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

 

“Mother…” Wendy held tight to Lexie’s shoulders as the older woman worked to draw air into her lungs.  “Mother are you all right?”

 

“Yes… I am fine,” Lexie shook off Wendy’s arms as she straightened up.

 

Janet followed Lexie’s gaze across the room and swore silently to herself at the sight of Kristin dancing with Frank Thomas.  ‘I’m sorry, Kristin…’ she thought, noting the stiffness in her friend’s back even from this distance.  She was brought out of her thoughts as Lexie turned to face her, an evil glint in her eyes. 

 

“Nathan must have married her for her money,” Lexie said snidely.  “As it was more than obvious that he did not need to marry her to get into her bed…”

 

Catherine Adams’ eyes grew wide and Wendy smirked beside her mother as Alexandra continued.

 

“And once he gained control of her estates, he shipped her back here to England,” Lexie smiled cruelly and cackled.  “I will wager she never sets eyes on Nathan again.”

 

“That is a wager that you would lose.”

 

A large smile appeared on Janet’s face at the familiar male voice behind her.  She spun around to find her husband grinning before her and moved quickly into his arms.

 

“Hi, honey… I’m home,” Bill quipped as he enfolded his wife in his embrace.

 

Too overcome to speak at that moment, Janet simply tightened her arms around his neck and sought his lips with hers for a quick, but passionate kiss.  “Welcome home, dear,” she whispered against his lips before she pulled back to smile at him.

 

“Thank you,” Bill said with a slight nod, his eyes answering the unasked question in his wife’s eyes.

 

“Where?”  Janet asked as she glanced around the ballroom, noting the others were doing the same.

 

Bill shrugged.  “He came in before us,” he told her quietly.

 

Janet’s eyes found Kristin, still ensnared within Thomas’ embrace.  “She knows,” Janet said softly as she watched Kristin’s posture change, watched her friend become more alert and slowly glance around. 

 

“She knows what?”  Catherine asked as she too spotted Kristin dancing with Thomas but looking distracted.

 

“Kristin knows her husband is near,” Janet answered the ambassador’s wife.  She snuggled back in her husband’s embrace but spoke to the seething women next to her.  “Watch, you two… watch and finally understand that neither of you ever stood a chance of coming between Nathan and Kristin…”

 

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

 

“He’s certainly a handsome young man, and so polite.  I wish my Henry was as conscientious as your Lucas.”

 

Kristin beamed at the praise Lady Aldridge was giving Lucas as he danced with her young daughter.  “Thank you.  I am quite proud of him.”

 

“It is a wonderful thing you’re doing… adopting him as you are.”

 

“I…”

 

“Forgive me for interrupting, however, Lady Aldridge, your husband is looking for you.”

 

“Thank you, General,” Aldridge smiled at the bald man then turned back to Kristin.  “If you’ll excuse me, Countess.  We’ll have to get together for tea soon.”

 

“I’d like that,” Kristin smiled at her old friend then watched her leave.  “General,” Kristin moved to pass the large man but found he’d clamped a hand around her wrist.

 

“Leaving so soon… but we’ve not shared a dance yet, my dear,” Thomas said.

 

“I’ve no wish to dance with you, General.  Now or any other time, so please remove your hand immediately!”

 

“Come, Kristin… let’s not make a scene,” the general replied.  “Think of your parents’ reputations…”

 

Kristin glared at the man then glanced around.

 

“And I wouldn’t look for one of your friends or that sniveling brat you call a son to come rescue you,” Thomas chuckled.  “They are all otherwise occupied,” he told her as he led her out onto the dance floor.

 

Kristin held her body rigid as Thomas pulled her into his arms, grimacing at the uncomfortable heat she could feel through the silk of her dress from his hand on her waist.

 

“Relax, Kristin… this is only the first of many dances we’ll be sharing over our lifetimes,” Thomas told her as he flexed his fingers against her.  “So I would get used to this.”

 

Kristin laughed.  “This is the first and only dance we will be sharing, ‘General’,” she told him.

 

“But that is where you are wrong, ‘Countess’,” Thomas spoke her title with the same contempt that she had voiced his.  “In a little less than twenty-five minutes, your father is going to announce our engagement.”

 

“Our… our engagement?!”  Kristin stuttered then shook her head.  “I am not marrying you.”

 

“Oh but you are…”

 

“I am already married.”

 

“A fact you’ve been unable to prove since your return home,” Thomas said.  “It is well known you were taken by pirates, and you are a very beautiful women, so you cannot tell me those men did not…” he paused and let his eyes drift down to stare at her bountiful cleavage,  “partake of your charms…”

 

Kristin swallowed the sudden nausea that rose in her throat at the lust she could see in Thomas’ eyes as he finally dragged his gaze away from her chest.

 

“Because of what those brigands did to you… you are damaged goods.  No one wanted you.  Add to that the rumour that one of them got you into trouble,” Thomas grinned as he once again glanced down to where her dress barely covered her gravid condition.  “A rumour we both know to be quite true… but none of that matters to me.  I will have you and I am even willing to give the little bastard you’re carrying my name.”

 

“My child already has a name,” Kristin hissed at him.

 

“Again, something you are unable to prove,” Thomas chuckled.  “Face it, Countess, you have no choice.  You, your lands… will all be mine.”

 

Kristin laughed.  “If it is my money you’re interested in, you’ve picked the wrong countess.  The Carruthers monies, estates and business belong to Cynthia, not me.”

 

“Ah, but she is not of age yet, nor is she married, so control of all that would come to me upon our marriage.”

 

“Which will never happen!”

 

“Lower your voice, Countess.  You do not want to make a scene,” Thomas told her in a low voice.  “And I think you’ve caused enough embarrassment to your family already.”

 

Kristin glared at him.

 

“I’ve wanted you from the first moment I saw you all those months ago… even before you went on that silly test voyage,” the general said, his eyes dark and filled with undisguised lust.  “Your kidnapping put a slight… delay in my plans, but now… now you are going to be mine.”

 

Kristin shuddered and once again felt the bile rise in her throat at the desire and almost obsessive timbre she could hear in Thomas’ voice.  It reminded her of Zellar and suddenly more than anything else, she wanted to get far away from the general.  “I will never be yours.”

 

Thomas laughed.  “Oh, but you will.  You see, I’ve left nothing to chance,” he told her.  “I’ve made your father my friend, and I know enough about you to know that you have too much respect for your family… too much respect for your father to make a scene when he announces our engagement.”

 

“You bastard,” Kristin swore at him.

 

The general grinned at her.  “And don’t think it will be a long engagement.  Oh no… then once that bastard you’re carrying is born… you’ll be warming my bed,” Thomas licked his lips at the thought.  “And by the looks of things, I may even get you with child…”

 

Kristin tuned him out as a sudden and very familiar tingle began to dance across the back of her neck.  Her back straightened and she glanced around the ballroom.

 

“I thought we’d already established that no one would be coming to your rescue…” Thomas said as he watched her continue to look about the room.

 

Kristin ignored the general and once again glanced around the room, trying peer through the throng of dancing couples.  ‘He’s here,’ she thought anxiously.  ‘Oh, Nathan… please…’

 

Thomas opened his mouth to speak when he heard Kristin inhale sharply and saw a brief smile flit across her face.

 

“Excuse me… but may I cut in?”

 

Thomas looked over Kristin’s shoulder and frowned.  “Hello, Bridger.”

 

“Thomas,” Nathan replied in kind as he stepped up beside the couple, effectively stopping them from continuing to dance.  He felt a wave of happiness and love roll over him as Kristin looked up at him, her sable eyes shining brightly at him, and whispered his name.  “My lady…”

 

“What can I do for you, Bridger?”  Thomas asked impatiently, his hand still on Kristin’s waist.

 

“I thought I’d already stated that… Frank,” Nathan answered.  “I’m here to cut in… to dance with the countess.”

 

“Really, Captain… I would have thought your mother had taught you better manners,” Thomas said as he tightened his grip on Kristin and pulled her closer against him.  “However… I’m afraid you made the trip across the dance floor for nothing.  Lady Westphalen will only be dancing with one man for the rest of this night and possibly from now on…”

 

“How right you are,” Nathan nodded with a glance at Kristin.

 

“I’m glad you agree,” Thomas smiled then started when Nathan stepped smoothly between him and the countess and pulled her into his arms.

 

“She will be dancing with me…”

 

“Now wait just a damn minute there, ‘Captain’!”  Thomas grabbed Nathan’s arm.  “You forget yourself.  I outrank you…”

 

“Actually… no.  You don’t.”

 

“I beg your pardon?”

 

“I retired, Thomas.  Six years ago.  I am a civilian now.”

 

“Congratulations,” Thomas said sarcastically.

 

“Thank you,” Bridger grinned then pulled Kristin closer.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I would really like to dance with my wife.”

 

“Your… your wife?”  Thomas stammered.  “She… you… you’re…”

 

“Her husband, yes,” Nathan nodded as he glanced down at Kristin to see her beaming up at him then turned back to Thomas,  “as a matter of fact… I am.”

 

Thomas looked back and forth between the two.  “No… this can’t be.”

 

“Oh… it is,” Kristin said as she laid her left hand on Nathan’s chest, the sapphire ring on her finger sparking in the light, then rose up on her toes to press a quick but passionate kiss to Nathan’s lips.  “I told you… I am already married.”

 

“Have a good evening… Frank,” Nathan said as he shifted Kristin in his arms and danced her off into the crowd, leaving a stunned Thomas behind.

 

“Hello, my love…” Kristin said in a husky voice as Nathan twirled her around the floor.

 

“Hello, my life…” Nathan replied and pulled her just a little closer.

 

Kristin smiled up at him then reached up to cup his cheek.  “I really need to kiss you properly,” she told him, her desire evident in her voice.

 

“I need that too…” Nathan replied and glanced around.  “But all these people…”

 

“Dance us towards the doors…” Kristin told him with a slight nod towards the large French doors leading to the main hall.

 

“With pleasure, Mrs. Bridger.  With pleasure.”

 

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

 

“That’s my boy,” Bill grinned against the side of Janet’s head as they watched Nathan claim his bride and waltz off with her into the crowd.  “Taught him everything he knows.”

 

“Sure you did, dear,” Janet chuckled and patted her husband’s hands where they lay on her stomach.

 

“That was Lady Westphalen’s husband?”  Catherine asked.

 

“Yes,” Cynthia answered with a bright smile.  “That was my step-father.”

 

“He’s quite handsome.”

 

“Aunt Janet!”  Lucas came rushing up to the small group, Clarissa’s hand gripped tightly in his as he pulled her along with him.  “Did you see…” he asked breathlessly,  “did you?  Dad’s here!  He just… hi, Uncle Bill!  Dad just swept mama away from that snaky general.”

 

“We saw, Lucas,” Janet replied.

 

Lucas grinned then noticed the Smith women.  He frowned.  “What are you two doing here?”

 

“Lucas!”  Cynthia hushed her brother.

 

“What?”  The youth asked with an innocent look as Lexie and Wendy stormed off in the direction of the garden.

 

“And there they go,” William said with a grin.

 

“Didn’t take them long,” Bill laughed softly as he and the small group around him watched the reunited couple slip out of the ballroom.

 

“Cynthia, Lucas,” Janet began.  “I think it best if the two of you spend the night at our house,” she turned her head and met Cynthia’s eyes.  “And you, my dear, are sleeping in Clarissa’s room.”

 

Will and Cynthia shared an amused look, while Bill simply looked confused.

 

“What is that about?”  He asked.

 

“I’ll tell you later, dear,” Janet told her husband.

 

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

 

Clearing the French doors, Nathan led Kristin down the hall and around a corner then suddenly found himself pressed up against the wall, Kristin’s mouth hot and hard on his.  He groaned and opened his mouth to her seeking tongue as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer.

 

“Nathan…” Kristin moaned as his hands slid down to cup her bottom.  “Nathan… take me home…”

 

“Kris?”

 

“Take me home… now… please,” Kristin murmured against his lips.  “I need to be with you…”

 

“And I you,” Nathan replied as he covered her mouth again, his tongue tangling madly with his.  He broke off the kiss with a gasp then gently eased Kristin away from him and grasped her hands.  “Come on…”

 

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

 

A sea of stars twinkled down from the clear night sky as Nathan and Kristin ran out the front door and down the steps hand in hand.  The hired coach that had brought Nathan and his friends was waiting just as he asked and he quickly tugged Kristin toward it.

