Francis could not remember ever being so cold. He did not know how the coachman managed driving the horses into the bitter wind and pelting, hard flakes of snow. What saved them all were the little mountain villages where they were able to get hot tea and stews, where peasants, eager for a coin, would rub down the horses and look after them. Accommodations in such villages were rude, but the people hospitable, and Francis found it pleasant at times to listen to their music, which was energetic enough to warm everyone. The villagers were respectful—how often did they receive an English nobleman into their midst? Yet they took occasional liberties, touching him to guide him, addressing him a little too familiarly. He actually didn't mind the attention of village maidens, peasants though they were. Had they smelled of anything besides garlic, old sweat and that rank, unwashed womanly odor, he might have taken one to his bed. It certainly would have been warmer to sleep with a plump, lively girl against him. And after he got his strength back, though exhausted from the day-long tedium and bruising of the carriage ride, he was sorely tempted a few times. It seemed dishonorable somehow, though, when he considered his quest. Dalliance with a peasant girl was nothing, but he thought so much of Catherine, he found himself wondering if doing so would be an act of unfaithfulness. So he let exhaustion of the day carry him into sleep, rather than the exhaustion of spent passion. And he did not push away the village dogs who chose to curl up beside him for warmth.
It became increasingly clear to Francis that he was not going to get out of Spain this winter unless he sailed out. The idea of sailing completely around the Iberian peninsula was repellent, even if the Mediterranean were calmer than the Atlantic in winter. But he would have to sail around the Pyrenees Mountains into France. Perhaps returning over land to San Sebastian, then catching another ship, if there was one, into France, thereby going around the mountains, would be the answer.
But would Catherine be up to this journey? It was bitterly cold, and harsh, and offered little in the way of comfort to a woman accustomed to finer things. I will fill the carriage with cushions and blankets, he thought. I will keep her warm. It is the only way.
Nevertheless, the journey was a long one, and might even have been pleasant in summer. Between Francis and the coachman, the horses were inspected, rotated and given as much care as possible on the trip. Despite the delay, Francis did not object to periodic stops to let them rest and look them over. They were a hardy lot, and Francis thought he might well purchase one of this small Spanish breed to give a little of their stamina to his own horse's bloodlines.
Francis had had one other concern for the mountain section of this journey—bandits. He had hired a guard for this reason, but they were not accosted a single time. Getting caught in a snow drift was a greater danger, and it happened twice. It took the combined strength of the three men and all the horses to drag the carriage from the side of the crude road where it had slid. Fortunately, they had come upon villages shortly after and were able to rest for the night. His guard and the coachman were a good lot, and Francis intended to pay them well. He decided also to pay them to stay in Barcelona as long as necessary, and then take himself and Catherine back to San Sebastian.
Seeing the outer boundaries of Barcelona one morning filled Francis with relief. He sought the finest hotel immediately and ordered a hot bath. He had no wish to present himself to the local aristocracy while looking like a road-weary vagabond. His clothing he sent to be cleaned, and after his bath donned clothing he had not worn, but saved for this day. Dark blue velvet, trimmed in silver, and black hose. He had his tall, thigh-high boots polished, and his cloak brushed free of dirt and debris.
It was to the home of Fernando and Olivia Santoña that Francis went. They were Catherine's uncle and aunt with whom she had been living in Barcelona. Olivia was the sister of Isabella, who had been murdered by Sebastian Medina and who had been the mother of both Catherine and Nicholas Medina. Francis knew from Maximilian's letter that they had allowed their niece to be put in the asylum. Since they had more power locally than many, for Fernando was a Spanish noble, and Catherine had once told Francis that she might go to London with her uncle when he was appointed ambassador to the new English court, Francis found it strange that they had not kept her locked up at home if they thought her mad. Why would they have allowed her to be sent away to a public place? Was it political? His appointment possibly marred by association with madmen? If that were the case, it would be difficult to convince them to release Catherine. It seemed, however, the most likely reason, if unfathomable to Francis how anyone could send away beautiful, charming Catherine.
