Confessions and Redemptions
She went down the stairs more rapidly than normal; part with the urgent need to see him and part with the urgent need to confess. "May I steal Ezekiel from you a moment?" she asked Neecy and then to Ezekiel, "May I see you in the hall?"
When Katherine came rushing down, Ezekiel was slightly surprised. He hadn't been sure when to expect to see again, but his heart leapt as she descended, a vision in blue. He nodded to Monsieur Beignet in acknowledgment of his role, and then said, "Of course, my treasure."
He took her hand and walked with her into the hall. The conversation would have the semblance of privacy and Ezekiel doubted that Monsieur Beignet would be listening too hard. "You should not feel you need to steal me, Katherine. I am already yours in mind and soul."
His response caught her unawares; she had formed what she was going to say as she had rushed down the stairs. And now ... now she could only stare into his eyes with her mouth parted slightly, her hand warm in his. She inhaled to start to speak and his scent almost made her dizzy. She closed her eyes to enjoy it, remembering the taste of his lips and the firm strength in his arms as he had held her and smiled. "I could hear you say that forever, dearest heart," she murmured and lay her forehead against his shoulder and then sighed. "I must confess to you what I've done. Before the truth sullies me forever in your eyes. I did not mean to do it. I still am not certain that she has forgiven me. But you must know that I've inadvertently accused Josephine of the worst behavior and I have hurt her."
"Go on, Katherine," Ezekiel said calmly. "What is this behavior of which you accused Josephine?" He took her hands in his and patted them comfortingly.
She lifted her head to his and it came out quickly, like a guilty child. "I presumed to apologize for you again to her upstairs, to reassure her that you would have never meant to offend her and that it was behaviour so unlike you. To take into account that we were all still tired. And it seemed to shake her. She told me of your response, the misunderstanding that had so undone her and how there should be limits that you both should obey." She took a long breath and continued, "I will admit that I was too direct about questioning her about limits to your friendship. Indeed, what right was it of mine to question your associations or what endangerment that could be to you and I?" Her eyes were wide, open and supplicating, and she spoke softly as if everyone were listening to her guilt. "I so undid her that she had to turn from me and then, Ezekiel, she fell upon my lap! I apologized to her, but there is no telling what damage I did."
Her shoulders slumped and she finally looked to the floor. "I did not mean to make her uncomfortable. I do not know if she believed me when I asked for her forgiveness. I told her that I could teach her weapons work. That way there would not be unseemly contact between you and she. I know that she was only trying to protect us and I, in my suspicion, turned upon her. I am sorry."
"The part of the conversation about love? It was brief and I did not mean it in any sort of familiar way. I meant it as a reminder that love enriches our lives, as it has newly enriched yours and mine. I am sorry if she misinterpreted what I had said. I had thought she had problems with a gentleman in her past." If Josephine had thought he has making inappropriate and unwanted advances, then it was no surprise why she had become upset.
Katherine looked at him, her brows furrowing gently. "Then maybe there has been misunderstanding in all ways,' she said softly. "Do you think that she believes you too forward? She led me to believe that she had made the incorrect advance. Now I am confused." And not as sorry as I was, she thought with a hidden frown. What was the detective woman hiding? She looked up to search Ezekiel's face and saw innocent concern.
Ezekiel held her hands between his and looked up into those green cat eyes, their exotic beauty almost causing him to lose his train of thought. What was important, he thought, was ending this and reassuring Katherine that all was right. "This does indeed seem to be confusing," he agreed, "but I think, clearly, any blame in this matter is mine. I will apologize formally to Madame Arceneaux for the confusion and concern. And while I understand your wish to make sure my honor was kept intact, I need neither man nor woman to apologize in my place. When there is apology to be made, it is my duty and responsibility to make it. A man's word is only as good as his ability and the perception of his ability to stand by it."
She nodded imperceptibly. "Yes, that is so, my love," she agreed in a whisper. "I overstepped. It seems I owe you apologies too." She freed a hand to pat the one still grasping her other hand with distracted unease. "As I told Josephine, what is between you is between you both and not I. I have no right to make either of you report to me." She pulled her other hand free to gesture back to the other room. "Shall we go back? The others surely wait. Thank you for indulging my silliness. Please assure Josephine that I meant no insult to her." Bowing her head, she stepped away to return to the parlor with a weak smile that she fought to make real. Up and down she was feeling, in and out as if what she knew was certain had spun out of control. Ezekiel was taller than she and taller still he seemed just now speaking to her. There was no reconciling what her instincts told her and what the words given to her meant. She could only chastise herself for being small-hearted, vicious and ugly and yet. . . with the deepest part of her heart, she knew that Josephine had not told her everything. Too many times she had spoken to the other side of the room and the detective was too independent and bold to have fallen prostrate on her lap. And despite her protestations to the contrary, Josephine had done nothing more than plant the seed of doubt in her mind. She found herself grasping the doorframe; she was shaking, her body expressing what her words could not.
