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

 

“KRISTIN!  KRISTIN!  ANSWER ME, DAMMIT!”  Nathan screamed into the rising wind as he ran across the sandy beach.  He’d searched the meadow high and low but found no trace of his countess.

 

Finally he stopped and stared at the ground swept smooth by the ebb and flow of the waves.  The only marks in the otherwise glassy sand were the ones he had made himself.  Kristin hadn’t been to the beach.

 

Nathan racked his brain trying to think of another place that she might have gone.  ‘The ship… maybe she went to the ship!’  The distance to the inlet where the ship was docked could be better covered on horseback so he ran up the cliff path and headed toward the stables.

 

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

 

Kristin stumbled through the undergrowth completely unaware of the briars and brambles ripping at her clothes and her skin.  She fell too many times to count but always dragged herself back up and staggered forward, the need to get as far away from the house driving her on.

 

Her mind was at war with her heart, the latter insisting that Nathan loved her and would never have misused her this way while the former was adamant that Lexie Smith wouldn’t have lied to her daughter.  She didn’t know Kristin was there after all.

 

She didn’t notice the sky darkening above her until a clap of thunder shook the heavens.  She spared a glance up into the thunderous clouds but didn’t stop.

 

The edge of the cliff loomed up without warning, Kristin not realizing she was approaching it until she almost stepped off.  The sight of angry waves crashing into the jagged rocks fifty feet below her pulled her back to her senses and she whirled away.

 

Kristin wasn’t aware when the ground opened up then began crumbling beneath her feet.  She only knew that she was falling and there was nothing solid to hang on to.

 

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

 

Nathan fell to his knees at the door of the stables as an indefinable pain shot through his brain.  Bill was at his side instantly.

 

“Nathan, are you all right?  Janet said that Kristin was missing.  Did you find her?”

 

Nathan struggled to his feet.  “No…” he answered as he shook his head to clear away the last residue of receding pain.  “I didn’t find her.  I think that maybe she went to the ship.  I’ve got to find her, Bill.  They hurt her.”

 

“Janet told me.  Lucas and Will have gone to find Ben.  I’m sure that Kristin is at the ship but if she isn’t we will organize search squads.  We’ll find her, Nathan.”  He clapped a reassuring hand on his best friend’s shoulder then moved off to saddle the horses.

 

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

 

Raleigh leaned into the wind and grasped his pack a bit tighter as he struggled down the almost non-existent path. 

 

“You old fool,” he muttered as the sky sputtered white fire at the ocean.  “You could be at home in front of a nice fire right now instead of facing the prospect of yet another deluge.  Why do you have such a great need to explore?”

 

Even as he asked himself the question Raleigh smiled, knowing the answer in his heart.  As a young boy his father had taken him out in a rowboat one day, far into the ocean.  As they had rocked in the surf, his dad pointed toward an island in the distance, a plume of smoke rising from the tallest mountain.

 

“Watch, Raleigh.  See the power of nature at work.”  Even as his father spoke the smoke sputtered and spewed a black cloud into the air.  Rivers of orange began to flow from the top of the mountain down over the sides and into the forest below.

 

“What is it, papa?” Young Raleigh had asked; his eyes riveted to the scene.

 

“It’s the Earth’s blood, son.  She is bleeding out her precious life force so that more land can be made.”

 

Weeks later his father had taken him back to the island and showed him how the lava had cooled and made the island larger.  From that point on Raleigh was fascinated with volcanoes.

 

He had grown into a man, traveled from his island home to the British colonies and stayed there once he’d met a dark-eyed, dark-haired woman with a sassy mouth and a loving heart.  Together they had raised several beautiful children.  But his heart always longed to return to the islands… to observe the volcanoes again.  When Nathan had purchased this island and offered them the opportunity to return he’d been elated.

 

The peak on Bridger’s island had been extinct for all known history but it still fascinated Raleigh.  He made the climb often, camping overnight as he wandered the rim and tramped over the terrain, sharp eyes marking the paths of lava flow from centuries past.  He visited other islands as well, wondering all the while about the great network of blood vessels that he was convinced flowed beneath the surface of the planet.

 

The sound of crashing waves caught his attention and he looked toward the cliffs in the distance, surprised at how close he was to the edge.  He stepped back and measure the distance from the path to the edge with a practiced eye, shaking his head as he realized that more of the unstable cliff face had sheared off.

 

His ears pricked up at the sound of a mournful cry and he raised his eyes to the sky just as the heavens opened up and poured down.

 

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

 

A dejected Nathan followed Bill to the house, caring little about the rain washing over him.  Bill had to physically drag him the last few feet.

 

“I can’t stop, Bill.  I’ve got to find her.” Nathan sputtered as his friend pulled him through the front door.

 

“Did you ever think that maybe she is already home?”

 

That thought perked Nathan up and he moved quickly toward the parlor only to swear when he saw Janet and the Smiths sitting there.

 

“Have you heard anything?” He asked Janet, completely ignoring the other people in the room.

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Well, I think this is remarkably inconsiderate and a mark of poor breeding.  What business has a nurse getting lost anyway?  She should have been looking after her charge.” Lexie spouted off. 

 

“Can… can I help you look, Nathan?” Wendell offered as he tentatively took a step forward.  Nathan was pleased to see the man was obviously still in pain.

 

“No thank you, Wendell.  I think you’ve made enough… attempts today as it is.”  The look in Nathan’s eye left little doubt in Wendell’s mind that he knew about his attempted seduction of Nathan’s woman. 

 

Nathan turned and stalked back into the hallway, too angry with all of them to stay in the same room.  Janet and Bill followed him.

 

“What do you want us to do?” Bill asked.

 

“I’m going to look… I don’t know where to go look, Bill.”  A look of hopelessness crossed his face.

 

“Nathan?” Janet asked, fear rushing across her.  “What is wrong?”

 

“I… I can’t feel her, Janet.  I know that I am upset but since we first… I’ve been able to feel her… Earlier I had a stab of pain… a sense that Kristin was in trouble… but since then I can’t seem to touch her.  I know that sounds crazy but…”

 

“No… it isn’t crazy at all.  But you are upset, Nathan.  And wherever she is, Kristin is very upset too.  That’s why you aren’t aware of her.  You have to calm down and try to concentrate.”

 

“The sun will be gone soon… not that it makes that much difference with so many dark clouds in the sky.  If Kristin comes back have Lucas fire two shots in the air.  Hopefully I’ll hear them.”

 

Nathan turned and moved toward the door.

 

“Can’t we do anything else?” Janet called after him.

 

“Pray, Janet.  Pray.”

 

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

 

Nathan was saddling a fresh horse when he sensed movement behind him and turned to find Bill pulling riding gear off the wall.

 

“You’re cold and wet.  Go back to the house.”

 

Bill looked at his friend sardonically.  “I’m no colder and wetter than you are.  You went through a hell of a lot worse than this to save the boy I love.  Do you really think I’d abandon you in your search for the woman you love?”

 

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

 

Raleigh shook the excess water off of his body as he stomped into the warm kitchen and headed straight for the crackling fire. 

 

“Bess!  I’m back!  I decided not to brave another night of rain…” Raleigh’s voice trailed off as he heard muffled sobs and turned to find Bess in the corner crying.

 

“What is wrong, dear?” He asked as he moved to her side and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder.

 

“My boy’s lady… Miss Kristin is gone missing.  She overheard some hurtful things those two bitches said then the man tried to have his way with her.  She put him in his place and his family jewels back inside his body but then she ran into the woods and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of her since.  Nathan has been searching all afternoon… he is going out again in this terrible storm to try and track her through the brambles but the rain is sure to wash away any trace…”

 

“Nathan will find her, Bess.  You know he will.” Raleigh soothed her.

 

“But she was so upset… she was sobbing something fierce Miss Janet said.”

 

“Sobbing…” the mournful cry that Raleigh had heard at the cliffs echoed in his ears.  What if it hadn’t been the wind?

 

“Where is Nathan?”

 

“I… Miss Janet just came back and said he and Billy were headed back to the stables… Raleigh?  Where you going?  You need to dry off.”

 

“I’m going to help Nathan find his way.”

 

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

 

Nathan led the horse to the stable doorway and was about to swing into the saddle when he heard his name being called.  He peered into the darkness trying to see who was approaching through the pounding rain.

 

Raleigh emerged into the light, water dripping from his kinky gray curls.  “I may know where she is.”

 

Nathan dropped the reins and grabbed Raleigh’s shoulders.  “Where?”

 

“I was walking home by the north point and I noticed that more of the cliff face fell in the rain.”

 

Terror tinged Nathan’s voice.  “No…”

 

“Nathan, I heard crying… I attributed it to the wind but knowing that Kristin is missing… I am sure that it had to be her.  If she was standing near the edge when it fell away…”

 

Nathan released Raleigh and grabbed at the bridle of his horse.  “Bill, send Lucas to gather as many men as he can then bring them to the north cliff.  Raleigh will lead you there.  Bring ropes, lanterns, blankets… anything that you can think of that we might need.”

 

“We’ll be there as quickly as we can.” Bill called as Nathan galloped out of the barn.

 

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

 

Kristin raised her head and stared up at the black sky, relieved that the pounding rain had gentled into a light mist.  She listened intently, thinking that she had heard her name.

 

‘That is ridiculous, Kristin,’ her subconscious berated her.  ‘No one knows that you are out here.’

 

Then the shout came again, Nathan’s voice screaming out her name.

 

“Nathan!” Her throat was swollen from sobbing and her outcry was little more than a whisper.  Kristin cleared her throat and tried again.

 

“Nathan!  I’m here! NATHAN!”

 

“Kris…  keep talking to me.  I need to find you.”

 

“I’m here… I’m on a ledge… the ground fell away.  I didn’t mean to fall, Nathan.  When I realized how close I was I tried to back up but the dirt just slid away…”

 

Nathan’s head popped over the edge of the cliff about fifteen feet above her, the lantern in his hand illuminating her dirt streaked tear-stained face.

 

“I know that you didn’t mean to fall, sweetheart.  Just calm down.  We are going to have you out of there in just a little while.  Tell me… are you hurt?”

 

“I… I don’t think so.  I may have twisted my ankle just a bit and I’m scraped up but I don’t have any serious injuries.”

