KATHARINE'S DUTY
by Kyle

Chapter 12 - The Next Breath

Edward closed the outer door to the cottage behind him after ushering Katharine inside. He took her cloak from her and removed his own, hanging them both on the hooks by the entrance door. Katharine noted with pleasure that she was seeing him for the first time in something other than the familiar navy blue.

Edward was prone to civilian fashion when he was home, and cut just as fine a figure in such as he did in his uniform. His coat of darkest green wool framed his squared shoulders every bit as formally as Katharine was used to seeing, and she smiled when he removed the coat, comfortable in just britches, shirt and waistcoat. It was a most appealing look on him, Katharine thought. He hung the coat, whose inner pocket once again contained the orders that must be forgotten tonight, on an adjoining hook. To Edward as well, the formal coat, so similar in its feel to his uniform coat, was an unwanted reminder of the hindrances of his duty.

His shirt and britches were both snowy white and cut in the fashion of his uniform articles, although Katharine was hardly reminded of his uniform as he stood before her now. Without the dark of his coat, the white attire contrasted handsomely with his weather-tanned skin, dark chestnut hair and rich brown boots. His waistcoat was of firm silk, striped in tones of ivory and cream. Small brass buttons gleamed up his chest to the dark linen stock and hint of shirt ruffle peeking from the neckline. Her eyes were drawn to his hands, which had long intrigued her with their contrasted elegance and sturdy efficiency. Without the narrow coat sleeve to constrict the fullness of the shirt, its sleeves hung loose, ruffled and carefree over his wrists to mid-hand. Katharine longed to know if she would feel both the smooth manner and the rugged directness when her body was under his touch. That distracting thought caused a shiver to pass through her very depths.

Edward saw this, and assuming her tremble was from a chill brought on by the cold, guided her through the inner foyer doors and into the keeping room. Henry had stoked the fire well, and the blaze had taken the drafty chill out the room, leaving it warm and welcoming. Katharine walked directly to the hearth and felt its heat, despite the fact that her thoughts of Edward were becoming more than enough to warm her through.

As Edward passed the small Pembroke just inside the door, he noticed a parchment with his name on it propped against the Margaret's favorite cloisonn vase.

"From Margaret," he indicated, as he took it to the marble-topped table in the corner that held a collection of brandies, wines and spirits. He poured them each a small glass of a deep ruby port, and read aloud the note from Margaret by the lamp there.

"Edward and Katharine,
How sorry Henry and I are that our family obligation can no longer be delayed. Sister Mary is out of her mind with worry over John's injury, and desiring of any remedy that will put him right again in a shake of a lamb's tail. She knows the healing powers of my hot, spiced broth, and I can no longer deny John of its medicinal effects.

Sorrier still, Edward, are we that your duty has recalled you so quickly. We do expect to return before your anticipated departure tomorrow, as Henry and his sister are not the best of companions and he would much prefer not to stay a moment longer than absolutely necessary.

I have left on the hearth a kettle of tea, steeped and hot, and a light supper awaits there as well, if you desire such nourishment. And there are sweet cakes warming in the beehive oven as a special treat. Your favorite, Edward, with much honey and dusted with cinnamon.

Henry has warmed the fire in your bedroom, Edward, and left the lamps lit up there - anything to ward off this damp chill. The fire in Katharine's room grew cold and Henry claims a drafty flue prevents it from drawing properly, so you had best manage to keep her warm, Captain!

Until the morrow,
Yours,
Margaret"

He refolded the note with a chuckle and left it on the table as he picked up the two glasses of port and turned to Katharine. Margaret's none-too-subtle reference reached her as well, and Edward noted how the amused, upturned corners of her mouth drew attention to the fullness of her lips, still showing the tender bruising of their hard kisses out on the hill. Edward's own lips had never felt so raw and sensitive as they did at this moment, and he yearned for more of the same.

"Hmmm, that sounds like an order, Captain. I trust you will carry this one out with your customary attention to duty and responsibility?"

"Of course, Your Grace! I give each and every order issued me due consideration and my utmost attention."

"I would like to think I would be the object of your utmost attention even were it not ordered." Katharine spoke playfully, but with more than a hint of earnest longing dripping from every word.

"You, dear lady, have been the object of my attention since you whacked me with your fan and bobbled your plumed tresses in my direction at Sir Hew's dinner party in Gibraltar! And I would not have it any other way."

His eyes drank in what his arms had felt when he embraced her out on the hill. Edward had, of course, seen her dressed in her Duchess finery back in Gibraltar, and she had certainly caught his eye, but that memory did nothing to prepare him for the vision before him now. Katharine's "Duchess" had been larger than life, in manner and dress, and he had appreciated her beauty as a pleasant, but distant, diversion. The woman who stood not ten feet from him now was a radiant force drawing him to her in a way that made him ache to his very core.

