Francis was disappointed that the wedding did not take place the next day, or even the third day following that. His Aunt Jane would not hear of such a hastily arranged affair, and he and Catherine decided to let her have her way. It was a proper wedding, if small, in the remaining chapel of what had been a monastery a few miles away outside of London. It was where his parents had been married back when the monastery had been still operating as such—before Henry VIII had decided to shut them all down and sell the land to pay his enormous debts. Francis' father had never approved and had been proud of the fact that Chipham Manor had not been built on ground that had once belonged to the Church, that he had not bought his land at the expense of his religion.
Francis and Catherine rode back to the manor in a carriage by themselves. He had his arm around her shoulders, her hand in his other one as he gazed at her. Outside it was sunny and almost warm.
"I am so happy, Francis," she said. "I am your wife. I will be everything you need me to be."
"You already are." He kissed her quickly, afraid the jarring of the carriage over the poor road would cause him to bruise her. She looked exquisite in the gold satin dress she wore. It had come from Spain with her other things, having been made several years before. If it was out of date as far as fashion went, Francis didn't know or care. He cared about the woman wearing it, he thought more about getting her out of all the folds and layers and the tight bodice of it.
"You know that this is the first time we have been truly alone together," he said. "There are so many things I want to say, to ask you."
"I am all yours. Tell me anything, ask me anything."
He frowned briefly, then decided his questions could wait. "I have found you more beautiful than all the women I have ever known. Looking at you fills my heart to bursting."
"And mine as well." She had tears in her eyes, and she did not seem to be able to stop smiling.
"I've never known a feeling quite like this. It is indescribable. It is. . . ." He sighed, his entire body feeling more alive than ever before. He put his palm to her face. "When I received the letter from Maximilian, I knew then that I loved you. I denied it to myself before then. The excitement I felt when I received a letter from you—it was only gratitude." He shook his head. "But it wasn't. It was love. I thought of you every day of my journey to Spain. When they told me where you were, I could not stand the thought of your spending another minute there. I wanted to break in there and get you out immediately."
He watched her eyes as he spoke. She had gone solemn, but still attentive. "Your aunt and uncle gave me a chance to prove you spoke the truth. I showed them my scar. And though it troubles me, I think that had I not told them I intended to ask your hand in marriage, I do not know if they would have been as willing to get you out. That's why, Catherine, I did not want to leave Spain without you. I feared something would happen, and you would not be able to come to England. It tore my heart in half when I had to leave you there. But at least you were in San Sebastian and plans had been made already to bring you. Had such not been the case, I would've stayed with you."
Francis stroked the silken skin of her cheek with the backs of his fingers. "And you must know that I do grieve for your loss. I can't say that I feel it, but I know you loved your brother. That is a pain I wish I could spare you. As I would spare you pain for the rest of your life, if I could. As I would erase all that you have suffered if I could."
"You are truly the kindest gentleman I've ever met," she said. "It was thoughts of you that kept me sane in that awful place. I would remember your letters, and I would picture your face. Of course, I thought you would lose interest in me when you no longer heard from me. I wish I could reward Maximilian adequately, but I do not think there is a way.
"I have thought of one, Catherine. I was going to send him a fine horse, but I think there is a better way. But it is up to you."
"Anything, Francis. He will not leave Spain to come here—I know that."
"Yes. But he worked at Castle Medina for a long time, did he not?"
She nodded thoughtfully. "He did. He worked his way up from a kitchen boy, I believe."
"Then he knows the castle, and its history, and he is capable of dealing with that."
"That is true. There are those of us who were never affected by the place." Her sigh was soft, inaudible, but Francis noticed just the same. "And those who were."
"How much do you love that place?" he asked, watching her eyes meet his.
"I do not love it. It is full of tragedy and pain for me."
And for me, he thought. "You may think what I suggest to be extravagant, but would it not serve you to be rid of that place? You are here now, where you will stay. Your fortune will be brought to England this summer. That leaves only the Medina lands, which fall to you by default. Why not give the castle to Maximilian? And perhaps enough of the surrounding land for him to make a living?" It was asking a lot to think of giving away property that had been in her family for generations. But the Medina name was no more now that she was a Bernard. She had nothing but friends left in Spain.
"I do not know," she said, her eyes drifting away from his. "Uncle would not approve."
"It's just something to consider."
She nodded. "And it is lost to me here. I have no need of it." She looked at him again, smiling a little. "You are a generous man, too, Francis. With control of property like that, Maximilian could either make his fortune or just live comfortably with no one to answer to. It is an intriguing idea."
He nodded. "You will do whatever you feel is right." He glanced out the window, seeing that they were nearing Chipham Manor. "I have one question for you, Catherine, and it's not something I am worried about, but something I must know."
"Of course, Francis. I will have no secrets from you. You know the worst thing about me already."