 

“Where are we going?” Nathan asked as he handed Kristin up into the carriage.

 

Kristin shivered involuntarily in the cool night air as she gave him her address so Nathan quickly stripped off his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders as he gave instruction to the coachman.

 

“And double your fee if you get us there quickly.” The man grinned at Nathan’s words and took up his whip as Nathan leapt into the carriage and slammed the door closed.

 

Kristin launched herself at Nathan immediately, knocking him back against the seat as she grasped at him, trying to find his lips.

 

The kiss they shared was savage, each trying to consume the other as Nathan pulled Kristin up into his lap.  The carriage lurched forward, pressing them even closer together as their tongues continued to tangle in a wild dance.  Their lips finally parted as they gasped for breath then Nathan’s mouth fell to Kristin’s neck, still desperate to taste her.

 

Kristin’s fingers clawed at his hair.  Nathan had reached her collarbone when he felt her shoulders shaking and realized that she was crying. 

 

“It is okay to cry, my love.  Let it out.” 

 

With a loud hiccup the silent sobs suddenly poured forth; tears of sorrow and of joy mixing together and running down Nathan’s neck as Kristin buried her head there.  He wasn’t surprised to realize that his own eyes were becoming damp.

 

“I’m so sorry, my darling.  I swear that I came to you as soon as I could.” He murmured over and over, his tears falling to rest on her fiery hair.  Finally the words seemed to penetrate Kristin’s consciousness and the crying lessened.

 

“Where… I’ve been expecting you for so long.  Where have you been?  What happened?”  She raised her head to look at him with tear brimmed eyes.

 

“I am here and that bastard will never be able to threaten us again.  I will tell you everything but right now please just let me hold you.  Let me love you.  Thoughts of you are all that kept me going these long lonely months.”

 

Kristin stared deeply into Nathan’s eyes, searching for the truth and finding it, then sought his mouth again.

 

The carriage rolled to a halt, a tap from the driver on the roof telling them that they had arrived at their destination.  They broke apart reluctantly, their breath coming in heavy gasps.  Nathan carefully set Kristin on the opposite seat then climbed out of the carriage and offered her his hand.  Once she had touched the ground he flipped several coins to the grinning driver.

 

Kristin gathered the edges of Nathan’s coat in one hand, her skirt in the other then grinned at him and took off up the walkway at a run.  Laughing with the sheer joy of the moment, Nathan sprinted after her, catching up with her at the marble staircase leading up to the front door.  He scooped her into his arms and kissed her passionately as he took the stairs two at a time.  Nathan’s coat fell to the top step unheeded.

 

Kristin groped for the knob with one hand; her other arm clinging desperately to Nathan’s neck as the kiss continued.  Finally she found it and pushed the door open so that Nathan could step through and kick it shut.

 

“Milady!” Stephens shocked voice echoed through the front hall as he entered from the back hallway, struggling to thrust his arms into his coat.

 

“Go to bed, Stephens,” Kristin ordered between kisses.  “I will introduce you to my husband tomorrow.”

 

“Madame!”

 

Nathan slowly lowered Kristin’s feet to the floor but didn’t release her from his embrace.

 

“Everything is all right now, Stephens.”  Nathan didn’t look at the man as he spoke, his eyes focused fully on his bride, but his voice was strong and steady.  “I won’t hurt her, I promise.”

 

The love that the man felt for Lady Westphalen was so evident in his gaze that Stephens was taken back for a moment.  “Very good, sir.” He spoke slowly then turned and exited the foyer.

 

“Your rooms?” Nathan whispered.

 

“Up the stairs, third door on the right.”

 

Suddenly Kristin was wrapped in Nathan’s arms again, both of them moving toward the staircase.  Their passion could no longer be contained as they kissed and caressed while climbing the steps.

 

One blue slipper stayed on the second step and the other bounced on the fifth.  Kristin locked her elbows over Nathan’s shoulders and skimmed first one then the other long blue glove from her arms, letting them flutter free.  Their mouths dueled through the entire climb, lips never releasing lips for more than an instant.  On the top third of the stairs Nathan’s artfully tied neck cloth fell free.

 

By the time they reached the top of the stairs Nathan had managed to release most of the tapes holding Kristin’s dress closed.  Kristin pulled at the buttons of Nathan’s shirt, ripping away the ones that didn’t slide easily from the holes.  He was forced to give up his hold on the final closure of Kristin’s dress as she dragged the open shirt down his arms and tossed it away.

 

Kristin licked her lips at the sight of Nathan’s bare chest then lunged forward, her teeth closing over his flat nipple while her hands pulled at his waist.  She had the placard of his trousers undone before Nathan realized what was happening. 

 

He pulled her hands away and backed her down the hallway toward her room using his mouth to distract her roaming hands.  By the time that they actually stood in front of her doorway, Kristin’s dress was hanging at her waist.  When they stepped into the room the dress stayed in the hallway, a pool of bright blue silk, declaring Kristin’s rooms off limits while her petticoats fell to the floor on the opposite side of the closed door.

 

Kristin had dismissed Lizzie before departing, knowing that she would be very late but the maid had left a lantern burning and a low fire banked in the fireplace.  Nathan felt the chill of the room on his bare skin and saw Kristin shiver slightly so he pulled back and moved toward the fireplace.  He quickly stirred the fire and added coal then turned back to see Kristin standing in the middle of the room waiting for him.

 

“Take off your boots, sailor.” She grinned saucily at him and Nathan felt his already rock hard erection lurch forward, the bright red head poking through the opening of his britches.

 

Nathan fell onto the bench of Kristin’s vanity and tugged frantically at the black leather, swearing softly as the second boot refused to give.  Once his foot came free he tossed the offending item away and beckoned to his wife.

 

Kristin approached slowly, stopping several feet in front of Nathan.  He slipped off the bench to his knees and reached for her, his fingers sliding beneath the hem of her chemise to find the top of her almost sheer stockings.  His finger slipped through the garter and both items slid easily down Kristin’s leg.  She rested a hand on his shoulder for support as she carefully stepped out of the garment then Nathan repeated the action with the other leg.  This time when Kristin lifted her foot, she moved it forward slightly, allowing her toes to rub down Nathan’s iron length.

 

“I need you to love me,” she whispered.

 

“With all my heart,” Nathan answered, his fingers reaching up to the blue ribbon at the neckline of Kristin’s low cut chemise.  One tug released the closure and the silky fabric slid down.

 

“Nathan, there is something I need to tell you…” Kristin began as he tugged the chemise lower but her words faded as the garment slipped free and she stood nude before him.

 

Nathan’s hands rose to carefully caress the obvious swell of her belly, his face leaning in to press against her taut skin as his lips kissed his child’s haven.

 

“Hello, my precious little one,” he whispered brokenly.

 

Kristin felt the dampness of Nathan’s tears against her belly and dropped her hands to his head as he continued to nuzzle.  The child within responded to its father’s touch in much the same manner as it did to the mention of his name and Nathan yelped slightly as he jerked back and stared.

 

Kristin laughed with joy as Nathan carefully ran his fingers over the rippling skin, his face filled with awe. 

 

“Is that?” He finally asked.

 

“That is your child, my love, welcoming his daddy home.”

 

“I didn’t realize… does it hurt?”  Nathan couldn’t drag his gaze away from the continuing motion just beneath Kristin’s skin.

 

“It doesn’t hurt at all; it just feels… different.  I’ve been feeling the babe move for a month or more within but he waited for you to make his presence known without.”

 

“He… is it a boy?”

 

Kristin laughed again.  “I don’t know, my rogue.  If you listen to Lucas, yes… but Cynthia is positive that she is having a baby sister.  I hope that we have a son if that is what you want…”

 

“It doesn’t matter.  I don’t want anything except for our baby and its mother to be healthy and happy.”  Nathan placed one final tender kiss against Kristin’s belly and slowly pushed to his feet, trailing his lips up the midline of her body as he did so.  “And you… I want you.”

 

“Then have me, my love.  I’ve been waiting so long.”  Nathan swept Kristin into his arms and moved swiftly to the bed then dumped Kristin in the center.  She fell to her back and raised her arms to him.

 

Nathan levered his body over Kristin’s, making sure that he held his weight on his arms instead of resting it on her body.  She tugged insistently at his hips.

 

“Are you sure… is it okay for us to… I don’t want to endanger you or the baby in any way.”

 

“I am sure.  Our child has survived walking the plank and falling off the side of a cliff.  Having his parents love each other will be a walk in the park.  We Bridgers are made of strong stuff.  I need to feel you, Nathan… with me… inside me, on top of me… around me… totally and completely.”

 

Nathan could no longer resist the look in Kristin’s eyes or the lure of her body.  He sank down against her and captured her mouth in a passionate kiss as his hands moved to bracket her breasts.

 

He tried to keep the kiss gentle, fighting the urge to rush their joining but Kristin would have none of that.  Her hands actively rubbed and enticed as she coaxed him into a frenzy.

 

“Kris…” he gasped as she wrapped both hands around his length.  “I want to love you slowly.”

 

Kristin gave him a sloe-eyed glance.  “No you don’t and neither do I.  I am ready for you, my rogue.  I’ve been ready from the second I sensed you enter the ballroom.  Next time we can go slow… next time…”

 

“Are you certain?”

 

“Oh yes,” Kristin replied in a husky voice and tightened her grip for emphasis.

 

Nathan grinned at her then dropped his lips to hers for a hungry kiss; his tongue slipping past her lips to tangle with her tongue.  He pulled his mouth from Kristin’s with a groan and kissed a wet trail down her throat to her breasts.

 

“They’ve gotten bigger…” he murmured as he licked and kissed around the entire swell.  “And your nipples…” Nathan flicked his tongue out against the hard peak,  “oh god… they’re…” he kissed the tip.  “They’ve gotten darker…” he groaned happily as he closed his mouth over the wanting nipple.

 

“And more sensitive,” Kristin gasped out as she arched beneath him.  She grabbed at Nathan’s head as she tried to push more of her breast into his mouth.  “Na… oh god, Nathan…”

 

Nathan smiled around the turgid tip he was suckling then let it slip from his lips as he kissed his way over to her other nipple and pulled it into the hot cavern of his mouth while he brought his hand up to cup and play with the breast not receiving oral attention.

 

“Mmm…” Kristin moaned as his tongue curled around her nipple and slid her hands down his back to clutch at his rear.  “Nathan…” she called to him as she tugged on the waist of his trousers.  “Nathan… your pants…”

 

Nathan released her breast with an audible pop and raised his head to look at her.

 

“Your pants, love…”

 

He nodded and with a quick kiss to the hard point of each breast, Nathan levered his body off Kristin’s and stood beside the bed.  He made quick work of his britches and within moments was standing gloriously naked before her. 

 

Kristin, propped up on her elbows to watch him, licked her lips at the sight of his erection standing tall and proud against his belly.  She smiled at him.  “What are you waiting for, sailor?”

 

Nathan grinned then knelt on the bed at her feet and ran his hands slowly up her legs.  “You are so beautiful…” he murmured as he caressed her smooth skin.  “So utterly beautiful…”

 

Kristin felt her skin flush at his words and at his urging drew her legs up and bent her knees, then expecting him to stretch out over her, she was surprised when he instead buried his head between her thighs.  “Ooh… oh god, Nathan!”

 

Nathan smiled inwardly as he sucked hard on her clit, stroking the sensitive bundle with his tongue.  He brought his hands up and began to stroke through her folds, coating his fingers with her moisture before he pressed first one then two long digits inside her.

 

“Naaathaannn…” Kristin moaned his name on a deep exhale as he began to stroke them in and out of her.  She clenched at the bedclothes as the sensations flowed from her center to touch every part of her body.

 

Nathan glanced up and was surprised to see Kristin’s right hand on her breast, her fingers working the nipple in time with the thrusts of his fingers.  He groaned at the sight and pulled a little harder on her clit.