"Katherine," Ezekiel said, concern in his voice. "Are you well?" He rushed over to her side and took her by the arm. "Use me for support." Her arm was shaking in his grasp. How had he managed to upset yet another woman? Katherine had meant no harm in apologizing for him. Yet he had struck her with his words like a glove across the cheek. He had much to learn, it seemed.
"Yes," she stated and then made the mistake of looking at him. He was so concerned and she was going mad like Alice. Her reassuring smile was twisted with mirth; she could only laugh at herself as she fell down the hole. "You do love me," she stated in a whisper, finally knowing it to be true beyond all mad doubt. Tears fell freely with relief and her soul sang, freed of its burdens.
They were too near the opening where Josephine and Neecy could see them. She could not let Neecy see; she would not let Josephine see. She concentrated on breathing and gathered her words carefully. "Come hold me. . .they will forgive us and I must tell you something that I believe and you should be aware of."
Ezekiel stepped in close to support her, to hold her. Confusion passed across his face as her words gave him new reason for concern. As he came in close, he took a finger and wiped a tear away from her cheek, softly caressing her with his touch. "What is of such concern to move you towards faintness?"
Katherine leaned against him, a soft sigh like a happy child escaping her. "We have been friends for some time, my love," she breathed softly into his ear. "And I know that I am younger than you and sometimes seem quite flighty. But a woman knows when another woman pays attention to the male in her company and I know that Josephine is paying too much attention to you. Were I still more friend than lover to you, then I would find a cheerful amusement in your predicament. But I cannot find it to be merry at my own expense and laugh as this rabid circle of admiration chases me to madness."
She was serious. His first instinct was to be surprised but when he went back in his head and reviewed the conversations with Josephine, he could begin to see what she was referring to. Had he encouraged it? He wasn't sure but he knew he needed to both reassure Katherine and in private attempt to politely discourage Josephine.
She nuzzled his shoulder, enjoying the warmth, and then raised her face to his. Shock was quickly being replaced with decision and concern. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I didn't want you to be burdened. I tried to ignore it, but I could not. I'm guilty of always assuming that you would be there with me and I depended on it. And now that there is a rival, I have acted poorly. I should be stronger. But Ezekiel, I cannot express the joy that I feel when you are near nor can I make you understand how very much I have grown used to you being there." She reached a hand up to cup his cheek. "I'm afraid that I am not the strong woman you believe. But I will try to be the better person that you believe me to be, the person that you deserve."
"Katherine, you have nothing to fear. I am in love with you. If I am honest with myself, I have been in love with you for some time, but was too foolish to recognize it." He pressed his hand up to hers, feeling the warmth of it against both his hand and his face. "I am looking forward to discovering the woman you are as I hope you are excited to discover who I am. Until then, we must have faith in ourselves and each other. I believe in you, Katherine."
"I cannot wait to know you, Ezekiel … in all ways," was her soft answer. She knew that she blushed but she relaxed finally, smiling at herself and their situation. "I suppose that I needed a push to be brought to my senses also." She glanced to each side of them and then planted a swift kiss on his lips. "Praise be to heaven for you, my love. I don't know what I did to deserve you." She studied his face, memorizing it, and then raised her eyebrows. "So what are we going to do about poor Josephine? Shall I continue to play ignorant as to not discomfit her? I do love her. How should we handle this so not to hurt her more?"
The taste of her lips was sweet but all too tantalizing. What she had done to deserve him? It seemed to him the statement should be reversed. "If you kiss me again," he whispered, "I will be lost to you forever." He didn't know whether it was meant as a warning or an invitation.
He brought his mind back to the problem at hand. "I would not have you lie to her. I would think a quick, even if briefly painful, end to the situation would be more favorable than something prolonged. But I have shown great ineptitude in even realizing the situation existed." He looked at the face of the woman he would have the privilege of marrying. "If you found yourself in her position, what would be your most ideal outcome?"