The manor to which Francis was conveyed in an expensive, elegant carriage he had rented for the day, leaving the one he had come to Barcelona with his hired men at an inn in town, was palatial and the picture of Gothic architecture. The bustling city with its clots of human activity, dogs and donkeys everywhere, clouds of smoke rising in the cold air and the usual myriad of smells with it, seemed to part around the estate, which was sheltered by stands of old trees.
With a display of his papers, Francis made it through the front gate, and he was pleased to see that a servant came to see to the carriage and another to escort him inside the house. It was cold here, though not nearly as cold as London, but the hospitality was the opposite of what he had found at Castle Medina.
He looked around the parlor to which he had been led, and warmed himself by the fire. Heavy Spanish furnishings occupied the room, and the walls were draped with tapestries depicting the conquering of the Moors. A servant brought him wine, some rich red variety Francis thought must be Spanish because it was not like any French wine he had tasted.
Francis was kept waiting at least a quarter of an hour, though a servant did come in and ask if he needed anything else before another came and conducted him to a different room, rich in local furnishings, but with a definite French touch of gilded carvings and appointments.
"Don Santoña," Francis said upon being announced to a man standing by a window. Light from the cold, grey sky illuminated him clearly. He was tall and fair-skinned with thin features and dark, unruly hair that fell across what was probably a high brow.
"Ah, Mister Barnard, to what do I owe the honor of a visit from such a distinguished English gentleman?" Fernando Santoña's voice was rich and deep, and made Francis think he would probably be a good singer.
Francis bowed politely. "I have come, sir, on behalf of a dear friend. It is my understanding that she resided with you until recently." He watched the man's face cloud slightly. "Your niece Catherine Medina."
"Ah," Santoña said, turning slightly away. "Yes, poor girl." He then looked at Francis more carefully. "How do you know her? And please sit down if you wish."
"Thank you, sir, but I have been sitting in a coach for days. I prefer to stand." He nodded his head formally in thanks. "I met Catherine on my last visit to Spain some months ago. Your nephew, Nicholas, married my sister Elizabeth, and I came to investigate her death. It was at Castle Medina I became acquainted with Doña Catherine."
Francis did not take his eyes from the other man's face. Perhaps he was a politician, for after his initial surprise, he gave nothing away.
"I do have sad news for you, after such a long journey, Mister Barnard. Catherine succumbed to the madness that afflicted her brother. We feared she would become violent."
"What led you to this conclusion, sir?"
"It was a tale she was telling. It was outlandish. Impossible to believe."
"May I ask what this tale was about? She was ever sensible and kind to me." Francis realized he was sweating. The room was warmer than the parlor he'd been in first, but it was his concern for Catherine that made him afraid to handle this situation incorrectly.
"A fantasy of horror, Mister Barnard. It does not bear repeating."
"Don Santoña, did she never mention my name?"
"Perhaps. I do not recall. My wife would be more likely to know this."
Francis nodded. "It seems strange since we have corresponded. I would like to know if this tale involved me, as there were many terrible things happening at Castle Medina when I went there."
"Indeed? Perhaps you should talk to my wife." He pulled on a tasseled and brocaded length of cloth depending from the ceiling. An instant later and a servant stood in the doorway.
Francis noted this without really taking his attention from the other man. Perhaps talking to Catherine's aunt would be more useful. It was frustrating to think that the poor girl had gone from living well in a place such as this to being confined in an asylum. Perhaps she'd been given a private room there? Surely the Santoñas would do her that courtesy.
"Antonio, ask Doña Olivia to join us here," said Santoña, then turned his attention back to Francis. "How did you get to Barcelona, Mister Barnard?"
"By carriage from San Sebastian. It was a long, cold passage through the mountains."
"I'm sure that it was. I admire your tenacity. It speaks well of you that you would come all this way to offer assistance to my niece."
