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

 

Nathan was sulking at the small table in the dining area, a cup of coffee cradled in his hands, when Kristin entered the room.  With a careful glance back at the door she moved to his side and gently stroked his cheek.

 

“Is your bottom sore?”  She whispered.

 

The sound of footsteps in the hall prevented Nathan from answering but the look he gave Kristin let her know that he wouldn’t forget her teasing.  She grinned back at him sassily as she moved to the sideboard and picked up a plate.

 

“Good morning!” Janet announced cheerily as she and Bill swept into the room.  “I trust we all slept well last night?”

 

“Very well.”  Nathan smirked.

 

“I thought as much.  I believe that we have a few minutes before your other guests join us but not much longer.”  Janet wrinkled her nose at Nathan then moved to join Kristin.  Bill simply shrugged his shoulders at Nathan before moving to fill up a plate as well.

 

Once they were all seated at the table Kristin passed out cups of tea and coffee then said, “Nathan has assured me that the Smith’s won’t be staying very long.”

 

“One can hope but that woman… I doubt that a band of marauding pirates could drive her out if she digs her heels in.”

 

Nathan laughed.  “That could be arranged.  No… I will feel Wendell out today about the length of their visit.  If it is too long I may have to make a few pointed suggestions about their departure.”

 

“Why bother?”  Janet asked flippantly.  “Wendy reads minds.  She should know that they aren’t welcome.”

 

“Wendy reads minds?”  Kristin asked incredulously.

 

“They say she does.  I will admit that sometimes her guesses are pretty accurate but mostly it’s just a parlor trick.  Alexandra Smith is the most notorious gossip in these islands and many little ‘confidences’ that she learns appear as Wendy’s miraculous divinings.”

 

“So you don’t believe in extrasensory perception?  I know that mesmerism is quite the rage in London at the moment but I haven’t paid much attention.”

 

“I believe that some people are more sensitive to certain things… certain people… than others.  Take Nathan for instance.  He knows when you are approaching before you come in to view.  You are the same about him.  That is something unusual.  But Wendy?  Pure hokum,” Janet scoffed.

 

Nathan touched Kristin’s hand, his fingers lacing through hers.  “Janet is right. We have a special connection.”

 

Kristin squeezed his hand tightly then pulled hers away quickly as footsteps sounded heavily on the stairs.

 

Alexandra breezed into the room as if she owned it, Wendy and Wendell close behind. 

 

“Good morning!  I just love your home, Nathan.  Your beds are so comfortable.  I slept like a baby.  And the way that the open windows catch the breeze… marvelous.  I could stay here forever.  Wendy feels that same way.”

 

“I’m glad that you slept comfortably,” Nathan murmured politely as he motioned toward the food on the sideboard.  “Please, help yourselves.”

 

“I would have thought that Bess might have made some maple pecan pancakes.  She knows that both Wendy and I adore them so.”

 

“I believe I heard Bess say that her pecan stores were very low,” Nathan offered while grimacing to the group around the table.

 

“Then she should have used the last of them for a special occasion.  I will have a word with her.”  Lexie swept past the group to the table, taking the empty chair to Nathan’s left.  Her eyes scanned the area and fell on the beverage trolley parked between Kristin and Janet.  “Wendell, roll the trolley over here.”

 

Nathan’s mouth opened, annoyance written on his chiseled features, but a gentle squeeze to his knee kept him silent.

 

“So… what shall we do today?  Perhaps we should have a picnic.  I’ll have Bess make us a wonderful lunch and we can find some lovely meadow to eat in.  Your son might even feel like joining us for a while, Janet.  I’m sure that Nathan can find some of his men to carry the boy to the meadow and his nurse would be there to watch him.”

 

Nathan’s anger was evident to those who knew him well.  “Bill and I have to go oversee some repairs to my boat and then I have to ride out and check on one of my fields.”  This response earned Nathan five sharp nails digging into his thigh.  “I am sorry, Alexandra, but I wasn’t expecting company.”

 

“I believe that I shall ride out with Nathan and Bill, dear.  I am interested in seeing if his crops are doing as well as ours,” Wendell interjected before his wife could speak again.

 

“I’ve set today aside to spend with Will.  But you and Wendy can still have your picnic.” Janet offered.

 

“No… We will wait until tomorrow when Nathan has had time to rearrange his schedule.  Wendy and I will go over the house today.  There are so many ‘little’ things that should be done, things that a man wouldn’t notice.  Wendy has a very good eye so I am sure that you will welcome her suggestions, Nathan.”  Lexie replied, her tone commanding rather than requesting.

 

“Did not!”

 

“You did too!”

 

A loud clatter rose in the outer hallway, as young male voices grew louder, arguing all the way.  A few moments later Will and Lucas burst through the door in a mad dash towards the food.  Lucas broke through the door first but quickly stumbled as Will shoved his cane under his friend’s knees.  Arrival at the buffet was a dead tie.

 

“I won!”

 

“In your dreams!”

 

“Boys!”  Both young men stopped their banter and stared at the source of the twin maternal voices chastising them.

 

“We have guests.” Janet offered gently.  “William, this is Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their daughter.”

 

“How do you do?” Will offered politely as he blushed over his bad manners.  Lucas flushed as well, chastised by a gentle look from Kristin.

 

“The Smiths arrived last night after the two of you had already taken off.” Nathan volunteered, turning his back to the family to glare at Lucas with a ‘behave yourself’ look.

 

“Very nice to see you again, Mr. and Mrs. Smith… Miss Smith.” Lucas grinned when he was rewarded for his show of manners with a beaming smile from Kristin.

 

“You remember Lucas, my ward.” Nathan volunteered, his irritation growing by leaps and bounds at the blank look on Alexandra’s face.

 

“Oh… yes.  William, you are much more improved than I expected.  But of course you would be if your nurse was able to leave you and join the gathering last evening.”  Lexie’s eyes narrowed as she stared at Will thoughtfully.

 

“My nur… oh, La… Mistress Westphalen.  I owe my life to her.”  Will stared at Kristin as if she were an angel, his adoration clear in his eyes, until it was suddenly replaced by a look a pain.  “Why did you do that?” He stared at his companion who had just kicked him.

 

“Sorry… accident.  Go sit down.  I’m hungry.”  The formal greetings taken care of, Lucas’ attention quickly returned to his primary want – food.  The boys moved to the other end of the long table, as far away from the Smiths as they could get.

 

“Really, Nathan… if you can’t train the boy to use better manners he should eat in the kitchen with the other… with the servants.”  Lexie glanced at Lucas with disdain then daintily took a bite of egg.

 

The vein in Nathan’s neck began to throb madly.  “Alexandra, Lucas is NOT a servant.  He is family and as such he eats where I do.  Most days we both eat in the kitchen with Bess, for that matter.”

 

Kristin and the Noyces recognized the beginning of a full fledged rant, the former gripping Nathan’s knee frantically in an effort to cut him off while the other two settled back to enjoy.  Only the arrival of Ben and Katie at that very moment stopped Nathan from completely losing his temper.

 

“Good morning!” Ben announced cheerily.  “We were just strolling by and happened to smell bacon and biscuits…”

 

“Ben has been starving for Bess’ biscuits.” Katie volunteered equally as cheerful.  “He is hoping for a breakfast invitation.”

 

“Come on in.  There is plenty.  Bess always cooks enough for an army.”  Nathan waved the couple toward the sideboard.

 

“Very wasteful.  I’ll have to speak to her about that as well.” Both Kristin and Janet turned and stared, unwilling to believe that they’d actually heard the words that Lexie Smith had uttered to her daughter.

 

“It’s about time the two of you emerged for air.”  Lucas called to the couple filling their plates at the sideboard.  “We haven’t seen you outside your cabin in over a week!”

 

“This man and woman have been staying together, Nathan?  You allow this?”  Lexie’s moral outrage was over the top.

 

“Lieutenant Kreig serves as a valuable member of Nathan’s crew.  He and Katherine have recently wed.  Due to the damage to Nathan’s ship during the storm it went through bringing Will home to us Ben and Katie had to postpone their honeymoon so they’ve been spending it here in Ben’s officer’s quarters.”  Janet stared Lexie down, daring the woman to say anything more.

 

To their credit neither Ben nor Katie showed any surprise at suddenly being pronounced man and wife although Lucas did strangle on a bit of scrambled egg.

 

“Congratulations!”  Wendell offered heartily, standing to shake Ben’s hand across the table as the couple moved to take their seats.

 

“Thank you, sir.  We are very happy.”

 

“And where did the happy event take place?” Lexie asked, still suspicious of the newcomers.

 

“Port San Luis.  We put in for supplies there and Katie and I decided to jump the broom as well.”  Ben was obviously getting into the spirit of the tale.

 

“So the young lady was on the ship with you?”

 

“Katherine is my com… assistant.  She and Ben fell in love while helping me tend William’s wounds.  Once Will began to improve there was no reason for them not to marry.”  Kristin’s voice was excessively polite but hard as steel and suddenly Nathan had a vision of her facing down the snobbiest aristocratic matrons that London could offer with aplomb.

 

“Oh… my congratulations then.”  Lexie barely acknowledged Kristin’s words before nodding at the couple then turning back to Nathan.

 

Nathan had had enough.  He drained the last drop of coffee from his cup and plunked it back into the saucer, his other hand squeezing Kristin’s, then pushed back from the table.  “I’m off to the stables.  No Bill, finish your breakfast.  I’ll be getting the horses ready.”  Nathan stopped behind Kristin’s chair as he spoke, hand coming to rest on the top bar.  Only a side glance by Bill or Janet would have revealed his fingers brushing the top of Kristin’s back just above the line of her dress.  “Come along when you get done.  You too, Wendell.  Have a nice day, ladies.”

 

Kristin waited until Nathan had cleared the room before she stood.  “We need to check your bandages this morning, Will.  I’ll have things ready when you finish eating.”

 

Will grimaced at Lucas but then nodded politely to Kristin as she swept out of the room in the opposite direction from Nathan.

 

With both of his parental figures gone, Lucas’ manners left as well.  He scowled over at the noxious family calmly eating their breakfast.  “So… how long are you staying this time?”

 

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

 

Nathan was cinching the saddle tightly around his stallion’s girth when that now familiar sensation crawled up the back of his neck.  He tucked the strap through the buckle and turned, knowing who he would see.

 

Kristin leaned against the door of the stable, her eyes caressing the lines of his muscled thighs through his tight pants.  Nathan grinned at her and popped his hips forward.

 

“You know,” Kristin began as she moved toward him, “you are going to have to find some looser pants to wear while that woman is here.  She’s infatuated with you, you know.”

 

Nathan laughed.  “That’s ridiculous!  Lexie?  She’s married.”

 

“I don’t care.  She has her eye on you.”  Kristin smiled sexily as she stopped a foot in front of Nathan and placed her hands on his chest.  “I don’t like it.”

 

“Well, I don’t like her, I don’t like her daughter, I am not crazy about her husband and I most definitely don’t like the mess she is making of my time with you.”  Nathan’s hands rose to caress her shoulders.

 

Kristin’s hands slid down Nathan’s chest slowly, fingers caressing his rock hard abdomen before coming to rest on his hips.  “So how was your conversation with Bess?  Was she terribly hard on you?”

 

“Not once I explained why we were in the downstairs room… although her solution to the problem was to tell the Smiths to leave.  Actually her solution was to volunteer to chase them back to their boat with her broom handle.”

 

Kristin giggled as the picture of Bess doing just that popped into her brain.  “You handled yourself very well, all things considering.”

 

“That woman is rude and abrasive.  She was ill mannered to you, contemptuous of Lucas and curt to Ben and Katie.  I will not have it.”

 

“Hopefully they will be gone in a day or two,” Kristin soothed Nathan, leaning forward to brush tiny kisses across his chin as one hand crept lower to brush the placard of his trousers.

