Chapter 9 - Rosecliff
Katharine was jostled from her light sleep by the changing rhythm of the carriage as it slowed and came to a stop. She had dozed, comfortably and warmly curled into the crook of Edward's shoulder, her head on his chest, since their rest stop. She had so enjoyed their quiet and relaxed conversation up to that point, a comforting buffer to the tension and apprehension that had plagued her before the visit to the Admiralty. But after their supper in Dillworth, talking and listening had become too much for her.
Edward, too, was beyond conversation, and he soon had settled back in the cushioned seat, lulled by the rocking of the coach. When he felt Katharine next to him begin relax and lean more heavily against his side, he tenderly wrapped his arm around her, pulling her close. The warmth and serene pleasure that came from physical contact, which he had long denied himself, again overwhelmed him. As she rested, he was drawn to her, wanting to drink in every visceral sensation, burying his face in her silky auburn curls, inhaling deeply of her scent and heat, kissing the top of her head and letting his longing for her once again course through him.
Edward felt the carriage halt, and with a gentle nudge, whispered to Katharine, "We're here."
She sat up fully and looked around, her eyes settling on Edward next to her, her mouth turned in a tired smile.
"What wonderful words to hear." She kissed him full and long, and he returned it, their passion not abated, just overrun with exhaustion.
The door opened and Henry's smiling face greeted them. "Home at last, sir . . . and madam." He reached in and took Katharine's hand and helped her out of the carriage, Edward following.
It was too dark to take in much of her surroundings by sight, but Katharine knew instantly that she would love this place. A heavy, salty mist wrapped itself around her like a favorite quilt, and she heard the nearby persistent pounding of surf on shore. She smelled tides come and gone. Familiar and welcome sensations assaulted her senses, all carried on the strong current of a wind off the ocean, and delivered to Katharine as if on a silver platter.
She closed her eyes and let them wash over her, a moment of overwhelming comfort, mixed with a strange sadness, that encouraged a weighted sigh to come forth from her without her even realizing it.
It did not escape Edward's notice, and he looked lovingly at her, trusting that she was already appreciating the wonderful sense of home that his place had always brought to him.
He put a sheltering arm around her as they turned toward the cottage. The carriage had stopped at the curve in long sweeping drive in from the main path, where the drive turned to the left to follow along the side of the house and around to the carriage house and stables in the back. Henry climbed back into the coachman's seat and guided the horses to their home and their rest. Edward led Katharine along the drive that continued across the front of the house on their left, with the ocean on their right.
Katharine noted that, despite the late hour, the house was ablaze with light, a beacon to guide and welcome those long away. Tall lamps like sentries burned brightly at the head of the walk where it met the path. Katharine stopped and looked in wonder at the house. It was hardly what she would call a "cottage." Two full stories, with dormer windows indicating a third, the brick and stone home stood like a proud manor house at the end of the spacious walk. Windows, large and gaping to bring indoors as much of the oceanside splendor as possible, graced either side of the front door, which was tucked beneath a large and graceful fanlight. Katharine could see warm and inviting rooms beyond the glass.
Trellises covered with wintry tangles of ivy stood at the ground level and had long ceased containing the vines as they had climbed ever higher, reaching to the second story windows. This gave the house a more informal, but no less stately appearance. Katharine could see the fences along the walk, cluttered with the jumble of the wild sea-roses that gave the cottage its name. The vines and branches were dark for the winter, but for a moment, Katharine imagined that a hint of the summer rose scent that was her favorite wafted on the cold breeze and tickled her nose.
Beyond the lighted walk and the house proper, she could make out rambling additions to the house, further adding to its charm and casualness, despite its size. She heard wind-driven whispers of sleeping gardens and foliage and imagined the maze of dulled greenery that lay out of view in the darkness.
The door to the cottage opened at that moment, and a woman's voice beckoned.
