Chapter 6 - Duty and Desire
The just-set sun cast a fading golden light through the stern windows of the Captain's day cabin.
It had been a fine meal with pleasant company, served with pride by the Captain's servant, Cooper, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy having Katharine there to wait on. She charmed him with her grace and refinement, something Cooper missed aboard ship. To serve the Captain was his duty, and a fine man like Captain Pellew was a pleasure to serve, for he was always fair and appreciative of Cooper's efforts Serving a guest such as this woman, however, was a rare privilege.
Dinner conversation had been light and chatty. Edward told Katharine of his early days at sea, regaling her with amusing stories of prankish midshipmen and exotic ports of call. He outlined for her his rise through the ranks, and the ships he had sailed. He spoke effortlessly about these details, and Katharine could hear in his voice the love and respect he had for his profession, the sea, and the men he had served with. He did not mention the hardships, or the battles that had cost the lives of so many of those men, but the words he did speak were colored by the memories of those events which he had relegated to the far recesses of his mind.
Katharine saw his face light with love and an ever so faint touch of homesickness when he told her of his family home, Rosecliff Cottage, on the Devon coast. It was clear that it was his second love, and if there was anywhere Edward could chose to be if not on the sea, it was there. He painted beautiful word pictures for her of the main house with its ivy trellises framing the large windows overlooking the bluffs that swept down to meet the sea on a rocky beach.
She could see, in her mind's eye, the stone walls and fences lining the paths to and from the house, covered with tumbles of sea-roses in all shades of pink and red, bright and glorious in the summer months, and darkly wild and tangled in the winter. The gardens that filled the fields around the house were the pride of his housekeeper, Margaret Keith, and Edward could never recall coming home to Rosecliff at any time when Margaret and her husband Henry didn't have the gardens, indeed the entire property save the untamable wild roses, looking its well-groomed best.
He spoke affectionately of Margaret and Henry, James Hilliard's aunt and uncle. They lovingly cared for the home in Edward's long absences, making sure that his visits home, however brief they might be, provided a complete change of pace from the strain of a ship's command. It seemed to Edward that no matter if he had been gone days, weeks or months at a time, coming home was always the same. They were always ready for him. They ran the household with smooth efficiency, whether Edward was there on not, and when he was there, they cared for Edward just as carefully as they did the cottage itself. Edward spoke of them with loving pride. They were not employees, but friends, and Edward cherished them as both. That was clear to Katharine.
Katharine had told Edward a little more about her brother, Richard, and her sisters at home in Falmouth. She still had trouble speaking of Andrew, of what he meant to her, and she avoided mention of recent events. She wondered if Edward sensed that she was apprehensive about her return. If he did, he did not call attention to it.
Now, without further interruptions from Cooper for the time being, Edward poured them each another glass of port and they moved from the table to the more comfortable leather-clad armchairs by the windows. Katharine sensed a change in Edward's demeanor - a bit more reserved, uncertain. She herself felt the same way.
"Katharine," he began hesitantly. "What are your plans when we make port? I mean, I know you have business in London, at the Admiralty, as do I, but . . . what of later . . . how soon will you be departing London for Falmouth?"
Katharine found herself answering just as uncertainly. "I shall be on the very first coach to London to present myself and conclude my arrangement with Lord Grenville. Only after that will I allow myself the luxury of a few days respite before boarding yet another uncomfortable conveyance to make the journey to Falmouth."
Edward smiled at her candor, and Katharine regretted her words as soon as they were out of her mouth.
"Oh, Sir Edward, forgive me. I did not mean to appear ungrateful for the accommodations aboard your ship. You and, indeed, all of your men, have done everything in your power to make me as comfortable as possible. It is just that . . ."
Edward held up his hand to stop her apology. "Please, Katharine, I heard no disrespect in your voice, only weariness. I think you are wise to enjoy some proper rest before continuing on." He considered his next words for a moment before speaking, gauging how they would be received.