 

“Na…” Kristin gasped as she realized that she was already on the verge of orgasm.  “Oh, Nath… close…”

 

Nathan grinned as he felt the grab of her inner muscles around his thrusting fingers and began to drive them into her faster.  “Come, Kris…” he hummed against her flesh.  “Come…”

 

“Ooh… oh yes…” Kristin began to writhe beneath him as her release washed over her in hot waves.  “…Nathan…”

 

Nathan pulled his fingers out of her and replaced them with his mouth as he moved his thumb up to continue stimulating her clitoris.  He groaned low in his throat as he coaxed more of her juices to flow into his waiting mouth, consuming her essence with relish.  He was shocked when her felt her suddenly peak again without warning, his name a hoarse shout on her lips as she arched beneath him.

 

Kristin’s body continued to shudder as she felt Nathan press one last deep kiss against her sex then crawl up over her.  She grasped his head with both hands and pulled his mouth down to hers for a voracious kiss.  “Be with me…” Kristin whispered against his lips as the kiss gave way to a series of breathy ones.  “Please, Nathan…”

 

Nathan nodded then shifted against her as he rose up on his elbows, settling his hips in the cradle of her legs.  He reached between them to grasp his member and brought it to her waiting entrance. 

 

“Nathan…” Kristin pleaded as he drew the head of his shaft up and down her slick folds.  “Please…”

 

Nathan smiled and holding her gaze, he slowly sank down into her.  When he was fully seated within her, he blinked away the sudden tears in his eyes and looked down to see Kristin doing the same.

 

“Welcome home, my rogue…” she whispered in a husky, emotional voice.

 

Nathan brushed her tears away with his thumbs.  “I love you…”

 

“I love you too…”

 

He leaned down to brush a soft kiss over her lips and even as he began to slowly move against her, Nathan knew he would not be able to hold back; being buried deep inside her still quivering sheath after so long an absence taxing all this control.

 

“Kris…” he groaned desperately.

 

“Love me, Nathan… love me…”

 

“Always…” Nathan said and having secured her permission, began to thrust heavily into her.

 

Their bodies rocked together, thrusting and driving each other higher and higher as they strove to reach the pinnacle; desperate to find that moment of ultimate joy and peace within each other.

 

“Na… oh yes… Nathan…” Kristin panted as the sensations humming through her body began to coalesce.  “Close…”

 

“Kris… I… oh god…” Nathan groaned at the feel of Kristin’s inner walls beginning to spasm around his plunging member and began to drive himself harder and faster into her; her groan of approval spurring him on.

 

“Ooh… oh… Na… NAATHAN!”

 

“Kris… oh yes… KRISTIN!”

 

The large bedchamber echoed with simultaneous shouts of completion as their mutual orgasms consumed them, leaving them swirling in the waves of intense, blissful pleasure.

 

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

 

“You will talk with Kristin?”

 

Lionel looked at his wife as they re-entered the ballroom and nodded.  “Yes.  I will talk with Kristin.”

 

“Good,” Millicent smiled up at him.  “I really do not like the two of you argu…” her voice trailed off as she realized that her husband’s attention was elsewhere.  She followed his gaze to see a flustered Frank Thomas making his way angrily towards them.  “He doesn’t look happy.”

 

“No he doesn’t,” Lionel agreed then chuckled softly.  “I wonder if Frank fell victim to the Westphalen temper?”

 

“Something tells me you may be right,” Millicent replied just as Thomas stopped before them.  “General… having a good evening, I trust.”

 

A red-faced Thomas looked at Stonevale then huffed.  “She… she’s gone!”

 

“What?  Who’s gone?”

 

“Your daughter!”

 

Lionel’s face clouded over.  “What do you mean she’s gone?  Where is she?”

 

“I don’t know…”

 

“You don’t know!?”

 

“We were dancing when this old Navy captain cut in and whisked her away,” Thomas answered.  “He claimed to be her husband, but I know this man, and he is a hermit… so there is no way he could be this husband she claims to have…”

 

“What are you saying, Thomas?”

 

“I am saying that those people,” Thomas pointed across the room to where Janet, Bill and their children, along with Cynthia and Lucas were standing and laughing,  “put this man up to this… to claim to be her husband.”

 

“Whatever for?”  Millicent asked.

 

“To prevent her from marrying me,” Thomas replied as if it should have been obvious.

 

“When did this happen?”  Stonevale asked.

 

“About fifteen minutes…”

 

Lionel didn’t wait for Thomas to finish before he was striding across the room towards the French doors leading into the main hallway; Millicent keeping pace with him and Thomas on their heels.

 

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

 

“Oh… Grandfather doesn’t look happy,” Cynthia remarked as they watched Thomas follow the duke and duchess out of the ballroom.

 

“Who wants to wager that Thomas totally twisted everything that happened out there on the dance floor… to put him in a better light!”

 

“What do you think is happening?”  Lucas asked anxiously.

 

“I don’t know…” Bill said.  “But if I were in Stonevale’s shoes… I would be going after my daughter.”

 

“You don’t think…” Janet began then looked between Bill and Clarissa then over to Cynthia.  “I think Bill is right… I think your grandfather is going to go after Nathan and your mother.”

 

The small group all looked at each other for a moment and then they turned as one and made their way towards the French doors.

 

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

 

“Perkins!”  Westphalen called out once he was away from the ballroom.

 

The old butler came running.  “Yes, my lord?”

 

“Have you seen my daughter?”

 

“Yes, my lord.”

 

“When?  Where?”

 

“About twenty minutes ago,” Perkins answered.  “She was running towards the door, hand in hand with a gray-haired gentleman…”

 

“See!  I told you!”  Thomas spoke up.

 

Stonevale glared at him then turned back to Perkins.  “Have my carriage made ready!  Now!”

 

“Yes, my lord,” Perkins nodded his head then hurried off to do as ordered.

 

“Lionel… what are you doing?”  Millicent asked.

 

“I’m going over there…”

 

“Over where?”

 

“To our daughter’s house, as that is most likely where this… this person has taken Kristin,” Westphalen answered.

 

“I don’t think…”

 

“I’ll not fail in protecting my daughter for a second time,” Lionel said as he moved away from his wife and walked quickly down the hall towards the front doors.

 

“And proceed to get her even angrier with you,” Millicent muttered under her breath as she hurried after her husband.

 

“Your carriage will be brought around momentarily, my lord,” Perkins said as Stonevale met him at the door, the duke’s greatcoat and walking stick in his hands.

 

“Thank you, Perkins,” Westphalen replied as he pulled on the heavy outerwear and grabbed his cane.

 

“Perkins… would you kindly fetch my wrap for me please,” Millicent asked the butler.

 

Perkins smiled at the duchess and held up the garment in question.  “I’ve taken the liberty of already grabbing it, milady,” the butler said.  “I had a feeling you would want it.”

 

Millicent smiled as she reached for the wrapper.  “Thank you.”

 

“What do you think you’re doing?”  Lionel whipped around to face his wife.

 

“I’m going with you.”

 

“No you are not!”

 

“Oh yes, I am!”  Millicent replied.  “Someone has to keep you from making an ass of yourself with your daughter,” she told him then moved out the door.

 

Stonevale glanced at Thomas then shook his head as he followed after his wife; mumbling under his breath down every step.

 

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

 

“Think we should follow them?”

 

“Absolutely.”

 

“Without a doubt.”

 

“I know I don’t want to miss this.”

 

“Grandfather did look awfully angry.”

 

“Anyone see where Lucas went off to?”

 

Six heads looked around where they were standing in the hall beside the front entrance.

 

“Where on Earth has that boy gotten off to?”  Janet asked then looked at her daughter.  “I thought he was right beside you?”

 

“He was,” Clarissa answered, as confused as everyone else.  “I don’t…”

 

She was cut off by the sound of a carriage pulling up in front of the house.

 

“Well, don’t just stand there,” Lucas called in to the small group and waved them over.

 

“Smart kid,” Bill quipped with a grin then glanced around at everyone.  “Come on, people…”

 

“I wish I could…”

 

Five sets of eyes turned to look at the ambassador’s wife.

 

“I… it would be…” Catherine shrugged.  “I’ll say a prayer for Lady Westphalen that everything works out.”

 

Janet smiled at Catherine then quickly embraced her.  “We’ll do lunch.”

 

Catherine nodded.  “Go…”

 

Janet nodded then she and Bill hurried off to the coach.

 

“How are we all going to fit?”  Malcolm asked.

 

“Very easily,” Bill said as he helped Janet climb in then followed her.  He sat on the bench then pulled his wife into his lap.  “We’re just going to have to get a little closer.”

 

William grinned and helped Cynthia into the carriage, followed her then sat across from his parents and pulled Cynthia into his lap.  “I like this idea.”

 

Malcolm, Clarissa and Lucas quickly climbed in, Malcolm taking the seat next to Janet and Bill while Lucas and Clarissa sat opposite him. 

 

Cynthia reached up and tapped on the ceiling of the carriage.  “Home please, Evans!  As fast as you can.”

 

“Yes, milady,” came the reply followed by a crack of a whip and then the carriage was moving.

 

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

 

Kristin sighed and settled back against the mound of pillows at the head of her bed, her legs wrapped loosely around Nathan’s torso as he lay on his stomach, his head level with her belly.  For his part, Nathan couldn’t tear his eyes or his hands away from Kristin.  He was fascinated with the glow that seemed to emanate from her skin and the way that her belly rippled as the child within moved about.

 

“Are you happy?” He asked then looked surprised that he had actually voiced the question.

 

“Of course I am happy.” Kristin cupped his cheek.  “I have my husband home with me.”

 

“Are you happy about the baby?  We never really spoke about children…”

 

“I don’t think that either of us thought that a child was possible.  I certainly didn’t.  If someone had told me six months ago that I would become a mother again at my age I would have laughed in their face.  But my answer is yes.  I am very happy to be carrying your child.  Are you happy?”

 

“My beautiful wife who I love more than life is carrying my child.  Six months ago I was a lonely sailor living a barren life.  Today I have you; I have a son and daughter and another child on the way.  I have a family.  I am in the one place where I always want to be… your arms.  How could I not be happy?”

 

“I’ve been so empty without you.”  Sadness tinged Kristin’s voice.  “I’ve read your letters over and over.  You seemed so lonely…”

 

“I missed you so much… both you and Lucas.”

 

“Tell me what happened.  Tell me about the scar.”

 

Nathan hadn’t realized that Kristin had noticed the angry pucker of red flesh across his left side and hip.

 

“I notice everything about you, my husband.” Kristin read his thoughts.  She stretched her hand down so that her fingers could lightly caress the mark, her other hand reaching out to touch the lock of her hair still tied around his wrist.  “Everything.”

 

Nathan smiled.  “I’ve not taken it off since you tied it there.”

 

“Did it… did it help?”

 

“It did,” Nathan replied.  “It did indeed.”

 

“I’m glad,” Kristin smiled softly then once again danced her fingers over the raised flesh.  “Tell me…”

 

Nathan haltingly began to talk, both what he said and what he didn’t say telling Kristin of his heartache.  His words became surer as he moved into a narrative of the approach to Zellar’s home and the confrontation there.  Kristin knew that he was glossing over the details of the battle but she let him, knowing that she could coax the full details out of Crocker later.  Quickly masked relief flooded through her when he told of Bill’s arrival and how his friend prevented him from killing Zellar outright.

 

“Bill gripped my arm and I remember staring at him, hearing his words as if they were coming down a tunnel.  I stepped back.  I remember watching my men drag Zellar away and then… nothing.  Everything went black.”

 

“I knew that something was wrong.  One day just after we’d finished eating lunch I suddenly felt a sharp pain and a few minutes later I fainted.  I knew…”

 

“You were with me,” Nathan lifted a hand from her belly to stroke her cheek.  “In my unconscious haze, you were always there.”  Kristin took his hand and gently kissed the palm.

 

“This next bit comes from Bill because I don’t remember any of it.  Zellar scored a deep hit, the severity of which I wasn’t aware of until after I had him pinned.  Everyone around me realized when I fainted from blood loss.  They bandaged my wound and carried me to Bill’s ship.  Crocker stayed with me, trying all of the remedies he saw you use on Will’s infection.  A court martial tribunal was convened at once and Zellar was found guilty of piracy.  He was sentenced to hang and the order was carried out immediately.  Once the situation on the island was taken care of Bill gave orders to sail for my island.  He thought that, in your absence, Bess was the logical person to take care of me.”

