Chapter 11 - An Honest Love
Katharine eyed herself appraisingly in the long glass. Margaret had been right. The color of the beautiful gown was flattering on her, the glow of her newly revitalized complexion complimented by the rosy hue of the finely patterned silk. And the fit was remarkable, considering the circumstances. Against her skin she once again enjoyed the feel of fine muslin and silk in a lacy chemise and light corset that accented her natural curves and fitted her breasts into the cupped bodice of the dress with no room to spare. The generous swell of her cleavage peeked alluringly from behind the row of creamy lace lining the low neck of the robe. The dress fit snuggly under the bosom, then the robe fell away to the floor, draping graceful and full around to the back, and allowing the delicate ivory silk of the petticoat to float visibly underneath. Margaret was a wonder. The dress fit as thought it had been made for her!
Katharine's hair was a shimmer of auburn softness, loosely pinned up at the crown with a pair of delicate silver hair combs. Gentle tendrils of her natural curls whispered against the nape of her neck. It carried the scent of a summer morning, a hint of rose petals and fresh air. How clean and soft it felt after a proper washing!
She turned from the glass and walked to the window overlooking the gentle rolling hill that swept to the rocky shore below. Edward was still standing out there, seemingly unmoved since the last time Katharine glanced out the window. He faced the sea, watching, appearing to eye the horizon, lost in a world known only to him. It was like watching a painting, Katharine thought, but for the fact that his cloak and his hair, loosing itself from its queue, were wafted and blown about by the steady wind. When his cloak lifted, Katharine could see that he stood in a familiar stance, as if on watch on the quarterdeck.
Does he so miss his ship, his ocean . . . or does something trouble his thoughts? Katharine found herself remembering her earlier conversation with Margaret about Edward's sad marriage. Does it hurt him to be here with me - to open his heart again?
Margaret entered the room, fussing over the fringe of an intricately woven gossamer silk shawl. She stopped as Katharine turned to her, and Margaret took in the sight of her, looking her over, auburned top to slippered toe and back again, her familiar appraisal.
"Oh, my dear," she sighed almost in awe, "now this is much better!" Margaret not only approved, but was taken aback by Katharine's radiance, hidden since she had arrived at Rosecliff by her borrowed clothing and weariness.
Katharine smiled broadly. "Oh, Margaret! This is your doing! You have helped me look and feel such a woman again. I was beginning to doubt I'd ever step out of those britches! How can I ever thank you? Your things are lovely!" She stepped to the older woman and, taking her hands, kissed her cheek with sincere affection.
"Dear Katharine, I may have found you things to wear, but I truly doubt if your looking as a woman was seriously in question! I have a feeling that despite your attire before, a certain naval captain had no trouble seeing you as the woman you are!"
Katharine recalled Edward's sudden reaction in his cabin when their close embrace revealed the absence of constraining undergarments on her body. She warmed at the memory, and smiled wickedly at Margaret, trusting the older woman's sensibilities.
"I suppose, but I dare say the captain might prefer the feel of me in his arms wearing silks and lace and revealing a bit of cleavage, rather than buttoned up tight in woolens and moleskin!"
Margaret grinned delightedly at Katharine's irreverence, then she gave her a thoughtful look.
"I think you will find, dear, that at Rosecliff, here with you, there is less of the *captain* in Edward and more of just the man."
"I hope so Margaret, for that would suit me," Katharine said thoughtfully.
That thought hung in the air like a blessing on the home, until Margaret seemed to remember the shawl in her hands. She gave it a gentle flutter to let it fall into shape, and laid it upon Katharine's shoulders, giving them a soft affectionate squeeze.
Katharine's thoughts once again turned to Edward and his vigilant stand on the seaside hill. She returned to the window and Margaret followed, knowing what she would see.
"Yes, he has been out there for quite some time. It is not unusual, dear. He gets his both his strength and his serenity from those familiar elements. When he is here he spends much time, no matter the weather, on those hills, just thinking, contemplating, remembering, dreaming, It never fails to settle him."
"Tell me, Margaret. Is that Captain Pellew out there, or is that Edward?" Katharine asked, her voice touched with a strange regret.