"Well, sir! It's about blasted time that you arrived! And after traveling so far, do you now wish to stay out in the cold?"
"Margaret, really! You'll have our guest thinking that you are the Captain around here," Edward replied, keeping up with the good-natured tease.
"Captain? Hardly! Admiral, it is, sir, and I'll have you in here saluting me!"
Margaret Keith laughed and, despite her admonition, came down the walk from the front door to greet her special friend where he stood. Edward shared her laugh, and welcomed Margaret into an easy embrace. She kissed both his cheeks, then took his hands in hers and stepped back to eye him carefully. She looked him over top to bottom to top again, lingering on his face, assessing his honest eyes for unspoken truths.
"Hmmm," Margaret said, her eyes narrowed in thoughtful appraisal, "It looks as though you came home just in time. Much longer on those rations at sea, and you'd have wasted away to nothing!"
"Now, Margaret, you know that it is my duty to starve myself a bit when I am at sea! If I were to eat as you would like, I am certain that *Indefatigable* would find herself drifting about with a lazy captain napping the days away and unable to cavort about in search of the enemy. You know it is only for the good of the service that I deprive myself!"
"Yes, yes, I know . . . but you are home now, and it is my sworn duty to feed you heartily and fatten you back up!"
"Well, far be it from me to stand in the way of an Admiral's duty!" Edward gave Margaret his most serious look, and the expected salute, followed by an unexpected kiss on the forehead. Margaret stifled a giggle.
Katharine could not help but laugh herself as she marveled at the ease with which he seemed to slip into the easy banter with his trusted friend and lose the stiff unbending starch of his "captain-ness." She knew he must feel safe here, and with this woman.
Katharine's laugh caught the older woman's attention and Margaret turned to her.
"And this must be your Katharine, " she said warmly, looking back at Edward to see the appreciation on his face for referring to Katharine as "his." She came to Katharine with open arms and eyes as welcoming and accepting as everything else about this place.
"How glad we are to have you here, dear. And we're so anxious to get acquainted with the woman who has stolen Edward's heart! The captain here has not told us nearly enough about you. He did mention that your beauty would distract the eye from these awful garments on you - oh! Are those the captain's best moleskin britches? At least he had the sense to give you decent clothing! Oh well, never you mind. I'll have you dressed like the lady you are first thing in the morning! Oh, but how tired and drawn you look! Weeks aboard ship, even one as fine as the captain's here, are not well suited to the constitution of such a fine woman as yourself. And I dare say that with a much needed rest, and some good decent food in you , you just might fill out the clothes I have waiting for you upstairs."
Katharine's head was happily spinning with the homey chatter of the woman. She looked questioningly at Edward, who simply smiled and shrugged.
"I am so very pleased to be here, Mrs. Keith."
"Now, now, Katharine, I am certain that Edward has told you enough about me to fill volumes, so it makes no sense to stand on ceremony. I am simply Margaret."
"Then I am very pleased to be here, Margaret."
"That's better, dear! I think you and I will become great friends!"
"I'd like that," Katharine said with an involuntary shiver from the cold passing through her. Edward noticed it.
"Ahem . . .permission to come aboard, Admiral?"
"What?" Margaret turned see Edward with a sly grin on his face and an expectant gesture toward the cottage's front door. "Oh yes! Whatever am I thinking? Do come in out of this cold! Come along!"
She took Katharine by the arm and steered her in the front door, followed by a proud Edward. It meant so much to him that Margaret, and Henry, too, earlier, had been taken such great pains to welcome Katharine into their world. He knew, however, that it took no pain at all - it was simply their nature to care so much for someone who meant so much to Edward.
Once inside, Katharine again found herself absorbing every impression that was offered by Edward's home. She took in the layout of the foyer and front rooms, the stately curving staircase that led to the floor above. She admired the tasteful and elegant furnishings and appointments, noting the similarities between Edward's home on land and his "home" on *Indefatigable.* Both spoke of his inner qualities of strength and substance, and high and exacting standards, without being cluttered with useless frills and "just-for-show" details. His home, like his cabin, reflected his personality like the finest mirrored glass.