 

“I thought I detected a faint tinge of green around your scar.” Kristin chuckled.

 

“The ointment was applied liberally, yes.” Nathan agreed.  “The shading compliments the ragged stitch marks where Crocker sewed me up.”

 

“I am going to have to inspect this wound more closely, I can see… I’m glad that Bill took you to Bess.”

 

“I think at that point that Bill was going to write to you about my condition but Bess stopped him.  She said that the outcome would be decided long before you got any letter and there wasn’t any point in worrying you needlessly.”

 

“I would still have rather known.”

 

“I lay unconscious for days, mostly from the pain I guess.  Some infection did develop but nothing to the extent of Will’s.”

 

“You were receiving better care than he did when he was first wounded.”

 

Nathan nodded.  “Once the fever broke and I came back to myself I insisted on leaving immediately for London.  Bill tried to reason with me but I wouldn’t hear it.  The next day we were sailing for England.”

 

“On your insistence?”

 

“Oh yes.  I knew that I could continue to heal on the trip and I didn’t want to waste one more hour away from you.  We landed late yesterday so Bill and I hired horses and rode all night to get here.”

 

“All night?  You must be exhausted… okay; a normal man would be exhausted.  You arrived just before the ball?”

 

“Actually we arrived about midday.”

 

Kristin leaned forward and caught Nathan’s chin.  “You have been in London for the entire afternoon and you waited until tonight to find me?”  Anger flashed briefly in her eyes as Nathan tilted his head down to kiss her palm.

 

“There were reasons.  First I had to find you, which meant that Bill had to stop at the embassy to find Janet.  While we were there I ran into an old friend of mine… a friend who has become a great admirer of yours I might add.”

 

Kristin looked properly chastised.  “That would be Malcolm Lansdowne.”

 

Nathan nodded.  “It would indeed.  Malcolm accompanied us to Bill’s and while there he unknowingly filled me in on everything that you have been going through during my absence.  He also told us about the party and that you and Janet would be helping with the preparations.  Once I found out about Thomas I knew that there were a few things that I needed to take care of.”

 

“Such as?”  Kristin asked with a raised eyebrow, although Nathan could tell that she was teasing him.

 

He bent low again and dragged his lips across her belly.  “Don’t worry, little one.  Daddy just has to get something to show mommy.  I will be right back.  I promise.”

 

Kristin chuckled as the child kicked in answer.  “I hope this isn’t going to be a permanent thing between the two of you, otherwise my insides are going to be black and blue.”

 

Nathan’s hands trailed down her thighs in a loving caress as he pushed himself up and slid off of the bed.  He glanced around the room then swore softly when he remembered that he had given Kristin his coat.

 

“What is it, Nathan?”

 

He grinned sheepishly at her.  “Do you remember exactly where we lost my coat?  Did we leave it in the hack?”

 

Kristin thought a moment.  “I don’t believe so.  I think that it dropped away just outside the front door.  I can ring for Stephens to go collect it if you’d like.”

 

Nathan shook his head.  “That isn’t necessary.  I’ll slip downstairs and get it.  I should probably gather up the rest of our things as well.  Unless you want all of your servants to guess what happened…”

 

“I am sure that there will be little guessing involved.  Do we need to go right now or will whatever you want to show me keep?”  Kristin’s gaze fell to Nathan’s semi-erect member framed by a nest of dark curls and she licked her lips slowly.

 

Nathan felt his arousal spring to life as he surveyed his wife stretched out nude on the bed before him.  “No… I don’t have to go right now…”

 

“Then why don’t you come back and join me?” Kristin patted the mattress beside her.

 

Nathan quickly climbed onto the bed and moved to Kristin’s side.  She sat up to meet him and they came together to share a passionate kiss.

 

The next moment Nathan found himself flat on his back, Kristin’s hands holding his shoulders down as she straddled him.

 

“Stay.” She commanded.

 

Nathan settled back against the pillows and grinned as Kristin slid back down his legs and settled on his knees.  Her gentle fingers carefully probed the scarred flesh that marred his side.

 

“You are very lucky.” She murmured as she traced the path of the cut from his left side down across his hipbone to its end just at the beginning of the deep vee of dark curls.  “You could have easily bled to death.”  Kristin shuddered at the thought.

 

Nathan stretched his hands out to grasp her forearms and pull her forward.  “I could have but I didn’t.  Bill, Gator and Bess took excellent care of me.  They knew that I couldn’t leave you.  I couldn’t leave this little one.”  One hand slipped to the top swell of her gravid stomach.

 

Kristin slowly worked her knees forward.  “They didn’t know about this little one.”

 

“Well…” Nathan hesitated.

 

“You did not know, Nathan Bridger.  I didn’t know so how could you…”

 

“I admit that I was stunned when Malcolm mentioned the rumours but then I had a… moment of something… I don’t know for sure that it was a memory exactly but I know that while I was feverish I dreamed of you often.  In every dream I was calling for you, desperate to find you and I knew that you were looking for me but if I ever caught a glimpse you disappeared.”

 

“That is so strange.  I had the same dream.  I searched and searched.  I heard you call my name and I answered but I could never find you.”

 

Nathan nodded, not doubting that they had shared the same dream.  “Then one night we did find each other.  We were together on the ship…”

 

“Then on the volcano on Monito…” Kristin chimed in as she bent her face lower over his.

 

“And then in the grotto!” They finished together.

 

Nathan reached up and fingered her hair.  “We made love.  Perhaps I sensed the baby then… When did you realize?”

 

Kristin leaned into his touch.  “There were some problems when we arrived and I had to rush to the country…”

 

“To rescue Cynthia from being forced to marry a pansy her grandmother picked out… Malcolm talked.”

 

“You probably know more about it than I do then.  We stayed in the country for two weeks before returning to London.  When we returned my dressmaker came to measure me for a new corset… don’t look at me that way.  I won’t wear one all the time but some formal gowns require one.  Anyway, my measurements were wrong and then Madame Dussault pulled my chemise tight and I looked down… it just made sense.  That was about six weeks ago… the thirteenth of September it was.”

 

“September thir… the day my fever broke.  Do you think…?”

 

“After everything else that has happened between us, I’m sure of it.”  Kristin flattened her torso against Nathan’s chest as she stretched to touch his lips with hers.  “I wish that you had been the first person that knew after me but Janet was in the room and then… why are you shaking your head?”

 

“Because you weren’t the first person to know.”

 

Kristin popped back up on her elbows.  “Of course I was.”

 

“You will have to argue that with Bess.  She told me this afternoon that she knew you had conceived before you left the island.”

 

“How the hell did she know?”

 

Nathan’s hands moved to cup Kristin’s heavy breasts.  “I have no idea.  You can ask her when you see her… whenever I decide to let you out of bed.”

 

Kristin trembled at the feel of Nathan’s fingertips locking over the pebbled ends of her rosy centers, tugging and twisting in a way designed to arouse her.

 

“If I decide to let you out of bed, you mean…” Kristin rocked her hips against the rigid organ pressing into her mound.

 

Nathan groaned.  “My god, woman!  It hasn’t been twenty minutes since I spent myself and already you’ve got me so hard that I’m aching.”

 

Kristin purred as she rocked back and forth.  “I think that this means my husband has missed me while we’ve been apart.”

 

Nathan grabbed Kristin’s hips.  “I thought I would die from missing you.”  He levered her to her knees, a needy look on his face.

 

Suddenly Kristin didn’t want to tease anymore.  She shifted her hips into position and easily took Nathan inside her body as he slowly lowered her down.

 

Finally they were fully joined, each holding motionless as they simply enjoyed the feel of their joining for a long moment.

 

“Never again…” Nathan whispered so quietly that Kristin heard the words more in her heart than her ears.

 

Kristin laid two fingers across Nathan’s lips and gently caressed them as she repeated his words then with a soft glint in her eye; she rose up on her knees and thrust back down quickly.

 

Nathan gasped at the surge of passion that flared through him and gripped her hips tightly as Kristin set a steady rhythm.  He was so caught up in the moment that he didn’t fully understand the bright flash he caught out of the corner of his eye.

 

Instinct taking over, Nathan rolled Kristin to one side and launched himself in the opposite direction, his body already moving into a defensive posture… until his foot caught in the corner of the bedclothes and he landed on the floor flat on his rear, legs splayed before him.

 

His eyes quickly took in the scene; an elderly bearded man was screaming and drawing back a polished cane with a golden knob for another pass.  Kristin was screaming back as she scrambled frantically for the sheet and pulled it over her naked body.  Nathan stared at the mature woman who stepped up to wrestle the man for the cane and realized that he was seeing his wife in twenty-five years.

 

“No, Lionel!” The woman was yelling as she held tightly to the walking stick.  “Stop it!”

 

“Don’t, Daddy!”  Kristin’s voice joined the din.

 

“Let go!”  Lionel yanked at the cane, trying to free it from his wife’s grasp.

 

Nathan rocked to his heels then to his feet, unmindful of his nakedness as he bellowed.  “Everybody shut the hell up!”

 

The room went quiet as all eyes turned to him.

 

Nathan stared at Kristin’s parents blandly, daring Lord Westphalen to try and swing the stick again.  After a few moments it fell to the old man’s side.  He then turned his gaze to Kristin’s mother and realized she was staring at him with unabashed admiration; or more specifically, gazing at his still rampant erection.  Nathan reached out and grabbed the edge of the blanket, yanking it up and over his hips.

 

“This certainly isn’t the way that I imagined meeting my new in-laws for the first time.  Lord Westphalen, if you would be so kind as to give your lady wife the weapon?”

 

Millicent smiled as she yanked the cane away.  “Wise man,” she murmured.

 

“Good…”

 

“How dare you take advantage of my daughter, you scoundrel!?  Whatever plan those people came up with, it won’t work!  I don’t care how much they paid you!”

 

“You don’t know what you are talking about, Daddy.  Nathan is my husband!” Kristin yelled back.

 

“Stop it!”  Nathan yelled again.  Everyone fell quiet.  “Okay, Lord and Lady Westphalen, I can understand that you might have some concerns.  However, they will not be discussed here.  You will return to the downstairs parlour now and Kristin and I will dress and join you in approximately twenty minutes.”

 

“Now see here…” Lionel blustered.

 

“Your only other option, Lord Westphalen, is for me to bodily eject you from this room and secure the door.  Then you can wait until hell freezes over.”  The icy look in Nathan’s eyes let Lionel know that he meant business.

 

Millicent pulled at her husband’s arm gently.  “Come, Lionel.  Let’s go downstairs.”

 

“But…” Suddenly all the fight left Lionel and his shoulders slumped as he allowed Millicent to lead him from the room.  Nathan couldn’t resist a grin as his mother-in-law reached back to grasp the doorknob, giving him one last raking appraisal as she closed the door solidly behind her.

 

“I don’t think that you have to worry about winning my mother’s favor.” Kristin observed wryly.

 

Nathan turned back to his wife and dropped the blanket.  “So… do we get dressed now or do we finish what we started then get dressed?”  He waggled an eyebrow at her.

 

Kristin reached out and ran the tip of her finger down his length.  “As badly as I want to continue, let’s get this scene taken care of.  Then we can come back here and lock the world away.  Unless you will be too uncomfortable…”

 

“I’ll survive… unless you keep doing that, my lady… oh God!” Nathan groaned, one arm snaking out to wrap around the nearest bedpost as Kristin shifted in front of him and replaced her finger with the tip of her tongue.

 

Nathan’s free hand swung up to grab the frame of the bed’s canopy, his gaze riveted down to the point where Kristin’s hands were wrapped around his still growing length, ruby red lips rubbing over the shaft before opening wide to consume the purple plum on the tip.

 

“Kris… you don’t have… oh, darling…” The sounds issuing from Nathan’s lips were no longer coherent as Kristin began to work her mouth up and down.  The sight mesmerized him and he felt his juices rising quickly.  He tried to pull his hips back but Kristin wrapped her hands around his buttocks and held him steady.