 

Nathan crushed Kristin to him as he captured her lips in a hungry kiss, his fingers seeking and releasing the tapes of her dress.  She responded immediately but after a few moments tried to push away.

 

“Someone might see us…” she gasped around his kisses, as she willed her body to stop its instantaneous response.

 

“Hayloft…” Kristin felt her feet leave the floor as Nathan scooped her up and headed toward the ladder.

 

“Nathan.”  A raspy voice spoke up, cutting through their passion-induced haze.  Nathan reluctantly lowered Kristin to the ground.

 

“Raleigh, this better be important or I’m going to feed you to the sharks off the point!” He bit out as he carefully refastened Kristin’s dress.

 

“I just thought you might, perhaps, be interested to know that Admiral Noyce and that deplorable Smith man are approaching.”

 

Kristin lifted her head from where it was buried in Nathan’s shoulder, her eyes darting around the room like a trapped animal. 

 

Raleigh motioned from a side door.  “Come this way, child.  They won’t see you.”

 

Nathan nodded.  “Go… I love you.”  He planted one more kiss on her upturned lips before letting her leave his embrace.

 

Kristin paused at the door for one last wistful glance back at Nathan before following Raleigh.  Once she was gone Nathan turned back to the door, chuckling at the loud tone of Bill’s voice as he realized that the man was trying to warn him of their approach… just in case.  ‘Damn but you are a good friend, Bill Noyce!’

 

By the time that the two men entered the stable Nathan was tightening the cinch on Bill’s mount.  “Just in time!  I thought that I’d saddle that mare in the second stall for you, Wendell, if that is acceptable?”

 

Wendell turned and surveyed the horse with an appraising eye.  “She looks like a beauty.”  He commented as he led the mount out of the stall.  “Speaking of beauties… your houseguest is also one of the loveliest women I’ve seen in a long time.”

 

“Leave her be, Wendell.  Kristin Westphalen is a guest in my home.  She is a respectable widow and I won’t have her suffer any unwanted attention.”  Nathan’s voice was hard as he stared at the older man.

 

Wendell held up his hands in supplication.  “I was just making an observation, Nathan.  Surely you’ve noticed Mistress Westphalen’s… attributes.”

 

“I am a man, yes… I’ve noticed.  But I repeat…”

 

“Not necessary, Nathan.  You’ve made your position perfectly clear.”

 

“Good.  So… how long are you planning on staying?”

 

Bill cleared his throat in warning but Smith seemed to take no offense.  Instead he chuckled.  “That boy of yours just asked the very same question.  Hell, I’d be gone today if I was on my own but you know Lexie.  She was itching for a visit so who knows when I’ll be able to uproot her.  And Wendy always enjoys seeing you.  Say… our being here isn’t a problem, is it?  We certainly don’t want to stay where we aren’t welcome.  If you want us to go just say the word.”

 

“Of course your visit isn’t a problem,” Nathan silently cursed the gentleman inside himself for answering in the affirmative.

 

“Good… I’d hate to have to cut our stay short.  Besides having to deal with Lexie I’d miss all the… amenities your island has to offer.”

 

Nathan eyed Wendell suspiciously as he quickly saddled the horse then the three men mounted and made their way down the trail.  ‘It better not be necessary… if you so much as touch her, Wendell…’ His eyes narrowed in anger as he glared at the other man’s back.

 

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

 

Raleigh led Kristin quietly down the overgrown path away from the barn, neither one of them speaking until they were well away from the building.  Finally Raleigh stopped and took a deep breath as he peered over the tall bushes.

 

“We’re safe here.  They’ve gone into the barn now and they can’t hear us.”

 

“Thank you…” Kristin’s skin pinked prettily.  “I didn’t realize they would be so close behind me…”

 

“You wanted to share a little time with your man away from prying eyes.  Nothing to apologize for there.”

 

“Nonetheless… I shouldn’t be acting like a hormonal adolescent.  I’m a mature woman and…”

 

“And for the first time in your life you’ve fallen deeply, madly in love.  Love has nothing to do with age.  Nathan has been on this earth over fifty years and never known true love until now.  My Bess and I were lucky.  We found each other early.  But the bond that I see between you and Nathan is just as strong after only a few months as the bond that Bess and I have shared for forty-seven years.”

 

“Forty-seven… that’s wonderful.  My own parents have been married almost fifty years.  So you’ve known Nathan most of his life as well?”

 

Raleigh let out a disgruntled “Humph” as he shook his head.  “That boy has been trouble from the day he was born.  He was just a little sprout when I first met him.  I came calling on Bess just a few days before our wedding and as I approached the back of the house I saw a stark white blur run through the back door and toward the gardens, my Bess in hot pursuit.  Nathan was apparently indignant about having to take a bath and he ran away… stark naked.”

 

Kristin chuckled at the thought of a naked little boy streaking through the fields.  “I assume that was one of the many times that Bess ‘tanned his hide’?”

 

“For all the good it did.  He had a hard time as a child.  His papa thought that the sun rose and set in the older boy so Nathan was pretty much ignored.  His mama adored him but her husband’s business kept them both busy entertaining and such.  I don’t think Nathan was ever truly happy except when he was in Georgia with us.  The camping trips that I went on with those boys and Mr. Lyman…”

 

“Nathan thought a great deal of his uncle, didn’t he?”

 

Raleigh nodded.  “Mr. Lyman never had any family of his own.  He loved once, deeply… but she died before they married and he never found love again.  Nathan was the son he never had.  Nathan responded to his father’s indifference by getting in to trouble but he was always as good as gold for Mr. Lyman.”

 

“When he got into trouble his father had to notice him.”

 

“That’s right.  But Mr. Lyman was the one who always bailed Nathan out.  Sending him on that trip to the Orient was the best thing that ever happened to the boy.  At least he got to experience life a bit before he returned and his father started sucking it out of him again.”

 

Kristin looked puzzled.  “I don’t understand, Raleigh.  Nathan told me that when he returned he did everything his father wanted… took over his brother’s place in the business… married the girl they chose for him.”

 

“Took over his life is what he did.  And Nathan let him… right up until the time that Bobby died.  Nathan was a changed man after that.”

 

“I can’t imagine the heartache… to lose a child…”

 

A single tear glimmered in the corner of Raleigh’s dark eyes.  “Bess and I buried a baby… our little girl.  My Emma was only two when the fever came and took her.  For a time I was afraid that Bess wouldn’t survive the loss… that I wouldn’t either… but time helped… We still think about our baby… talk about her… wonder about the woman she should have grown up to be.”

 

Kristin laid a comforting hand on Raleigh’s arm.  “I’m so sorry.”

 

Raleigh patted the small hand gently.  “My Bess adores you, you know.”

 

“Bess… me?” Kristin’s voice squeaked.  “She really doesn’t like me.  I know that she doesn’t approve of mine and Nathan’s… intimacy.”

“You helped little Sarah without a thought for your pretty clothes.  You were truly interested in helping Bess with her ointment.  That would be enough.  But you’ve made our boy happy… happier than we’ve seen him in years.  I supposed that both Bess and I have reached the age where we can be… cantankerous sometimes… most of the time.  Seeing our boy laugh… seeing him happy… Bess just wants Nathan to do right by you.”

 

“He loves me, Raleigh.  He makes me so happy… I can’t imagine anything more right than that.”

 

They both looked up at the sound of horses hooves nearby.

 

“They’ve left.  We can go back down to the house now.  I suspect Miss Janet will be wondering where you’ve gotten off to, Countess.”

 

Kristin smiled tentatively.  “Raleigh, would you call me Kristin?  Please?”

 

“I’d be honored, Miss Kristin.”  Raleigh offered Kristin his arm and she slipped her hand through the crook as they wandered down the path together.

 

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

 

Janet was waiting in the herb garden behind the kitchen when Kristin entered it in an attempt to sneak back into the house without her absence being noticed.

 

“So?”  The brunette asked; eyebrows raised.

 

“What?” Kristin replied.  “Nothing happened.  We just wanted a few minutes alone together.”

 

“And did Bill give you enough warning?  I could hear his voice halfway to the stables.  I’ve spent the last twenty minutes listening to Lexie extol the virtues of a particular brand of hearing trumpet.  She thinks that Bill has a problem with deafness.”  Janet could barely contain her mirth.

 

“So where are mother and daughter now?”  Kristin asked as they slowly worked their way through the kitchen. 

 

“God only knows.  Probably redesigning the entire upper story.  Will and Lucas are waiting for us in the back hallway.  Once you’ve changed the dressing we thought we might go to the orchard and pick some fruit.”

 

“Orchard?  I didn’t know that Nathan had an orchard on the island.”

 

“Mmm… quite an extensive one.  There is a citrus grove… oranges, lemons, limes.  He even has a few apple trees that do very well in the spring… and the peaches… luscious.  You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted Bess’ peach cobbler.”  Janet paused outside the door to the boy’s room.  “And you wouldn’t believe how wonderful peach juice can taste… especially when it’s mingled with a touch of salty skin.”

 

“Salty ski…” Kristin blushed as Janet broke into peals of laughter.

 

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

 

Kristin breathed a sigh of relief as the last bits of lunch disappeared from the plates and the last sips of tea were taken.  The meal had been misery for her, as had the last few days, all of it Lexie and Wendy Smith’s making.  While Wendy made an obvious attempt to court Janet’s favor Lexie did everything she could to belittle Kristin… when she wasn’t completely ignoring her. 

 

Every attempt Janet made to pull Kristin into the conversation had been handily rebuffed by Lexie or Wendy.  At one point Janet was about to make a stand but a gentle shake of the head from Kristin stopped her.

 

“We’ve had a very busy morning so I think that perhaps Wendy and I might take a rest through the heat of the afternoon.  We were thinking of napping for an hour or so then having Bess bring us a pitcher of cool lemonade to the side veranda.  You will join us, won’t you, Janet?  We have so much to talk about.”

 

Janet tried but she couldn’t think of an excuse quick enough. 

 

“Very good.”  Lexie answered and swept out of the room before another word could be uttered.

 

“Oh SHIT!”  Kristin jumped as Janet swore vehemently.  “I’m sorry, Kristin,” she apologized.  “I just… I can’t believe that we are going to have to spend the afternoon with that sanctimonious cow.  Why couldn’t I say something?”

 

“I don’t know… perhaps because you really are a very nice person.  And you better amend that ‘we’.  The invitation didn’t include me and although I would never abandon you, I think that things would go easier for you if I wasn’t there.”

 

“No, Kristin.  If you think for one moment that I would abandon you for the likes of those two piranhas…”

 

“You aren’t abandoning me.  We have to be polite to them even though we don’t want to be.”

 

“Well I for one am getting damned tired of being polite to them.  How much longer are they going to stay here?  It’s been almost a week.  If Lexie and her daughter do not leave soon I will not be responsible for my actions!”  Janet’s fists clenched in anger as she spoke.

 

“I can’t blame you.  They don’t want to associate with me and I am happy about that.  I am just sorry that they do seem to want your approval.  There is some motive there… I don’t understand what…” Kristin patted Janet’s hand.  “Spend the afternoon with them.  I promised Bess that I would help her finish her latest batch of ointment.  Perhaps tomorrow they will decide to leave.”

 

Janet reached out and embraced Kristin in a sisterly hug.  “I am so glad that Nathan fell in love with you.”

 

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

 

“Bring us another pitcher of lemonade, Bess… this one ain’t cool enough… use more lemons, Bess… this one is too sweet… use more sugar, Bess… this pitcher is too tart.  I’ll show that woman tart.”  The old black woman grumbled noisily as she waddled back into the kitchen.

 

Kristin paused her stirring of the bubbling pot to push a loose strand of hair back.  “Mrs. Smith is getting on your nerves as well?”

 

“That woman is bad.”  Bess shook a finger at Kristin to emphasize her point.  “She’s trouble.  I never liked her… not from the very first moment I met her… I NEVER did.”