"It was my intention to ask her hand, sir." Francis could not quite believe he had just spoken those words. He wasn't even sure it was the truth, but one thought of her lovely face, and he knew that it was. Telling her uncle outright, however, was not the way he had intended to do it. There was the matter of her inheritance, her dowry—all those details that normally he took the time to consider. But somehow his heart had just taken over, and he wanted nothing more than to rescue her from her situation in the asylum and see that she had every comfort.
And as he assimilated his own audacity, he noticed more than a flicker of interest on Don Santoña's face. His eyes grew a tiny bit larger, and his mouth twitched into a smile. He's thinking how best to salvage this, Francis thought. How can he both save face and connect himself to a fine English family. A marriage would be a good political move, better than removing the Medina taint from his family. Though he had not planned it, Francis had just found the tool it might take to save Catherine.
"Indeed?" Santoña said, nodding now, and more thoughtful. "It is a terrible thing that she has gone mad."
"I do not think she has gone mad, sir. Until I hear the story she told, I could not say for certain. But it's quite possible I can verify her tale."
"That would be a very good thing, Mister Barnard."
"Has anyone been back to Castle Medina?"
"No, it remains closed. The staff were dismissed. It is best left untouched."
Francis held his flaring temper with difficulty. "No one went back to see if she was telling the truth?"
Santoña shrugged. "It is winter. A long journey—as you know. Too long when it is known madness runs in that family."
Hands carefully not clenched as they wanted to be, Francis was outraged for her. How could they have lived years with her and then just thrown her away on unfounded suspicion? They must have really wanted to be rid of her. It seemed impossible. Well, if you do not want her, so be it, he thought. I will gladly take her away.
He was saved from having to answer by the entrance of Doña Olivia. Francis was struck by her resemblance to her niece. This woman was taller and heavier, but her graying hair had once been as black and her eyes were dark, though not brown. Perhaps they were green.
Francis bowed. "Doña, a pleasure to meet you." He lightly kissed her hand. It was warm to the touch.
"Olivia, this is Francis Barnard. He has come from England to help Catherine."
The woman looked at him carefully. "To help Catherine? My dear man, there is no hope for the girl. She was cursed with the madness of the Medina's. It is still a shame that my sister married into that family. A poor arrangement. And terrible for Isabella."
"Yes, I know, Doña. But I do not believe Catherine is mad. She seemed sane and quite whole in her letters to me." He saw recognition suddenly in her face. Did none of them ever remember Elizabeth's last name?
"You are the one she spoke of!" said Olivia with what Francis thought was pleasure. "You are Elizabeth's brother."
"That is correct."
"Well, until Catherine told her outrageous tale, I had hoped you would visit us. It is very kind of you to come so far for her."
"She has grown dear to me, Doña." To his credit, Don Santoña did not mention Francis' intention to ask for Catherine's hand in marriage. "I believe that I may be able to verify the truth of her story."
"I very much doubt that. It was a wild and horrific story she told us. The doctor we brought in agreed. He said she was afflicted by the madness, and would best be locked away. It grieved us to send the child away. I can only hope that she is safe."
Francis bit back a retort that would have shown his rising temper. "It would be useful," he said, casting a glance at Don Santoña, "if I were to hear this tale. I can then, verify any facts with which I am acquainted."
He watched the woman glance at her husband who nodded slightly. Good, they were going to give him a chance.
"It is a distressing tale, Mister Barnard." She moved to sit down on a plush, velvet divan, arranging the heavy layers of her skirt about her.
"If she told you what happened a few months ago, I agree with you. More distressing to live through it, Doña."
Francis sat in a chair across from her. "You are kind to indulge me in this. It is my wish to help Catherine."
"How did you find out, sir?" asked Don Santoña, joining them by sitting beside his wife.
"Maximilian Diego sent me a letter. He was—"
"Ah, yes, Maximilian. He works for my brother now. I believe he came forward after they took her away, didn't he, Olivia?"
The woman nodded. "The doctor said that the word of a servant was nothing. He was merely being loyal to her."
Unlike you, Francis thought. "I see."