"And Katharine, I would very much prefer it, if, while we are alone together, I were simply - Edward.' "
Katharine smiled a warm smile and had no trouble agreeing to that request. "I would like that also, Edward."
"I trust you are as anxious to return to your home in London as I am to see Rosecliff again. There is nothing like coming home."
"I imagine that to be true, Edward, but I no longer have lodgings in London. I will be relying on the kindness of my friends there to take me in for a brief time while I prepare to go home. It matters not to me where I stay, really, as long as I may find a hot bath, a warm bed, and clothing that will remind me that I am a woman, and not an able seaman!"
Edward needed no such reminder as he gazed at her in the faint, glowing light of the cabin. He reached out and took the stemmed glass from her hand and put it on the small table near them, along with his own. He sat forward to the edge of his chair, and took both of her hands in his. He studied them for a moment, gathering his thoughts. Her soft and delicate ivory hands fit warmly and naturally in his own weathered hands. It was another moment before Edward spoke, and he did so as he kept his eyes on their joined hands.
"Katharine, these days with you aboard the ship have brought me . . . such . . . feelings. Feelings . . . no, affections . . . that I thought were forever lost to me . . . indeed, that I am not certain I ever knew before."
Katharine felt faint at the sound of such personal words from this most private man.
"I sense . . . I mean . . . is there a possibility that you . . . also have such feelings . . . toward me?"
"Oh, Edward." Katharine's voice was barely above a whisper. "I believe I have had such affections for a long time."
Edward raised his thankful eyes to meet hers. These words were more than he had dared hope to hear.
He saw in her eyes a longing that matched his own, yet Edward abruptly stood, turning away from her and moving down the bank of windows to distance himself from her. If only we weren't aboard this ship!
Katharine's heart sank as he turned from her. Was I wrong to speak so truthfully? Did I misunderstand his meaning?
Edward seemed lost in his thoughts as Katharine reproached herself. She stood, and spoke quietly to Edward's back, as he stared the darkening sky with distracted intent.
"Edward . . . I am sorry if I said something I should not have . . . if I misunderstood . . . ," she stammered, not certain what to say.
He turned to see her pained expression and it fairly broke his heart.
"No! God, no, Katharine," he said, "it's just that I . . ." His words failed him, and he simply opened his arms to her. She closed the distance he had put between them and fell into his waiting embrace. His arms closed around her, not, as last night, in chaste protectiveness, but in desire and want. He pressed his cheek against her hair, closing his eyes to their surroundings, and taking in every sensation given by the woman in his arms.
"You did not misunderstand! I just am not accustomed to opening my heart in this way . . . I am certain I did not make myself clear . . ."
Katharine pulled back slightly to look into his eyes, and silenced him with a touch of her fingertips gently laid upon his lips. At her touch, Edward had no desire to speak further. Katharine slowly moved her hand from his lips, caressing his weathered cheek, her eyes never leaving his. Katharine's hand moved around to the back of his neck, under his queue, her fingertips entwining in the loosely gathered curls above the black ribbon. Her oh-so-warm touch on his neck took his breath away, for he knew that she wanted this as much she did. Edward's hands came up to frame her face, feeling the heated flush of this longed-for moment on her creamy, soft cheeks.
His lips found hers with a tentative passion at first, a gentle savoring of touch and taste, destined by their desire to give way to a banquet of delicious kisses, each exploring, finding and awakening a new, undiscovered pulse. His kisses strayed from her mouth, brushing her cheeks, her eyes, her hair. Katharine's breath came in ragged snippets with each new touch. When Edward's kisses returned near her lips, Katharine could no longer contain her rising fever. She pressed her lips on his with an urgent hunger that some would say was unbecoming of a lady. Edward would not, however, for he found her desire for him to be the most womanly essence imaginable.
Katharine's hand on Edward's neck began an insistent and delicious massage as the kisses deepened. Her other hand boldly slipped inside his uniform jacket and around to his back, stroking and caressing. His hands slowly moved from her face, his thumbs tracing along the fine curve of her jaw, and down the sweet softness of her neck, his arms finally enveloping her in an embrace that crushed the years of self-imposed solitude out of Edward's heart as much as it crushed Katharine against his body.