Her eyes twinkled; her good humor was back and she felt the weight of the world lifted. Together she and Ezekiel could take on the world. "To have you," she countered as the answer and then grew solemn. "To be honest, I would want you to speak to me. Let me know why it could not be. But your kindness will hurt her more than anger, I must warn you. I would also like my rival to show kindness, but not condension. But the broken heart is still broken and wants what it wants. We will have to be gentle and give her time. It would be best if she were not forced to watch us and participate, but I am selfish enough to know that I want her with us and want to keep her as friend." She laughed softly, abrupt and merry. "She will watch out for you when I cannot., on our adventures on the Continent. I should be happy with that. I wouldn't have anything harm you and someone not be there to help you. Especially someone who is as in love with you as I." Her dancing eyes darted around the hall again and finding no one, she kissed him with willful passion, her chin up when she let him go. "It's my home," she announced with spoiled impishness. "We are practically surrounded with chaperones."
The kiss filled every inch of his body with warmness and pleasure. As she let him go from the kiss, he took in and released a deep breath, focusing on everything but Katherine and her intoxicating presence. "I do not think you realize the full effect that you have upon me, my love. Each kiss is a temptation towards things which I cannot have now." He could resist the temptation to go further, but he could not make himself ask for her to be careful with her kisses. Because he wanted them very much.
Not three days ago, he could stay focused with the best of his peers. Katherine played havoc with his concentration, it seemed. He once again forced his mind back to the matter of Josephine. "I feel we should tell her together in private. Do you agree?"
"Yes." She fumbled for and found his hand. "Shall we go now?"
Ezekiel nodded. "Best done and done quick. If you will ask Monsieur Beignet to give us a moment with Josephine..." And he led her back into the parlor, holding tight to her hand as they walked.
"Neecy. . .if you would excuse us for a moment." The little Belgian nodded curtly and left the room. She looked at Ezekiel. "Shall you start or should I?"
Josephine had followed Katherine down the stairs and into the drawing room, firmly in hand and playing the role of a dutiful ladies’ maid. The sight of Ezekiel made her heart lurch but she squelched any outward show. Katherine immediately drew him out to the hall and Josephine was grateful for the respite. It was too soon after telling Katherine, too soon after Ezekiel, for her to be comfortable in the gentleman’s presence.
It will fade. God help me, it must. I can’t afford the distraction on-mission. We can’t.
She kept the thought running like a mantra in the background as she smiled politely at Beignet and offered to refresh his cup. Milk? Sugar? Lemon? Niceties observed, she dared pour herself a cup and took it with her to a side chair away from table. A maid could not be counted equal to the Head Butler of any household and as she hadn’t been expressly invited to join them at table, Josephine felt discretion was the better part of valor.
Valor? Try retreat. It’s closer to the truth.
She sipped and sat in silence regaining her composure as she thought ahead to their coming excursion to Miss Dashwood’s, when the couple’s return smashed it to bits. Josephine caught the undercurrent running from the pair and knew her omission upstairs had been discovered.
Blindfold? Cigarette? No thank you. Get on with it.
“Yes?” Gaze and voice steady, Josephine put her cup aside and rose.
Katherine looked at Ezekiel and waited for him to begin.
"We had hoped to have a word with you. Excuse me if I am but a blunt hammer when a delicate scalpel is needed." Ezekiel looked at Josephine, not unkindly, but with a small hint of sadness. He had originally thought to ask her if what Katherine said was true, but that would both create the illusion that he doubted Katherine and shame Madame Arceneaux by requiring her to confirm it. Instead, he decided for the straightforward approach. "It has come to my attention that you are perhaps harboring inappropriate feelings for me. If this is true, then the blame sits firmly at my feet for failing to understand this and bring a quicker halt to it. No shame or dishonor should come to you, Madame Arceneaux. But it must be made clear that while I respect you and wish your friendship, there can be nothing beyond that friendship between us. I am in love with Katherine and we will be wed. I do not wish for you to hold to hopes that cannot, will not be fulfilled. It can lead only to pain and I do not wish that upon you."
Katherine squeezed his hand as she looked at Josephine. Sadness, that is what she felt, far from the triumphant joy that the penny novels spoke of; just a deep and empathetic sadness. She would have run to hold Josephine's hand, but knew that would be unwelcome. Instead, she looked to Ezekiel and then back to Josephine.
