KATHARINE'S DUTY
by Kyle

Chapter 4 - Rosy Possibilities


Katharine's eyes couldn't help but drift to the handsome and dashing man seated to her left. She would not allow herself to gaze openly at him ñ no, that would not do ñ but she did glance often and came away with bits and pieces of images that she was greedily storing away in her memory only to piece together and linger on more thoroughly later.

His hands, which she could watch without drawing too much attention to herself, almost belied his profession on the sea. They were aristocratic, yet strong and sturdy, and not unmarked by years of work and sacrifice. They moved with an uncluttered yet quite accustomed elegance, from fork to glass, glass to napkin, napkin to tabletop. Smooth, efficient, mannered movement.

She was able to cast longer glances at him when he was speaking, and while Katharine listened intently to his words, she studied his face and being. He was undoubtedly handsome, in a strong, secure, powerful way. His dark brown hair was securely bound in a queue, save for the few curls that swept, unbid and unwilling to stay bound, around his face. His skin was lined and tanned from exposure to the elements, giving a healthy and rugged appearance. His mature features showed the well-earned lines of concern that were to be expected of someone with his responsibilities. He wore his maturity as a badge of honor, and it only served to add to his attractiveness.

His eyes were deep brown and framed by brows that rose, fell and knit together to express every possible emotion. They were, Katharine thought, the very mirror of his soul. She had known first-hand that those eyes fully reflected Sir Edward's nature, and could change moods as swiftly as the man could sort through his emotions. She had seen those eyes relax with relief, gape with wonder, sparkle with pride, glare at impertinence, scold with disappointment, scowl with disgust and flash with anger. She was certain that any man serving under the great Captain had been withered by glares that reprimanded, but also buoyed by looks that spoke "well-done."

She had seen his mouth set in a grim line, pursed with the concentration of deep thought, and teased with an elusive smile. His voice carried an earnest power and command befitting his rank, whether shouting orders or speaking of the mundane. Right now, it wore a comfortable half-smile, whether listening or speaking. When he occasionally allowed his good humor to rise to the surface and grace his lips with a full smile, the effect was dazzling and disarming to Katharine.

Dinner was proceeding splendidly, Katharine enjoying the presence of Dr. Hilliard across the table from her, Mr. Bowles, seated to her right, and Mr. Bracegirdle, opposite Sir Edward who, of course, commanded the head of the table. It seemed that Mr. Bracegirdle was relishing the gentility of the experience, after having earlier been caught in the crossfire between Katharine and his Captain. This was far more pleasant! More than once, Katharine could have sworn Mr. Bracegirdle looked upon her with amused respect at her having given the Captain a taste of his own, intimidating medicine!

Katharine, feeling relaxed by a hearty meal and a few glasses of port, found herself gazing more openly at her host, seeing him clearly now as a man. Would his hand in mine feel as strong as I imagine? How would those eyes appear when warmed with tenderness? How would I fare under such a gaze, knowing his eyes were searching mine for hopeful affection? How would I feel about hearing that voice in the hushed tones of personal conversations . . . or fevered intimacy? Oh, dear . . .

"And you, Miss Cobham?" Katharine was jarred from her personal thoughts by the question from Mr. Bracegirdle, who apparently had to ask it more than once before Katharine acknowledged that she had heard.

"What is your take, as an actress, on the dichotomy of the Hamlet relationships? Are you able to bring to your performance your own view of Gertrude, or do you feel compelled to play her as people have come to expect?"

Katharine was almost relieved to return to the familiar talk at hand, and hoped she had not made it too apparent that she did not have her mind on the social art of conversation for a moment. She responded to Mr. Bracegirdle's question with an easy grace, thankful to speak on a subject that pleased her so and came so naturally to her. She was quite impressed that these men held such a keen interest in the theatre, and was pleased to know that while Mr. Bracegirdle had not seen Katharine perform, he had taken in quite a few plays in his younger days, and still enjoyed an evening at the theatre whenever leave permitted. This was comfortable conversation.

It was almost inevitable that the talk would turn to Katharine's other adventures. Ironically, it was Sir Edward who brought up the subject, seemingly out of genuine curiosity and interest.