Margaret sighed and spoke from her heart. "That, my dear, you must find out for yourself."
* * * * * * * *
Edward had long since stopped noticing the chilling wind and the fading light of the late afternoon sky. His body stood on the hill at Rosecliff, but his mind was in London, on that long-ago and never-forgotten morning when the course of his life was forever altered. That moment had shaped his character in the years since, and was now in his mind once again.
He closed his eyes to the sound of her gentle, questioning voice. He had not heard Katharine come up beside him, but somehow he knew that was where she would be. *I love her completely, and she loves me, I am certain. And I will break her heart.*
She said not another word, just stood beside him watching the same horizon. Edward opened his eyes and turned to her. She saw at once that he was again both captain and man, as he had been on the ship. And this pained him.
"Edward, what is it?"
Without taking his eyes from her, he reached under his cloak and into the inner pocket of his coat. He pulled out an all too familiar-looking packet. Katharine's eyes needed only to glance at it, for she knew at once what it was. When she looked back at Edward, he broke the gaze to look uncomfortably out to sea once more.
"When?" Katharine asked. Her heart was pounding furiously, and she had to remind herself to breathe.
"It came by special courier just a while ago. "Damn that Hood! He must have put his pen to these orders the moment we left the Admiralty," he said with disgust.
"When must you . . .?" Katharine was afraid to ask the question for she feared the answer.
Edward kept his eyes on the sea. "I must report in Whitehall by sundown tomorrow. Final orders will be issued then, but it is certain that we shall be sailing as soon as the ship can be readied."
"Tomorrow?" Katharine asked hesitantly. "Then, surely . . .?"
Edward turned to face Katharine with reassurance, but seemed to do so uncomfortably. "I shall be leaving in the morning."
*In the morning. Pray he means we shall have tonight.* Katharine felt her heart begin to beat normally again, and she looked with love into Edward's troubled eyes.
"Then we have tonight. His Majesty's Navy may have Captain Pellew tomorrow, but tonight, Edward Pellew belongs to me."
Edward's clouded expression did not clear. Katharine searched his face, his eyes. She feared she had assumed too much.
"Edward, please tell me we will have tonight, that this is what you want."
"Oh, Katharine, you must know that it is!" Edward's voice was choked with a mournful uncertainty. "I have wanted it since that night I held you, sobbing, in my arms. No, I wanted it long before then." He paused, and looked back to the sea, as if for fortitude. When he found it, he turned back to Katharine, his eyes finding hers with a deep purpose.
"Katharine, I do not take love for granted, nor I do bandy the word about as may be the fashion." He brought his hand to her cheek, and she held it there, pressing her face to it, wanting his touch to speak for him. With her other hand, she pushed back the hood to the heavy cloak she wore and let her only real warmth in the chilled breeze come from Edward's touch.
"But know this, if you know nothing else about me. Know that I love you. And know that I want nothing more than to hear those words from you. And know, oh God, please know that my desire for you consumes me so, that hardly a moment passes when I do not dream of touching you, of feeling your skin against mine, of taking you to my bed." The words tumbled out of Edward with low moan that gave hint to his tortured heart.
Tears came to Katharine's eyes. Why does it seem so painful for him to tell me this?
"Edward, why does this trouble you so? Do you think that I do not share these thoughts, this desire?"
He pulled his hand away from her cheek and let if fall to his side in despair.
"Yes, you do share it, I know! And that is why I want always to have you, to join our lives. I could not dream of loving you this much without committing to love you forever. And yet, how can I ask you to marry a man whose duty is clear and whose time with you will always be so uncertain! And yet, virtue and propriety demand
that . . ."
"Marry? Virtue? But, Edward . . ."
"Katharine," he interrupted. "You must know something about me. Then perhaps you will understand. I was in love once before. I was . . .married."
"Yes, I know." Katharine said quietly, "Margaret told me of Evelyn."
"Margaret! I should have guessed."
"Oh, Edward, do not be angry with her. She told me only a little. She felt the rest should come from you. Please tell me about your life before. Tell me of Evelyn."
