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

 

“What about this one?”

 

“Uhm… no.  I don’t like it.  Too frilly.”

 

Janet sighed and put the bonnet back on the shelf then picked up a different one and held it up for her daughter.  “How’s this one?”

 

Clarissa wrinkled her nose and shook her head.

 

“Claire…” Janet began in an exasperated voice as she stared at her sixteen-year old daughter.

 

“Sorry, Mother,” Clarissa replied.  “But why do I need a bonnet?  They cause my head to itch.”

 

Janet looked thoughtful for a moment then slowly smiled.  “Well… I guess you don’t really need to wear one if you don’t want to.”

 

“Oh thank you, Mother,” Clarissa smiled.

 

“You’re welcome, honey,” Janet returned Clarissa’s smile.  “I suppose we should head for the luncheon now.  It wouldn’t hurt us to be a little early.”

 

“Or we could head over to Aunt Kristin’s and leave for the luncheon with her,” Clarissa suggested.

 

“That’s a wonderful idea,” Janet nodded.  “Lord knows she could use the support…”

 

“Is her father still trying to marry her off?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Why doesn’t he believe that she’s married to Uncle Nathan?”

 

“I don’t know, Claire.  I don’t know.”

 

“How does this one look?”  A nasal voice with a decidedly American twang echoed across the shop.

 

“Mother?  What is it?”  Clarissa asked her mother at the frown that formed on her face.

 

“Oh no… please… it can’t be,” Janet muttered.

 

“Janet!”

 

Clarissa watched her mother wince at the loud call of her name and looked over Janet’s shoulder to see a tall, spindly woman with dark hair and stark features walking towards them; a younger brunette trailing docilely behind her.

 

Janet sighed then pasted a smile on her face before she turned to face the approaching women.  “Alexandra!”

 

“I was telling Wendy that is was you!”  Lexie crowed as she stopped in front Janet, Wendy stepping up beside her.  “What are you doing in London?”

 

“We’re living here… for the time being,” Janet answered.  “Bill has been assigned to the embassy as a Naval attaché.”

 

“How… nice for you,” Lexie replied then turned to Clarissa.  “And this is?”

 

“Oh, forgive my manners,” Janet said.  “This is my daughter Clarissa.  Claire, this is Mrs. Alexandra Smith and her daughter Wendy.”

 

Claire caught the hint of a smirk on her mother’s face and could hear the slight disdain in her voice as she made the introductions and took a moment to observe the two women standing before her. 

 

“Clarissa.  What a lovely name,” Alexandra said,  “for such a lovely young lady.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Oh, this is just perfect,” Alexandra clapped her hands in delight.  “Wendy and I were going for lunch as soon as we purchased her a bonnet.  She freckles so easily in the sun you know and we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to invest in the latest styles.  I’ve heard about this wonderful little restaurant not too far from here…”

 

Clarissa looked over at her mother and bit back the smile that threatened to form at the exasperated look in her mother’s eyes as the elder Smith continued to prattle on. 

 

“And then, after lunch, we could do some more shopping…”

 

“Mother, we’re going to be late.  You know how much the countess hates tardiness.”

 

It was Janet’s turn to bite back a smile at the stunned look on Lexie’s face as Clarissa interrupted her.

 

“Oh… am I keeping you from an appointment?”  Lexie asked.

 

“Actually, yes,” Janet answered.  “We are on our way to a luncheon being held by the Baroness Wakefield.”

 

“But your daughter… she mentioned something about a countess?”

 

“She did?  Oh yes,” Janet smiled.  “The Countess of Kilhairn.  We are traveling to the luncheon together,” she replied then nodded her head towards the Smiths.  “Well, if you’ll excuse us, Claire is correct… the countess really does hate to be kept waiting and we are due at her home shortly.”

 

“Oh it is not a problem at all… Wendy and I would love to join you,” Lexie said and looked at her daughter.  “Wouldn’t we, Wendy?”

 

“Of course, Mother.”  Wendy replied in a quiet voice.

 

“Uhm… well, the luncheon is by invitation only,” Janet told Alexandra.  “I’m afraid it would be quite ill-mannered for me to presume to bring you along.  The baroness is quite particular about her parties… otherwise, you know I would be more than happy to have you join us.”

 

Lexie waved her hand about and smiled at Janet.  “Think nothing of it, dear.  I understand completely.  Perhaps we can get together another day.”

 

“That would be fine,” Janet nodded then turned to Clarissa.  “Let us be going.”

 

“Yes, Mother,” Clarissa smiled at her mother; impressed with the smooth way she’d handled the overbearing Alexandra.

 

“Lexie.  Wendy,” Janet inclined her head at the two women then turned and walked away.

 

Clarissa, still smiling, followed.  Once they were outside the hat shop and ensconced in a carriage, she began to laugh.

 

“What is so funny?”  Janet asked.

 

“You are incredible!”  Clarissa managed between peals of laughter.  “I love how you handled that witch and her daughter.”

 

Janet grinned and began to chuckle.  “Thank you.”

 

“And just wait till Aunt Kristin hears about this…”

 

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

 

“You’ll never guess who I ran into today?”  Janet teased as she slid into a chair beside Kristin.

 

Kristin looked at her friend.  “Lexie Smith and her witch of a daughter.”

 

Janet’s mouth fell open.  “Claire told you!”

 

Kristin was stunned.  “You mean I’m right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I wasn’t being serious, Janet…”

 

“I was.”

 

Kristin frowned.  “So… the Smiths really are here in London?”

 

“I’m afraid so.”

 

“I would have thought they would be sailing back home by now.”

 

“Well… you know Lexie,” Janet began with a smile on her face.  “That woman never knows when to go home.”

 

Kristin laughed softly then groaned.

 

“Kristin, are you all right?”  Janet asked reaching out to lay her hand on Kristin’s arm.

 

“I was…” she answered then gestured with her eyes to the opposite side of the room.

 

“Good heavens… is that man following you?”  Janet remarked as her eyes fell on General Thomas standing against the far wall; his attention focused solely on Kristin. 

 

“I’m beginning to wonder…” Kristin said.

 

“He’s been at every party and luncheon we’ve been at for the last couple of weeks.  And he always seems to be watching you.”

 

“I know,” Kristin sighed and stopped herself from laying her hands on her belly when she felt the child within kick; knowing that her dress still hid her condition quite well and she wasn’t ready to confirm the rumours.

 

Janet caught the note of apprehension in her friend’s voice and turned back to her.  “Kristin… you don’t think Thomas is…”

 

“Yes,” Kristin nodded, doing her best to ignore the American general.  “I do.  He always seems to find some reason to…” she shuddered.

 

“To what?”  Janet asked then narrowed her eyes.  “Kristin… he hasn’t… tried anything has he?”

 

“No.  Not what you’re thinking,” Kristin reassured her friend.  “He just… he makes my skin crawl… and when he kisses my hand in greeting,” she gave a small shiver of revulsion.

 

Janet chuckled lightly. 

 

“And like you pointed out, he’s been at every event we have,” Kristin told her.

 

“You know… now that I think about it… it does feel like more than a coincidence,” Janet said thoughtfully.  “Why do you suppose that is?”

 

“I don’t know,” Kristin shook her head.

 

“The tone of your voice makes me think that you do,” Janet told her.  “You think it’s your father, don’t you?”

 

Kristin nodded sadly.  “My father was the first person to introduce me to the general…” she sighed.  “I know he means well… truly I do.”

 

“But you wish he would just accept your word that you’re married?”

 

“Yes,” Kristin answered as she began to twist the rings on her finger.

 

“He will be here, Kristin,” Janet told her watching the sapphire turn around and around on Kristin’s finger.

 

“I know, Janet… I know,” Kristin smiled at her friend then gasped.

 

“Kristin?”

 

“It’s okay,” Kristin said then continued in a whisper.  “The little one here tends to get active whenever Nathan is mentioned.”

 

Janet smiled then groaned.

 

“What?”

 

“Thomas is heading this way.”

 

“Oh no…”

 

“Follow my lead,” Janet said in a low voice then turned looked up just as the general stopped before them.

 

“Good afternoon, ladies,” Thomas smiled down at them.

 

“General,” Kristin inclined her head in acknowledgement of his presence.

 

“General,” Janet echoed.

 

“Countess,” Thomas began.  “I was wondering if I might have a word with you… in private?”

 

“Actually, General,” Janet began as she stood.  “Lady Westphalen and I were just about to retire to freshen up a bit before luncheon is served.”

 

“Perhaps later then?”  The general said.

 

“Perhaps,” Kristin said as she stood as well.

 

Thomas smiled as the women moved past him before he could say another word.

 

“Thank you,” Kristin breathed a sigh of relief as they entered the ladies retiring room.

 

“You’re welcome,” Janet replied as they moved to sit in the far corner of the room away from any traffic moving in and out of the area.

 

Kristin leaned back against the lounge she was seated on and closed her eyes as she finally allowed herself to smooth her hands over her gravid stomach.

 

“Is it just me or have you gotten bigger?”  Janet asked.

 

Kristin smiled but kept her eyes closed.  “I’ve gotten bigger,” she answered.  “It’s as if that now that I am aware he or she is in there, they want to make sure they are noticed.”

 

Janet chuckled.  “Pretty soon… even the new dresses Madame Dussault made for you will not hide your condition.”

 

“I know,” Kristin nodded then slowly opened her eyes.  “I pray that Nathan is here before that time.”

 

Janet reached out and patted Kristin’s hand.  “I’m sure he will be.”

 

Kristin smiled at her friend.  “So, tell me… why hasn’t that son of yours come to see me yet?”

 

Janet smiled and nodded at the sudden topic change; knowing that while Kristin was certain that Nathan was on his way to her, that she still missed him desperately and there were times when those feelings of being separated from him were too much to bear and talking about him just made his absence more acutely felt.

 

“Well… for the last little while, he’s been spending most of his afternoons at the park,” Janet said.

 

“Oh really?”

 

Janet nodded.

 

“And what does he do in the park all afternoon?”

 

“Sketch mostly,” Janet replied.

 

“Will draws?”  Kristin asked.  “I didn’t know that.”

 

“Oh yes… he draws, he paints.  He is really quite talented,” Janet told her with obvious pride.  “Although… I think there is more to his afternoon romps in the park than he is telling me.”

 

“How so?”

 

“I think he’s met someone,” Janet said with a knowing smile.  “And from what I can tell, my son is quite smitten.”

 

“He’s met someone…” Kristin’s voice trailed off as it dawned on her.

 

 

“Tell me about the young man.”

 

Cynthia’s eyes grew dreamy.  “William is wonderful.  He is so kind… such a gentleman.  He is handsome, Mummy… I’ve never seen a man as handsome as he is… tall… broad-shouldered… beautiful green eyes with golden flecks… and his hands.  His fingers are long and tapered but so skillful.”

 

“What does your young man do?”

 

“He is an artist.  His sketches are tiny masterpieces.  He can take any scene and reproduce it in the most exquisite detail.”

 

 

“Kristin?  Kristin, are you all right?”

 

Kristin smiled as she focused on Janet’s worried face.  “Yes… I’m fine.”

 

“You drifted off on me.  Are you sure you’re all right?”

 

“Oh yes,” Kristin reassured her friend then began to chuckle.

 

“It must be the pregnancy…” Janet muttered then gave Kristin a pointed stare.  “Want to share what is so amusing?”

 

“Did you know that Cynthia has been spending a lot more time at the park recently?  I mean, she always has.  She adores the outdoors… but she’s been going to the park more and more these days.”

