Katherine McVitie tentatively entered Major Ross’s tent, not knowing what to expect. It had been two nights since they had last been together, the night he had kept his promise to only lay with her on his bed. She felt strange being here now, awkward even, conflicting feelings for him swirling within her. Things had been difficult between them, sometimes unbearably so, but at least her feelings for him had been clear – she hated him and hated every moment with him. She would still rather be anywhere but in his tent at this very moment, but she could not deny the discernible shift in the ground beneath her feet the last time she had left him.
Seeing him, his emotions, understanding some of what made him so hard and cruel somehow made it easier to comprehend his actions. Her feelings for him were more complicated now than ever. And she hated that, hated feeling this… compassion.
Standing just inside the tent flap, he had not yet seen her. This was unusual, being an extremely perceptive man. This gave her the opportunity to observe him unnoticed. He looked, defeated, she realised with surprise. Sitting on a stool, he had his head in his hands, his shoulders stooped. An uncomfortable, but automatic rush of empathy flooded her, causing her eyes to widen at the unwanted emotion. She must have made a sound, because he looked up, his eyes blank for a moment before recognition dawned.
“Katherine,” he whispered. He did not stand, instead he tugged at his collar, looking uncomfortable in only the shirt and his white breeches, the waistcoat by all accounts long discarded.
She swallowed, nervous, shifting slowly. “If you’re not well, I could come back another night, Boss.”
She prayed he would let her go but he just stared at her for a while, as if he was trying to make up his mind about something.
“No,” he said eventually. “Have you eaten?”
Katherine shook her head, her mouth watering and her belly growling at the mere mention of food. Embarrassed, she dropped her head, allowing her hair to partially cover her face. Against her belly, her nails dug into her moist palms.
“There is some food on the desk.”
Covertly, her eyes swept over the table and spotted the plate of rice and beans. There was a fair amount – well, fair was relative. The prisoners received a slightly smaller ration.
“Please.” His head nodded in the direction of the food and Katherine did not need another invitation. She picked up the plate and using the spoon beside it, scooped some rice into her mouth. He must not have eaten because the meagre portion was completely untouched. When she looked up, he had a small smile on his face and she turned her back to him, embarrassed once again.
He did not say anything else and she stopped chewing, her shoulders tense. Turning slightly, she noticed he was staring blankly at nothing in particular again, seeming to have forgotten her presence.
“Boss?” she asked, hating herself for the query. She had made a pact with herself to not say a word tonight.
“Hmmm?” His eyes found hers again and Katherine saw the one thing she had not expected. Pain.
“Are you alright, Boss?” Again the words flew from her mouth and Katherine bit her bottom lip - hard. She felt the sting and it reminded her to be more careful.
His smile was not amusement or mirth. It was desolate, unwittingly touching something inside of her.
“One of my men died today,” he began, shifting on the low stool beside the bed. “He was bitten by a snake out in the bush.” He grimaced, his jaw tightening. “I cannot imagine a more useless way to leave this world. Especially having come halfway across it to this godforsaken place.”
Katherine had no response, so she just listened, fascinated by the play of emotion across his face.
“I promised them, each and every one of these soldiers, that I would see them home to their families. I fail in this endeavour with daily alacrity.”
He was genuinely aggrieved, she realised, his pain real, his sorrow filling the confined space.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly, biting her lip again to remind herself of her foolishness.
He seemed surprised at her sentiment. But no more so than she was to have uttered it.
“Why?” His dark eyes narrowed as he looked at her and Katherine felt herself squirm uncomfortably.
She shrugged her shoulders, unsure of what to say. But the food was now stuck in her throat. Looking down at the plate, she asked, “You did not eat Boss?”
“I find my appetite has escaped me.”
Katherine took the spoon and divided the rice and beans in half. It was less than half really, considering she had already taken two mouthfuls. Taking two quick bites of the small portion on the left, she walked over and passed him the plate. The surprise in his eyes had her lowering her own gaze, staring at his exposed collarbone.
“I am not hungry, Katherine.”
“Eating always makes me feel better.” Her eyes flicked up to his and away again, her cheeks now blooming with colour. “Boss,” she added, clearing her throat.
His hand reached for the plate and she turned away, heading for the bed. Lying down, she turned her back to him and waited for the depression on the other side. She heard the scrape of the spoon across the plate and knew that he had eaten the food given him. Eventually, she felt the mattress depress behind her and tensed. Her heartbeat raced, a roar filling her ears.
She didn’t feel fear this time, but her entire body was tense nonetheless. He lay close enough that she could smell him, feel some of the heat radiating off his body. She could not lie; the smell of soap was very pleasant. Senior officers had access to soap, a small luxury that no prisoner was afforded. The sweet, clean scent was heavenly, even emanating from someone who unnerved her so.
Katherine waited, but his words never came, he never moved closer, in fact, he did not stir. After what felt like an eternity, she slowly peeked behind her. The sight left her speechless. Major Ross was asleep, angled towards her, his arms folded across his chest. Slowly, Katherine rose, praying she did not disturb him, knowing she could sneak out unmoved by any additional overtures he might make.
But her curiosity got the better of her. Standing beside the bed, she peered at him, fascinated to see him so relaxed in sleep. Gone was the fierce discipline and displeasure always bubbling so close to the surface. In its wake was just a man – an exhausted, emotionally compromised man. A lonely man. Katherine felt her insides twist again and looked away, her eyes drawn back to the enigma on the bed.
She seemed to wobble. The more she looked at him, the more she inadvertently synchronised her own breathing to the serene rise and fall of his chest, the more she seemed to wobble. Katherine panicked then, confused, disgusted, embarrassed by the sensations she felt stir inside her. She hated him, she reminded herself, feeling tears prick the back of her eyelids as she fled the tent. Of course she hated him.
But why then did she look back? And why for the slightest moment, did his words, no sex, not until you are ready for it, flit through her mind. Katherine hurried towards the beach, towards her Corporal. He loved her. He cared about her. He had risked his life for her.
Right that moment however; Katherine could not muster the sentiment to feel grateful towards Corporal McDonald. Nor could she summon the courage to fling the tiny statue of the Virgin Mary that Major Ross had given her into the ocean.
Katherine McVitie realised that she was indeed compromised. And there was nothing she could do about it.