 

“I can’t imagine very many people liking the abrasive Alexandra or her arrogant little twit of a daughter, either.”  Kristin frowned as she picked the ladle up and resumed stirring.  “I shouldn’t have said that.”

 

“You are only speaking the truth.”  Bess leaned over the pot to check the consistency of the mixture.  “That looks real even.  You are doing a good job.”

 

Kristin beamed at rare praise from Bess.

 

“You keep stirring.  Stirring is the key at this phase.”

 

“Yes, Bess.”  Kristin answered, and grasping the heavy ladle with both hands, continued to swirl the ever-thickening mixture.

 

After yet another trip to the shady side veranda Bess returned vowing that Lexie Smith could get up and make her own lemonade next time.  Another check of the bubbling concoction brought the pronouncement that it was time to remove it from the heat.  They each took a handle and moved the heavy pot to the long side counter where Bess had freshly scrubbed jars waiting.

 

“We can’t both work here so I’m going out to the herb garden.  I need to get some rosemary to flavor the lamb with tonight.  Just ladle each jar three quarters full like I showed you.”  Bess told Kristin then watched with an appraising eye while the younger woman did just that.  After she had filled three, Bess gave a grunt of approval and shuffled toward the back door.

 

Kristin was almost done when she heard the slight noise behind her.  “You are amazing, Bess.  The number of jars you had ready is going to be just perfect…” her voice trailed off as electric sparks began to jump up the back of her neck.  She didn’t have to turn around to know that the warm breath she was now feeling didn’t belong to Bess.

 

Strong hands slid around her slender waist and up to bracket her full bosom as Nathan propelled Kristin back against the hard wall of his body.  His lips fell to her neck, pushing through loose strands of fiery hair to taste her damp skin.

 

“Mmm… you shouldn’t… someone might see…” Kristin murmured as the ladle slipped from her fingers into the almost empty pot.

 

“Bess is in the garden and the ladies are on the porch.  Speaking of which, why aren’t you with them?”

 

“I promised Bess I would… oh…” Kristin gasped as Nathan’s teeth nipped along the line of her throat.  Her head fell back to his shoulder as one arm rose, her hand slipping around the back of his neck to pull him closer.  “… the ointment… I have to finish… oh god…”

 

Somehow Nathan had managed to work the fingers of his right hand into the bodice of her dress and Kristin gasped as his thumb and forefinger brushed over her already straining nipple before locking on to it.  His chin nudged her cheek, tilting her head so that he could capture her lips in a fierce kiss.

 

Kristin’s free hand slipped around to grasp his firm bottom as her hips made ever-smaller circles around the protrusion pressing into the sway of her back.

 

“Come upstairs with me,” Nathan murmured breathlessly as he broke the kiss to resume nibbling her skin.  “It’s been forever since I’ve loved you.  I need you, Kristin.”

 

Although they had shared the narrow bed in the downstairs bedroom, sleeping was all that they had done since the Smiths’ arrival.  Kristin was grateful to Nathan for understanding her concern but all of her worries about her reputation fell to the wayside as Nathan continued to love her with his hands and his mouth.  His right hand managing to free her heavy breast from the confines of her clothing while his left fell past her waist to bunch her dress as he pulled it slowly upward.

 

“Yes… oh please… I need you, Nathan.  Let’s go upstairs.”

 

His fingers found the hem of her gown and petticoat and slipped beneath them to brush the bare skin of her thigh, the excess fabric falling back around his hand.  At the anxious thrust of her hips he moved his hand up, amazed to find that Kristin was even now more than ready for him.  He slipped a finger between the folds of her labia and into her dripping sheath.

 

Kristin shuddered as a wave of pleasure shot through her veins.  “Nathan… oh god… not… not here… Bess…”

 

“Will not appreciate her kitchen being used for that which should take place in the bedroom!  What are you doing, boy?”  Bess’ voice echoed from the doorway.

 

Kristin felt the profane words uttered against her neck although she didn’t hear them.  Nathan’s lips slowly left her neck as his hand pulled out of her body, allowing the fabric to drop neatly into place.  Kristin stifled the whimper that rose, as usual, when Nathan left her.

 

Nathan’s damp fingers coated her breast with her own moisture as his left hand joined his right in an attempt to tuck Kristin back into her dress before they both turned around. 

 

Finally the moment couldn’t be postponed.  Nathan turned first, his body partially shielding Kristin’s.  Bess stood a few feet inside the doorway, her arms folded over her solid body, a scowl on her face.

 

Nathan held up a placating hand.  “This is my fault, Bess. I’m sorry.”

 

“You don’t have to tell me it’s your fault, boy!  I got eyes!  Miss Kristin was minding her own business loading the jars like I told her to when you come in here and try to distract her.  What you do on your own time is your own business but what you do in my kitchen is mine!  What if one of them mean old bit… women had walked in here?  How would you have explained yourself?”

 

“I think it would have been self-evident, Bess,” Nathan told her with a grin.

 

She raised a hand toward him.  “You scoundrel!  Get out of my kitchen and let your woman finish her work.”

 

Nathan grinned saucily at Bess then turned back to Kristin, dropping his lips down to hers for a good-bye kiss. 

 

Bess stamped her foot and waved her arm wildly.  “I said GIT!”

 

Nathan took off out the door with a laugh and a hearty wave.

 

Kristin’s eyes fell as Bess approached, her skin turning scarlet.  “I’m so sorry, Bess.  I didn’t mean to get carried away… I just can’t seem to help myself when Nathan touches me and it has been days…” To Kristin’s surprise instead of the tongue-lashing she was expecting, she heard a hearty laugh.  She looked up to see Bess’ shoulders shaking with mirth.

 

“My boy has sure got it bad.  That man is so in love with you… and you got it just as bad for him.”

 

“I… I love him.”

 

“And you make sure you keep on loving him,” Bess told Kristin as she inspected the jars on the counter.  She turned back to Kristin with an eyebrow raised.   “But NOT in my kitchen!”

 

Neither of them saw the shadowy figure in the hallway entrance shrink back into the darkness and disappear.

 

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

 

Wendy burst out onto the veranda, relieved to find her mother sitting there alone.  Her eyes scanned the surrounding garden for any sign of Janet. 

 

“Wendy, you must walk slowly… behave in a ladylike fashion.  If you are going to be mistress here you have to behave in a manner befitting your station.  Nathan Bridger is a very important man.”

 

“Where is Mrs. Noyce?”  Wendy blurted out, paying no attention to her mother’s words.

 

Lexie sat up straight and stared at her daughter sharply, sensing her agitation.

 

“Her son and that hooligan boy came along and she went off to spend some time with them.  Where are the cakes?  Didn’t you go to the kitchen?  Don’t tell me that old woman was disrespectful to you.  When you are mistress of this household I expect you to put a stop to that behavior immediately.  Although… I’d just get rid of the old cow.  Nathan should have a French chef.  He has the money to afford one.”

 

Wendy shook her head frantically.  “I don’t think I’m going to be mistress of this household!” She wailed.

 

“Of course you are, dear.  Nathan is very interested in you.  A mother can tell these things.  He had to wait a year after his wife’s death to show proper respect before he spoke for you but that time has passed.  If only all of these people weren’t here…”

 

“He’s… that woman.  Oh, Mother… he was… his hands were…” Wendy’s eyes fell to stare at her own outstretched hands as she struggled to give voice to what she had seen.

 

“Calm down, dear.  Are you telling me that you saw Nathan with another woman?  Who?  One of his servants?”

 

“No… not his servant… the nurse… that Westphalen woman!”

 

“Surely you misunderstood what you saw, dear.  Why… Kristin Westphalen is as old as I am… and a common nurse.  Nathan has better taste.”

 

Wendy lifted her eyes to her mother’s as she sank into a chair beside her.  “Just as I was about to go into the kitchen I heard Nathan’s voice so I stopped.  Mrs. Westphalen was working in a corner, dipping something into jars.  Nathan came up behind her and he put his hands…” Wendy lifted her palms to touch the underside of her own breasts in imitation of Nathan’s actions.

 

Lexie gasped.  “He didn’t!  What happened then?”

 

“He pulled her back against him and kissed her neck.  One hand went down in her bodice and bared her… the other went… he put his hand beneath her skirt!”

 

“That shameless trollop!  She must be enticing him.  Perhaps we can still stop it.”

 

“No… she turned her head and kissed Nathan and then… he asked her to go upstairs with him.  He said ‘it’s been forever since I’ve loved you.  I need you, Kristin’.”

 

“What happened next?”

 

“She agreed to go.  The old woman walked in then and scolded Nathan.  He left but then… oh, Mother… she told Kristin that Nathan was in love with her!”

 

“That vicious old witch!  She’s pushing the strumpet on Nathan to keep him away from you.  I’d like to…” Lexie’s voice trailed off as her brow furrowed in thought.  She stood and walked to one end of the veranda then turned and retraced her steps.

 

“This… this could be good in a way… no… hear me out.  Nathan hasn’t shown any interest in female companionship since his wife died.  That isn’t normal.  No man can go that long without having a woman.  His involvement with this little wh… harlot shows that he is ready now… he wants a woman in his life.”

 

“But it is supposed to be me!”  Wendy wailed petulantly.

 

Lexie held up a finger and Wendy quieted immediately.  “This woman is a transition.  She’s a lightskirt… a common tramp.  Mrs. Westphalen is trying to worm her way in by taking care of Nathan’s godson and playing up to that old black biddy.  But she isn’t the kind of woman a man like Captain Nathan Bridger marries.”

 

“Are you sure?”  Wendy asked hopefully.

 

“Of course.  No respectable household in the islands would accept that woman as his wife.  He would be ostracized.  But right now she holds his affection… it will wane… a man’s attention always does…” Lexie folded her arms over her chest and lifted one hand to stroke her chin thoughtfully.  “I think that I need to find out a little more information on this woman… where she really comes from… what her background is.  After dinner we will engage her in conversation.  You will follow my lead.”

 

“Of course, Mother.”

 

“Once we are done we will have enough information to find out the real facts about the tramp.  And once Nathan knows the truth his affections will return to you.”

 

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

 

“Kristin, come sit by me.” Lexie patted the settee next to her as she settled her voluminous skirts around her. 

 

Janet shot Kristin a look of sheer surprise as she moved to the chair nearest Kristin.  Wendy settled opposite her in the chair beside her mother. 

 

Kristin smiled graciously as she too sat down, taking the opportunity to return Janet’s look while she smoothed a wayward pleat of her much slimmer skirt.

 

Nathan mouthed a word of warning at Kristin, her slight answering nod telling him that she too was suspicious of Lexie’s newfound interest in her. 

 

“Would you ladies like a glass of sherry?” He asked politely, itching to find his way into the bottle of whisky himself. 

 

“Oh no.  I don’t hold with the notion of ladies retiring for a glass of spirits after dinner.”  Lexie declared starchly.

 

“I’ll have one.” Kristin and Janet answered together then stared at each other with mischievous grins.

 

Nathan gratefully poured small glasses of amber liquid for the ladies and carried them to Kristin and Janet before returning and splashing a generous amount of whisky into three glasses for the men.  He picked up one and tossed back half of the contents with one gulp then leaned back against the fireplace to listen to Lexie.

 

“So tell me, Kristin… where did you say you were raised?”

 

“Cornwall,” Kristin answered politely.  “It’s the southwestern most county in England.”

 

“I guess it must be very rugged, very rural?”  Even though everyone could tell that Lexie was trying her damnedest to be polite her words still sounded like a put down.

 

“The countryside is rural… but it is quite breathtaking.  We have a great deal of rugged coastline and the terrain is dotted with lovely little fishing villages.”

 

“What did your father do?”  Lexie asked her next question very directly.

 

“My father… my father is an… estate manager.”

 

“How interesting!  Does he manage large estates?”

 

Kristin smiled.  “He has overseen the lands of the Duke of Stonevale all of his adult life.”

 

“So you are acquainted with large homes.  Did your mother work in the kitchens?”

