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

 

Strong oaths and loud curses filled the salty air as the crew of the USS Enterprise struggled with the mooring lines until finally they succeeded and the vessel was securely tied in place.

 

Nathan moved away from the massive rope, letting the sailors finish up the job as he wiped the sweat from his brown with the sleeve of his shirt.  Suddenly a strong hand clamped down on his shoulder.

 

“Don’t tell me you were tugging on the mooring line?  Do you have a death wish?  Worse, do you have it in for me?  If Bess had seen you tugging on that line she would have my hide!”

 

Nathan grinned at Bill’s discomfort.  “I am fine, Bill.”  He patted the flesh just above his hipbone.  “All that is left of that damned saber cut is a scar.  I need to do hard work… get my strength back.”

 

“Okay… but if Bess hears about this I am blaming it completely on you.”

 

Nathan laughed heartily, happier than he had been in months.  In just a few moments he was going to be standing on the same island as his wife.  He couldn’t wait.  “I’ve got my bag packed so as soon as the gangplank is down I am off to the nearest stable to rent a horse.”

 

Bill glanced at the horizon, noting the position of the sinking sun.  “It is getting late, Nathan.  Daylight will be gone in a few hours.  Why don’t you wait until tomorrow morning?  You could get a good night’s rest and then…”

 

“All I’ve done for most of this voyage is rest and let you and Bess coddle me.  You’d still have me lying in that bed if I hadn’t put my foot down.”

 

“You weren’t in any condition to be making a journey when we left.  You couldn’t even stand!”

 

“I had to get to my wife.” Nathan replied quietly.  “And I still have to get to her.  I’ve healed during the last month and I can’t spend another night dreaming about being with Kristin when I can be on my way to her.  Can’t you see that I have to go, Bill?”

 

A mock look of disgust crossed Bill’s face.  “Yes… I can see.”

 

“Good.  Can I depend on you to look after Raleigh and Bess for me?  Hire a carriage to get them to London?”

 

“I will take care of everything,” Bill agreed.  “Go below and get your bag but don’t leave without telling me.”

 

Nathan was back on deck within five minutes but Bill was nowhere in sight.  After pacing the length of the ship twice he gave up and moved toward the gangplank.  ‘Bill will understand.’

 

Apparently Bill did understand because the exit had not been lowered and no amount of swearing or cajoling on Nathan’s part could induce the young ensign standing guard over it to do so. 

 

“The Admiral gave explicit orders, sir.  I can not let you exit the ship until he returns.”

 

Nathan glanced at the side of the ship, contemplating jumping overboard but decided that he would rather save his energy to beat the shit out of Noyce.

 

Luckily Bill showed up before Nathan could actually act on his impulse to knock the youngster out and lower the plank himself.

 

“Are you giving my crew a hard time?”

 

“Dammit, Bill.  I am going to leave tonight.  You can’t stop me so just tell them to let down the damned board!”

 

Noyce gave a curt nod to the ensign standing nearby at attention and the young man immediately moved to connect ship and land once again.

 

“Once I’ve found my wife I am going to punish you for this.” Nathan muttered as he hoisted his bag onto his shoulder.

 

“Once you’ve found your wife I doubt you will have the energy to follow through with that threat.”  Bill laughed.  “Our horses are waiting just beyond the dock.”

 

“Our…?” Nathan paused to eye the sturdy clothes that Bill had changed into and for the first time noticed a bag similar to his own strapped across Bill’s back.

 

“I’m going with you.”  Bill’s tone left little room for debate.  “I’ve spoken with the first mate and he has agreed to see to Bess and Raleigh so what are we waiting for?”

 

Nathan was humbled once again by his friend’s loyalty.  “You don’t have to do this, Bill.  I can travel on my own.”

 

“You think I’m doing this for you?  Hell, even though I’ve been married for nearly thirty years that doesn’t mean that I still can’t miss my wife, does it?  And Janet is always so happy to see me when I’ve been away a while.”  Bill slapped Nathan on the back then headed down the gangplank with a jaunty whistle on his lips.

 

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

 

The stench of the garbage rose up to assault Nathan’s nostrils and made him briefly long for the clean crisp breezes of his island.  Even Boston Harbour had never smelled this bad.  His eyes roamed over the poverty stricken people wandering the streets – old women begging, young women trying to sell their bodies, men in ragged clothes dragging home from a hard days work for little pay on the docks or in the warehouses.

 

“I couldn’t stand to live like this.”

 

Bill agreed with Nathan’s sentiment.  “But this is all that they know.  Their parents were probably the same way.  Until someone, the government or charitable organizations, make a serious attempt to help these people I am afraid it won’t change.”

 

An image of Lucas sprang unbidden into Nathan’s mind and he whispered a silent prayer that the boy had chosen his pocket to attempt to pick that night.

 

“How much further?”  Nathan asked as his eyes continued to take in his surroundings.

 

“According to the last directions we received we shouldn’t be more than a few miles from the embassy.”

 

The neighborhood began to change within a mile.  The streets became cleaner and their inhabitants were better dressed.  The more the locality improved the more Nathan’s excitement level grew.

 

“Will you hold on to that horse?” Bill yelled as Nathan’s horse broke into a prance, sensing his rider’s agitation.

 

Nathan quickly reined in the stallion.  “I can’t help it.  We are in London, the same city that Kristin is in.  I am anxious to see her.”

 

Bill smiled indulgently.  “As soon as I check in at the embassy I will find out where Janet has rented lodging for us.  They are sure to be near the embassy… and I know my wife.  She will have found out Kristin’s whereabouts immediately.”

 

“I only hope… maybe I should have sent a letter.”

 

“I thought about it but Bess convinced me that it would be cruel to tell Kristin how badly you were hurt when we didn’t know the outcome and there was no way she could return before we knew.  Once you were on the road to recovery you insisted that we leave so damned quickly that we would have arrived before any letter could.”

 

Nathan grinned.  “Well, wouldn’t you be in a hurry to reunite with a woman like Kristin?”

 

“I am, Nathan.  Her name is Janet.”

 

The men trotted up to the front lawn of the American Embassy less than an hour later and climbed gingerly down from the saddles that they had occupied for over eighteen hours.  Nathan pressed a fist into his side in an attempt to counteract the dull ache that had settled in his newly formed scar.

 

“Aren’t you coming?” Bill paused halfway up the path when he realized that Nathan wasn’t behind him.

 

“I think I will stay out here and walk around.  My legs are a bit stiff.  You don’t plan to do any more than check in and find out the address, correct?”

 

“I’ll be back momentarily.”  Bill shook his head in mock disgust as he continued toward the door.

 

Nathan tethered his horse to the post nearby and slowly walked through the front garden of the ornate building, letting his leg muscles get used to walking again. As the minutes ticked by he became more and more anxious.  After half an hour had passed he stationed himself against a tree where he could see the building entrance and scrutinized everyone who entered and exited.

 

It was in this position that he first noticed a familiar figure.  The tall chubby man grinned happily as he loped down the steps toward the street.  Nathan shook his head as he observed Malcolm, perennially cheerful and perpetually rumpled.

 

Malcolm was almost even with Nathan before he noticed him lounging against the tree.

 

“Nathan!” Lansdowne could scarcely believe his eyes.  “What the hell are you doing here?  In London of all places!”  Malcolm grabbed Nathan’s hand and shook it vigorously in greeting

 

“We’ve just arrived in town.  I came in with Bill Noyce who’s been assigned here temporarily.”

 

“I heard that.  Why I was talking to Mrs. Noyce at a function just the other evening…”

 

“Lansdowne!  I heard inside that you had been hanging around annoying people.”  Bill clapped Malcolm on the shoulder and they shared a hearty handshake as well.

 

“This is the only place in town where I can find a decent cup of coffee. All these people drink is tea tea tea.  I wasn’t crazy about the stuff before we threw it in the harbor.  I’m sick to death of it after drinking it for six months.”

 

“Why don’t you ride home with us?  I’m sure that Janet will have sufficiently stocked the cabinet with some of Bill’s favorite beverages as well.”  Nathan offered, causing Bill to give him a strange look.

 

“Of course,” he offered, even though he didn’t know what Nathan was up to.  “Our home is only a few blocks from here.”

 

Malcolm watched with concern as Nathan grabbed his side and winced then slowly swung up into the saddle but after a slight shake of the head from Bill he didn’t say anything further until a groom appeared with his steed and they were all mounted.

 

“The house is about ten minutes ride,” Bill said then gave the address.

 

“I know the area well.  My bachelor’s quarters are not far from there.”  Malcolm told them as he pointed the way.

 

“Just before you came out of the embassy Malcolm was telling me that he had spoken with Janet at a function just the other evening.”