 

“How secure are you?”

 

“The ledge seems stable.  It’s solid rock.  It isn’t very wide… about two feet maybe… but I don’t think I’m in any danger of falling.  I tried to climb back up but the mud just slides away beneath my feet.  Every root that I grabbed on to came out in my hands.  I could try again…”

 

“NO!  You stay right where you are.  Bill is on the way with help… wait… I’ll be right back.”  His face disappeared, taking the lantern light with it.

 

“Nathan?  Don’t leave me, Nathan!  PLEASE!”

 

“It’s okay, Kristin.  I am right here.  I am just getting some things off the horse and I will be right back.”  Nathan heard the alarm in her voice and continued speaking to reassure her until he was ready to return to the edge.  He staked the horse out about twenty feet from the cliff and quickly unbuckled the saddle.  A length of rope from the pillion went around his neck and the blanket was tucked under one arm.  Nathan picked up the saddle in one hand and the lantern in the other then moved carefully back to toward the brink.

 

The saddle was dropped about five feet from the cliff to mark the spot where Kristin had fallen then Nathan took the rope and tied one end securely around a large jagged stone jutting out from the precipice.  He secured the lantern to the other end, tying the blanket just above it.  Then he lay down on his belly and traversed the last few feet.

 

“Kris?”

 

He saw relief flow across her face in the flickering lantern light.  “Thank you for coming back.  I wouldn’t blame you if you left me here but…”

 

“Kristin… I love you.  There is no way in hell that I would leave you here.  Listen to me.  I am going to lower the lantern and a blanket down to you.  I need to close the shades to prevent the flame from dying so you will have to watch carefully.”

 

“I understand.”

 

Hand over hand Nathan slowly lowered the lantern and blanket down the almost sheer wall of mud until it came to rest in Kristin’s hands. 

 

“Good… untie the lantern and the blanket and let the rope drop over the side.”

 

Kristin did as Nathan bid her, not understanding his instructions until she looked up and saw him swing a leg over the edge of the mountain.

 

“Nathan… no!  You don’t have to.”

 

He paid no attention to her words and soon his feet touched the narrow ledge beside her.  Tears began to flow down Kristin’s face as Nathan sank down beside her and pulled her into his arms.

 

“I was so scared.” Kristin stuttered as she wept into his shoulder.  Nathan reached behind her and grabbed the blanket, swinging it out and then over both of them.

 

“I know you were scared, my love.  I was scared as well.  But you are safe now.  I won’t let anything happen to you.”  Kristin looked up to find that tears were running out of Nathan’s eyes as well.  She embraced him even harder as he lowered his mouth down to touch hers.

 

The touch of Kristin’s lips was like ice and Nathan rubbed his mouth back and forth to warm them before seeking entrance.  He was shocked to find that Kristin was cold through and through.  He broke the kiss to glance up the cliff face.

 

“I guess that we need to try and climb up now?  The rope will help.  I can hang on and…”

 

Nathan shushed her.  “Bill is on the way with the men.  They will pull us up.  I don’t want to take any chance of you falling.  Your fingers are so cold you probably couldn’t grip the rope.”

 

Kristin tried to flex her fingers and found out that Nathan was right.  The cold had seeped in slowly but she suddenly realized that it permeated her entire body.  Nathan felt her shiver and pulled her even closer, tucking the blanket securely around them.

 

“How… how did you find me?  I don’t even know where I am.  I just ran…” Kristin tapered off, suddenly afraid that Nathan would ask for a reason for her flight.

 

“Raleigh decided to come home early because of the rain moving in.  He passed this way just an hour or so ago and heard you crying.  He thought it was the wind but then he returned home and found out you were missing.  He caught me at the stables just as I was about to ride out searching for you again.”

 

“Again… you’ve been searching for me?  How did you know…?”

 

“I saw you run from the house.  I was going after you but I heard moaning.  You nailed that bastard right where he lives, sweetheart.  I am sorry that letch tried to… I should have known he would.  I warned him away from you but… I don’t think he can help himself.  I’m sorry.”

 

“Sorry… He does this often?  It wasn’t just because he thought that I was…”

 

“No.  Wendell makes a habit of preying on helpless women, only you weren’t so helpless.  I’ve had to stop him from preying on the women on the island several times.  I don’t know how Wendell found out about us but I will make him pay.”

 

“No… you can’t challenge every person who says something bad about me.”

 

Nathan reached behind Kristin again and flipped the shade off of the lantern so that they could see each other clearly.  He slipped his hand beneath her chin and lifted her face until she met his gaze.

 

“Janet overheard Lexie and Wendy’s conversation in our room.  She told me exactly what they said and it isn’t true, Kris.  Not one word of it.  I never spoke to Wendell about courting his daughter and I never had any intention of marrying her.  I swear, Kristin.  It was all a lie.”

 

His eyes begged Kristin to believe him and her heart told her that his words were true.  Finally she nodded.  But her eyes were still sad.  Nathan gripped her tighter.

 

“NOTHING that they said was true.”

 

“Of course it was, Nathan.  You do need to marry again.  You are ready and somewhere out there is a lovely young woman who will make a wonderful mother for your children.  I am only holding you back and I can’t do that any more.”

 

“You are NOT leaving me.”

 

“I have to.  I love you too much to ruin your life… to prevent you from having the wife and family you deserve.”

 

“The only woman that I am going to marry is you.” The words slipped from Nathan’s lips before he could stop them, his resolve to wait forgotten in the terror of the thought of losing her.

 

Kristin looked stunned and Nathan continued before she had a chance to protest.

 

“I love you… no one else.  I want to marry you.  Please, Kristin… marry me.  I know that I am just a beat up old sailor and I’ll never be able to compete with your social status but no one will ever love you like I do.  Say yes.”

 

“Marry me?  You want to marry… men don’t marry their mistresses.”

 

“Dammit, Kristin, you aren’t my mistress. You are the woman that I love and I want to marry you!  I’ve wanted to marry you from the beginning… from the moment that I realized how I felt… how you felt… I’ve wanted that.”

 

“But your island… your business… you deserve a woman who is young enough to give you children.”

 

“I don’t give a damn about having more children.  I want you.  We… we can adopt.  Lucas is already like a son to both of us… we’ll just make it legal.  Now I have an heir.  You are without a doubt the most stubborn woman I have ever known.”  Nathan wrestled his hand beneath the blanket and into his pocket, emerging with a small box.  He flipped the lid open to reveal a brilliant emerald-cut sapphire ring, the large center stone flanked by smaller diamonds and sapphires.  “I’ve been carrying this around since we arrived back at the island, waiting for the right moment.  Tell me that you will marry me, Kris…”

 

Kristin stared at the ring and swallowed hard.  “I… I want to…”

 

“Do you love me?”

 

“I love you with all my heart.”

 

“Do you love Lucas?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Would you be opposed to having Lucas call you mother?”

 

“Oh, Nathan.  Of course I wouldn’t.”

 

“So perhaps you hesitate because I don’t have a title or a lot of estates.”

 

“That is ridiculous.  I don’t give a tinker’s damn about any of that.”

 

“Then perhaps you just don’t want to marry an upstart American.”

 

“You are being ludicrous.  None of those things matter to me at all.”

 

“Do you want to stay with me… love me… share my bed and my life forever?”

 

“I… want to…” Kristin repeated her earlier words.

 

“Then do.  All you have to do is say ‘Yes, Nathan.  I will marry you’ right now.”

 

Kristin stared into his eyes and saw nothing but love.  “Yes, Nathan.  I will marry you.”

 

“Finally!” Nathan grinned as he lowered his mouth to hers.  When they parted he slipped lifted her left hand from beneath the blanket and carefully slid the sapphire onto her ring finger.  It fit perfectly.

 

“I don’t believe it,” Nathan murmured.  “She was right.”  He lifted Kristin’s hand to his lips and kissed it.

 

“What… I don’t understand what you mean.”

 

Nathan squeezed Kristin’s hand as he tucked it back beneath the blanket then kissed her once again.

 

“The ring… I want to tell you about the ring.”

 

Kristin rubbed her finger across the stone, already comfortable with the weight resting there.  “It’s a beautiful ring.  Did it… belong to Carol?”

 

“No… I wouldn’t give you an engagement ring that had belonged to my late wife.  I’ve had this ring for years… over thirty years… but you are the first woman to wear it… the first to ever see it.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“I told you about my trip to the Orient when I was a young man.  While I was there Gator and I managed to get into some… situations.”

 

“I heard…”

 

“Janet Noyce has a really big mouth sometimes.  I am going to have to speak to her husband about that.”

 

“As if Bill could do anything… tell me about the ring.” Kristin snuggled closer into Nathan’s side, absorbing all of his warmth that she could.

 

“I was in a market one day and an wizened old oriental woman called me over.  She had a display of rings and wanted me to buy one.  She said that I was ‘meant to find the perfect ring’ in her display.  I laughed and looked over the rings.  I could tell that the quality of the stones was exceptional and I had money in my pocket.  I thought ‘why not’.  Perhaps the ring would be a gift for one of the… ‘ladies’ I had been keeping company with.”

 

Kristin raised a quizzical eyebrow at Nathan but said nothing. 

 

“I picked up one of the rings carelessly and the old woman told me to put it back down and choose again.  Then I saw this ring and I knew… I didn’t really understand it but I knew that this was the ring I was meant to have.  The lady smiled at me and told me that I’d made the right choice.”

 

“The right choice for what?”

 

“I paid her and as she gave me my change she told me.  ‘This ring is meant for one person, one woman.  Don’t give it lightly and don’t give it hastily.  If there is any hesitation in your heart then that woman isn’t meant to have it.  When you find the right woman the ring will know and it will fit her perfectly’.”

 

Kristin felt the ring on her finger again, double-checking the fit; it was exact.

 

“You didn’t give it to Carol?”

 

“I thought about it.  I started to once… took it out of the box and stared at it… but there was doubt in my heart.  It never felt right.  Not until you, Kristin.  I knew the ring was meant for you.  And I was right.  That ring was made for you just like you were made for me.”

 

“And you for me.” Kristin’s tears flowed freely as she and Nathan kissed once again.

