shirt to her nose and inhaled deeply, a low moan escaping her as his scent overwhelmed her.

 

‘Could I…?’ she wondered as she rubbed the cool silk against her cheek.  A slow smile spread across her face as she placed the shirt on top of her open luggage then began to unfasten her dress.

 

Several minutes later, wrapped in the familiar comfort of Nathan’s shirt, Kristin slipped beneath the blankets and curled up around her pillow.  She gently fingered her sapphire ring and stared out the window at the night sky as she whispered Nathan’s name.  “Be well, my love…” Kristin prayed before she fell asleep.

 

~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~

 

Kristin looked over the rim of her cup as her mother-in-law swept into the breakfast room.

 

“Mama?” Lucas spoke softly.  “May I please be excused?”

 

Kristin smiled and nodded.  “Yes.”

 

“Thank you,” he said as he pushed back his chair, rose and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before scampering out of the room and leaving Kristin alone with the dowager countess.

 

“Did I hear right?  Did that young… boy just call you his mother?”  Lavinia asked Kristin as she sat down at the end of the table.

 

“Yes he did,” Kristin replied and took another sip of her tea.

 

“His accent is American is it not?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And where did you… find him?”

 

“He was on board the ship I was on…” Kristin said as she put her cup back on the saucer.  “But you didn’t come here to talk about my son… so what do you want, Lavinia?”

 

Lavinia’s eyes narrowed as she stared down the table at Kristin.  “You know very well what I want.  You will explain your actions yesterday in the church.”

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

“You heard me!  You had no right bursting into the church as you did and stopping that wedding,” Lavinia said.  “Do you know how hard I worked to find that young man for Cynthia?”

 

“You should have worked a little harder,” Kristin muttered sarcastically.

 

Lavinia’s eyes flashed.  “I’ll have you know that Percy comes from a very good, very old family…”

 

“And is more feminine than my daughter!”  Kristin told her.

 

“That is… he is… no he isn’t!”  Lavinia stuttered then frowned.  “Well, if you had exerted more control over the girl she would be more feminine… more befitting her station in society…”

 

“Like those uppity society girls you would have her socialize with?”

 

“Better than the riff raff you would have her be around,” Lavinia said.  “Imagine, a girl of Cynthia’s position milling about with sailors and workers.”

 

“Good, honest, hard working men,” Kristin told her.

 

“They are commoners…”

 

“Men who have had to work hard for their money and their place in this world,” Kristin said.  “I will not have my daughter thinking that everything is to be handed to her on a silver platter simply because she was born into money.”

 

“So you let her go wild… traipse around without her shoes… her hair flying about…” Lavinia told her.  “Turning down proposals from Dukes… she is a spinster!”

 

“She is only twenty-three years old…”

 

“My point exactly,” Lavinia interrupted.  “She should be married already with a couple of heirs…”

 

“I disagree,” Kristin said.  “And I will not force my daughter to marry a man she does not love.”

 

“Like you were forced to marry my son?”  Lavinia spat out.

 

“I was not forced to marry your son,” Kristin said.  “Oliver and I had a good marriage, despite your repeated attempts at interfering.  I know you did not want Oliver to marry me… and I know it eats at you that you were unable to control my every move, but I will not allow you to interfere in Cynthia’s life.”

 

“She should be married!”

 

“She will be!  When she is damn good and ready,” Kristin told Lavinia,  “and not a moment before.”

 

“And just who will want to marry her?  She will be too old!”  Lavinia shouted.

 

“She will find the one she is meant to be with when she is meant to find him,” Kristin retorted, refusing to yell.

 

“You are doing her a grave disservice by allowing her this freedom,” Lavinia told Kristin.  “Mark my words.  She will either end up old and alone, or married to some… nobody who is only after her money.”

 

“Like the young… man you tried to marry her off to?” 

 

“How can you do this?  This was not the way you were raised,” Lavinia said.  “You know it is a woman’s duty to marry and provide heirs for her husband.”

 

Kristin winced slightly at the words she’d been taught and grown up with.  At the same moment, conversations she’d had with Nathan and Janet came back to her and she shook her head.  “No!  Marriage and children should be a joy… not a duty!  I will not have my daughter marry some stuffed-shirt who is only interested in her inheritance and having her be his breeder.”

 

Lavinia looked at Kristin thoughtfully.  “There is something different about you,” she said suddenly, completely changing the subject.  “Something happened to you when you were gone.  Something to alter your way of thinking.”

 

“I’ve always thought this way… at least where Cynthia was concerned, and you know that,” Kristin replied.

