"Catherine, my dear, I need to speak with you."
She looked up from her embroidery at her uncle. It had been a quiet, rainy day, and she was enjoying a little solitude in her sitting room after the previous night's grand ball. "Of course. Please sit down, Uncle."
He did so, looking at her in a way that worried her a little. "Catherine, how set are you on marrying Mister Barnard?"
She felt her heart skip a beat. "Very set. I love him, and he loves me. He has done everything for me."
The man nodded. "Well, it is possible you could make a better marriage—"
"No! I could not." Do not do this to me, she thought.
"I have been approached by several men, men of rank and English nobility who would like to see their sons marry—"
"No, Uncle!" Catherine's eyes began to well up at the thought of what he was suggesting. Her throat felt thick and her voice came out high. "I want Francis. I love him!"
"It would be a better, more prestigious marriage, Catherine." He tried to put his hand over hers, but she jerked it away and stood up, the piece she'd been working on still in one hand.
"No. I want to be happy. You cannot think I would be happy with any other man." She put her other hand to her face as a sob crept up her chest.
"Mister Barnard is but a merchant's son. You could do better." He stood up.
"Better than this?" She waved her hand around the room, looking at him. "This is a fine and beautiful place, Uncle. I am happy here. And I will be happier still when married to Francis. I will marry him or no man."
"All I ask is that you consider it, Catherine. It is your children I think of."
"It is you you are thinking of!" She wiped her watering eyes. "After all he has done for me, I do not know how you can even suggest I marry another man." How can you be so selfish to even consider it? she thought. Is your greed so great that you would see me miserable?
"Think about it. That is all I ask."
"I have thought about, and the answer is no. If I cannot marry Francis, I will go to a convent in Spain, and you will never see me again." Bitterness rose up through her pain. "Though I am quite sure that would not trouble you at all." She turned away, crying, one hand over her eyes.
"Of course it would trouble me, Catherine."
"But you sent me away to the horrible asylum!" She did not turn to look at him, to see in his face reflected any guilt or remorse. "And you are forgetting that I may not be fit for any of those noblemen's sons. My lack of virtue would not suit them, I am sure."
"Oh, Catherine, I am sorry."
She stepped away from his hand on her shoulder. "Francis is the only man who would ever be forgiving of that."
"My dear, there are ways to fool any man. What happened to you need not preclude marriage to another man."
"I will marry no one but Francis. Please leave me, Uncle. I will not discuss it any further."
She heard him sigh and walk away. As soon as her door had shut, she collapsed into a chair and put her embroidery aside so that she could cover her face with her hands and weep. How could he suggest such a thing to me? she thought. He knows that my heart belongs to Francis. If this is what you planned for me, Uncle, why did you ever let me out of that asylum?
Catherine was mostly in control of herself when Ellen came to ask if she wanted help dressing for dinner. She shook her head. "No, I do not think I will be going to supper."
"Miss Catherine, what's wrong? I can see you're upset."
"It is nothing you need concern yourself about. Please tell them I will not be attending supper." How could she go, knowing that her uncle might somehow prevent her marriage to Francis? She could not bear to see him right now.
"Yes, ma'am. Would you like me to bring you some supper?"
"I could not eat." She stood up and. "You may go."
The girl, young with a pale, round face and curly blond hair worn under her cap, did not look convinced that she should leave. Her bright, blue-grey eyes flicked up to Catherine's for a moment before she nodded and backed quietly out.
Catherine went into her bedroom and sat by the window, looking out of the late afternoon rain-washed landscape. "I want to be here, only here. Oh, Uncle, do you not know what you're asking of me? I have been raped by strangers already, would you wish that on me again?" She hugged her arms across her chest. "I want only to be with Francis. I could not bear another man to touch me. You do not understand." And how would he ever? He thought nothing of taking any servant girl, willing or unwilling to his bed. Francis had spared Consuelo from her uncle because he understood.
"I will not marry another man. Even if I thought it was a good idea, I could not break Francis' heart that way." She bowed her head. "Holy Father, please do not ask this of me. Please let me be a good wife to Francis. Please."
She sighed, forcing her mind to the pleasant fantasy of living her life at Chipham Manor. But underneath was the worry that it would not happen.
Francis' first thought when he heard that Catherine was not going to come to supper was that she had over-taxed herself somehow. He had been down at the docks most of the day, had not spoken to her since breakfast and had no way of knowing if something had happened to upset her. But the uneasy feeling he had and the instant anxiety made him want to find out.
In spite of propriety, he went to her room and knocked on the door. Ellen had followed him, and he looked at her when there was no answer. "Go in, tell her I have come to see how she is. You will be our chaperone."