 

“That’s nice,” Janet said slowly as she gave Kristin a confused look.

 

Kristin bit back a smile, knowing that Janet wasn’t catching what she was saying.  “Cynthia’s also told me recently that she’s met a young man… who is an artist…” her voice trailed off as she watched understanding slowly start to dawn on Janet’s features.

 

“You don’t think…”

 

“Yes I do.”

 

“But how?”

 

“I’m not certain.  Cynthia did not go into details,” Kristin said.  “But it makes sense if you think about it.  It’s too great of a coincidence for it not to be true.  Don’t you agree?”

 

“Yes… but wouldn’t they have known when they’d introduced themselves?  I know you’ve told Cynthia about your time away, and about rescuing Will… so surely she would know our last name.”

 

Kristin looked thoughtful.  “No… I never mentioned your last name to her… I probably used your first names when I told her about my time away because that is how I speak of you.”

 

“And I told her to call me Janet…” Janet finished.  “But what about Cynthia?  Surely Will would have recognized her last name?  How many Cynthia Westphalens could there be in London?”

 

Kristin shook her head.  “She’s going by Carruthers again.  Something Lavinia insisted on when I was gone, and I guess it just came out when they met.”

 

A large smile began to form on Janet’s face.  “So… without our having to do anything, our children have met and fallen in love?”

 

Kristin nodded.  “Yes.”

 

“Do you think they’ve figured it out yet?”

 

“If they are serious about each other… and from what Cynthia has told me, they are…” Kristin began.  “Then yes… I think they’ve most likely worked out the connection.”

 

Janet laughed softly then reached out to grasp Kristin’s hand.  “If they… then we’ll really be family won’t we?”

 

“Yes we will,” Kristin replied with a large smile as she returned Janet’s squeeze of her hand.

 

“So… should we tell them that we know what we know?”

 

“No,” Kristin grinned.  “Why don’t we wait and see how long it takes them to come to us.”

 

Janet laughed softly and nodded.  “So… while I know you wouldn’t have any objections to my son asking for your daughter’s hand, what do you think her grandparents will say about the prospective groom?”

 

Kristin looked thoughtful for a moment.  “My mother…” she began.  “We won’t have to worry about my mother, she will be happy that Cynthia found love.  My father and Lavinia…” Kristin sighed.  “And more so Lavinia… will cause a scene and make trouble.”

 

Janet frowned.

 

“But they have no say in who Cynthia marries,” Kristin grinned.  “Technically, until she reaches her majority, I have final choice of my daughter’s husband.  And you are right… I would have no objections to Cynthia and Will marrying.”

 

The smile returned to Janet’s face before she released a deep breath.  “Well… as much as I hate to say it…”

 

“I know,” Kristin sighed.  “We should return to the gathering.”

 

Janet nodded.  “Sorry… but if it helps, I will make sure that you are seated in between Claire and I.”

 

Kristin chuckled as she got to her feet.  “Thank you.”

 

“What is family for?”  Janet responded with a large smile as she led Kristin out of the room.

 

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

 

“So… tell me, Countess, have you ever thought of hiring out your studs?”

 

Kristin’s laughter floated down the table to fall on the ears of a frowning Frank Thomas as he watched her answer Lansdowne’s question.  He’d waited outside the ladies retiring room for the countess and Mrs. Noyce to return for several minutes, wanting to talk privately with Kristin, only to have Lansdowne to slip in and spirit the ladies away the moment they stepped out into the hall.

 

He’d been further disappointed to find that he’d been seated too far away from the countess to engage her in any decent form of conversation.  He took a small measure of peace in knowing that Lansdowne was not seated next to her either, but rather across from her.

 

‘Damned lucky man!’ Thomas thought then his frown deepened as the countess once again laughed at something Lansdowne said.  ‘I have got to get her alone,’ he said to himself.  ‘But how?’  He took a large drink of the wine in front of him and began to formulate a plan to corner Lady Westphalen after the meal.

 

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

 

“Countess…”

 

“Bloody hell,” Kristin muttered under her breath as she looked up to see Frank Thomas walking towards her.  She pasted what she hoped was a sincere smile on her face.  “General.”

 

“I was wondering if we might have that chance to talk privately now?”  Thomas asked as he caressed her fingers with his mouth.

 

“Oh… I’m sorry, General…”

 

“Please, call me Frank,” Thomas said with what Kristin assumed was supposed to be a charming smile.

 

“I couldn’t possibly,” Kristin replied.  “And as for our talk, I’m afraid it will have to be delayed.  Mrs. Noyce is not feeling very well, so I am taking her home.”

 

“I am sorry to hear that,” Thomas said.  “I was looking forward to talking alone with you.”

 

Something in the way he was looking at her made Kristin’s stomach roll and she just kept herself from visibly shuddering.  “Sadly one cannot control when a headache will appear.”

 

“Quite true.  Well then, perhaps…”

 

“I’m sorry, Kristin,” Janet’s voice cut off Thomas’ words as she appeared around the corner, one hand on her temple, the other on Clarissa’s arm as if to steady herself.

 

“Nothing to apologize for,” Kristin said.  “It is not your fault that the migraine picked now to start.”

 

“I just know how much you were looking forward to this luncheon,” Janet said softly, her face showing just how much pain she was in.

 

“Yes, well… there will be other luncheons,” Kristin told her.  “You are the one I am concerned about,” she said as she moved to Janet’s side.  “Claire, be a dear and go tell my driver we are ready to depart.”

 

“Yes, Aunt Kristin,” Clarissa replied then rushed past Thomas out the door.

 

“Come on, dear… let’s get you home and in bed,” Kristin said softly to Janet as she guided her towards the door.  She inclined her head in Thomas’ direction.  “General.”

 

“Countess,” Thomas murmured.  “Mrs. Noyce.”

 

The general watched as the two women climbed into the waiting coach then swore loudly once it began to move away.  ‘Think, Frank…’ he thought to himself.  ‘There has to be some way to get that woman alone…’

 

A slow smile began to form on his lips as an idea came to him.

 

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

 

“Janet… you’ve missed your calling!”  Kristin told her friend through peals of laughter.  “You should have been an actress!  That was an excellent performance!”

 

“Thank you,” Janet replied though her own laughter.  “Aren’t you glad I overheard your conversation with Thomas?”

 

“Oh yes,” Kristin nodded as her laughter faded away.  “There is something about that man that… discomfits me.  I can’t put my finger on it… but when he comes near me, my skin begins to crawl.”

 

“Mine too,” Clarissa commented as her mother nodded in agreement.  “So what happens now?”

 

“Your Aunt Kristin is going to drop us off at home then head home herself and go to bed,” Janet answered her daughter.  “She’s tired.”

 

“Tired with having to try and avoid that man…” Kristin remarked.  “I am glad however, that at least for today, I will not have to deal with him any longer.”

 

“If he bothers you again, Aunt Kristin… just get mother to put on yet another performance,” Clarissa laughed.  “She is getting rather good at them.  You should have seen the way she handled the Smith witches this morning.”

 

“Ooh… do tell…” Kristin leaned back in the coach.  “This I have to hear.”

 

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

 

“Welcome home, milady,” Stephens held the door open for Kristin.

 

“Thank you, Stephens,” she responded as she made her way towards the stairs.  “Are my children home?”

 

“Not yet, milady,” Stephens replied as he closed the door then followed after her.

 

“Very well… I am going up to my room to rest,” Kristin told him.  “I do not wish to be disturbed until dinner.”

 

“Yes, milady…” Stephens nodded.  “However…”

 

Kristin turned to face him.  “Yes?”

 

“There is a General Thomas waiting for you in the library,” he said with an apologetic look.  “I tried to tell him that you weren’t home, but he insisted on waiting.”

 

Kristin sighed.  “That man does not know when to give up,” she muttered then nodded.  “I will take care of him, Stephens.  And while I talk with the general, will you have Lizzie draw me a warm bath.”

 

“Yes, milady,” Stephens nodded and left to do as his mistress bid.

 

Kristin walked over to the library door and released another sigh before she opened the door and stepped into the room.  Thomas was seated in one of the leather chairs in front of the fireplace, one of her books in one hand, a snifter of brandy in the other.  She frowned; not liking the familiarity Thomas had taken.

 

“General Thomas,” she called out as she moved into the room, taking care to leave the library door open.

 

Thomas looked up from the book and smiled.  “Ah, Countess, you’re home,” he said as he closed the book, placed it and the brandy on the small table next to the chair then stood.  “I hope you don’t mind that I helped myself, but your butler said he wasn’t sure how long you would be.”

 

Kristin’s first impulse was to tell him that yes she did mind; that she wanted him out of her house immediately and to stay away from her but she held her tongue; knowing that she if she gave voice to those thoughts, she would do so in a very un-ladylike manner.

 

“Not at all,” she said in a neutral voice.

 

“Good,” Thomas said and slowly walked towards her.  “Now, I’ll wager you’re curious as to why I’m here.”

 

“The thought did cross my mind, yes.”

 

Thomas chuckled.  “Well, as you know, I’ve been wanting to talk with you but something or someone always seems to interfere with that, so I decided to call on you.  At least here I know we will be able to talk without interruption,” he said and reached for her hands.

 

Kristin felt a shiver of revulsion move over her as Thomas grasped her hands in his and squeezed them gently. 

 

“I know we don’t know each other that well yet, and I am hoping that will change,” Thomas began.  “And with that in mind, I thought to jump ahead of the pack and ask you now for you hand.”

 

“I beg your pardon?”  Kristin asked as she pulled her hands out of the general’s grasp.

 

“I know of your condition from your father,” Thomas continued.  “I also know what happened to you when you were taken by the pirates… and I want you to know that it does not matter to me.  I want to marry you, Kristin.”

 

She stared at him, her mouth agape as he continued.

 

“Of course we’ll have to see about finding a proper home for the child once it is born, and I won’t make any demands on you physically until that time,” he said with a smile, the lust evident in his eyes as his gaze roamed her body.  “I will be a good husband to you, Kristin.”

 

A wave of nausea rolled over her at his words and she finally found her voice.  “First thing, ‘General’, I did not give you leave to call me by my given name.  You will address me as Countess or Lady Westphalen,” Kristin told him.  “Secondly, despite what my father thinks or has told you, I am indeed married.  Quite happily as a matter of fact, and the child I am carrying is without a doubt my husband’s.”

 

Thomas grinned.  “Your father warned me that you were a spitfire,” he chuckled.  “Yes, you will definitely make life interesting.”

 

“Did you not hear what I just told you?”

 

“Yes, I did,” Thomas replied.  “And your father said you would say as much.  My coming here is merely a formality really, as your father has already accepted my suite for your hand.”

 

“He what!?”  Kristin exclaimed.

 

“I have already asked your father for your hand and he has given his approval,” Thomas repeated.

 

“My father has accepted…” Kristin began then started to laugh.  “My father has no right and no say about what I do with my life, General,” she told the bald man before her once she’d stopped laughing.  “I will not be marrying you… I am not going to commit bigamy.”

 

“It is either marry me or be shunned by society,” Thomas told her. 

 

“I could care less about society,” Kristin said.

 

“But you do care about your family,” he said.  “A woman in your condition, not married… carrying a child that any number of brigands could have fathered.  It will be a blight on your families name, not to mention what the scandal will do to your daughter’s reputation, having an unmarried, pregnant mother.”