"Well, to the story, then. But I must have a glass of wine." She turned her head and nodded to the servant, Antonio, and he disappeared quickly. "You will join me, of course, Mister Barnard."
"Yes, Doña. Thank you."
"Now, Catherine said that her brother, kind and gentle though he was, went mad. She did not believe that he was responsible for the things that happened in the days before he died. She thought it was your sister's ghost, Mister Barnard. She said that Nicholas believed he had buried her alive. There were so many wild things she said—someone playing music, tearing apart a room, other things no one could explain. It led up to their exhuming Elizabeth's body from the tomb below the castle."
Francis nodded. He did not like remembering the sight of his sister's corpse, frozen in death in a rictus of horror.
"You are familiar with this?" Doña Olivia asked him, cocking an eye brow up.
"Yes, Doña. My sister had been buried alive. She died trying to claw her way from the casket. It is the way we found her."
"You were there during this?"
"Yes. Catherine is telling you the truth." He watched the two of them look at each other, and whether or not the look of shock was genuine, he was gratified to see it.
"Well, she told us that there were hidden passages, which is quite possible, and that—I suppose it was you—suspected Nicholas of using them to cause all the unexplained events."
"Yes, I believed that for a time. But something drove him mad. He disappeared from his room and Doña Catherine, Doctor Leon and myself went to look for him. He believed somehow that he was his father, Sebastian Medina." Francis was not able to suppress a shudder. "He thought I was Bartolome, Sebastian's brother."
"Yes, that is what Catherine said. She told us some story about that. We knew, of course, that Sebastian murdered my poor sister. But Catherine claimed he had walled her up alive. I found that unbelievable."
"I do not doubt it was true. It was part of what drove Nicholas mad. He had seen it happen to his mother, and so he feared it had happened to his wife." Francis looked down, unable to get the horror from his mind. The arrival of the wine was a welcome distraction, but it took only moments for them to be served. Francis sipped his gratefully. His mouth was parched.
"So then it is true that Nicholas activated some incredible device in a hidden torture room, and it would have been you suffering under this device." Doña Olivia's voice sounded subdued and shocked.
Francis could only nod, not wanting to remember. The dreams had kept it alive for him, the feeling of being in hell with those awful paintings of robed figures looking down on him with their glowing eyes while the razor sharp pendulum came closer and closer to his body. He was chilled suddenly, his stomach churning, the wine taste gone sour on his tongue.
"How did you escape?" asked the other man quietly.
"Catherine and Maximilian broke into the room. Maximilian fought with Nicholas until he fell into the pit to his death." His voice was flat, emotion suppressed by the force of his will, though he could feel it making the wine in the pit of his stomach burn.
"Can you prove it?"
Francis looked back up at them. "Can I prove it? You have but to go to the castle and see where his body lies with the doctor in the floor of the pit, neither buried or blessed. If anything, cursed. I am sure it is very hard for Catherine, because she loved her brother."
"Can you prove it without going there? That is what we will need."
Francis looked at them and stood up. "Forgive me, Doña, but I will prove it." He grasped the buttons on the front of his doublet and quickly unfastened them, then he drew his shirt up and bared his chest, revealing the long, rough scar that crossed midway between his navel and the bottom of his breast bone. If either of them had looked closely they would have seen that the scar was actually several together where the blade had come across his skin in close parallel cuts. But the infection that had set in on his trip back to England had mostly blurred the lines.
Doña Olivia's satisfied gasp was enough for him, and he quickly restored his clothing.
"You could have gotten that scar from a sword," said the other man.
"I could have, but I did not. It was that infernal pendulum machine. I would have been cut in half a little at a time had Catherine and Maximilian not stopped him."
The woman looked up at him and didn't take her eyes from him as he sat down. "It is why I thought she was mad. I could not believe such a story, and only a twisted mind could have conceived it."
"Unless it was true. Which it is, and you have only to go there to see for yourselves." He took a hearty sip of the wine, feeling he had convinced them.
"Yes, I fear we must," Don Santoña said. "But not until the spring."