The girl nodded, slipping inside the room. Francis heard her tell Catherine that he wanted to see her.
The door was quickly opened, and he was admitted. Catherine rose from her chair by the window and looked at him. He could see, even from across the room, that she had been crying.
"What's wrong?" he asked, feeling his heart go out to her. He went to her, took her hands in his, holding them to him.
"Oh, Francis!" She dropped her eyes, bowing her head.
Francis put his arms around her, felt her sobbing quietly. "My Catherine, tell me what troubles you." He kissed her hair in front of the headdress she wore.
"My uncle . . . my uncle has told me there have been other offers of marriage made to me. He thinks I should do it." Her eyes rose and her head tilted back to look up at him. "But I do not want anyone but you."
Francis was suddenly furious with Don Santoña. "You will not have to marry anyone else, Catherine. I love you, and if you want me, you will have me."
"Oh, yes, of course I want you!"
"Then we will be married immediately." He thought quickly to call for the priest and have him brought to the manor. That would be neglecting a great many details, but Francis did not care. He would have the marriage contract drawn up now. Perhaps they could go to the church this evening and have the ceremony.
"Oh, Francis! Thank you. I have nothing without you!" She laid her head on his shoulder as he drew her against him.
"I will have the papers prepared tonight. I will speak to your uncle—if he does not approve, there may be difficulties with the settlement of your estate and dowry, but at least we will be married. I have long said I did not care about your dowry, only about you." He loved the feel of having her in his arms, of knowing that he was bringing her comfort. He could have held her forever.
"We should go down together, then, to tell them." She leaned her head back to look at him.
"If you wish." He touched her face, wiping away a tear. "It's possible we may not be able to have the ceremony until tomorrow. Is that all right?"
"Yes, of course. As long as I am marrying you, Francis, it can be any time. But soon!"
He nodded. "Then you will come to supper? We will make our announcement then."
"Yes. Let me dress and I will meet you there."
"Very well. I'll wait to tell your uncle until you arrive." He kissed her forehead. "I'm so anxious to marry you. To have this waiting over."
"Yes, so am I."
Francis could not resist the opportunity. She was in his arms already, she was looking up at him with adoration, just as he imagined himself to be looking down at her. It was more than natural to bend his head forward and press his lips against hers. She yielded, her lips like warm soft satin, her body so slender in his arms. He felt those two things and his body responded with the rise of hot passion. Oh, to have her! Soon, he told himself. Very soon.
He ended the kiss reluctantly, then looked over at Ellen who stood by the door, her eyes on the ceiling. "I would not want to put our chaperone under too much pressure," he said, smiling. Catherine looked positively dreamy-eyed when he returned his gaze to her.
"Oh, Francis, I do love you."
He kissed her again, quickly this time, restraining himself. "I love you, Catherine." With a deep breath, he squared his shoulders and released her. "You must dress for supper, and so must I. We have important business tonight."
"Thank you, Francis. You have saved me yet again."
He smiled and left her, hoping his desire was not noticeable.
Francis caught Don Santoña about to go into the dining room. Catherine was not yet down, and he wanted a moment alone with the man.
"Don Santoña, I have discovered that you wish Catherine to marry a man other than myself. I did not risk myself and everything else to let another man have her. Especially since she does not want it."
The tall man's eyes revealed little of his reaction. "I will not force her. I have always said I wanted her to be happy first. She had a right to know that offers had been made."
"That is true. She has a right to know. She knows now and is not interested, and to preclude any other such offers, she and I will be married as soon as possible. I am already having the contract drawn up. How much or little you wish to participate is up to you."
The Spaniard's face cracked in a small smile. "You do love her." He nodded. "She will have no better champion, I think."
"I agree. So do you wish to make this easier or more difficult?"
"My host, how could I give you anything less than my complete cooperation?" He laughed. "Bring me the contract. All we have agreed upon will be so."
"Thank you, Don Santoña. You will make Catherine very happy."
"I think it is you who will make her very happy, Mister Barnard."
"I will certainly try."
Francis heard the rustle of skirts and noticed the other man's eyes track away from his to something beyond. He turned to see Catherine. He thought her face was tense, but before he could speak, her uncle stepped forward, holding out his hand.
"My dear, your suitor has informed me that he will not wait any longer to marry you. You have my blessings and deepest wishes for your happiness."
Francis watched her face relax a little as her uncle embraced her. She looked at Francis and smiled with apparent gratitude. Francis mouthed the words "I love you."
"Shall we go to supper?" Francis said, holding out his arm for Catherine to take. "I believe we have an announcement to make." He pressed Catherine's hand where it held his arm. Tomorrow, he thought, the waiting will be over. You will be mine forever.