 

“My daughter’s reputation will not be harmed in the least,” Kristin replied in a hard voice.  “I am married.  There will be no scandal…”

 

“You do not have to hold to that fantasy any longer, Kristin…” Thomas said as he moved to close the distance between them.  “I am offering to marry you, despite your condition.  Hell, you can even keep the child for all I care…”

 

Kristin’s hand connecting with his cheek stopped Thomas’ words.  “Get out!  Leave my house immediately!”

 

Thomas grinned.  “Yes… life with you is going to be quite interesting.”

 

Kristin stepped away from the general and backed towards the open library door.  “Stephens!”  She called out for the butler.  When he appeared moments later, Kristin turned to him.  “Kindly show the general out.”

 

“Yes, milady,” Stephens nodded then took a step towards Thomas.  “If you would so kind as to follow me, sir, I will show you to the door.”

 

Thomas nodded at the butler then turned to give Kristin a lecherous smile.  “Countess,” he put an emphasis on the title.  “Until next time.”

 

Kristin did not respond as Thomas left the library, Stephens right behind him.  When she was certain he was gone, Kristin sank down onto the small sofa against the wall and released a shaky breath.

 

“Are you all right, milady?” 

 

Kristin looked up to see Stephens standing over her with a concerned look on his face.

 

“Yes, Stephens.  I’m fine, thank you,” she replied and reached out a hand to lay it on his arm.  “That man just… unnerved me.”

 

“I am sorry, Countess,” Stephens hung his head.  “I should not have allowed him in.”

 

“It’s all right,” Kristin told the older man as she slowly stood.  “Just don’t let it happen again.”

 

Stephens smiled at the light teasing tone of Kristin’s voice and nodded.  “Yes, milady.”

 

“Good,” Kristin said.  “Now… has Lizzie drawn that bath for me?”

 

“Yes, milady.”

 

“Then I will retire upstairs as I had planned,” Kristin told him and walked out of the library.  When she reached the stairs, she stopped and turned back to the man.  “Oh, and Stephens… from now on, with the exception of my mother and the Noyces, no one else is to be admitted into the house unless you have been notified otherwise.”

 

“Yes, Countess,” Stephens nodded.

 

“Thank you, Stephens,” Kristin said then slowly made her way up the stairs.

 

Stephens watched his mistress ascend the staircase with a sad smile on his face.  He knew of her condition, and believed her when she said that she had gotten married while she was away.

 

“Whoever you are, Captain, wherever you are…” Stephens said softly to the empty hall.  “Please hurry.  The countess needs you.”

 

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

 

“M’lord…”

 

Lionel looked up from the paper in his hand.  “Yes, Perkins?”

 

“General Thomas is here to see you.”

 

Westphalen closed and folded the newspaper and nodded.  “Thank you.  Show him in.”

 

“Yes, my lord,” Perkins replied.

 

Lionel got to his feet as he heard his butler tell Thomas to proceed into the room.  “Frank!  Good morning!”

 

“Good morning.  I hope I am not calling too early?”

 

“Not at all,” Westphalen shook his head.  “I was just enjoying my coffee with the morning paper while my wife heads out for some shopping.”

 

“And how is your lovely wife?”  Thomas asked.

 

“Fine.  Still upset with me, but fine,” Lionel answered then met Thomas’ eyes.  “Now that the pleasantries are out of the way… how did your discussion with my daughter go?”

 

“Better than I anticipated,” Thomas replied and took the chair Lionel indicated.

 

“Really?  What did she say?  Did she accept your suite?”

 

“Well, as you said she would, she denied that anything had happened to her when she was aboard the pirate ship, and insisted once again that she was already married,” Thomas told him.

 

Westphalen shook his head.  “I don’t understand why she insists on clinging to that… that farce,” he said then sat down opposite the general and leaned forward on his knees.  “So then what happened?”

 

“I told her that it didn’t matter to me about what happened on the pirate ship… that I would be very proud to have her as my wife,” Frank continued.  “And as much as I would prefer not to… she appears to have become quite attached to the child she is carrying, so I would be willing to give the child my name.”

 

Lionel nodded.  “That is good of you,” he said.  “And did you tell her this?”

 

“Yes,” Thomas replied.  “And it seemed to put her at ease some.”

 

“Good,” Westphalen said.  “So… did she accept your offer of marriage?”

 

Thomas hesitated a moment before answering.  “She said she would think on it.”

 

Westphalen chuckled and shook his head.  “That’s my Krissy… stubborn to the last.”

 

“Maybe… a few words from you or your wife, expressing your approval of the match,” Thomas began,  “would help her make her decision.”

 

“Perhaps,” Lionel nodded.  “However, if my daughter feels that she needs a day or two to think about it then I will not rush her.”

 

“Does this mean…” Thomas began.

 

“No!”  Lionel shook his head.  “You are still my first choice for husband for my daughter,” he said.  “But if I push her in anyway… no,” Lionel shook his head.  “It is better to let her come to the decision herself.  It will make things easier on you in the long run.”

 

Thomas nodded.  “I will defer to your judgment…”

 

“But?”  Lionel urged, hearing the hesitation in the other man’s voice.

 

“I do not believe we should wait too long.  Not with your daughter in her present condition.  Time is of the essence.”

 

“Yes, you’re right,” Lionel sighed then looked thoughtful.  “My wife’s annual ball is coming up soon.  If Kristin has not decided by then, I will decide for her.  She won’t be happy with me for doing so, she’s gotten too used to being on her own, but she will do as I tell her,” he said.  “Can you wait till then?”

 

A broad smile formed on Thomas’ face and he nodded.  “I can and I will.”

 

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

 

The sound of quiet laughter drifted in from the hallway causing Lucas to look toward the door to identify the source.  He so hoped that it was his mother.  Something was bothering her, he was sure.  Though she had said nothing the last few days she had seemed so unhappy and withdrawn.  He knew that she needed more nourishment because of the baby but she seemed to be picking at her food… and he’d heard her late at night, pacing in her room when she should be sleeping.

 

Three ladies entered the parlour moments later, Janet with laughter still bubbling from her lips, Kristin with her lips curved slightly in a gentle smile and Clarissa… Lucas jerked his gaze away when he realized that he was staring yet again at the lovely creature that made his heart beat madly.

 

Kristin noticed the direction of her son’s attentions and the look on his face when he realized what he had been doing.  ‘Give it a few years, Lucas, and perhaps…’ She turned toward the other young man in the room with a genuine smile on her face.

 

“Will!  I was wondering when you were going to come visit me.”  She brushed aside the polite hand that Will held out and hugged him fiercely.

 

Will hesitated for just a moment before returning the hug with one of his own.  Kristin’s sharp eyes quickly picked up on the way that her daughter was observing the embrace.  After a few moments she broke the clinch and swatted William’s arm playfully.

 

“You’ve been very naughty not coming to see me before now.”

 

“I am so sorry, Aunt Kristin.  I wasn’t… mother has been telling me…” Will stammered over his words as he struggled to come up with a valid excuse.  “You’ve had a great deal going on and I didn’t want to intrude.”

 

“Your presence is never an intrusion, Will.  You are family.”  Kristin patted his hand maternally.  “I know that Lucas is ecstatic to see you as well… and you’ve met Cynthia?”

 

She might have missed the slight blush that touched Will’s cheeks if she hadn’t been looking for it but there it was, confirming Kristin’s supposition about the young couple’s relationship.

 

“Oh… yes… Cynthia and I were just sitting here talking… getting to know each other…”

 

Suddenly Kristin knew for certain that Will and Cynthia had gotten to know each other… perhaps more than she would have wished for her young unmarried daughter.  She glanced at Janet and knew the other mother was wondering the same thing. 

 

“You must stay to dinner, all of you.  Ben and Katie will be joining us and I know they will be happy to see you as well.”  Kristin settled down on the comfortable sofa and sighed as her hands drifted to her belly.

 

Will caught himself staring at the bulge beneath Kristin’s hands then quickly apologized.  “I’m sorry… mother told me about the baby but… I didn’t realize that…you are… so…”

 

A genuine smile touched Kristin’s face.  “And getting even more ‘so’ every day.  I am already having to be careful with the fall of my gowns when I sit down.  In a few more weeks my condition will be obvious to everyone.  I just hope…”

 

Will knelt in front of Kristin and carefully touched her hand.  “He’ll be here, Aunt Kristin.”

 

“I know, Will.  I just… I am too impatient.  It has always been one of my worst faults.  I need Nathan here with me.” 

 

Janet watched Kristin with worry on her face.  She was the only person that knew of Thomas’ unexpected proposal and she was afraid that the pressure was affecting Kristin’s health and that of her unborn child.  Janet resolved yet again to do everything she could to shield Kristin from as much unpleasantness as possible.

 

“Will… I forgot to tell you…” The young man looked up from his covert observation of Cynthia when his mother spoke.  “Guess who your sister and I ran into several days ago at the millinery?”

 

Will looked puzzled.  “Someone we know from America?  We haven’t really met anyone here.”

 

“They are definitely American but not from Boston and not people that I ever hoped to see again, especially not so soon.”

 

Will glanced from Janet to Kristin, trying to read the expressions on their faces.  “I am sure that I couldn’t even begin to think… no… it couldn’t be… That would be too much of a coincidence.  Was it… was it them?  The she-demons?”

 

Janet tried her best to give Will a disapproving motherly look at his use of Nathan’s nickname for the Smith women but the expression kept slipping to reveal the smile beneath.  Kristin didn’t even begin to try to hide her merriment.

 

Cynthia’s interest was peaked.  “Who?”  She looked around the room.  “You all seem to know except me… even Claire.”

 

“And you are the luckiest one of all for never having met the horrible creatures, my dear.” Kristin told her.  “Alexandra and Gwendolyn Smith are two of the most unpleasant females that I have ever met.”

 

“Smith… that was the family who visited the island.  I’ve never known you to dislike anyone as much as I can see you dislike these Smiths.  What did they do to you, Mummy?”

 

Kristin hadn’t shared the exact details of the Smith situation with Cynthia, not really wanting to get too specific about the relationship she and Nathan had been sharing outside of marriage.  She glanced at Clarissa and Lucas but they had moved to the game board in the corner and were heavily involved in a game of chess.

 

“Without boring you with all of the details, Lexie Smith had decided that Nathan and her daughter, Wendy, were going to be married, with or without his consent.  When she found out about our feelings for each other she was outraged but undeterred.  She planned some horrible things including placing Nathan and Wendy in a compromising position but Nathan saw through her and asked them to leave.”

 

“Not that they could have expected to stay after Wendell made improper advances towards you.” Janet murmured for Kristin’s ears alone.

 

“I can’t believe that you let her get away with that, Mummy.  Very few people can stand up to you when you go into ‘countess’ mode.”

 

“I… Your reputation was of paramount importance, Cynni.  I couldn’t let my actions reflect badly on you so as far as the Smiths were concerned I was a poor widowed friend of Janet’s.”

 

“They didn’t know?”  Cynthia suddenly began to laugh.  “How I would love to see their faces when they find out!”

 

“That would be amusing,” Kristin agreed, the fantasy of that event helping to pull her from her doldrums.

 

“Amusing is a vast understatement!  Why, I suspect Lexie would have an attack of the vapors on the spot…” Janet’s voice trailed off thoughtfully as she turned to stare directly at Kristin.

 

“No…” Kristin shook her head but her eyes gleamed mischievously.  “We couldn’t… could we?”