"You will not wait that long to free Catherine!" Francis said, horrified.
"No, we will see to that immediately. It may take a few days. You may be required to talk to the doctor." He stood up, downing the last of his glass.
Francis got up as well. "I wish to see her. She must not spend another night there."
Don Santoña looked at his wife, a slight smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. "He is her champion, is he not?" He held his hand out to his wife who rose to her feet.
"I will send for the doctor today," said Doña Olivia. "It is late, but he will come." She clapped her hands twice sharply, and another servant came in.
"You are a brave man," said Fernando Santoña to Francis as his wife was instructing the servant.
"I do what a gentleman must do."
"Of all the men my wife and I have considered for Catherine, up until she began telling this story, I think you, sir, are quite probably the best choice. She will have to live in England if you decide to marry her, but she will not find a better man, I think."
"Marry her?" Doña Olivia said, turning to them. "Is that your intention, Mister Barnard?"
Francis nodded once. "It was my intention to ask. I would have taken more time and contacted you at a later date had I not felt the urgency to come immediately."
"Oh, but it is a very Spanish thing for you to do! I think we are more given to our passions than you English."
Francis smiled slightly. She was probably right. "I only knew I had to come."
"Well, I have sent for the doctor. Would you take supper with us tonight? He will come after."
"Yes. Thank you." He kissed her hand as she held it up. "A pleasure."
When she had gone, he saw that Don Santoña was looking out the window again. Francis joined him to see that he was looking out on a yard where several horses were being led around.
"You are a horseman?" he asked the man.
"Yes. And you?"
"Yes. I was, in fact, very impressed with the carriage horses that brought me here. A hardy breed."
"You would do well to have a good Spanish horse in your stable."
Francis nodded. "I have been considering it."
The next hour was whiled away discussing horses and bloodlines, and it seemed but minutes before a servant came to tell them supper was being served. It was a feast unlike any he had had in Spain. Several kinds of roast animal, beef, chicken, some wild fowl with which he was unacquainted, and there were fruits and vegetables and sweets after, all served with a delicious white wine. Francis's shrunken stomach felt ready to burst, and he couldn't help but wonder if Catherine were eating well at all. It seemed a cruel delay for him to feast while she remained imprisoned, but her best chance lay in his diplomacy. He knew he had already won the first round, and likely she would be out before the night was well advanced. If nothing else, he would have been able to help her that far.
Francis knew he would not leave her in Spain. He did not trust her family here—they had allowed her to be committed once already. Who was to say it could not happen again without him here? Yet it was a delicate situation. If he wanted their cooperation, he would have to play their game. He had not forgotten he was in a foreign country. Having to speak Spanish was a constant reminder. Fortunately he was fluent in both Spanish and French, and to a lesser extent Italian and German, and communicating with them was easy enough. It was playing to their advantage and Catherine's he must do.
Supper was followed by more wine, though Francis would have liked something a little harder, brandy perhaps. The doctor, who appeared just as they were finishing the first round, immediately made Francis feel his guard come up. The man was dark and his brow low and unintelligent. At least Doctor Leon—the only other Spanish doctor Francis had met—had appeared more than a peasant, though Francis did not believe Doctor Leon had been any kind of real doctor after he'd incorrectly diagnosed Elizabeth's death. But this man, Doctor Zamora, claimed to be a doctor of the mind. Why anyone would believe in him, Francis did not know, but he was not surprised a man such as he would lock Catherine away.
"And how is Catherine?" Doña Olivia asked the doctor.
"Ah, she is quiet," Zamora said. "She is withdrawn and will not speak to anyone."
Francis felt his heart pinching suddenly at the thought of that sweet girl locked up in some terrible place so frightened that she would not even speak. But he said nothing, wanting to get a more full sense of the doctor.
"Oh, the poor girl. But it is no wonder, doctor, since she is not mad."
"Doña, what do you mean? You were as convinced of it as I."
Doña Olivia nodded and cast her eyes to Francis who stood near the chair where she was sitting. "Her story—the tale she told—was true. Mister Barnard was there. He told us the same story."