Edward could feel the absence of the usual stayed corset as Katharine molded into his embrace. He could feel her curves, her softness, and not the firm layer of forced pinches and pushes that he had . . . expected. But, as Katharine's things had been lost in the shipwreck, and she was in borrowed, men's clothing, there were no added layers to disguise and blunt her womanliness. Edward's realization of this flamed his desire to a new level . . . and stopped him in his tracks. He pulled away from her kiss and instantly was forced back into the harsh reality of time and place.
"Oh, Katharine, " he moaned, " oh, God, I can't . . . not here . . ." He turned from her yet again, and for a moment was struck by the mournful silence punctuated only by the heavily whispered breathing of passion interrupted.
Katharine did not speak. She could not. She knew his duty would prevent him from ever succumbing to his desires in this environment. And she would never interfere with that, for she did not want simply the part of him that was left over when the Captain's work was through. She wanted his body, his mind, and his heart, all freely and uncompromisingly given, without worry of intrusion by the details of command. She wanted that, and Edward deserved that.
"Shhh . . Edward, I understand," Katharine soothed as she came up and laid her body against the back she had been so lovingly caressing moments earlier. Her arms went around him and she turned her head and laid her cheek against the rough wool of his uniform coat. "It is too much to ask, I know . . . "
Edward closed his eyes to the onslaught of his emotions as he felt her warmth pressed against his full length.
"No, Katharine, it is not too much to ask. And , oh, what it means to me that you want this . . . But I am afraid that on board this ship, I can never truly be just a man with you, and I want that more than anything else I have ever desired. I have been a captain far too long to change that."
Katharine dropped her arms and stepped back to look fully at Edward as he turned to face her. The desire was clear in her eyes, indeed in her entire body, as she still trembled with the uneven breathing borne of their intimate contact. Edward's eyes searched hers for understanding, for relief, for absolution, He found those things, yes, but laced with longing for the moment lost.
"Lord knows there are captains . . . men . . who think nothing of carrying on in this manner, shipboard, in front of their men, or behind their backs, it does not matter, for rumor spreads like wildfire aboard ship and it cheapens the man . . . and the woman with whom he dallies. I have never subscribed to that behavior, nor would I ever risk having you thought of as anything less than the lady I know you to be. It simply cannot happen this way, Katharine, you deserve better."
Katharine just looked at him, her startling blue eyes brimmed with tears, her desire for the man even stronger at the sound of his protective and virtuous beliefs.
A soft moan escaped Edward's being without notice or censure. His heart beat wildly.
"Oh, God, Katharine, do not look at me so, for I am certain I shall abandon all prudence and care and I shall take you right here and now, after such a careful argument as to why that is so wrong! For both our sakes, we must not."
"Edward . . . dearest Edward. I do not intend to tempt you to distraction, nor do I wish for us to come together in circumstances which distress rather than elate us. But, now . . . knowing each other's hearts, how do we cope . . ."
Edward once again found himself stammering for the right words.
"Katharine . . . I have no right to ask this, for I am in no position to promise you anything but my heart, as the next few days hold only uncertainty, but I am wondering . . . that is, I . . . would very much like it if you would consider . . .before you return home . . . um . . . if I am able, that is . . ."
"Yes, Edward. If you are asking me to come to Rosecliff with you, the answer is yes."
"Yes? Are you sure?"
"Of, Edward - as sure as I have ever been about anything! I would love nothing more than to see this place you speak of so lovingly . . . and to be with you away from these responsibilities that weigh you down so"
As elated as Edward was that Katharine wanted this as much as he did, he knew he must be realistic, perhaps for both of them.
"Katharine, you must know that I can make no promise as to how long I will have ashore, indeed even if I will be able to get home to Rosecliff. And, I understand that you certainly want to get home to your family and . . . to your grief." He hated speaking those words, and hated the thought of Katharine having to bear any anguish. "But, God help me, I do so want you all to myself for just a while . . ."