Edward again turned to the sea, closing his eyes to the view and seeing only the past. "We were young. We fell in love. She was beautiful and vital, a wonderfully spirited girl. We met at a ball in London, and we were quite taken with each other. We courted only for a brief time, for I was just made Commander, and assigned a new ship. We soon became engaged, and married on my next leave. We settled in Portsmouth. Thinking on it now, we married foolishly, but that is a privilege of youth, I suppose. I think she had been quite taken with the glorious notions of marriage to a naval officer, and I imagine now that I was quite happy to have a wife and a home to return to. Whether it was love I am not certain, but at the time, I believed it was, and I was quite committed to the union."
"She, however, found that the reality of marriage in the Navy did not measure up to her notions. The life was very hard on her. My duty kept me away more than she had imagined it would, and the threat of harm frightened her to no end. She hated the pervasive loneliness, yet when I was able to get home, it became impossible for her to think of anything else but my leaving again. Anxiety and trepidation invaded every aspect of our marriage. Our . . . well, relations . . . suffered greatly, and soon became nothing more than an obligation to her, so fearful was she of being left with a child to care for on her own."
Katharine ached for him. She wanted to hold him, to comfort him, and tell him what had happened was a long time ago, that none of this mattered. But it did. To Edward, it did. There was a great distance between them right now, although they stood so close as to feel the warmth of each other's body.
"Gradually, the letters I received from her became more infrequent, and filled with mundane ramblings of this party or that, or the latest London fashion. She no longer wrote of home or love or even loneliness. Eventually the letters stopped altogether. When I next came home, I found she had gone. Simply gone. The house was empty of her belongings, the servants dismissed, and there was no word of explanation."
"I went to see her family in London. They offered me no explanation, and no hint of where she was. They simply said that I had driven her to the despair she was enduring and that she no longer wished to continue the marriage. She would not see me."
"What did you do?"
"What could I do? I went home, alone. I was contacted later by her sister. She felt I should be told. Evelyn had been overcome by the loneliness she felt during my many long absences, and soon sought the company and attention of other young men. She apparently found that relations not encumbered by the fear of separation or the call of duty were not so unpleasant." Edward spoke these words bitterly, but with remorse.
He let the sound of the surf on the shore below them speak while he could not. Edward felt the pain of his memory, dulled by so many years, but not erased.
"She was with child and in her confinement when I called on her family. There was no possible way I could have been the father of the child, for the calendar and my service away could not create a reasonable explanation. To save the families the shame of such a birth, her condition was concealed and she was sent to stay with a cousin in Coventry. Edward's eyes, searching the sea once again, took on an even more distant and cold gaze. "I learned later, in a letter from her sister, that she died in childbirth. The baby was lost as well."
"Oh, Edward . . ."
"I could not mourn her, for I had lost her long before she died. I am ashamed to say that I grieved, I think, for myself, knowing that I would have to live with what I could have prevented. I should have recognized the difficulties she would face being alone so much, for I knew the demands of my life."
"But surely you do not blame yourself for what she did . . . for her weakness?" Katharine tried to look into her eyes, but he held his gaze firmly forward.
"I grieved because I knew then that my life was bound to duty, for it pained me less than love and loss. This life I have chosen is not something that can be shared, nor is it something that I can turn away from." He fingered the broken seal on the packet that contained his orders. "If we are together," he said, his voice taking on a hard edge as he held the dispatch up in front of Katharine, "this will always come between us."
Katharine needed only a moment to know that she would not allow Edward to dismiss their love with a misplaced sense of guilt. She knew because she had tried to do that and it only served to give her sleepless nights and fitful dreams.
She grabbed the dispatches from his hand and threw them down in the tall grass by their feet.
"No! This will not come between us!"
Edward's eyes followed the packet to the ground.
"Nothing will come between us, Edward, lest we allow it to. Why do you suppose me to be only as you have known? I am not a virtuous young thing with false expectations and romantic sensibilities beyond all reason! Do you think so little of me as to believe that I could love you and expect you to be anything other than the man you are?"
"Of course not . . ."
