Catherine was still weak, but she felt more alert and a little stronger when she saw Francis the next morning. He came in followed by servants carrying trays and declared he was going to have breakfast with her. She thought he looked tired and worried and his frown only left his brow when he smiled at her.
"Something has happened, and I must discuss it with you," he said, sitting at the writing desk with his tray of food. He had turned the desk around so that he could see her while they ate.
Catherine felt a stab of anxiety. Oh, Holy Father, she prayed, do not let him change his mind about me! "Of course, Francis. I hope it is not a bad thing."
"Well, it is an inevitable thing. King Henry has died. A week ago, I'm told. I know I need to return to London as soon as possible, but I do not wish to leave without you, and you are too weak to travel."
His eyes were on her, intense and uncertain. "I . . . I do not wish for you to go without me, but if you must, Francis, you must." Oh, do not leave me! she begged, her heart pounding. I will never see you again!
Some of the uncertainty dropped from his gaze as he nodded slightly. "You are afraid, Catherine. I see it in your eyes. I will not leave you; we will return to England together. I will send a missive to my uncle to explain."
As much as she wanted to hear it, Catherine felt she had placed Francis in a difficult position. "Of course I do not want you to go without me. But I cannot stand in the way of your duty to your country. I will be all right. Perhaps Uncle will wait to travel with me."
Francis scowled. "I would not think of leaving you to travel alone! I would never go if I thought for a moment you would not be accompanied by your uncle."
"But you must go, Francis. I understand." Catherine hated having to utter the words, but it was the truth. "When will you leave?"
"If I were to go, it would be tomorrow or the next day, depending upon when the ship Don Palamos mentioned arrives." He dropped his gaze from her. "I wish I had not known. I do not wish to leave you here."
"But you know I am well cared for here." If only easing his strain did not mean he will leave without me! she thought. But he has come all this way for me, saved me, been so understanding—how can I not be the same for him? It is important that he return, and he must do it soon.
"Yes, that is true." His eyes returned to hers, and she thought the press of his lips together, the intense way he looked at her was a reflection of sadness. "But I have left you in Spain once before, and look what happened. I fear if I leave you, they will find some reason to send you away."
"No, Francis. My uncle knows what happened at the castle. And I can only assume he knows why I was ill."
"Yes, he knows. He is remorseful."
"Then he will do nothing to change our plans. He is to be the ambassador to your new court. I will only behoove him to bring me with him—your bride, no?"
Barring the truth of her past becoming known, it would be a status symbol for him to marry a well-placed, rich Spanish noblewoman who accompanied the new ambassador. In spite of all that, Catherine was really only concerned with her relationship with Francis. She wanted to be his wife, to spend the rest of her life with him.
Francis nodded. "You are right, of course."
"So you must return as soon as possible. I will arrive with my uncle in a few weeks. I am sure I will be well enough to travel by the time the Buenavista reaches San Sebastian."
She watched him sigh, his broad shoulders sag, clad in that dark blue doublet he seemed to favor. "I wanted to make the journey with you, Catherine. But you are right. It is in the best interests of my family that I return as soon as I can."
"It is only a few weeks, Francis," she said, trying to convince herself. "And it will give you time to set up that house you spoke about."
"That will not take any time at all. I already have a place in mind."
It was her turn to sigh. "I will miss you." She pushed the remainder of her breakfast away and leaned back against the pillows, tired. He surprised her by coming over to the bed quickly.
"I will not leave you if you do not wish me to go." He took her hand. "I cannot bear the thought of something befalling you because I was not there to protect you."
"Oh, Francis, I do love you so. Nothing will befall me. I will recover my strength and I will go to England with my uncle. I expect only that you meet me at the dock when I arrive." She smiled, wanting to ease it for him.
"If I go, I would do that. I will meet you with a carriage fit for a queen." His gaze drifted away thoughtfully. "I suspect you would be met with a royal reception in any case because of your uncle. It will be my pleasure to provide the accommodations for you both."
"I know only that it will be your face I look for on the dock." Oh, to not see his face for weeks! she thought. It will be so lonely. But at least he loves me. It is possible for us to be happy.
"I have not decided," he said. "But I will do so today. I will spend as much time with you as they will allow." He glanced back to where Elisa Juárez sat folding bandages.
