A/N: I'm not too proud to hide the fact that I kind of cried when I wrote this. Like, a lot.
Nat knocked at the door, breathing a little heavily after his run from the wharf. Barely an hour ago, he and his crew had reached Saybrook with mail and other supplies from Boston. He had been bursting with excitement and could not wait to see his grandmother and Hannah Tupper, to tell them everything that had happened over the long winter.
"Nat!" Constance Ford gasped when she opened the door to see him standing there. She blinked in the April sunshine, a startling contrast to the house's dim interior. "How well you look." She eyed him up and down, taking in his new hat and captain's jacket with its glistening buttons. "Grown up at last, I see."
"Good morning, Grandmother," he said. "I've come from Boston, with my new ketch. Father-"
"Tell me nothing more until you've come in and greeted Hannah and had something to eat," Constance said abruptly, stepping back and leaving the front door open. "Every year I expect you to look better fed, considering you have been on an island paradise, and every year I am disappointed."
Hannah did not rise from her place at the spinning wheel, but stayed sitting in a beam of sunlight, weakened by its cast through the oil-paper window. She smiled up at Nat and greeted him warmly. He hurried over to embrace her gently, and then nodded at the yellow cat who meowed up at him. He extended a hand toward the animal, who sniffed it with suspicion before sitting back on her haunches and twitching her tail. The scene was so familiar, it hardly seemed as though they were anywhere else except the cottage in the Meadows. Yet his grandmother's house had tight boards for a floor and a much sturdier roof, for which he was grateful.
"Thee looks quite handsome, Nat," Hannah said, reaching out to feel the lapel of his jacket. "Has thy father consented to let thee sail alone?"
Nat sat down to eat the porridge his grandmother offered, still warm from their breakfast earlier. Between bites, he told the two women about the winter spent in the Indies, and enjoyed their gasps and cries when he described the horrific storm that nearly toppled the Dolphin. For his grand finale, he described his new ketch, the Witch, and the fortune and independence he hoped she would bring him.
"Father stayed in Boston," he explained, "while the Dolphin is hove for repairs and he decides what to do next. I offered to bring my mother to Saybrook, but she thought it best to remain with him."
"But she will come home eventually, will she not?" Constance asked, anxious as she was every year to have her daughter close by again.
"Of course," Nat said. "She cannot stay away too long-who knows what mischief the two of you will get up to this summer?"
When their chuckles had subsided, his grandmother said, "You did very well, Nat, to bring Hannah under my roof. We were very good company for each other, making the winter evenings pass easier, and the house warmer. I have never known a woman who could spin a finer thread-and we have not seen a mouse alive since that cat set foot in this house!"
Nat took another glance at the cat, and saw what Constance meant. Rather than grow lean in the colder months, the feline had become fat and content, a guard against vermin.
"This is your turn now," he said to the women. "I have told you all that has happened to me these last months, but what news have you?" He hesitated, unwilling to ask directly about Kit and yet eager for information about her more than anything else. "Any chance that something exciting happened in Connecticut this winter?"
There seemed to be a twinkle in Hannah's fading eyes, but she did not speak.
His grandmother's expression was curiously blank as she said, "Not a thing. Nothing at all has happened all winter. Or this spring, thus far."
"Thee should not say such things, Constance," Hannah said. "The Wood sisters are to be married soon, up in Wethersfield, the both of them."
"Ah, yes," Constance said. "And Ruth Marris married James Gonson only last week in the church here."
"The Wood sisters?" Nat ventured to repeat. "Kit's cousins? Matthew Wood's daughters?"
"We have heard so," Hannah said. "Thee was acquainted with them, Nat, yes?"
"I met them once or twice," Nat said. "I hope they will be very happy."
Constance took away the now-empty porridge bowl. "Hannah told me of your gallant acts toward her and Katherine Tyler, and what good friends you have been to her. I am proud that my grandson is as kindhearted as he is handsome. Of course, I never had my doubts on that score…"
"Have you heard anything from K…Mistress Tyler?" Nat asked Hannah. "Though perhaps by now I ought to refer to her as Mistress Ashby."
"I do not know about that," Hannah said. "If Kit is married, we have not heard of it. She will be the only young woman left in that household, if her cousins will be married soon, or have already."
"I wonder how she lasted her first New England winter," Nat mused, attempting to inject some humor into his tone.
The twinkle in Hannah's eyes faded as she said, "I cannot imagine that it was easy for her. After all she told me of her grandfather's plantation, and what thee has told me of the West Indies, the cold and the snow must have pained her very much. Nat, please give her my greetings when thy ketch reaches Wethersfield. I would so like to hear how she fares."
"Of course," he said. "That is, if I see her. I do not think we will have much time at the wharf, but if I do see her, I…I shall greet her for you."
They lapsed into silence; the only sounds in the house were of Constance busying herself with the breakfast bowls and mugs. Nat stared at a blank stretch of wall, his mind several miles ahead of him, up the river in Wethersfield. Hannah watched him quietly, with a knowing expression that would have embarrassed him if he could see it. Nat did not emerge from his reverie until the corner of his eye caught the motion of his grandmother sitting down again, this time with her hands full of sewing.
