Chapter 12

     Catherine's rise to full consciousness was slow and happened in stages. Anxiety fluttered around on brittle wings in her mind, and she became restless. A dull ache low in her body fed the anxiety, but she didn't know why, didn't have the awareness to understand it. Though without fever, she felt she was having fever dreams, formless and tedious, permeated by a thirst so great she felt she was surrounded by water she could not drink, adrift in the ocean and alone.

     When at last a sound in the room sank through her fogged mind, she managed to open her eyes. There was a soft steady sound of water nearby, and she realized it was rain.

     "Doña Catherine?" said a woman's voice from close beside her. A warm hand touched Catherine's brow gently.

     Catherine had no idea where she was for a moment. And then she remembered. And she knew she was alone, and she would probably never see Francis again. He must know what had happened by now, he must have been horrified and disappointed.

     She closed her eyes and tears welled up beneath her lids.

     "You will be all right now," the woman said. "But you must drink this. You need fluids to rebuild your blood."

     Catherine didn't look and turned her head away. She didn't want to get well now. She wanted to lie here and die.

     "Doña, I know that you are sad. Losing a child is a terrible thing."

     There was the hand on her forehead again, then stroking her hair. I do not care that I lost the child, Catherine thought, knowing it was wrong to feel so. I care that I have lost Francis.

     "I know that you are not yet married—perhaps you sought to lose the child? You would not be the first to do so."

     "I did nothing," Catherine said, her voice soft and broken. She opened her eyes and looked at the woman. She was older, and she looked careworn and weathered by the sun. But her bright eyes were clear and kind. "It was not my fault."

     "Of course. But you are young. Your body will heal, and likely you will have more children."

     No, Catherine thought, fresh tears spilling from her eyes. I will go to a convent. I will spend my days repenting that I wished to lose the child.

     "You must drink this. It is a tonic. You can scarcely afford the moisture for tears, Doña."

     Catherine did not want it. "Let me alone."

     "Oh, I cannot do that. Your young man would be very disappointed in me. He is so concerned about you."

     Catherine felt her words sink in and her heart fluttered. "He has asked about me?" That would be it, she knew. Francis is gallant enough to be interested in my welfare, but it will not go beyond that.

     The woman smiled. "He has done more than that. He spent the entire night by your bedside, and the morning in that chair over there. I finally gave him something to make him sleep and sent him off to bed. He wanted to be here when you awakened, but you surprised me by waking before I expected it."

     Catherine could not believe it. "You do not mean Mister Barnard?"

     "Yes, of course."

     A new flurry of tears rose in and fell from her eyes, and they felt especially hot. "Then he has not— He has not . . . not rejected me?"

     "No, of course not. He has been unflagging in his love for you. He sat beside you and read to you last night. Now come, drink this tonic. You need it very badly."

     Catherine hardly tasted it in her haste to drink it down. She wanted to think, to let the reality of this woman's words become truth to her. She drank water next, and was told broth would be brought soon.

     "Are you in pain now, Doña?" the woman asked.

     Catherine shook her head. "Only a little ache now."

     "Then you will be all right while I fetch your Mister Barnard and a servant to bring the broth?"

     "Yes," she said absently, then spoke up when the woman reached the door. "Oh, could you bring my hair brush?"

     "Are you strong enough? I will brush your hair for you if need be." She complied, handing the brush to Catherine.

     A few strokes was all she could manage, because she could not sit up. After a few minutes, Catherine was propped by more pillows and her hair was neatly brushed, the longest locks lying on her shoulders. It was a far cry from being presentable to Francis, but she was more concerned with explaining to him than she was her appearance.

     "I do not know your name," she said to her care-giver.

     "Please call me Elisa. I am a midwife by trade, and I often accompany Doctor Franco to birthings and other womanly problems."

     Elisa—the same name as her somewhat protective, but insane room mate had had in the asylum. An odd coincidence. "Thank you for being so kind."

     Elisa smiled. "I will fetch your Mister Barnard now. Please rest."

     Catherine nodded, but her heart was not calm. It seemed to be working hard already just pumping through her veins what little blood she had left in her. Thinking of Francis was a stimulant she could not control.

     Elisa returned alone a moment later. "He will be here soon. He is rather angry with me at the moment, but when he sees you, he will forget all about it. And Doctor Franco will be by to see you later this evening."