Francis watched the doctor's face, seeing his bushy black brows rise in surprise, then draw together in a frown before he looked up at Francis. "You are the one she mentioned, then?"
"I suppose so," Francis said. Why did none of them remember his name from her story?
"And you say it is all true?"
"Yes. Regrettably true."
"He has a tremendous scar to prove it," the woman said.
"Indeed. But Doña Catherine is not well now. She is unstable—"
"Of course she is!" Francis said, unable to contain himself. "She has gone from being treated as a lady, to being treated as though she were mad. That would be enough to shake even the most stable man, let alone a woman."
The doctor absorbed the outburst calmly. "You are in love with her?"
Francis was taken aback. So the doctor was more shrewd than he looked. Or he could at least read into a situation. "That has nothing to do with her sanity."
"And you are aware of what happened to her brother?"
"Of course, I am aware. I witnessed it with my own eyes." And Nicholas' sanity was already in question when I got there, Francis thought. Why else would he have been down there working on that pendulum apparatus when I arrived? Only a madman would have kept that thing running.
He suppressed a shudder.
"It is possible that insanity is in their bloodlines," said the doctor.
"Yes. It is possible, but Catherine is not insane. Unless you have made her so."
"Mister Barnard," Doña Olivia said sharply. "Doctor Zamora has only Catherine's welfare in mind."
Why can't you see through this charlatan as I do? Francis wondered. "I should hope so," he said. "I wish to see her. She must be released tonight."
"Oh, I do not think that would be wise," said the doctor gravely. "The shock could be—"
"The shock came when you placed her there," Francis said. "Getting to come home will be a boon to her spirit."
"I agree with Mister Barnard," said Don Santoña, who had stood silently since the doctor came in. "We can have her watched over here where she will be most comfortable.
"As you wish, Don Santoña."
"Let us go now," Francis said. "I will follow in my carriage."
"No, Mister Barnard," Doña Olivia said. "You will accompany us in our carriage." She rose to her feet. "I will tell the servants to bring it around."
"As you wish, Doña," Doctor Zamora told her as he stood up. His black eyes found Francis'. "You are an unyielding man, Mister Barnard."
"I am doing what I must."
"I am glad Doña Catherine was telling the truth. It lightens my heart to know she was not descending into madness, though all appearances indicated it."
Spanish physicians are all the same, Francis thought, they couldn't diagnose a pimple. "It only matters that she be returned to her life." He looked at Fernando Santoña then, and the man smiled slightly and nodded in what Francis took to be approval.
The ride through dark Barcelona streets took half an hour, during which the Santoña's talked about their city and the possible appointment of Fernando as ambassador to the new English court. Said court did not exist yet as far as anyone knew, but it was inevitable. How much nicer it would have been to have seen Catherine under those circumstances than these. Now, she might well bear the taint of madness to her reputation. Of course the accusation was false, and Francis would be the first person to point that out if it came up.
The Mental Asylum was a huge stone structure, three stories high, looking rather like a prison with barred windows and a tall iron fence surrounding it. The night was so dark, that only the faintest light shown out of a few of the windows in the lower levels. Francis could make out the building's silhouette just barely against the starlit clouds in the sky. The place gave him a terrible foreboding feeling, something akin to the way he now felt about Castle Medina. Catherine was here? Sweet, gentle, compassionate Catherine was confined in this dark and crushing place?
A sudden woman's scream reached them from within the building somewhere, and Francis felt his heart start racing. He looked at the Santoña's, noting that Doña Olivia was holding on to her husband's arm and leaning against him.
The doctor admitted them through a doorway he unlocked himself and led them to an office of sorts, bidding them to wait there while he sent for the girl. Francis had to restrain himself from insisting he go with the man. He wanted to know just how she had been kept here. And was it as bad as he suspected. The building surrounding him had an atmosphere all its own, he noticed. The smell was old and slightly foul, even in the office. The air was damp and heavy, and the distant sounds of human suffering could be heard just enough to know they were there without being able to identify any one sound.