 

“That’s right… Wait, I’m not intruding, am I?” Lansdowne asked, observing the look that came over Bill’s face at the mention of his wife’s name.  “Perhaps you and your wife would like to be alone for your homecoming.”

 

Bill laughed.  “With two children in the house?  You must come have a drink with us.  I insist.”  He finally understood why his friend was so intent on Nathan’s company.  Malcolm would know all of the latest gossip of the ton, possibly including Kristin’s whereabouts.

 

“If you are sure…” A colorful oath erupted as all three men yanked on their reins to avoid an oncoming coach.  By the time they recovered conversation drifted toward traffic in the city.  Nathan didn’t want to be too obvious so he allowed the topic to drop for the time being.

 

Bill was pleased with Janet’s choice of homes, his gaze carefully taking in every detail that he could as the three men stood on the doorstep waiting for someone to answer.  Finally the door swung open to reveal a short plump woman in a uniform.

 

“Can I help you, sirs?” She asked politely, her accent giving away her northern birthplace.

 

“I certainly hope so.  I am Admiral William Noyce.”

 

The woman froze for a moment before she threw up her hands and beamed.  “Oh, sir, the missus is going to be so pleased that you have finally arrived.  Come in, come in.”  She quickly ushered them through the door and into the front parlor.

 

“I’m Beatrice, sir, the housekeeper.”

 

“Well, Beatrice, is my wife at home?  Or my children?”

 

The elderly lady’s face fell.  “No, Admiral, sir.  But I am sure they would have been if they had known that you were coming.  Shall I bring you some tea?”

 

Nathan chuckled at Malcolm’s groan while Bill politely dissuaded the woman.  “We’ve been on the road all night long.  I think that under the circumstances something a bit stronger might be warranted.”

 

“Oh.  The mistress keeps a cabinet for you over in the corner.  I dust it every Tuesday and Friday.  If you had sent word I would have made sure… oh dear, you will need your formal clothes and your things haven’t been pressed.”  Beatrice fluttered out of the room before Bill could ask her what she meant.

 

“I’m sure that she must be efficient or Janet wouldn’t have hired her.” Bill muttered as he turned back to find Nathan had already pulled a bottle of whisky out of the cabinet and was pouring three generous drinks.  “Meanwhile, I need to find out where my wife is!”

 

“I can tell you that,” Malcolm replied once he had downed a good third of his glass with a single gulp.  “Mrs. Noyce is sure to be where she always is; in the company of the beautiful Lady Westphalen.”

 

At the negative shake of Nathan’s head Bill reformed his comment.  “Lady Westphalen… she and Janet are very good friends.  I was glad that the family wouldn’t be completely without friends when they arrived.”

 

“Lady Westphalen has been in need of your wife’s friendship as well.  She has had a difficult few months.”

 

“What do you mean?” Nathan bit out.  If Malcolm was curious about Nathan’s intense interest he didn’t let on.

 

“It all started with being kidnapped by pirates… but then you probably already know about that.”

 

“I’ve heard,” Bill said dryly with an amused glance at Nathan.

 

“Lady Westphalen arrived back in England just in time to stop her mother-in-law from forcing her daughter to wed some milksop pantywaist in an attempt to regain control of the family fortunes.”

 

“But she did succeed?  The marriage didn’t actually take place?” Nathan forced his voice to remain calm.

 

“I can’t imagine Lady Westphalen failing at anything she sets her mind to.  I believe she and the daughter stayed in the country for a few weeks but since they returned to London, the Noyces and the Westphalens have been inseparable, mothers and children.”

 

“But how are you so sure that Janet is with Kristin right now?” Bill asked, knowing that Nathan wanted to.  “And do you know where I could find them?”

 

“I am sure the ladies are together because Lady Westphalen’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Stonevale, are hosting their annual gala tonight.  Both ladies have been deeply involved with the planning, helping the old Duchess out with a lot of trifling details, I’m sure.  By now they are probably getting pampered and primped in preparation for the festivities.  That is why Beatrice is so concerned about your formal clothes.  She knows that you will be expected to attend.”

 

“I don’t even know these people!” Bill exclaimed, not at all excited at the prospect of having to get dressed up.  “Why should I have to get trussed up and attend some damned ball?”

 

Malcolm looked at him skeptically.  “Do you really think that your wife is going to give you a choice?  Any other function you could probably get out of with the ‘first evening home’ excuse, but not this one.  Those two women are much too close.”

 

“I take it that you are invited as well, Malcolm?” This question came from Nathan.

 

“Of course.  I met the countess at a garden party at the embassy and I dare say we have become great friends.  If I am completely honest I have to confess that the lady caught my eye in a more than friendly manner.”

 

“Do tell.” Nathan drawled, his eyes narrowing.

 

“She is really quite a rare beauty.  Skinny giggling maidens have never appealed to me but Lady Westphalen has both a brain and enough curves to make a man such as me take a second look.”

 

“And have you looked again?” Malcolm didn’t notice the ice in Nathan’s voice but Bill did and shifted uneasily.

 

“Several times.  I even thought of making a bid for her hand before… well… before I heard the rumours…”

 

“What rumours would that be?” Bill interjected before Nathan could.

 

“Why the rumour that the countess is increasing.  Your wife doesn’t keep you very well informed, does she?”

 

Malcolm continued to chatter away, oblivious to the stunned look on Nathan’s face as the colour drained from his face. 

 

Bill was also obviously shocked and struggled to find his voice.  “Janet’s letters haven’t caught up with me yet so I hadn’t heard that bit of news.  Where did this gossip start?”

 

“My sources tell me that the original gossip was someone from her dressmaker’s shop.  Her dresses have been very artfully draped the past few months but I suspect the gossips were correct.  The countess returned from her pirate adventure with a tale of having married an American sea captain but so far no husband has shown up.  Wagers are being placed at all of the gentleman’s clubs over whether or not the husband exists and if so, has he deserted her.  Odds are the child isn’t his, after all.  Not after being held on a pirate ship.”

 

The slamming of the door caught both Bill and Malcolm by surprised and they hurriedly glanced around to find Nathan gone.

 

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

 

Somehow Nathan found his way through the house and down into the back garden, finally sinking to a bench as Malcolm’s words kept playing over and over in his mind.

 

‘Increasing… pregnant… Kristin is pregnant with our child… I am going to be a father again…’

 

Suddenly he felt as if he could defeat the world and he leapt to his feet, a resounding shout of happiness escaping his lips.

 

Abruptly he stopped.  ‘I am coming to you my love, right this minute.’  He turned back toward the house, determined to find out where Kristin’s home was from Malcolm.

 

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

 

Bill looked up as Nathan reentered the parlour, a worried look on his face as he listened intently to Malcolm.  He halted Malcolm then moved to Nathan’s side.

 

“You need to talk to him, Nathan… listen to what he has to say.”  Bill murmured.

 

“I need to get to my wife.  Everything else can wait,” Nathan hissed with impatience.

 

“Maybe not.”  Nathan took notice of the firmness in Bill’s tone.  “Listen first.”

 

Nathan’s impatience showed but he did as Bill asked. 

 

“Tell Nathan what you just told me, Malcolm.” Bill ordered.

 

Malcolm shrugged.  “I will but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.  Nathan doesn’t even know the woman, right?  I mean if it were me I would pick me over Frank Thomas but it isn’t me so I don’t really know…”

 

Nathan looked at Bill.  “What the hell is he talking about?  How did that snake Thomas get mixed up in this?”

 

“Start at the beginning, Malcolm.”  Bill said firmly.

 

Malcolm sighed.  “I have it on the best of authority that the Duke of Stonevale will be announcing his daughter’s engagement to Thomas tonight.”

 

“The HELL HE WILL!” Nathan bellowed, enraged at the thought.

 

Malcolm stepped back, confused.  “It’s okay, Nathan.  I was surprised that the countess picked Thomas as well but I guess her child needs a father.”

 

“Has Kristin done anything to encourage a match with Thomas?”

 

Malcolm was so flustered he didn’t notice Nathan’s use of the lady’s first name.  “No.  I’ve seen them together at a few functions but they didn’t attend together.  I actually thought that Lady Westphalen found Thomas a bit repulsive but I guess I was wrong.  If he is willing to give her bastard his name…”

 

Malcolm suddenly found himself staring into hard blue eyes as Nathan grabbed his collar and hauled him close.  “This match was NOT of Kristin’s choosing and it will never happen.”

 

“If… if you say so, Nathan…” Malcolm stuttered.  “But how… how can you be sure?”

 

“Kristin can’t marry Frank Thomas because she is already married to me.  Furthermore, if you ever refer to my child as a bastard again I will beat you senseless then feed you to the sharks.”

 

“Married… your child?  Oh God, Nathan… I never even thought.  She didn’t mention her husband’s name… you are the American captain who rescued her!”

