For the next month Katherine visited Major Ross’s tent three times a week. Sometimes he would tell her stories of his childhood, his parents, about his sister who was married and lived in London, of his travels and once even, he told her about a woman he was betrothed to, but who had died of typhoid before their wedding. For her part, she listened mostly in the beginning, but like a baby coaxed from sleep, she became engaged, interested and sometimes, asked questions. He never asked her questions though; it was as if he did not want to spook her back into their previous state – that is, when she gifted him with absolute silence.
He never asked whether she received his gift. But then again, she carried it on her person always, tucked safely into the pocket of her skirts. He would never know how much it meant to her and how much it restored some of the faith and hope she had lost since coming to the colonies.
Major Ross she learned, was capable of humour. On occasion, he even laughed at himself. The sound of his laughter had initially been foreign, so unexpected, but disarmingly agreeable. The first time she had twisted to stare, quickly turning her back when she saw the evidence of his mirth. But her position on his bed had slowly changed over the weeks that followed until now, she no longer lay turned away from him. Instead, she lay on her back, as did he.
Major Ross always laid the same way, on his back, his arms folded over his chest. He went to great pains she realised, to set her at ease. But at some point, Katherine recognised she didn’t mind being so close to him. She wasn’t afraid anymore. She was intrigued. While she still stared mainly at the draped fabric suspended from the top of the canvas tent, it was easier now to surreptitiously glance in his direction, or to catch his movement out of the corner of her eye. For the most part, he was incredibly amiable, she was loathe to admit. They seemed to establish a kind of rhythm to their interactions. She would arrive just after nightfall, they would share his food – split down the middle of his plate – and then they would lie down and he would talk.
The first time Katherine had laughed she was mortified, trying hard to stifle the giggles that continued to press against her breast until she thought she would burst. Curling into a ball, she had stiffened, hoping that the rigidity of her body would stop her shoulders from shaking. He must have noticed, but he said nothing. He had laughed of course, laughed at himself, but he had not forced her to acknowledge her own weakness.
Thereafter however, it was as if he silently challenged himself to tell her amusing tales, to see whether he could expose the kink in her hardened armour. It did not take long before one giggle met another. Weeks later, Katherine found herself less guarded with her smiles, more generous with her soft laughter.
It became easier also, she realised, to volunteer information about herself. She told him small bits about her childhood, her parents, her siblings. They had grown up poor and she had had very little education. What she knew she had been taught by the mistress of one of the houses she had worked in. That is, until the act that led to her wrongful incarceration.
When fear was removed from the equation, it was easy for her to notice other things... his smell – something she couldn’t ignore even before. But being among convicts whose main odour was compounded sweat and toil, it was no struggle to lay beside a man who smelled only faintly of sweat on occasion and mainly of soap. From the corner of her eyes she noticed his strong, capable hands, veins running prominently across the back and up his forearms. She noticed the broad expanse of his shoulders, lightly corded with muscle. She even watched him shave once when he had not yet completed the task as she arrived. But mostly, she noticed the way his voice would change, deepen, when he spoke to her. The way he no longer referred to her as a “thing” and how when she dared to, his eyes were soft and warm when he looked at her.
Katherine felt the pull towards him more keenly with each passing night they spent side by side. She was careful not to spend more than a few hours with him, always leaving before midnight. But the more relaxed she became, the easier it was to succumb to the call of slumber as his words wove a seductive spell around her. Eventually, she lost the battle and Katherine did the one thing she had vowed never to do – she spent the night.
Stilted movements woke her and she slowly surfaced. Aware that her head lay on a soft pillow, her eyes flung open and she sat up straight, looking around with confusion. She was still in her blue dress she noted, but she was under a light sheet. Beside her, there was an indentation on the pillow where Major Ross had lain. But he was no longer beside her. Instead, he shrugged into his jacket, turning from the mirror at her gasp of abject astonishment.
“Katherine. I did not mean to wake you.”
Words failed her as her throat went dry. Had she spent the night? Of course she had. What a silly question.
“Wake me?” she croaked. “I usually rise before dawn, Boss.” A reminder that she was a convict and he an officer in Her Majesty’s army. They were used to vastly different routines.
“I know,” he said softly. “Which is why I thought you might appreciate the opportunity to...” His words trailed off and she saw two dark spots appear high on his cheekbones. For a man who constantly reminded all and sundry that convicts were not people, he seemed to care a great deal about her wellbeing. Uncomfortable with that reality, Katherine bit her lip and slid from the bed. She still had on her boots. She sheets were a muddy mess.
He shook his head. “Do not trouble yourself. I did not want to disturb you. You looked so peaceful.” Their eyes met and his were soft again. Katherine tried to look away but found it increasingly difficult. With additional reserves of self preservation, she looked to the floor.
“May I go now, Boss?”
“If you wish.”
She hesitated a moment beside him as she passed, their shoulders barely touching. “Thank you.”
She felt his eyes on her as she flung herself from the tent, moving as fast as her limbs could carry her. She had wanted to move closer to him, to breathe in his clean smell from closer quarters. Shocked and appalled, Katherine kept moving, heading towards the beach. She barely made it there when she saw her Corporal waiting at their rock.
“Katherine!” he called, moving towards her. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine-”
“What happened?” he demanded. He seemed distraught, his hands roaming over her to make sure she was not maimed in any way.
“Nothing. Nothing happened.” He frowned and she licked her lips. She did not want to hurt him for the world, but knew that he would be.
“You stayed the night then? Of your own free will?” he asked in disbelief.
She nodded slowly, unable to meet his eyes, guilt eating at her insides.
He took a step back and she did not stop him. “Did he...?”
“No!” she exclaimed. “No.” She tried to sound normal. Katherine lifted a hand to try and soothe him but it fell to her side.
“So you just spent the night?”
“I fell asleep, that’s all. We just slept.”
“You just slept?” he echoed in disbelief. “Might as well have had him then!”
Katherine took a deep breath, trying to calm the anger that rose to match his own. “This is the second time you allude to the fact that it would be better if I had sex with him. He did not touch me. Is that not better?”
“Is it not worse?” he countered. “You whisper in the intimacy of his bed, you laugh at his stories.” At her surprised look he continued. “You don’t think the men do not take every opportunity to taunt me with it? Telling me about how it seems to be no hardship for the woman I love to visit the bed of a man I thought she hated.”
Katherine had no defence and so said nothing.
“I risked everything for you. Everything!” he cried. His face was tight, red, angry. She could not blame him. Her feelings for another man were a betrayal more cruel than a knife through his heart.
“I am sorry.” Katherine meant it with all her heart.
“What for exactly?”
“For hurting you.”
He shook his head, his eyes alight with resentment. “I wish I never fell in love with you, Katherine McVitie.”
A part of her broke then and tears filled her eyes. She did love him. Just not in the way he deserved.
“You deserve everything he does to you.”
It was a curse and she had no retort because was right. She had made a choice. And whatever happened now, the consequences rested squarely on her shoulders.