"Edward, I am a strong woman who has lived what seems like an entire lifetime in this past year, so much have I seen and been affected by. I know, sadly so, what duty and obligation require, and I know that that guilt and shame can fester within one's soul and deny any sort of rational thought."
"And the only commitment I expect from you is your heart. I need not a blessing from the church nor the approval of strangers to tell me what is honorable. And I no more need the security of a marriage to afford me a sense your love for me, and mine for you, than I need another night in one of those awful berths aboard your ship or another meal of sea biscuits and hard cheese."
Edward smiled in spite of himself at her comparison and the passion with which her voice rose to speak the words. He studied her hard, so much did he want to see that her words and feelings spoke of her true heart.
Katharine felt her resolve wither under Edward's intense gaze. She swallowed hard against a rising fear of Edward's reaction to her truth, and forced her eyes to remain with his. Margaret's words came back to her. What you keep from a man you love because you fear his reaction, will come between you for as long as it remains a secret.
"I love you, Edward. Not with a love that lilts along on giddy laughter and starry-eyed glances, but with a love that knows pain and heartache and fear as well as it knows joy. With a love that trusts you to look at me not with a glance but with a stare that will see my faults and my shame as well. For it must."
It was now Katharine's turn to search the darkening horizon for the strength to continue. She stepped away from Edward, afraid that his closeness would weaken her too much to allow her to be truthful. "You are not the only one with a past that troubles you. I have not carried mine as long as you have, but it pains me just the same."
Edward suspected as much. "Your sleeplessness, your nightmares?"
"Yes. I have endured them since El Ferrol. Because while I was there, I . . . I, well . . . I made a decision to protect the documents I was carrying at all costs. I do not regret my choice, nor will I apologize for it, for I maintain that it was the only option open to me, but I have had great difficulty accepting the consequences."
She breathed deeply of the cold air before continuing.
"There was a man, a French colonel named de Vergesse, a guest at the fort. He knew that I was not as I claimed, for he had seen me on the stage during a visit to London the prior year. He confronted me with this knowledge, and threatened to expose me to Don Massaredo as a spy. He did not know the whole truth, of course, but exposure would have surely caused it to come out. I could not risk that, could not risk the lives of Mr. Hornblower and the others, for they would have been implicated. I . . . that is, I used . . . I offered to . . . oh, hell! I gave myself to de Vergesse in exchange for his silence."
The words left her mouth and seemed to Katharine to hang between them interminably.
Edward finally spoke, after mulling around what her words were saying "Is it your fear of discovery that keeps you awake and disturbed? Both you and the dispatches were delivered safely."
Katharine turned to him and spoke plainly. "The fear that disturbs me is of acknowledging what my actions say of my character. The fear that keeps me awake is that I would see the look on your face that I am seeing at this moment!"
"Katharine, the only look you are seeing at this moment is one of sadness that you found yourself in such a despicable situation to begin with. You yourself said you harbor no regret . . ."
"My regret is that my actions may cause you to look shamefully on me . . ."
"Shamefully? For protecting your life and the lives of men of my command? For preventing valuable and secret documents from falling into the hands of our enemies? Katharine, to think of your actions as shameful would be to think of your motives as being less than honorable. And to a man whose life and career is of service to King and country, I cannot fault either. These are times of war, Katharine. You were forced into situations that were quite desperate, and required desperate measures for survival."
"But, Edward . . ."
"Katharine, it is behind you. You are finished with it. This cannot distance us any more than that damnable packet of orders or my duty can." He motioned to the almost forgotten dispatches that lay in the grass. "I think we both understand that life is too fleeting to waste time on recriminations and guilt. As you said, we are not young fools in love. We bring not romantic notions to each other, but hard truths. And I am glad of it. It is an honest love, is it not?"
Katharine's eyes stung with painful tears of uncertain relief and she turned away, but felt Edward's hard touch keep her direct with him. With his hand he lifted her face so she could not avoid his pointed gaze.
"No, Katharine. Do not turn away from me. I love you with a heart that desires your every dark mood and fear as well as every soaring joy. An honest love, remember? Just ourselves, for whatever time there may be, whatever may be given us. Let us not waste what we have found."