 

Nathan exhaled slowly, his anger abating somewhat as Malcolm groveled before him.  “I am the American captain who rescued her… the very same day that she was taken by the pirate Zellar.  Kristin is my wife and the child that she is carrying is my child, make no mistake about that.”

 

Malcolm suddenly realized what he had been saying earlier about the woman he now knew was his friend’s wife.  “Look, Nathan… about me looking… your wife is beautiful.  If I’d known she was your wife I never would have thought… I didn’t know she was married to you, dammit!  I’m just a crazy American with a crush on your countess.”

 

“But now you do know.”  Nathan’s voice was iron but he released his grip on Malcolm’s clothing.  “Kristin belongs to me.”

 

“And I won’t be looking anymore… but… if Kristin is married to you… why would she accept Thomas’ proposal?”

 

Nathan thought quickly.  “Is it possible that she didn’t?  Is her father the kind of man who would try to force her in to this?  Would he conspire behind her back?”

 

“The Duke’s reputation is that of a fair and honest man.  He adores his family and he would do anything for them.  He was devastated when they thought that Lady Westphalen had been killed.  The thought that he might have stopped the lady from sailing on the vessel… Guilt almost overwhelmed him.  But since she has been back there has been bad blood between them.  Stonevale didn’t protect the daughter from her paternal grandmother’s plotting and he doesn’t believe that you exist.  Father and daughter have barely spoken these last few months.”

 

“But if he doesn’t believe that I exist… Perhaps he is still trying to protect his daughter.  Malcolm, I hope you don’t have any plans for this afternoon because I am going to need your help.”

 

“What about finding Kristin?” Bill asked.

 

“As desperate as I am to see my wife, what Malcolm has told me has convinced me that there are other things that I need to do first.  When I claim my wife no one will be able to dispute our marriage.  Not Thomas, not Stonevale… no one.”

 

“I’ll come too.”  Bill offered but Nathan shook his head. 

 

“You need to remain here just in case Janet comes home.  Let her know that we are here if you must but don’t tell Kristin… not yet.  I have to make sure that nothing is left to chance when I finally claim my bride.”

 

“But what can I do to help you?” Malcolm asked.

 

“I haven’t been to London in years so I need a guide.  That is you.”

 

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

 

“Knock knock…”

 

Kristin turned with a smile on her face at Janet’s voice.  “Come on in,” she called out.

 

The door to Kristin’s bedroom swung open and Janet swept into the room.  “You look wonderful,” she said.  “Madame Dussault really is a fabulous seamstress.”

 

“You look pretty wonderful yourself,” Kristin replied with a smile.

 

“Thank you, milady,” Janet curtsied gracefully before rising and twirling around.  “Are you sure the dress looks all right?”

 

“It looks fine, Janet,” Kristin said.  “And that colour…” her smile grew.  “Red is definitely your colour.”

 

Janet beamed and glanced at herself in the mirror.  Her dress, like Kristin’s was designed with an empire waist although the waistline on Janet’s dress was not quite as high as Kristin’s.  It was a deep red in colour and cut low to reveal a generous amount of cleavage.

 

“I do envy you though,” Janet said.

 

“Whatever for?”

 

“You don’t have to wear a damned corset!”

 

“True… but you don’t have a cannonball under your dress,” Kristin responded with a grin.

 

Janet laughed.  “If I was in your condition… I think Bill would have a heart attack.”

 

Kristin laughed and laid her hands on her gravid stomach then sighed wistfully.  “I can’t wait to see Nathan’s reaction to Junior here.  I hope he will be happy.”

 

Janet stepped over to Kristin and slipped her arm about the younger woman’s shoulders.  “He will be here… and he will be ecstatic about the baby.”

 

“Thank you, Janet,” Kristin replied.

 

At that moment, there was a soft knock on the door, followed by Lizzie poking her head in the room.  “Mrs. Noyce… your daughter needs to see you.”

 

“Thank you, Lizzie,” Janet said then turned to Kristin.  “I’ll be back shortly.”

 

“Okay,” Kristin nodded and turned back to the mirror as her friend left. 

 

“You look quite lovely, milady,” Lizzie told her mistress as she moved further into the room.

 

“Thank you, Lizzie,” Kristin replied then shook her head.  “But something isn’t right.”

 

“Countess?”

 

“Something…” Kristin began slowly as she turned her back to the mirror and looked at her reflection over her shoulder.  “I don’t know… I…” she moved to once again face the mirror, a slight frown on her face.  “It’s the dress.”

 

“What about it?  It looks lovely on you,” Lizzie told her.

 

Kristin shook her head.  “No… it’s… it’s just not feeling right.”

 

“But it was designed especially for your mother’s ball.”

 

“I am aware of that, Lizzie.”

 

“If you don’t wear that dress… what will you wear?  None of your other gowns are suitable for a gathering of such importance.”

 

“Actually…” Kristin turned away and glided over to her dressing room.  She raked her eyes over the garments hanging along the wall until she spotted what she was looking for.  She quickly moved to the item in question and lifted a cloth garment bag off its hook and carried it back into her bedroom.  “I’m going to wear this.”

 

“Milady?”  Lizzie asked and watched as Kristin slowly opened the bag then pulled out one of the loveliest dresses she had ever seen.  “Oh my… that is a beautiful gown.”

 

Kristin smiled as she gazed at the dress.  “Thank you.  I think so too.”

 

“Where… where did you have it made?”

 

“My husband had it made for me on a little island in the Caribbean…” Kristin answered.  “It was my wedding dress.”

 

“You were married in it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I’ll wager you looked exquisite, milady,” Lizzie whispered.

 

Kristin smiled.  “So then… no arguments about my wearing this dress instead?”

 

“No, Countess.  None at all.”

 

“Good.  Then come and help me change.”

 

“Yes, milady.”

 

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

 

Evening was fast approaching by the time that Nathan and Malcolm returned to Bill’s home, tired and dirty from travel but finally done with Nathan’s errands.  They were surprised to find Bill dressed to the nines in a finely tailored black suit.  He simply shrugged at their surprise.

 

“What am I going to do?  If I stand a chance in hell of sharing my wife’s bed tonight I have to do what she wants.”

 

“So Janet has been home?” Nathan asked eagerly.

 

“Unfortunately no.  But Beatrice finally calmed down enough to give me this.”  Bill held up a piece of paper covered with Janet’s elegant handwriting.  “It seems that Janet leaves me a note like this everyday in hopes that I will arrive home to read it.  This one tells about the ball at Kristin’s parents’ home tonight.”

 

Nathan made a move to take the paper but Bill quickly pulled it back. “It also… uh… has some… personal things in it as well.”

 

“Does she mention Kristin?”

 

“Yes… Kristin will be at the party and they are both praying that we arrive.”  Bill gave Nathan a hard look.  “I know my wife and I can read between the lines.  She is worried about tonight… she is worried about Kristin.”

 

Nathan nodded, knowing that Bill was being honest rather than trying to alarm him.  “I’ve taken care of everything.  All that is left is to go claim my wife.”

 

“Janet left an invitation for me… for us.  Beatrice has a bath ready and waiting for you upstairs.  Be sensible, Nathan,” Bill continued at the look Nathan gave him.  “You can’t show up at this party smelling like horse and sweat.  They will throw you out before you cross the threshold.  You need a bath.”

 

“I want to get to my wife!”

 

“And your wife will appreciate more than anyone the fact that you have bathed.  Especially once you manage to get her alone.”  Nathan grinned at Bill’s pointed look.

 

“Okay.  I will take time to bathe,” Nathan held out his hands and looked down his body at the travel-stained clothes he wore.  “There isn’t time to wash these out though.”

 

“They are hardly appropriate for a grand ball anyway.” Malcolm interjected.  “Perhaps I have something that you could wear…”

 

“You have two stones on me, Malcolm, but thank you anyway.”

 

“We can belt the trousers and find a waistcoat to cover it.  Have Beatrice put a high polish on your boots and you might get by with them.  I’ll head back to my rooms and prepare then stop back with the clothes.”

 

“You intend to go to the ball with us?” Nathan asked.

 

Malcolm raised a quizzical eyebrow at his friend.  “Do you honestly think that I would miss this?  This ball is going to be the talk of the town for weeks and I intend to have a ringside seat!”

 

After a quick drink Nathan and Bill walked Malcolm to his horse and saw him off then turned back toward the house. 

 

“What didn’t you want to tell me in front of Lansdowne?” Nathan asked Bill as they walked.

 

Bill chuckled.  “You know me too well, my friend.  Janet said that time was of the essence and that if we arrived we needed to find them without delay.”