     Catherine couldn't help the uneasy feeling she had at the thought of another doctor. But she felt so tired and weak that she closed her eyes to await Francis, listening for the sound of his step outside the door. It was not long before she heard it and the knock that followed.

     Her first impression was that he had just gotten up from bed without brushing his hair, and his eyes looked puffy with sleep. She had never seen him look more endearing.

     "Catherine," he said, striding to the bedside and pulling up a chair. He took her hand in his large, warm ones and kissed it. "You do not know how glad I am to see you alive and awake."

     She could not help the tears of gratitude that welled up in her eyes. "I am sorry, Francis," she said. "I . . . I could not—"

     "Hush, my love. I understand." He placed a hand on the side of her head, leaned forward and kissed her cheek. The gentleness of his touch made new tears form.

     "No, you do not," Catherine said. "I am sorry I am not what you believe me to be."

     "You are everything to me." He stayed close, leaning over her, stroking her hair.

     "But I am not pure—"

     "Your heart is pure, Catherine. Am I wrong to think someone ravished you in that terrible asylum?"

     It was too much to hear him say and she burst fully into a fit of weak sobbing. "No, no you are not wrong," she managed, feeling him lift her away from the pillows into his arms. She thought then that she was in heaven.

     "Oh, my sweet Catherine. You have carried this burden alone all this time. I was afraid it had happened to you. Would that I could avenge your honor." He kissed her hair softly. "How long had you known about the child?"

     "Not very long." She sniffled, resting her cheek against his shoulder. "It was Consuelo who suggested that perhaps the morning sickness was because I was with child. I knew I could not hide it from you, Francis. I did not know what to do. It is a terrible sin, I know, but I wanted to lose the child. I thought I would lose you if you knew about it. I did not think you would still want me."

     His hands were so warm and soothing as he stroked her back through the thick material of her gown. "You would not have lost me. I would have married you and raised the child as my own. It is not your fault, Catherine. It was never your fault. It breaks my heart to think how you must have suffered. To think another man touched you. . . ." His voice dropped and she could feel the sudden tension in his neck.

     "I thought I would die," she said. "They were the guards, you know? They beat me because I fought them."

     She heard Francis swallow. "Oh, Catherine." His voice actually trembled a little.

     "It is over now," she tried to reassure him. "I have tried to forget it. Being near you makes me feel as though it never happened."

     He relaxed his arms about her, letting her lean away enough that he could see her face. "When I took you from that place, I swore to myself that no one would ever hurt you again. I know I failed in that, but—"

     "No!" She put her hand on his cheek, barely able to look into his anguished blue eyes. "You have not failed me."

     "But I did. You have a burn on your back to prove it."

     "Francis, do you not remember what you did for me? He would have struck me with that iron, too, but you took every blow upon yourself. You did protect me."

     He shook his head. "It should never have happened."

     "No, but as I recall, I was in the midst of being sick and you were trying to help me when he struck you from behind. How can that be your fault?" She sagged back against his arms, exhausted.

     Francis lowered her back to the pillows, one hand supporting her head so that she did not have to hold it up. He then used his hand to stroke the hair back from her forehead. "I would die before I let anyone hurt you again," he said.

     "Do not say that."

     "And I understand why you did not tell me what happened to you."

     "I did not want to tarnish your good family name."

     "You will not. You will bring only joy to my household. There is no one there who will not love you immediately." He took her hand and kissed it softly.

     Catherine smiled. "You are the most generous man I have ever known. I love you more as each minute passes."

     "As I do you." He glanced toward the door. "You are very tired. I can see how I have taxed you. Rest, my beloved, and I will read to you. If you fall asleep, I will not mind."

     "I will sleep now as one content beyond measure." She smiled up at him. "Consuelo was right about you. I should have listened to her."

     "What did she say? No, do not tell me now. Rest. I hear someone coming."

     As tired as she was, Catherine did not give in to the impulse to just close her eyes. She wanted to look at Francis. Just the sight of him filled her with joy. He still wanted her, he still loved her—God had been so very merciful!

     She was sorry to see that he had to leave when Doctor Franco came in with Elisa Juárez and a servant bearing a tray. But it was easy to rest now. She had no more secrets to keep from Francis. There was nothing standing in the way of their happiness now. They had only to make it to England to be married. And then . . . bliss.