With her hair up, he was afforded a view of her most aristocratic neck and the graceful curve where it met her shoulders. Edward wondered how much longer he could he possible wait before nuzzling the delicate peach-fuzz of the back of her neck and letting his kiss-swollen lips trace the curve around to the tender pulse that he dreamed would thunder under his touch.

His eyes traveled down gentle slope of alabaster skin to her full bosom, shaped to peer over the garter of lace at the top of her rosy gown. Her skin appeared to reflect both the amber firelight and the rosy hue of the beautiful gown, and the effect was staggering. His eyes followed the snug firmness as the swell of her breasts gave way to the narrow tuck of her waist, and Edward could only imagine that her curves continued under the straight drape of the gown's skirt. He felt a stirring within him that was awakening every nerve ending in his body.

Edward's appreciative appraisal was not lost on Katharine, and she basked under his heated gaze.

"I trust you find this more suitable on me than your britches and shirt?"

"Hmmm . . . suitable, yes." Edward's voice was almost lost to him, coming out as not much more than a husky whisper. He cleared his throat, and realizing his hands still held the two glasses of wine, he crossed the room on legs weakened by the moment and feeling like he was stepping foot on the deck of a ship for the first time.

His hand lingered on hers as she accepted the glass of wine from him.

"Edward, you're trembling," she said, her eyes seeking his.

"Am I? Yes, well, I suppose I am," he said with some embarrassment, and pulling his hand from her. "I . . . that is, this . . . it has been such a long time." He nervously sipped at his wine, his eyes unable to meet hers. The grand clock in the corner ticked a loud rhythm that echoed his pounding heart.

"Yes, Edward, I know," she replied, quietly, understanding his uneasiness. She was not without anxiety of her own. The ruby port passed her lips and she, too, succumbed to letting the clock make the only sound in the room.

A strangled sort of laugh came from Edward. "Oh, God, Katharine! Would that I were aboard my ship, dismasted in a full-force gale, with a French corvette bearing down on me, I would be more at ease than I am at this moment."

"But Edward, this is what you want, is it not?"

Hearing the concern in her voice, he swallowed a hard gulp of the port and put his glass on the mantelpiece with a firm hand. He took her glass from her and set it beside his. He turned to her, his deep brown eyes glazed with desire and reflecting into her sapphire blue pools. His voice reached her ears as a deep, yet quiet, rumble, an earnest plea for acceptance.

"More than I want to take my next breath."

Katharine was now certain that her heart was beating louder than the clock, as a burning warmth spread through her middle and settled in her most private recesses.

His hands cupped her face and he kissed her eager lips, softly favoring the flesh left so tender by their earlier hard kisses. Her mouth tasted of the rich, sweet wine with a hint of the salty stain of tears - his tears. His lips left hers, and Katharine had all she could do not to insist that they remain, bur she knew Edward needed to proceed along this path his way.

He let his eyes caress every contour of her face, her neck, her shoulders. His right hand slowly followed his drifting gaze, lightly, yet deliberately, touching her skin as if to imprint every inch, every pore, to his memory. Her skin was a velvety pleasure under his touch and so warm, radiating heat from within her, not reflecting it from the blaze beside them. She noted with delight that his hands did indeed caress with the rugged smoothness and defined his physical nature.

"Katharine . . . oh, Christ, Katharine . . ." He pulled her close, needing to feel her full length against him as if to dispel any lingering doubts, and afraid for her to see the clumsy uncertainty that surely was written all over his face. His hand cradled her head against him, his cheek crushing the soft, upswept curls that, he realized, were the source of the intoxicating scent of rose and lavender that had been teasing his nose since they walked in the house. His fears, so difficult to give voice to, came tumbling in a rush from his lips.

"Oh, God, this is . . . I've wanted this for so long . . . I'm afraid I won't . . .won't know . . . how to please . . ."

"Shhh, Edward," Katharine whispered. "You will know . . . and you are already pleasing me. It will be all right. Shhh."

Her body, so confidently pressed to his, assured him that she would see to it that it was.

His hand that cradled her head relaxed and drifted down the back of her neck, smoothly caressing the sensitive skin there and toying with the wayward curls that had loosed from the combs in her hair. His fingers tentatively pushed the curls aside as he leaned around to lay moist kisses there. Katharine's hands, around his back, pressed insistently into a slow caress as she shuddered under his whispering breaths. His lips traced the trough along her collarbone, and Katharine lifted her chin, offering him the sweetest dimple of pulse at the base of her throat. As Edward had only dared dream, it thundered under his warm lips. He felt, rather than heard, the delicate flutter of a low moan rise from within her as his kiss heated her.