"Here, now, come in by the fire," Margaret insisted. "Let's get you warm."
She ushered both Edward and Katharine under the archway into the great keeping room, toward the magnificent fieldstone fireplace at the opposite end of the room. The stone was bordered by the same rich, warm mahogany panels that lined the remaining walls, making this room feel especially inviting. Over the massive oaken beam that was the mantelpiece, hung a stirring portrait of Edward's first love, or one of them at least, thought Katharine. It was a ship, under full sail, fighting the waves and troughs of heavy seas, purposeful and mighty. Katharine made a note to herself to ask Edward about the ship and it's place in his memory.
The room was tastefully laden with meaningful touches from Edward's travels. Rugs of the finest Persian wools and Chinese silks, artwork and statuary, small and large, showing glimpses of people and places that meant something to Edward. Katharine mused that if she spent enough time in this room, with or without him, she could begin to see into Edward's soul.
As was the case with the woman before her, Katharine thought.
Margaret Keith was a hearty woman, older, but not by much, Katharine surmised, than Edward, whose appearance and demeanor meant "home" to Edward every bit as much as this house did. She was sturdy, but not plump, tall, but not too, with a handsome sort of beauty that perhaps had once been quite ravishing. Her hair was dark brown, or rather, had been, for now it was thickly woven with silver-gray threads that were a crown presented by wisdom, experience and a lifetime of honest work. She wore it in a no-nonsense style, close to her head and under a small pleated cap. Her dress was elegant, but not lavish, a pearl gray linen printed with a small spot pattern, a frilled, long muslin fichu lining the neck and shoulders, crossing in the front at the bosom and tucking into the wide black ribbon waistband just above her natural waist. Just slightly behind the fashion, to be sure, but worn with the confident elegance of a woman not party to the whims of ever-changing styles.
Katharine noted that Margaret looked not as a housekeeper or caretaker, for she was far too tailored and polished for that impression, nor did she presume to dress as the mistress of the house, for her style was plainer than that. She was a woman with a special place here. Margaret knew what that was. Edward knew what it was as well, and he loved her for it.
Margaret ushered Katharine to the davenport in front of the blazing fireplace, speaking to Edward as she went.
Margaret settled in one of the large wing chairs beside the hearth.
"Now, Edward, be a gentleman and pour a brandy for your guest. And one for yourself, too. And when you've done that, come put another small log on this fire." She turned to Katharine. "We'll chase that chill right out of you, dear."
Margaret ordered Edward about with a natural ease, with no thought that on his ship, at least, his was the only voice of command. Katharine's amusement at seeing Edward reacting to her orders must have shown on her face, for Margaret leaned close to Katharine conspiratorially.
"Now you see, dear, everyone thinks that a ship's captain must always be captain of his world, on land as well as on the sea. But I know, as you will come to know, that this dear man needs some humbling once in a while, lest he become too big for those britches. On his ship, of course, he is the only captain, but here at home, Henry and I make sure that he knows that the world does not revolve around his every need and notion. He needs a good talking-to once in a while. Don't be afraid to challenge him, to question his ideas, to debate him. It keeps him human. You will do well to keep that in mind." Margaret winked slyly at Katharine.
"Have no fear, Margaret, for Katharine's ability to humble me has already been established," Edward retorted as he brought Katharine her brandy. He sat down beside her, laying his hand comfortably on Katharine's knee and looked purposefully at her as she sipped the amber liquid.
"And I am finding she is quite good at keeping me human." Katharine felt her cheeks warm under his gaze, or perhaps the brandy was already having the desired effect.
"Well, I should hope so, and it's about time, on both counts," Margaret said, laughing.