 

“No,” Lavinia shook her head.  “I can’t place my finger on it… that boy… you called him your son…”

 

“Yes,” Kristin nodded, not seeing where Lavinia was headed.

 

“You are adopting him?”  Lavinia stated more than asked.

 

“Yes, as a matter of fact I am,” Kristin replied as she unconsciously began to twist her engagement ring.

 

Lavinia’s eyes darted to the movement and widened at the sight of the large sapphire and diamond ring.  “What is that!?”

 

“What is what?”

 

“On your finger…” Lavinia pointed at Kristin’s hands.

 

Kristin looked down at her hands and realized that she’d been playing with her rings.  She couldn’t help the small smile that came to her lips as she thought about Nathan.  “Oh,” Kristin held up her left hand and wiggled her fingers slightly,  “did I forget to mention that I married?”

 

“You’re what?”

 

“Married,” Kristin answered.  “To a wonderful man.”

 

“So these last few months while your family has been sick with worry, you’ve been off… gallivanting across the ocean and marrying a stranger?”  Lavinia said.  “What kind of mother does that to her child?  Stays away without so much as even a word…”

 

“Now hold it right there!”  Kristin planted her hands on the table and stood up.  “You know very well that I sent Cynthia a note telling her I was all right and that I would be home as soon as possible.”

 

“I know no such thing!”

 

“You’re lying and we both know it, Lavinia,” Kristin told her.  “Why’d you do it?  Why did you let Cynthia believe… your own granddaughter!  How could you do it?”

 

“I did nothing!”  Lavinia said as she stood.  “Perhaps… it is your own guilt you are feeling.”

 

“My… my guilt?”  Kristin almost laughed.

 

“Yes… your guilt for gallivanting across the ocean while your daughter… your family grieved for you…” Lavinia stated.  “Tell me, Kristin… how do you live with yourself knowing the hurt you caused your daughter?”

 

“It was not I who hurt Cynthia, it was you,” Kristin said.  “You kept the note I wrote to Cynthia away from her… and let her continue to believe I was dead so that you could get control over her estates and marry her off to some milksop of your choosing… someone you knew you could control.”

 

Before Lavinia could respond, the parlour door swung open and a tall, distinguished older gentleman strode into the room.  Kristin smiled as she moved away from the table and into the man’s arms.

 

“Father,” she sighed as he wrapped his arms around her.

 

“Krissy…” Lionel Westphalen whispered his daughter’s name as he embraced her.  “Oh thank God…” he said with a glance heavenward before he gripped her shoulders and pushed her away so that he could look at her face.  “We didn’t believe it when Stephens came to the door with the news… but it really is you.”

 

“Yes, Father… it is me,” Kristin said.

 

“What happened?  Where have you been?  Peterson said you’d been taken by pirates… your mother and I thought… since we hadn’t heard anything, we were afraid that you were dead,” Lionel told her.

 

“I know… I’m sorry you and mother have been so worried,” Kristin said.  “I did send a note to Cynthia,” she glanced over at Lavinia and shot her a dirty look,  “but apparently Cynni never received it.”

 

“That doesn’t matter any longer,” Lionel said with a wave of his hand.  “All that matters is that you’re home and alive!”

 

Kristin smiled and looked around her father.  “Where is mother?”

 

“Still in London…” Lionel answered.  “When Stephens came to the house with the news, I immediately arranged an audience with the king and had control of Cynthia’s estates returned to you.”

 

“Thank you, Father,” Kristin replied then turned to her mother-in-law.  “You can go home, Lavinia,” she said.  “Your presence is no longer needed or required.”

 

Lavinia scowled as she stalked out of the room.

 

“What was that about?”  Lionel asked.

 

Kristin shook her head.  “Lavinia and I were having a disagreement about how my daughter has been raised.  She was not very happy with me for having stopped Cynthia’s wedding yesterday.”

 

“Cynthia’s… wedding?”

 

Kristin gave her father a dirty look.  “Don’t tell me you didn’t know that horrid woman was all set to marry Cynthia off yesterday.”

 

“I swear to you, I did not know…” Lionel began then sighed at the glare Kristin shot at him and moved over to the table to sit.  “You get that look from your mother,” he said as Kristin continued to glare at him.  “All right… I was aware that Lavinia was looking for suitors, and I had heard a rumour that she had found someone but I dismissed them when I heard she’d chosen the Granger boy…”

 

“You shouldn’t have dismissed them.”

 

“You mean… she actually approved of a match between Cynthia and that… that boy?!”