"I wish we could ride, Francis."
He nodded. "I had hoped so, too. But I think a good ride might help me clear my mind. Would you object if I went without you?"
"Why would I do that?"
"Because we—" He smiled, shrugging sheepishly. "Perhaps it was only in my own mind. I wanted my rides here to be special. A memory I shared with only you."
Catherine smiled, loving him. She squeezed his hand back. "You have Spanish blood, Francis. You are a romantic. Or perhaps you have been in Spain so long, it has affected you."
He smiled, and all the tension dropped from his face. She had seldom seen him look so, and it took away at least fifteen of his years. "Perhaps. But I think it is you. You have cast your spell about me, and I am hopelessly ensnared."
"And I say it is you who has done this to me." Had they been alone, she thought he would have kissed her right then. Instead he brought her hand to his lips and held it there while holding her eyes with his.
"I do not know that I can leave you here," he said.
"Do what you must."
"Yes. I shall."
Catherine looked over at the desk, too tired to maintain his intensity. "You have not finished your breakfast. If you are going to ride, you will need it." She glanced toward the window, but had not heard the sound of rain all morning. "I do not think it is raining today."
"No, a wind has come and blown the clouds away. At least for a while." He released her hand and returned to the desk and his meal.
Catherine thought he was rather quiet after that, no doubt agonizing over his decision. She wanted with all her heart for him to stay with her. But she also wanted him to do what was right for his family. It would be a difficult decision for him, and in a way she was glad—it meant he loved her that much. But she also did not want to make it any more difficult, so she had urged him to go.
He left her after the servants had come and taken away their trays, and she imagined him out there riding, galloping across a muddy field, probably with her uncle. I have the love of such a man, she thought. A generous-hearted man. I will not hold him back. We will be together soon enough.
Catherine smiled to herself, her eyes closed as she rested. And I shall write a letter to Consuelo to tell her that she was right. The girl will not be able to read it, but someone will do so for her. And someday Francis and I will be married, and there will be no need for a chaperone. There will be only the two of us. Life will truly begin.
Francis found the air bracing in its chill as he galloped one of Christopher Palamos' sturdy Spanish horses up the hill. It was a small animal for him, and his long legs went down further than he was used to when riding. But it moved well, had excellent stamina and mastery of its terrain. The horse, a dark bay gelding was responsive as well and more than willing—a pleasure to ride.
The exertion was much harder on Francis than riding in the carriage had been. He had not ridden in well over a fortnight, and his back was still bruised and sore enough to make him feel it. But the ride was exactly what he needed, and for the first time since leaving Barcelona, he felt refreshed by the winter's cold air, though it was not as cold as that in England. He'd been told that it did not snow here in the lower elevations—it seldom dropped all the way to freezing. But the sea air was humid and rich and made him feel alive.
Catherine makes me feel alive, he thought, as he stopped at the summit. Never more alive than I am when I'm with her. How can I leave her here?
He looked back down the hill toward the large manor house. They care for her, truly care for her, they will let nothing adverse happen to her. But after all she has been through, how can I abandon her now? She is to be a part of my family, how is ensuring that she becomes so different from ensuring that the family is represented in Court by its head member? Uncle Adam is capable and well-respected. Could he not adequately fill that need until I return?
Francis knew the answer to that was no. Not and maintain the air of support for the crown. It was the Barnard name that must be represented, and he was the only Barnard old enough to do it. Adam Pillsbury was related by marriage, he could, at best relay Francis' respects, but there would be a gap in formality until Francis made them himself.
And he was curious as well. Edward would be king, but he was too young to rule. It was an uncomfortable situation. Francis wanted to evaluate it himself, pay his respects and maintain a low profile so that events transpiring would not greatly affect him or his family and business. It was how Thomas Barnard had survived Harry Tudor's turbulent reign, and Francis intended to follow in his footsteps.
And how would it seem if he arrived back in England in the company of a Spanish noble and his niece? Would there be questions of his loyalty to the crown? Would it not be more sensible to arrive without such obvious allegiances?
Francis did not like the answer to that question because it also indicated he should leave Catherine here. There were so many political reasons to return at the first available opportunity. But politics had nothing to do with his heart. Imagine, he thought, Francis Barnard leading with his heart instead of his head. None would believe it. Especially Aunt Jane.