 

“Krs… Gn… a…” His control completely gone, Nathan erupted into his wife’s mouth in a single long stream.  When Kristin would have continued her movement, intent on milking him dry, he dropped a hand to her hair to stop her.

 

“It’s enough for now,” he quietly told her, his entire body still trembling.

 

“But…” She would have protested but Nathan laid his fingers over her shiny lips.

 

“You’ve taken the edge off, my love, but I have no desire to see your father burst through our bedroom door with his cane swinging a second time.  Besides once we get through with this I intend for us to return to this room where I am going to love you slowly and thoroughly.”

 

A sensual smile touched Kristin’s lips as Nathan’s strong hands helped her up and out of the bed.  Once her feet were firmly on the ground he pulled her body fully into contact with his and kissed her gently.

 

“Thank you, my love,” he murmured against her lips then slowly fell to his knees before her.  His lips pressed quick kisses across her belly then he paused and pressed his forehead to it.

 

“Mama and I have to go downstairs and have a long talk with your grandpa Westphalen.  There might be some things said that you don’t need to hear so I want you to be good and go to sleep.  I promise that we will talk later.”

 

Kristin ruffled Nathan’s hair as he placed one final kiss then rose to his feet.

 

“Are you ready?  I can do this alone if you don’t feel up to it.”

 

Kristin grabbed his hand and clenched it tightly.  “We are in this together, right?”

 

“Always.  I just don’t want you getting overly upset.  I don’t want to take any chances with you or our baby.  You are more important than anyone or anything.”

 

“We are both fine.”  She raised their hands then opened his and kissed his palm.  “As long as we are all together…”

 

Nathan nodded then after a long moment reluctantly moved away to gather his pants and pull them on.  His boots followed.  He returned to the vanity bench to tug them on, his eyes never leaving Kristin as she moved to her dressing room.  Once his boots were in place he stood and followed her.

 

“Need some help?” He asked as she pulled a long chemise and a quilted blue dressing gown from their hangers.

 

Kristin smiled as she held the chemise out.  Nathan took the garment and slid it over her head and down her body, smoothing the fabric as he went.  Once it was in place around her knees he held the robe for her to slip into.

 

“Respectable enough?” She asked as she fastened the four closures and tied the belt loosely beneath her breasts.

 

“It is a good thing that you have a husband, my love, because it is more than obvious that you are pregnant.”

 

Kristin quickly grabbed a slipper from the shelf next to her and lobbed it at Nathan.  “Let’s go face the lions.”

 

“Let me grab my shirt… Where is my shirt?”  Nathan moved back into the main room in search of the missing garment.

 

“I think it is probably somewhere on the staircase.”

 

“I can hardly face your father again without being properly clothed.  It had better be.”

 

“Mummy wouldn’t mind…”

 

Nathan gave Kristin a wry smile as he swung the door open.  To his surprise a neat pile of folded clothing lay in front of the entryway.

 

“Stephens?” He asked as he picked the pile up and carried it into the room.

 

“Stephens.” Kristin confirmed.

 

“Remind me to thank him.”

 

“He would be shocked and mortified if you mentioned this evening to him.”

 

Nathan grinned.  “I don’t know why.  It’s been a hell of a good evening so far.”  He shrugged into his shirt and quickly fastened it then held his arm out to Kristin.

 

With one last kiss they departed.

 

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

 

“Where the hell are they?  It’s been twenty minutes at least.  In one more minute I am going back there.  Where did you put my cane, Mils?”

 

Nathan paused at the bottom of the stairs as Lionel’s enraged voice came drifting through the hallway.  “I don’t think that he has calmed down any.”

 

“Not bloody likely,” Kristin whispered back.  “Once my father gets a notion in his head… Maybe we could make a run for the front door.”

 

“Lionel!  Will you please put your watch up and sit down?  You are not going anywhere.  You’ve already made an ass of yourself and I would prefer if you didn’t continue that trend.”  Nathan and Kristin shared a smile at her mother’s words but the grin faded as she continued.  “And I don’t understand why you are still here, General Thomas.  Your presence is neither wanted or warranted in this situation.”

 

“That bastard Bridger is in cahoots with the Noyce woman to try and rob me of my bride.  They won’t succeed.”

 

Nathan saw Kristin shudder at the sound of Thomas’ voice.  “Did he ever hurt you, Kristin?”

 

“No,” she reassured him.  “He was never improper in any way… not until the dance that you interrupted.  But something about him makes my skin crawl.  It has from the first moment that I met him.”

 

“This will be the last time… I’ll go throw him out now if you like.”

 

Kristin shook her head.  “Let him see us together, know that we are truly husband and wife.  Then throw him out.”

 

“Have I ever told you how much I like your style, Mrs. Bridger?”  Nathan left the staircase then turned and lifted Kristin from the bottom step to his side.

 

“Thank you, Captain Bridger.” 

 

At that moment the door to the parlour swung open wide and they stopped enroute to a kiss to find Lionel glaring at them.  He didn’t say a word but crossed his arms and tapped his foot, letting the couple know that he wasn’t going anywhere.  Kristin slid her arm through Nathan’s and the couple moved calmly toward him.

 

“Ah, Kristin.  There you are.  I’ve rung for tea.  I hope you don’t mind…” The twinkle in Millicent’s eye belied the calm façade that she displayed.

 

“Of course not, Mummy.”  Kristin answered as she settled on the sofa, Nathan sitting down right beside her.

 

Millicent noted the way the couple’s hands linked between them and nodded slightly in approval.  “So, Nathan… tell us something about yourself.”

 

“He’s a black-hearted thief who is attempting to steal my bride.”

 

“MY bride, Frank.” Nathan’s voice was steely with anger.  “Kristin was never in danger of marrying you, no matter what you contrived.”

 

“I don’t know why you are doing this.  You don’t need the money so it must be a favor to your friends but it isn’t going to work.  You haven’t been seen in polite company in years.  How could you have met an English countess?”

 

Nathan sighed then turned to Kristin, his hand squeezing hers.  “Excuse me for just a moment, love.”  He whispered tenderly.

 

Once he stood and faced off against Thomas and Lionel the tender demeanor was gone.  “I am getting so damned tired… pardon me, Lady Westphalen… so DAMNED tired of everyone doubting my word and the word of my wife.  I don’t believe that either of us could be accused of being liars but suddenly the two of you seem to be doing so.”

 

“You can bluff all you want but it won’t work.  I have a special license in my pocket and Kristin Westphalen and I will be married tomorrow!”

 

“Then you obtained the license under false pretences.  Under British law a woman cannot have two husbands.”

 

“At the moment she doesn’t have any.” Thomas sneered.

 

“I am getting sick of listening to you, Frank, and I owe you no explanations so shut up.”  Nathan turned his back on Thomas, his full attention focused on his father-in-law.  “Lord Westphalen, I realize that the circumstances are a bit strange but I am married to your daughter.  We were married at my home in the Caribbean almost three months ago.”

 

“By a local witch doctor, no doubt.” Thomas muttered.

 

“That does it!” Nathan whirled on Thomas.  “You are leaving now.”

 

“And who is going to make me?  You?” Thomas scoffed.  “I’d like to see you try.”

 

“I have no doubt that Nathan could do it on his own but we wouldn’t want him straining himself on his first night with his wife in several months so I would be happy to take care of that job for him.”  Bill Noyce stepped into the room through a hidden panel in the wall.

 

“I should have known you were there, my troublesome child.” Kristin laughed as Cynthia followed Bill out.

 

“We wanted to see what was happening but we weren’t sure that you would let us in so…” Cynthia shrugged her shoulders as Will moved up behind her.

 

“How many of you were in there?” Nathan looked around Bill to watch as Janet emerged from the door followed by Lucas and Clarissa.  Malcolm brought up the rear.

 

“Hi ya, Frank,” Lansdowne gave the angry man a little wave and a cheeky grin.

 

Thomas turned back to Lionel.  “Their presence here proves this hoax.  They set this entire thing up.  For some reason they are trying to destroy me.  Nathan Bridger and your daughter are not married.”

 

Lionel folded his arms.  “After what we walked in on upstairs if they aren’t married now they damned well will be just as soon as it can be arranged.” He turned his head to glare at Nathan.

 

“Lionel, we had this all settled,” Thomas pleaded.  “I am still willing to marry your daughter.  We will forget this night ever happened.  We can call a minister right now then leave for the country immediately after we speak our vows.”

 

“Why are you so anxious to marry my wife?” Nathan interjected.

 

“He is anxious because he needs a quick fall back plan.  His little house of cards at the embassy is about to crumble around his ears.” Bill spoke up.

 

Thomas turned to snarl at him.  “You don’t know what you are talking about.”

 

“As a matter of fact I do.  Relieving you of your post and arranging your escort and transport back to Washington to face charges for embezzlement and professional misconduct is the reason that I am in London.  You’ve been under investigation for several months, Thomas.  I think you realized that you were being watched, which is why you are so desperate to marry money and position.  You were hoping that being the son-in-law of a duke would save you from charges.”

 

“We had a deal, Stonevale.  I won’t let you out of it.”  Thomas frantically made one last desperate attempt.  “If I go then your grandchild will be a bastard.”

 

“I am getting so damned tired of people calling my child that.  My apologies again, Lady Westphalen.” Nathan apologized for his swearing.

 

“I think that under the circumstances I can overlook your language, Nathan.  I am married to Lionel… there isn’t much that you could say that would shock me.”  Millicent beamed at her son-in-law.

 

“Sit down and shut up, Thomas.  Your military escort will be arriving momentarily.  And if you are of a mind to try anything…” Bill gestured at Will, Lucas and Malcolm, “…I would not recommend it.”

 

Lucas looked absolutely thrilled at the idea that he might get a shot at the man who had been tormenting his mother.

 

“So… as I was saying… Kristin and I married about three months ago and…”

 

“Did we miss anything?”  Ben and Katie burst into the room, interrupting Nathan’s explanation.  “We saw the captain arrive at the party and then leave with Kristin and the next thing we knew everyone was gone.”

 

Nathan rolled his eyes as he shook the hand Ben offered and kissed Katie on the cheek.  “I am trying to explain how Kristin and I came to be married so if you don’t mind…” He gestured toward two chairs.

 

“That’s a story that I would be very interested in hearing myself.”  Nathan eyed the elderly woman who appeared behind Ben and Katie with interest, wondering who she was.

 

“Lavinia!” Kristin leapt to her feet only to find Nathan immediately behind her, his hands holding her waist to lend moral support.  “What are you...?”

 

“This young couple needed a ride and I must admit that I was curious to see the outcome of the farce that nasty little man orchestrated.” She gestured toward Thomas.

 

“You knew?” Kristin’s surprise was evident.

 

Lavinia wrinkled her nose in Thomas’ direction.  “That odious troll approached me at the Wakefield gala.  Made it clear that if I didn’t oppose his plans he would be favorable to my taking control of Cynthia.  Didn’t trust him for a minute, although I let him think that I did.”

 

“How could you…?” Kristin started but Cynthia cut her off.

 

“Grandmother told me tonight what was being planned.  I went to grandfather’s study to confront him and overheard he and Thomas talking.  I know that you are upset with grandfather, Mummy, and you have every right to be but Thomas lied to him.  He let grandfather think that you had agreed to his suite.”

 

Kristin’s head was spinning as she held up her hand.  “Wait… Lavinia… warned you?” She turned to her mother-in-law.  “Why would you do that?  I would have thought that seeing me miserable would make you happy.”

 

Lavinia was unabashedly ashamed as she moved closer to Kristin.  “You said something to me at that same fete, daughter, something about not ever knowing true love.  That isn’t true.  I did know how to love, once upon a time but when it was lost, I locked my heart away so that it could never be hurt again.  Your words reminded me of that and I realized that I wanted the same for my granddaughter... and the same for you.”

 

“Lavinia… I don’t know what to say…” Kristin was truly stunned at the old woman’s words.

 

“There isn’t anything that you need to say.  I’ve wronged you greatly over the years and I only hope that you might someday find it in your heart to forgive me.”

 

“How damned touching.  I’m not listening to anymore of this nonsense.”  Thomas moved determinedly toward the door.  A quick jerk of the Bill’s head had Ben moving to block his path.

