Francis Barnard had done his absolute best to forget about Nicholas Medina. He had immersed himself in the estate business far beyond his previous involvement. Son of a nobleman and famed shipping magnate Thomas Barnard, he and his siblings led privileged lives, given education, and status, and they never wanted for anything. Elizabeth had been the eldest and had gone to live with an aunt in France when their mother had died in childbirth. Francis had come next, then Robert and finally Anne. They were the surviving children, though there had been at least four others who died at birth or were born dead. And now Elizabeth was dead, too, and in a manner Francis tried hard not to remember.
It was good, however, that he was head of the family, made so at age twenty upon his father's death. While he missed his father's wisdom and companionship on the hunt, it was good to keep busy, good to have responsibilities that kept his mind occupied.
But Francis had to frequently tear his thoughts away from his beautiful older sister, of how she had always charmed everyone in the room when she entered, holding them in thrall, manipulating them with her smile. Six years his senior, she had been so skilled at getting what she wanted, Francis had often as a child gone first to her for things rather than their mother, so when his desire for something was brought to their parents, he had Elizabeth on his side and usually got whatever he wanted. He had used her in a way, too. Odd how that worked. One who was very observant, if mostly guileless like himself, using an accomplished manipulator like Elizabeth. But he wouldn't be doing that again.
The events in that remote castle on the coast of Spain haunted him, and his only solace was work, exercising the horses and an occasional hunt. Had he been able to forget, he would still have had the twelve-inch scar across his upper belly for a reminder. He remembered fleeing the castle in the deceased doctor's carriage with Catherine Medina, and the two servants, Maximilian and Maria. In the small Spanish village, Santo Tomás, he'd been subjected to primitive treatment for his wound, and he'd returned to England, where the family physician had bathed the septic wound in brine—a painful procedure—and re-stitched it. The resulting scar was jagged and long, and currently still reddish pink.
He had remained in touch with Catherine and Maximilian, who had saved his life, exchanging several letters with Catherine and one with Maximilian. He had offered the servant a place of honor in his household or the company, but Maximilian did not want to leave Spain. Catherine had found Maximilian a good position in Barcelona, and Francis was planning on sending him something useful such as a fine horse to express his gratitude. He was currently waiting to hear back from the woman so that she might tell him if she thought that was a suitable gift. It had been a month since he had heard from her, which was not surprising considering the winter weather, and he was expecting a letter from her at any time. He sometimes brooded about what her life must have been like. She told him she and Nicholas had been sent away to live with their mother's family in Barcelona after what their father had done, and she had never returned to the castle to live permanently, though Nicholas had. Francis wondered how she had remained so stable, and thought it must have been that she had mostly stayed away.
Although Francis' own mother and father were gone, he still had family—aunts and uncles enough to send a parade of eligible young women to Chipham Manor to meet him since he had come of age. Before his death, his father discussed business with him, and to a certain extent his producing an heir, but his it was his Aunt Jane who was constantly trying to find a woman for him. He had yet to find one he would dance more than one time with. Catherine Medina, however, had caught his attention for some reason. Perhaps it was her quiet and unassuming, ever polite demeanor, or her lovely dark hair and large purple-brown eyes. Oh, many of the women he'd met at his aunt's insistence had been prettier, but to him, they had seemed empty-headed. Francis was not completely oblivious to his own good looks, but he was so caught up in formality, and currently the business of running the estate, that he never thought about it. Girls swooning over him annoyed him more than anything else. He admired intelligence and wit more, and of the few that had possessed those, there had been some discord between them. If she'd been intelligent, her voice had annoyed him, or her manner. If she'd had wit also, she'd been sarcastic, not funny, or merely amusing without the brains for good conversation.
So at twenty-four, Francis remained unmarried and too busy to court any woman, except possibly Catherine Medina. What was an hour or so a few times a month to write a letter?
Meanwhile, he put in long hours over ledgers, overseeing important shipments, meeting with nobles and dignitaries, maintaining the Barnard household status in English society, and in general, trying to think of anything but the nightmare in that evil Spanish castle. He hadn't wanted to talk about it to the point he had lied about how he'd been injured. He thought anyone he told the real story to would think he was mad, and when he woke up in the middle of the night, feeling the razor edge of the pendulum slicing his skin, he feared he would begin screaming. It had been worst at first, when the wound was still painful. Now, three months later, the dreams were less frequent and he had only the scar to remind him.