"Nat…" Hannah said softly. When he turned toward her, she said, "I am quite sure that Kit has not married William Ashby."
The remark struck him harder than he would have expected. He had to swallow back before raising his eyebrows in an attempt to appear nonchalant. "Is that so?"
"It is," she said. "She did not love him. I do not believe Kit would go through with a marriage to a man she did not love."
Hannah's words were a torment that Nat knew she had not intended. He could feel the cracks that were forming in his facade of cheerful indifference. Feeling slightly unsteady, he stood up with an obligatory glance toward the open door.
"If you would forgive me, ladies, I think it is time I return to the docks. They will be wondering where the captain disappeared to." He gave them both a kiss on their cheeks before adding, "I shall…pass on your greetings, Hannah. And see you both when we return to Saybrook. Good day to you!"
Once outside of the house, he took a shuddering breath to compose himself before continuing on his way. Each step he took on the road back to the wharf felt like a hammer's blow to his head, and in spite of the beautiful April weather, his hands felt suddenly icy. He silently scolded himself for nearly losing his composure, hoping his face would betray none of it by the time he returned to the Witch. Gabe would be sure to ask him about it.
Nat was not entirely sure what to make of the visit; Hannah was not one to engage in idle conversation. He knew she must have had a reason for telling him that Kit was unmarried-as far as she knew, that is. Of course, it was ridiculous to believe that Hannah had not guessed his feelings for Kit. Someone with Hannah's heart would have seen, even with her feeble eyes, how he had grown to care for the young woman. It had been happening gradually, and he could not have pinpointed when he was fully aware of it, but Hannah knew. Of course she knew.
Then another thought occurred to him: Hannah would not encourage him, however subtly, if she believed it was not worthwhile. He repeated her words in his own head-that Kit was most likely unmarried, that she had not loved William Ashby, that she would not marry a man she did not love. Did Hannah mean to tell Nat that he had a chance after all? He had spent all these months burying himself in his work and his dreams of his own vessel, just to avoid thinking of Kit Tyler. The efforts had been worthless; in spite of tropical surroundings, the storms, and loading up the new boat, she was all he could think about.
A sickening feeling sank Nat's stomach; Hannah was old, and often believed her husband was still alive and with her. What if she had been confused about Kit's situation? Perhaps he would find a Mistress Katherine Ashby in Wethersfield, after all.
The docks and the Witch finally in sight, Nat clenched his jaw, as though steeling himself for a blow. He knew then that only one thing would satisfy him, once and for all. When the crew reached Wethersfield, he would march through town to the Woods' front door, and find out for himself. If Mistress Ashby had set up housekeeping behind those expensive windows, he would wish her well.
If it was Kit Tyler he found, he would propose marriage and offer her everything he had in the world.
Something changed in the air. From his place near the bow, Nat twisted around to look up at the bright white sails of his ketch. The canvas, waving in the breeze, had fallen limp, and the boat creaked and swayed in the water, as though taunting him with her slackened pace. Turning his gaze back to the Connecticut River Nat grumbled a string of curses under his breath.
It was the same as every summer, of course, with the unpredictable winds and days without movement. This time, however, it was almost beyond Nat's endurance. Perhaps he had hoped that a vessel named the Witch could have cast a spell upon the winds and hasten their approach to Wethersfield. Superstitious nonsense, of course, but that reality did not assuage Nat's frustration, or calm his fears that they might be too late.
Sighing in annoyance, Nat left his post to see where else he might be needed.
An hour later, with no change in the weather, Gabe approached him to ask, "Should we walk 'er up the river, Captain?"
Nat glanced up at the lifeless sails, but shook his head. "If it stays this way for a few days, perhaps, but I can't see much use of it. She's smaller than the Dolphin, and will catch the wind more easily."
"Not if there's no wind to catch," Gabe said.
"Yes, thank you for pointing that out, Gabe."
"Only trying to help," the sailor said, grinning before he loped away to help one of his mates with some tricky rope.
The wind picked up again that evening, but was lost again before the morning. The pattern continued every few hours for a week, bringing Nat to what he feared was the brink of madness. He tried to keep his temper in check, knowing that the crew would realize that something was wrong. In years past, he was used to the slow voyages up and down the Connecticut River, and had rarely let it bother him. Any impatience now would be noticed and questioned by his comrades.
He would not mind so much, he realized, if only he knew what awaited him in Wethersfield.
As though she knew her captain could bear no more teasing, the Witch finally caught a steady breeze for the last two miles and brought them to the landing at Wethersfield. It was still early in the morning, with few people about. Those who were in sight, however, quickly gathered around the vessel, eager for news and supplies from beyond their town's borders. Nat hung back, staying aboard, but it seemed that no one recognized him as one of the men who had been banished from the town. Or if they did, their excitement over the Witch's cargo had overcome any desire for retribution. Even Gabe, noticeable in any crowd, had leapt to solid ground and begun to stack crates as though there was no sentence upon his fiery red head.