He sighed, knowing what his duty was, knowing he would leave Catherine behind. Perhaps another good gallop would purge the guilt, but he didn't think so.
Francis felt dread for a number of reasons when he looked at the small boat that was to take him over to the Rayo del Sol. Not only was he about to embark upon another sea voyage, he would be leaving Catherine behind, leaving her again when he'd vowed to protect her.
He looked out at the Bay of Biscay and the ship waiting for him. She was to go directly to England without stopping in France. There would be no overnight reprieve from the seasickness this time. But he was faced with that whether he returned now or waited for the Buenavista.
He thought of Catherine's face when he'd left her. She was much stronger than she had been, even getting out of bed for short periods. Elisa Juárez had still been with her, though the doctor had long since gone. The older woman had said nothing when Francis took her into his arms and kissed her, holding her fragile form so carefully. He felt warm at the memory, could barely stand the thought that it would be weeks before he saw her again. She had tasted of honey and smelled of roses, and he knew he would never experience either of them again without thinking of her.
"Sir, your things are in the boat," said a seaman standing beside him.
Francis nodded, made himself step into it. Catherine, I am so sorry! he thought. I do not want this, I want to be with you. He looked toward shore as the two sailors in the small boat began rowing powerfully out into the bay. It was not tremendously windy, but there was enough chop to make Francis remember the feeling of seasickness.
She is there, he thought, but she will come. Don Santoña owes it to her, and he knows it. He will do what is right.
His heart felt the bleakness of the separation with every stroke of the oars. They had reached the ship before knew it, though at least thirty minutes had passed, and the shouts of sailors got his attention. This was wrong, he thought. I cannot leave her!
"Take me back," he said suddenly.
"We cannot," said one of the seamen in the boat with him. "We do not have enough time to make it from the bay before the wind changes. You must come."
"So you will lose a few minutes. Take me back." He could do nothing as the sailors above threw ropes down, and the two in the boat with him attached them to large rings at the bow and stern.
No, Francis thought, no. I must go back! But there was little he could do as the boat was winched up out of the water with the three of them inside it.
"Mister Barnard, let me show you to your cabin," said a man who was obviously an officer on the ship.
Spaniards, Francis thought after climbing from the small boat, can be impossible. Oh, Catherine, I should not have left you. My heart is with you. It will be with you always!
His step was unsteady on the rolling deck of the ship, but he did not stumble, merely grabbed onto things as he followed the officer. Already the motion was starting to bother him. Ah, four or five days, perhaps six of this misery without my Catherine. The future seemed bleak indeed.
The cabin to which he was shown belonged to the ship's officers. One of them had been displaced. Rayo del Sol was a freighter—only the captain had private quarters.
Francis spent the first day of the voyage at the railing. Night would come soon enough, and the close confines of the cabin. At least they knew he was sick and would likely provide him with a bucket.
He was given a lower bunk, and he spent the next two days on and off it, either at the railing outside, or lying down with periodic bouts of sickness. It was as miserable as he remembered, and he could barely let himself picture Catherine's face. To focus his mind upon any one visual thing was unbearable. His only physical distraction was the itching of his back. It started the second day as whatever oil had been placed on it completely wore off and the scabs dried as his skin healed. He did not take off his shirt, only his doublet, not wanting to need to explain anything.
At least at night, he slept better, though how pleasant it must have been to share space with him, he did not like to think about. The only positive he could find in the endless days, was the notion that Catherine would not see him like this. He prayed she would not be sick, that the constant up and down motion of the ship would not bother her as it did him.
There was no reprieve from that motion, no ports of call, and the ocean did not seem to ever be calm. It tossed the ship around on the third day in a storm, and what little recovery Francis had hoped to make was gone. He kept some water down for a while, but he was still nauseated and weak.
On the fourth day he was not as inclined to vomit. He had begun to, once again, get his "sea legs." Eating the poor rations of the crew, drinking water that tasted of metal and rust did little to ease his stomach, but he kept down most of what little he dared to eat.