 

“Why not?  After everything that they tried to do to you?  And it isn’t as if we’d be lying… We would just be letting them in on the truth!  Besides, Lexie would probably become so angry she’d make some fiery pronouncement about your marriage to Nathan.  She’d be another witness to convince your father to ease up…”

 

Cynthia and Will exchanged glances, knowing that to interrupt their mother’s at this point would be folly.

 

“Even if that didn’t happen I would love to see the look on her face… I know that is horrible of me but after planning to trap Nathan… How could we do it?”

 

“I know the perfect place… your mother’s annual ball!”

 

Kristin spoke these last words at the same time as Janet.

 

“You could arrange for the invitation.”

 

“But wouldn’t Lexie be suspicious?  Receiving an invitation from someone she hasn’t met?”

 

Janet thought a moment then shook her head.  “Claire and I mentioned we were having lunch with the ‘countess’.  I’ll let Lexie think that I went out of my way to arrange for them to attend.  Lexie hasn’t been well received at the embassy teas and she is looking for an entryway.  Attendance at a duchess’s ball would be a social coup. She’s such a snob that she won’t question it at all.”

 

“I’ll speak with mother tomorrow.  If I have to attend the damned thing then at least I should have something to look forward to.  Once the gala is over I am thinking about returning to the country anyway.”

 

Janet was shocked.  “Leave London?  But Nathan will come here first…”

 

Kristin’s head fell.  “I know… but I have to be realistic and this baby is the reality.  I won’t be able to hide its presence much longer and I refuse to let the children suffer from hurtful comments.  In the country perhaps we will be left alone.”

 

Suddenly Janet realized that Kristin was referring to Thomas and his intense campaign to obtain her hand and her fortune.

 

“We can’t go back to the country, Mummy!” Cynthia interjected. 

 

“But you hate the city, darling!”

 

“I… You taught me not to run away from a fight.”

 

Kristin smiled, knowing why the capital now held such appeal for Cynthia.  “This is a little different but… let’s see how the next few weeks go, shall we?  Perhaps there won’t be a need for us to retire at all.  The sun is shining beautifully today.  Why don’t you children take advantage of it?  A game of croquet in the garden should be very enjoyable.”

 

Cynthia sensed that Kristin needed a few moments of solitude and with a quiet prompt to Lucas and Clarissa, led the way out of the room, carefully securing the door behind them.  Once they were alone Kristin slumped back into the overstuffed cushions and sighed as Janet moved to sit beside her.

 

“So… I think that we are right about our children.  Did you see the looks that they were sharing?”

 

Janet grinned knowingly.  “Very obvious once we knew to look for them.  And remember, this is the first time that we have seen both of them in the same room.  I wonder why Will came to visit today?”

 

“I think it is because I asked Cynthia to introduce her young man to me.  This way she is doing that yet still guarding her secret.  After her awful experiences with that milksop of a man her grandmother picked while I was away I can’t blame her for wanting to keep her new romance to herself for a while longer.”

 

“How long do we pretend that we don’t know?”

 

“I’m not sure,” Kristin turned to stare Janet in the face, knowing that she could speak honestly to her friend.  “I don’t want my daughter to ‘have’ to get married but I’m afraid that might happen.  Although they haven’t known each other very long their feelings seem very strong.  The young can be so impudent,” Kristin paused and laughed slightly as she stared down at the evidence of her own impulsiveness.  “I suspect that something has already happened between them… perhaps not full intimacy but… certainly something outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.”

 

“I think that perhaps you are right.”

 

“I need to speak to Cynthia again… although I feel very embarrassed doing so when I have been guilty of the same behavior.”

 

“I could try to speak to Will…” Janet’s hand flew to the back of her neck, fingers working the knots developing there.  “I wish that Bill would get here soon.  This is something a father should talk with his son about.”

 

A tear squeezed out of Kristin’s eye.  “And Nathan… I suspect from the way that Lucas’ eyes follow your daughter that he needs a similar talk… not that I think they would go beyond the bounds… they are so young.  And I am not sure of Claire’s feelings but Lucas… he has a very powerful infatuation with your beautiful girl.”

 

“A gentle reminder might not be remiss once Nathan arrives.  While Bill might slap Will on the back and offer sly winks, any impropriety concerning his daughter would be a different story all together.”

 

“As my father continues to illustrate.”

 

“Have you spoken to your father about Thomas’ outlandish claims?”

 

Kristin shook her head.  “There is no need.  My father would never presume to think that he has control over me any longer.  That man was lying.  I just wish that he would leave me in peace.  Even when he isn’t there… I feel like he is watching me.”

 

Janet was alarmed at Kristin’s words.  “Your instincts are very good and if you feel that way… I don’t think that you should leave the house without an escort.  Thomas may indeed be planning something sinister.”

 

Kristin sighed as sadness slowly washed back into her features.  “I can handle Frank Thomas.  I can handle anything as long as… as… oh Janet, why isn’t Nathan here?  He’s trying to get to me, I KNOW he is… but I need him so much!  Our baby needs him…”

 

Janet placed her arms around Kristin’s shoulders and pulled her close, sensing that her friend needed the release that crying would bring.  Kristin was good at hiding her loneliness in front of her children but the pressures of the last few days had been too much. 

 

“That’s it, dear.  Let it out.”  Janet soothed but inside she wept with Kristin, knowing that each passing day only made her burden harder.  The rumours within society were growing in proportion to Kristin’s belly and Janet didn’t know how much longer she could continue to shield Kristin from the extent of the gossip.  Clarissa had told her the rumours of one fight narrowly averted, Lucas backing down from the second son of a viscount who he played bowls with only because of the promise he had made to his mother.

 

‘Hurry, Nathan.  Your wife and your children need you so desperately.’

 

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

 

Lucas lowered his head and backed away from the window, his brows knit with worry. 

 

“She’s crying but Aunt Janet is comforting her.  She looks so unhappy… I just wish I could do something…” he told the group gathered around him.

 

Clarissa reached out and took Lucas’ hand, guiding him over to the stone bench by the center fountain of the lovely garden.  Will and Cynthia trailed behind them, their hands surreptitiously brushing each other’s as they moved.

 

“Aunt Kristin is very strong.  I’m sure that sometimes… she just needs a moment or two to let her emotions out.  I’m glad that she feels she can do that with mother.” Clarissa comforted.

 

“There is something…” Lucas raised his head and stared at Cynthia.  “Mama has missed dad from the moment we left the island but the last few days… something else is going on.”

 

Cynthia nodded from her perch on the opposite bench.  “I’ve felt it too.  She’s under added pressure… and that can’t be good for her… not in her condition.”

 

“Your mother would never do anything to endanger the baby.” Will gripped Cynthia’s hand.

 

“No,” Cynthia agreed.  “She is very protective of my baby sister.”

 

“Brother!” Lucas interjected.

 

Cynthia grinned but didn’t get into the usual verbal argument with Lucas.  “Her husband needs to come home.  She needs him so desperately.”

 

“If only you could have seen them together, Cynthia… the way that they looked at each other.  Their love was almost overwhelming.  I know that he is on his way back to her.”  Will wanted to embrace Cynthia, offer her the comfort of his arms, but he resisted because he knew that Lucas and Clarissa would immediately discern how he felt.

 

“That’s right, sis.  Mama doesn’t believe those stupid rumours about dad being killed and I don’t believe them either.  He made it through… somehow he made it through and he is coming for her right now.”

 

None of the children noticed the old man standing in the back of the garden, a tear slipping from his eye as he listened to their words.

 

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

 

“Oh god, Mils, what are we going to do?”  Lionel buried his face in his wife’s lap, the touch of her soothing hands doing little to comfort him.

 

Millicent had known the instant that Lionel had entered the room that something horrible had happened.  The look on his deathly pale face had frightened her, as did the way that he’d moved immediately to her side and fallen to his knees.

 

“Tell me, dear.  What are we going to do about what?  Did you see Kristin?  Has something happened?”

 

Lionel had gone that very afternoon to visit Kristin at her behest, in an effort to try and work out the hard feelings between them.  Millicent knew that Lionel had finally been willing to make first move for her, knowing that the tension between her husband and daughter was causing her no end of distress.  She was prepared for him to return in an uproar but not like this…

 

“Please, Lionel,” she prompted again.

 

Finally her husband raised his face from her lap to stare up at her.  Millicent was surprised to find his eyes red brimmed from crying.

 

“It’s such a mess… why didn’t I put my foot down?  Stop her from going out on that ship?”

 

“You haven’t stopped your daughter from doing something she put her mind to since she was five years old.  What happened wasn’t your fault.”

 

“But now… I was in the garden and the children were there – Cynthia and the boy plus that Noyce woman’s children.  I overheard them talking.”

 

“What did they say that upset you so?”

 

Lionel sighed deeply.  “Cynthia said something about wanting the husband to show up and then the boy said that he didn’t believe what they had heard, that he didn’t believe his father was dead.”

 

Millicent’s eyes filled with tears as her heart broke for her daughter.  “No, Lionel… it can’t be…”

 

“No one will believe that she was married at all.  Our grandchild is going to be branded a bastard.  No one will want that stigma attached to their family so Cynthia has little chance of making a good marriage.  I have to do something.  I can’t let them suffer…”

 

“But what can you do, darling?  Anyone who matters will know that Kristin is telling the truth.”  Even as she spoke the words they sounded hollow to Millicent’s ears.  Although she had never doubted her daughter’s story most of the ton knew through malicious gossip that Lionel had.

 

A resolute look locked onto Lionel’s face as he thought back to the conversation he’d had with Frank Thomas a few days earlier.  “I’m going to do what I have to do.  I am going to protect my family no matter what.”

 

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

 

Alexandra gritted her teeth and sunk her face deeper into the book that she held, knowing that if Wendy didn’t stop pacing soon she was going to go mad.  At yet another deep sigh from her daughter Lexie could take no more and, slamming the book shut, she flung it at Wendy.

 

“Will you stop?” She screamed as the book glanced off of Wendy’s shoulder.

 

Wendy stared at her mother, a stunned look on her face.  “I can’t help it.  I am bored sitting at home every afternoon.  Why can’t we go out to the park?  Or to the shops?”  She bent down absently and picked up the book.

 

“We can’t go out because the afternoon is when people come to call.  We must be in to receive our visitors.”

 

“But we have been here over a week and no one has come to visit… not one single person.”

 

“We have met some very nice people at the embassy tea parties we’ve attended.  I am sure that some of them will be coming to call soon… to welcome us to London.”

 

“But I thought that we were here to see the sights, go to lots of balls and parties and meet the upper crust.  We haven’t met anyone remotely aristocratic except one dried up old Lady something or other.  Her dress was twenty years old and she was as deaf as a brick wall.”

 

Lexie was as frustrated as Wendy.  “We have to be patient.  Finding our niche in society will take a little time.”

 

“But we don’t have that much time.  Daddy is already in negotiations with a new shipping company.  How am I going to meet and marry a man that outshines Nathan if we don’t get out more?”

 

“Gwendolyn!  Didn’t I just say that we had to be patient?”

 

A soft scratch at the door halted their angry words but Wendy continued to glare at her mother as the older woman turned away.

 

“Come!” She barked.

 

An ancient man in a rumpled suit entered the room.  “You have a visitor, Madame.” He spoke slowly as if the act of speaking required more effort than he had left in him.  “A Mistress Noyce.”

 

Lexie’s disgruntled glare faded.  “My dear friend, Janet.  Show her in at once!”  When the old butler had shuffled from the room she turned back to Wendy.  “Be pleasant, dear.  Janet Noyce’s husband is going to have a very important position at the embassy.”