 

“Thus the rumor is confirmed.”  Nathan’s lips split into a wide grin.  “If Kristin’s condition is in danger of becoming obvious then she must have conceived soon after we came together for the first time.”

 

“That is more information than I needed to know, my friend.  Now, we really must find you some formalwear.  I wonder if Will has anything that you could wear.  The length might be a problem but the girth would be right…”

 

Neither man was paying any attention to the street sounds behind them but the loud ‘Whoa’ that echoed across the lawn caused them to stop and stare at the carriage halting just in front of the Noyce home.  Bill shrugged at Nathan’s inquiring glance and they moved down the path, reaching the coach just as the door swung open.

 

“Well it’s about time.  I thought we’d never get here.”  Bess announced as she stuck her head out of the door and looked around.  “Don’t just stand there gaping, boy.  Help an old woman down.”

 

“How?” Nathan asked as he did as ordered.  “How did you get here so fast?”

 

“We left in the wee hours of the morning and Mrs. Young… encouraged… the coach driver relentlessly.”  Lieutenant Peacock, Bill’s first mate, followed Bess from the vehicle.

 

“You were bad to leave without telling us.” Bess berated Nathan.  “We followed as soon as we found out.  I know that you are in a hurry to get to that lady of yours but you have to look nice when you meet her folks.”

 

“Bess, did you bring my trunks with you?”  Nathan leaned forward and grabbed the woman’s forearms.

 

“Of course I did.  How you gonna look nice without no fancy clothes to wear?”

 

Nathan gave a little jump for joy.  “Clothing problem solved.” He told Bill, who was shaking hands with Raleigh.

 

“Peacock, would you mind seeing that the trunks are unloaded and brought in?  We have a function to attend and the captain needs to begin to get ready.”

 

Nathan offered Bess his arm and escorted her into the house, Bill and Raleigh close behind.  Once they reached the parlor Bill waved him away. 

 

“I’ll see them settled and have Beatrice brush down some clothes from your trunk.  You go get ready.”

 

“And shave that stubble off your face,” Bess told him.

 

“Yes, ma’am!”  Nathan laughed, finally feeling that everything was falling into place.  “I’m going… but before I do I want to tell Bess and Raleigh the news.”  He turned to the old couple.  “I haven’t seen Kristin yet to confirm it but rumor has it that she is increasing.  I am going to be a father again!”

 

Bess just harrumphed.  “Is that all?  I knew that before she ever sailed away from the island.”

 

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

 

A rap on the door and a soft call of her name pulled Kristin from her inspection of herself in the mirror.  “Come in.”

 

“Kristin… Lizzie said you wanted… you changed your dress!”

 

Kristin nodded.

 

“Why?  The other dress looked wonderful on you.”

 

“I…” Kristin shrugged.  “I had this sudden need to feel closer to Nathan.  I can’t explain it.”

 

Janet smiled at her.  “And you don’t have to,” she said as she moved to Kristin’s side.  “This dress still looks stunning on you…”

 

“Even with Junior doing his best to make his presence well known?”

 

“Even then,” Janet laughed.  “So… are you planning on wearing the necklace and earrings as well?”

 

“I was considering it.  You don’t think it would be too much?”

 

“Not at all,” Janet replied.

 

Kristin smiled and moved over to her dresser, opened the top drawer and removed the large flat jeweler’s box that held her necklace and earrings.  She laid the box on the top of the dresser and slowly opened it.

 

“I still can’t believe he gave this to me,” Kristin said in a soft voice.  “It’s… it’s such an extravagant gift…”

 

“And it’s probably the first of many gifts Nathan will shower you with,” Janet told her.

 

“The second.”

 

“The second?”

 

Kristin lifted the necklace from the box then turned to face Janet.  “Yes… the second.”

 

“What was the first?”

 

Kristin smiled and laid her free hand on her stomach.  “Baby Bridger.”

 

Janet laughed softly.  “Here,” she stepped over to Kristin and held her hand out for the necklace,  “let me help you.”

 

Kristin handed Janet the necklace then turned so that Janet could slip it on and secure it.

 

“And don’t forget these,” Janet said as she reached into the box then held up the earrings.

 

“Am I the only one feeling a sense of deja-vous?”  Kristin asked with a laugh as she slipped the earrings on.

 

“Nope,” Janet laughed.

 

“Well?”  Kristin held out her arms and slowly turned.  “How do I look?”

 

“You look wonderful,” Janet said.  “Although that dress doesn’t quite hide Junior as effectively as the other one.”

 

“Yes, I know… but I would much rather wear this one.”

 

“Otherwise, you look beautiful.  I just wouldn’t bend over… or you’re liable to fall out of your top.”

 

Kristin giggled as she glanced down at her chest.  “I’d have to be able to bend over for that to happen.”

 

Janet laughed.  “Are you going to be warm enough?”  She asked once her laughter died away.  “That dress isn’t exactly designed for England in the fall.”

 

“I’ve got a wrap,” Kristin told her.  “I will be fine.”

 

“From the chill…” Janet began.  “But what are you going to do about Frank Thomas?”

 

Kristin sighed.  “I… I don’t know.  All I do know is that I am going to try to avoid him, or at least being alone with him as much as possible.  Something tells me, that whatever that man has been planning the last week and a half is going to come to a head tonight.”

 

“You mean with his proposal?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“You don’t really think your father is in on Thomas’ plan do you?”

 

“No… not really,” Kristin replied.  “But he is involved in some way, and I intend to find out tonight then put a stop to it.”

 

“Good for you.  Then what?”

 

“Then… as much as I really don’t want to, I think I really will move out to the country house.  I would actually prefer my home in Cornwall… but the country will do until Junior here is born,” Kristin answered as she smoothed her hands over her belly.

 

“And hope that Nathan is able to find you,” Janet said.

 

“He’ll find me.  I’ll leave a note with the American Embassy…” Kristin told her,  “telling him how to get to the house.”

 

“So, you have really been thinking about this.”

 

“Yes, I have.”

 

Janet smiled.  “Well… if you’re determined to go ahead with it, I will be here to help you with any packing… or whatever other assistance you may require.”

 

“Thank you, Janet,” Kristin smiled at her then reached out to embrace her friend.  “I don’t know how I would have gotten through the last few months if I hadn’t found you here.”

 

“You’re welcome, Kristin,” Janet returned the embrace.  “I will always be here for you.”

 

“Thank God.”

 

“Just one question…” Janet said as she moved out of the hug.

 

“What is that?”

 

“What about Cynthia and Will?  You know it is going to devastate them to be parted now.”

 

“Yes… I know…” Kristin nodded.  “And I can think of only one solution.”

 

“And what is that?”

 

“You, Clarissa and William will just have to come stay at the house with us,” Kristin told her.

 

“Stay with you?  Are you sure?”

 

“Of course I am.”

 

Janet looked thoughtful.  “I suppose it could… I could leave a note at the house for Bill… and keep the servants on salary…”

 

“See…  you could do it,” Kristin said with a triumphant smile.  “And while we’re there we can start to plan our children’s wedding.”

 

Janet grinned.  “Well then, who am I to argue with the Countess of Kilhairn?”

 

“You’ll come?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Kristin beamed but was prevented from saying anything further by a hard knock at her door.  “Yes?”

 

“Mama?”

 

“You may come in, Lucas,” Kristin called out.

 

The door opened and Lucas slowly stepped into the room.

 

“My, don’t you look handsome!”  Kristin smiled at him.

 

“Do I really?”  Lucas asked as he glanced down at the suit he wore.  “I don’t look like a ninny?”

 

Janet and Kristin exchanged amused glances.  “No,” Kristin answered.  “You don’t look like a ninny.”

 

“You look quite dapper,” Janet told him.

 

“Thank you, Aunt Janet,” Lucas grinned at her then turned to his mother.  “Mama… I was sent up to tell you that everyone is ready and waiting.”

 

“Very well…” Kristin nodded.  “Tell them I will be down in another moment or two.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Lucas replied as he turned to leave the room.  He paused and looked back at her.  “Oh, Mama?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“You look very beautiful.”

 

Kristin smiled.  “Thank you, Lucas.”

 

“And you look very pretty also, Aunt Janet,” Lucas hurriedly added then left.

 

Janet chuckled.  “He is going to be quite a catch when he gets older.”

 

“I don’t think he wants to be caught by anyone other than your daughter.”

 

“She doesn’t show it… but I think Claire feels the same way,” Janet responded with a smile.  “Sometimes, it is hard to tell what is going through my sixteen year old’s head.”

 

Kristin laughed.  “I remember that age.”

 

Janet nodded and sighed wistfully.  “So do I… but I can honestly say that I have no wish to go back to it.”

 

“Me either.”

 

The two women smiled. 

 

“Well, I guess we should be going,” Kristin said.  “The guests will be arriving soon… and I would like to be there in case there are any last minute things mother needs done.”