Despite the colder temperatures, he found it more bearable outside on the deck, watching the grey northern horizon and thinking of being home again. Home without Catherine! He thought a thousand times that he should not have left her. But his change in decision had come too late. He dreamt of it, however, being ferried back to shore and running back to her room to find her waiting for him. But he dreamt also that she never arrived. The Buenavista had not brought her, only her uncle, and he woke before finding out why.
Troubled and brooding, he passed the voyage, pacing the deck in spite of weakness from so little food, tossing and turning on his bunk at night. He did not feel well, but his equilibrium had improved and the queasiness did not reach its previous levels.
After a day of sailing the quieter waters of the English Channel, of seeing his home shore shrouded in mists, the Rayo del Sol came into port not long before dusk. Francis was never so happy to set foot on the docks. There was a cold rain coming down, and by the time he had walked, carrying his baggage, up to the piers where the Barnard ships docked, he was soaked and freezing. But here he was also able to get a carriage to take him to Chipham Manor on the outskirts of London.
This is not how it was to be, he thought, shivering in the enclosed carriage. Catherine should be here. Being cold and wet made him remember that other carriage ride where he had leaned is head on her lap. Fortunately he was not injured now, suffering from anything more than the cold and rain and healing scabs. A hot bath and a good meal would be in order when he arrived. And then he would see to whatever business required his attention. Perhaps tomorrow he would present himself at Court.
A few weeks, he told himself, and she will be here. I must not believe otherwise.
Chipham Manor had never appeared so beautiful in the dark. The house was three stories and sprawling with east and west wings extending back toward the rear of the property, toward the gardens and the stable. There were lights in some of the windows, the flickering of candles.
"Mister Barnard!" said Elliot, one of his stable grooms come to take the horse and carriage. "Welcome back, sir."
"Thank you," Francis said, his teeth chattering. "It's good to be home." And good to speak English again. He hurried up the steps to the front door and entered. The welcoming from the staff as he shed his cloak and baggage went by in a fog. Jack came bounding up to him, his big grey body wriggling and long tail wagging. Francis bent down to the dog and gave him a good pat. His uncle, he was informed, was not home, was in fact, spending a couple of days in the country at the request of one of his former military friends. Francis ordered a meal and bath and went upstairs, the dog trotting happily beside him.
Who then? Francis wondered, is representing the family? He went in search of his Aunt Jane and found her dressing down her maid for some offense.
"Francis!" she said, waving the girl off. "I am so glad to see you!" She started to put her hands on him and drew back. "You are soaking wet."
"Yes, I had to walk to the pier in the rain. What has been happening? I received word a week ago of King Henry's death, and I came as quickly as I could."
She nodded. "There will be time to explain after you have changed into warm, dry clothing."
"Has there been an invitation to the new court? Who has been appointed regent?"
"The Duke of Somerset is regent. And yes, Adam represented the house in Court, but there is some dissension. It is better perhaps that you make only a single appearance, pay your respects. I do not know what is going to happen."
Francis nodded. "Yes, that is my thought also." He shivered.
"You must have a hot bath—"
"I have already ordered one."
"Good." She smiled at him. "You must tell me about your Spanish lady. Have you brought her? Or is she coming later?" She stopped him before he could answer. "Tell me after you have warmed yourself."
"Very well." Francis felt eased at the thought of talking about Catherine, at the thought of her coming here. "I will have a meal after if you would care to join me."
"Yes. I will count on it. Now go."
He nodded, removing his wet doublet as he went down to his rooms. He could hear the servants pouring water in his bath, and there was a healthy fire in the hearth. It was good to be home, good to be warm again and on solid ground. And it was good to be out of his clothes he had worn for a week without changing. What to tell everyone about his back? The truth? There would be scars, he was sure. Perhaps I will just refuse to discuss it. He nodded to himself. Yes, I doubt I need attention to the wounds now. Molly will help me with them if I need it.
He sighed, standing in front of the fire, baking the skin of his legs and feet, for they were the coldest, while servants carried up pails of steaming water to the bath. And when it was ready, he stepped into the marble tub and felt the hot water relax him. He ignored Molly's gasp at the sight of his back and told her to come back in half an hour. She would, he knew, probably hope he would take her to his bed when he retired. But he was too tired and weak from poor food and little of it. He wanted only her help with his back. Besides, the only woman he wanted in his arms was Catherine. She seemed an ocean away. Recover, my beloved, and come to me, he said silently to her. I do not wish to waste another day without you.