He pressed his hand to his belly over where the scar was—an unconscious gesture he had gotten in the habit of making.
He looked up from the manifest he'd been laboriously transcribing. It was Adam Pillsbury, his uncle, calling him. Francis got up, setting his quill in the groove on his desk. He did not mind being called away, though he was technically head of the family now. Adam had been crippled in a riding accident and walking was difficult. He was an honest and fair man, and Francis freely gave him the respect he thought he had earned.
Francis left the relative warmth of his desk near the fire and went into the adjoining office his uncle occupied in the manor. It was twice the size of his own, which was substantial, and his uncle sat at his huge oak desk, his body wrapped in his heavy cloak. Bigger rooms were hard to heat in January, and Francis did not regret his decision to let his uncle have his father's office.
"What is it, Uncle?" Dark brown eyes so much like his mother's, looked up at him.
"I received word a moment ago that Victor Dufresne is arriving today aboard the Marius. I think we should meet him rather than just send a carriage."
Francis nodded. "Agreed. I will go. The weather is dreadful at the moment. I will bring him here to meet with us. I was considering going out to the docks to oversee the loading of the Galliard shipment. It has arrived early."
"That would be most kind of you, Francis. You are a good man."
Francis smiled slightly. Hours to be spent in the bitter cold, he thought. Better that than broken furniture and mirrors, which were the bulk of the shipment. Besides, there would be no opportunity for his mind to wander. And when the Marius docked, he would have to entertain their noble French guest.
"Oh, Francis, here's a letter for you. Whoever do you know in Spain named Maximilian Diego?"
Francis crossed to the desk and took it from his uncle. "He was a servant of Nicholas Medina. He was very helpful to me, but I did not anticipate a letter from him." What else could he possibly have to say? Francis wondered. Other than considering sending him a horse, Francis had felt their business was concluded.
"They educate their servants in Spain?" said Adam Pillsbury with a trace of amusement.
"I do not know. He was rather the major domo." Francis was puzzled, but merely tucked the letter into his doublet. "I'd best be going."
"Yes, thank you. I will be here when you return."
Followed by his big grey wolfhound, Jack, Francis left his uncle, gathered up his cloak, gloves and hat, all of the finest velvet, leather and wool. He'd still be cold, his face frozen by the icy wind, his legs would be aching, never adequately protected in even the thickest hose, but he'd be doing something a fair bit more absorbing than writing in a ledger.
"Sorry, boy, you'll be staying home," Francis told the dog, giving his head a pat before leaving the house.
He didn't remember about the letter from Maximilian until he was on the job, directing what was to be loaded where and when. He'd done this enough that all their ships' hold masters would work with him without complaint. Francis liked to think it was because he listened to their suggestions and heeded them most of the time. But of course there was the fact that he owned all of the merchandise and the ship, and paid their wages.
Chilled through and through by the cold winter weather, snow mixed with sleet and bitter winds, Francis was relieved when the Marius pulled into port. He greeted their guest, a French Duke who was related several ways to Aunt Natalie's husband—the ones who had taken Elizabeth in when her and Francis' mother had died, and who had arranged the marriage of Elizabeth to Nicholas Medina. Victor perhaps had known Elizabeth better than her family had by that time, but Francis was glad he did not mention her at all.
When the details of the day were done, including a tour of Chipham Manor, then a sumptuous dinner, Victor chose to sit and talk with Adam as Francis retired. A hot bath beckoned, and Francis had the servants prepare one while he huddled in front of the fire in his bedroom. He remembered the letter and took it out, his hands stiff with cold still. He broke the seal with a snap of his thumb and unfolded the paper. It was written in English, which surprised him, but then the other servants there had spoken English as well. It read:
|"Mister Francis Barnard,|
| Please forgive the intrusion,
sir, but I am uncertain what to do. A situation has arisen for which I
am ill-prepared to handle myself. I have not the resources or name to
be of any assistance. I have failed already to help her, and I turn to
you as her last hope. Doña Medina has been locked away as a mad
woman. She spoke of the events of which you were a part to someone who
thought her mad. I believe her family is afraid that she will go mad as
her brother did. They did not protest her imprisonment. Only I did, and
I fear, even now, that I will be incarcerated as well.
If, sir, it is in your power to help Doña Medina, I would be eternally indebted to you to do so. She is being held at the Mental Asylum in Barcelona. I pray you will succeed where I have failed.