 

A strangled gurgle came from the fireplace and the women looked up to see Nathan turn and cough as Bill began pounding him on the back.  “I’m okay… swallowed wrong…” He waved his hand at the women to continue.

 

Lexie turned back to face Kristin, her eyebrows raised in question.

 

“No… we were very fortunate.  The duke was very generous so my mother didn’t have to work.  She was able to stay home and raise my brother and myself.”

 

“You have a brother?  Older or younger?”

 

Sadness crossed Kristin’s face.  “James was older but unfortunately he died many years ago.”

 

“Oh my… so you are an only child… and widowed too.  How dreadful that must be for you.  When did you lose your husband?”

 

“My husband and my brother died at the same time… a sailing accident.  It was a very difficult time but I survived.  I had to… for my daughter.”

 

“Oh… you have a child!  How wonderful for you!  I know what a joy Wendy is to me.  And where is your daughter?  Staying with friends while you… work?”

 

“Cy… my daughter is back in England.  She’s as capable of taking care of herself as… Wendy is… although my daughter isn’t quite as old as yours.”

 

Lexie’s back stiffened at the perceived insult but Kristin kept a pleasant smile on her face as if she had meant no offense by her words.

 

“What did your husband do?”

 

“My husband… worked in a shipyard… a good honest living.”

 

“Yes… but not one to leave a widow well provided for.  What a pity… so you’ve made your way since he died as a… nurse?”

 

“I enjoy the study of herbs and their healing powers.  That hobby translated itself into many cases of looking after others.”  Only the spark in her eyes revealed that Kristin’s ire was rising.

 

“How… convenient… that you were able to support yourself in this manner.  I’m sure that a woman alone must have to make so many hard choices…” Lexie grew quiet as she appraised Kristin with a knowing look.

 

A loud roar of thunder shook the room as a jagged lightening bolt streaked across the sky.

 

“Sounds like a belly washer is rolling in.” Wendell observed as the men moved to the window.

 

“A belly washer?” Kristin asked; bemused by the expression she was unfamiliar with.

 

“Belly washer… a very hard rain.  The water falls fast and washes through gullies like a mini river.  It probably won’t last more than a few hours but a great deal of water will fall.” Janet explained.

 

A second clap of thunder roared, causing Lexie to jump up.  “I wanted to play cards this evening but there is no way that I can concentrate with all of that noise.  Perhaps we should all turn in early.”

 

Wendy followed her mother to the door obediently, stopping beside her as Lexie turned back to stare at her husband.  “Wendell, are you coming?”

 

Smith tossed back the last of his whisky grudgingly and murmured his goodnights as he trudged obediently after his wife and daughter.

 

“Thank God they are gone!  That woman brings out the worst in me!” Janet sighed once the sound of footsteps on the stairs had faded.  “What do you think the interrogation was about?”

 

“She suspects something.  She must.” Kristin’s worry was evident in her voice.  “There is no other reason for her to show any interest in me.  She’s barely said two civil words to me since she found out I was the nurse until tonight.  For a woman who thinks she is so well bred, Alexandra Smith has the manners of a wharf side doxy.”

 

Nathan moved in to occupy the seat vacated by the woman they were talking about, his arms slipping around Kristin in comfort.  “What could she suspect?  She’s just a malicious bitch trying to get her claws into anything she can.  I excused Lucas tonight because he is normally her favorite target.”

 

“She wouldn’t dare attack that boy.” Kristin’s maternal instinct rose up at the implied threat to the boy she already loved like he was her own.

 

“No… not with the mother lioness around.” Nathan’s fingers locked around an escaped auburn tendril of hair.  His movements caused Kristin to realize that she was sitting practically in his lap and she pulled back and away.

 

“They could walk in.” Her tone was pleading as her eyes begged Nathan to understand.

 

“I’m going to speak with Wendell tomorrow… suggest that perhaps they should continue with their supply trip.  I want them gone.”

 

“You can’t do that, darling.  Perhaps a few subtle hints might be in order but… if you ask them to leave they may only grow more suspicious.  I don’t care about myself anymore but even though I tried to keep my answers general, Alexandra is a smart woman.  If she should discover my identity… she could do irreparable damage to Cynthia.”

 

“I care about you and about your reputation.”  Nathan grasped Kristin’s chin gently and turned her face to meet his gaze.  “That bitch will not hurt you or your daughter.  I swear that to you.”

 

Uncaring of the other couple in the room, Nathan moved in to kiss Kristin gently.

 

Janet looked at Bill with an uncertain smile on her face as the kiss continued, the loving couple seemingly oblivious to their presence.  “So… perhaps Lexie did have a good idea.  Why don’t we play a few rounds of cards?  It is much too early to go to bed, don’t you think?”

 

Kristin’s face fell to Nathan’s shoulder, a pretty blush touching her cheeks.  Nathan stared over Kristin’s back at Janet.  “Yes, Janet.  Since I can’t pass the evening the way I would prefer I guess that cards would be the next best thing.”

 

To everyone’s great surprise Janet stuck her tongue out at Nathan.  “Rein him in, Nathan.  You’ve never had a problem with self control before.”

 

“With a woman as beautiful as this can you blame me for not having any self control?”

 

Kristin blushed furiously.  “I think cards is an excellent idea.  Shall we set them up, Janet?  We can do that while Nathan goes outside and stands in the rain to cool off.”

 

Nathan laughed soundly, swatting Kristin’s bottom gently as the couples moved to the card table.

 

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

 

The storm was in its full fury when the couples finally decided to turn in for the evening.  Janet and Kristin quickly packed the cards away while Nathan wound the mantel clock then, with a knowing glance; Bill and Janet wandered toward the stairs arm in arm.

 

Nathan looped his finger through the brass candlestick holder and held it out as he slowly walked Kristin down the dark back hallway to the small room.  “I guess that Bess turned the lights down early tonight.  Raleigh is gone on an exploration up into the hills so she is probably staying with her daughter.”

 

“Raleigh is out in this?  Oh, Nathan.  He should be inside.  He could catch a very bad chill.”

 

“That old cuss has been exploring for years.  I’m sure that he was prepared for any problem that might arise including a thunderstorm.  He’ll stay warm enough just sipping that awful concoction he distills in his back yard.”

 

Kristin laid a hand on the doorknob to her room and turned gently.  When the door swung open Nathan pulled her inside and sat the candle down on the small table before gathering her into his arms.  The pads of his fingers brushed lightly over her face as he stared down at her.

 

“You are so beautiful you take my breath away.” He whispered, content for the moment just to touch her.  “I can’t stand having to pretend… to stay away from you.  Let me go upstairs and get our clothes then I’ll be back down as soon as every one has settled in.”

 

“Nathan… are you sure that is wise?  I have a feeling that Alexandra is going to be lurking by her door waiting for the sound of your footsteps or a creak on the stairs.”

 

“Trust me, Kris… I’ll be careful but I want to hold you.  You go ahead and go to sleep and I’ll come back when I am positive the coast is clear.”

 

Kristin didn’t look fully convinced but she nodded then melted back into Nathan’s arms for another embrace.  When he showed no sign of releasing her she finally pulled away.  “One of us has to be strong.” She muttered, her regret evident.

 

“I’ll be back soon.  You warm the bed up for me.” Nathan winked roguishly as he slipped out of the room. 

 

Bill and Janet had already ascended the stairs but they had left a candle for Nathan on the small side table.  With one last look of regret back at the closed door Nathan climbed the stairs, treading just a bit heavier than he usually would just to make sure that Lexie knew he was returning to his own room.

 

A sliver of light drifted from beneath the door of Bill and Janet’s room but the back of the upper floor was dark.  Even so, Nathan noticed that the door to the Smith’s room wasn’t completely latched. 

 

‘You bitch!’ He slammed his door loudly, the sound reverberating throughout the house.  Nathan paced the floor of his room as he struggled to get a grip on his anger.  ‘How dare you!’  Finally he threw himself on the bed fully dressed and sulked as he thought of evil ways he could dispatch this family that had quickly become a thorn in his side.

 

An hour passed before Nathan finally felt up to attempting to sneak downstairs.  He quietly slid open drawers and doors, pulling clean clothing out for both he and Kristin and piling on one of the room’s chairs.  When he was sure that he had everything either of them might need he moved to the chair to pick up the pile then stopped, a thoughtful look on his face.

 

Nathan opened his door softly and stepped into the hallway, his arms empty, and began to move down the corridor.  He had passed all of the doors and reached the head of the stairs when he heard his name called out.

 

“Nathan.  Why are you up and dressed at this hour?  Is something wrong?”

 

He turned back to find Wendy standing in her bedroom doorway, a light wrapper thrown over her nightgown.  The sash of the covering swung loose and Wendy’s fingers toyed with the silky lapel over her right breast.  

 

Nathan smelled a trap.  “The rain is getting closer and I was going to check the downstairs windows in the library to make sure they were closed.”  He stepped back.

 

Wendy advanced, a welcoming look in her eye.  “I could go with you if you want me to.”

 

“Actually, I’m not going at all now.  I just remembered Lucas telling me that he closed the windows at dinner.  Sleep well, Wendy.”  Nathan beat a hasty retreat toward his room, speeding up as he sensed Wendy moving to follow him.  He gained entrance and closed the door quickly, his forehead falling against the cool wood as he breathed a sigh of relief.

 

His eyes widened and he threw all of his weight against the wood as he watched the handle rattle and turn.

 

“Let me in, Nathan.” Wendy’s voice slipped softly through the door.  “You won’t regret it.”

 

‘Oh Shit!’ Nathan’s mind raced frantically as he contemplated his situation.  There was no way that he was going to acknowledge Wendy’s invitation and he was sure that the moment he did, her mother would be bursting into the room demanding that he marry the schemer.  ‘Hell, Lexie probably told her to do it!’

 

He slid the bolt silently into its housing so that no one else could enter and resumed pacing, his hands running absently through his hair as he listened intently for any sound from the hallway.  After a few more moments the rattling of the door handle stopped and he heard the faint sound of slippers gliding across polished wood.  He moved back to the door and pressed his ear to the crack, straining to hear what was happening on the other side.

 

A whispered creak of the hinges alerted Nathan to Lexie’s move into the hall to join her daughter.  Although he couldn’t hear every word, enough of the murmuring was audible for him to get the intent of the conversation.  Lexie had indeed put her daughter up to an attempted seduction and was angry that she wasn’t bursting in on a scene designed to entrap him.

 

‘I am definitely doing something about getting all of you off my island and out of my life very very soon.’ He wondered if Lexie or Wendy could feel the heat of his angry gaze through the protection of the wooden wall.

 

A clap of thunder shook the house and inspiration hit suddenly.  Nathan moved to the portion of his closet where Bess stored extra linens and pulled out several sheets.  He spread one out in the middle of the floor and moved the clothing items from the chair to the center of it then pulled the ends together and tied them into a secure knot.  Once this was done he took three clean sheets and knotted the ends together, a grimace crossing his face as he thought of the lecture he was sure to get from his housekeeper for the abuse of her linens.

 

Nathan picked up the bundle and the sheets and blew out the candle lighting the room.  He moved to the small balcony on the side of the house, pleased to find that only a light mist of precipitation filled the air.  He could smell heavy rain nearby so he hurried to complete his task, lifting the bundle and chunking it over the railing.

 

One end of the sheet was threaded through the sturdy banister and the other thrown over the side, making a secure double rope.  Nathan lifted a leg over the balustrade and grabbed hold of the sheeting then lowered his body down, hand over hand, until his legs dangled just a few feet above the ground before letting go.  He released the sheet and grabbed one end, yanking it until the other fluttered free, leaving no trace of his escape route.

 

Hoisting the bundle up over one shoulder and grabbing the pile of sheets with the other, Nathan made his way around the house to the window of the room Kristin was occupying and rapped gently.  When no one appeared he rapped again, a little louder this time. 