 

“But they are friend’s of Nathan’s.  They helped him betray me.”

 

“Shut up, Wendy.” Lexie growled as footsteps sounded just outside the doorway.  “Janet!  How lovely to see you!  Please come in and join us.”

 

Janet moved to the chair that Lexie indicated as she swallowed her disgust and faked a smile.  “I am only sorry that I’ve taken so long to call since we met in the high street the other day.  I’ve been very busy with the countess.”

 

“Crabtree, please have Cook send in a tea trolley.” Lexie commanded as she sank into her chair.  “I do understand about your other obligations.  Why today is the first afternoon that Wendy and I have actually been in to receive callers.  We’ve been so busy attending teas and making the social rounds.”

 

Janet nodded understandingly, knowing all the while that Lexie was lying.  While Janet had said nothing about the woman to the other embassy wives, Lexie’s own personality had quickly put these women off.  It seemed no one wanted to spend a moment longer in Alexandra’s company than they had to.

 

“Your lovely daughter didn’t come with you?  What a shame.  I know that she and Wendy could be great friends.”

 

The giggle that rose in Janet’s throat at this statement almost escaped.  She knew that Wendy and Clarissa had nothing in common, being separated in age by over a decade.  “Claire had another engagement this afternoon.  In fact I can’t stay very long myself.  I apologize for my rudeness but the countess is helping her mother, the Duchess, prepare for their annual family ball and I’ve offered my services as well.”

 

The opportunistic light that popped into Lexie’s eyes at the mention of two ranking members of the ton was obvious.  “We understand, of course.  How nice that you are available.  I am sure they count your help as invaluable.”

 

“I really don’t mind,” Janet offered.  “The countess and I are such dear friends that I am glad to help her in any way that I can.”

 

“And when is this grand extravaganza going to take place?”

 

“Next week.  Time is running out and there is still so much left to do.  Oh, that reminds me why I called.”

 

“I hope that you don’t feel as if you need a reason to call on us.  We’ve been such good friends for so long that you are welcome to drop by any time.” Lexie reassured her guest.

 

“That is so kind of you, Lexie.  I was speaking to the countess the other day, telling her of the remarkable coincidence of running into you and she insisted that I extend her invitation to attend the ball.  Only if you have no other plans, of course, but it does promise to be the social event of the season.”

 

Alexandra could barely contain the gleam in her eye as Janet reached into her reticule and pulled out the stiff envelope.  She couldn’t resist the impulse to hold the missive just out of Lexie’s reach for a moment longer than necessary.  But then Wendy moved in from the side and neatly pulled the elegant paper free of her grasp.

 

Lexie nearly yanked the envelope from her daughter’s hand and pulled it open, not even taking care to slit the covering properly.  “Such elegant paper… and handwritten so neatly…” she observed as she pulled the invitation free.  “The Duke and Duchess of Stonevale invite you… This is so very kind of you to think of us, Janet.”

 

“How could I not after running into you the other day?  I know that our parting wasn’t on the best of terms but…” Janet let her words trail off, unwilling to lie that she was sorry about that parting.

 

“The circumstances weren’t the best,” Lexie agreed.  “But now we have another chance to renew our friendship.”

 

“Yes…” Janet agreed, forcing enthusiasm into her voice.  “How long do you intend to be in London?”

 

“We haven’t really decided yet but we shall most assuredly be here for several months.  Wendell has extensive business to take care of and Wendy and I are taking advantage of our stay to replenish and update our wardrobes.  What about you?  How long is the Admiral’s posting going to be?”

 

“We aren’t sure,” Janet accepted the cup of tea that Lexie offered her.  “We won’t have more information on our stay until Bill actually arrives.”

 

“And when do you expect the Admiral to arrive?”

 

Genuine worry touched Janet’s face.  “I’m not sure… We expected him several weeks ago, actually.  But he will be here soon.”

 

The chatter continued for several minutes but once Janet judged that she had stayed long enough to be polite she quickly began to make her excuses.

 

“I hope to see you at the gala.” She smiled as she stepped through the front door.

 

“We’ll have to check our calendar, of course.  We’ve had so many invitations… but I’m sure that if we have a conflict we can resolve it.  Come again, please.”

 

With a last wave Janet disappeared down the walk and into the waiting carriage that rolled up to the curb.

 

Alexandra closed the door and rested against it, a thoughtful look on her face. 

 

“What was that all about, Mother?  That woman was horrible to us on Nathan’s island and now she is pretending to be our friend?”

 

Lexie levered away from the door and walked slowly back to the parlor, her brows furrowed in thought. 

 

“Close the door, Wendy.  I don’t want anyone to overhear our conversation.”

 

Wendy dutifully shut the door behind her then moved to sit beside Lexie.  “You have an idea?”

 

“I wonder where William Noyce really is… He wouldn’t send his family ahead if there weren’t a very good reason.  I suspect that reason might be… Nathan Bridger.”

 

“Nathan… I don’t understand.”

 

“Use your head, Gwendolyn.  Noyce risks his career by arriving late for an assignment… what other reason could there be?  He is with Nathan… helping Nathan… but helping him what?”  Lexie tapped her chin thoughtfully.  “It must be something dreadful…”

 

“Maybe Nathan realized he made a mistake and sent the trollop away.”  Wendy muttered.

 

“That’s it!  That harlot showed her true colors and broke Nathan’s heart.  The admiral has gone to help Nathan.  That has to be what happened.” Lexie spoke excitedly.  “Janet Noyce realizes that Nathan will apologize to us for what happened… perhaps he is rethinking marriage to you, Wendy.  Wouldn’t that be grand?”

 

“Do you really think so, Mother?”

 

Lexie’s mind was whirling.  “It is a definite possibility.  We will be able to find out more once Admiral Noyce arrives but in order to hear any gossip we are going to have to suffer through socializing with those odious wives from the embassy.”  She held up her hand at Wendy’s protest.  “Once Noyce arrives we will know more about Nathan’s state of mind.  I’ll speak with your father and if the need arises we can be ready to sail for home within a few days.”

 

Both women drifted back into their cushions to indulge their own longings and fantasies.

 

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

 

“If that girl hits one more wrong note I’m going to scream.”

 

Kristin bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud at Janet’s whispered comment then leaned towards her friend.  “I know exactly what you mean.  Lucas can sing better than this and he can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

 

Janet giggled.

 

“Sssh!”  An older lady turned around to shush them then turned back around to face the young girl singing before them.

 

Janet and Kristin shared an amused look and swallowed the laughter that threatened to spill forth.

 

“How much longer can this last?”  Janet leaned in towards Kristin and spoke behind her hand.

 

“I hope not too long,” Kristin replied.  “Baby Bridger has decided that my bladder is a good place to sit for this performance.”

 

The giggle escaped before Janet could stop it and earned another scowl from the woman in front of her.

 

Kristin snickered into her handkerchief.  “You keep that up and Lady Colby is going to pull a neck muscle.”

 

Janet grinned and shook her head then turned back to watch Baroness Wakefield’s granddaughter sing an aria from some opera Janet had never heard of.  She bit her lip as she caught Kristin fidgeting in her chair out of the corner of her eye.

 

“Finally!”  Janet heard Kristin whisper in a pained voice as the young girl finally finished singing.  She laughed softly then turned to see Kristin already making her way out of the hall towards the retiring room and quickly followed.

 

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

 

“He’s watching me again, isn’t he?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I would really like to attend one of these functions and not have to worry about whether Frank Thomas is going to be there or not.”

 

“I know.  And you will… just as soon as Nathan gets here,” Janet told her then grinned.  “Well… when the two of you finally emerge from your bed chamber.”

 

Kristin laughed softly.  “You know… I may never have to suffer through one of these again.”

 

The two women laughed then sighed.

 

“They will be here, Kristin,” Janet said with conviction as she reached out to grab her friend’s hand.  “They will be here.”

 

“I know,” Kristin nodded.  “I know.”  She took a deep breath.  “So… is he still…”

 

“Mmhmm…”

 

“For the love of… I wish he would just go away.”

 

“Wish who would go away?”

 

Kristin and Janet turned to see Millicent Westphalen standing before them with a curious look on her face.

 

“Father’s friend… General Thomas,” Kristin answered with a visible shudder.

 

“What about him?”

 

Kristin hesitated, unsure of whether or not to tell her mother about Thomas’ offer of marriage and his claim that her father had agreed to the match.

 

“Has that man been bothering you, Kristin?”  Millicent asked her daughter.

 

“Not in the way you think, Mother,” Kristin answered.  “It’s just… he always seems to be at every party, luncheon or tea that I attend lately, and he’s always,” she shuddered again.  “He’s always watching me…”

 

“Perhaps it is just coincidence,” Millicent suggested then her eyes narrowed.  “And there is something else.  What is it?”

 

Kristin glanced at Janet who shrugged her shoulders.  She sighed.  “A few days ago, after Baroness Ellingham’s luncheon… I arrived back at the house from seeing Janet and her daughter home to find the general waiting for me in my library…” Kristin paused.

 

“He didn’t… try anything did he?”

 

“No, Mother,” Kristin quickly reassured her.  “He… he asked for my hand, and despite my telling him repeatedly that I am already married… he insisted that we would be wed…”

 

“He… he asked for your hand?”

 

“And since that day,” Janet picked up the tale for Kristin,  “he’s been at every gathering we’ve been to.  However, he never does anything more than stand across the room and stare at your daughter.”

 

“It’s unnerving,” Kristin said in a quiet voice.

 

“And I for one am worried about the pressure and the stress it is putting Kristin under what with…” Janet’s voice trailed off as her eyes gestured towards Kristin’s swollen belly, still hidden by the skirt of her dress.  “The constant worry about what that man is going to do is not good for her.”

 

“Perhaps if I had a word with him… or even with your father?”  Millicent suggested but Kristin shook her head.  “Why on earth not?”

 

“Because it doesn’t matter… Nathan will be here soon, and he will deal with the general.”

 

“Kristin…” Millicent began.

 

“Oh, Mother…” Kristin’s eyes widened at the hesitation she heard in her mother’s voice.  “Please don’t tell me… don’t tell me you’re starting to doubt me… that you’re beginning to believe that I made my husband up!”

 

“No!  Of course not,” Millicent reached out to take one of Kristin’s hands in hers.  “I believe you when you say you married… I… I just think that perhaps, your father may be right about your husband deserting…”

 

Kristin pulled her hand away from her mother and took a step back as she shook her head.  “Nathan is coming… he is on his way as we speak and he will be here.”

 

“Kristin…”

 

“No…” she held up her hand and then with a slight scowl on her face, Kristin turned and fled the room.

 

Millicent moved to follow her daughter but Janet’s hand on her arm stopped her.

 

“Give her a little time alone…” Janet told the duchess.

 

“I didn’t mean to upset her… really I didn’t.”

 

“I know, and Kristin knows that too,” Janet replied.  “A lot of it is the pregnancy,” she said in a quiet voice,  “and the rest… she is worried about Nathan.  Truth be told, I am too.  And I am worried about my husband… they should have been here by now.”

 

“You don’t think he’s…” Millicent began then stopped at the furious shaking of Janet’s head.  “How can you be sure?”

 

“Because I have known Nathan for over thirty years,” Janet answered.  “And believe me when I tell you… he is madly in love with your daughter.  He will be here.”

 

Millicent regarded Janet for several minutes.  Over the last month she’d come to know the Noyce woman fairly well and was pleased that her daughter had found such a trustworthy friend and confidant.  She nodded.  “I believe you.”