"What can you tell us, Miss Cobham, of your trials to return home? Surely it must have been a greater challenge to live as the Duchess of Wharfdale than any other of your roles simply displayed on the stage," the Captain asked.

James Hilliard held his breath waiting to see how Katharine would respond to this. He was relieved to see that, rather than seeing it as an ill-timed question about an unpleasant subject, Katharine smiled, almost mischievously, and was quick to answer.

"Yes, the Duchess was a bit of a trial, but great fun as well, Captain. She was so outrageous, and I dare say, so far removed from my true personality, that I thoroughly enjoyed ëupsetting the apple cart' a bit, so to speak. And how did you find the Duchess, sir?" Katharine's eyes danced with a slightly wicked gleam, anxious to hear of his impression.

Sir Edward's face showed no embarrassment as he recalled their meeting over dinner in Gibraltar. She had been thoroughly outrageous as the Duchess, gulping wine like a sailor enjoying a long held-out ration, laughing raucously at her own humor, spicing her conversation with references that made even the seasoned Pellew blush. And poor Mr. Hornblower! She had sensed his unease at such a gathering, and teased him unashamedly. Almost as unashamedly as she flirted with Sir Edward!

"She was quite . . . entertaining, to be sure, ma'am," the Captain said with amusement. His assessment, offered comfortably and without reproach, pleased Katharine, and she gave a laugh that graced the air in the cabin like a spring breeze.

"Well, she was convenient, and I have always found it more interesting and less tedious to play a character role with some . . . eccentricities, than to play someone serious and reserved. I found ëshe' put people at their ease a bit, and they would tend to be less guarded when amused by her antics. This served me well."

Edward immediately thought of the earlier encounter in his cabin, when he practically accused the woman of resorting to temptation and seduction to obtain the information she was now carrying home to the Admiralty. His curiosity was getting the better of him, but he didn't want to risk spoiling the pleasant nature of the evening by posing an inappropriate question. Instead, he asked her to tell of her adventure from Florence, where she had been performing, to what had brought her to be hauled out of the sea along with Mr. Hornblower.

Katharine spoke of her fears when the French marched into Florence, and hinted that her presence there was certainly not an accident. She abandoned the acting troupe, and adopted the persona of the Duchess of Wharfdale as a means to garner the sympathies of those who were in a position to help her. After all, she stated, who would assist a poor struggling actress? But a Duchess ñ even the French and the Spanish held her in high regard and were more than courteous. They were more than accommodating in helping her cross the countryside to the port for passage to Gibraltar.

Edward suspected that was the most interesting part of the story, but Katharine was prudent about divulging any information that she intended only for the ears of the Admiralty Board. She continued the tale, up to her fateful rescue by Mr. Hornblower, with the men in the room hanging on her every word.

* * * * * *

"Well, gentlemen, this has been a most distinct pleasure," Katharine said after her second cup of tea and third explanation of Queen Gertrude's Hamlet fixation, "but I am certain that you have business to attend to, and since you are all far too polite to usher me out of here to carry on, I shall relieve you of that duty, and retire to my cabin."

Edward smiled at her perception. He was pleased at how the dinner had gone. The conversation was relaxed and the company well-suited to it. Katharine was a gracious guest and answered the many questions about her theatre life with humor, intelligence and aplomb. When talk turned for a bit to her other "adventure," she spoke a bit more quietly, thought no less earnestly, about her service to the King. It was clear that she was not as comfortable with that aspect of her recent past, but nonetheless, was quite forthcoming in appeasing the men's curiosity without making the tale sound either tawdry or uninspired. Edward was quite impressed with this woman. He was appalled to remember that a few days ago, he shamelessly humiliated her for the sake of his own vanity. He hoped that they could both put that incident behind them, chalking it up as a minor squall rather than a course-altering storm.

"The pleasure was ours, Miss Cobham, I assure you." And before he realized the words were coming out his mouth, Edward added, "You are a most welcome addition on this voyage." Out of the corner of his eye, he noted the sly smiles upon the faces of Dr. Hilliard and the officers at their Captain's barely suppressed admiration for this woman. He met their reaction with an eyebrow raised in cautious reprimand of their good humor.