 

“And I want to be in the prime spot to catch the look on Lexie’s face when she learns who you really are!”

 

“Oh yes,” Kristin laughed softly.  “We can’t forget the she-devil and her mate… and their evil offspring.”

 

“Lexie is going to asphyxiate!”  Janet crowed with laughter as they made their way down the hall towards the stairs.  “It will make a nice change from all the hot air she’s usually spouting.”

 

“Janet!”

 

“It’s the truth and you know it, so don’t go acting all shocked.”

 

Kristin laughed.  “I know… and I can’t wait to see the witch speechless either.”

 

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

 

“How do I look, Mother?”

 

Lexie looked up from her vanity mirror to see Wendy standing in the doorway, modeling her gown of burnt orange.  She wrinkled her nose slightly at the color and cut of the dress but the dressmaker had assured them that the gown was the height of style.  Her own gown of puce had been chosen for the same reason.

 

“You look lovely, dear.  I am sure that you will attract the attentions of many young men this evening.  I heard from Mrs. Adams at the embassy today that the king himself might even attend.”

 

“Shouldn’t we be making ready to leave?  The invitation says that the fete starts at eight and it is almost that now.”  Wendy queried as Alexandra turned back to her mirror.

 

“Nonsense, Wendy.  I have it on the best authority that no one of any importance will arrive before nine.  We will be fashionably late along with the gentry.  You may tell your father to send word to have the carriage brought around by half past.  With the crush of arrivals it should take us another half hour to arrive at the Stonevale’s manse.”

 

“I only wish… wouldn’t it be wonderful if Nathan were there.  Perhaps he would see me and realize…”

 

“Oh, do go away!  You are ruining my hair!” Lexie snapped at her maid as she turned on the bench.  The girl scurried from the room  “Nathan Bridger is not good enough for you, Gwendolyn… not after his deplorable lack of judgment in associating with that trollop.  Explore your options this evening.  You might attract the attention of a viscount or a baron.”

 

Wendy nodded.  “I’ll try, Mother.”

 

“Do more than try, but remember your manners.  You can sometimes be more forward than English men are used to.  You must be demure.”

 

“I’d rather be myself and have an American man… I’d rather have Nathan.”

 

Alexandra sighed.  “He is a very attractive man… those wonderful blue eyes… and such long, flexible fingers…” She shook herself out of her reverie.  “If Nathan has come to his senses about the strumpet when we get home there may yet be a chance for you.  Now go and do as I said.”

 

With a final nod Wendy departed, leaving her mother alone with her fantasies of the man they both desired.

 

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

 

“Thank you,” Kristin murmured to the young maid as the girl carefully took her wrap and carried it carefully into the coat closet.  “Has anyone arrived yet?”

 

“No, ma’am.” The girl’s muffled voice emerged.  “But her ladyship is expecting them soon.  She is waiting for you in the parlor with the duke.”

 

Janet giggled at the look that flashed on Kristin’s face.  “I suppose that we should go in.”

 

Lucas moved up quickly to stand at his mother’s side.  “I won’t let your father hurt you, Mama.”

 

Kristin patted his arm then laced hers through it.  “I know, my darling son.  I am just anxious to get this night over and done with.”  She glanced back at Cynthia and Will; both children rewarding her with a smile.  “Once this is done we can begin to plan a much more important function.”

 

Millicent quickly moved to embrace her daughter when the small group entered the room.  “You look lovely, my dear.  That dress is stunning on you.  The color is gorgeous.  And don’t all of you look fine.” She moved through the small group, hugging each member individually.  “Cynthia, you will be the toast of my party.  And you young lady,” Millicent turned to Clarissa, gowned in a beautiful sheath of white, “you will set all our young male guests to fighting for the right to lead you in to supper.”

 

“I have already claimed that honor, grandmother.” Lucas asserted immediately, leaving Kristin’s side to move to Clarissa’s.

 

“Hello, Father.” Kristin announced boldly as her father stood across the room staring at her. 

 

“Krissy… tin.” He slowly moved toward her.  “Your mother is right.  You do look stunning this evening.”

 

Kristin smiled at the compliment but her smile faded as her father continued, his gaze boring into her stomach.  “But your choice of dress… of course I guess that your condition can’t be hidden by clothing much longer anyway.”

 

“I thought that my dress hid my condition rather nicely.”  Kristin’s tone was immediately defensive.

 

“The dress is beautiful and doesn’t reveal anything.” Millicent slid her arm through her husband’s.  “The cut is very flattering.  Tonight the two of you must put aside your differences and have a wonderful time, for my sake.  I insist.”

 

“If it is any consolation to you, Father, once this evening is over I intend to retire to the country for the next few months.”

 

Lionel looked particularly pleased at this news.  “I think that is an excellent idea.  You need rest, not the stress and strain of the ton’s prying eyes.”

 

A smart retort rose to Kristin’s lips but she left the words unsaid out of respect for her mother.  “Thankfully Janet has accepted my invitation to join the children and I.”

 

“Until your husband arrives?” Lionel’s eyes narrowed.

 

“Until my husband arrives,” Janet agreed pleasantly.  “And when Bill arrives Nathan will be with him.” She couldn’t resist adding, knowing that the duke would never be unmannerly enough to rebuke a guest in his home.

 

Silence greeted Janet’s last statement but within seconds the sound of voices in the foyer filtered through the room and the assembled company exited to mingle with the newly arriving guests.

 

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

 

“Stand up straight, Lucas.”

 

Lucas groaned softly.

 

“Girls don’t like boys who slouch… it’s unattractive.”

 

“Yes, Mama,” Lucas said and straightened up.

 

“That’s better,” Kristin smiled at him.  “Just a little bit longer and then you can go find some more food.”

 

Lucas beamed at her.  “Thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome,” Kristin said then looked up at her son.  “If it helps… I’m bored too.”

 

Lucas chuckled.  “It helps.”

 

“I don’t see the terrible twosome anywhere,” Janet said as she looked around the room.

 

“It is early yet.  I am sure that Lexie would rather make a grand entrance.  It wouldn’t do for the Smiths to show up too early with the rest of the hoi polloi.”

 

Janet and Lucas watched as Kristin stepped closer to a bower of ferns then, realizing that she needed cover, moved in to block her from the other guest’s view.

 

“Are you all right, Mama?” Lucas asked as Kristin rubbed her hands over her belly.

 

“I am fine, my son.  Your baby brother is just being very active tonight.  I think that he is trying to do the waltz in there.”

 

Lucas laughed at the thought.  “Perhaps he will like to dance more than I do.”

 

“Speaking of dancing…” Kristin dropped her hands and smoothed her dress then stepped back into view, “why don’t you go practice your skills?  You have yet to dance with Clarissa.”

 

A pout crossed Lucas’ features as he dropped his head and kicked at the polished marble floor of the ballroom.  “She has all of those older men asking her for dances.  She probably doesn’t have time for me.”

 

Janet and Kristin shared a small smile.  “You won’t know until you ask her.  Go on.” Kristin encouraged gently.

 

Finally Lucas nodded and raised his head to search the floor for Clarissa.  Once he spotted her he gave his mother a quick peck on the cheek then went to ask for a dance.

 

“We may have trouble with those two.” Janet observed as she watched the interaction between the children with interest.

 

“We must be on guard against letting our children’s ups and downs interfere with our friendship.  They are so young.  Their minds may change many times before they are old enough to settle down.”

 

“Agreed… Kristin?  What is wrong?”  Janet didn’t like the look on her friend’s face.

 

“That MAN!” Kristin bit out.  “He’s there… watching me again.  Why can’t he leave me alone?”

 

“Frank Thomas is an opportunist.” Janet said quietly.  “He sees an opportunity with you.  He wants you and he wants the prestige that your name and money could buy him.  Under normal circumstances he would never have a chance but in his eyes your condition makes his pursuit not only possible but also welcome.  I’ve only met the man a few times before but I’ve never cared for him.”

 

“I just wish…”

 

Janet laid a comforting arm around Kristin’s shoulders.  “Nathan will be here soon.”

 

“He will be.” Kristin agreed.  “I dreamt of Nathan last night, as always.  But this time there was a sense of nearness that hasn’t been there before.  He is coming to me, I know.”

 

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

 

“Oh no…” Cynthia murmured to Will at the tapping she could hear getting closer.

 

“Cynthia… may I have a word with you?”

 

Cynthia turned at the sound of her grandmother’s voice, prepared to do battle with the older woman but something in Lavinia’s demeanour stopped her.  She nodded then looked to Will.  “I will be right back.”

 

William nodded.

 

“Grandmother…” Cynthia gestured to the woman to lead the way then followed as Lavinia walked away.