"There is no worst thing about you, my love."
"You know what I mean. Now what is your question?" Her dark brows went up, and she had a trace of a smile on her lips.
"Well, this is not something that occurred to me until recently. I'm not sure why, either. But after going in that room again, it occurred to me that you knew how to operate that pendulum apparatus. I saw you trying to shift the lever. You must have known when we heard that sound that your brother was down there." He did not like bringing this up. It seemed to cast a pall over the atmosphere in the carriage.
Francis was not surprised to see her sudden discomfiture with the subject. He only wanted to know how she knew about it.
Catherine dropped her eyes. "I am sorry, Francis. What you must think of me."
"I love you."
Her hand squeezed his. "I knew of it. I had seen it, and I even knew how to operate it." She looked up at him, and he thought her eyes were pleading with him. "Nicholas discovered it when he went back to live at the castle. Aunt Olivia told me they knew he was mad. They did not want me to live there, but I didn't want to believe that of Nicholas. I suppose I knew he was a little mad, but he was never anything but kind and loving to me."
She shook her head, taking a deep breath. "Once I began to live there as I did for months at a time, I heard the sound, as you did. I went to investigate, and I found him there. He did not seem mad." She looked at him in a way he thought was slightly desperate. "He seemed only curious. He showed me how he started the pendulum moving, and how he lowered it. He said it was a great secret our father must have kept, and I knew he was fascinated by it. I never thought he would do any more than maintain it. I trusted him."
Francis nodded. "I understand."
"Oh, Francis, can you forgive me? I should have destroyed it. But he became engaged to your sister shortly after that, and I thought he would forget about it."
"Catherine, you would have had a difficult time destroying something like that. There is nothing to forgive. You couldn't know he would go mad."
"No, I did not think that would ever happen. Something happened to him, Francis. Something terrible. There are times I think it was Elizabeth, that she drove him mad, but I cannot understand why."
"Nor I. But that is possible. My sister was very manipulative. Yet I do not want to believe that of her." He let out a sardonic breath. "Just as you did not want to believe your brother capable of madness."
"Yes. Is that all you wished to ask me?"
Francis smiled, feeling the gloom depart the carriage. "No, I have many, many things to ask you, but they're all of a more pleasant nature."
"Good. But I will tell you whatever you wish to know. I will keep nothing from you again."
The carriage came to a stop in front of the manor. Francis kissed her. "And I have no secrets from you, either." He let her go and jumped down from the carriage, holding his hand for her.
A moment later they were ascending the steps, on the way to the master suite previously occupied by his parents. It included a central bedroom, a study and bath for him, and a bath and sitting room for her. The sitting room faced the back of the property, but the suite was located at the other end of the house from her previous quarters. The view was similar, and he hoped it would make her just as content as she'd said the other room had.
Francis led her into the bedroom, his arm around her waist. "We have some time before everyone arrives," he said, feeling anticipation stir in him. He glanced around the room, seeing that there was a good fire burning in the hearth, the bed had been turned down and wine and glasses had been set out on a table as per his instructions. He left her to shut the door, turning the key in the lock as he looked at her.
Her eyes were large, and he thought she was nervous. He went to her, and took her face in his hands, lowering his mouth down to hers. The sweetness of it, the exquisite pleasure he got from just feeling the softness of her lips was bliss. For the first time, her arms came up and wrapped around his neck, and he put his arms around her body, pulling her close against him.
He was ready, completely ready to take her into the bed, but he only pressed himself against her. It seemed years since he had been with a woman. "Catherine," he whispered. "I want you now. Do you . . . ?"
"Yes, Francis. Now, before the house is full of people." She smiled up at him, her eyes almost dreamy and half-lidded. "You must help me with my dress."
"Of course." He grinned, kissed her once, then quickly unbuttoned his doublet and let it drop to the floor. He turned her around, lifting her gold lace headdress from her hair, with her help pulling out the pins that held it in place. He pushed her hair over her shoulder so he could untie the laces that held her bodice around her. As she was sliding her arms from it, he found the fastenings for her skirt and began to release them. The folds of material slid down and away, leaving her in a thin cotton shift, hose and her satin shoes.
Impulsively, Francis picked her up, one arm behind her back, the other under her knees, and lifted her free of the skirt. She laughed, grabbing him around the neck in surprise. He thought she was light as a feather as he carried her to the bed and set her gently down upon it. He slipped his hands down her leg and removed one slipper, then the other.
His boots and breeches were next, and he climbed into the bed beside her and put his arm on the other side of her, leaning partially over her.
"Francis," she whispered as he gathered her against him. "I love you."
He kissed her lips, then her cheek, then worked his way down in small little presses to her throat. "You're beautiful, Catherine. I've wanted you for so long." His hand slipped between them and over her breast and she gasped. He kissed her breast through the material of her shift, and he listened to her quick breaths.