Katharine smiled cleverly. "Thank you, Captain Pellew. Those are most generous words. I never thought I would hear them! Gentlemen . . ." Katharine dipped in a slight curtsy and the men responded with polite bows.

The door was closed behind them as Katharine, followed by the officers, left the Captain's quarters. Cooper would be in momentarily to clear dinner, and Edward took a moment to reflect on the past hour. He had quickly become besotted with the fair Katharine Cobham, he realized. Her effortless charm had won him over by time they had sat down to dinner, and he had found himself searching for signs that she was, in turn, just as charmed by him. He thought he had caught a glimpse of her studying him, and wondered what impression she came away with. He, likewise, had observed her with rapt attention, when possible to do so without obvious distraction. He found her entire being and manner freshened him as a summer rain refreshes parched and aching earth. Intoxicating, yes, he thought, but at what cost?

*This is not a wise course to sail, Edward. In a few days, we will make Portsmouth, then report to London, and then what? I will be back at sea and in battle, and she will be mending fences with her family and conquering the stage again. Distance and circumstance can scuttle a relationship, despite the devotion. Am I not better off to remain a Captain with a distant heart than a broken one? Will not my decisions be clearer made with an exacting mind rather than a longing heart?*

Cooper knocked and entered the cabin at Pellew's bid. Sir Edward's thoughts returned to the mundane yet necessary business at hand, and he reached for his hat and breezed out of his cabin to see the lieutenant of the watch.


* * * * * *


Sleep once again eluded Katharine despite the lateness of the hour and the drooping eyes that caused her to put down the copy of Shakespearean sonnets loaned to her by Dr. Hilliard. She found her mind clouded with too many thoughts, many of them in conflict with one another. Many of them about Sir Edward.

Rather than spend the next hours tossing and turning in the narrow bunk, Katharine hurriedly changed into her sailor's togs, bundled up in her great cloak, and headed to the deck above. The fresh, cold November air and salty mist would clear her mind and ready her body for what was left of the night's sleep.

As she emerged from the companionway, she was surprised to see Sir Edward at the rail. He stood, his back to her, not on watch, not in his usual alert stance, but as one who was also trying to assuage the demons of sleeplessness. His hands were spread apart, resting on the rail, and he seemed to be gazing alternately at the jumble of stars above and the rushing waves below. Katharine was uncertain about approaching him, and almost decided to slip quietly by without notice. Almost.

"A most beautiful night, is it not, sir?" Katharine said quietly as she approached the rail to stand beside him.

"Ah, Miss Cobham. Yes, beautiful indeed," he replied, his eyes falling appreciatively on her when she reached his side. "I take it from your appearance here that you also are unable to enjoy a night's rest?"

"Unfortunately so, Captain. I was hoping that the fresh air might remedy that."

"It usually does."

They stood silently side by side, the only sounds the whisper of the sails and the creak and moan of the ship's oaken mass. The cold salt-misted air was invigorating, the closeness of their beings warmly intoxicating. For some reason, this felt to both of them like the most natural thing in the world.

Katharine closed her eyes and relished the visceral sensations ñ the sea, the wind, the man beside her. For all of her earlier rush to get home to England, she found herself wishing that the voyage could continue on endlessly, just like this. But she knew it could not. The Admiralty awaited, and home, and the inevitable farewell to Sir Edward. And her grief.

Edward observed her as she appeared lost in her thoughts. *Are they the same thoughts that were keeping her from sleep? Are they the same thoughts that keep me?* Her face, radiant as it was with reflected moon- and star-light, also reflected a sadness that ached at Edward's heart. He suspected that he knew what it was.

"Miss Cobham," he began hesitantly. He was worried that bringing up this subject might further grieve her, but he wished for her to know that his heart was heavy with understanding about the grief in hers. She opened her eyes, turning to look at him, and finding his eyes warm with concern and empathy.

"Earlier today, I was made aware of your . . . loss . . . and I wish to offer my sincere condolences. The realization of your . . . circumstances . . . makes me ever more shameful over the way I impugned you a few days ago. I only hope that you will forgive me."