Nat looked into the distance, but the few people who approached them were unfamiliar. Finally he forced his mind to the tasks at hand and set foot upon the shore. He glanced up once more before deliberately turning away from the road to concentrate on the barrels of molasses being unloaded. Until his duties of trade were fulfilled, he could not entertain any thoughts of romance.
"Not all of them, Tom," he said. "There was an order from Charlestown, remember?"
"Aye, aye, sir," Tom said, handing one of them back to a seaman still on board.
Nat frowned, concentrating on counting the barrels and trying to ignore the offers being shouted at him by a couple of merchants standing nearby.
"Nat!" another voice called from somewhere behind him.
He froze, every muscle in his body tensing, unwilling to turn around and find that he was mistaken. But he could not be mistaken. In the one moment he had not been thinking of Kit, how could his mind have conjured up the sound of her voice?
Turning around, he saw that he was not mistaken. Kit Tyler broke into a run, wearing a smile that illuminated her face and told him everything he wanted to know.
Sprinting to meet her, he embraced her before realizing he was doing it. When he let her go, he clasped her hands, afraid she would disappear again if he released her completely.
"Kit," he murmured, taking in the sight of her, so close, her face bright and open, with no sign of any regrets or sorrows. "Is it Kit Tyler, still? Or am I addressing Mistress Ashby?"
She laughed, shaking her head. "No, Nat. My cousin Judith is Mistress Ashby. Or, she will be, in a few days."
"I heard…I heard your cousins were to be married, but there was no word of you."
Kit glanced around nervously. Nat saw that there were more villagers gathering near the landing, and he released her from his grasp.
"I am glad to see you," he said.
"And I, you," she replied. She had tried to recover herself, but it was too late. He had seen into her heart, and found all he had hoped for. His mind was too full, and there was too much for him to say. He hardly knew where to begin.
"We…" He swallowed. "We almost didn't make it. We sailed to Boston first, and there was a horrific storm. My father is still there, I think, and…"
"And Hannah?" Kit asked.
He grinned. Here was familiar, easy territory. "Better than I've seen her in years. She and Gran have been wonderful company. They both seem younger and…and Hannah sends her greetings."
"I'm so pleased," Kit said. She looked past him toward the new vessel, wholly unfamiliar to her. "What happened to the Dolphin?"
"In Boston for repairs, but she'll pull through, I think." He followed her gaze to the Witch, and felt that surge of pride he had felt when he stepped aboard for the first time. But there was a shadow of uneasiness, too, and he found himself worried about what Kit would say. Whatever he felt for her now, he still had not forgotten the disdain with which she had spoken of the Dolphin on her voyage from Barbados. "What do you think of this new ketch?"
"I think she's beautiful," Kit said. She looked back at him, as though seeing him for the first time, and he saw the comprehension spread over her face. Her eyes lit up as she grinned again. "Are you…Nat, is she yours?"
"After a good summer, and I repay my father. Then, yes, every last cable and nail."
"Oh, Nat," Kit sighed. "She's even prettier than the Dolphin."
He chuckled. Placing a hand at her elbow, he led her closer to the dock. "Come see what I've christened her." He laughed when she gasped, vexed.
"Nat Eaton! How did you dare? What did Hannah say?"
"I don't remember if I told her," he said. "She's not named after Hannah, anyway. We got Hannah settled in after her great escape, and I realized she was not the only one to cast a spell on me." He grinned to see Kit's pleasure through her discomfort, even as she did not meet his eyes, but kept her gaze on the ketch.
"Can I go aboard?" she asked. "Won't you let me see her?"
He took her hand again. "Not yet, Kit," he said. She returned his grasp, and he knew that she would become all his even sooner than the Witch. "I would like to speak to your uncle first. If there is something I may speak to him about."
She looked at him then. "There is, Nat," she said, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. "Most certainly."
He allowed himself another deep breath before the words tumbled out of him, giving voice to the ideas and hopes that he dared not allow himself, but which the Caribbean sunshine could not chase away.
"Will the new ketch be enough for him to consent? You'll have your house someday, Kit. I can't promise diamond-paned glass windows, or a gambrel roof, but I swear you'll have a place in Saybrook, or here in Wethersfield if you prefer. I thought it over, constantly, but I couldn't dare to hope, not knowing what I'd find here in the spring. But come winter, this November, I'll take you to the Indies, and then in the summertime-"
"-Hannah and I will keep a garden," Kit finished for him, her voice breaking with emotion.
His shoulders slumped with relief. "I hadn't meant to discuss it all here. I was going to come to the house and knock on the front door, all proper, above-board, and all that."
Kit laughed, but she said nothing.
"Will you not invite me back?" he asked, feeling his own good humor returning.
"Of course," she said, "but I want to see the ketch first, Nat, please?"
"Not a chance," he said, steering her away and leading her to the road toward her house. "The Witch has been holding back since we began sailing up the river, keeping me from you. She's as stubborn as you are. Now I'm going to make you both wait, until I bring you aboard for good."
Kit only responded with another laugh, stopping their pace to bring her arms around him again. They stayed that way for a moment, until Nat realized there was one thing for which he no longer had the strength to wait. Placing one hand against her cheek, he leaned down and kissed her.
She felt like home.