 

A scream tore from Kristin’s lips as the ground shifted around them and a fresh stream of mud rained down over their heads.  Nathan held her securely as he flipped the blanket up over her head to protect her.  He groped the cliff face blindly, his hand falling on the rope, which he grabbed and held as he struggled to hold them both on the narrow ledge.

 

Finally the slide stopped but Kristin’s screaming continued as she clung to Nathan with a death grip.  The lantern that had provided them light was gone, knocked into the ocean by the onslaught.

 

Nathan soothed Kristin tentatively as he continued to grasp the rope, unable to see what was happening above them and unwilling to take a chance at being caught off guard again.

 

‘Where the hell are you, Bill?’

 

As if knowing that Nathan was questioning him, Bill Noyce’s face appeared over the cliff face framed in a halo of lantern light.

 

“Nathan!  We’re here.”

 

“It’s about damned time!  The face is eroding again.  You’ve got to get us out of here quickly.”  Nathan yelled back over Kristin’s sobbing.

 

“I’ve got twelve strong men here.  We’ll have you pulled up in no time.  Is Kristin hurt?”

 

“She’s banged up pretty badly and suffering from exposure but nothing is broken.  She won’t be able to hang on to a rope.”

 

“We’ll drop two ropes for you to harness her into and then we will pull her up.  I’ll be right back.”

 

Bill crawled back from the edge and stood, barking out orders all the while.  Then he turned to his son.  “Will, take a horse and ride back to the house.  Tell Bess to get the bath ready… as hot as possible.  Kristin is going to need to be warmed up quickly.  Bess will know what to do.”

 

“But, Father… I want to stay here and help.”

 

“Your leg can’t take the pressure of helping pull Kristin up.  Someone has to warn Bess to have things ready. Now go!”  Will recognized the tone in his father’s voice and moved toward the horses without further argument.

 

“Okay, men.  Open up all of those lanterns and give us light.  Ben!  You and Jonathan take those lengths of rope and tie them together so tight that they will never come apart. So I thought a fisherman’s bend to the tree, and then a slip bowline.  It will hold fast, but it releases in a pinch.  We need plenty of line to make sure Kristin is secure… What?”  Bill didn’t understand the look of confusion passing between Ben and Jonathan.

 

“Uhm… sir…” Ben began hesitantly.

 

“Don’t tell me?  You two call yourself sailors and you don’t know a few simple knots?”  Bill laughed heartily as he grabbed two ends of rope and went to work.  “Well don’t just stand there!  Find something sturdy to anchor the rope to.”

 

Back on the ledge below Kristin had finally calmed down although she still clung tightly to Nathan.  He’d found the end of the rope he’d use to descend and knotted it securely around her waist to give her an added sense of security.

 

“We are going to be out of here in just a few minutes, my love.  Then I’m going to take you back to the house and get you all warmed up.  After that we are going to plan our wedding.  I am not going to give you a chance to change your mind.”

 

“I wouldn’t do that,” Kristin mumbled. 

 

Something in Kristin’s tone worried Nathan.  “Kris… are you falling asleep?”

 

“Mmm… so cold.”

 

Nathan grabbed Kristin’s shoulders and shook her vigorously, knowing that falling asleep was the most dangerous thing she could do.  “Wake up, Kristin!”

 

“No!  Stop it!  I don’t want to…” Kristin began to pummel Nathan’s chest in protest.

 

“That’s it, love.  Talk to me.”  Nathan began to rub Kristin’s arms furiously.  “Think about tomorrow.  I know that the rain and wind have made you cold now but tomorrow the sun will shine again and you will be warm.”

 

“I don’t want the sun… I want you to warm me up.”  A playful tone touched Kristin’s voice, telling Nathan that she was coming back to herself.

 

“BILL!” He yelled up the side of the cliff.  “What’s happening up there?”

 

“Just a minute, Nathan…” In a few moments Bill’s head appeared.  “I’m going to lower down the ropes now.  I’ll try to get them as close to you as possible.”

 

“Hurry, Bill.”

 

Noyce heard the desperate tone in Nathan’s voice.  “Throw me those ropes and get ready to hang on.”

 

Ben checked the anchoring one last time before tossing the heavy bundle toward the admiral then moved into the anchor position on the rope behind Ortiz and O’Neill. 

 

Crocker, Ford and Phillips moved forward along the rope as far as they safely could then pulled on their gloves and grasped the cord in readiness. 

 

“We are all ready, sir.”

 

The signal given, Noyce grabbed the roll of line and threw it over the edge, attempting to get it as close to Nathan as possible without hitting them.  His aim was true.

 

Nathan reached out about three feet and grabbed the two dangling ropes and pulled them in.

 

“Sweetheart, I’m going to have to take the blanket.  I know that you will be cold but I promise that we will get you warm very soon.  Hang on to me while I tie the ropes around you.”

 

Nathan worked quickly but he could feel Kristin shivering against him.  “Have a knife ready, Bill.  You’ll probably have to cut the ropes to get them off her.  Now go!”

 

“Pull men!”  Noyce’s command echoed out and Kristin slowly began to rise off the ledge.

 

“No… Nathan!  You have to come with me.”  She fought against the pull of the ropes as she reached for Nathan and clung to him tightly.

 

“I’ll be up right after you.  Use your hands to keep your face away from the mud.”  Nathan tried to loosen Kristin’s grip but she refused to let go.

 

“I don’t want to leave you!  Please!”

 

Kristin was becoming hysterical.  Nathan spied the original rope he had wrapped around Kristin hanging from loosely from her waist and reached out to grab the loop. 

 

“Let go, sweetheart.  Let Bill pull you up.  I’ll be right beside you, I promise.”

 

After a few moments hesitation, Kristin reluctantly released Nathan.  At Nathan’s shout, the men on top of the cliff began to pull and Kristin’s feet rose away from the ledge.  She screamed his name and reached for him again.

 

Nathan hoisted himself up to stay even with Kristin.  “We’ll be on top in just a few minutes.  Stay calm, darling and hold on.”  The rock anchor held his weight and he climbed up hand over hand, keeping pace with her up the cliff side.

 

The trip up wasn’t easy even though the distance wasn’t terribly great.  Kristin didn’t have the strength to push away from the muddy ground and the pull on the rope was jerky.  Nathan stopped several times to speak to her, trying to keep her calm when her voice grew shaky or her legs began to swing wildly.

 

As soon as she came within reach Bill grabbed Kristin’s hands and added his bulk to the force pulling her up.  She slid easily over the side of the mountain and back along the slick grass to safety.  Nathan topped the cliff just in time to see Lucas throw a blanket around her, his arms moving to hold it in place.

 

Nathan barely felt his men slap him on the back as he passed them, all his concentration focused on the woman huddled by the small fire.  Bill moved to intercept him as Nathan approached.

 

“Thank God you are both safe.  I sent William to have Bess get things ready.  As soon as you warm up a little we will head back…”

 

“No.  Kristin needs to be warm now.  A fire isn’t enough.  I’m taking her back to the house.”

 

Bill waved his hand at Crocker.  By the time Nathan reached Kristin’s side Gator was moving toward them with a saddled horse.

 

Nathan knelt in front of Kristin and Lucas, his hand reaching out to brush both of their cheeks.  “I’m going to take you home, sweetheart.  You will be warm in just a few minutes.”

 

Lucas let go of Kristin reluctantly as Nathan mounted the horse.  Crocker scooped Kristin up carefully and passed her into Nathan’s outstretched arms.

 

“Look after her, sir.”

 

“Thank you, Gator… thank all of you.”  Every member of Nathan’s crew was moved by the emotion in his voice as he thanked them and then wheeled his horse and galloped away.

 

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

 

Janet and Bess heard the heavy tread of feet running up the stairs and hurried to swing the bedroom door open.  Moments later Nathan crossed into the room, his entire body nearly black from the mud coating him.  The woman in his arms had faired no better.

 

“Praise be to God.” Bess murmured as she reached toward Kristin’s cheek.

 

Kristin smiled weakly at both women but she couldn’t seem to let go of Nathan’s shoulders even though she tried.  “My fingers won’t work.”

 

Nathan sank to his knees with Kristin still cradled in his arms.  “We’ve got to warm her up quickly, Bess.  She was out there through the worst of the storm.”

 

“I’ve got the bath all ready and I’ve got some hot tea and some hot soup.  The bath isn’t boiling, boy… just hot.  You can’t do too much too quickly.  You will throw the body into shock.”

 

Kristin’s arms fell limply to Nathan’s side as Janet carefully pried her fingers loose from Nathan’s shirt.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll be all right once I get in the bath… I must look such a sight…”

 

Janet smile was one of relief.  If Kristin was making jokes then she was going to be all right.  She picked up a steaming cup of tea and held it out to her friend.  “You British think tea cures everything, don’t you?”

 

“It does… but I can’t hold the cup.” Kristin lifted one hand slightly and slowly flexed her fingers but the effort the action took was obvious. 

 

“That’s all right.  I’ll hold it for you.”

 

Kristin rested her head against Nathan’s broad chest and slowly sipped the warming liquid as Bess quickly stripped away her stockings and slippers then moved around to unfasten her dress.  Soon Kristin was clothed in nothing but her dirty chemise.

 

“Put her in the bath, Nathan.  I’ll go bring the soup and more hot tea.”

 

Nathan stood and moved toward the bath, Kristin still locked in his arms.  “Thanks, Bess.” He told the old woman just before she left the room.  Bess rewarded him with a toothy grin and closed the door behind her.

 

Janet followed Nathan into the bath and together they stripped Kristin of her last garment and lowered her into the warm water.  When Nathan began to pull off his own clothes Janet turned to leave.

 

“Promise me that you will call me if you need me tonight.” Her voice floated back to Nathan.

 

He yanked his mud caked boot free and dropped it to the floor.  “I promise.  Janet… I hate to ask it of you but… will you…?”

 

“Consider it done.  They didn’t see you come in?”

 

“I came in the back way.  I never saw the parlor door open to see who was running up the stairs.”

 

“I will keep them occupied.”

 

“Don’t say anything, Janet.  I want the ‘pleasure’ of dealing with that pack of vipers myself… but that will have to wait until tomorrow.”

 

“Tomorrow… I look forward to it.”  Janet smiled with satisfaction as she moved back into the bedroom.