 

“Yes,” Kristin replied.  “And I got here just in time to stop it.”

 

“Bloody hell!”  Lionel swore.  “I swear to you, Krissy… if I’d known… I would have stopped it.”

 

“Would you have stopped it if she’d found someone you did approve of?”  Kristin asked.

 

“If it was not something Cynthia wanted… you know I would have,” Lionel replied.  “But, Kristin… it is time that the girl seriously thinks about settling down and getting married.”

 

Kristin frowned as she tried to fight back the sudden surge of anger she felt at her father’s words.  “I can’t believe you just said that!”

 

“What?  Cynthia is twenty-three years old… she is long past the acceptable marrying age…”

 

“Acceptable!?”

 

“You yourself were seventeen…”

 

“That was me!  We are talking about my daughter,” Kristin said in an angry voice.

 

“Yes, we are,” Lionel said as he stood.  “I love my granddaughter and I would never interfere with how you’re raising her, but it is about time that she settles down in a good marriage…”

 

“And starts having babies… right, Father?”  Kristin retorted sarcastically then shook her head.  “No!  When Cynthia is ready to be married and has found a man she loves… then she will be married.  I will not force her to marry a man she does not love and does not know… simply to appease society or her grandparents’ outdated notions.”

 

Lionel held up his hands in supplication.  “I do not wish to argue with you, daughter.”

 

Kristin closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  “I’m sorry, Father.  I did not mean to yell.  Perhaps I am still tired from the journey.”

 

Lionel nodded then gestured to the table.  “Come… sit and let’s have some tea.”

 

Kristin smiled and returned to the table.  She sat down and poured them each a cup of tea.  After several minutes of silence, her father finally spoke.

 

“Will you tell me what happened?  All I know is what Peterson told us.  That you and young Katherine had been taken by pirates.”

 

Kristin took a long sip of her tea.  “I’d gotten hurt in the melee… I’d tripped and banged my head against a barrel.  When I woke up, I found myself in the captain’s cabin…” she told him.  “Needless to say, I wasn’t too pleased and let him know it in no uncertain terms.”

 

Lionel couldn’t help but smile.  His daughter had a wicked and sharp tongue, and woe to the man she chose to use it on.  “Then what happened?”

 

Kristin hesitated.  “There was an engagement with another ship… and both Katherine and I were rescued by an American captain.”

 

Lionel’s eyes narrowed.  She was leaving something out.  He could sense it.  “You were gone for over three months…”

 

“Yes… the American captain had some urgent business he needed to attend to before he could sail us home,” Kristin told her father.  “At one of the ports we stopped at, he arranged it so that I could send Cynthia a note… but because we had no coin, we could not arrange passage home.”

 

“I’m sure you would have been able to do so,” Lionel said.  “You are a countess… surely someone would have issued you a credit for passage?”

 

“Father… all my clothes had been left on the Spirit,” Kristin said.  “And the one dress I had, had seen better days.  The American captain had already promised to take us home, so I saw no need to try and haggle passage somewhere else.”

 

Lionel set down his teacup and regarded his daughter.  Again he was sure that she was leaving something out and his knowledge of pirates had him fearing the worst.  “Kristin…” her father began in a serious voice as he laid down his teacup.  “You do know… no matter what happened… you can talk to me…”

 

“Well…” Kristin began slowly, wishing Nathan was with her to tell her father the news of their marriage.  “I got married, Father.”

 

Westphalen did a double take.  “You what!?”

 

“I got married,” Kristin answered.

 

“To whom?”

 

“The American captain,” she told him.

 

“Of all the foolish…” Lionel exploded.  “Why on earth would you do something so idiotic like that!?”

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

“I thought you were smarter than that!”  Lionel told her.

 

“Foolish?  Idiotic?”  Kristin repeated in a low, angry voice.

 

“Why, Krissy?  How could you do such a thing?”  Lionel asked then his face paled.  “You weren’t… compromised by those pirates were you?”

 

“No, I wasn’t compromised by the pirates.”

 

“Then why?  Did that American force you to marry him?  Is that it?!”  Lionel asked as he pushed himself to his feet, knocking the chair over as he began to pace the room.  “Well… I will go back to London… have the marriage dissolved…”

 

“Father…”

 

“You were forced into this…”

 

“Father!”

 

“This… this American,” he spat out the term,  “will not get his hand on one cent of your money…”

 

“FATHER!!”  Kristin yelled.

 

Westphalen stopped and looked at her.