"Edward . . .oh, Edward . . ." Her mouth was silenced by his, claiming her lips once again, easily and confidently. Her lips parted ever so slightly as her tongue laid a tentative kiss of its own against the pressing line of Edward's lips on hers. She thought she felt a shudder pass through them briefly, just before Edward parted his lips and received her most welcome gift, then matched it with his own to her. Greedily and hungrily they tasted each other, no longer able, nor wanting, to deny where this intimacy would take them.

Yet it was Edward who pulled away, leaving Katharine to catch her breath in shallow gasps, shoulders heaving, eyes searching his. He did not speak but with his eyes. He could not; there were no words. He took Katharine by the hand and led her slowly, but intently, out of the keeping room to the foyer and up the stairs.

* * * * * * * *

She felt as though she had stepped into Edward's life when she crossed the threshold into his bedroom. The room enveloped her as he had earlier, with trust and comfort. She surveyed the richness of it all, and knew it reflected her man as no other room in the house would. Darkly masculine, yet warmed with luxuriant brocades at the windows and thick, plush carpets of fine Persian style on the floor. A sitting area by the window had both fine silk covering on the small sofa and intricately textured tapestry on the paired chairs. The bed in the center of the wall opposite the fireplace was a heavily carved work of walnut art with images of flora and fauna in relief panels on the tall headboard, and bordered by fluted pilasters. More carved images and turned and twisted rails wrapped the imposing frame in masculine splendor, but the sumptuous luxury of the velvet and silk bedclothes atop the thick mattress once again rounded the hard edges of the image.

Katharine's nose detected Edward's familiar sandalwood and citrus scent, and a hint of sea air that surprised her. The room bore no semblance to the nautical-touched flavor of the downstairs of the home, yet Katharine was reminded of the primitive sea smells so prevalent in Edward's cabin on his ship. The room was a study in contrasts, much, of course, she realized, like the man himself.

Edward closed the door to his bedroom with a firm tug on the latch, which seemed to echo in the heavy silence of the large room. It was, to Katharine, as a signal that for this night, if for no other, they existed only for one purpose: to join their lives and souls with no regard to duty or what the morrow would bring.

Her surveying eyes fell on Edward as he came to her. She saw the briefest flash of uncertainty once again, despite the ruddy blush of his passion, and rushed to reassure him. She held his face and smiled into his eyes, calming them.

Her graceful fingers swept the wayward curls from his face and followed them through his locks to the gentlemanly queue which would no longer bind his hair, as she pulled the black ribbon away and let it fall to the floor. Her fingers gently raked through the chestnut silk and pulled him to her for more kisses.

When once again breathless, Edward rested his lips on Katharine's forehead and she studied the small buttons that closed his waistcoat. One by one she released them, each time bringing a catch to Edward's already labored breathing. He closed his eyes, almost in disbelief at Katharine's intense and pleasured effort to undress him.

When the last of the buttons gave way, she pushed the fabric off his shoulders and let it fall in a heap at his feet, one more vestige of formality gone. Her hands caressed his shoulders and chest through his fine chambric shirt before claiming the knot of his stock and doing away with it as easily as she had the ribbon in his hair. The neck of his shirt fell open and she returned kisses he had given her in the valley between the collarbones, and down as low as the shirt's openness would allow. The salty taste of his sweat-sheened skin was most delicious to Katharine and she longed to feast.

She pulled at his shirt where it met his britches and in one movement, it was over his head and off, revealing softer, more vulnerable skin, unmarked by weathering elements, yet marred by the medals of his professional life. Her eyes found a multitude of scars and old wounds, then her fingers, and finally her lips, traced each one as if to kiss away every long-ago pain.

Her gentleness was a respite from the fevered heat of the moment and Edward felt his apprehension and insecurity slough away. He knew this was right. He felt safe, so safe, with her, and he relaxed under her pleasing scrutiny. He soon felt her touch was no longer on him to heal the distant aches, but to arouse new ones, and it was working like a charm, for his entire being longed for her with a painful pleasure unmatched by anything he had ever experienced.

She felt Edward's hands in her hair and the silver hair combs fell away, allowing her curls to tumble free across his hands and bare arms. With his fingers entwined there, he pulled her swiftly up to meet his lips with an urgent need. Once again, his hand could not stay away from the velvety touch of her skin and it trailed down her neck to the exposed d colletage that so lured him. Feeling his hand tremble slightly, belying his boldness, Katharine laid her hand over his and with a gentle pressure, guided it to the rounded swell of her breast. This brought a groan to both of them; Katharine's clearly pleasured, Edward's sounding almost pained, and both muffled by their continuing kiss.

Edward needed no instruction or encouragement from this point on.