 

“So, what did you want to talk about?”  Cynthia asked as she shut the library door behind her.

 

“If I ask you a question, will you answer me honestly?”  Lavinia asked instead of answering.

 

Cynthia gave her grandmother a curious look then slowly nodded.

 

“Are you in love with that young man?  That Noyce boy?”

 

“Yes, I am,” Cynthia answered immediately, a large smile on her face.  “I love William very much.”

 

Lavinia nodded thoughtfully then spoke.  “And you are planning on marrying him, are you not?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Even if it is against my wishes?”

 

Cynthia clenched her fists at her sides, unwilling to get into a heated debate with the dowager.  She nodded as she answered.  “Even then.  I love him, Grandmother… and I would like to spend the rest of my life with him.  I’m sorry if this news upsets you, that is not my intention, but I have to follow my heart.”

 

Lavinia regarded Cynthia for several long moments then nodded as a slow smile formed on her face.  “Good.  That is what I wanted to hear?”

 

“What?!”  Cynthia shook her head, confusion evident on her face.  “You’re… you’re giving me your blessing?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Forgive me… but why the change of heart?”  Cynthia asked skeptically.

 

Lavinia gave her granddaughter a wry smile.  “Your mother said something to me the other day… something that’s caused me to stop and do some soul-searching,” she paused to take a deep breath.  “I was in love once.”

 

“Grandfather?”

 

Lavinia shook her head.  “No… before your grandfather.”

 

Cynthia’s eyes widened but she made no comment as her grandmother turned to look out the library window then continued.  “His name was Simon…” she began, and Cynthia could hear the affection in her voice.  “He was young, and beautiful… and he was nothing more than the son of the local blacksmith, but I fell very deeply in love with him, and he with me.”

 

“What happened?”  Cynthia asked in a quiet voice.

 

“Simon asked me to marry him and I accepted.  It did not matter to me that he wasn’t part of the peerage… he was the man I loved,” Lavinia continued.  “When we told my father…” the older woman shuddered,  “he was very upset.  He swore the marriage would never take place and forbade me from seeing Simon ever again.”

 

“You didn’t listen…”

 

Lavinia chuckled softly then looked back at her.  “No.  I didn’t.  You don’t get all your stubbornness just from your mother.”

 

Cynthia smiled.

 

“Simon and I began to see each other on the sly… I’d sneak away whenever I could.  We would talk and make plans to run away together… then one night… we got caught,” Lavinia sighed and turned back to the window.  “My father was furious.  I don’t ever remember seeing him so angry… Simon… my poor, sweet Simon… he… he was beaten very badly by my brothers… he…”

 

“He didn’t die, did he?”  Cynthia asked fearfully, her heart aching for her grandmother.

 

“No.  No, he didn’t,” Lavinia quickly answered.  “He survived… I don’t know how, as they beat him within an inch of his life, but he was sent away.  Sent away and told never to return.  Simon protested… tried to challenge my father for the right to seek my hand, but he was silenced and removed from my presence but not from my heart… I never saw him again.”

 

“Oh, Grandmother…”

 

“Three months after he was sent away… I discovered that I was pregnant…”

 

“You mean you… you…”

 

Lavinia turned around again and nodded.  “Yes.”

 

“Then that means… that my father…”

 

“No,” Lavinia shook her head.  “When my father discovered I was pregnant, he immediately married me off to your grandfather…” her voice trailed off.  “I lost my baby in my sixth month… and no one but myself and my parents ever knew that that little girl wasn’t a true Carruthers.”

 

“Oh, Grandmother…”

 

“And after that… I locked my heart away and buried myself in my duties,” the dowager told her.  “I became the proper countess everyone expected me to be.  I ran the house, attended all the appropriate social functions… and provided the needed heir.”  Lavinia stopped and smiled.  “You father was the only bright spot in my life… but even that was taken away from me bit by bit…”

 

“Is that why you’ve been so hard on mother?”

 

“Yes, that is part of it…” Lavinia admitted.  “And I also see in your mother… the woman my little Annabelle could have grown into.  I guess I was afraid to get close to your mother for fear that I would lose her the way that I lost so many others in my life.”

 

A sad smile formed on Cynthia’s face.

 

“That is also part of the reason I have been so hard on you… and insistent that you get married,” Lavinia said.

 

“I thought that was because you wanted control over the Kilhairn estates,” Cynthia replied bluntly.

 

“That too,” Lavinia nodded.  “But only so that I could protect you… that is all I’ve ever really wanted.  And I realize now… that I have not been going about that the right way,” she said and walked over to Cynthia then reached out to grasp her hands.  “So, I am going to ask you another question, but I do not want you to get upset…”

 

“All right…”

 

“Are you certain your young man wants to marry you because he loves you, or because of who and what you are?”

 

“Because he loves me,” Cynthia answered.  “Will has already stated that before we marry, he will sign legal documents that insure my inheritance stays in my name and in my control.”

 

Lavinia smiled and squeezed Cynthia’s hands.  “And I will make sure he does no such thing.”

 

Cynthia gave her grandmother a confused look.  “What?”

 

“The fact that he is willing to do that tells me he is marrying you because he truly does love you…” Lavinia told her.  “My Simon did the same…”

 

“You really have had a change of heart, haven’t you?”  Cynthia asked.

 

“No… I just let my heart out of the box I’ve kept it locked in all these years,” Lavinia answered.  “You are a beautiful, smart, young woman… I am sorry it has taken me so long to see that.”

 

Cynthia smiled.

 

“I do love you, Cynthia.  I always have…” Lavinia told her.  “I’ve just… never been very good at showing you or telling you, but I promise to try harder…”

 

“I love you too, Grandmother…” Cynthia embraced her.

 

Lavinia returned Cynthia’s hug then pulled back.  “Now… to the other reason I wished to speak with you.”

 

“Yes?”

 

“That odious General… Thomas…” Lavinia began.  “He approached me at Baroness Wakefield’s musicale…” she watched Cynthia’s eyes narrow.  “He told me that he and your mother were engaged to be married…”

 

“What!?  That is not true!”

 

“I know,” Lavinia nodded.  “Your mother has better taste than that…”

 

“And is already married.”

 

“There is that too,” Lavinia agreed.  “However, I don’t think Stonevale believes your mother.”

 

“No, he doesn’t.”  Cynthia said sadly.

 

“He told me that your grandfather was going to announce their engagement tonight…”

 

“Over my dead body!”  Cynthia said vehemently then moved out of her grandmother’s arms and walked towards the door.  “I have to tell mother…” she stopped as the last few weeks and her mother’s behaviour began to make sense.  “She knows!”

 

“What do you mean she knows?”

 

“I don’t know how… maybe Thomas approached her… but mother knows!”  Cynthia answered.  “She’s been… off the last little bit… and I will wager that is why.”

 

“Do you think she knows that Stonevale and Thomas are planning for this to happen tonight?”

 

“No.  I don’t think she does.  She wouldn’t have attended.”

 

“Then I suggest that you find her… or find your grandfather…”

 

“Grandfather!  That is a good idea… he needs to stopped…” Cynthia said then hurried back over to Lavinia and quickly embraced her and pressed a quick kiss to her weathered cheek.  “Thank you, Grandmother.”

 

“You’re welcome, child…” Lavinia replied.  “Now go…”

 

Cynthia nodded and quickly left the room.

 

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

 

“Frank!  Are you enjoying yourself?”  Lionel Westphalen asked the balding general as he approached.

 

Thomas nodded absently.  “Yes I am.  Your wife throws quite a party,” he gestured around the large room with his cup.

 

Westphalen beamed with obvious pride.  “She does indeed,” he agreed then proceeded to introduce Thomas to the two men he was conversing with.

 

“Pleased to meet you,” Thomas smiled at the men then turned to Westphalen.  “I do hate to interrupt… but could I steal a moment or two of your time?”

 

Lionel nodded.  “If you gentlemen will excuse me.  Frank…” he gestured for the general to follow him and left the ballroom.  Moments later, they entered Westphalen’s study.  “So… what is it you wanted to speak to me about?”

 

“My engagement to your daughter,” Thomas said as he took a sip of the punch in his hand.  He frowned.  “Do you have anything stronger?  Nothing against your wife… but punch is not much of a man’s drink.”

 

Lionel laughed and gestured to the cabinet against the wall.  “Help yourself.”

 

“Thank you,” Thomas replied and moved across the room.  “So, when are you planning on announcing the engagement?”

 

Westphalen looked thoughtful as the other man turned around to face him.

 

“You haven’t changed your mind have you?”