Francis read the letter again, forgetting that he was still chilled to the bone. Catherine had been placed in an insane asylum. She was not mad, she was as sane and stable as anyone he knew. Moreso even than I, he thought.
He folded the letter carefully and stood up. His stomach felt hollow and a little sick with dread. He was going to Spain again. He couldn't leave her to her fate. No one deserved it less.
For the first time, he realized, as his heart pounded at the thought, that he loved her. Francis shivered, feeling a panic inside that he'd not felt in months. It was a sick kind sensation, as though his stomach were plunging downward and the breath was being sucked from his lungs. For a man who had never been seriously afraid in his life until that trial he had suffered at the hands of madman Nicholas Medina, Francis had become well-acquainted with the emotion. He hated it. He hated the flurrying panic in his chest which came on now at the thought of Catherine going through some unmentionable horror in an asylum full of the insane. He hated the helplessness that scattered his thoughts, and he could barely stand still thinking of her being victimized by other inmates. How could this have happened? How long had she been there?
He hastily unfolded the letter, and was shocked to notice that it was a month old. Catherine had been in there for a month at least. She hadn't been mad, he knew, but she might well be now. He had to leave immediately—
"Mister Francis, sir?" the voice of Molly, the chambermaid said quietly.
He looked at her blankly, his mind whirling with panic.
"Your bath is ready, sir."
"Th-thank you, Molly," he said absently, clutching the letter.
"May I help you, sir?"
"What?" He tried to focus on her, but all he could think about was Catherine. Beautiful, sweet, lovely Catherine locked in some filthy hell hole. . . .
"You look pale, sir."
Francis finally got control of the chaos and looked at her. "No, you may go." He turned from her and went to his wardrobe and began extracting warm clothes.
"But your bath, sir. . . ."
"I haven't time for it now. I must set out immediately. Offer it to our guest."
Francis didn't look to see if she'd gone. He packed up his clothing in his travel bag and carried it downstairs to the foyer, doing the job himself rather than waiting on a servant who would ask him too many questions. He was on his way to his uncle's room when the man met him in the corridor. He was a shade shorter than his nephew, but was stocky and strong despite the crippling limp. Elizabeth had taken after their mother's side of the family, with the wide forehead and jet black hair. Francis was tall and lean, with short brown hair, blue eyes, full lips and a boyish look to him. Like his father had before he died, he looked ten years younger than his real age.
"It's late. Our guest is availing himself of your bath," Adam Pillsbury said.
"Good. I must ask that you entertain him. I haven't time. I must go back to Spain. I must leave immediately."
"Your cheeks are still ruddy with cold, Francis. You must stay and warm yourself with a glass of wine. A good night's sleep will perhaps change your urgency."
Francis was not in the habit of arguing with his uncle. Adam was not his father, nor in charge of him, and while he knew the older man was right, he did not wish to delay. But nothing would be gained if he went out ill-prepared. It could cost Catherine her life.
The study to which they went was a part of his uncle's suite. Chipham Manor could have held more of the relatives than just one aunt and uncle, but currently they were the only ones besides Francis and his two siblings to live there. And all the support staff, of course, including the tutors for the children.
Adam Pillsbury did not appreciate gross informalities, as Francis' launching into his latest quest would have been considered. Rather than anger him, Francis wanted his uncle's blessing. He would, after all, be in charge while Francis was gone. It was not easy to sit still, and while the warmth of the fire and wine did not relax him, it did take off the chill. He talked briefly about the shipment and their guest and waited for the opportunity to bring up the letter. Only the respect he held for his uncle kept Francis from jumping ahead, though he did rush through his answers about the business.
"As you know, the Houghton leaves tomorrow," Francis told him, finishing up his account. "I must be on it. It will shorten my journey by days, as there are only two ports in France. It is a simple matter to add one in Spain."
"Oh yes, your journey to Spain. You haven't explained why you're leaving." He smiled. "Why I must entertain our guest without you."
"He will understand; he knew Elizabeth." Francis stopped himself from touching the material over his scar. "It was the letter I received earlier. Catherine Medina is in trouble, and I must help her. They believe she is mad." How much should I say? he wondered. Having not told anyone the details of his ordeal, he did not want to start now. "But I know she is not. I can corroborate her story."
"About her mad brother?"
"Yes. Because he was mad, they think she must be, too, but it's not true. Maximilian did not believe it either. He has tried to help her, but hasn't any real power."