 

Nathan turned back to the tub to see Kristin huddled over, her arms crossed over her chest and wrapped around her shoulders.  He stripped off his pants and climbed in behind her.

 

“Everything is all right now, my love.” Nathan wrapped his arms and legs around Kristin and began to rock back and forth slowly.  “You are safe in my arms and I am never letting you go again.”

 

Finally Kristin relaxed against him as the heat of the water and his body finally began to seep into her numb body.  “I have never been so frightened… not even on Zellar’s ship.  You were with me there but this time I was alone and I couldn’t… I couldn’t feel you, Nathan.”

 

“I had the same problem.  Janet thinks that it is because we were both so upset.  We couldn’t find each other through the fear.  But once I calmed down I knew that you needed me.”

 

“And once I calmed down I knew that you were coming for me.”

 

Nathan picked up the bar of soap and the washcloth that Bess had left and dipped them into the gray water then began working up a heavy lather. 

 

“That tickles…” Kristin giggled as he lifted her foot from the water and scrubbed it with the cloth.  Her laughter warmed Nathan’s heart.  He scrubbed the mud and grass from her body then took the soap and lathered her hair, working his hands through the tangled tresses until they hung clean and straight, gleaming in the lantern lighting the room.

 

“Close your eyes,” Nathan told her as he picked up the pitcher of warm clear water that Bess had left and gave her hair one final rinse. 

 

“How are you feeling?” He asked as Kristin sputtered, pushing the water that Nathan had dumped over her head out of her face.

 

“I feel much better.”

 

Nathan quickly scrubbed the mud from his own body then climbed out of the tub and toweled dry, swinging the damp cloth around his hips when he finished.  He then helped Kristin out and toweled her dry, his hands rubbing her vigorously with the cloth as she clung to his neck.

 

“Kris… uh… Kristin… I need to dry you off…” Nathan’s hands locked on her waist when he felt Kristin’s soft lips caress his jaw.

 

“I’m not stopping you,” she whispered into his neck.

 

“I can’t think… when you…” Nathan was on the point of giving in to his baser desires when he happened to glance down and see the dark angry bruises scattered across Kristin’s body.  He pulled back sharply, his fingers tracing one particularly dark abrasion at her waist.

 

“Oh my love… This should never have happened.”

 

They both looked up at the knock on the door.  Before either one could respond it opened and Bess came in with several long white strips of cloth.  She eyed them both speculatively as Nathan quickly draped the towel around Kristin then grabbed another and swung it around his hips.

 

Nathan turned to glare at her but Bess laughed and motioned him away.  “Go pull on one of them fancy nightshirts you ain’t got no use for.  We don’t need you getting a chill either.  I pulled out a nightrail and wrapper for Miss Kristin so you warm them by the fire while I take care of these cuts.”

 

“I am capable of looking after Kristin’s needs, Bess.”

 

“I’m sure you are. But she’s bruised and scraped and what she needs most now is warmth and rest.  The lovin’ part can wait another day.”

 

“I wasn’t going to…” Nathan gave up and threw his hands in the air, knowing that arguing with Bess was useless.  “I’ll have everything ready whenever you are.”

 

Once Nathan was gone Bess turned back to Kristin and gestured for her to set on the wide ledge at the back of the bath.  “That goes for you too, missy.  You need rest right now, not hard lovin’ and after the last few days it’s bound to be that.  You stop tempting that boy.”

 

Kristin nodded obediently as Bess coated her cuts with her special ointment and efficiently bandaged them with the cloths she had brought in.  Once the scratches were taken care of another brown bottle of foul smelling liquid appeared from Bess’ pocket.  The old woman doused Kristin’s bruises liberally and worked the liniment in with sure strokes.

 

“I know it smells bad, child, but it will help the soreness.  By tomorrow those spots won’t trouble you a bit.  And if it dampens your ardor a bit well that’s just a blessin’ tonight.”

 

Kristin opened her mouth to protest but quickly thought better of it.  Bess gave her a knowing nod.

 

“Wise move, missy.”  She turned toward the door.  “Nathan, get your scrawny butt in here with those clothes.”

 

Nathan appeared immediately holding a light short-sleeved nightgown and matching wrapper.  He sniffed the air appreciatively.

 

“Eau d’ointment a la Bess… my favorite.” 

 

Kristin laughed as Bess helped her slide the gown over her head and stand so that the towel slipped out to her feet.  When the dressing gown was in place Nathan once again picked Kristin up, despite her loud protests, and carried her to the bedroom.  She was tucked into the big bed, the sheets made warm by heated bricks wrapped in flannel.

 

“I am sorry to cause so much trouble.” She told Bess as a tray was pressed onto her lap.

 

“You aren’t any trouble.  We are just glad that you are all right.  Now eat!”

 

Kristin followed Bess’ command without further protest, spooning the light soup into her mouth quickly.  Bess nodded in satisfaction.

 

“I’m gonna go downstairs now and leave the two of you be.  But if you need me all you gots to do is call.  There is soup for you on the table, boy and I expect all the dishes to be empty when I get them in the morning.”

 

Nathan walked with his old nurse toward the door.  “Thank you, Bess… for everything.” He murmured once they reached it then continued at her pointed look, “Only sleeping, Bess… only sleeping.”

 

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

 

Janet took a deep breath behind the closed door then resolutely grasped the knob and swung it open.  Three sets of eyes turned to stare at her.

 

“We heard someone on the stairs a little while ago.  Has Nathan returned?” Wendy asked.

 

Janet nodded, determined to keep her countenance pleasant although she was seething inside.  “The men found Kristin.  The ground of the north cliff gave way beneath her and she slipped down the side to a ledge but Raleigh Young heard her cry.”

 

“I hope that she is properly contrite for causing all of this trouble.  She ruined dinner.  We finally went ahead and ate without Nathan and Bill but his food will be ruined from standing so long.”  Lexie moved toward the door.  “I’ll go have Bess get it ready for him.”

 

Janet quickly blocked her.  “Bess is busy at the moment taking care of Kristin.  I doubt that Nathan is interested in food either.  He was covered in mud so he has gone upstairs to clean up.  I would imagine that he will go to bed after he finishes his bath.”

 

“You mean that he won’t be joining us tonight?”

 

“He really is rather tired.  I believe that he had to do a great deal of climbing.  He actually climbed down the mountain to secure the ropes to Kristin and then climbed back up.  There was a second mudslide while they were down there.”

 

Lexie’s nose wrinkled.  “So he is really dirty?”

 

“Very.  I believe I heard Bess say something about both Nathan and Kristin’s clothing being beyond salvaging.”

 

“I was just about to ring for tea.  I guess that old woman won’t be in the kitchen to make it now.” Lexie pouted.

 

“No.  I expect that Bess will be busy with Kristin for several hours.  I would be glad to go to the kitchen and make all of us some tea.  Bill and the men will probably want some as soon as they return as well.  Sit down, Lexie.  I’ll be back soon.”

 

Janet had to fight to keep from running as she glided toward the door.

 

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

 

Nathan slid the bolt firmly into place and locked it down, securing the door against any outside intruders.  Then he turned back toward the bed and stopped, his jaw dropping in amazement as he stared at Kristin cuddled up in the bed.

 

She sat in the middle of the mattress, leaning back into a mound of pillows.  Her lavender dressing gown was wrapped snugly around her shoulders, the flowing sleeves falling back to show slender wrists and arms as she stared at Nathan over her teacup.

 

“What are you thinking?” Kristin asked, her warm brown eyes staring at Nathan over the rim.

 

“I am thinking about how beautiful you are.”

 

Kristin blushed but her eyes sparkled.  She lowered the empty cup back to the tray and held out her hand.  “Come join me.  I want to feel your arms around me.”

 

Nathan didn’t need a second invitation.  He almost ran to the side of the bed and grabbed the tray, moving it to the small table before he placed his hand in Kristin’s and sat down on the side of the bed.

 

“You’re staring again.  Come get into bed.”  Kristin tugged at his hand.  Nathan resisted but didn’t let go of hers.

 

“You have every right to hate me.”

 

“Hate?  Nathan, I love you.  How could I ever hate you?”

 

“Where do I begin?  I kidnapped you.  I chained you to my bed.  I almost forced you… You’ve walked a plank because of me, been marooned on a desert island and fallen off of a cliff.  I couldn’t blame you if ran away from me as fast as you could.”

 

Kristin tugged Nathan closer and raised a hand to his cheek.  “Being kidnapped was the best thing that ever happened to me. It brought me to you.  As for the other… I thoroughly enjoyed our time together on that island.  I ran down that plank gladly because I wanted to be with you.  As for the forcing me… you didn’t and you wouldn’t have.”

 

“I’m glad that you think so.  The first time I was so angry I wanted to punish you… but your lips were so soft and your body felt so… right pressed against mine… like we were made for each other...  The second time… I almost… You don’t know how close I was to taking you up against that wall…”

 

“But you didn’t, darling. You know that I wanted you just as much as you wanted me… if not more.  So no more talk about force.  And tonight was hardly your fault…”

 

“But it was.  I know these people.  Wendell is a lecherous old man and I knew that he would find you attractive.  I should have known that a verbal warning wouldn’t be enough to keep him away from you.  As for Alexandra and Wendy… I knew that they had their eye on me.  I never thought that they would act the way they did but…”

 

“You didn’t make them hurt me, my love.  They are vicious old cows.”

 

“Janet and I had a talk not long after she and Bill arrived.  She warned me…  You told me how other people would react and Janet told me how other people would react… but I didn’t understand until I actually saw it.  You are the woman that I intend to make my wife.  I never saw anything sordid or tawdry in what we were doing.  We love each other… why shouldn’t we show each other how we feel.”

 

“I am beginning to understand that now.  But you cannot hold yourself responsible for their hurtful words and actions.”

 

“Never again.  I should have married you when we were in Port San Luis… but I was afraid that you wouldn’t have me… that you wouldn’t even consider marrying a pirate.”

 

“I wouldn’t consider marrying a pirate.  I would only marry you… but you don’t have to…”

 

“Kris… are you trying to back out on me?”  Nathan leaned forward and gripped both her forearms.

 

“No… I want to marry you… but I know that tonight was very stressful.  If you want to wait… give your proposal more thought… I would understand…”

 

“We are getting married.  I don’t need to think about it any more.  You agreed and I am not letting you out of your acceptance.”