 

“It’s not me you need to tell that too,” Janet said.

 

“I know,” Millicent smiled.  “Thank you, Janet.”

 

“You’re welcome, Duchess.”  Janet replied and smiled as she watched the older woman move off to find her daughter.

 

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

 

“Trouble within the family ranks?”

 

Janet smiled as she turned, recognizing the male voice behind her without seeing its owner.

 

“Mr. Lansdowne, so good to see you again.”

 

Malcolm grinned his boyish grin.  “The pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Noyce.  Might I say that you are looking lovelier than ever.”

 

“Flatterer,” Janet laughed as Malcolm took her hand in his and bent low over it, being very careful not to upset the pale yellow beverage he held in his other hand.  “That doesn’t look like punch.”

 

Malcolm raised the glass slightly in a toast.  “Baron Wakefield shares my dislike for punch and kindly opened the larder for something a bit hardier.  Not too loud though,” Malcolm glanced furtively around the room, “or everyone will want some.”

 

“You haven’t changed a bit, have you, Mr. Lansdowne?”

 

“I certainly hope not. Have you heard any news from the old sailor lately?  I’ve been stuck on this damp and dreary island over six months on business and I can’t wait to get back to my warm and sunny little paradise.  Nathan sent a few letters in the beginning but for the last few months I’ve heard nothing.”

 

Although Janet knew that Malcolm and Nathan were very good friends she wasn’t sure if the former was aware of Bridger’s alternate identity.  “The admiral and I were visiting the island just over three months ago.  Our son hadn’t been well and we thought that the sun and warmth might help him recuperate.  Nathan was fine when we left although he did mention something to Bill about a trip of his own.  He needed to take care of some unfinished business, I believe.”

 

“Sounds like Nathan.  Just up and disappear at will with no explanation to anyone.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t become a hermit someday.”

 

An image of Nathan and Kristin reciting their vows sprang to Janet’s mind.  “Nathan won’t become a hermit.  He’s improved a great deal.  I think he is ready to face the world again.”

 

Malcolm glanced toward the exit door. “Is Lady Westphalen all right?  She didn’t look very happy when she left here.  I don’t mean to be forward,” he quickly explained.  “I’ve spoken with the lady several times and I find her to be jolly good company.  I shouldn’t like for her to be unhappy.”

 

“I’ve seen you speaking although I never managed to greet you myself.  Your concern for Kristin is most kind but she will be fine.  Her life is just a bit… unsettled at the moment.”

 

Malcolm nodded, his face turning serious.  “I’ve heard the rumours.  Are they true?”

 

Janet could tell he regretted the question the moment it slipped from his lips.  Her eyes gleamed and she nodded.  “Twins.”

 

Malcolm was stunned.

 

“As a matter of fact,” she leaned in conspiratorially, “the doctor thinks it might even be triplets!”

 

Droplets of ale flew as Malcolm choked on his beverage.

 

Janet pulled her handkerchief from the small silk bag at her wrist and offered it to Lansdowne but he waved it away and pulled out a large linen square to mop his face and jacket.  “I guess that you are trying to tell me that I should not believe everything that I hear?”

 

“Very perceptive of you, Mr. Lansdowne.  Kristin Westphalen is a lovely lady and she has been through some very difficult times over the past few months.”  For just a moment Janet was tempted to tell Malcolm that Kristin was the wife of one of his dearest friends but in the end decided against it.  “You could do worse than to name the countess as a friend.”

 

“I would like very much to be her friend.  She is a very beautiful and a very kind lady.  If… If she should ever need anything I would like for her to feel that she could call on me… for anything.” Lansdowne emphasized once more.  “Would you tell her that?”

 

“I will,” Janet agreed, her mind reeling as she realized just exactly what Malcolm Lansdowne was saying, that he would be willing to claim Kristin’s child as his own.  ‘What is this effect that you have on men, my friend?’

 

“Then I will bid you good evening, Mrs. Noyce.  Perhaps when your husband arrives we could all dine together one evening?”

 

‘And what a meal that will be!’ Janet couldn’t help but grin at the thought of Malcolm’s surprise when he heard about Nathan’s wedding.  “Take care, Mr. Lansdowne, and guard your ale well.”

 

Malcolm raised his glass in a silent toast as he walked away.

 

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

 

Cynthia didn’t notice the sharp eyes that followed her every move as she accepted the punch glass from Will but she did recognize the tap tap tap of Lavinia’s cane as her grandmother approached with a speed that belied her age.

 

“Cynthia, I would have thought that you would have made time to call on your grandmother while you’ve been in London.” Lavinia accused.

 

“Grandmother, how nice to see you,” Cynthia responded pleasantly.  “Let me introduce you.  Lady Lavinia Carruthers, Dowager Countess of Kilhairn, this is William Noyce of Boston.”

 

Lavinia barely acknowledged the introduction, never taking her gaze off of her granddaughter.  “I expect you for tea tomorrow afternoon.  There are several things that we need to discuss.”

 

Cynthia smiled pleasantly.  “I am sorry, Grandmother.  I have other plans for tomorrow afternoon.  Perhaps we could arrange a day next week.”

 

Lavinia stamped her foot, as a small child would do.  “We cannot arrange a day next week.  If the rumours that I have heard are true we must not delay.”  The old woman’s eyes cut across the room to her daughter-in-law chatting with some brassy American woman.  “Once the gossip is confirmed you will have no chance of making an advantageous match.  I have several young men lined up for you to meet now.”

 

“Grandmother, I am not going to be pushed into…”

 

Lavinia swept Cynthia’s protests aside.  “There is Lord Barrington.  Come!  I’ll make the introduction now.”

 

Cynthia dug her heels in as Lavinia tugged at her arm, staring at her grandmother, aghast.  Barrington was known as one of the most dissolute rakes of the ton and his finances were known to be almost nonexistent.  Apparently Lavinia was still scheming on how she could regain control of the Kilhairn fortune from Kristin.

 

“I am not interested in meeting Lord Barrington or any other suitor that you might pick for me, Grandmother.”  Cynthia turned her back on the old woman and noticed Kristin and her maternal grandmother enter the room and make their way toward Janet.  “Mr. Noyce, would you be so kind as to escort me to my mother?”

 

“It would be my pleasure, milady.”  Will bowed slightly at the waist then offered Cynthia his arm.  “Delighted to meet you, Lady Carruthers.”

 

“Impudent youth,” Lavinia muttered as the young couple moved across the floor.  She sank into a chair against the wall and fumed as she watched her granddaughter and daughter-in-law chat gaily with the small group of people surrounding them.

 

“Your granddaughter is very beautiful, Countess.”

 

Lavinia looked up at the strange accent to find a solidly built balding man in an American military uniform standing next to her.

 

“I don’t believe we have been introduced, sir.”  Her eyes narrowed.

 

“I apologize for my terrible breech of good manners but I couldn’t help noticing the way that you are watching the girl.”

 

“And why should that interest you, Mister…?”

 

“Thomas… General Francis Thomas, currently attached to the American embassy here in London.  I do have a particular interest in that area… If I might speak in confidence, Madame?”

 

After a few moments thought Lavinia nodded her head sharply.  “You may.”

 

Thomas leaned in closer.  “I am sure that you have heard certain… rumours… about your daughter-in-law’s condition.”

 

“Spiteful gossip, I can assure you.”

 

“Or perhaps not.  I became acquainted with Lady Kristin through her father and I’ve come to greatly admire her over the past month.  I have made an offer for her hand.  I realize that my pedigree is not so impressive as others of your acquaintance but… under the present circumstances…”

 

Lavinia’s mind was already whirling with the news.  “You’d raise Kristin’s bastard?  Give it your name?”

 

“If it actually comes down to that although I do have other plans in mind...  I have given the marriage a great deal of thought and I just wanted to take the opportunity to assure you that once Lady Westphalen and I are married I will give you my full support in any plans that you may have for your granddaughter.”

 

“And has my daughter-in-law actually accepted your offer?”

 

“Our engagement will be announced at her parent’s annual ball next week.  I am arranging for a special license so that we can be married the day after.  Time is of the essence, you understand.  Once we are married we will be retiring to the country for a long honeymoon so I am sure that you would be happy to have your granddaughter living with you once again…”

 

Lavinia covered up the instant loathing she felt for the stranger standing next to her as she raised her eyes to meet his gaze.  “My granddaughter is always welcome in my home, General.  May I offer my congratulations on your impending nuptials…”

 

Thomas raised the lady’s gloved hand to his lips.  “Thank you for your support, Lady Carruthers.  I would ask… until the time that the Duke announces our engagement we would like for it to remain our little secret.  Kristin would be very upset if she knew that I spoke with you so if you could remain quiet…”

 

‘Nasty little worm,’ Lavinia thought as she nodded in agreement.  ‘But I would deal with the devil himself to get what I want.’

 

“Make your plans, General.  I will be ready for Cynthia to come to me once you are married.”

 

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

 

“Now that is an interesting pairing.  I would love to know what those two are discussing.” Cynthia watched her grandmother and General Thomas with narrowed eyes over the rim of her punch glass.  Kristin turned as she followed her daughter’s gaze.  “That is grandfather’s friend, isn’t it?  The one who you don’t care for?”

 

“Frank Thomas… yes that is him.  I wonder what they are talking about as well.”  Kristin shuddered slightly as she thought of all the possibilities.  “They are certainly two of a kind.”

 

Cynthia cocked her eyebrows at her mother.  “Is there something that you aren’t telling me about this General?”

 

Kristin paled visibly.  “Of course not… I just…” Suddenly she seemed to wilt before their eyes.  Janet quickly grabbed an elbow to steady her.

 

“Kristin?”

 

“Mother?”

 

Concerned voices tripped over each other as each of them sought to help.  Kristin waved them away. 

 

“I am fine, I promise… just a bit weary.”  Her eyes cut briefly toward Thomas and Lavinia.

 

Janet saw the glance and took over the conversation.  “It’s no wonder.  The evening’s entertainment is over.  Let’s plead another engagement and see you home.”

 

“That sounds wonderful.  But I’m not really sleepy; I just need to sit down in a quiet place.  Why don’t the two of you come back to the house with us?”

 

Both mothers noticed the look that passed between their children and shared a subtle nod with each other.

 

“I’ll call for the carriage.”  Will offered then moved away.

 

Kristin glanced around the room once again.  “Let’s see if we can do this discretely.  I’d like to make our getaway without anyone realizing that we are gone.”

 

Sadly it was not to be.  The women were almost clear of the room when a figure loomed before them.

 

“Leaving so soon?” Lavinia cackled; her eyes narrowing as she stared at her daughter-in-law.

 

“Unfortunately we have other obligations this evening.  If you will excuse us?”  Kristin made to move around the woman but Lavinia shifted in front of her again.

 

“I would speak with you, daughter, privately.”

 

Kristin sighed and turned to Cynthia.  “Go with Mrs. Noyce and let William know that I’ve been detained for a few moments.  I will join you shortly.”

 

Cynthia’s reluctance to leave was obvious.  “Perhaps your grandmother and I do have some unfinished words, although this is hardly the place that I would have chosen for them.  I won’t be long.  Now go.”

 

This time Cynthia did as her mother asked and left with Janet, but only after a backwards glance of regret.  Once they were gone Kristin bowed her head slightly and gestured to Lavinia to lead the way.

 

In a few moments they were alone in a small room off the main corridor.  Lavinia sank into a chair and surveyed Kristin critically.