“I am fully aware of the situation, Mr. Drake.” Josephine said evenly, her chin level and her back straight, her pride stung. As if it wasn’t stunningly clear to me from the first. Does he think me an idiot? “I see I have failed to make my cognizance of that fact clear to both of you and I apologize. Furthermore, now that the matter is in the open between us, let us not waste the opportunity to resolve it decisively.
"Mr. Drake.” Josephine steeled herself and faced him square. “I promise I shall make every effort to comport myself with utmost professionalism. You need not fear to work and travel beside me. You are a business associate and nothing more. Lady Katherine, I promise I have no designs upon your intended husband and I have no desire whatsoever to hurt or undermine his affection for you. You are a sister to me and deserving of my support and loyalty. To the both of you, I pledge you my respect for your privacy and your commitment to each other and will not intrude upon either.”
Josephine took a step forward and continued, her voice low, velvet over steel.“I would never willingly ruin your happiness for the sake of an infatuation, however strong or hurtful it might be for me to endure. That, make no mistake, is my burden to bear. Not yours. And I will make every effort to ensure it does not impinge on the both of you.”
Another step. Another vow.
“If this is acceptable, then by all means let us proceed with the task assigned us by the Crown. If this is not acceptable, I beg your forbearance until we either fulfill our duty to Queen and Country or until such suitable replacement can be found for myself in this endeavor. But whatever happens, let us get on with it.”
Katherine's mouth quirked and she inclined her head with grave understanding.
"Professionals, rather than friends. I understand why it must be that way, even if it pains me. Once again, if I have hurt you because I was too foolish to understand what was occurring, then I must take the blame. It is clear to me you are both more observant and more intelligent than I in these matters." Exekiel made a stiff half bow.
She had wanted not to say anything, but at that, Katherine could not help but say gently, "Maybe with time things will be easier. We can only pray." She hurt for them both.
"Of course," Josephine said, going brittle as she saw how her words had upset her friends. Friends? Perhaps not any longer. Certainly not with Ezekiel. He said it himself. ' Professionals, rather than friends'. Too late, Josephine realized what her temper and pride had cost her. You were right, Mr. Drake. I am an idiot. Aloud, she managed calmly, "All things are tempered in time. The heart learns, wounds heal. I meant nothing in malice though I realize my words were sharp. I only wished to be perfectly clear as to my intentions. In my extremity I could discern no other way to accomplish it. I'm sorry."
Time...he had to remember that the passage of time since this all started had been measured in days, not years, even if it might seem the latter. "Time indeed. If these past few days are indicators of how much will occur while we are together, then we shall all be old friends before the week is up."
Katherine could not stand it anymore. "Oh please tell me that we will be friends!" she cried out in distress. "I cannot stand the pain in this room. I cannot stand that my jealousy would deprive others of friendship." She looked from Ezekiel to Josephine and back. "What ties us is our affection for one another. Friendship is so precious. Josephine, you cannot withhold that from Ezekiel. Take it from me instead."
Ezekiel's magnanimity flowed over her like honey, paradoxically soothing and torturing at once. Josephine could only stand rooted to the spot and let it wash over her as she clung to her composure tooth and toenail. Katherine, however, blew it all to a faretheewell and at her impassioned plea, Josephine broke. Sucking in a shuddering breath, she crossed the carpet in three strides and took the younger woman in her arms and held her tight, heart-stabbed at the hurt she'd dealt.
"It's not your fault, Katherine. It's just another misunderstanding. Of course, we shall be friends. Don't cry, please don't cry," Josephine whispered, stroking Katherine's back like a mother would a child. "We'll be fine, all of us. We've been brought together for a purpose and of course we shall win through. Everything will turn out right. You'll see...."
It was a whole new world Ezekiel was entering, and there had already been several occasions when he wondered if he was perhaps ill prepared for the rise and fall of emotions that would come with Katherine and with marriage. He stood and watched Josephine console Katherine and prayed for guidance from the Host. Help me walk this delicate path so that I do not hurt the people that walk it with me.
Katherine sniffed, but held strong. "I know it will. Agape is what we share and I believe that we have been brought together also to fight a rising evil. We will have each other and I hope in time that you will be able to bring another into our circle, Josephine." She pulled free and gathered Ezekiel's arm in her own. "The Host works in mysterious ways. We are stronger together." Looking up at Ezekiel's eyes, she nodded so that he knew that there was a special part of her words for him.
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