"Darling." Edward's heart soared at Katharine's use of this endearment, for he had all but given up hope of ever hearing such sweetness. "My grief and my family will be waiting for me whenever I get there, while you will not be. We may never have a chance to be together like this again. I could not, no I cannot bear the thought of, missing this opportunity to know you. As for your not being able to make promises, I ask for none, and expect none. I wish only to have you on your terms, for it is who you are, and . . . it is the man I am falling in love with."
*Love. She is falling in love . . . with me!*
"Love, madam?" Edward spoke quietly. "That is well, then, for I am certain that it could only be love that makes me feel as I do for you!"
"Oh, Edward . . ."
Propriety be damned! Edward scooped Katharine into his sure and confident embrace, his lips finding hers with a practiced motion and a newly found confidence coming from laying bare their hearts' desires. Their kiss was as strong as they were and like every word that had passed between them, not driven by blind passion, but by the promise of passion yet to be discovered.
When their lips parted, Katharine knew she must leave Edward alone with his thoughts, and with his duty. She would have him in due time. The Indefatigable could have him for now.
"Katharine, darling, when we dock in Portsmouth, I must report to the Port Admiral, and settle the ship in for its repairs and provisioning. I'll then be getting a coach to London to report at Whitehall. We could go together, as you have also to tie up your business there. I will know almost immediately how long we shall remain in port, for Admiral Lord Hood shall either be crowing about his ability to graciously offer such me shore time, or he shall be railing against the disastrous state of affairs that, of course, make such leave impossible. Either way, I shall know very soon, and will not have to guess his intentions."
Katharine did not look forward to her duty at Whitehall, and she wished to complete her business there posthaste and move on to Rosecliff - and Edward. She would have little patience with Lord Grenville and even less for that blasted Admiral Hood, a man whose years and rank should have given him insight and wisdom, but seemed to bestow only a callous disregard for those who served under him.
"Edward, he *must* grant you time - your ship needs repairs, and you need . . . we need . . ."
Edward smiled at where her argument was heading. "Yes, darling, I do need . . . for so long, I have
needed , as have you . . . but I sincerely doubt if Admiral Hood will concern himself with our . . . needs! I should keep you right along side of me there, dear, and if he doesn't see the situation as you do, pity the poor man for crossing your path! I can speak from experience that - perhaps I should warn him?"
Katharine would forever be embarrassed by the "dressing down" she gave Sir Edward when she arrived back on *Indefatigable,* but she laughed at the thought of doing the same to that miserable commander at the Admiralty. What consequences that would bring!
"Well, keep me far from him, then, for I am certain that my temper with him would only serve to end your long and distinguished career in His Majesty's Navy! Tempting as that might be for my own selfish reasons, I should not be able to live with myself should that happen!"
"Then we must keep you in good humor and pray that Hood does not try and become masterful with you!"
Their laughter was comfortable and relaxed and belied the tense passion that was still palpable in the air of Edward's cabin.
"Well. Edward, then I should get to my cabin and try to rest, for if I remain here with you, my good humor shall be sorely tested by your blasted sense of duty!"
Edward's laughter died away to a warm smile, and he held his gaze on Katharine's luminous eyes, speaking to her without words, willing her to know for certain that as much as the *Indefatigable* required his attention right now, he would be dreaming of her and the attention she deserved.
"I know, Edward, I know . . ." Katharine laid her head on Edward's shoulder, and cuddled in for an embrace that might have to last her heart through the remainder of the voyage to Portsmouth. "It will be that much sweeter , darling, when our attention can be only on each other."
He held her as a dying man clings to hope, desperately savoring every scent, every curve, every touch against his skin, wishing to forget nothing about this moment until the next one would come along.
Katharine pulled wisely away, and turned for the cabin door. She stopped when she reached it, and turned back to him with a devilish grin and a gleam in her eyes.
"Captain Pellew, your duty awaits, sir. No dawdling now, Captain, just get us the hell back to England!"