Margaret did not miss the longing and desire in Edward's gaze and it warmed her so to see it kindled in him this way. She did not intrude on his thoughts, and after a moment like this, he rose to stoke the fire.
Katharine loved the strong and confident way he moved, even when performing the simplest or most routine tasks. Her eyes followed him as he bent to pick up the new log, and added it to the blaze, placing it just so as to catch quickly and provide the most warmth. After making sure the log was starting to crackle, Edward turned back to the davenport and smiled when he saw that Katharine was watching him. Their eyes spoke to each other. He settled back down next to her, taking her hand in his.
Margaret's ever-vigilant observation was rewarded once again and her eyes almost teared with happiness at seeing the spark between her dear Edward and the woman who had awakened his heart. She glanced away for fear her emotions would betray her.
"Now you two, are you hungry? You've had a long trip, to be sure, and I could fix you something right quick. . . ."
"No need, Margaret. We stopped in Dillworth and refreshed ourselves."
"In Dillworth? At the Goose?" Margaret's voice rose at the thought of the tavern. Edward nodded, predicting that her usual dismayed reaction would be even bigger this time, for Katharine's benefit.
"Oh, no, not the Goose! One could hardly call that fare for the likes of you two and Henry! Stringy mutton, biscuits and watery gravy, no doubt, and nothing but their odious ale to wash it down! Honestly Edward, I would have thought you'd know better!"
"Now Margaret, stop scolding the man!" Henry entered the keeping room from the back of the house, after tending to the horses and carriage. He had shed his heavy outerwear and boots, and his cheeks were rouged by the wind and cold. He walked directly to the fireplace, and stood on the hearth, holding his chilled hands to the heat, and curling his stockinged toes back and forth to warm them.
"The victuals at the Goose were sufficient for us weary travelers, and served to make us all the more desirous of the fine fare you will no doubt serve us once we are rested enough to appreciate it," he explained.
"Of course! That is just the way of it," Edward added, winking at Katharine, who added her own nod to the consensus.
The older woman was torn between her honest disdain for their choice, and the obvious appeasing flattery.
"Well, I shall expect then that you will eat heartily and appreciatively beginning with breakfast tomorrow!" she concluded. It was another of the "Admiral's" orders, not to be questioned.
"Aye, aye, Admiral!" Edward said with a mock salute, which Margaret dismissed with an exasperated wave of her hand.
"Tell me, Edward," Henry spoke up, "how is James? Will we have the pleasure of seeing him while Indefatigable is in port?"
"It is possible, Henry, but not certain. Beyond our regular routines in port, our orders are not clear, and I could not say just how long we shall remain. The Admiralty may have us here for weeks, or may turn us right back out to sea once we are re-provisioned."
Margaret and Henry Keith knew not to question or protest. They had become quite accustomed to the demands of Edward's service and now that of their nephew, allowing that the orders of the Admiralty were not meant to be thought reasonable by civilians, especially the loved ones of those at sea.
Margaret noticed Katharine's eyes glance down at her lap, and suspected that the possibility of Edward returning to his ship and duty so quickly was something that Katharine did not want to face. Edward sensed this as well, and he squeezed Katharine's hand in silent reassurance.
"We received a letter from James just this afternoon." Margaret said. "He said he would come here if he could, and we can expect no more than that." After a thoughtful pause, she added, "He mentioned you, Katharine, in this letter. He seemed quite taken with meeting the famous Kitty Cobham."
Katharine smiled. "The pleasure was mine, I assure you. Dr Hilliard is fine young man, and from what I saw, quite an asset to Indefatigable."
"Oh, yes, so I hear! And an asset to us as well," added Margaret, with a wink in Henry's direction. "He keeps an eye on the Captain for us!"
Edward practically groaned. "Yes, yes, I am well aware that James tells you everything, but do not believe all that he writes you. He shares your overabundant concern for my health and well-being, and tends to worry as much as you two do!"