Katharine paused a while before answering, considering her words and reactions carefully. The very mention her grief, of her loss, never failed to bring errant tears to her eyes, and this time was no exception, despite the pleasantness of the dinner earlier and the exquisite star-filled sky. She turned away from him so he would not see her tears.

"No forgiveness is necessary, Captain. What has past is passed. You needn't trouble yourself with recrimination. I wished not for my . . . loss . . . to explain away any behavior on my part . . . or yours." Katharine hesitated. "How did you know . . . about Andrew, I mean?"

"Dr. Hilliard told me of what he knew of your brother and your family."

Edward could see Katharine stiffen at the thought of her personal burdens being discussed openly by the two men.

"Please, ma'am, bear no ill-will toward Dr. Hilliard. It was not idle gossip, I assure you. James spoke as my friend, and wished only to defend your honor and jar my short-sightedness where you were concerned."

"I see."

The silence returned, but this time it was not a comfortable bond between them, but an uncertain, fragile one.

Katharine tried mightily to compose herself, not wishing to go over the edge and require comfort form this man. She would not let him see her tears.

"I did not realize that the air would be quite so bracing." Katharine bundled her cloak tighter around her, and willed her tears to stay off of her cheeks, and her voice to remain strong and uncaught by emotion.

Edward could not take his eyes off of her as he stood behind her, longing to reach out and offer his touch as affirmation of his concern. He could not, however, as he worried that his touch would not convey what he was feeling. It had been so long since he had reached out to another human being, especially a woman. It had been even longer since someone had reached out to him. He was more used to showing empathy by his leadership, rather than his tenderness.

"Perhaps you should go below now and get warm. I'll ask Cooper to bring tea."

"No, thank you." Katharine could not stand the thought of being confined in her small cabin with this emotion welling up inside of her. "Perhaps in a while. The air is bracing and cold, but just what I need right now." Katharine felt a shiver run through her body, and this was not lost on Edward.

"In that case, at least allow me this." Edward removed his own cloak and placed it on Katharine's trembling shoulders. His hands gently reached around to secure the cloak under her chin, and, once done, found themselves resting on her shoulders. Not just resting, but kneading, caressing, warming.

That simple gesture and the warmth of his touch took Katharine's breath away. And her resolve. She had grown used to giving tenderness, as she had with dear Mr. Kennedy in his bleak hours, but she had not realized how much she longed to receive a gesture of such simple, unassuming caring. She felt herself leaning into the strong body at her back, soaking in the warmth, the strength, allowing herself to feel solace. And the tears came.
Tears for Andrew. Tears for her father. Tears for herself.

Edward's hands, strong and purposeful, turned her to face him, and without a thought to the appearance given off, or propriety, he enveloped her trembling body in a powerful embrace, as if to shield her from the nagging demons that would cause this gentlewoman such torment.

Katharine sobbed openly against the rough woolen fabric of his frock-coat, releasing the long-denied anguish she carried. Edward's arms held her securely against him, not willing to let her draw away until she had spent her languishment. This was well with Katharine. His embrace was sure and strong and the most comfort Katharine had dared dream.

Edward's hands stroked her back and her hair, as his voice actually murmured tender words of assurance. For all of his practiced reserve as a Captain, he fell naturally into the role of protector, of comforter for this woman. She had touched something inside of him he had believed to be long lost, and he cherished the opportunity to find it again.

When Katharine had exhausted her well of racking sobs and final sniffles, Edward relaxed his embrace, and stepped back ever so slightly from her to gaze at her tear-stained face, which she did not offer to him. His hand reached from around her and lifted her chin until she was forced to meet his gaze with her reddened eyes.

"Oh, Captain Pellew!" Katharine began in apology, hurriedly and absently swiping at the tears that still insisted on tumbling from her eyes. "I don't know what came over me. I'm afraid I've made your coat a soggy mess!"

"Shhh, Miss Cobham. There, there. Do not concern yourself. Your tears were long in coming, I suspect, and the need must have been great to let them spill. I do not pretend to know the finer things about emotion and grief, save for what I must deal with on board this ship. I only hope that you will take my comfort as it is offered ñ with deep thought for your well-being."