"Careful, Francis. If they do not believe one of their own, they may well not believe an Englishman."
Francis nodded, looking into his uncle's eyes. "I must try to help her."
The older man smiled slightly. "Yes. You should if you've feelings for her, and I assume you have."
Francis felt his face grow warm, and he dropped the other man's gaze. "Yes, well. . . . She is a kind and gracious young lady."
"Then you must, Francis. Go rescue your damsel, and bring her home. It is time you wed. I'm sure Jane would concur." He smiled.
Francis only nodded, too embarrassed to look up. Was marriage what he wanted from Catherine? He could only remember her with a hazy, glowing fondness, a desire to shelter her. And it was that very desire that made him so anxious now. She needed his help desperately.
Francis suddenly realized he was holding his hand over the scar, and stopped himself, looking back up. "I have already packed. I will leave for the ship soon."
"I pray you will have a safer journey this time. No madmen to best you with their swords. But if you encounter them, you must do what it takes to survive. Even if you have to dispense with being a gentleman for a bit."
"There will be no need," Francis said, dismissing the idea because he did not want to discuss what had happened before. He had told his uncle that Don Medina had attacked him before he could even draw his own sword, hence the slice across his middle. It was easier to take, easier to tell than the truth.
"Be on your guard, Francis."
"Yes, of course. Please tell Aunt Jane I am going, and Robert and Anne."
"I will do that. And hurry home with your lady."
Francis stood up, nodding politely. "Thank you, Uncle."
"Godspeed, son. It is a treacherous time to travel."
"I know." Francis left him and walked quickly through the house. He stole quietly into Anne's room to find her sleeping under heavy quilts, her fire burned a little low. A quiet snap of his fingers to her maid, who had fallen asleep in her chair, and the fire was being built up.
"Goodbye, little one," he whispered, and kissed her on the cheek softly. She did not stir and he only smiled and touched her soft brown curls before leaving her.
Francis thought Robert was feigning sleep when he entered his brother's room, but he pretended not to notice the quick turn of his head and closing of the young man's eyes. He kissed his cheek, and whispered, "Be obedient, Robert. I will return soon."
In a manner of minutes, he was back inside a carriage, on the way to the docks. He didn't remember who he might be displacing from a cabin on the ship, but at the moment, he did not care. The winter's chill was enough to keep his mind occupied for a few moments as he huddled on the plush seat. He was loathe to leave England at this time. The king was so ill, the physicians predicted his death could come any time. Francis did not wish to be away at the time when the power shifted from father to son. Edward VI was only nine years old, however, it was surmised that he would not be assuming full responsibilities. That would be done by his guardian. Francis hoped to complete the journey and return as soon as possible so that he would be in a position to protect his estate if need be. It was unlikely, however, that the Barnard household would ever come under scrutiny by anyone at Court. As his father before him, Francis served the crown as needed, but was more content to maintain what he had than vie for more power. Thomas Barnard had witnessed the machinations of Henry VIII and managed only to gain slight favor with him, receiving for his service the gift of swans which now swam around the manor moat. Francis had no aspirations to do more than prosper in the businesses they owned, see that his young sister was married off well, and that his younger brother entered the military service when the time came in a few years. He was already being groomed to become an officer, though Francis despaired of his dedication at times. Robert could be willful and brash, but Francis believed he had a good heart and would do his duty when the time came.
Just as I am doing mine, he thought. Poor Catherine!
His thoughts turned back to his previous journey to Spain. It had taken three weeks to get there by going through France. This time he was not going over land, and he hoped the trip would be smoother, that he would not be afflicted with the nausea he had experienced when previously he'd crossed the English Channel into France and back. He would instruct the captain to make for the port of San Sebastian, near the French border and he would then hire a carriage to take him to Barcelona. At most, the trip would take a week to reach Spain, and that was largely weather dependent. Barcelona would not be like Castle Medina with its isolation and coldness. He anticipated the something altogether different than he had experienced in Spain before. And there would be no madmen in their castles to imprison him.
Francis leaned back into the cushion, enjoying the paved road while he could. Perhaps, I'll buy a horse and ride there, he thought. But no, he would just then have to rent a carriage to take Catherine back. They would take another ship back. He would try to find out. He only knew he did not want to make another three week journey to get home. Not while the kingdom was in a state of transition.
I am coming for you, Doña Catherine. I pray that I am not too late.