Edward watched as her tears gently spilled onto her cheeks and left a faint salty trail as the wind dried them quickly. Dusk was beginning to settle over the hill by the sea. The open expanse of the vista afforded more light than the meager grayness that bathed the inland side of where they stood, and Katharine could see his eyes glisten with moisture as he leaned to her and kissed away the salty remnants of her tears.
"Edward, I love you." Katharine's voice was barely above a whisper as their eyes connected as never before.
Edward folded her into his embrace. Her arms encircled him under his great cloak, which lifted and swirled about them both. Katharine buried her face into his cloaked neck and shoulder, feeling the harsh, unforgiving wool against one cheek while the other accepted heated pressure from Edward's own weathered cheek. Katharine felt the warm, stinging spill of his tears as they seeped between their cheeks and were rubbed into her skin. They clung to each other, bodies holding fast, as if sustained by a single heartbeat.
Edward's voice came to him with a raspy desperation. "I had lost hope of ever hearing those words."
"Then I shall say them until you grow weary of hearing them, my love, for I wish for you never to lose hope again." Her breath whispered against his neck above his collar, and a heated chill shook him. Katharine's lips brushed his ear as she breathed, "I love you, Edward."
The strong comfort of their close embrace began to give way to the desire that had so often been pushed aside for the sake of propriety or circumstance. There would be no such impediments now, here, at home. Edward's lips found Katharine's mouth with a new and honest strength. She returned his kiss hard and with her own urgency. They were lost in each other, insistently wishing to discover that which they had denied for so long.
The next cold slap of the wind brought them back to the hill overlooking the sea and the darkened sky.
"Edward, darling, I do believe we could find a warmer place to continue this."
He spoke not a word, just smiled a devilish smile at her, and took her by the hand as he began to lead her back to the shelter of his beloved home. He stopped to pick up the discarded packet that held their destiny. They would not speak of it again tonight. Tomorrow, Edward's duty awaited him. Tonight, only Katharine awaited.
They walked back to the house comfortably as if time would forever be their ally. Katharine had to pull up her skirts against the tangle of the tall grass and Edward noticed.
"It would appear, Your Grace, that you have found your own wardrobe," he said playfully.
"Actually it is Margaret's wardrobe, such pity she took on me having to wear your britches, that she fashioned this for me with which to impress you!"
"My dear, whether Margaret believes it or not, I was quite impressed with you even when you were in my britches!"
"Yes, I recall! But I dare say that you will find this frock to highlight some features that you were not used to seeing while I was aboard your ship."
"Seeing, perhaps not, but dreaming about, for certain!"
Katharine stopped in her tracks. "Edward! What of Margaret and Henry? You shall have to tell them of your orders. They will be so disappointed your stay is so short."
"Henry knows, for he was with me when the messenger arrived. He will have told Margaret. Let us hurry back so we may see them before they depart."
Katharine was confused. "Depart? But where . . .?"
Edward explained. "Oh, Henry's sister and her husband live in village. Margaret and Henry have been trying to visit them for a day or two, but with our arrival, they delayed their visit. The husband, you see, is laid up with an injury to his foot, and Margaret wishes to offer her universal remedy of hot spiced broth. Now, I can hardly see the benefit of broth for a injured foot, but to hear Margaret tell it, her broth will remedy all ailments save for scurvy, and it is only the dearth of citrus available locally to add to the broth that prevents her from making that claim! According to Henry, they are getting far too late a start today to return this evening, so they shall spend the night with sister Mary and return in the morning."
The implication of Edward's words made Katharine smile, and the cleverness of dear Margaret's transparent reasoning did not escape her.
"I see. That is a very thoughtful gesture for them to make." She looked straight ahead as she walked, but knew that Edward, too, was smiling at the double meaning of her words.
They approached the house just as Henry was driving the carriage around the curve at the side of the house and down the start of the main drive that would lead to the village road. Henry must have been able to make them out in the fading light, for he gave a little wave as the rounded the curve.
Edward turned to Katharine as they reached the front door. "Welcome home, Your Grace."