*

     Francis was not surprised to find Don Santoña outside Catherine's room when he left it. His feelings had not changed toward the man, but his temper had cooled. He refused to feel awkward or to apologize.

     "Mister Barnard, may I have a word with you?" said the Spaniard smoothly, his deep voice giving away nothing of his feelings.

     Francis looked at him and shrugged. "Would you care to step into my room?" He waved one arm toward it.

     "That will do, yes."

     Francis followed him in, glancing once at himself in the mirror as he passed it. He discovered his hair in disarray and made a casual attempt to run his brush through it. "You have something to say?" he said, deliberately giving his own image more attention than his guest.

     "Yes, Mister Barnard. Your words to me downstairs last night were spoken in the heat of anger and fear. I understand that, and I grant you that leeway. You did not, however, give me a chance to defend myself."

     Francis turned and looked at him. "What defense can there be, sir? I know why you had Catherine sent away."

     Don Santoña nodded. "Yes, you do, but you were not there when it happened. My wife and I are to blame for what happened to Catherine, yes. Do you not think that I know this? To find out that she had been ravished and given a child—" He shook his head, his face tense. "I was as shocked and grieved as you were. I have known and loved her all her life. To feel responsible for what she has been through is a spear in my heart."

     Francis softened a little toward the man. "As it is mine. She did not tell me, she kept it to herself because she was afraid I would not want her. She was concerned about my family name, about how I would feel toward her." He looked toward the window where it was still raining outside. "When I saw the condition of her dress that night, I knew what might have happened to her. I prayed it had not, but I decided it did not change my feelings for her. The child was only a complication had she not lost it."

     He turned back to the other man. "In my mind and heart she is still a respectable lady, worthy of the honor I intend to bestow upon her. I would see that it remains so."

     "Yes, indeed. The doctor and his midwife will not speak of it, and Christopher has assured me that his servants will not speak of it either. They are loyal, and know they would be punished for talking about it. Catherine's name will bear no taint when you leave."

     "Thank you, Don Santoña. I am reassured, and I will tell Catherine."

     "She is doing well, then?"

     Francis smiled, his temper toward the other man diffused. He thought the Santoñas would always be responsible for what happened, but they knew and accepted it, and that was as much as anyone could expect.

     "I believe so. I am not happy, however, with Señora Juárez. She put something in my food to cause me to sleep all afternoon. Is this a common practice in Spain? To drug your guests?"

     Fernando Santoña smiled slightly and shook his head. "No. You were impossible, she said. I am sure she has done that before to the distraught fathers and fiancés of her patients."

     "'Impossible'? How?" Francis bristled.

     "You would not leave the room, apparently. I do not know."

     "If it were not for the good care she has given Catherine, I would not let this go." Truly, Francis had been furious when she had awakened him to tell him that Catherine was awake. Finding himself partially undressed, remembering how sleepy he'd become, and how bleary he'd felt when he first woke, he knew what she had done. But there was nothing to be done about it now. It only remained for Catherine to recover her strength.

     "The locals swear by her. And what matters is Catherine, no?"

     Francis nodded, sighing. "I could not bear to lose her."

     "You are a good man, Mister Barnard. I do not think Catherine could have found a more perfect match. Now why don't you come down for supper? Check on Catherine, and if she is asleep, come eat with us."

     It would be the polite thing to do. "I will do that. It is not my wish to make myself unpopular with our hosts or with you, Don Santoña."

     "I know. But you are a rigid man, and for the right reasons. I do not hold it against you." He smiled to show that he was not entirely serious.

     It was not easy for Francis to drop his formality and acknowledge the other man's attempt to be friendly. "I only do what I must."

     "Come. We will check on my lovely niece."

     Francis followed him out and to Catherine's door. He knocked softly, and was greeted by Elisa Juárez. She let herself out of the room without opening the door fully.

     "She is sleeping now. I expect her to sleep through the night."

     "May I—" Francis began.

     "You may look in on her before you retire. It would not be appropriate for you to spend the night in her room now."

     The frown almost permanently etched in Francis' brow deepened into a scowl. "She is still ill, is she not?"