 

Kristin grabbed his arms in return and pulled him forward until she was inches from his face.  “I am not trying to back out of anything.  We will get married whenever you wish.  Now would you please come to bed?”

 

A huge grin lit up Nathan’s face.  “I’ll come to bed.”  He stood and quickly blew out all of the brightly burning candles so that the light from the fireplace was the only illumination in the room. 

 

“Are you sure you are warm enough?” He asked as he moved around to his side of the bed.

 

“I will be in just a few moments.  Why don’t you take off the nightshirt?  It looks ridiculous on you.”

 

“And I thought I was being quite stylish.” Nathan laughed as he yanked the garment over his head and climbed naked into the bed.  “I thought you said you weren’t quite warm enough yet?”

 

Kristin was busy unknotting her voluminous dressing gown and tugging it from beneath her legs.  “I said I would be warm in a few minutes.  Body heat, my love, remember?”  The lavender wrapper fluttered to the ground as Kristin turned into Nathan’s arms and snuggled beneath the covers.  “Now I am warming up.”

 

Nathan tucked the comforter more securely around them then bent to place a kiss on the top of Kristin’s head.  “You were so cold on the side of the mountain.  I was scared that we wouldn’t be able to get you up in time… that Raleigh couldn’t find the spot again.”

 

“I don’t know if I could have held on much longer if you hadn’t found me when you did.”

 

“You would have held on,” Nathan told her fiercely.  “You wouldn’t have given up and left me… not knowing how desperately I need you.”

 

“No… I wouldn’t leave you.” 

 

“Kris… I know I told you earlier but… I wasn’t lying.  I swear I never made any kind of offer for Wendy Smith.  The woman bores me senseless.  All that talk about reading other people’s thoughts… if she could really do that then she would know that she never had a chance… because I am hopelessly in love with you.”

 

“And that I feel the same way about you, my rogue.”  A wicked gleam entered Kristin’s eye as she licked her lips then lowered her head.  Nathan expected to feel the warm smooth skin of her cheek press against his chest but instead he was overwhelmed with sensation as Kristin’s wet mouth closed around his flat nipple.

 

“Oh… Kris…” Nathan moaned as he unconsciously arched into her touch; her tongue teasing the rapidly rising peak as his fingers threaded through her hair.  “We… no… Bess will kill… oh GOD!”  He was lost as her fingers crept down the center of his body to take him firmly in hand.

 

Nathan wouldn’t have cared if Bess had been standing over him threatening him with a cast iron skillet.  Kristin wanted him and he wanted her.  He rolled her into the mattress and moved on top of her, his hands grabbing the nightgown at her waist.

 

A grimace of pain flitted across Kristin’s face and with sudden clarity Nathan remembered the huge purpling bruise exactly where his hand was.  “Oh, my love.  I’m so sorry.”

 

“It’s all right.”  Kristin lowered her head back toward Nathan’s chest but he stopped her. 

 

“Maybe this is for the best.  I have a feeling that if Bess finds out we… that I… she’ll take it upon herself to make sure that it won’t happen ever again.  She told me that you needed sleep tonight and I think maybe she is right.”

 

Kristin’s lower lip slipped out slightly.  “She told me the same thing.  But we haven’t been together in days and I…” Her voice faded away to silence.

 

“You what, Kris?  What do you want?” Nathan knew exactly what Kristin wanted but he desperately wanted her to say it out loud.  He needed to hear the words.

 

“I want… you.  I want you to love me… I want you to make love to me.”

 

“I want that too.  And after tomorrow night neither one of us will probably be able to walk.  But tonight you rest and give Bess’ foul concoctions a chance to work.”

 

Kristin laughed quietly.  “So now the truth comes out.  You don’t want me because I smell like an apothecary shop.”

 

Nathan shifted his hips slightly to show Kristin exactly how much he did want her.  “Just one more day.”

 

Kristin sighed.  “But what if those two witches do something else?  Or that horrid little man…” Nathan felt the shiver that ran through Kristin’s body and pulled her even closer.

 

“They won’t.  Tomorrow I am going to take care of the entire Smith family… permanently.”

 

Kristin didn’t respond and Nathan glanced down to notice her eyelids drooping.  “You would probably fall asleep on me anyway,” he whispered.

 

“Not me…” A yawn punctuated Kristin’s words.  “If you won’t make love to me… talk to me… I love the sound of your voice.”

 

Nathan thought a moment.  “How about a poem?  We had an assignment one time in grammar school where we were to write a verse about something we knew.”

 

“Oh dear…” Kristin raised an eyebrow at her lover.

 

“Yes… I hung around the harbor quite a bit and yes, my verse got me caned.  But my friend Peter wrote a lovely little bit of poetry… something that I think applies to both you and I right now.  Would you like to hear it?”

 

“I would love to hear it.”

 

Nathan cleared his voice dramatically then began to recite:

 

“When eyelids make good pillows

Give in to the sleep

Let it take you over.

Let heavy eyes be seduced

By a peaceful end.

Forget about yesterday or

Today and greet tomorrow

As a distant friend.”

 

“You’re wicked,” Kristin murmured as she tried to stop a yawn with minimal success.  Nathan just laughed and continued his recitation:

 

“Give in to this slumber

The way dizzy bumblebees do

Drifting off late October morns

Do no fight those windswept thoughts

Of sandy shores – the world will be as

It was at wake.

Lay down your book, your Chinese look

A childhood nap you will take.”

 

“Mmm… tomorrow…” Kristin was struggling against the exhaustion that was quickly overwhelming her.

 

Nathan caressed her back soothingly with one strong hand, her cheek with the other.  “Sleep, my love.  Tomorrow everything will be all right.”

 

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

 

Nathan moved an arm carefully away from Kristin and reached back to plump his pillow before returning it to her waist.  He shifted around in the pillow trying to get comfortable but as tired as he was sleep wouldn’t come.

 

The last words he had spoken to Kristin kept ringing in his ears. 

 

‘Tomorrow everything will be all right.’ 

 

Nathan desperately wanted to make those words fact but to do that he had to rid his island of the Smith infestation.  He had been doing business with Wendell for years but Smith was dependent on him, not the other way around.  He had no compunction about dropping Wendell immediately as a business partner.  But the women… Lexie Smith was so vindictive that Nathan had no doubt she would slander Kristin’s name all over the islands.  The only way to stop her would be…

 

Nathan sat up suddenly as the solution to his problem leapt into his mind.  Kristin protested sleepily but responded to his soothing caress of her back and quickly slipped back into sleep. 

 

Once Nathan was sure that Kristin was sleeping he slipped from the bed and headed toward the door, taking care to grab his dressing gown.  He silently slid the bolt back from the door and padded across the hallway.

 

His quiet tap on the door across the corridor sent its occupants into a frenzy of motion and whispers.  Finally the door cracked to reveal Bill peering out intently.  When he saw Nathan he turned and murmured to Janet then, at her obvious urging, opened it wider and allowed Nathan to step in.

 

“Is everything all right?  Has something happened with Kristin?” Janet asked from behind the wall of bedclothes that she held clutched around her naked shoulders.

 

Nathan grinned when he realized what he had interrupted.  “Sorry.” He glanced back at Bill to find him furiously fastening his trousers.

 

“Kristin?” Janet asked again.

 

“That’s what I want to talk to you about.  Tonight, on the cliff, I asked Kristin to marry me.”

 

“Oh Nathan!  That’s wonderful…”

 

“I thought you weren’t going to ask her now…” Both Bill and Janet started and stopped speaking at the same time.  Janet stared from Bill to Nathan.

 

“Why wouldn’t you ask her now?”

 

Nathan’s face fell.  “Because I didn’t want to marry her then have to leave her so quickly.  I have to finish things, Janet… or neither of us will ever be safe.  I won’t have her in danger.”

 

Janet nodded in understanding.  “But… you changed your mind?”

 

“I almost lost her… because of that bitch’s silly machinations but also because I just wasn’t thinking… I couldn’t bear to go on if that happened.  So I proposed and Kristin accepted.”

 

“Of course she did.  She loves you.  I am so happy for both of you.  And can you imagine the look on Lexie’s face when she finds out that the two of you are engaged!  Promise me that I can be there when you tell her!”

 

“I’m glad that you relented, Nathan.  I haven’t seen you this happy in years.”  Bill held out a hand to his friend and they shared a vigorous shake before laughing and embracing.  “Nathan Bridger getting married again… women will be weeping up and down the eastern seaboard.”

 

“I thought I saw a ring,” Janet told them smugly.  “Sapphire, wasn’t it?  I would give you a hug as well, Nathan, but I don’t think my husband would appreciate me climbing out from under the covers in my current state of undress.”

 

“I’ll take a rain check on the hug, Janet, and I’ll let you and Bill get back to waking the guests in just a minute but first… I need to ask a favour… a couple of favours as a matter of fact.”

 

Bill gestured to the chair for Nathan to sit then moved back to perch on the edge of the bed.  One of Janet’s hands subtly worked its way into her husband’s.

 

“All you have to do is ask, Nathan.  We will do anything…”

 

Nathan nodded, knowing that his friend’s words were true.  “This is what I have in mind…”

 

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

 

Thankfully no Smith appeared during Nathan’s brief conversation with Bill and Janet or while he was returning to his room.  He slid the bolt back into place with a sigh of relief then turned towards the bed.

 

Kristin had cuddled down into the warm spot left by his body, her arms clinging to his pillow.  Her hair spread out like liquid fire over her headrest and the white comforter covering her.  Her countenance was peaceful.

 

A wave of love almost crippling in its intensity washed over Nathan as he stared at her.  His mind made up, he moved to his closet and slid the door open then stepped inside and pressed a hidden notch in the end.  A small hatch popped loose and Nathan pulled it open.  He reached inside and removed a box, opening the lid carefully to check the contents.

 

With another look at Kristin and a final nod he moved over to the small writing desk in the corner and sat down on the stool, pulling out a drawer to reveal blank paper.  As he picked up a crisp blue sheet his fingers brushed over a small frame tucked in the corner.  He picked up the picture of Carol and stared at it a moment.