 

Finally the heavy curtain pulled back and Kristin’s face appeared.  He could see her breathe a sigh of relief when she saw him standing there and she quickly released the catch and swung the glass out. 

 

“What are you doing?” She whispered frantically.

 

Nathan grinned.  “Escaping.  Move so I can climb in.  The rain is picking up and I don’t want our clothes to get wet.”  He tossed the bundle into the room as Kristin stepped back and to the side.  A loud clap of thunder and a jagged bolt of lightening shook the sky as the heavens opened up and a deluge of water began to pound the ground.  Nathan dove headfirst through the window, rolling as he landed, then leapt back to his feet and pulled the glass closed.

 

Kristin simply stared in amazement as Nathan shook the excess water from his body then began to strip off his wet clothes.  “I repeat,” she finally stammered, “what are you doing?”

 

“You were right.  The she-devil didn’t have her door fully latched.  Since I couldn’t get back by the stairs I decided to improvise.  I bolted the bedroom door and made a rope.”  He gestured the long strand of dirty sheets piled on top of the bundle. 

 

“You didn’t have to go to so much trouble.” Kristin told him but Nathan could tell that she was pleased by his effort.

 

“This is nothing compared to the trouble I would go to for the simple pleasure of holding you in my arms.”  Nathan leaned in to kiss her then paused just as he was about to pull her close.  “Wait just a minute.”

 

“What is wrong now?”

 

Nathan picked up the rope of sheets and flipped through the folds until he found a clean spot then began to dry his now naked body off.  “I seem to remember that you once complained about me being wet.”

 

Kristin laughed.  “I don’t know… I like the way you look… the candle light reflecting in the droplets of water on your skin.”

 

Nathan moaned at the hungry look in Kristin’s eyes then laughed as a yawn unexpectedly emerged from her lips.

 

“Come to bed, my lady.  You need some sleep.”  Nathan pushed her gently toward the bed.

 

Kristin climbed between the cool sheets without protest, holding up the end for Nathan to slide in beside her once he had doused the flickering candle.  Her felt her stifle another yawn against his neck as her hands slid over his chest and abdomen then move lower.  He smiled as he reached down to stop her hand before she could grasp him.

 

“But…” Kristin protested.  “We haven’t… I want… don’t you want to…?”

 

Nathan turned his head in to her hair as he gathered her fully into his embrace, spreading his legs so that hers could wrap through them.  “Of course I want you, my love.  I want you every second of every day but you are tired.  Sleep now.”

 

“Mmm…” Kristin snuggled closer.  “I’ll make this up to you tomorrow morning… Guess stirring that foul concoction Bess calls ointment took more out of me than I thought.”  Her hand crept between them to cup his full sacs, the heel of her palm pressing his hard erection firmly.

 

Nathan’s eyes rolled back at the pleasure Kristin’s touch sent pulsing through his body.  He was tempted to change his mind and roll Kristin to her back but then he felt her breathing slow and knew that she was almost asleep.

 

“I love you,” he whispered as he closed his eyes, the rhythm of the pounding rain quickly sending him into a relaxing sleep as well.

 

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

 

“What in the hell are you doing, wandering around the hallway in your night clothes at this time of the night?” Wendell asked irritably, as one eye glared balefully at his wife.  He could not for the life of him fathom why the woman was sitting in a chair by the cracked door, one eye glued to the opening.

 

“Shut up and go back to sleep.” Lexie snarled at him before turning back to her watch.

 

“I will not.  We are guests in Nathan Bridger’s house and you are spying on him?  What the hell has gotten in to you, Lexie?  And what were you and Wendy plotting?”

 

“Will you please lower your voice?” Lexie hissed.

 

“Not until you tell me what you are doing!”

 

Lexie glowered at her husband as she pushed the door onto the latch and moved back to the bed.

 

“I am trying to make sure that Nathan can’t sneak down the stairs to see that strumpet.” Lexie sat down primly on the side of the mattress. 

 

“Strumpet… what the hell are you talking about?  Don’t tell me Nathan is involved with one of his pretty island girls?”

 

“Don’t be so coarse.  Nathan is too much of a gentleman for that.  He’s sleeping with that Westphalen woman.  Wendy caught him touching her in a very inappropriate manner today.”

 

“Nathan… and Mrs. Westphalen.  That is very interesting…” Wendell said as he thought back to Nathan’s defense of the woman earlier that week. 

 

“He is growing tired of her of course but as long as she is here Nathan will never propose to Wendy so I am….”

 

“Wait, wait… propose to Wendy?  Is there something here that I don’t know about?  When did Nathan Bridger start courting our daughter?”

 

“He hasn’t been… not openly.  But he is obviously interested in her.  Wendy is in his same social strata and she’s mature enough to interest Nathan yet young enough to give him more children.  That woman just has him so enslaved sexually that he isn’t thinking straight.  If I can keep them apart for a while Nathan will realize that he has to end it.  The time has come for him to settle down again, not continue to indulge in some shameful affair.”

 

“Get back in bed, Alexandra.  Nathan isn’t going to be stopped by you if he really wants this woman.”

 

“Don’t you want an alliance with Nathan?  Besides the fact that your daughter has been in love with him since the first time she laid eyes on him, think of the social and political connections… think of the money, Wendell.”

 

“Go to sleep, Lexie.”  The tone in Wendell’s voice was one he seldom used with his wife but when he did she knew not to argue.  She climbed beneath the covers and lay there stiffly but her husband could tell that she was still listening avidly for any sign of movement in the corridor beyond.

 

Wendell rolled to his side, turning his back to his wife, as a lustful gleam entered his eye.  ‘So you did notice the woman’s attributes… you have excellent taste in women, Nathan.  I wonder if the lady is as delectable as she appears to be…’

 

His lust rising, Wendell rolled back and grabbed Lexie, pushing her back into the bed as his hands pawed at the hem of her nightgown.

 

“What are you…” Lexie tried once to push her aroused husband away but she soon realized that was impossible so she lay back and spread her legs as Wendell climbed on top of her.

 

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

 

For the first time since they had arrived on the island Kristin woke to find Nathan still sleeping soundly beside her instead of propped up watching her sleep.  A quick glance at the dim light coming through the window told her it was still early so she took advantage of the opportunity to watch Nathan for a change. 

 

The gentle rise and fall of his chest made her palms itch so she finally gave in to the urge to touch him, her fingertips barely brushing the graying layer of soft hair that covered his chest.  She followed the line of hair as it narrowed down his belly until the press of their bodies close together halted her.

 

Nathan murmured in his sleep and snuggled into her warmth, his face pushing down to nestle in the cleft between her breasts.  Kristin smiled as she lay her cheek down on top of Nathan’s head and slowly caressed his back, enjoying the luxury of simply touching him.

 

Kristin jumped at the squeak of the hinges, her face turning toward the door to find Bess peeping around the edge.

 

“Humph… I thought so.” She disappeared for a moment then returned with a tray holding a steaming teapot and two cups.  “Thought you might enjoy a cup of tea together before you have to get going.  There’ve been no stirrings from the upstairs yet so you have a little time.”

 

Kristin nodded and settled back into the mattress, her arms still wrapped around Nathan as Bess settled the tray on the table and moved toward the exit.  “I’ll rap on the door if I hear anything before that boy gets his butt out of here.”

 

“Thank you, Bess.” Kristin whispered as the door closed soundlessly behind the old woman, leaving the couple once again in their own little world.

 

Kristin was on the point of dozing off again when she felt Nathan’s hips shift against hers.  She resumed tracing a light pattern up and down his back, her amazement growing as she felt his manhood slowly stiffen against her lower abdomen.  She rocked her hips experimentally and was pleased to feel Nathan’s reaction intensify.

 

Her focus was so concentrated on the delicious sensations building from the press of Nathan’s arousal that Kristin didn’t realize he was awake until he shifted his head slightly and latched on to a soft nipple, teasing it with his tongue and lips until the tip hardened and drilled into the roof of his mouth.

 

A soft moan filled the air as Kristin slipped her hands into Nathan’s hair and pulled his face away from her chest and up to meet her mouth.  They shared a passionate kiss that quickly threatened to escalate into what they both wanted but a door slammed nearby and stopped them from getting carried away.

 

“I am going to kill that kid.” Nathan murmured as he raised his lips to Kristin’s forehead.

 

“Lucas has no idea that he keeps interrupting us.” Kristin chuckled as she settled back into Nathan’s embrace.  “Would you like a cup of tea?  Bess brought us a tray.”

 

“In a minute.  Right now I want to hold you.  I haven’t had my morning observation time.”

 

“No, I beat you to that this morning.  I find that I quite enjoy watching you sleep.  You look so peaceful... so relaxed... at least until...” Kristin shifted her leg slightly, increasing the pressure of her thigh on the junction of his legs.

 

“Not so relaxed there,” Nathan agreed.  “Maybe this afternoon we could sneak away… I need to touch you.  I… I want desperately to make love to you, Kristin but it isn’t just that… I just need to spend some time alone with you.  We haven’t really been alone since before the Smiths arrived… since our night at the grotto.  I miss you.”

 

“I miss you too.  What are your plans today?  Are you and Bill going to abandon us poor women to the clutches of the she devil and her evil offspring?”

 

Nathan laughed out loud.  Kristin clamped her hand over his mouth quickly, which caused him to laugh even harder.  Before she realized it she was on her back with Nathan looming over her.

 

“You are a wicked woman and I adore you.  I do have some things to take care of down at the ship but I can put them off until the afternoon.  I’ll spend the morning here with you.” Nathan thought briefly about telling Kristin of his encounter with Wendy the previous night but quickly decided against it.  No sense in making Kristin even madder when he was going to do his damnedest to get rid of the bothersome women.

 

“Thank you so much, my love.” Kristin rewarded Nathan with a kiss.

 

A sharp rap on the door drew them apart.  Nathan was just about to call out when Kristin laid a finger over his lips to silence him.

 

“It’s Bess letting us know that there is movement upstairs.  She said she would rap.”

 

“I suppose that means I’d better get dressed and climb back up the trellis since I bolted the bedroom door from the inside.”

 

Kristin looked at him quizzically.  “Why did you do that?  No one would bother you with the door closed.”

 

“Just an added safety precaution since Lexie was on guard last night.  I think I’ll climb back up and wait for she and Wendell to leave their room before I open the door.  Imagine her surprise when she sees me walk out of my own bedroom alone.”

 

“And you call me a wicked woman.  You are a very crafty man, my love.  Give me one last kiss then go.  I only wish that I could see her face as well.”

 

Nathan laughed as he kissed Kristin once more then climbed out of the bed and began to pull his clothes on.  “I’m afraid that your dress might be a bit wrinkled but I tried to fold it nicely.”

 

“If it is too bad I shall simply wear the same dress I wore yesterday.  I am just a poor widow after all.”

 

“Mmm…” Nathan couldn’t help but be amazed at the wit and humor Kristin was displaying more and more.

 

“Anything else before I go?” Nathan bent back over her, as she lay sprawled on the bed.

 

“Oh yes… I would absolutely love…” Kristin’s tongue darted out to moisten her lips… “a cup of tea.”

 

“Minx,” Nathan laughed as he pressed a short hard kiss to Kristin’s pursed lips then moved to the table to fix her drink.

 

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

 

Although Nathan studiously avoided every attempt on Wendy or Lexie’s part to maneuver him away from the group, Wendy finally managed to corner him as the group moved toward the dining room in response to Bess’ call to lunch.

 

“You ran off so quickly last night.  I wasn’t through talking to you.”  Wendy leaned in toward him and laid a hand on Nathan’s chest.  He quickly backed away.

 

“I didn’t realize.  I remembered I didn’t need to go downstairs and there was no reason to keep you awake.”  Nathan began to edge toward the door.

 

“I knocked on your door but you didn’t answer.”

 

‘Give it up, Wendy.  I don’t want you.’ Nathan smiled.  “I was so tired that I fell back in the bed and went to sleep immediately.  We should join the others.”  He made a dash for the dining room.