     "She is going to be fine. The danger is over, Mister Barnard." He was not entirely surprised by the hardness in her hazel eyes. Any woman who could engineer to have a man's food drugged was formidable indeed.

     "Well, that is good to hear," he said, glancing at Don Santoña. "I will check on her before going to bed myself."

     "Good. I'm glad you understand, Mister Barnard." Her sudden smile took years off her face and brought a twinkle to her eyes.

     Francis was unmoved. "I will be back later." He turned and followed Don Santoña down to the stairs.

     Despite the fact that they were pleasant people, Francis found it less comfortable to be with Don Palamos and his family without Catherine there. His mind constantly drifted to thoughts of his beloved and how delicate and fragile she had felt in his arms without the barrier of her usual stiff bodice. He would have to be extremely gentle with her in the future.

     The entrance of a courier was a welcome distraction from trying to listen to family stories. The man handed a scroll to Don Palamos and was gone. Everyone at the table sat and watched the man's face while he read what was written. Francis was rather surprised when he looked up directly at him.

     "Mister Barnard, it grieves me to tell you this. Your king is dead."

     It was not unexpected, yet it shocked him. Henry VIII had been king all of Francis' life. He had wanted to be in England when the man died so that he would be there to represent his family during the transition. He felt a sickening stab of panic for a brief moment at the thought of it all happening without him. He wanted to be back in England now.

     "Does it say when it happened?" he asked after a moment.

     "No, it only says he was buried on February 16th. That was a week ago. This news has traveled very fast."

     Indeed it had, and it would be a week before he could get back to England if he left now.

     "Mister Barnard, I happen to know there is a ship due in a few days. It will be traveling to England. Should you wish to be on it, I can arrange it."

     Francis nodded. Yes, it was very important that he get back— But what of Catherine? "I cannot leave Catherine," he said, not liking the anxiety crawling through his gut at the thought of being away from home at this time. "She will not be up to travel for some time, I am sure."

     "We will take good care of her. She will probably be well enough to travel on the ship on which you already wait by the time it arrives."

     "You must not worry about her," Doña Illora assured him.

     Francis felt immediate resistence to the idea of leaving Catherine to travel with just her uncle for company. He was torn between his love for her and his duty to the crown. "Does it say anything of Edward?"

     "No, sir, it says only what I have told you." Don Palamos leaned forward slightly. "Catherine would understand why you have left sooner than you intended."

     And what if she interprets it to mean I do not want her after all? Francis thought. What if you never put her on that ship to England?

     He stood up. "Please excuse me. I must consider what is best. Thank you for the excellent meal."

     He merely nodded in response to their understanding remarks and left the room. Up in his room, he thought seriously about what he should do. It would be expected of him to return at the earliest possible time, not to wait on anyone. But Catherine . . . how could he just leave her behind? She could not travel now. Perhaps she would be well enough by the time the Buenavista arrived. That was still more than a week away probably. Add another week of travel to that, and he thought if he waited it would be at least three weeks before he was back in England. How would that appear to the new king's court? The head of the Barnard family off finding a wife in Spain—it would not look well.

     And yet, what of the possibility that he had met with some ill fate? His uncle would certainly be considering that by now. I must send word, Francis thought. I must get back to England!

     But had not a week already passed? What was another week? Or two or three?

     Opportunities. Formalities. Asserting a strong place in society. But I already have that, he thought. Would it not be understood that my errand was urgent?

     It would not be taken well that I put the concerns of a woman, a Spanish woman over my duty to the crown. I could bring disaster upon my family name.

     But Uncle Adam is a competent man. He served the crown in the Royal Cavalry, he would know what to do, how to handle things.

     Francis took his head in his hands, not knowing what he should do. The idea of leaving Catherine was abhorrent, unthinkable. The poor girl had suffered long enough with the fear that he would leave her behind, how would it make her feel if he actually did so?

     "I must ask her," he said to himself. "I must tell her my dilemma." But not now, tomorrow when she is stronger. His heart filled with tenderness at the thought of her sleeping quietly, secure in the knowledge that he loved her. "I will not fail you Catherine," he promised. "We will be wed."

     And with that thought, Francis knew only that he loved her more than anything. He was no closer to a decision than he had been when he entered his room. He doubted he would sleep tonight.