 

“I don’t regret our time together, Carol.  Although it wasn’t quite like this… I did love you.  I loved our son and I loved our life together.  If you and Robert were still here with me I would be perfectly content… But you are gone and I’ve been lonely so long.  I think that you would like Kristin.  She’s beautiful and strong… you would be a bit shocked at some of the things she and Janet come up with… but then Janet always did shock you.”

 

He brushed a finger over the portrait of the blonde-haired woman.  “I guess what I am saying is that I am ready to move on.  I’ll never forget you… or our son.  Neither of you will ever be replaced in my heart.  But I have room for more and I’ve found a wonderful woman to share my life.  I hope you will be happy for me, where ever you are.”

 

With one last caress Nathan slipped the miniature back into the bottom of the drawer then closed it firmly.  He turned back to the bed and stared at his lover for a long moment before he dipped the pen into the inkwell and began to write…

 

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

 

Not so quiet voices broke through the haze of Kristin’s dream as she rolled over and pulled the pillow over her head to try and block them.

 

“Oh no you don’t…”

 

The pillow was suddenly yanked off her head. 

 

Kristin rolled onto her back and slowly opened her eyes to see Janet standing over the bed, her hands on her hips with a large smile on her face.

 

“What do you mean, still being in bed at this hour on today of all days?”

 

“Wha… what are you talking about, Janet?”  Kristin asked sleepily as she stretched.  “What is today?”

 

“What is today?”  Janet turned to speak to a person that Kristin couldn’t see.  “Can you believe that she doesn’t know what today is?!”

 

Soft laughter reached Kristin’s ears.  “Then I suppose you best be telling her, Miss Janet while I go an’ get things ready in here.”

 

Janet turned back to Kristin.  “Well, don’t just lie there, get up.  You have a big day ahead of you.  We have to get you bathed… dressed… put your hair up…”

 

“Janet Noyce,” Kristin interrupted as she slowly sat up and slipped out of the bed to stand before her friend, her hands on her hips.  “Would you please tell me what in God’s creation you are talking about?”

 

A large smile filled Janet’s face and her eyes twinkled with merriment as she leaned close.  “I am talking about getting you ready to marry that man of yours.”

 

“Mar…” Kristin sank back onto the bed and looked up at Janet with a stunned expression on her face.  “Married?  Today?  But Nathan… he just asked me last night,” she said.  “Today?  There isn’t enough time… there’s so much that needs to be done…”

 

“Kristin…”

 

“…we’ll need to get a minister…”

 

“Kristin…”

 

“…and the ring…”

 

“Kristin…”

 

“And then there are those horrible witches…”

 

“Kristin!”

 

Kristin stopped rambling and looked up at Janet.

 

“Everything has been taken care of,” Janet told her with a smile.

 

“It has?”

 

“Yes, Miss Kristin,” Bess answered as she walked out of the bathing room.  “My boy has taken care of pretty much everything ‘cept gettin’ you ready.”

 

“And he was headed up here to do just that when we stopped him, eh, Bess?”  Janet said with a laugh.

 

Bess nodded and laughed as she walked over to Kristin.  “I am so happy he’s finally doing right by you.”  Bess grasped Kristin’s hands and pulled her to her feet.  “He loves you so much.  And I know, that if his mama was here today, she would love you too.”

 

Kristin’s eyes filled with tears.  “Thank you, Bess…”

 

“Now, you get yourself into that tub…”

 

“But I just had a bath last night…”

 

“Makes no difference,” Bess said.  “The hot water will help soothe any aching muscles you may still have from your fall last night and will wash away the ointment and liniment still on your skin.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Kristin smiled as she leaned in and placed a kiss on the old black woman’s cheek.

 

“Go on now,” Bess said, swatting Kristin on the bottom then moved towards the bedroom door.  “And don’t forget to wash your hair.”

 

“Yes, Bess,” Kristin answered with a smile as she watched the woman leave then with a nod to Janet she stepped into the bathroom.

 

Janet smiled and once she heard the sound of water splashing, she headed for the closet.

 

“Janet!”

 

Janet turned and walked over to the bathroom door.  “Yes, dear?”

 

“Would you… would you come talk with me?”

 

Janet smiled, hearing the nervous anticipation in Kristin’s voice.  She pushed the door open and walked in, chuckling at the sight of Kristin buried in a mound of bubbles with just her head visible.

 

“Don’t you look all bubbly.”

 

“Ha ha…” Kristin shook her head as she watched Janet seat herself on the edge of the bathtub.

 

“Relax, Kristin…” Janet told her.  “Nathan has taken care of everything.”

 

“How?  How could he have done all this in one night… unless…” Kristin brushed an errant strand of hair out of her face, leaving a trail of suds on her cheek.  “Unless he’d been… oh god… he really had been planning to marry me all along.  I didn’t quite…” her voice trailed off as she looked at Janet with tear-filled eyes.

 

“It was a lie, Kristin.  What Lexie said about Nathan asking for permission to court Wendy… it was a lie.  She was lying to her own daughter,” Janet told her.  “The woman is a slave to her own ambition and no one or nothing is more important to her than her own wants and needs.”

 

Kristin nodded.  “I know…”

 

“So…” Janet said after a moment or two.  “Should we do your hair up or leave it down?”

 

“Well, Nathan likes it down but I guess it would depend on the dr…” Kristin stopped.  “I don’t have a proper dress to wear,” she said.  “At least not one nice enough to get married in.”

 

Janet merely smiled.  “Hair.  Up or down?”

 

Kristin rolled her eyes.  “Janet…”

 

“I told you, Nathan has taken care of everything.  All you have to do is… show up and marry that man.”

 

A brilliant smile lit Kristin’s face.  “Oh, Janet… I can’t wait.”

 

Janet grinned.  “Wash your hair…” she said and stood.  “Then when you’re finished, come back into the bedroom so we can see about getting you ready.”

 

Kristin nodded and as Janet closed the door behind her, Kristin slipped beneath the water and released an exultant scream.

 

Fifteen minutes later, wrapped in one of the light dressing gowns Nathan had had made for her, Kristin stepped back into the bedroom.

 

“Feel better?”

 

“Much.”

 

“Good.  Sit over here,” Janet indicated the vanity,  “and let’s get started on drying your hair and putting it up.  I think that style will look best with your gown.”

 

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Kristin said as she walked over and sat down,  “as I’ve not seen the dress.”

 

Janet merely smiled and reached for the silver-handled brush.  Just as she began to run the brush through Kristin’s wet hair, the bedroom door swung open.

 

“Look who I found,” Bess called out as she entered the room, tray in hand.

 

“Katherine!”  Kristin smiled at the young woman through the mirror.

 

“Hello, Kristin,” Katherine smiled back as she moved to stand beside Janet.  “Congratulations.  I am so happy for you.”

 

“Thank you,” Kristin replied then winced as Janet caught a tangle of hair with the brush.

 

“Sorry,” Janet whispered.

 

“Here, child,” Bess placed the tray on the vanity before Kristin.  “Eat.”

 

Kristin looked down at the assortment of foods – scrambled eggs, ham, biscuits, and gravy – and felt her stomach roll.  She shook her head.  “Oh, Bess… I…” Kristin placed her hand on her on chest just below her throat.  “I can’t.  I must be more nervous than I thought… I’m sorry.”  She pushed the tray away.

 

“At least eat the biscuits,” Bess said, lifting the small plate off the tray along with a bowl of jam.  “You need something in your stomach.”

 

“I’ll try,” Kristin said and lifted one of the biscuits to her lips then took a small bite.

 

“That’s my girl,” Bess beamed then moved over to the bed and began to straighten the bed linens.

 

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

 

“Would you stop!?”

 

“What if she changes her mind?”

 

“She won’t.”

 

“How can you be so sure?”

 

“Because that woman loves you.”

 

“Anyone can see that, Uncle Nathan.”

 

“Yeah, Cap… the lady really does have it bad for you.”

 

“Nathan… would you please stop!!”  Bill reached out and grabbed his friend by the arm.  “You’re going to wear a hole in your carpet then Bess will take a switch to you.  The women are all up there getting your bride ready for you.  And in,” Bill pulled out his pocket watch and opened it,  “just over an hour you’ll be married.”

 

“Married,” Nathan repeated softly as a large grin formed on his face.  “To one of the most stubborn, opinionated, mouthy women I have ever met.”

 

The men in the room laughed.

 

“Still time to change your mind, Cap,” Ben said with a smile.

 

“Not a chance, Ben,” Nathan continued to grin.  “There is no force on this planet that can keep me from making that woman my wife.”

 

“Speaking of forces,” William spoke up.  “Where are the terrible twosome and their lapdog?”

 

Nathan chuckled.  “Oh… they are out on the beach on a picnic…”

 

“Waiting for the rest of us to join them,” Bill said with an amused grin.

 

“What’s so funny?”  William asked as he watched his father, uncle and Crocker all give into their mirth.  He glanced at Lucas and Ben to see the same confused looks on their faces.

 

“If your uncle ever decides to give up sailing, he could make a living performing on stage,” Bill answered his son.  “The performance he gave this morning was just incredible.”

 

“Do tell,” Ben said as Lucas nodded eagerly.

 

“When he entered the dining room this morning, he immediately apologized to them for disappearing on them last night and then went so far as to be quite amiable to Wendy.”

 

“Almost lost my breakfast doing that,” Nathan muttered.

 

The men all chuckled at the look on his face.

 

“Lexie once again suggested a beach picnic,” Crocker took over the telling of the story.  “And Nathan here tells her that it is a wonderful idea then tells them to go on ahead, which of course raises her hackles… but then he told her that he was going to ‘take care’ of things here and once he was finished he would join them.”

 

“I’ve never seen that woman move so fast in my life,” Bill said with a grin.

 

“So…” a slow smile started to form on William’s face.  “They think that you’re…”

 

“Giving the countess her walking papers,” Ben finished the sentence, a grin on his face as well.  “But in all actuality…”

 

“You’re marrying her,” Lucas said, grinning.  “Oh… are they gonna be bloody well pissed.”

 

“You, young man, have been spending entirely too much time with Lady Westphalen,” Nathan told Lucas as the other men laughed.  “But you’re right, they aren’t going to be too happy about it, and I don’t give a damn.”

 

At that moment, Raleigh walked into the room.

 

“Are they…?”