"Well, of course he does! We trained him well! Besides, his concern for your well-being, as you put it, went a long way in dissolving that stubborn pride of yours as far as this fine woman is concerned, is that not right?"
Edward almost choked on his last swallow of brandy. He put the glass firmly down on the table beside him as he recovered.
"Lord in heaven!" Edward blustered. "Is nothing sacred? May I have no secrets from you?"
The older couple smiled, knowing his exasperation was just for show. He had precious few secrets from these two dear friends, and he knew it. It was the way he wanted it.
Katharine recalled the days aboard ship when Edward had lost the icy, wary demeanor with her and warmed to her presence. James' words had reached Edward. Thank you, James Hilliard.
Margaret paused , then spoke more quietly, a somber tone inflecting her voice now.
"Edward, James also wrote of your young Mr. Hornblower. He has voluntarily returned to prison in Spain? What a loss for you."
Edward closed his eyes for a moment, then looked away. He was pained by the memory of seeing Hornblower, Kennedy and the others taking the small boat in to shore, perhaps never to return to his command. Margaret knew of his admiration and affection for Hornblower, his remorse over Mr. Kennedy's disappearance years ago, and of his distaste for the wasted loss of capable and valued seamen. She must also know that his decision to honor his parole and that his men followed, has earned my undying respect.
"Indeed, Margaret," Edward said with heaving sigh, his voice showing the strain of his dark memories. "I am praying for him to have strength to match his convictions, and for his safe return, whenever that may be."
There seemed nothing much to add to Edward's prayer. The room was silent save for the ticking of the grand pendulum clock in the corner that would soon chime in its deep bell tone the hour of two. Katharine finished her brandy, the liquid having the effect of warming her and dissolving whatever semblance of polite guest behavior she clung to. Edward put her glass on the table by his. Katharine's eyes started to droop as the quiet hung in the room like a bird stalled in flight on an errant current of wind.
Henry finally spoke. "Well, I think the rest of this news can wait until the morning. Even if your stay is short, Edward, I dare say Margaret can count on a nice newsy conversation over breakfast. You two are beginning to look like something the cat dragged in - no offense intended - and I think bed is in order."
"Yes, of course. Oh, Lord, where are my manners?" Margaret jumped up from her chair. "Follow me, dear. Now Edward, I've put Katharine in the room opposite yours. The fires have been lit up there, and it should be right cozy and warm. Come along, dear. Edward, you too! Morning will come soon enough, and breakfast will not wait!"
Margaret led the way, with Katharine casting a goodnight glance to Henry and following in Margaret's wake. To Edward she gave her most luminous smile, made just a bit trembly by the lateness of the hour and her physical wear. Without a word, Edward sensed that she was already quite happy here, and more than comfortable. He said his goodnight to Henry and lingered for just a moment watching the two women and listening to Margaret's happy, tireless chatter.
"Now, dear, you must be so anxious to sleep in a real bed after enduring the rather less than adequate accommodations on that ship! I think you'll find it most comfortable here. There are plenty of quilts, as that side of the house tends to wear the chills and drafts of this time of year rather poorly, and quite a few downy pillows. We simply must get you out of these dreadful togs! There is a fine nightgown laid out on the bed, and in the morning, I'll show you the rest of your wardrobe - I did manage to put some things together for you, oh certainly not the finery you must be used to, but . . ."
Edward just listened and smiled. He had been home for the minor part of an hour, and already the trials of the Navy, the Admiralty, his ship and indeed, the war, seemed ages away from this place, this moment. He was home, and home had never felt like this.
He knew that whatever orders were to come, however long he was to have with Katharine, and whatever future awaited him, this would stay with him. He knew that the same thundering heartbeat and fluttery knot in his stomach would return whenever he recalled this moment of seeing her in his home as if she had been born to be here. Indeed, he was beginning to think she had.