 

“I commend you on your modiste.  With that particular pattern I can’t tell if the rumours are true or not, although I tend to believe that they are.”

 

Kristin struggled to hold her temper.  “We are alone so speak your peace, old woman.”  The address was a hard one for Kristin to use but she was tired and she had no patience left with her mother-in-law.

 

“Do you think that I don’t know what you are doing?  I have eyes.  I can see the way that Cynthia looks at that American boy and he feels the same.  You are encouraging them, knowing that he is a completely unsuitable choice, just to spite me.”

 

“Lavinia!  Will you please accept the fact that the entire world does not revolve around you?  William is a very dear friend to my family as are his parents.  He is hard working and intelligent, a much more suitable match for my daughter than that little worm you tried to force her to marry.  But when and if Cynthia marries it will be a man of her own choosing, not of mine or of yours.”

 

“You would allow your daughter to throw away her heritage?”

 

“I want my daughter to be happy with whomever she chooses.  I want her to be in love!  Haven’t you ever felt that way, Lavinia?  At some point in your miserable, scheming life wasn’t there one person who you would have done anything to be with?  Who could make you feel love and joy and happiness with a simple touch of his hand?  That is what I’ve found with my husband and that is what I want for my daughter, be it with William Noyce or some other young man.”

 

“Poppycock… that is utter rubbish!”  Lavinia sputtered.

 

“No… it isn’t.  But I should have known that you wouldn’t understand.  If you ever did have a heart it shriveled up years ago.  But understand me, Lavinia.  I will not allow you to interfere with Cynthia again.  You are her grandmother and she loves you dearly.  Instead of manipulating her feelings why don’t you try to appreciate them before you drive her away completely.”

 

Kristin turned and stalked out of the room before Lavinia could muster a reply.

 

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

 

“Would you like me to have cook fix a pot of tea?”  Cynthia asked her mother as she watched her slowly lower herself onto the sofa.

 

“That would be lovely,” Kristin nodded to her daughter.  “And some scones…”

 

“Yes, Mother,” Cynthia replied and moved towards the door.

 

“And I…” William pushed himself off the wall.  “Could you please show me where the facilities are?”

 

Cynthia smiled and nodded.  “Of course, follow me,” she said then looked over at her mother.  “I will be right back.”

 

“So… how long do you think, before they tell us?”  Janet asked once Will and Cynthia were out of the room.

 

“Soon… very soon,” Kristin replied.  “I think they are getting tired of pretending that they have no feelings for each other.”

 

“Good,” Janet chuckled.  “I don’t know about you, but I am anxious to start planning a big wedding.”

 

Kristin laughed and was about to comment when the sound of muffled voices filtered into the room.  She shared a glance with Janet just as Will and Cynthia returned.

 

“Cook will bring the trolley in a few minutes,” Cynthia informed her mother as she sat down beside her mother on the couch. 

 

“Very good,” Kristin nodded.

 

“Mother… how long until Lucas and Clarissa return?”  Cynthia asked.

 

“Oh… a couple hours at least.  They are with the group of local youths at the Vauxhall Gardens,” Kristin answered.  “Why?”

 

“Just curious.”

 

“For heaven’s sake, William, would you please sit down,” Janet said to her son as he paced back and forth behind the sofa.  “You’re making me dizzy.”

 

“Sorry, Mother,” Will replied as he walked around the lounge.  He caught Cynthia’s gaze and the two shared a quick look.  Will nodded imperceptibly and instead of sitting in the chair beside his mother, he knelt on the floor before Kristin.  “Aunt Kristin…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“I…” Will began then stopped to look once again at Cynthia.  “We have a confession to make.”

 

Kristin arched her eyebrow as she caught Janet’s gaze over William’s head.  “What sort of confession?”

 

“Your daughter and I did not meet for the first time when you introduced us a few days ago,” he told her.  “We ran into each other several weeks ago at a bookstore in town and since that day, we’ve been meeting at the park every afternoon.”

 

“So you are the young man my daughter told me about?”  Kristin asked and just managed to bite back her smile as Will glanced quickly at Cynthia.

 

“Yes, I am,” Will answered then cleared his throat as he straightened his posture.  “Lady Westphalen,” he began in a serious voice.  “I am very much in love with your daughter, and as such, I am asking you for her hand in marriage.  I promise you that I will be a good and faithful husband to her.  Also, should you give your permission, I would like your solicitors to draw up legal documents to ensure that all Cynthia’s monies and estates stay in her name.”

 

Kristin laid her hands on her stomach as she made a show of considering William’s proposal and watched as he surreptitiously snuck a look at Cynthia.  She turned to her daughter.  “Do you love this young man?”

 

Cynthia’s face broke out in a huge smile as she nodded and reached out for Will’s hand.  “Yes, Mother.  I love him very much, and I would like to marry him and spend the rest of my life with him.”

 

Kristin chanced a glance at Janet to see her holding her handkerchief to her mouth and her eyes bright with unshed tears then reached out and clasped Cynthia and Will’s joined hands as a smile slowly spread across her face.  She nodded.  “You have my permission to marry.”

 

“Oh thank you, Mother!”  Cynthia exclaimed as she pulled her hand free and leaned over to embrace Kristin.  “Thank you so much.”

 

Will rose up on his knees and joined the embrace.  “Thank you, Aunt Kristin.”  A soft sob drew his attention and he pulled back to see his mother crying.  He released Cynthia and Kristin then moved over to kneel before Janet.  “Mother?  Are you… are you okay with this?”

 

“Oh, my son…” Janet reached out and cupped William’s cheek.  “I am very okay with this.  I can think of no one else I would love to have for my daughter-in-law.”

 

A large smile formed on Will’s face to match the one on his mother’s as he leaned in to embrace her.  “Thank you, Mother,” he whispered against her ear then moved out of her arms to sit on the other side of Cynthia on the sofa.

 

“Is it just me… the two of you don’t really seem all that surprised by this,” Cynthia said with a smile as Will laced his fingers with hers.

 

Janet and Kristin shared a look.

 

“We aren’t.”

 

“We realized that the two of you were… seeing each other, a few days ago.”

 

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

 

“We assumed you would tell us when you were ready…”

 

“And we were right.”

 

The four laughed as a knock came on the door, followed by a large gray-haired woman pushing a trolley with tea and scones.

 

“Your tea, milady.”

 

“Thank you, Elsie,” Kristin said with a smile.

 

The old woman returned her smile then quickly left the room.

 

“So… should we have a big wedding or…” Janet’s voice trailed off at the look that passed between Cynthia and Will.  “What is it?”

 

“We were talking,” Cynthia began as she watched her mother pour the tea.

 

“And we know that Cynthia’s grandmother Carruthers and your father,” Will looked at Kristin,  “will have a problem with us getting married…”

 

“So we thought that we would simply elope to Gretna Green,” Cynthia finished.

 

“Oh no!”  Kristin said as she handed Cynthia one of the cups.  “You my darling daughter deserve a grand wedding,” she paused with a scone halfway to her mouth.  “Unless there is a need for haste?”

 

“Oh no!  No!  Oh no, Mother!”

 

Kristin met Janet’s eyes as she handed her a cup of tea, confirming that she too had noticed the blush creep up both of their children’s faces.

 

“Cynthia and I have decided to wait until we are wed before we consummate our relationship,” Will replied with a gentle squeeze to his love’s hand.

 

Kristin and Janet smiled.

 

“We are glad to hear that,” Janet said.

 

“Even if you didn’t wait yourself, Mother?”  William asked with a cheeky smile.

 

Kristin covered her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing out loud.

 

“William Edward Noyce Junior!”  Janet exclaimed even as she felt her cheeks flame slightly.  “How did… when… where on earth did you hear that?”

 

“Several years ago, I overheard dad and Uncle Nathan talking…” Will answered.  “Of course, at that time I had no idea what they meant…”

 

“Kristin,” Janet turned to her friend.  “When our husbands arrive, you’d better hope you get Nathan away before I get my hands on him, because I am going to hurt both of them.”

 

Kristin couldn’t hold it in any longer and burst out laughing.  “I’m not saying a word,” she gasped as her laughter slowly faded away and patted her gravid stomach.  A wave of sadness suddenly washed over her, but she fought to keep a smile on her face, unwilling for the others to see.

 

Will turned to Cynthia, and the two shared a silent conversation.  After a moment or two, Cynthia nodded then stood and without a word left the room.

 

“Where is she going?”

 

“To get a little something…” Will answered with a smile at his mother and aunt.  “She won’t be long.”

 

As if to prove his point, Cynthia breezed back into the room after a few moments and reclaimed her seat between her mother and Will; whatever it was that she’d gone to get hidden in the folds of her skirt.

 

“Mother… Will has a little something he would like to give you,” she said.

 

“No, Cyn, you… you give it to her.”

 

Cynthia shook her head and pulled out what looked to Kristin like a small picture portfolio.  “Here…”

 

“No… you…” Will tried to refuse what Cynthia was giving him.

 

“No, Will.  You… you did it, you give it to her,” Cynthia told him and thrust the wallet into his hands.

 

Will held the portfolio in his hands for a moment then with a gentle nudge from Cynthia, he slowly opened it and pulled out a thick white sheet of paper.  He glanced down at it then lifted his gaze to meet his mother’s and at her knowing look and small nod he turned to face Kristin.

 

“Aunt Kristin, I… I uhm, I drew this… as a test really,” Will began.  “I was trying to capture that look… to see if it was possible to get it down on paper…” he sighed and reached across Cynthia to hold out the stiff paper.  “Here…”

 

Kristin took the paper from William and slowly turned it over.  She gasped and her eyes filled with tears at the image before her.  “Oh, Nathan…” Kristin whispered, unmindful of the tears now streaming down her cheeks as she traced her finger over the drawing of her husband, amazed how real the sketch appeared.

 

“I’m sorry, Aunt Kristin.  It wasn’t my intention to upset you.  I just thought…”

 

“No, Will,” Kristin shook her head then wiped away the tears with her free hand.  “You didn’t upset me… quite the opposite.  This is incredible,” she looked up at the young man.  “Thank you so much.  I can’t tell you what this means to me.”

 

William smiled then glanced at Cynthia when she squeezed his hand.  She leaned towards him and brushed a quick kiss over his cheek.  “Thank you,” he heard her whisper against his skin.

 

“It’s so…” Kristin continued in a quiet voice, her eyes again filled with unshed tears.  She looked at Will.  “When did you do this?”

 

“On our way over from Boston,” Will answered.

 

“You did this from memory?”

 

“Yes,” he replied.  “I was trying to capture the light in your eyes that you and Uncle Nathan get when you look at each other…”

 

Kristin smiled and looked back down at the drawing in her hand.  Having been used to only being on the receiving end of that look from Nathan… of losing herself in the depths of his cerulean eyes and Nathan in hers; to the point where everything and everyone else ceased to exist for them, Kristin was amazed to see it captured on paper… to see what others saw when they looked at them.

 

“You captured it very well…” Kristin told him as she continued to lightly trace Nathan’s image.  “Very well…” her voice trailed off to barely louder than a whisper.  “Oh my rogue…”

 

Janet watched her friend lose herself in her memories and smiled.  After all the stress of the last few days, Janet decided to let Kristin be… to enjoy the memories the picture invoked and turned to look at her son and his fiancée.  “So… when, where and how do we want to stage this wedding?”

 

“Aunt Janet!”

 

“Mother!”

 

Kristin smiled at the twin responses to Janet’s question but made to move to join in the conversation… instead she closed her eyes and thought of her husband.  ‘Hurry home, my rogue… please hurry.’