 

Stephens appeared in the doorway pushing a trolley laden with tea and assorted finger foods.  “I took the liberty of adding some refreshments, my lady.”  The sight of fifteen people in the small room didn’t seem to phase him at all.  “By the way, Admiral, I believe that there is a military escort converging on the front garden at this very moment.  I am sure that the gardener would appreciate it if you could ask them to stay away from his prize roses.”

 

“Ben, if you wouldn’t mind escorting the general?” Bill asked as he made toward the door. 

 

Thomas tried to shrug off Ben’s hold but the younger man had too tight a grip so the general was forced to follow Bill out into the hallway.

 

Lionel moved to the only empty chair in the room and sat down hard an astounded look on his face.  “He was using me to get my daughter?  But how… we’d only met just before Krissy was taken… and she’d never met him… why… I don’t understand.”

 

Millicent moved to her husband’s side and clasped his hand.  “I am sure that initially Thomas was just what he professed to be but after Kristin returned… when the opportunity to exploit her condition arose, he couldn’t resist taking advantage.”

 

“And I almost made a dreadful mistake.”

 

“But you didn’t, sir.”

 

At the sound of Nathan’s voice some of Lionel’s fury returned.  He rose out of the chair shaking a finger at his new target.  “Just because I mistrusted once don’t you dare think that I am about to make the same mistake again!  I want to know about this farce of a marriage and I want to know now!”

 

“I’d hardly call it a farce, Daddy.” Kristin interjected, her hands resting on her belly drawing even more attention to her circumstance.  “As Nathan tried to tell you, we were married several months ago at his home in the islands.”

 

“I would like a little more back story.” Lionel answered.  “Exactly what happened after you were taken off of your ship, Kristin.  You’ve hardly told me anything.”

 

“That would have been difficult to do when I wasn’t speaking to you because you weren’t listening to me.”  Kristin’s eyebrows rose as she stared at her father defiantly.  After a few moments he relaxed just a bit and sank back into the chair. 

 

“I am ready to listen now.”

 

Kristin and Nathan shared a glance then at a nod from his wife Nathan began.

 

“Kristin’s ship was attacked and she and Katherine were taken by pirates.  The pirate ship made the mistake of attacking the ship that I was sailing on but they hadn’t fully recovered and we were able to defeat them.  I found the ladies on board and brought them over to my ship with the help of my mate, Ben Kreig.”

 

Lionel’s eyes narrowed.  “Is this true, Katie?  I’ve known you all of your life and I know that you wouldn’t lie to me.”

 

Katie smiled.  “It is fairly accurate.  The captain is leaving out the part about his sword fight with the head pirate.  He was very brave.”

 

Lionel looked skeptical.  “Continue.”

 

Nathan gestured to the sofa and helped Kristin sit then joined her.  “Unfortunately we weren’t able to deal conclusively with the ship but we managed to get away.  I had business that had to be dealt with but I agreed to bring Kristin and Katherine back to England once my business was completed.”

 

“So you just sailed away with a complete stranger?  That doesn’t sound like you, Kristin.”

 

“He saved me and he saved Katie.  Nathan didn’t have to do that.  I trusted him and he was a perfect gentleman.”

 

Lionel barked at that remark.  “Perfect gentleman… then how did you end up two months more pregnant than married?  If he is the father…”

 

Nathan felt his temper rising.  “Let’s get a few things straight before we go on.  I am Kristin’s husband.  I am the father of the child that she is carrying.  Yes, we anticipated our wedding vows but there isn’t exactly a priest on every corner in the islands.  When we arrived at my island I sent one of my men for a clergyman immediately.  We married the day after he arrived.”

 

“At least you did the decent thing by marrying Kristin after you ruined her.”

 

Nathan felt as if he was bashing his head against the wall and he dearly wanted to bash his fist as well.  Kristin clamped both hands over his clenched fingers.  “I didn’t ruin your daughter.  We married because we fell in love.  Neither one of us gave any consideration to the thought that there might be a child of our love.  Kristin didn’t think that she could conceive and it wasn’t important to me.”

 

“You didn’t want a child of your own?”

 

“I had a child of my own and I lost him,” Nathan told Westphalen, not surprised to see a sympathetic flash in the older man’s eyes.  “Now I have Lucas, who we both love as if he were our own, and I have Cynthia, who I already admire tremendously.  They are more than sufficient.  Our baby is just icing on the cake.”

 

“If you love Kristin and the boy so much why did you send them back to England and stay gone so long?  Didn’t you care that they were suffering?”

 

“More than I can say.” Nathan and Kristin looked longingly at each other as she raised her hand to his cheek.  “But there was something… I needed to take care of.”

 

“Like what?”

 

Dark blue eyes questioned deep brown ones.  Kristin was the first to break their contact. 

 

“Cynthia, would you run upstairs to our bedroom and look in the drawer of my vanity.  There is a small wooden jewelry box there.  Bring it back to me, please?”

 

“Are you sure, love?” Nathan whispered.  “You don’t have to…”

 

“It’s all right.  They deserve to know.”

 

“What the hell are you two muttering about?  I won’t have any collaboration of stories.”

 

“Shut up, Father!” Kristin’s shout stunned everyone.  “Stop making the snide comments and be quiet until you hear the rest of what we have to say.”

 

Cynthia reentered the room before Lionel could respond.  She quietly handed her mother the plain box then resumed her seat.  Kristin nervously fingered the lid a moment before continuing.

 

“The pirate was named Zellar.”  She shuddered, her eyes clenched tightly as she struggled to clamp down on a wave of nausea. 

 

“I thought that the Blue Rogue took you.  Peterson said he saw the blue sails.” Lionel’s comment was barely a whisper.

 

“A ruse to throw us off as to his true identity.” Kristin snapped.  Lionel didn’t say anything more.

 

“When I regained consciousness I was in his cabin.  He was there and he was intent on… misusing me.  I was able to hold him off, and when he left for a time I searched his cabin.  I found some things…”

 

Trembling fingers slowly pulled the box lid open and reached inside.  Nathan reached out to hold the box as Kristin drew the contents out.  “In one of the desk drawers I found something that I recognized… and I think that you will too.  Lucas…”

 

The boy stood up from his perch at Clarissa’s feet and moved to his mother’s side.  He took the object she had in her hand and at her nod, moved to Lionel and laid it in his then returned to his place.

 

Lionel opened his fingers slowly and stared at the ring, carefully turning it over and over.  “Oh God!” He breathed.  Tears came to Millicent’s eyes as she recognized the piece as well.

 

“James’ ring.  I’d know it anywhere… how… this pirate… He’s the one who killed your brother!”

 

Kristin held up her other hand to reveal the gold watch dangling from its chain.  “Zellar killed James and Oliver.  The ship… the ship was Oliver’s ship.  He’d taken it and kept it, just as he kept these things… as some sort of trophy…”

 

“That bastard!” Lionel swore.  “I’ll contact the Admiralty tomorrow.  We’ll hunt the brigand down no matter what it takes…” He trailed off at the shake of Kristin’s head.

 

“Zellar came back and tried again to seduce me, then force me.  During the course of his advances he revealed an obsession with me… an obsession with the image of me on the portrait inside the watch.  He’d spent fifteen years spinning fantasies…” Kristin turned and buried her face in Nathan’s shoulder, unable to continue.

 

No one in the room, not even Lionel, could doubt the love between the couple as Nathan gently rubbed Kristin’s back and crooned soothing words to her.  She responded to the sound of his voice and the feel of his touch, the shaking of her shoulders finally slowing as she clung to him.

 

Once she had regained control Kristin lifted her head and looked up at Nathan.

 

“Why don’t I finish… if you are okay?”

 

Kristin smiled weakly at him and settled her head back into the crook of his neck although this time she didn’t hide her face.  Nathan kept his arms wrapped loosely around her as he continued the narrative.

 

“Zellar wasn’t able to take Kristin against her will.  She fought him and when she couldn’t fight anymore she emptied the contents of her stomach on him.”

 

“That’s my girl.” An appreciative gleam twinkled in Lionel’s eye.

 

“She was very brave,” Nathan agreed.  “We were able to escape and get back to my ship but we couldn’t hold the pirate vessel.  That is when I decided to take the ladies with me.  After everything that they had been through they needed to take some time to rest.  Kristin sent a note to Cynthia to let her know what had happened but I guess that it didn’t arrive.”

 

Kristin noticed the sheepish, almost embarrassed look that flitted across Lavinia’s features but didn’t say anything.

 

“I was attracted to Kristin the first moment that I saw her and on the voyage we spent a great deal of time together.  I watched her help Lucas learn to read, the tender care that she took with him when he became ill and the way she cared for me during the same illness a week later.  I hadn’t thought about becoming involved with another woman since my wife died but I couldn’t help myself.  I fell in love with Kristin and to my great amazement, she fell in love with me too.”

 

“I can see that,” Lionel was amazed at the depth of feeling between his daughter and this stranger.  “But why did you leave her?”

 

“Sending Kristin and Lucas to England without me was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done in my life but it was necessary.  I had men posted in the busiest ports… I had a feeling and I was right.  Zellar was looking for Kristin.  He wasn’t able to let go of his fantasy.  I hoped that if we stayed to ourselves for a while he would give up but then one of his men actually came to my island looking for her.  I knew then that she wouldn’t be safe as long as he lived.”

 

Lionel’s eyes grew wide as Nathan’s words sunk in.  “You went after him?”

 

“I had no other choice.  He was a threat to my wife.  I couldn’t let her be hurt.  So I sent Kristin and Lucas back to you along with Katie and Ben.  I made my plans and I went after Zellar.”

 

“Did you get him?”

 

“I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t.  I came as quickly as I could once Zellar had been dealt with.”

 

“You murdered him.”  Lionel whispered.

 

“Let me fill in a few blanks for you, Lord Stonevale.”  Everyone had been so engrossed in the story that they hadn’t realized when Bill and Ben returned.  Now Bill spoke up to defend his friend.  “Nathan tracked Zellar, disarmed his band of cutthroats and challenged the pirate to a fair fight.  Nathan even ordered his men to release Zellar if he killed Nathan, to let him go… but only if he never bothered Kristin.

 

“Zellar used every underhanded trick that he could think of to disconcert Nathan but he didn’t succeed.  Nathan drew first blood then Zellar got a very solid hit in.  He got too cocky and Nathan had him pinned within minutes… but Nathan didn’t kill him.”

 

“So my son’s murderer still lives?”

 

“No.  Reuben Zellar was duly tried by a military tribunal consisting of American and British naval officers.  He was convicted of piracy on the high seas and hung.  Both of your son’s murders have been avenged.”  Bill told the Westphalens and Lavinia.  Cynthia stood and moved to her grandmother’s side, hugging the old woman tightly as she wept copious tears at this news.

 

“Oh my son!” Lionel clenched the ring tightly in his fist as he slid out of his chair to his knees.  His body instinctively turned toward his wife’s and he buried his head in Millicent’s lap.  She bent low over her husband, wrapping her arms around his torso as both of them sobbed.

 

The room fell silent as the long moment of mourning continued, all of the couples moving together to take comfort in each other’s presence.  Finally Lionel lifted his head and with tear-filled eyes, quietly spoke.

 

“I owe you a debt of gratitude, Admiral.”

 

Bill shook his head.  “You owe Nathan Bridger, sir.  If he hadn’t tracked Zellar down then we would never have known where to find him.”

 

Lionel looked toward Nathan and stared a moment then cleared his throat uncomfortably.  “Captain Bridger, I…”

 

“OH!” Nathan interrupted him.  “There is one more thing…” His hands reached to his breast and he realized that he only had on a shirt.  “My coat… I need to find my coat.”

 

“Your coat, sir.”  Stephens appeared at the door to the parlour with Nathan’s formal jacket, freshly pressed.  “Everything is in order.”

 

“How does he do that?” Nathan asked Kristin once the butler had departed.  He dug in the inner pocket of the garment and emerged with a sheaf of papers, which he then held out to Stonevale.  “When I arrived and learned of the controversy over our marriage I thought that I had better have everything in hand when I presented myself.  Here is our marriage license and the documentation where I registered the ceremony today.”