* * * * * *
Edward entered the bedroom Margaret had selected for Katharine just as Margaret bustled out in search of one more quilt to ward off the chill that Margaret was certain would plague her. Katharine was sitting on the bed removing her shoes and stockings. If we were both not so tired, I would take great pleasure in handling that task myself! he thought. Edward found that the simple act and the resulting flash of her creamy skin, glowing golden in the firelight, was igniting another sort of fire in him. Her delicate feet captivated him, and the shapely curve of her leg as it disappeared under the banded and buckled hem of those infernal britches was enough to cause a noticeable stir within him.
Katharine finished baring her feet and calves and padded across the chilly floor.
"Oh Edward, this is wonderful. I am so happy to be here! Your home is beautiful and Margaret and Henry are so gracious. They care so much for you, and . . ."
Edward stopped her words with a kiss. A kiss he had longed to give her since that night in his quarters. His arm went around her slender waist and he pulled her to his body, crushing her with a longing that took even him by surprise. His other hand came up to caress her shoulder, then her neck, and finally curving to the back of her head, pulling her to him to press her lips impossibly closer and tighter to his. Katharine's initial surprise at the silencing kiss gave way to her own desire, and she melted into his arms, returning his urgent kiss with her entire body.
Margaret returned at that moment, and had she realized what she was interrupting, she would have thought better of delivering the quilt. She would have sensed that there was now plenty of warmth in the room.
"Here now, this should do it," Margaret said as she swept into the room, so intent on fluffing the puffy quilt and draping it on the bed that she didn't seem to notice Edward and Katharine abruptly pull from their embrace with some embarrassment. They stood side by side, their breath coming in shallow, ragged spurts, their passion stayed by Margaret's unceasing efficiency with smoothing blankets, turning down covers and fluffing pillows.
"Now, if I may suggest . . ." she began as she fluffed the pillows to within an inch of their lives. She spoke as she fluffed, her back to them, ". . . that if you two are finished saying goodnight, I think it is high time that you went your separate ways for what's left of this night so you can get some sleep! Trust me Edward when I say that you will appreciate Katharine even more than you do at this moment, after a night of beauty sleep and some primping! And you, my dear lady, will be even more receptive to his considerable advances when you feel more like woman, rather than one of his sailors!"
She gave the pillow in her hand one last decisive "poof" and plopped it back to its place, turning to face Edward and Katharine, her hands commandingly on her hips. "Hmmm?" she said with finality.
Edward threw up his hands. "Alright, woman!" he said with a smile. "I'm going!" He turned his gaze to Katharine. "But I cannot imagine that a night of *beauty sleep* could possibly make this woman any more desirable to me than she is at his moment." Edward's eyes and words caressed Katharine as his hands and lips had moments earlier.
"Perhaps, Captain, but the Admiral has spoken, and you shall just have to find out if that will be true tomorrow!"
Margaret's words almost stuck, unsaid, on her lips as she saw the look that passed between the lovers. Her heart was ready to burst with happiness at seeing Edward finally share with someone that look of immeasurable passion.
With a final glance down at Katharine's glorious, unclad feet and gracefully curvaceous legs, Edward closed his eyes as if to imprint the image in his mind and his dreams. When he opened his eyes he saw the mischievous smile on Katharine's lips and kissed it unashamedly in front of Margaret. A hungry kiss, brief but meaningful, tasting of brandy and full of unrealized desire.
"Till the morrow, Your Grace," Edward whispered as he took her hand in his and brought it to his lips, leaving a firm and moist kiss there for her to sleep with.
"Yes . . . well . . . goodnight to you, dear Katharine, sleep well," Margaret said as she ushered Edward to the door, fearing that if she did not assist him, all her serious talk of beauty sleep would have been for naught.
Edward eyed her all the while he was closing the door, so as not to forget a single thing about her. Her mischievous smile returned and she rocked on her heels and gave her toes a seductive wiggle. Edward closed the door with pained sigh.