 

“All set up on the far north beach just like you wanted,” Raleigh answered with a grin.

 

“Good.  Thanks, Raleigh,” Nathan said.  “As soon as Kristin and I are married, I want those people off my island.”

 

“I’ve got some of the men already working on getting their ship ready,” Crocker told Nathan.

 

“Thanks, Gator,” Nathan replied as he walked over to Lucas and clasped him on the shoulder.  “I need to talk to you about something important,” he told the young man and led him over to the fireplace.  “Lady Westphalen and I were talking last night… what would you say if I told you that after we get married we want to adopt you?”

 

“You mean… you… you two want to be my… my folks?”

 

“Yes we do.”

 

“Does this mean that I’d get to call you dad?”

 

A large smile formed on Nathan’s face and he nodded.  “Yes.”

 

“And Lady Westphalen… would I get to call her mama?”

 

Again Nathan nodded.  “Yes, I think she would like that.”

 

Lucas’ eyes filled with tears, which he quickly brushed away as the grin on his face grew.

 

“Now, why don’t you run upstairs and see what’s keeping the women.”

 

“Yes, Cap…” Lucas said as he turned and headed for the door.

 

“Lucas!”

 

Lucas stopped and looked back.

 

“If you like… you can start now,” Nathan told him then grinned as he watched Lucas nod then leave the room, his head held high.

 

“I think you made his day, Nathan,” Bill said, walking over to join his friend.  “It’s a fine thing you’re doing.”

 

“He’s a good kid,” Nathan said.  “Any person in their right mind would be proud to have him as a son.”

 

“You’re right, they would,” Bill agreed then released an exasperated breath when he turned back to his friend.  “Dammit, Nathan!  Would you stop!!  Think of the poor rug!”

 

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

 

“I can’t eat anymore,” Kristin said as she dropped the half-eaten biscuit onto the plate and pushed it away.

 

“Hmmph…” Bess leaned over her shoulder.  “Well at least you managed to get one in you.”

 

“I’ll eat more later, Bess.  I promise,” Kristin told the older woman.  “I just…” she placed her hand on her stomach as it rolled slightly.

 

“If you wasn’t nervous… I’d be even more worried,” Bess told her as she moved over to the closet.

 

Janet and Kristin exchanged amused glances before Janet took a step back then gestured to Kristin’s hair.  “Well… what do you think?”

 

Kristin gazed at herself in the mirror.  Janet had pulled her long auburn curls into a loose but elegant roll.  A minimum number of pins held the chignon in place allowing only a few tendrils to hang down and frame her face.  “It’s… oh, Janet, it’s wonderful.  How ever did you get it to stay up like that?  And the flowers…” Kristin reached up to softly touch the light blue flowers that had been carefully woven into the upswept strands.  “It’s just… thank you.”

 

“You’re very welcome,” Janet smiled at her through the mirror.  “I was under orders to keep the hairpins to a minimum.”

 

Kristin laughed.  “Yes, I can imagine Nathan telling you that.  He loves my hair…”

 

“Now, it’s time for your dress,” Janet said.  “Stand up, turn around and close your eyes.”

 

Kristin did as she was told.

 

“Are they closed?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Really?  You’re not peeking?”

 

“Janet… they’re closed.”

 

“Good… okay… now you can open them.”

 

“Oh… my…” Kristin gasped.  “He didn’t… I can’t believe he…”

 

Bess, Janet and Katie watched quietly as Kristin slowly walked toward the dress hanging on one of the bedposts.

 

“Oh, Nathan…” Kristin whispered as she reached out to finger the sapphire blue silk of the dress.  It was the same style of dress she’d seen but refused at the dressmaker’s shop in Port San Luis.  The bolt of blue silk that Nathan had continually wrapped her in on the ship had been cut and sewn into the most elegant dress… with an empire waist, off the shoulder sleeves and a low-cut rounded neckline. 

 

“Kristin?”

 

“He… he’d wanted to have this dress made for me when we were in San Luis but I refused,” Kristin told them in a quiet voice.  “I told him it was too much… too impractical for wearing on the ship…”

 

“My boy’s got good taste!”  Bess said matter-of-factly.  “Gets that from his mama.”

 

Kristin turned to look at her friends with a teary smile on her face.  “Where…”

 

A knock on the door interrupted her.

 

“Go away, Nathan!”  Janet called out.  “You can’t see her till the ceremony starts.”

 

“Uhm… it’s me, Lucas,” came the voice from the other side of the door.

 

“Come in, Lucas,” Kristin called out.

 

The door opened and Lucas slowly walked in.  “Uh… da… the cap sent me up here to find out how much longer you were going to be.”

 

“Not too much longer, Lucas,” Janet told him.  “Tell Nathan to keep his britches on.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Lucas said as he backed toward the door.

 

“Lucas…” Kristin called out to him.  “How is Nathan?”

 

A large grin split Lucas’ face as he answered.  “He’s wearing a hole in the carpet.”

 

The women laughed.

 

“He can’t wait to marry you, milady,” Lucas told Kristin as he once again inched his way towards the door.

 

“Lucas,” Kristin walked over to him.  “Are you happy with this?  With Nathan and I?  I know it’s been just the two of you for a long time now…”

 

“I’m okay with it.  I like that you two want to get married and…” his voice trailed off as he looked down at his feet.

 

“What is it, Lucas?”  Kristin asked as she slipped her hand beneath his chin and lifted his face.

 

“The cap… he said… told me that you and he…” Lucas stopped, took a deep breath.  “Is it true that you would like to adopt me?”

 

A large smile formed on Kristin’s lips.  “Yes, it is.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes, really,” Kristin told him.  “I love you, Lucas.  I couldn’t love you more if you were biologically my own child, and I would be proud to call you my son.”

 

Lucas grinned.  “What do you want me to call you?”

 

“Whatever you are comfortable with calling me,” Kristin told him.

 

“Could I… would you mind if I called you mama?”

 

Kristin nodded.  “I would like that very much… son.”

 

Lucas smiled and gave Kristin a quick hug.

 

“Now, why don’t you go downstairs and tell your father I will be down shortly.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Lucas replied as he took a step away, stopped then quickly turned and threw his arms around her again.  “I love you too, Mama,” he whispered before quickly releasing her and taking off down the hall.

 

Kristin watched him scamper away until he disappeared then turned and walked back into the bedroom.

 

“Is everything all right?”

 

“No,” Kristin said.

 

“No?!  What’s wrong?”  The three women chorused together.

 

“The only thing that’s wrong…” Kristin began slowly as she closed the door behind her.  “Is that I am not in that dress and downstairs marrying my love.”

 

Janet snorted, Bess hooted and Katherine shook her head.

 

“Very funny,” Katie said, biting her lip as she tried not to laugh.

 

“I thought it was,” Kristin replied with a giggle as she walked over to the bed, picked up the light chemise laid out over the blanket then turned to the three women.  “Well…”

 

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

 

“Well…”

 

“Well… Mrs. Noyce said for me to tell you to keep your britches on,” Lucas told Nathan with a grin.  “And mama said she’d be down shortly.”

 

“There, you see,” Bill clasped Nathan on the shoulder.  “Nothing to worry about.  She’ll be down here and before you know it, the two of you will be married.”

 

Nathan nodded.  “I know… I just wish she’d hurry up.  I feel like I’ve been waiting forever for her.”

 

“I have a feeling Kristin feels the same way about you,” Bill said with a grin.

 

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

 

“You look beautiful!”

 

“Just perfect!  My boy’s gonna be tongue-tied when he sets eyes on you!”

 

“You are stunning!”

 

Kristin blushed under the compliments from her friends.  “Thank you,” she said softly and stepped in front of the mirror.

 

As Kristin studied her reflection, Janet caught Bess’ eye and indicated that she would like a few moments alone with Kristin.

 

“We’re gonna head down now…” Bess spoke up and gestured for Katie to join her,  “let the menfolk know that you’ll be down in just a few more minutes.”

 

“Thank you, Bess,” Kristin said.

 

“You just don’t be too much longer, child,” Bess said.  “My boy’s waited a mighty long time for you and my carpets are suffering.”

 

“Yes, Bess,” Kristin smiled as the old woman left the room, Katherine following.

 

“You really do look gorgeous!”  Janet told her with a smile.  “How are you feeling now?”

 

“Actually… very anxious,” Kristin answered.  “I can’t wait to marry Nathan.”

 

Janet nodded.  “I know.”

 

“What…” Kristin bit her lip.  “What about Lexie and Wendy?  They’re not going to just stand aside and let this happen.  Not after everything she’s done.”

 

“Don’t you worry about them,” Janet replied.  “I told you.  Nathan has taken care of everything.”

 

“Janet!”

 

“All right,” Janet sighed and began to tell Kristin what had happened at breakfast that morning.  “And then when Lexie turned to Nathan and said, ‘something really ought to be done with that nurse for being so rude as to get lost and delay our dinner last night’, Nathan looked at her, his eyes sparkling and said, ‘You know, Lexie, you’re absolutely right.  I should do something about that woman.’”  Janet laughed.  “Oh you should have seen the delight on Lexie’s face… she was so convinced that Nathan had come to his senses and was planning on sending you away…”

 

Kristin couldn’t help but chuckle at the excited way in which Janet was regaling the story.

 

“Then Nathan suggested a picnic and when Lexie protested, Nathan told her that he would be ‘taking care of business’ and then would join them,” Janet began to laugh harder.  “Oh… you should… I wish that you had seen her!  I’ve never seen… that woman move… so fast in my life, hauling that demon-seed she calls a daughter behind her!”

 

“So… they’re not here?”

 

“Absolutely not,” Janet smiled as she calmed down, the occasional chuckle still bubbling up.  “They are all sitting out on the north beach waiting for Nathan to join them.”

 

“That is…” Kristin shook her head as she tried to bite back a smile but was unsuccessful.  “That is terrible… but I just can’t find it in myself to be upset about it.”

 

Janet giggled.  “I know what you mean.”

 

“Lexie is going to be bloody well pissed when she returns to find that Nathan and I have gotten married.”

 

“Yes she is,” Janet replied with a slight laugh.

 

“It really isn’t funny.”

 

“Oh yes it is,” Janet grinned.

 

Kristin shook her head.  “Okay, it is.”