 

Kristin noticed the slight shake of Wendy’s head and Lexie’s answering frown and wondered what the two were up to now.  Both she and Janet were grateful to their men for choosing to remain at the house during the morning, Nathan in particular doing his best to run interference.  Whatever had inspired Alexandra to be so polite and curious the previous evening was obviously gone because her treatment this morning had been positively frosty.  Not that Kristin was upset.  On the contrary, she was glad that Lexie’s behavior had reverted to normal.  At least now she didn’t feel quite so threatened.

 

Nathan made every attempt to pull Kristin into the lunch conversation; Janet and Bill joining in so that Lexie’s ire was peaked.  By the end of the meal she was being curt with everyone.

 

Bill and Nathan lingered over their meal as long as they could, wanting to leave as quickly as possible yet unwilling to abandon their loves to the obviously angry woman.  Wendell was chomping at the bit.

 

“I thought we were going to ride over to the eastern point of the island and look at your fields there.  Your foreman... what was his name?  Clayton... that’s it… Clayton will be waiting for us.”

 

Nathan sighed and stood, dropping his napkin to the table.  “I guess you are right.  I just hate to leave such delightful company.” His smile was a blatant attempt to sweeten Lexie’s disposition.

 

“Don’t let us keep you.  I can’t imagine why you are still here anyway.  The storm kept Wendy and I awake for much of the night so we’ve decided to spend the afternoon resting.  Janet, we will meet you back here at four for tea.”  Lexie swept from the room with Wendy close behind.

 

“You know,” Nathan said quietly once the women departed.  “That woman has a more commanding tone than many admirals I’ve known.  She should have been a leader of men.”

 

Wendell rolled his eyes.  “She does a pretty damned good job leading me.  Can we leave now… please?  She might come back.”

 

Taking their departure into his own hands, Wendell moved away from the table determinedly, pleased to hear the scrape of Bill’s chair and the clomp of boots as both men left their places.  He paused at the mirror by the door and lifted his hands to smooth a few strands of his thinning hair back into place.

 

His eyes fell to the scene behind him; Bill Noyce placing a gentle kiss on his wife’s cheek and Bridger surreptitiously reaching down to squeeze Kristin Westphalen’s hand.  The look that passed between the two left little doubt in his mind that his wife had been telling the truth the night before.  The woman was sharing Nathan’s bed.

 

Clearing his throat loudly, Smith turned back to the table with a broad smile.  “Shall we, gentlemen?”

 

“We should be home in time for tea.” Nathan announced to the room in general.  “I hope you have a restful afternoon, ladies.”  With a gallant bow he left the room followed closely by the other men.

 

“Kristin, are you all right?” Janet asked as she turned back to find her friend with her head dropped forward, one hand clutching the back of her neck as her fingers massaged tight muscles.

 

“I’m fine.  I just have a bit of a headache.  That woman makes me feel like laughing… and like screaming… and a little bit like committing murder.”

 

“I suspect that Nathan will take the opportunity to speak to Wendell about their departure this afternoon.  I know that many women use a headache as an excuse to avoid intimacy with their husbands but I’ve never heard of abstinence causing one.  I heard enough movement in the hall way last night to know that something was up.  I guess Nathan wasn’t able to sneak down to your room.”  Janet’s voice lowered as she glanced toward the open door.

 

“Oh no… he was there… not that we were able to accomplish anything.  The hour was so late by the time he actually managed to get out of his room last night and this morning… let’s just say that Bess must be taking lessons from Lucas on the art of interruption timing.”

 

“He did make it?” Janet asked in surprise.  “But I saw him come out of his room this morning… heard the bolt slide open.  After Wendy cornered him in the hall I didn’t think he would try again.  I know that she was waiting and watching…”

 

“So that’s why he came through the…” Kristin’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully.  “Nathan entered my room by the window.  He had tied sheets together and used them to climb down the balcony.  Early this morning he braved a rose covered trellis to get back in his room.”

 

Janet laughed.  “I should have known… but if you could have seen the look on Alexandra’s face when Nathan emerged… it was priceless!”

 

A gentle smile touched Kristin’s lips followed almost immediately by a grimace as the pain in her head flared.  “Perhaps I should go lie down for a little while.”

 

“I think that is a good idea.  But not in that dinky little bed.  Come upstairs to our room.  You can nap in comfort while I mend a few things.  We can chat until you fall asleep.”

 

Kristin nodded gratefully then stood and followed Janet up the stairs.

 

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

 

“I don’t really feel like sleeping and we haven’t had any time to talk in the last few days so... talk to me.” Kristin murmured as she dropped her head to the fluffy pillow on the Noyce’s bed.

 

Janet settled down into an overstuffed wing chair and picked up the fine linen she was sewing into a shirt for her son.  “What would you like to talk about… silly me… Nathan, of course!”

 

Kristin chuckled.  “Tell me about Nathan and Bill.  They are closer than some brothers I’ve seen.  How did that happen?”

 

“I don’t know of many brothers who would do what Nathan has done for us… invest the money and risk their lives to rescue a boy.”  Tears came to Janet’s eyes and she brushed them away fiercely.  “Yes… they are much closer than brothers.”

 

Kristin remained silent as Janet struggled to regain her composure.  Finally the older woman smiled.  “Bill and Nathan… now let me see…”

 

“They knew of each other growing up, of course but Bill was actually more along the age of Nathan’s older brother, Richard… Dickie they called him.  Bill did not like Dickie and the feeling was mutual.”

 

“Nathan told me a little about his brother.  Apparently Richard didn’t care very much for him either.”

 

“Richard was an obnoxious, arrogant bastard who didn’t care for anyone… including the father that idolized him.  But he doesn’t have much to do with my story.   Bill left home at sixteen to join the colonial navy.  The war for independence was going on and he felt that he was old enough to fight for his beliefs.”

 

“That was a very brave thing to do, especially for such a young boy.”

 

“That’s my Bill.  He saw some fierce fighting… but he loved the sea.  When the navy was disbanded in seventeen eighty-seven, Bill signed on as first mate with a well-respected firm sailing out of Boston.  In the beginning I was devastated at the thought of the long absences but I couldn’t deny him the sea.  In time I came to realize that the separations made the reunions that much sweeter.”

 

Kristin smiled a knowing smile at the dreamy look crossing Janet’s face.

 

“And then?” she finally prompted as Janet stayed lost in her memories.

 

“Then… Bill’s third voyage was going to be a long one… that is the trip he left on before we married.  Nathan was very unhappy at home… he and his father weren’t getting along well.  Nathan actually ran away to his mother’s family home in Georgia so Nathan’s Uncle Lyman arranged for his nephew to join the crew of the ship.”

 

Kristin rolled to her side and nodded.  “Nathan told me about that.  They sailed to the far east.”

 

“That’s right.  Nathan and Manny Crocker went on that voyage and Bill was given supervision of them.  Somehow the three of them bonded, especially Nathan and Bill.  I know that some very interesting adventures were had in the Orient.  I don’t know a lot of the details but Bill told me he had to pull the other two out of some very interesting scrapes.”

 

“Bill… pulled the others…if you say so.”  Kristin grinned.

 

Janet returned the broad smile.  “I know that Bill participated in his fair share… but at the risk of telling tales out of school, I believe that some of them might have involved some… ladies… of questionable reputation.  Bill swears that he was true to me and I believe him.  Nathan and Manny, however… they weren’t tied to anyone… so I am sure they had a good time.  I suspect that may have been Nathan’s first experience of an intimate nature and he discovered that he enjoyed sexual congress.”

 

“Yes…” Kristin pinked but her eyes sparkled as she answered.  “He does.”

 

“And he probably learned a lot of interesting… techniques… that you have benefited from.”

 

“Most definitely.”  Kristin’s embarrassment was growing although Janet’s conversation was shocking her less and less.  “And after they returned…?”

 

Janet laughed at Kristin’s obvious attempt to change the subject.  “They were gone almost two years.  When they returned Nathan’s brother had died and his father had made arrangements for he and Carol to wed.  Nathan grew up a lot on the trip and he was determined to get along with his father so he chose to play the dutiful son.  He wed Carol and began to take an active part in the family business… but the sea was in his blood.  Whenever he could arrange it he would sign on to crew short voyages, a week or two sail to the islands.”

 

“But as time passed his father grew more infirm and more and more responsibility came to rest on Nathan’s shoulders so the voyages grew less and less.  Robert was born and Nathan didn’t want to leave for long periods when he was a baby.  But Nathan has always had a knack of picking the best people for the job so as the years passed he hired and trained a staff that could run the business as well if not better than he could.  Then he found out that Robert loved the sea… the two of them started going on small voyages together.”

 

“And Carol hated it.  Nathan told me that.”

 

“She was always afraid of the water… afraid that something would happen to Bobby… or Nathan.  Carol and I became good friends during this time.  We socialized together and Bill and Nathan were always up to something… hunting, fishing, and sailing.  In seventeen ninety-five the congress decided to create a United States navy.  Bill was a captain by this time and his reputation had grown so they asked him to come on board as one of the planners.  By the time the first three vessels were ready to launch two years later he had been promoted to Admiral.

 

“As the fleet grew the need arose for men with experience to captain the vessels and Bill knew that Nathan would be perfect.  He tried three or four times to enlist him before Nathan finally felt the business was secure enough for him to agree.”

 

“Nathan was in the navy?  I didn’t realize…”

 

“Oh yes, his title of captain is a real one.  His ship was one of the bright stars of the fleet.  One of his conditions of his acceptance was that he could have Manny Crocker as his first mate.  Crocker didn’t like the cold so he had returned to the south and married… a nice lady named Helen… but they weren’t terribly happy.  When the call came, Gator jumped at the chance to sail with Nathan again.”

 

“I can just imagine.”

 

“Carol was furious!  I think that was the only thing that Nathan ever did that she didn’t approve of but he wouldn’t be swayed.  He ran a tight ship and he could have advanced… was slated for promotion… and then…”

 

“Robert?”

 

Janet nodded.  “Robert signed on along with Ben Kreig.  A year later he was gone.  Nathan left the navy when Robert was taken and started searching for him.  He kept his identity a secret so that Carol and the business wouldn’t suffer.  Somewhere along the line he became the Blue Rogue.”

 

“But he was too late to save Bobby.”

 

“Carol never forgave him.  She never openly accused him… but it was obvious that she blamed Nathan for Robert signing up in the first place.  He already blamed himself; he didn’t need Carol’s censure.  And poor Ben… Carol never really cared for him.  His family wasn’t in the upper social strata… they weren’t in the social strata at all, just good hard-working people.  I don’t think Carol held that against him as much as the fact that he was so brash.”

 

“Ben can be… well… Ben.” Kristin observed.

 

“When Ben came back alive… wounded but alive… I believe that was the last straw for her.  She changed… it is difficult to explain exactly how but it was very obvious to those who knew her.  Carol withdrew from Nathan… from the world… from life.  Within months she was gone.”

 

“Nathan must have been devastated.”

 

“He was… his entire family gone…  He went a little crazy himself.  The war started and he went back to being the Blue Rogue, attacking and disabling British naval vessels and rescuing those who had been pressed into service.  It was during this time the pirate’s reputation grew so notorious.  After the war, with the signed treaty including a clause banning impressment, he came back to himself… became close to the old Nathan again.  He already had the island so he came back here and settled.  I think he was content with his life… lonely but content… then we found out that Will had been taken…”

 

“It’s a deplorable practice.  I know that it still goes on in spite of the ban but I don’t support it.  We’ve had a system in place on my estates for years to hide all but our old men from the press gangs.”

 

“Nathan dusted off the blue sails and took to the seas to search for our son.  Bill wanted to go with him but Nathan wouldn’t let him.  If they’d been caught and Bill’s identity discovered… it could have led to another war.

 

“A US admiral?  Yes, it could have.”