Francis returned his attention to her face, while his hand fondled her breast. "I want this to be wonderful for you, my love." He kissed her again, hoping he would do nothing to remind her of being raped by those bastards in the asylum.
"Es maravilloso, Francis." She put her palm to his cheek. "No te preocupes por mi. Te amo, y te deseo como jamás he querido a otro hombre. Tu contacto me deleita."
He thought it charming that she had reverted to Spanish. "Are you cold? I will pull the cover over us if you are."
"No need." She put her hands on his shoulder, then slid them down and began tugging his shirt up. Francis found her touch brought him considerable delight as well, and he sat up and pulled the shirt off over his head. He moved his hands down and removed his hose as well, now nude and his excitement completely revealed.
It only served to make him want her more. Smiling, he slipped both hands up her shift till he felt the silky skin of her slender waist, and then he curled his fingers into the top of her hose and pulled them down, being sure to trail his fingers against her legs the whole way. He went the opposite direction with her shift once the hose were off. Catherine raised herself up, lifting her arms so he could get the garment off over her head.
He took her in his arms again, placing one of his knees between hers as he pulled her beneath him. The feel of her hands softly stroking his back, made his breath quicken.
"It doesn't hurt you?" she asked.
He knew she felt the unevenness of his recently healed wounds. "No, it is bliss." He kissed her for a long moment, then sent a hand down her body slowly, stroking and exploring, so aroused he wanted to explode. Ah, to touch a woman, especially this woman . . . it inflamed his need.
She gasped when he found her most private place and used gentle pressure of his fingers to excite her. He was certain it was working as she parted her legs further and pushed against his hand, gasping.
"Oh, Francis!" she said, her hands grabbing his shoulders.
He kissed her, kept touching her the way Molly and a few other servant girls had shown him they liked best, gentle pressure, rolling his hand around, cupping her flesh, sending a finger between the folds of skin. She was moaning under him, calling his name with breathy cries when he stopped, his fingers slicked with moisture. He was certain she was ready for him.
Looking down at her face he moved on top of her, his knees between hers as she spread them apart for him. He lowered his body down onto hers, nestled his manhood against the heat of her waiting body and felt her jerk beneath him, her head going back as she gasped again. Francis kissed her throat, then her mouth. He briefly used his hand to manipulate his erection against her until it began to slip inside. Wrapping his arms around her, bracing himself on his elbows, he pressed with small movements, each one gaining him further entry.
Catherine was panting with her mouth open. He looked down at her, saw her looking at him, and he kissed her deeply. In a matter of minutes he was fully inside her, pulling out most of the way to thrust back in. She moaned each time, or called his name, and he panted with the effort it took to hold back the rising crescendo of passion. He closed his eyes, his attention centering on the enormous pleasure building, and he found his rhythm speeding up, his thrusts harder, his back covered in a sheen of sweat.
Suddenly he found it almost difficult to pull out because she had grown so tight around him, her body pulsing as it gripped him. Her limbs clamped around him, and she was gasping his name out loud. Francis could hold back no longer and let go. It burst within him a wave of ecstasy that he felt down to his toes. "Catherine!" he uttered, pressing himself so hard against her she could not have moved had she wanted to, and feeling the flow of his seed into her in spurts of absolute joy. The room around them disappeared in those moments, and there was only the extreme physical pleasure of his climax.
As it began to wane in smaller and smaller ripples, he sagged on top of her relaxed form, panting with exertion. He felt her hand lightly stroke his back, and lifted his upper body from her. Cool air rushed between their hot bodies, and he looked down at her and smiled.
Her answering smile was enough for him, and he kissed her. "I love you," he said.
"Do we have to go downstairs?" she said. "I would rather lie here with you this way."
"I would like nothing better, but it will be expected." He kissed her cheek tenderly, then her forehead. He started to move, but she put her arms around him and held him.
"Do not go just yet. I would not have you leave me. Oh, Francis, it is so wonderful to be held by you. I have never wanted so badly to be anywhere else."
"Nor I. But we'll have the next few days to be together without much interference. We'll spend a lot of time here if you wish." He grinned.
"I do wish." She relaxed her limbs, removing her feet from the backs of his thighs and letting him go. He withdrew slowly and rolled over to his back, the room's cooler air moving over him. He was still breathing deeply, and he thought he could have drifted easily to sleep.
Her hand appeared on his chest, and she turned on her side toward him. "Francis, I have to ask something."
"Yes." He took her hand and looked at her, kissing her fingers.
"Will they check the sheet?"
Her expression was obviously concerned, and after the intimacy of what they had just shared, he could not bear for her to be worried. "Yes. My uncle will come, but don't worry. When you are dressing, I will take care of everything." He had a small vial of chicken blood to drip and smear on the sheet where it was obvious they had spent their passion.