 

Lionel quickly thumbed through the papers, his brow furrowing in disbelief at each turn.  “This is signed… by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself?”

 

Nathan looked at Malcolm.  “I have a friend who knows some important people.”

 

“His grace owed me a favor.  He’s a lousy poker player.”  Malcolm grinned.

 

Realizing that he was hardly authoritative while kneeling on the floor, Lionel struggled to his feet.  “So it is true.  You did marry my daughter.” He continued to rifle through the papers as if searching for any flaw at all.

 

“Everything is legal, sir.  Every I dotted, every T crossed.  As luck would have it, the Archbishop was actually a friend of our Reverend Law’s father when they were both young vicars.  Archbishop Sutton was pleased to see evidence of the young man’s work in the islands.”

 

“And you’ve obviously consummated the match…”

 

Kristin’s hand flew to her mouth as she tried to stifle the rising giggle.

 

Nathan’s hand splayed over her belly.  “Obviously…” he replied dryly.

 

“Well… at least I don’t have to force you to marry her.”  Lionel observed then turned to Kristin.  “This marriage is what you want?  You would be willing to leave England, leave your family, give up everything that you have to live on a deserted island with this man?”

 

There was no hesitation in Kristin’s answer.  “This very moment if he asked me to.  I love you and mummy.  You know that.  But I am Nathan’s wife.  My place is beside him no matter where that might be.  I want this marriage.”

 

Lionel thought on her answer a moment then addressed Nathan.  “Are you going to take our daughter away from us?  Away from her daughter?”

 

Nathan could see that beneath his gruff exterior the old man was fearful of his answer.  “Taking Kristin away is not my intent but I must be honest and say that my business interests will require that we spend at least part of the year in America, either at my family home in Boston or on my island.  We both hope that Cynthia will chose to travel with us, at least some of the time.  You and your lady are also welcome to visit at any time.  And when my business allows it we will come back to England.”

 

“Will you promise me that you will spend at least six months out of every year here?”

 

“No.  I can’t make that promise because we might not be able to keep it.  However, I can promise that we will do our utmost best to spend at least two or three months a year here.”

 

Lionel frowned although within he grudgingly admired the honesty of this strange man… his new son-in-law.

 

“She has a fierce temper.”

 

“Yes, sir.  I’ve been on the receiving end of that temper quite a few times over the last six months.”

 

“This is an all or nothing deal.  If you get tired of her or fed up with her you can’t give her back.”

 

“I would never even dream of that.”  Nathan recognized that Lionel’s resistance was cracking slightly.

 

“But if you ever hurt her by God, I will make sure that you rue the day.”

 

“I didn’t track a crazed pirate across the islands to protect her just to return home and hurt her myself.  I will always keep her safe.”

 

Finally Lionel gave a short nod.  “I will arrange to have an announcement posted in the Times tomorrow.  I expect a detailed biography of you on my desk no later than seven in the morning.”

 

Nathan glanced at Kristin, a panicked look on his face. 

 

“I think the Times announcement can wait another day, Father.  Nathan is going to be too busy this evening to write his life story, even in condensed form.”

 

Lionel looked as if he would like to protest but Millicent gently called him down.  “Dear, the children have been apart for several months.  Leave them be.  After all, everyone at our party saw their public reunion so I suspect that the news is all over London by now.”

 

“Everyone except us…” Lionel groused.

 

“Yes… what were you and grandmother doing in the garden for so long, Grandfather?” Cynthia asked.

 

“We were having a discussion, girl, so wipe that smirk off of your face.”

 

Millicent grabbed Lionel’s hand and tugged him toward her.  “Your grandfather was very concerned that he may have made a mistake in his judgment of Frank Thomas and his lack of judgment with your mother.  He needed to talk his confusion out so I listened.  We were coming in to find Thomas and tell him that no announcement would be made.”

 

Kristin smiled at her mother’s words.  “So you finally came to your senses and decided to trust your daughter.”

 

Lionel looked at Kristin sheepishly.  “Can you ever forgive me, my dear?  I am afraid that I let my fears overrule my common sense.  But I only acted out of concern for you…”

 

“I realize that now.  Nathan is home and you accept the truth so we should both work to put the past few months dissention behind us.”

 

Nathan graciously stepped to the side as Lionel moved up to Kristin; father and daughter embraced.  When they broke apart Lionel took Kristin’s hand and held it gently for a moment then placed it in Nathan’s. 

 

“For better or worse…” he murmured.

 

“Nathan and Kristin had a lovely wedding.” Janet told Millicent.  “She wore the same gown that she wore tonight and she was beautiful.”

 

Kristin laughed as she and Nathan settled back down on the sofa.  “I don’t guess I looked too bad considering I’d spent the previous evening hanging off the face of a cliff in a thunderstorm.”

 

“What?!” Lionel and Millicent echoed together.

 

“It was an accident.  I didn’t know the ground was unstable and there had been a lot of rain.  I just happened to be standing on the edge when it sheared away.  Nathan found me and climbed down to hold on to me until help arrived.”

 

“I already knew that I wanted to marry Kristin but after seeing her in danger I didn’t want to wait one minute longer.  Crocker, my first mate, had arrived with the vicar the day before so we got married.”

 

“Would you like to see, Lady Westphalen?  I mean…” Will stammered a bit over his words.  “I brought something over several days ago.  Cynthia has been keeping it in her room until the right time to present it and…  it’s meant to be a wedding present for Uncle Nathan and Aunt Kristin.”

 

“I’d love to see your gift, William.” Millicent answered graciously.

 

“I’ll just go and get it…” The door swung open before William could finish his sentence.  Stephens stepped into the room with a large frame in his hand, covered by a linen cloth.

 

“Your gift, Master William.”  The butler popped a wooden easel from beneath one arm and snapped it open in front of the semi-circle of people then place the portrait on it and left.

 

Nathan turned to Kristin.  “Now I am getting scared.”

 

Kristin simply shrugged.  “Stephens is the best butler I’ve ever employed.”

 

William moved to the painting, his hands fluttering nervously.  “I hope you like it.  Maybe I shouldn’t have presumed but I thought that you might like something… and since I was an eye witness.”

 

“Will,” Kristin said softly.  “You are very talented and I know that we will love your gift no matter what it portrays.”

 

“It’s your wedding day.”  Will threw back the cloth covering to reveal his work.

 

Everyone in the room gasped as they stared at the work of art.  Nathan and Kristin were the focal point of the picture, their arms embracing as they gazed at each other, their bodies shown from the waist up in their wedding finery.  Around the central couple were face and shoulder portraits of many of the guests.  The brush strokes and muted colors of these only served to enhance the striking couple in the center.  The color blue in every hue dominated the canvas.

 

“Oh, Will… it’s so beautiful… it’s brilliant!” Kristin breathed.  “I knew from the sketch that you were talented but this…” As words escaped her, Kristin stood and moved to embrace the blushing artist.  “Thank you so much for such a wonderful reminder…”

 

“I don’t know much about art but this looks pretty damned good to me.” Nathan said gruffly, trying to hide the emotion in his voice as he pumped Will’s hand and beat on his shoulder.

 

At the couple’s words all of the other people in the room gathered round to admire and comment on the portrait.  It was only as Lavinia was touching the doorknob that Kristin noticed her silent departure.  She quickly detached herself from the group and moved toward her mother-in-law.

 

“Where are you going, Lavinia?” She asked gently. 

 

Startled, Lavinia dropped her hand.  “I think it is time for me to leave.  This is your time to celebrate… with your family.”

 

“You are part of my family, Lavinia.  You always will be.  My marriage to Nathan doesn’t negate the fact that I was married to your son… that I loved your son… or that you are my daughter’s grandmother.  I know that we haven’t always gotten along very well but perhaps we could change that?”

 

Lavinia offered a trembling smile.  “I would like that.  But your new husband… He seems like a very decent man.  He went through hell to protect you and I will always be grateful to him for avenging my son’s death.  I wouldn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable.”

 

“You don’t make me feel uncomfortable at all, Lady Carruthers.”  Nathan moved up to join the two ladies.  “Please don’t rush away.”

 

“Well… if you are sure…” Lavinia slowly fell victim to Nathan’s blue eyes.

 

As Nathan escorted Lavinia back to a chair Kristin became aware of the chain still clutched in her fist.  She glanced down at the dangling watch and made a decision.

 

“Lavinia…” Kristin began as soon as she reached her mother-in-law’s side, “I would like for you to have this…” She held out Oliver’s watch to his mother.

 

The metal was cold in Lavinia’s hands as she carefully wrapped them around the timepiece and held it close for a moment.  Her fingers shook as they fingered the clasp and the cover swung open.

 

“I remember when Oliver had this painted.” Her eyes misted over as her mind traveled back in time.  “He was so proud of both of his girls.”

 

“Perhaps you could have a copy of Oliver’s portrait done in miniature to fit in the cover along with Cynthia’s.  Will could do it for you.”  Kristin suggested.

 

Lavinia slowly closed the watch then shook her head.  “I have a better idea.  With your permission, Kristin…” She tapped her cane on the floor to draw Cynthia’s attention then beckoned her over.

 

“Tell me child… What we talked about earlier… Are you sure?  No doubt at all?”

 

Nathan and Kristin were puzzled but Cynthia apparently understood because she nodded.  “Absolutely no doubt at all.”

 

Lavinia nodded.  “Call your young man over.”

 

“Will!” Cynthia motioned to him while Nathan looked quizzically at Kristin.  ‘Your young man’ he mouthed, eyebrows raised.

 

“Ssh!” Kristin hushed him as Will kindly knelt in front of Lavinia so she wouldn’t have to stretch her neck to look up at him.

 

“Lady Carruthers, what may I do for you?” 

 

“So…” Lavinia began to speak with an imperious air, only William being able to see the twinkle in her eye.  “You want to marry my granddaughter.”

 

“Yes, your grace.  I want very much to marry Cynthia.”  Will heard the gasp from his father and the duke behind him but resisted the urge to chuckle.

 

“And what makes you think that I would ever give you permission, an American… a would be painter with no visible means of supporting my girl?  You must be crazy.”

 

“You can say that again.” Lionel snarled behind them.

 

Lavinia glared at Westphalen until he was quiet then returned her attention to the young man at her feet.

 

“What do you have to say for yourself, William Noyce?”

 

“I am crazy… crazy in love with Cynthia.  I want to marry her and spend the rest of our lives doing my best to make her happy.  I know that I don’t have much to offer in the way of material possessions, certainly not what she is used to having, but I will get a job and work to provide for her.”

 

“And her money?  Her lands?  Her title?” 

 

“Are exactly that… hers.  I will sign away any rights to them.  I want Cynthia, not her wealth.”

 

“And if I tell you that you will not marry my granddaughter, what then?”

 

“Lavinia!  That isn’t your place to say…” Kristin spoke up; confused at the continual reversal of personality her mother-in-law was exhibiting.  The dowager countess turned and glowered at her. 

 

“I wasn’t speaking to you, Kristin.  Answer my question, young man.”

 

“If you and the duke don’t give your blessing… Cynthia and I will marry anyway.  We don’t wish to hurt you in any way but we are in love and we don’t intend to let your disapproval ruin the rest of our lives.  We will just have to hope and pray that someday you come to see how much we love each other.”

 

“I can see that, William.” The steely edge left Lavinia’s voice.  “I wish that I had had your courage… but that was another time.”  She held out her hand to Will.  He reached out to her and felt the press of cold metal in his palm as she laid her hand over his.  “I want you to have this.  Perhaps someday you will have a daughter as beautiful as the little girl on the portrait inside.  Welcome to the family.”

 

“Thank you, milady.”  Will stood and embraced Lavinia; Cynthia quickly joined in.

 

“Call me grandmother.” She commanded as the young couple straightened; their arms still around each other.

 

“What the hell is going on around here!?!?  Have you all gone mad!?!” Lionel exploded.

 

“Will someone please tell me what is going on?” Bill implored simultaneously as chaos erupted in the room.

 

Nathan was amused at the entire scene, watching intently as Ben and Katie moved in to congratulate the couple, Lucas and Clarissa close behind.  Lionel continued to bluster and Nathan zeroed in to listen as Millicent grabbed her husband’s arm and dragged him into the corner.