 

“Ben has served with Nathan in whatever capacity he was needed since the moment his wounds healed, as has Crocker.  Most of the other crew have been picked up along the way but their loyalty to Nathan is without question.”

 

“I know,” Kristin answered quietly.  “I came up against that very quickly.  Crocker came and apologized to me for tying my wrists too tightly and O’Neill told me about how he came to sail with Nathan but their loyalty to him was obvious.  Neither of them would have helped me escape had I asked: I knew that immediately.”

 

“No… but they would never have let you be hurt either.  Nathan won’t have a man on his crew who is disrespectful to women.  According to my son, the entire crew adores you because you’ve made Nathan so happy… and because you stood up to him and accepted your punishment without complaint.”

 

“It is a good thing they weren’t in the cabin with us then.  I wasn’t quite so accepting in private.  I would have rather taken the lashes than have to sew that damned sail.”  Kristin eyed the needle in Janet’s hand hatefully.  “I’ve never liked needle work.”

 

“I find it relaxing but I know… Kristin, isn’t your head any better?”  Janet asked worriedly as she watched Kristin flinch and raise her hand to her forehead.

 

“It was… but it’s beginning to hurt again and the pain is making me a little nauseous.  Perhaps I should go back to my room…”

 

“Lay back down in that bed!” Janet commanded as Kristin swung her feet toward the side of the bed.  She stood and moved to a small trunk, rummaging through the contents until she found a small brown bottle.  “Here… lavender oil.  It always helps me relax when my head hurts.  Let me rub some at your temples.”

 

Kristin sank back with a sigh as Janet’s strong fingers massaged the soothing balm into her skin, the slight pressure already helping to relieve her aching head.  Janet continued to rub until Kristin’s eyes fluttered closed and her breathing slowed.

 

“It’s no wonder you have a headache,” Janet murmured to her sleeping friend as she recapped the bottle and replaced it in the trunk.  “Having to deal with those two women is enough to make anyone hurt.  If Nathan doesn’t have them leave soon I’m going to say something… and it won’t be polite.”

 

She sank back into the chair with a sigh and picked up her sewing.

 

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

 

Lucas glanced up from sweeping the deck clear of wood shavings to see two horses approaching.    He immediately recognized the riders.  “Will,” he called over to his friend who was testing his leg on the rigging.  “It’s your dad and the cap.”

 

“Go ahead, Lucas.” Ben nodded, dismissing the youth.  “But you have to finish sweeping this afternoon.”  He laughed, realizing that he was speaking to empty space.  Lucas was already halfway down the gangplank.

 

He grabbed the reins Nathan tossed him and staked the horse while the captain dismounted then did the same for Bill.

 

“What’s the rush, son?” Nathan ruffled the boy’s hair as he questioned him.

 

“Chief Crocker, sir.  He’s back.  He arrived about twenty minutes ago.”

 

Neither Bill nor Lucas understood the huge smile that split Nathan’s lips.  “It’s about damn time.  Where is he?”

 

“I think he’s in the land office with Ford and Ortiz, sir.  He brought someone back with him.”

 

“Hot damn!  I’d better go talk with him.  I’ll catch up with you in a little while, Lucas.”

 

Nathan turned and started toward the small building on the shore then stopped when he realized that Bill wasn’t beside him.

 

“Hey, you coming?”  Nathan followed Bill’s gaze to the ship’s rigging. 

 

“He’s really doing great, isn’t he?”  The proud father watched his son maneuver through the rigging.  “He is going to be fine.  We were so worried that his mobility might be impaired.”

 

Nathan walked back and clapped a hand on Bill’s shoulder.  “Will’s recovery is amazing.  He is climbing that rope like a monkey… maybe even better than he did before the wound.”

 

“We owe you so much… you and Kristin…we can never repay…”

 

Nathan smiled mysteriously.  “Oh, I can think of a way.  Come with me.”

 

Bill took off at a trot after Nathan.  “How… you have to tell me…”

 

He caught up with Nathan just as they reached the building.  Nathan pushed the door open and rushed in, his pleasure at seeing Manny Crocker obvious.

 

“It’s about time you managed to find your way back home.”

 

Crocker grinned.  “I’m glad to be home.  I’ve got someone here that you want to meet, Cap.  This is the Reverend John Law… he’s an Anglican minister… I hope that is okay?”

 

“Very okay, Gator.  Reverend Law, I am pleased to meet you.  Did Crocker explain what I wanted?”

 

“He did indeed, Captain Bridger.  I’ve brought all of the necessary paperwork with me and arranged for a few days absence from my parish so whenever you are ready…”

 

“Ready for what?  Nathan, what is going on?” Bill demanded.

 

“I am sure that Janet told you I intend to marry Kristin…”

 

“Yes… but I didn’t know that the two of you were already making plans.”

 

“Well… I haven’t actually asked Kristin yet… but when I do I want to have everything in place.  That is why I have to figure out how to get rid of the Smiths.”

 

Reverend Law’s face fell.  “The Wendell Smiths?  They are here?”

 

Nathan grinned.  “I see you’ve heard of them.”

 

“I… they have attended my services on occasion when they were in port… I don’t mean to be unchristian but… that woman would try the patience of a saint.”

 

“You are absolutely right, Reverend.  Why don’t we make arrangements for you to stay in one of our small guest cabins until I get things settled?  I would hate for Mrs. Smith to see you and make any assumptions about your presence here.”

 

“That is probably very wise.”  The relief on the reverend’s face was evident.

 

“Mr. Ford, why don’t you and Mr. Ortiz take the reverend to his quarters and see him settled.  I need to speak with the Chief.”

 

“Very good, sir.”

 

Nathan waited until the other men had left before he sat down on the top of the desk and gestured for Bill and Crocker to take the chairs.  “So, what happened?”

 

“I turned McLeary over to the American naval authorities at Georgetown along with your written statement detailing the assault on the countess and his service with the pirate Zeller.  I made sure that all the information went straight to Captain Shelley.”

 

Nathan nodded his approval.  Shelley was one of the few people outside of his crew and island family that knew of his activities as the Blue Rogue.  He would keep Nathan’s name out of the proceedings.

 

“Turns out that McLeary was a deserter.  He actually jumped ship before he got grabbed by a press gang… if he really was actually taken.  That charge alone got him tossed in the brig immediately.  Captain Shelly is going to convene a panel for a court martial.  He would like for you to be on that panel, Admiral.”

 

Bill nodded.  “I’ll make sure of it.”

 

“Then McLeary is taken care of.  I’ve hesitated telling Kristin until I knew for sure but now perhaps we can get married and live in peace.”  Nathan saw a shadow flicker over Crocker’s face.  “What’s wrong, Gator?”

 

“Wrong… nothing, sir.”  Crocker answered too quickly.  Nathan’s heart sunk.

 

“We’ve been friends for too many years for you to lie to me, Manny.  Tell me.”

 

“It’s nothing… the only thing you need to worry about is marrying that beautiful woman.”

 

“Gator!  Tell me!”  Anger sparked in Nathan’s voice.

 

Crocker’s body sagged as he stared down at the floor.  “I heard some things… some rumours… Zellar has men canvassing the major ports… looking for you and the countess.”

 

Nathan swore so loudly the thin walls of the building reverberated.  Bill and Crocker just let him go, knowing that his disappointment was deep.   Bridger continued to swear as he frantically paced back and forth, finally stopping at one end of the building and ramming his fist into the wall as hard as he could.

 

Bill jumped up and grabbed Nathan’s arm before he could swing again.  “STOP IT!”

 

Nathan whirled to face Bill, his anger fading as he saw the concern in his friend’s eyes.  He stared down at his bleeding knuckles.  “I… I don’t know what came over me.  I just… Dammit, Bill!  Just when I thought we stood a chance…”

 

Bill pushed Nathan back to a sitting position on the desk and loomed over him.  “Don’t you dare talk like that!  You have done the right thing your entire life.  Now you have found the woman you are meant to spend the rest of your life with.  Nothing is going to stop you… I won’t let it.”

 

“I will marry Kristin… just not now… not until I’ve… I knew that bastard would figure out that we were still alive… I just hoped we would have more time.”  Nathan ran his fingers through his hair distractedly as he sighed.

 

Bill turned to Crocker.  “Okay, Manny.  Tell us everything.”

 

“Well… after I got though with McLeary I took myself off to the Falcon for a pint of ale.  While I was drinking I heard a fellow asking the barman if he’d seen anything of a couple… the couple he described sounded suspiciously like you and the countess… man is tall and lanky with graying hair, a sailor… the woman is English, voluptuous, redheaded… I didn’t want to give too much away so I just listened.”

 

“It could be a coincidence but I doubt it.  Did the chap give any explanation for his questions?” 

 

“He said that the woman belonged to his employer and that the gray-headed man had stolen her away.”

 

“Casting Zellar in the role of the wronged husband.  That BASTARD!”  Nathan slammed his uninjured hand down on the desk.

 

“Is there more, Manny?” Bill maintained his calm in the face of Nathan’s anger.

 

“I made several stops… errands for the captain… Every port I stopped in had at least one of Zellar’s men watching and waiting if not more.  By the time I got to Georgetown I knew that I would have to be careful.  I went to the preacher’s house and made the arrangements with him, cautioning him to keep his silence.  I was engaged in conversation just after I left the house by a fellow on the street.”

 

“Zellar’s man?”

 

Crocker nodded.  “He was very smooth but eventually the talk worked around to the reverend and why I had been visiting him.  I was looking pretty haggard by this time so I told him that my baby girl was sick with the fever… dying… and I promised my woman that she’d have a proper Christian burial.”

 

“Very clever.  Do you think he bought it?”

 

Crocker nodded.  “No reason for him not to.  They aren’t suspecting that the cap and the countess are gonna jump the broom; they were just questioning everyone new in port.  I’m sure of that.  And I made sure we weren’t followed.”

 

Bill turned back to Nathan.  “See?  There is no reason for you not to continue with your original plan to marry Kristin right now.”

 

Nathan shook his head.  “It’s too dangerous… I won’t marry her only to have her widowed again if something goes wrong…”

 

“What do you mean ‘if something goes wrong?’”  Bill asked.

 

“You know what I mean.  I have to go after him.  You didn’t see the way Zellar treated her… the way he touched her.  He is obsessed with Kristin… to the point of insanity.  Now that he has seen her he won’t ever give up.  The only way that Kristin will ever be safe is for Zellar to… I have to protect her.”

 

“Nathan, Kristin doesn’t expect you to kill Zellar for her.”

 

“I know that, Bill.  But that doesn’t mean that I can forget about him either.  He will come after her, find her and… I won’t let that happen.”

 

After so many years of friendship Bill recognized the determination in Nathan’s voice and knew that his friend wouldn’t be dissuaded.  “Promise me that you will think about this before you make any rash decisions.  The minister is here.  The paperwork is ready.  As long as you are here on your island Zellar won’t find you.  You and Kristin deserve some happiness, Nathan.”

 

“Once I’ve taken care of Zellar… then I’ll ask Kristin to marry me.  I’ll send a note to Scott.  He’ll get Kristin back to England safely.”

 

“You would send her away?  Nathan, being separated from you… that will kill her.  She’ll think…”

 

“She’ll think I’m sending her away because I’m tired of her.  I just have to get rid of the Smiths then convince her that that isn’t the case.”

 

“The Smiths are here?” Crocker’s face fell at the prospect of seeing some of his least favorite people.

 

“I was going to talk to Wendell about them overstaying their welcome this afternoon but he got that damned stomachache and decided to go back to the house early.” Nathan muttered, angry at the world in general and the Smiths in particular.  He stood up abruptly.  “I’m going back to the house. I need… I need to be with Kristin… somehow.  If I can get her away without being seen will you cover for us, Bill?”

 

Bill nodded his agreement.  As Nathan reached for the door Bill spoke one last time.  “The wedding, Nathan… just think about it?”