Needing to see her with more than his touch, he stepped back, his breath coming in wracked gasps as he found the tiny, covered buttons which secured the bodice of Katharine's gown and clumsily released them. He watched the fabric gape to reveal the lacy, strapped petticoat underneath. His hands instinctively found their way inside the gown to loose the ribbons at the back of the petticoat, and then the corded ties securing her stays. When he felt her entrapments give way, he gently pushed the layers off her shoulders. Long before they hit the floor, his mouth once again claimed hers, and he crushed her to him, his kiss holding her as strongly as his arms. With little between them now save the gauzy softness of her chemise, she could feel the tautness of his britches, and him straining, eager and hungry, beneath. She swayed against him as the sensation overwhelmed her.

His body supported her, as his hands were finally able to trace her natural curves. The fabric shifted and slid under his hands as they followed every womanly contour, caressing her back, her hips, her waist, and finally returning to the place he had only felt before through layers of garments. The natural roundness of her breasts astounded him and her fevered reaction to his touch nearly drove him mad.

His hands cupped and kneaded, as Katharine pressed herself to him with urgent grace, sounds of pleasured mewling coming from deep in her throat. The bow tied of the silken cord at the top of her chemise was not long able to keep the garment on her body as Edward found and did away with it in one motion. The chemise fell away from her shoulders thanks to Edward's well-placed kisses and determined touch, and puddled at her feet.
Kiss followed kiss as the touch of his skin soft against hers brought words, for the first time since they entered the room.

"Edward . . . oh, Edward. I've longed for . . . to feel . . . this!" she breathed brokenly, her words searing him with her eagerness.

Her hands stroked the corded muscles of his back then traveled to his chest, finding the softest and most delicate flesh along the way. When her hands began to follow the dwindling trail of soft hair downward across his flat stomach, Edward gasped his reaction.

"Oh, Christ . . .Katharine . . ."

And all cautious exploration was abandoned then, as any remaining impediments to their complete intimacy were stripped away in a fever and left in a scattered trail to the enormous bed. Britches and heavy boots, silky stockings and lacy garters, all forsaken with equal disregard, as they found the bed and each other at last.

They moved with each other as they had always known that they would. They knew and felt each other's rhythms, matched in their restless demand to release years of agonizing aloneness.

* * * * * * * *

Even as they lay spent, glistened with the glow of sated desire, their hands continued to explore, eyes continued to gaze, now content to slowly arouse each other in the wondrous ways that were lost to them the first time. The most intimate of touches and kisses, illuminating dusky deep places, were as natural to them now as breathing, and infinitely more pleasurable, as they discovered over and over again.

They loved greedily, as if to make up for their years apart and leave each other satisfied for the solitary weeks and months ahead. Fearing that sleep would only hasten the pendulum ticks of the clock that was their sworn enemy and bring the dawn too soon, they forestalled that particular pleasure until all others were exhausted.

"Edward," Katharine murmured, as she whispered dainty kisses to his gently closed eyelids.

"My Edward." She softly kissed her way to his lips, which carried the hint of smile, even as he dozed. Katharine lay on her side next to him, propped up on her elbow to better study the man she loved with more of herself than she ever believed possible. Her long curves fit perfectly over his prone form with a delicious weight. Her leg draped lazily over his thighs and their bodies grazed each other in as many places as possible. Her hand traced every line on his handsome and considerably less careworn face, committing it to the most precious and important corner of her memory. Her fingers brushed his lips, feeling the pouty swell of their hours of fevered use.

She felt the sadness of loss creep over her, and no matter how hard she willed herself to not give in, tears welled in her eyes. A cold fear rose up through her, chilling her heart with thoughts of ships and captains, brigades and battles . . . and good-byes. Perhaps final good-byes.

*How can I bid him farewell in the morning . . . after all this?* she thought. *How can I possibly say good-bye?* Before she could turn away, a tear escaped her eye and dropped unceremoniously onto Edward's cheek. His eyelids fluttered, but did not open.

Disappointed in herself for allowing such thoughts to spoil their ever-dwindling time together, she pulled away and tried to turn from him. He held her fast.

"Stay." He opened his eyes to see hers brimming. "Hiding them from me will not appease them. Let me share your tears."

"God, Edward, I told you I was a strong woman, ready to accept any call of your duty, and here I am at the first test of that, dropping tears all over you." An anguished cry came from her as the tears fell. He pulled her down to him and let the tears wet the pillow and his hair.

"Cry, Katharine. Cry while I am here to hold you and comfort you. I could not bear the thought of you in this state after I am gone." He smoothed her hair and held her against him as her quiet sobs shook her in his arms. Edward's eyes could not remain dry, and he too let his emotion take over.

They stayed like this until sleep came to them both at last and they slept the deep sleep of mature lovers, brief as it might be, a slumber unknown to them before this night, this moment.