 

“Lionel!  Get a hold of yourself this instant!”

 

“But Mils!  He isn’t good enough for Cynni!”

 

“After everything that has happened I think that you should keep quiet and trust the children.”  Millicent told Lionel softly but firmly.

 

“But…” Nathan could tell that it wasn’t in his new father-in-law’s nature to back down easily.

 

“Do you want to alienate your daughter after you’ve just begun to repair the damage you’ve done to your relationship?  Do you want to lose Cynthia as well?  And what about the new baby?  And that fine young man who I am sure would enjoy going hiking and fishing with you.  We could lose them all, Lionel.  I don’t want to lose my family.” Millicent begged softly.

 

“But… He…” Lionel gave one last protest.

 

“Cynthia loves Will.  Kristin loves Nathan.  Please…” Under Nathan’s watchful eye Lionel nodded gently and pulled his wife into his embrace.

 

“Look, sweetheart.” Nathan nudged Kristin and inclined his head toward her parents.

 

“Mmhmm… That is tame compared to what I caught them doing right after I returned.”

 

Nathan started.  “Your parents?” He murmured in disbelief.  “At their age?”

 

“Yes.  Did you think that there was an age limit?”

 

“Well not for us but…”

 

Kristin laughed.  “Come, love.  I think someone is waiting…”

 

She wrapped her arm around his waist and drew him toward Will and Cynthia, who were waiting nervously.  When they reached the couple Nathan held out a hand to Cynthia who took it gladly then moved into his embrace.

 

“Thank you for saving mother.” She whispered.

 

Nathan pulled back with a grin on his face.  “Trust me, Cynthia.  Thomas was the one in that twosome that was in any danger and it wasn’t from me.  Your mother can be very formidable, you know.”

 

“I have noticed.” Cynthia agreed.

 

“But I am glad that I arrived tonight… that I was here for your announcement.”

 

“We wouldn’t have made the announcement until you arrived.  Will and I wouldn’t have met if you hadn’t attack…” Cynthia stopped abruptly and glanced around to see if anyone was listening.  “If you hadn’t saved mother…”

 

Nathan glanced at Kristin, his eyes asking for confirmation that Cynthia knew the truth.  Kristin nodded slightly, her own brown orbs reassuring Nathan that his secret was safe with her daughter.

 

“So you met Will when Janet came to find Kristin?”  He noted the way that Cynthia and Will looked at each other.

 

“Actually we met just outside a bookshop one afternoon then ran into each other again in the park.  We enjoyed each other’s company so we started meeting there in the afternoons.  I didn’t even realize that Cynthia Carruthers was Aunt Kristin’s daughter until after we’d admitted our feelings for each other.  I hadn’t been to visit Aunt Kristin and Lucas…”

 

“Cynthia and his art were occupying all of his time.”  Kristin stepped in when Will faltered briefly.  She’d known why the boy was staying away and didn’t want him embarrassed for his brief infatuation even though Nathan had been aware of it as well.

 

“Then it doesn’t sound like I had anything to do with the two of you falling in love.  You were fated to meet… just as Kristin was destined to be on that boat.”

 

“So, Uncle Nathan, is it agreeable to you that I marry your stepdaughter?”

 

“I already have to put up with you as a godson and now I’m going to have to put up with you as a son-in-law as well?  I think that is too much to ask.” 

 

Will laughed and embraced his uncle.  “Thank you, Uncle Nathan.”

 

“Cynthia is the only one who has to be agreeable for the marriage to take place.  I can’t believe I’ve barely met my new daughter and she’s getting ready to leave the fold. I… I’m sorry, Cynthia,” Nathan realized what he had said.  “I don’t mean to presume…”

 

Cynthia hugged Nathan again.  “Just because I am going to be married doesn’t mean that I don’t intend to get to know my new father as well.  You must be a fantastic man, Nathan Bridger, because my mother loves you so deeply.  That is how I know that I will love you too.”

 

“Be careful, Cynthia.  Nathan’s head is already big enough without you adding to it.  Now, is someone going to formally introduce me to my daughter-in-law to be?”  Bill beamed at the pretty girl at his son’s side.

 

“Sweetheart, I’m sure that you’ve already figured out that this is my father.” Will paused as Cynthia launched herself into Bill’s arms. 

 

“Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for mummy and Nathan.  I am so proud to be gaining such wonderful parents by marrying Will.”

 

Bill was initially startled by Cynthia’s hug but he quickly returned it.  “Your mother spoke of you so often that I feel as if I already know you.  I can see that you make my son very happy.  Welcome to our family, daughter.”

 

“I think there are too many people for a group hug.” Janet observed.  “And some of you might enjoy it too much.” She eyed Lucas and Clarissa suspiciously.

 

The rattle of the trolley wheels pulled their attention to the door and to Stephens, who was standing there with a cart of glasses and several bottles of wine.  “Champagne, Madame?”

 

“This is getting strange.” Nathan hissed into Kristin’s ear.

 

“Thank you, Stephens.  Would you pour, please?”

 

“Does this mean that we get to try champagne?” Lucas asked, including Clarissa in his question.

 

Nathan held up his hands.  “That is up to your mothers.”

 

Kristin looked at Janet.  “Perhaps a little taste wouldn’t be remiss.  It is a very special occasion after all.”

 

Janet nodded her agreement and Kristin turned to tell Stephens, only to find him already offering a tray to the children, each flute only half filled with the bubbly wine.

 

“You are a very good butler, Stephens.” Nathan observed as he took a glass from the tray.

 

“Thank you, sir,” was Stephen’s reply as he continued to move around the room.

 

“Someone should toast the happy couple.  Shall we wrestle for the honour, Bill?”  Nathan grinned.

 

“I think that as Cynthia’s grandfather the first toast should be mine.”  No one had noticed Lionel and Millicent move into the group.

 

“Father…” Kristin’s voice carried a warning tone.

 

“I am still head of this family, Krissy.” 

 

Nathan wanted to ask Kristin why the tips of her ears were turning red but he couldn’t because Lionel began to speak again.

 

“I’ve loved you from the instant you were born, Cynthia.  Your grandmother and I have watched you grow, shared your joys and shared your sorrows and all we have ever wanted for you is happiness.  I must admit that the rapidness of your engagement has taken us both by surprise but…” Lionel paused and swallowed hard, “the depth of your commitment is obvious.

 

In a different but no less meaningful way, your feelings for my daughter are equally as obvious, Nathan Bridger.  Kristin has chosen a brave man to be her husband.  I am a cantankerous old goat, I freely admit that, but I love all of the women of my family to distraction.  Perhaps I’ve been the only male in the family for so long that I don’t know how to react to Nathan and Will’s intrusion into my territory… but if you will be patient with me I will do my very best to learn.  I lift my glass to you, Nathan and Kristin, and to you, William and Cynthia, to both of our happy couples.”

 

The room was filled with the sound of clinking glasses and everyone drank then the low hum of chatter resumed once more.  Nathan maneuvered Kristin away from the others then bent close to her ear.  “Have we discussed everything?  All the deep dark secrets revealed?”

 

“I think so.” Kristin looked puzzled.  “Nothing else springs to mind. Why?”

 

“Because if everything is said and done I want all of these people to leave so that we can go back to bed!”

 

Kristin almost choked on her champagne.  Nathan quickly grabbed the glass and patted her back as she coughed.  Finally she regained her breath and looked back at him with a twinkle in her eye.

 

“You are insatiable!”

 

“I’ve missed my wife and I suspect that my wife has missed me as well.” He shifted his body to block the view of the others in the room as his hand trailed down the vee of her robe.

 

Kristin’s breath caught in her throat.  “I’ll send them away now.”

 

“We don’t want to be impolite.” His hand drifted across the swell of her breast.

 

“I don’t give a damn.”

 

“My goodness, will you look at the time?” Janet had been watching the couple from the corner of her eye and had a very good idea of the topic of their quiet discussion.  “I know that it has been an exciting evening but I think that it is time for us to go home.”

 

Millicent quickly picked up Janet’s thread.  “Janet is right, Stonevale.  We have a house full of guests that we abandoned hours ago.  We should get back.”

 

“To hell with the guests.  All a bunch of nosy gossips, anyway.” Lionel waved his hand dismissively.

 

“But think, my lord husband.  Everyone will be dying to find out about your new son-in-law.  Who he is, what he does…?”

 

Lionel turned to Nathan with a furrowed brow.  “What the hell do you do?”

 

“Shipping and shipbuilding.  The Bridger yard out of Boston.  Some farming on the side as well.”

 

Lionel’s weathered face suddenly broke into a wide smile.  “Bridger shipping?  Hell, son, that’s a damned fine company.  Build a quality product, almost as good as Kristin’s yard.”  He turned to his wife.  “Lets go, Mils.  We can come back tomorrow morning.”

 

“Afternoon.” Kristin interjected.

 

“Children, go upstairs and gather your things.”  Janet told Cynthia and Lucas.  She turned back to Kristin as the children left the room.  “We are taking them home with us.  I am sure that the two of you would like a little privacy tonight.”

 

“But, Janet…” Kristin moved in closer to her friend and lowered her voice.  “You and Bill…?”

 

Janet laughed.  “Will manage.  We are used to having to be creative with children in the house.  Enjoy your evening and we will bring them back tomorrow.”

 

“Afternoon.” Nathan leaned in and whispered.

 

“Bill, go call the carriage, dear.  I have an idea.  Why don’t we all meet at our house tomorrow evening for a quiet family celebration?”

 

“Go with him, Stonevale.  The children wish to be alone.  And see to Lavinia’s carriage as well.” Millicent ordered her husband then moved nearer to Kristin and Nathan.  “I am so very happy that things have turned out this way.” She told them as she grasped and held each of their hands.  “The love that you have for each other is very obvious.  Be happy.”

 

“Thank you, Lady Westphalen.”

 

“Call me Millicent.” She lifted her lips and brushed a kiss across Nathan’s cheek.  “We are family now,” Millicent turned to Kristin as she continued, “family who have overstayed their welcome.”  She pulled her daughter into an embrace and whispered,  “Judging from what I saw earlier I understand now why you enjoy your new husband so much.  You are a lucky woman, daughter.”

 

Kristin pulled back, not completely sure that she had heard her mother correctly, but the twinkle in Millicent’s eye told her that she had.

 

Cynthia and Lucas returned quickly, each with a small bag in their hands.  After a quick round of good-bye hugs Janet shooed them all into the carriage.  “We will expect you around five.  Have a good night.”  She gave Kristin a wink as Stephens closed the door behind her. 

 

“We will go now as well.  Good night, sir.  Good night, Kristin.” Ben and Katie, the last two guests quickly made their excuses.

 

“But… don’t you stay here?” Nathan asked.

 

“We are staying in the head groom’s quarters above the carriage house so all we have to do is walk through the garden.  Good night.”  The couple departed hand in hand.

 

“I offered them rooms in the house but I think that they prefer the privacy that the carriage house offers them.” Kristin observed.

 

Nathan nodded in complete understanding.

 

“At least we are alone now.” Kristin murmured as she slipped an arm around Nathan’s waist.

 

“Almost,” Nathan answered then lifted his head to look over Kristin’s shoulder.  “Stephens, Mrs. Bridger and I are going to retire now.  If anyone, friend or foe, should try to enter these premises at any time before three tomorrow afternoon…”

 

“The plank, sir.” Stephens answered properly as he disappeared down the hallway deftly pushing both trolleys before him.

 

Nathan could only stare.  “Could he…?”

 

“I don’t see how.  We don’t really even discuss the subject and we’ve been very careful.”

 

“Then how…?”

 

Kristin shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Stephens is just extremely good at his job.  Now forget about the butler.  Your wife and your child are ready to go to bed.”

 

“Tired?” Nathan asked solicitously.

 

“Not in the least.” Kristin answered, her voice thick with desire.

 

“Good…” Nathan grinned and tightened his grip on her waist as he led her up the stairs then down the hall to her bedchamber.  “After you, my lady,” Nathan bowed and gestured for Kristin to precede him into her bedroom.

 

“Thank you, my rogue…” Kristin replied in a low voice and trailed her hand over his chest as she glided past him into the room.

 

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

 

sail ahead...