 

A look of profound sadness shadowed Nathan’s features as he slowly shook his head and left the building.

 

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

 

The heavy tread of footsteps in the hallway woke Janet and she shook her head to clear her mind as she slowly stood.  The bed was empty, although the comforter was still warm and the imprint of Kristin’s body still remained.  A quick glance out the window told Janet that the time was mid afternoon, closer to four than she would have liked.

 

“Kristin?” She called out softly just to make sure that the other woman hadn’t moved onto one of the balconies.  No answer came.

 

The creak of the door hinges from across the hall reached her ears and Janet nodded to herself.  Kristin must be taking advantage of the quiet house to move some of her things downstairs.  She silently opened her door and moved across the hall.

 

Janet was just about to push the cracked door open when voices reached her ears… voices she knew only too well.  ‘What are they doing in Nathan’s bedroom?’  She decided to listen…

 

“This is a beautiful room, Wendy but it could be so much more.  It is much too plain.  You will have to get rid of all this furniture and have something more ornate shipped in.  And that bed… I am sure that Nathan will understand that you don’t want to sleep in it after he has shared it with that strumpet.”

 

“Of course, Mother.  Oh… come look!  Look at all these magnificent dresses.”  Wendy’s voice answered from the direction of the room’s massive closet.

 

“They must have been Carol’s.  You will have to clean all of this out to make room for the new wardrobe that Nathan will buy you.”

 

“How can you be sure that he will be so generous with me, Mother?”

 

“A man is always generous with his new wife.  Besides which… you will be doing everything that you can to make sure he is generous.  Nathan Bridger is obviously a very passionate man and you must accept that.  Keep him happy in the bedroom and he will reward you.”

 

“Yes, Mother.” The tone in Wendy’s voice told Janet that she was looking forward to the prospect.  “But how can you be so sure… I know that you and I prevented Nathan from going to her last night but… he might try again.”

 

“He may… but I am working on a plan to show him exactly what kind of woman she really is.  Once Nathan finds her with another man he will drop her immediately.”

 

“Another man?”

 

“Don’t worry about it, Wendy.  Just concentrate on charming Nathan… seducing him if you have to.  I don’t really understand why that didn’t work last night.  You must not have been obvious enough.”

 

“What if he still wants her?”

 

“Gwendolyn, use your head.  The trollop is attractive in a brash sort of way, I suppose, but she isn’t young.  Her looks are only going to fade. Nathan has to consider other things besides looks anyway.  He has a lot of money… he has a lot of property.  He recognizes that he is going to have to marry a young woman and father more children to inherit those holdings. You are young and very attractive.  You are from a very good family.”

 

“I’ll give him a son.”

 

“You’ll give him several sons.  A man like Nathan would probably enjoy a little girl or two once the sons are taken care of.  You will be Nathan’s wife, Wendy… very soon.  Be flirtatious this evening.  I’ll arrange for us to retire before the others.  You come up here, remove your clothing and get in Nathan’s bed.  Once he enters the room your father and I will burst in after him and find you together.  Your father will demand that Nathan marry you.”

 

“But he will be angry.”

 

“Perhaps.  I rather suspect that he will be pleased to find you ready and willing.  He will probably join you and start working on your first son.”

 

“It could work…”

 

“I didn’t want to tell you this, Wendy, but Nathan had already spoken to your father.  Several months ago, before he started taking all of these mysterious trips he asked for permission to court you once whatever this business he has been away on was finished.  The Westphalen whore simply distracted him.”

 

Janet’s blood was already boiling at Lexie’s words but this last statement… this obvious lie was more than she could take.  She started to burst into the room and denounce the Smith cow but at the last moment she stopped, reminding herself that she was in Nathan’s home and it was his right to have that pleasure.  When she heard the women move toward her she slipped back across the hall into her bedroom and pushed her door shut.

 

“I’m so happy, Mother!” Wendy told Lexie as she closed the bedroom door firmly behind them.  Janet had her eye pressed to the tiny opening in her cracked door and she could see that Wendy’s face was glowing.

 

‘It will never happen, Wendy.  Don’t get your hopes up.’  She waited until she heard the latch fall on the door down the hall before swinging her own door open.  She’d barely started to step out of her own room when Nathan’s door slammed back and Kristin flew from the room, a wild look on her face.

 

Janet’s face turned a pasty white, all the color draining away as she realized that Kristin must have been in the small bath, overhearing every vicious word that Alexandra had uttered.

 

‘You are so going to pay for this, you bitch!’ Janet stepped into the hallway and called after Kristin, quietly so that she didn’t alert the other inhabitants of the floor to their presence.  Kristin either didn’t hear her or didn’t acknowledge her because she flew down the stairs without looking back.

 

Janet moved after her, swearing silently when her foot hit a squeaky board.  The Smiths’ door flew open.

 

“Janet!  We didn’t know that you were upstairs.” Lexie moved out into the hallway, blocking Janet’s path.

 

“I’ve been resting as well.” Janet attempted to move past Lexie but the other woman laid a hand on her arm and pulled her toward the open door.  “Wendy was just trying on a new gown.  Please come see.”

 

Janet stared helplessly at the stairs as Lexie pushed her into the room.

 

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

 

Kristin reached the bottom of the stairs and hesitated a moment before turning toward the back hallway, unsure of where she was going but knowing that she had to get away.  Her mind was reeling and her heart was breaking over the news that Nathan had planned to court Wendy Smith.  All she could think about was escaping the house.

 

As she passed the door to the tiny room she had been sleeping in strong hands reached out and grabbed her, pulling her through the door.

 

“What the hell are you doing?” She screamed at Wendell Smith as he pressed her back against the wall and leaned his face in toward her.  He tried to kiss her but Kristin managed to slap him hard before he grabbed her hand and pinned it back.

 

“Let me go.  Nathan will kill you for this.”  Kristin’s anger was rising beyond the boiling point.

 

“Nathan won’t care.  Can’t you tell he’s growing tired of you?  He’ll be settling down soon, marrying my daughter and filling this house full of children.  You will be in need of a new provider and I am just the man for that position.  I can be very… generous.”  Wendell’s eyes gleamed lecherously as one hand crept over the curve of her chest.  “I bet you are an animal in bed.”

 

“You’ll never find out.  Contrary to popular opinion I am not on the open market.  Please unhand me!”

 

Wendell answered by pressing his mouth down over hers, nearly gagging Kristin with the stench of his breath.  She strained against his hold on her wrists as he ran one hand down her hips and began to gather her skirt up while trying to shove his tongue into her mouth.

 

The second that her skirts cleared her legs sufficiently Kristin yanked against Wendell’s hold with all her strength; her hands falling to his shoulders as it gave way.  She pressed down firmly on those shoulders while driving her knee up, straight into the man’s most sensitive area, just as Nathan had taught her. 

 

Wendell screamed, his hands falling to cup his wounded anatomy as he fell to his knees.  Kristin spared him one last look of disdain before fleeing the room.

 

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

 

Nathan strode through the back garden toward the kitchen entrance, his emotions torn.  He couldn’t wait to see Kristin after an afternoon away from her but he dreaded having to spend more time with the Smith family.  Every time that he’d tried to bring up their departure Wendell had managed to change the subject then the man had left he and Bill early, claiming that he needed to speak to his wife.  Nathan had let him go in hopes that what Wendell needed to speak to Lexie about was leaving.

 

The slamming of the door exiting the house from the back hallway caught Nathan’s attention and he looked up to see a woman fleeing across the lawn toward the forest.  He didn’t need to see her face to know that it was Kristin.  He called out to her but she must not have heard him because she continued to run, disappearing into the forest moments later.

 

Nathan moved to follow her then stopped just as he came even with her exit point.  The latch hadn’t caught and the force of Kristin’s slam had forced the door back open.  The sound of moaning could be heard so Nathan moved inside to investigate.

 

He followed the sound to the door of Kristin’s room, his ire rising at the sight of Wendell Smith curled up in a fetal position, his hands clasped around his balls.  Nathan’s fingers clenched into a fist as he willed the man to look at him.

 

A hiss from down the hall drew his attention and he turned to see Janet beckoning to him from the bottom of the stairs.  He shook his head sharply and took a step toward the door but Janet stomped her foot at him and repeated her gesture, this time with a force and a look on her face that would only be ignored on pain of death.

 

‘Later,’ Nathan spared one last look at the pathetic creature at his feet then moved away, Wendell having never seen him.

 

Janet grabbed Nathan’s hand and dragged him into the empty library, closing the door securely behind them.  “We have a very bad problem.”

 

“We have three of them… although it looks like Kristin just took care of the most innocuous one of them.” His head inclined toward the hallway. 

 

“What are you talking about?  You saw Kristin?”

 

“I saw her in the distance headed toward the grotto as I came in.  Wendell is laid out on the floor of her room clutching his privates and groaning like he is dying.”

 

“That bastard… after what his wife just did… he attacked her?”

 

“Kristin took care of herself… wait… what did Lexie just do?”

 

The worried look on Janet’s face deepened as she began to pace.  “I don’t know where to begin…”

 

“At the beginning.  Tell me, Janet.”

 

Janet stopped in front of Nathan.  “After our meal Wendy and Lexie went upstairs to rest.  Kristin had a headache so we went up as well.  She lay down on our bed and I worked on Will’s shirt while we talked.”

 

“Janet… get to the point!”

 

“Kristin fell asleep and I dozed off as well.  When I woke up I heard a noise from your room and I thought it was Kristin so I walked over.  Lexie and Wendy were…”

 

“They were in OUR bedroom?  That witch!  This is the last straw.”  Nathan was ready to throw the entire family out immediately.

 

“No… it isn’t.  It is so much worse, Nathan.”  The dead calm in Janet’s voice scared Nathan more than her panic had a few moments ago.  He nodded at her to continue.

 

“Wendy and Lexie were going through your closet.  They found Kristin’s clothes there but thought they belonged to Carol.  As they searched they were talking about how Wendy would redecorate the room once she was your wife.”

 

“My… wife?” Nathan nearly strangled on the words.

 

“Let me finish.  They obviously know that you and Kristin are intimate.  That bitch told her daughter that you would pick her over Kristin because she is younger and she would be able to give you a house full of children to carry on your name.  They talked about how Wendy failed to seduce you last night and that she would go further tonight.  She is planning on being naked in your bed when you arrive.  Her parents will then burst in and demand that you marry her.”

 

“I’ll kill…” The words were barely whispered but Janet heard the venom.

 

“All of those horrid names we talked about were used.  Strumpet… whore.  But that isn’t the worst… When Wendy expressed some concern about the plan Lexie told her that you had already spoken to Wendell about courting her with the intent of marrying her.  Kristin had sidetracked you but they fully expected you to continue with your suite very soon.”

 

“That woman is the most horrid, wretched, vicious…”

 

“Nathan…” the quiet way Janet said his name chilled him to the bone and then he knew…

 

“Kristin,” he whispered his love’s name.  “…she… heard…”

 

Janet nodded.  “She must have been in the bath.  After they left I saw her run out of the room and down the stairs.  I tried to go after her but Lexie heard me in the hallway.  I wanted to scratch the woman’s eyes out but I thought that I should talk to you first.  Nathan… are you listening to me?”

 

Nathan nodded slowly.  “Kris… she must be crushed…”

 

“The look on her face was one of total devastation.  She doesn’t need to be alone now.  We need to go after her.”

 

“I need to go after her and I’m going.  Oh God, Janet… I didn’t!  I swear to you that I never made any sort of offer to do anything to Wendy Smith, much less court her or marry her.”

 

Janet chortled.  “Don’t you think I know you better than that, Nathan Bridger?  Go.  Find Kristin and make things right.”

 

“I will… and when I get back I am throwing that hellish clan out of here so fast…”

 

Nathan turned and stalked toward the door, leaving a worried Janet in his wake.

 

‘Find her, Nathan.  Find her quickly.’

 

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

 

 

sail ahead...