Katharine sought his eyes for a hint that, despite the attempt with his words to dismiss his comforting embrace as a gesture of concern, he was continuing to hold her because other feelings and emotions were guiding his actions. As she hoped, his eyes betrayed his words, as they glowed with an intensity that made Katharine's knees grow weak. A heavy and meaningful silence once again descended upon them, this time made all the more telling by their desire not to step away from each other and their pleasantly labored breathing. If any doubt remained in either of their hearts about their growing feeling for one another, it was dashed when Edward finally spoke.

"Katharine."

To hear her Christian name on his lips with an almost breathless hue was Katharine's undoing. She yearned to know what would follow, to allow anything to follow, as long as it was said or done with that same intense longing with which he spoke her name. But here they were, on the deck of his ship, in view of . . . someone, she was certain. She could not allow this to happen here, now, nor could he.

"Perhaps, now . . . um . . . it is time to get out of the cold, and . . . tea would be nice," she stammered, hating to break the spell, but knowing she must.

Edward took his cue from her, and was brought back to this time, this place, his ship. "Tea . . yes, right. I'll see that Cooper is on that right away." His arms slipped from her, reluctantly so, but his eyes remained on hers to see if there was a welcome reason behind her comment to go below to the warmth . . . and privacy . . . of his cabin. Her cabin? Where was this leading? This was all so new to Edward!

Katharine took a bold step.

"Would you like me to join you in your cabin for tea?" she asked, in a hushed voice, her heart leaping in anticipation of the reply.

"I would, very much . . . yes. . . like that," he said ever so quietly. "And that is precisely why I cannot extend such an invitation."

He spoke haltingly, hating the words as they escaped his lips. "There are issues, on board this
ship . . . propriety . . ." His voice trailed off as he searched for the words, for the message. His eyes, glanced about, not wanting now to meet Katharine's, for fear that he would once again fall under her unwitting spell and then, well *. . . propriety be damned!* And he had no desire to have her think that his tenderness and comfort of a moment ago was meant as anything but kindness. He did not wish for her to think that he was taking advantage of her vulnerability. That was unconscionable.

Katharine was not entirely surprised by Sir Edward's reply, gentleman that he was. She knew that if they were to be alone in the privacy of the Captain's cabin, restraint would not wander in, and the quiet intensity of their words here on the deck would be outdone by the intensity of the actions which they had so long constrained. This was for the best.

"That is well, Captain. I really am quite tired now, and do believe I'll be able to sleep." Katharine lied, doubting very much that the events of their togetherness on the deck tonight would afford her anything but wakeful thoughts of rosy possibilities.

"Allow me to walk you to your cabin, then, Miss Cobham," Edward replied, with a courtly nod, reluctantly reverting to his more formal tone.

Katharine's heart sunk a bit, as she would have loved to become accustomed to hearing him speak "Katharine" over and over again. *Pray God that will happen someday.*

When they reached Katharine's small cabin belowdecks, Katharine turned to Edward before entering. Words were useless here. Their eyes spoke volumes. She reached up and caressed his cheek. His eyes closed at the gentleness of her touch and the meaning it carried, his breath caught in his chest at the thought of where he would most like to be right now. *Anywhere but on this ship, as long as she was standing before me, caressing me so.*

His hand touched hers on his cheek and he pulled it to his lips, kissing the palm. He felt himself grow weak at the sensation, and marveled at the sweet softness that met his lips. A breathless sigh, barely audible, escaped Katharine's lips as she was sure her heart stopped beating for a brief moment.

And then it was over. He returned her hand to her and smiled a smile that told Katharine that this was not the time or place for their passions to be explored, but that that time would come, and that place would be found.

Katharine accepted his message and returned the smile. She turned and entered the cabin as he left to return to his. She would always swear that she never felt her feet touch the floor as she crossed the cabin to change into her nightshirt and crawl under the blanket to fall asleep. She knew that she was carried through these motions on the wings of the dreams that her heart had begun to spin even before she closed the cabin door.