"I thought I would need to do that," she said. She held up her arm and he noticed for the first time a small sealed cut on the under side of it, not far from her wrist. "I did it this morning."
Francis was somewhat appalled. He wasn't sure if it was the thought of her bleeding, or that of her cutting herself, but he grabbed her wrist to look more closely at the cut. It was a tiny red line. "Well, I hate to think you had to do that. I should have told you I was going to do it. But if you made the sacrifice, Catherine, we will use yours. Where is it?"
"I will get it." She rolled away from him, and he smiled at the sight of her slender body. He noticed the mark where she had been burned, but it was just that—a place of taut skin, red against the creamy whiteness of her back.
He sat up and saw her going through the folds of her skirt, producing after a short search, a small glass vial with a cork in the top. He barely saw it, looking instead at her nude body, her lovely firm breasts, her tiny waist, the dark triangle of hair so concealing her center of pleasure.
Francis realized he was staring when he saw her blushing and evading his gaze. He quickly climbed off the bed and went to her. "There should be a basin of hot water in your bath if you wish it," he said, taking her hand holding the vial. "I will take this while you dress again. Ellen should have laid out your clothes in your sitting room."
Her eyes when they looked up to his were so trusting it made his heart pinch. "You have thought of everything. You would save my honor."
Francis smiled, and put his arms around her, enjoying her warm form against him. He felt the stirrings of passion again, but ignored them. There would not be time. "I would do anything for you." He kissed her tenderly. "Perhaps you had best get dressed."
She nodded. "No one could ever love you more than I."
"And it is not possible to love a person more than I love you, Catherine." He released her, helping her gather up her dress and clothes. When she had gone into her bath, he took the vial and opened it, dripping the blood onto the sheet in the damp place already there and smearing it. There was not much blood to work with, and it had already clotted some, but he thought it was convincing enough and went to wash up in his own bath before dressing for the evening and supper. There would be no one in England but himself, Don Santoña and Catherine who knew the truth that she had not been a virgin. Her reputation would be intact, her virtue unquestionable. Francis knew in his heart that her virtue had never been in question. She had been innocent, and now she was married to him. The past was gone and a future full of promise awaited them. He could not have been happier.
Catherine felt the world around her was hazed by a soft glow. Even as she dressed, she could not stop the feeling of pleasure from occasionally tingling in her body. The anticipation of a night with Francis, of waking up beside him, of sharing their love again and again had her mind spinning. It had been beautiful and exciting and far beyond her expectations. Even the memory of being raped could not touch her now, despite the fact that the act was similar in physical aspect. But there was no comparison. Francis' gentle, loving touch had nothing in common with those guards' brutal lust.
She smiled, thinking how Francis had just held her so close, had known somehow just how to touch her. She wanted him again, and she thought the evening would last forever until they could be alone again.
It was embarrassing to think someone would come to check to find out if she had been a virgin, but it would have happened in Spain, too. Certainly Francis had not been, and she was glad. I saw how your maid looked at you, Francis, she thought with an inward smile. But I will make you so happy, you will never want her. I will find out how to do everything you like, and it will be my pleasure as well.
Catherine sighed, hearing a knock on her sitting room door. She made a final adjustment to her headdress and went to answer it. Francis stood looking down at her, wearing a fine black outfit with gold trim, much like her own in decoration.
He held out his arm. "My dearest wife," he said, grinning.
"My beloved husband," she responded, taking his arm. "It will be a long evening. I will think of you constantly. I will be yearning for your touch."
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You do not make it easy for a man in his prime to contain his passion. But I have heard the arrival of the family and our guests. We must appear downstairs."
"You are such a man of duty," she said, loving his boyish smile.
"I will perform my duty. My duty to you, especially. Tonight. Many times."
A wave of pleasure flowed through her suddenly at his words. "I think it is you who does not make it easy for a woman to maintain her composure."
He took another deep breath. "We must go downstairs, Catherine. We will have tonight. I promise."
She nodded and walked with him out to the corridor. And while she held onto his arm, she thought of how his lean body had looked upon the bed and then standing before her. It made her hot all over to remember. Such wonderful broad shoulders and taut muscles.
I am not going to get through this evening, she thought. I am going to faint with desire. Thank you, Holy Father, you have blessed me far beyond anything I could have dreamed. Thank you for my life, thank you for Francis. I will be here for him as long as You wish it. I pray that will be for the rest of our very long lives.
Catherine thought that together, she and Francis would build a life without madness and pain. There would be no more dark castles and torture chambers. There would be love and light, and if God granted them, children. She felt she could face anything with Francis beside her, and that is the only place she ever wanted to be. In his arms or beside him she had found home.
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