Francis listened carefully to what Aunt Jane told him about the current political situation. It became readily apparent that his thought to make a brief appearance, pledge his allegiance and support and then retreat quietly to the sidelines would be his best option. He had news to give as well, papers Don Santoña had given him to present.
She was unable to tell him much about the business, but she thought it went well. Adam had not brought any concerns to her, except to say that he hoped Francis would return soon.
"And what of your Spanish lady?" Jane Pillsbury asked him halfway through the meal. It was late and she had little, but Francis ate heartily.
Warmed now and relaxed, Francis smiled. "She is in San Sebastian awaiting the ship to bring her here. She had taken ill—the journey was too difficult for her. To tell you the truth, I did not want to leave her. I was to have waited also, but news of the king's death made me take advantage of a Spanish freighter coming here."
He could see the eagerness in his aunt's eyes, the pleasure she had at the thought of him finally wanting to marry.
"Perhaps it is well you returned sooner. She will arrive with her uncle in grand style and you will be there to meet them."
Francis nodded. "Still, I didn't want to leave her."
"Adam said she had been sent to a mental asylum, falsely accused of insanity. Is that true?"
"If only it was not. When I arrived, I verified the story she had told, the one that made them think she was mad. We got her out that night. She had been . . . abused, beaten." Just the thought of her suffering made his heart speed up and a flush of anger come to his cheeks. "But other than that and malnourishment, she was all right." No one, my love, will know, he said mentally to Catherine.
"How dreadful. The poor girl. And this has not tarnished her name?"
Francis shook his head. No, her name already bore a considerable stigma—that of Sebastian Medina. "It will not be known. It happened in Spain. I do not intend to make a large and public spectacle of our marriage."
He could tell that his aunt did not approve. She had wanted him to marry someone placed high in English society, not some woman with a stain on her past.
"But, Francis, you will be missing out on the opportunity to—"
"Catherine has been through a terrible time, Aunt Jane. We will have a quiet ceremony. I simply wish to live our lives as privately as possible."
The woman nodded, accepting. After all, he was the head of the house, it was his decision. "I only want what is best for the family."
"Catherine is a wonderful person. She is just what we need here. And she is just what I need."
"You have quite fallen in love with her," she said. "It's written all over your face."
Francis felt his face warm a little with embarrassment. "You'll understand when you meet her."
"I'm sure that I will. Does she speak English?"
"Yes. And Italian and French. She is well educated and very talented at embroidery. And she is quite a horsewoman, though we have never ridden together. Regrettably. You may count on an occasional Spanish meal as well. They seem to put garlic in everything."
"Does she cook?"
Francis heard the note of asperity in her tone. "No, but she is bringing recipes with her."
"And her dowry?"
"It is considerable. And there is the land and castle which have fallen to her." Francis did not like thinking of her being tied to that evil place, but it was a fact. "I will urge her to sell them some day."
"Francis, you have surprised me." The woman just looked at him, shaking her head. "I have tried for years to find a woman for you, and go you away and fall in love with a Spanish woman. I'm glad to hear you will not be marrying down. Is there no truth to the insanity? Is it possible she may someday be stricken with it?"
"No, there is not," he said, his tone harsh and dry. "She is very strong and as sane as you or I."
"Good. You are her champion, I can see. That is not a bad thing for a man about to be wed. You must allow me to make arrangements."
"Of course, Aunt Jane. But it will be a small wedding. And Catherine will have as much to say about it as I."
She sighed. "You are inflexible, Francis. In that way, you have not changed."
"I want to give Catherine everything. I want her to be happy."
"Of course you do. I only hope you appreciate the luxury of choosing your own mate."
"Indeed, I do." He pushed away from the table, feeling a weariness in his bones that only sleeping in his own bed would assuage. "I will look in on Robert and Anne. Thank you for having a late supper with me."
"Adam will be sorry he missed your homecoming. I'll send word to him in the morning."
"Good night, Aunt Jane." He kissed her cheek and left her. So many things to do to prepare for Catherine's arrival, he thought. Tomorrow would be soon enough to begin. And when she came, he would be there for her. Holy Father, he prayed, please let her be on that ship!