 

“No.  My daughter needs a husband,” Lionel said.  “It’s just… she’s still so adamant that she is married…”

 

“But we both know that is just a fantasy she created to cover the… shame of what happened to her at the hands of those brigands,” Thomas said then moved to stand nearer to the older man.  “I know you feel torn… but you have to think of Kristin… of everything she’s gone through and everything she will go through if she doesn’t marry.  The stigma that will follow her…”

 

“You’re right…” Lionel sighed; knowing that everything Thomas said was true.  “I didn’t protect her as well as I should have then… but by God, I am going to do so now.”  He straightened up and turned to Thomas.  “I will announce the engagement in an hour.”

 

Thomas nodded and smiled.  “Very good,” he said then tossed back the shot of whiskey.  “Well then, I think I will go claim my intended for a few dances.”

 

“I will be along momentarily.”

 

Thomas returned the now empty glass to the cabinet then left the room.

 

Lionel slouched back against his desk and brought his fingers up to pinch the bridge of his nose.

 

“How could you?”

 

Westphalen looked up to see his granddaughter standing in the doorway of his study, her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face.  “This does not concern you, child,” Lionel said in a dismissive tone.

 

“Why?  Why are you doing this, Grandfather?”  Cynthia asked him.

 

“I don’t expect you to understand… but I am doing what I must to protect your mother…”

 

“You should be protecting her from that snake, Thomas!” Cynthia said vehemently.

 

“General Thomas is a good, decent man,” Westphalen said.  “He’s graciously stepped forward and offered to marry your mother… even in her present condition.  Your mother knows this or she wouldn’t have even consented to consider Thomas’ proposal.”

 

Cynthia laughed softly.

 

“What is so funny?”

 

“You haven’t been to the luncheons… you haven’t seen the way that man makes mother’s skin crawl?  That she tries to avoid having anything to do with him.”

 

“Your mother is just being… cautious.  Trying not to further fan the flames of scandal.”

 

“That’s all you really care about, isn’t it?”  Cynthia asked as she stepped further into the room.  “What society thinks?  Have you stopped to think about how what you’re doing… how your not believing mother is hurting her?”

 

Lionel opened his mouth to speak but Cynthia continued.

 

“And that… that odious man is playing on your guilt… on your sense of duty,” Cynthia told him.  “He knows how terribly upset you were when mother was taken…”

 

“Everyone knows how upset I was when your mother was taken,” Lionel said.  “And why wouldn’t I have been,” he shook his head.  “I should have forbade her to go; then none of this would have happened!”

 

“Forbade?!  I believe you lost the right to order mother around the day she married my father,” Cynthia said then stepped closer and laid her hand on Westphalen’s arm.  She continued in a softer voice.  “Grandfather… I know you love mother and you’re only doing what you think is best for her, but you haven’t stopped to really listen to her.  If you had, you would see that she is telling you the truth about her marriage… and you would see that General Thomas is a lying, deceitful man who is more interested in getting his hands on my inheritance and bedding my mother than he is about doing the honourable thing.”

 

Lionel Westphalen stared open-mouthed at his granddaughter as she continued to berate him.

 

“I suggest, Grandfather,” Cynthia said as she placed a quick kiss on his cheek,  “that before you make your announcement, you take a moment to think about everything that has happened since mother came home.  Think about what you’ve seen and heard and done… think with your heart and don’t worry about what society will think.  After all…” she stood straighter and gave off an aristocratic air as she continued in a sarcastic voice,  “we are the peerage.  We are who dictates to society.”

 

With that, she turned and left the study, leaving a thoughtful looking Lionel behind.

 

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

 

Sounds of a waltz drifted through the house and out onto the street as Wendell carefully handed his wife and daughter out of the hired carriage.  The women’s eyes grew wide at the sight of the mansion, every window blazing with light.

 

“Very impressive, isn’t it?” Wendell saw the amazement in his wife’s face.

 

“The house is quite nice, I suppose,” Lexie replied haughtily, unwilling to give her husband even this small concession.  “Our home would be just as lovely with all of those candles.”

 

Wendell had visited several elegant homes in connection with his business and he knew that there was no comparison between them and their island home but he didn’t reply.  Lexie would get her comeuppance soon enough.  He offered an arm to each lady and led them up the walkway.

 

An elegantly clad footman opened the door and a pretty little maid took their coats then pointed them in the direction of the ballroom.  Wendell managed not to laugh at the look of awe on both women’s faces but as soon as they were safely in the room and visiting with the American ambassador’s wife he offered his excuses and made for the card room.

 

“The party looks to be quite a crush.  The duchess will be so thrilled.” Catherine Adams observed as the women watched the beautifully dressed couples twirl across the ballroom floor.

 

“I am sure that she will be.  Why, she was saying to me just the other day that she hoped to have even greater success than last year.” Alexandra observed.

 

Catherine Adams knew that the Smiths had never even seen the Duke and Duchess of Stonevale much less spoken to them.  They were here only on the kindness of Janet Noyce, as were she and her husband.  But years of being in diplomatic circles had taught her the art as well.

 

“Then she will be well pleased.”

 

“I just wish we could see better.” Wendy was craning her neck trying to see all of the couples on the dance floor.

 

“Actually there is a set of stairs leading to the small balcony just up there.”  Catherine Adams pointed out the steps that Janet Noyce had shown her earlier.  “If you would like to go up for a short while you could see things much better.”

 

“Perhaps for a short while,” Lexie said, unwilling to admit that she was just as eager as her daughter to observe the assembled company.  “We shall return in a few minutes.”

 

Catherine Adams breathed a sigh of relief as she watched mother and daughter wrestle with their gowns as they climbed the narrow steps. The less time that she had to spend in the company of the Smiths the better.

 

Lexie gripped Wendy’s arm and pulled her back over the railing when her daughter leaned out too far.

 

“Don’t appear to eager, dear.  Simply smile and try to look slightly bored as you watch.”

 

Wendy tried, but she was used to barging forward, announcing and getting what she wanted, so she hadn’t yet mastered the art.  Rather than looking bored, she looked as if she had eaten bad shellfish.  Her façade slipped further when she spied one particular couple on the dance floor; a distinguished looking elderly gentleman and a mature woman dressed in blue.

 

“Mother…” Wendy’s hand involuntarily slapped at Lexie’s arm.  “Look!  There…” Wendy pointed.  “Isn’t that…”

 

Lexie easily picked out the couple Wendy had already seen; the woman dressed in blue looking almost exactly as she had the last time they had seen her… on her wedding day.

 

“The Westphalen strumpet…” Lexie breathed as she leaned out to get a better look.  “It is her!”

 

“What would she be doing here?  And where is Nathan?”

 

The couple continued to twirl around the dance floor deep in conversation as Lexie watched them thoughtfully.  “Nathan would never have let his wife travel here alone… He must have realized her true nature… He has cut her loose, Wendy!  Nathan must have sent her away and she has come back here to find a new protector… probably that older gentleman that she is dancing with.”

 

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

 

“Cynthia!  Cyn… wait!”  William called after his fiancée as she strode past him, a scowl on her face.  He chased after her and caught her before she could leave the hall.  He glanced around and spotting a closed door, William gently pulled her over and ushered Cynthia into what he hoped what an empty room.

 

“Oh god, Will,” Cynthia exclaimed as she threw herself into his arms.

 

Will wrapped his arms around her, surprised to find her trembling against him.  “What is it, Cyn?”  He slipped a hand under her chin and forced her face up to look at him.  “Talk to me, darling.  What happened in your grandfather’s study to upset you so badly?”

 

“I overheard them Will… I know what they’re planning…”

 

“Who?”

 

“My grandfather and General Thomas,” Cynthia answered with a frown.

 

“And what are they planning?”

 

“Somehow, Thomas has convinced grandfather that mother has agreed to marry him,” Cynthia began,  “and tonight… in just under an hour, grandfather is going to announce their engagement.”

 

“We have to warn your mother,” William said.

 

“We do…”

 

“What else happened?”  William asked.

 

“How do you…”

 

“You’re still trembling,” he answered as he pulled her closer.

 

“I confronted grandfather…”

 

“You what?”

 

“I confronted my grandfather,” Cynthia repeated then told William what she’d told her grandfather.

 

“I am so proud of you,” William smiled at her then leaned down to brush a quick kiss over her lips.

 

“Thank you,” Cynthia felt her face flush slightly at Will’s praise.  “We need to go tell mummy…” she said and moved to pull out of his arms.

 

“We’re not going anywhere just yet,” William told her as he tightened his arms around her.

 

“But Will…”

 

“You need to calm down first,” William said as he locked the door then led her over to the small settee under the window.  He sank onto the couch and pulled Cynthia down so that she was seated across his lap.  “And I need to hold you…”

 

Cynthia smiled at him and snuggled into his arms.  “Mmm… how do you always seem to know what I need?”