 

“I was not forced into this marriage.  I chose to marry him,” she told him through clenched teeth.  “I love him… and he loves me.”

 

“Of course he does,” Lionel said.  “And of course, the fact that you are a member of the peerage and a very wealthy woman has no bearing on his feelings or why he married you.”

 

“They weren’t,” Kristin said.  “My title and my wealth were not an issue when he proposed to me.”

 

“Of course they weren’t,” Lionel repeated with a sneer.  “Well then… where is he?”

 

“He’s off on business,” Kristin answered. 

 

“Naturally,” Lionel shook his head.  “Sometimes, Krissy, I don’t think you use that head God put on your shoulders.”

 

“Kristin!  My name is Kristin,” she told him.  “Krissy is what you called me when I was a little girl.  I am not a child, Father!”  Kristin stopped and took a deep breath.  “You will not have my marriage dissolved.  Nathan and I married because we love each other and want to spend the rest of our lives together.  He has his own money and doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about mine.”

 

Lionel shook his head as he made his way across the room to the cabinet holding the spirits.  He opened the cabinet, took out a bottle of brandy, poured a fifth in a glass then knocked it back.

 

“Isn’t it a little early for that?”

 

“Probably…” he said as he poured himself another splash.  He quickly downed that then replaced the stopper in the bottle and returned the brandy to the cupboard.  “How long until my new son-in-law makes an appearance?”

 

“I don’t know…”

 

“You don’t know!?”  Lionel questioned in a loud voice.

 

“NO!  I don’t!”  Kristin replied in an equally loud voice.  “But as soon as his business is finished, he will be here.”

 

Westphalen shook his head.  “Oh, daughter… I believe you have been taken for a fool!  This man will never turn up, or if he does… it will only be to try and get his hands on your money.”

 

Kristin’s eyes narrowed and she glared at her father.  All of a sudden Lucas burst into the room.

 

“I saw the old cow leave.  May I help myself to some more breakfast?”  He asked in a breathless rush then came to a sudden halt when he realized his mother had company.  “I’m sorry, Mama…” Lucas began to apologize for his hasty entrance then stopped when he sensed the tension in the room and stepped closer to Kristin.

 

Kristin bit back the small smile that sprang to her lips as Lucas moved to her side and assumed a protective stance.  “It’s all right, Lucas…” she said and laid her hand on his arm.

 

“Krissy, who is this?”  Lionel demanded as he stared at the gangly youth.

 

“This is my son, Father.  His name is Lucas,” Kristin answered.

 

“Your… your…?” Lionel stuttered.  “Your son?”

 

“Yes.  My son,” Kristin said.  “Lucas… this is my father… your grandfather, Lionel Westphalen.”

 

“Nice to meet you, sir,” Lucas spoke to the older man and held out his hand.

 

Lionel frowned even as he reached out to shake the young man’s hand.

 

“Go get your food, Lucas,” Kristin told her son.  “And take it out onto the patio to eat.”

 

“Yes, Mama,” Lucas replied as he left his mother’s side and moved over to where the food was laid out.  As he filled his plate, he kept a wary eye on his new grandfather.  When his plate was full he turned to Kristin.  “Mama…?”

 

“Go on, Lucas,” she nodded at him and favoured him with a small smile.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Lucas said before he left the room though the open French doors.

 

“What was that all about?”  Lionel asked in a loud voice once Lucas was gone.  “Your son?”

 

“Yes… my son,” Kristin repeated her earlier words.

 

“How?”

 

“Nathan and I are adopting him,” she said.

 

“You’re what?”

 

“Adopting him.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because he has no family.  Because it is the humane thing to do,” Kristin told him.  “But most importantly because we love him!”

 

“First you tell me you’ve gotten married to some lowly American sailor and now you’re telling me that you’re adopting some… some skinny, snot-nosed child?” 

 

“He is not…”

 

“It’s just like when you were a child,” Lionel said, talking over her.  “You’d always bring home strays… wanting to adopt and take care of them all… you can’t keep doing this.  You have responsibilities…”

 

“Father stop!”  Kristin said in a loud voice.  “That’s enough!”

 

“I beg your pardon?!”  Lionel replied in a low voice, his eyes narrowed.

 

“You heard me!  Enough.  I will not tolerate you coming into my house and insulting my choice in husbands and my son!”  Kristin told him.  “Now, please… give my best to mother and tell her I will be up to see her soon.”

 

With that, Kristin turned and swept out of the room, leaving her father to stare open-mouthed after her.

 

~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~ ~sQ~

 

sail ahead...