 

Janet laughed.  “Well, I should go and quickly change.  Nathan has asked Bill and I to stand as witnesses…” her voice trailed off.  “Unless you would prefer Katherine to stand up with you?”

 

“Oh no… you and Bill are perfect.”

 

“Are you sure?  I won’t be offended if you would rather have Katherine.  You have known her much longer, after all.”

 

“Katherine is a wonderful young lady but she is more Cynthia’s friend than mine,” Kristin answered.  “The only reason she was on my ship is that she is very interested in the engineering principles in building the ships,” she paused and walked over to Janet.  “I would be very honoured to have you stand up with me.”

 

Janet smiled then turned to leave.  She stopped suddenly then quickly strode across the room to the vanity, opened the drawer and pulled out a velvet-covered box with an envelope tied to it with a matching blue ribbon.

 

“I almost forgot,” Janet said as she walked over to Kristin.  “Nathan asked me to give this to you.”

 

“What is it?”  Kristin asked, taking what was obviously a jeweler’s box from her friend.

 

“I don’t know,” Janet said and moved to the door.  “Nathan just asked me to make sure I gave it to you before you came downstairs.  So, while I go change, you open it.”

 

With that, Janet swept out of the room and closed the door behind her.  Kristin looked down at the items she held in her hand and smiled at the sight of her name in an elegant, obviously male scrawl on the top of the blue envelope.

 

Kristin walked over to the bed, sat down on the edge and laid the box down beside her.  She ran her fingers over her name on the envelope before turning it over, opening it and pulling out a couple pieces of blue stationary.  She unfolded the stationary and began to read.

 

My darling, Kristin…

 

As I write this, you are fast asleep in our bed and I am sitting here, haunted by the memory of how very near to losing you I came tonight.

 

And while it is that memory… that fear of losing you that has prompted me to write this letter to you, to put down in words the thoughts and feelings that are running through my head at this moment; that is not the only reason.

 

 I love you.

 

That is the reason.

 

I wish I could be more poetic in telling you that, but I haven’t the words.  All I know, is that since you’ve come into my life… I feel that life is worth living again.

 

There is a part of me that still finds it hard to believe that you, a woman with your breeding, your status… a Countess could love me… an old sailor with just a few small estates and a shipyard; but then I remember the look in your eyes as I’m moving in and above you, and I am filled such peace… and such love that I know it is true.

 

You have touched and healed my soul, Kristin.  Before I found you, I was a lonely, bitter man who really had nothing to live for.  You changed all that.  You… with your beauty, your wit and your indomitable spirit and zest for life breathed new life into my withered soul.

 

I know that despite my promise that you would not suffer for loving me, you have indeed suffered, and I cannot begin to tell you how profoundly sorry I am that you were hurt.  I would sooner give my life than to see you hurting in any way and I will spend the rest of our lives together making it up to you.

 

Your agreeing to marry me has filled me with such elation of a kind that I have only felt once… at the birth of my son… and I have decided that I do not wish to wait any longer than necessary to make you my wife.

 

So with that in mind… I ask you again, my darling Kristin, will you please do me the great honour of becoming my wife?

 

If your answer is still yes, then open the box I’ve had Janet give to you and join me downstairs, where I await with our friends and a minister… for you to become my wife.

 

My heart is eternally yours…

 

~ Nathan

 

Kristin swiped the tears out of her eyes as she folded the letter and placed it back inside the envelope then reached beside her to the blue-velvet box.  Her fingers shook as she slowly lifted the lid.  She inhaled sharply and her eyes grew wide.

 

“Oh my…”

 

Lying on a bed of crushed velvet lay the most exquisite sapphire and diamond necklace Kristin had ever seen in her life.  The cut and colour of the stones in the necklace matched her ring exactly.

 

“So that’s what he did with them.”

 

Kristin jumped slightly at the soft voice at her shoulder.  “I didn’t hear you come in,” she said to Janet.

 

Janet smiled.  “Beautiful necklace.”

 

“Yes it is,” Kristin replied in a quiet voice.  “What did you mean… ‘So that’s what he did with them’?”

 

“Over the years, since his trip to the Orient, Nathan has been collecting sapphires,” Janet answered.  “But not just any sapphires.  They had to be a certain colour, a certain cut… he was always very particular about them.  Only Bill and I knew were aware that he was collecting them and we’d even asked him why one time, but he wouldn’t tell us,” she paused.  “We assumed it was because he’s always liked the colour… we didn’t know about the ring until I saw it on your finger last night.”

 

Kristin glanced down at her ring and smiled, Nathan’s words while hanging on the cliff coming back to her.  ‘I’ve had this ring for years… over thirty years… but you are the first woman to wear it… the first to ever see it.’

 

“He bought it in the Orient… he was told by the old woman who sold it to him that it was meant for one woman, and one woman only.  If there was any hesitation on his part about giving it, then that woman was not the woman who was meant to have the ring… and that the ring would fit perfectly on the finger of the right woman.

 

“And Nathan had absolutely no qualms, fears or hesitations about giving you the ring,” Janet stated with a smile,  “Because that ring fits you perfectly.  You two were definitely meant to be together.”

 

Kristin returned her smile.

 

“So… why don’t I help you put that gorgeous necklace on and then get you downstairs and married to that man?”

 

“That sounds wonderful to me,” Kristin replied and carefully removed the necklace from its box then stood.

 

“Here, let me…” Janet said as she grasped the ends of the necklace and quickly secured them together.

 

“How does it look?”

 

“Just perfect,” Janet answered.  She gestured to the cheval mirror in the corner.  “Go see for yourself.”

 

Kristin walked over to the mirror and stared at her reflection.

 

“Blue is definitely your colour,” Janet told her as she walked up behind her friend.  “One last thing…” she held up a pair of dangling sapphire earrings that matched Kristin’s necklace.

 

Kristin smiled as she took the earrings from Janet and quickly put them on.  “Well?”

 

“Perfect,” Janet smiled.  “Nathan is going to be speechless.”

 

“I hope not!  I want him to be able to recite his vows!” 

 

Janet laughed.  “Ready?”

 

Kristin nodded then turned away from the mirror.  “Yes.”

 

“Still nervous?”

 

Kristin shook her head.  “No… more anxious than nervous,” she replied as she took a deep breath then slowly released it.  “I… I still can’t believe this is happening.  It’s all been so quick, and yet I feel as if I’ve known and loved him all my life.”

 

Janet smiled as Kristin continued.

 

“I love him so much, Janet.  Nathan completes me in ways I never thought were possible.”

 

Janet’s smile grew as she opened the bedroom door.  “Well then… let’s not keep that man waiting.”

 

Kristin nodded and with another deep breath, she swept out of the room, Janet following with a large smile and a giggle on her lips.

 

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

 

“Where are they?”

 

“They’ll be here, Nathan.”

 

“Why’s it taking so long!?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“She’s changed her mind… I know she has!  Kristin has changed her mind and she doesn’t want to marry me.”

 

“Don’t be silly, Nathan!  Kristin loves you.  She hasn’t changed her mind!”

 

“Then where is she?”

 

“Getting ready to marry you,” Bill answered as his friend began to pace again.  “Nathan, would you stop…”

 

Nathan stopped pacing and looked up expectantly as the parlour room door opened.  He sighed as the minister walked in.

 

“Ah, good morning,” Reverend Law called out with a smile.  “I see we’re almost ready for the ceremony.”

 

“Almost,” Bill answered and walked over to shake the vicar’s hand.  “We’re just awaiting the bride,” he gestured to Nathan.  “The groom here is getting nervous.”

 

“I’m not nervous… I’m anxious,” Nathan said.

 

The reverend chuckled.  “It is the bride’s prerogative to be fashionably late for her own wedding.”

 

“See, I don’t understand that,” Nathan said.  “Kristin is already an extremely beautiful woman… it’s not like she needs to be excessively made up.  I…”

 

“Don’t worry, Captain,” Law told him.  “If your Kristin loves you as much as you obviously love her… I am sure she won’t be too much longer.  But in the meantime, why don’t you come with me and let’s get started on the paperwork…”

 

As the reverend pulled Nathan over to the other side of the room, the parlour doors opened and the room began to fill with various members of Nathan’s crew and their families.

 

Several moments later, the doors opened again and Katie rushed in with a large smile on her face.  “She’s coming down the stairs.”

 

Nathan grinned.  “About time!  Gator…”

 

“Already on my way, Cap,” Crocker answered as he walked through the doors out into the hallway.  Shutting the doors behind him, he looked up and released a low whistle.  “If I may say so, you look wonderful, Countess.”

 

“Thank you, Gator,” Kristin replied as she stepped off the last stair and walked over to stand before the parlour doors.  “Is…”

 

“Everything is all set, we’re just waiting for you.”

 

“And how is Nathan?”

 

“Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs,” Crocker answered with a grin then chuckled.  “I have never seen him so jumpy.”

 

Kristin laughed softly as she glanced at the closed doors.

 

“If you would allow me,” Crocker began.  “I would be honoured to escort you down the aisle.”

 

A large smile formed on Kristin’s face as she nodded.  “Oh, Gator, that would be wonderful.  I can’t imagine who I would like more,” she told him.  “After all, Nathan told me you knew before we did that we’d end up together.”

 

“I saw the sparks, yes ma’am!”

 

Kristin flushed as Janet stepped up to them.  “You have to stand back and over there, Kristin,” Janet told her and pointed to a spot away from the doors.  “It wouldn’t do for Nathan to see you just yet.  You too, Gator.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Crocker nodded and led Kristin over to the place Janet indicated.

 

Assured they were safely out of sight, Janet opened the doors and smiled when she saw Nathan look up anxiously.  She gave a small nod and as Nathan took his place next to Reverend Law, soft music from the pianoforte in the library began to filter through the room.

 

“Now remember, Reverend,” Nathan said with a smile.  “Short and sweet.”

 

Law chuckled.  “I remember, Captain.”

 

Janet turned her head to look at Kristin and Crocker.  “Count to twenty, then come on in,” she told them and with that said, she entered the room.

 

“Ready, milady?”  Crocker asked her a few moments later, offering her his left arm.

 

“Very ready, Gator,” Kristin replied as she slipped her hand into the crook of his arm.

 

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

 

 

sail ahead...