 

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

 

“Come,” Kristin called out at the soft knock on the door, not in the least bit surprised by the tapping.  She’d been expecting Cynthia.

 

“Am I bothering you?” Cynthia whispered from the doorway.

 

“Of course not.  I’ve been waiting for you.  Come and sit with me.”

 

Cynthia floated across the room and settled in the empty chair beside her mother.  “How did you know that I would come?”

 

“A mother knows,” Kristin smiled. 

 

Cynthia’s gaze fell to Kristin’s lap where her mother held the sketch that Will had given her earlier that evening.  “Your Nathan is very striking… not exactly what I would call handsome in the classic sense of the word but I can see why he caught your eye.”

 

“Will is very talented.” Kristin’s finger ran across the line of Nathan’s strong jaw.  “He has captured Nathan perfectly.”

 

“He captured you perfectly… and the love that the two of you have for each other.  If I ever doubted that before I can’t after seeing this sketch.”

 

A tear glistened in the corner of Kristin’s eye.  “You can’t know how much this means to me… to actually be able to see Nathan some place other than in my mind’s eye.”  After another longing look Kristin lifted the sketch and laid it on the small table at her side.

 

“But now let’s talk about you…” At Cynthia’s gasp Kristin followed her daughter’s gaze down to her abdomen, boldly outlined by the sash of her robe tied just above the protrusion.

 

“Mummy… I didn’t realize…”

 

Kristin’s hands fell to her stomach.  “My gowns do an excellent job of hiding the extent of my condition, don’t they?  Or at least they have done.  I suspect that in another few weeks all of the rumours will be confirmed.”  She rubbed the swell.  “The baby is growing by leaps and bounds.”

 

“How far…?”

 

“I can’t be completely sure of course but I suspect that I must be at least four, maybe close to five months along.  The baby should be born sometime after the first of the year.”

 

“How… What does it feel like, Mummy?  Having another person growing inside?”

 

Kristin’s eyes closed and she rested her head against the back of the chair as her hands drew slow circles over her womb.  “It is an amazing feeling, knowing that this little life is there, depending on me to guard over it.  There are some not so pleasant aspects of course, increased trips to the retiring room, swollen ankles… but then I feel the tiniest little flutterings… the baby moving inside me… and I am awed.  Why… Cynthia!”  Kristin’s eyes flew open as she leaned forward to stare at her daughter.  “Are you positive that there is no need for a hasty wedding?”

 

Cynthia blushed furiously under her mother’s intense gaze.  “I’m positive.  Will and I would like to get married as soon as possible but not because… I’m not expect… that is, we haven’t…” Her head fell as she gave up trying to complete a sentence.

 

“You haven’t committed the act which might make you pregnant?”  Kristin regretted causing Cynthia’s obvious discomfort but she needed to be positive.  “But you have done something?”

 

Cynthia shook her head.  “Just kissing… and touching… a lot of touching but not… Will used his fing…”

 

Kristin wouldn’t have believed that Cynthia could get any redder if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes.  “You don’t have to be specific with me, darling.  I just want… I realize that in my present condition I am the last person to be cautioning you but… your wedding night will be even more special if you wait.”

 

“Did you and daddy…?”

 

Kristin wanted to laugh at the thought of Oliver behaving outside the bounds of propriety.  “We waited.  Your father was experienced, of course; but I was not.  Proper young ladies were raised to retain their virginity until the wedding night and you know that your grandmother raised me to be a proper young lady.  Just as I raised you…” Kristin gave Cynthia a hard look.  “I’ve tried to be honest with you about my relationship with Nathan; the joy in our physical relationship that I learned from him but…”

 

Kristin slipped her hand into Cynthia’s and squeezed tightly.  “I still believe that joy should be experienced within the bounds of marriage.”

 

Cynthia smiled at her mother and nodded.  “I know, Mother.  And as we told you this evening, Will and I have decided to wait until we are married before we…” she began to blush again,  “go any further.”

 

“Good.  I am pleased to hear that,” Kristin said then sat back in her chair.  She gasped softly as the child within her womb kicked and splayed her hands over her swollen belly.  “There there, little one…”

 

“Do you think she hears you?”

 

“I know she does,” Kristin replied as she continued to gently circle her hands over her stomach.  “It was the same with you.”

 

“Really?”  Cynthia asked with an almost hopeful smile.

 

“Yes,” Kristin answered.  “In fact… you were quite the active baby as I recall, and I knew that you would be a handful growing up.  That you would be strong… and beautiful and smart…” she smiled at her daughter.  “And I was right.  You are very beautiful, very smart and very strong.  And I am very proud of you.”

 

Cynthia found herself flushing under her mother’s praise.  “Thank you.  I’ve had a good role model.”

 

Kristin laughed and looked down at her gravid belly.  “I don’t know about that…”

 

“I do,” Cynthia stated.  “Look at what you’ve done.  When daddy died… you learned all about shipbuilding in order to keep away all those fortune hunters.  You know about healing…” she paused.  “You are the strong one, Mummy.  And if you say I am strong too, well… that is only because you are the one who taught me to be.”

 

The two women shared a tender smile and a moment of silence before Cynthia leaned forward in her chair. 

 

“May I… may I feel the baby kick?”  She reached a hand then paused at the look on her mother’s face.  “Unless it makes you too uncomfortable?”

 

“No, it doesn’t… I just…” Kristin shrugged at her daughter.  “I would like for Nathan to be the first to feel the baby move.”

 

Cynthia smiled at her mother as she sat back in the chair.  “I understand that.  I can wait then.”

 

Kristin gave her daughter a grateful smile.  “Thank you.”

 

“I’ll just have to make sure I’m next in line.”

 

Kristin laughed softly.  “So… I heard you, Will and Janet discussing the wedding.  Does this mean you’ve set a date?”

 

“Not really,” Cynthia replied as she looked down at her hands.  “As much as Will and I would like to hurry and get married, we would like to wait for his father and Nathan to arrive,” she said then lifted her head to meet her mother’s eyes.  “Mummy, do you… do you think my new stepfather would have an aversion to walking me down the aisle?”

 

Kristin’s eyes widened.  “You would want… not your grandfather?”

 

Cynthia smiled.  “I told you… seeing that sketch I can see the love between the two of you, and if he loves you even half as much as is depicted in that picture… then I know I will love him too…”

 

“Oh, Cynni… I have no doubt that Nathan would be honoured to walk you down the aisle,” Kristin said with unshed tears in her eyes.  “Very honoured indeed.”

 

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

 

“Well?  What do you think?”

 

Janet looked over at Kristin.  “Turn around, let me see.”

 

Kristin slowly twirled.

 

“I like it,” Janet told her.  “The colour is very flattering…”

 

“But does it…?” Kristin gestured to her stomach.  “You can’t really tell can you?”

 

Janet shook her head.  “No.  It would be a tough call either way.”

 

“Good,” Kristin breathed a sigh of relief and moved to stand in front of the large cheval mirror in her dressing room.  She turned from side to side to inspect the new dress she wore.

 

“You are happy with the dress, Countess?”  Madame Dussault stepped over to Kristin and reached out to make a small adjustment on the drape of the gown.  “Oui?”

 

“Oui,” Kristin replied.  “You’ve done a wonderful job, Madame.”

 

Dussault smiled.  “Merci, Countess.”

 

“I do wish though… that the colour was more of a sapphire shade,” Kristin admitted.  “This blue is nice, it’s just a little dark.”

 

“Ah, but the dark colour helps detract from your condition, milady.”

 

“I know… I know…”

 

“But you like the lighter colour better,” the modiste said with a smile.

 

“Yes,” Kristin nodded.  “It reminds me of my husband’s eyes.”

 

Janet smiled at her friend through the mirror.  “So, how did you convince Lucas that he had to not only attend the ball but that he had to do so in formal wear?”

 

“I told him Clarissa would be there, and that she was sure to be a favourite among the young gentlemen attending,” Kristin answered with a grin.  “He couldn’t wait to get to the tailor.”

 

The women in the room laughed.

 

“Ah, I can remember being their age…” Madame Dussault began as she made a few minor alterations on Kristin’s dress.  “Falling in love for the first time… walking hand in hand with the one you love sur les banques de la Sienne… c’est magnifique.”

 

“I imagine it would be,” Janet remarked with a glance at Kristin.

 

“It was…” Dussault smiled then stepped back.  “Is it still tight across the bosom?”

 

Kristin shifted a little then nodded.  “Yes, a little.”

 

“Hmm…” the seamstress looked thoughtful.  “Excusez-moi…”

 

Janet walked over to stand beside Kristin as Dussault headed across the room to her sewing kit.  “So what were you thinking when the madame was talking about strolling along the Sienne?”

 

“That personally, I’d take cuddling up in the crow’s nest,” Kristin replied in a quiet voice with a smile on her face.

 

Janet laughed.  “I do so hope the boys pick out proper attire.”

 

“Oh, I am sure they will, Aunt Janet.”

 

Janet and Kristin turned to see their daughters and Katherine Kreig standing in the doorway.

 

“You look lovely, Aunt Kristin,” Clarissa told her.

 

“Thank you, Claire,” Kristin replied.

 

“And how can you be so sure?”  Janet asked Cynthia as the girls entered the room.

 

“Because mummy sent a note ahead to the tailor advising him of what she wanted for Lucas,” Cynthia answered.  “As well as for Will and Ben.”

 

Janet laughed again.  “Smart woman.”

 

Kristin grinned at her.  “I thought so,” she replied as the seamstress reappeared and once again began to make small changes on Kristin’s dress.

 

After a few more adjustments, Dussault stepped back.  “There… how is that?”

 

Kristin once again shifted a little then smiled.  “Much better.”

 

“Bien,” the modiste smiled back.  “The dress looks wonderful on you, Countess.  Trés belle!”

 

“Thank you,” Kristin replied then stepped away from the mirror.  “I’m going to go take it off now.”

 

“Oh, Countess…” Madame Dussault stopped her with a hand on her arm.  “I would like to apologize to you about Jeanette.”

 

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Kristin told the slightly older woman.  “It was not your fault.”

 

“I’ve heard the rumours, Countess.  Jeanette told someone she ought not have.”

 

“This is true, but again, it is not your fault, Madame.  I do not hold you responsible.”

 

“Merci, Countess,” the seamstress smiled gratefully at Kristin.  “But I want you to know, that I have terminated her employment.  I do not condone gossiping…”

 

“You did not need to do that,” Kristin said.

 

“Oui, I did.  My clients’ privacy is of utmost importance!”  Madame Dussault stated.

 

“Even so… has she found other employment?”

 

“I do not know.”

 

“Perhaps you should hire her back.  She was quite talented, as you yourself have said,” Kristin told her.

 

“But she…”

 

“Told a friend in confidence, who no doubt betrayed her trust and so on and so forth,” Kristin said.  “We all gossip to some extent, Madame.  And I am sure Jeanette did not mean for it to become the rumour it did.  The girl has probably learned a valuable lesson from this and will be much more careful in the future.”

 

Dussault looked thoughtful.  “If you are sure?”

 

“I am,” Kristin smiled.

 

“Then I will contact her tomorrow…” the seamstress said.  “She really is quite talented with a needle and thread… Come now, Mademoiselle Cynthia… you are next.”

 

Kristin watched with a smile as Madame Dussault helped Cynthia into the dress she would wear to the ball then with a quick nod to Janet, she left the dressing room.

 

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

 

  sail ahead...