 

Will grinned at her.  “Because I love you…”

 

“I love you too,” Cynthia replied and brushed a gentle kiss to his lips then laid her head on his shoulder.  “We can only stay in here for a few moments.  Mummy needs to know…”

 

“Only for a few moments,” William agreed.

 

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

 

The waltz was drawing to a close when Lionel finally garnered the courage to actually speak to his daughter, knowing that she had only consented to dance with him out of duty.

 

“Krissy…tin, I don’t like these bad feelings between us.  Can’t you believe that I am only trying to protect you… to do what is best for you?”

 

“I understand that, Father,” Kristin answered as they twirled around the dance floor.  “But in this case I don’t need your protection.”

 

“You want your child to be born a bastard?  You’d insist on keeping the babe without a name to give him?”

 

“My child has a name and a father.  I don’t understand why you can’t believe me.  Have I ever lied to you?  Have I ever given you any cause to doubt my word?”

 

“No… never before… but after what must have happened to you…” Lionel was clearly torn, his granddaughter’s words ringing in his ears.

 

“Nothing happened to me that I didn’t want, Father.”  Kristin knew that her words were hard for her father to hear but they needed to be said.

 

Lionel debated his next words carefully.  “I overheard the children speaking in the garden the other day.  This man that you married… he isn’t coming back, is he?  He’s been killed.”

 

Kristin’s eyes grew wide and her step faltered momentarily as she stared at her father.  “No… Nathan is not dead!”

 

“But you don’t know that.  And without having ever seen him no one will believe that he ever existed.  You must have considered that… a quick marriage is the only way to protect your reputation… to protect Cynthia’s position in society.”

 

“Nathan isn’t dead,” Kristin stated again with even more conviction.  “He isn’t!”

 

The lost look on his daughter’s face nearly broke Lionel Westphalen’s heart.

 

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

 

“Our friends are returning.” Janet Noyce muttered to Catherine Adams as she watched Alexandra and Wendy descend the stairs and move back toward them.

 

“Janet!  I was wondering if you were here already.” Lexie greeted her warmly but Janet could see the curiosity in her face and knew that she’d seen Kristin.  Indeed that was the reason that Janet had pointed the staircase out to Catherine Adams in the first place.

 

A small smile touched her lips.  “Actually I was one of the first guests here.  We arrived early to help the duchess with last minute details.”

 

“And a great help you were as well.”  Both Lexie and Wendy’s mouths gaped as an elegantly coifed matron joined the group, her hand resting lightly on Janet Noyce’s shoulder.

 

“Thank you, your grace.” Janet murmured politely.

 

“Janet… how many times must I insist that you call me Millicent?”  Lady Stonevale turned to the others in the group.  “Mrs. Adams, I am so very glad that you and the ambassador could attend this evening.  I hope that we will be able to spend some time together later but right this moment I must find my husband.  Have you seen him by chance?”  This question was addressed to Janet.

 

“Not lately… oh, there he is.”  Janet inclined her head toward the dance floor.  The attention of the group shifted to focus on the duke and his partner bowing to each other as the dance ended.  The duke then turned toward a nearby set of French doors and slipped out of the room.

 

“Please excuse me, ladies.  I really must catch Stonevale.”  Millicent offered then quickly moved after her husband.

 

“No wonder the woman is so agitated.  She must have seen whom her husband was dancing with.  I can’t imagine how a woman of that ilk managed to gain entry to an affair like this.”  Lexie spoke maliciously, her narrowed eyes watching as the man she recognized as Frank Thomas approached Kristin.

 

Catherine Adams looked at Lexie strangely.  “A woman of that ilk.  Whatever do you mean, Mrs. Smith?  Why shouldn’t Lord Stonevale share a dance with Countess Westphalen?  She is his daughter after all.”

 

Lexie blanched.  “Dau… Countess Westphalen?”  She whirled to Janet, her anger rising at the triumphant smile on the woman’s lips.  “That strumpet is a countess?”

 

“Keep your voice down, Lexie, unless you wish to embarrass yourself and your hostess further.  And the answer to your question is yes.  Kristin is the Countess of Kilhairn and the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Stonevale.”

 

Lexie began to hyperventilate as she slumped back against her daughter and for a few moments, Janet was sure that the woman was going to pass out.

 

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

 

“Lionel…?”

 

Stonevale straightened and turned at the sound of his wife’s voice.

 

“What is it…” Millicent asked her husband as she moved into his arms and laid her head on his shoulder.  “What’s wrong?”

 

“I… I think I may have made a terrible mistake,” Lionel replied in a quiet voice as he rested his cheek against his wife’s.  “One that I will never be forgiven for.”

 

“Krissy?”

 

“Mmhmm…”

 

“Oh, Lionel…” Millicent lifted her head and met his gaze.  “What have you done?”

 

Stonevale sighed.

 

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

 

“Quite the place my in-laws have,” Nathan commented as he exited the carriage.

 

“I’ll say,” Bill said as he followed his friend.

 

“It is one of the finer estates in the city,” Malcolm remarked as he climbed out after Bill.

 

“So, gentlemen…” Bill began as a large smile grew on his face.  “I don’t know about either of you, but I am quite anxious to see my wife.”

 

Malcolm chuckled at the dirty look Nathan flashed Bill as he turned back from his conversation with the driver of their hired carriage.

 

“Let’s get in there already,” Nathan practically growled as he moved up the steps; taking them two at a time in his haste to get to his wife.  ‘I’m almost there, sweetheart!’ he thought.  ‘Just hang on a few minutes more.’

 

“Nathan!”  Bill called out as he and Malcolm hurried after him.  “You won’t get far without me and this,” he held up the invitation.

 

“Well, come on then,” Nathan urged his friend.  “Kristin is waiting…”

 

The door before them swung open and they walked into a large, brightly lit hallway.

 

“May I see your invitation, sir?”  A well-dressed young footman asked as he stepped forward.

 

Bill handed over his invitation then glanced over at Nathan who was shifting impatiently beside him.

 

“Admiral Noyce… you and your guest are expected,” the footman said then took Malcolm’s invitation.  “As are you, Mr. Lansdowne.  Please, go straight in.”

 

“Thank you,” Bill said to the young man then once again hurried after Nathan who had begun to head towards the ballroom. 

 

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

 

“Come on,” William’s voice floated out into the hall as the door opened and Cynthia glided out.  “let’s go warn your mother of Thomas’ plan…”

 

Cynthia nodded and waited as William turned to close the door.  Her eyes suddenly grew wide at the sight that greeted her.  “Na… Nathan…”

 

Nathan stopped at the sound of his name to see a young auburn haired woman in a modest, sea foam green dress standing before him with a stunned look on her face.  A large smile formed on his face.  “You must be Cynthia.  You look so much like your mother; I would have known you anywhere.”

 

“Uncle Nathan!”  Will exclaimed having turned around at Cynthia’s soft call of his uncle’s name.  “Father!!”

 

“My boy!”  Bill stepped around Nathan and pulled his son into his arms.  “It’s good to see you, son.”

 

“Good to see you again too, Dad,” William returned his father’s hug.

 

As father and son embraced, Nathan stepped closer to Cynthia.

 

“Mother was right… you are much more handsome in person,” Cynthia smiled then held out her hand.  “It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Captain.”

 

Nathan grasped Cynthia’s hand and brushed a faint kiss over her knuckles.  “Likewise,” he replied then glanced around.  “I… I hate to rush our first meeting… and I would really like to sit down and get to know you but…”

 

“But you’re anxious to see mother,” Cynthia grinned.  “I understand.”

 

“Yes, I am.”

 

“And she’s just as anxious to see you,” Cynthia said.  “In fact…” she shared a glance with Will.  “I think you need to go to her right now…”

 

Nathan caught the worried look in his stepdaughter’s eyes.  “I’m not too late to stop Thomas am I?”

 

“You know about that?”

 

“Perhaps not everything… but I know that he is trying to persuade or blackmail your grandfather to approve of a match between your mother and himself…”

 

“Not trying,” Cynthia said, a trace of anger evident in her voice.  “I overheard them talking, and let me just say that you have about twenty minutes before grandfather makes the announcement.”

 

“Over my dead body!”  Nathan swore then turned and strode purposefully down the hall towards the ballroom.

 

“Wait, you don’t…” Cynthia began to call after him then turned to the men still standing with her.  “He doesn’t know… how will he find her?”

 

“Remember that connection we’ve told you about?”  William asked with a grin as Cynthia nodded.  “Well, you’re seeing it in action.”

 

“And I don’t know about the rest of you,” Malcolm stepped around the three,  “but I for one want a front seat for this.”

 

Bill laughed.  “Oh yes… and I would very much like to see my own wife.”

 

“Let’s go,” Will said then grasped Cynthia’s hand and led them down the hall towards the ballroom.

 

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

 

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