Francis paced the room, periodically looking toward the door through which the doctor had gone and pretending not to hear the Santoñas' quiet conversation with one another. He heard the sound of some female voice protesting something in Spanish so garbled he could not make out the words, and he stood still, listening, his heart beating hard and fast.
The voice hushed suddenly, and it was all Francis could to do keep himself from forcing the door. He looked at Don Santoña, who looked almost as ill as his wife, and then he decided. He would not wait another minute.
Francis reached for the door handle only to have it swung suddenly away from his hand. Doctor Zamora stood in the opening. "It would be best, sir, if you remained in the office."
"Where is she?" Francis demanded.
"She is coming. Another few minutes." He shut the door behind him as he came into the room, forcing Francis to take a step back, which he almost refused to do.
"Was that Catherine, I heard?"
"Mister Barnard, we have a great many female residents—"
He broke off at a knock on the door leading into the other parts of the building.
Francis watched him as he opened the door again and leaned out, then went out pulling it mostly closed to block off his conversation. Francis clenched his hands in frustration, casting a look at Don Santoña.
"Must we put up with this farce?" he said caustically.
The tall Spaniard got to his feet. "You are right, Mister Barnard." He stepped across the room, took the door handle and pulled it from the doctor's grasp. "Doctor Zamora, why are you delaying?"
The swarthy man looked surprised, then uncomfortable. "I told you she is withdrawn."
"Take me to her," Francis said. And then I will see what conditions she has had to endure that would make her withdraw, he thought.
Don Santoña looked from Francis to the doctor. "Do as he says. Take him to her."
There was nothing the doctor could do but comply when faced with an order from such a powerful man. He sighed and nodded. "This way, sir."
Francis followed the man down a dark corridor, lit with one or two candle sconces on the stone walls and the torch one guard carried. It was deeply cold here from the bare stones, and there was the odor of poorly kept humans, sour and foul enough to almost make him flinch. At the end of the corridor in what Francis surmised was the corner of the building, they came to a heavy wooden door, which was barred and locked. The two guards who had proceeded them unlocked it, and the one carrying a torch led the way inside while the other remained behind.
They were then in another corridor, this one more narrow and containing numerous doors. Francis found his stomach churning and his blood pumping hard when the guard led them straight to an unlocked door. He opened it and stepped back.
"No, no please . . . no. . . ." said a soft female voice. There was a hushing sound from the corner as Francis stepped into the doorway. He could see very little, and held his hand for the torch. It occurred to him as he stepped into the room, that they could just shut the door behind him and leave him here. But he went in anyway, struck by the stench and coldness. His boots were buried in old straw and it took a moment to spot the figure curled up against the wall.
"Catherine?" he said softly, then handed the torch to the doctor who came in behind him.
The woman was wearing an orange dress, that he could even see in the dimness was torn and soiled. Long dark hair hung down and shielded her face and arms, which she had wrapped around her knees.
"Catherine?" he said little louder, his heart pounding now, his breath coming fast.
The head moved, and the woman held her arms out, palms outward. "No, no, please. . . ."
"Catherine, look at me," he said, moving closer.
She didn't move at first, but then raised her head slowly. Her eyes rose even more slowly, and he could see her thin, pinched face and huge, haunted eyes. "Francis?" she whispered.
"Yes, it is I, Francis Barnard. I've come to take you home."
Francis thought she stood up fluidly for someone in a weakened condition. "Oh, Francis!" she cried and flung her arms around him.
He found himself responding in spite of the rank smell that wrapped around him. He put his arms around her gently and held her a moment. She was bone thin and felt fragile to his touch. Seeing her this way was worse than he'd expected, and he felt his eyes burning, his chest aching with tenderness for her. "Come, Catherine. We're taking you home." His hands slipped across her back, and he realized he felt bare skin—her dress was improperly fastened.
She looked up at him, her eyes searching his before she suddenly stiffened away from him, bringing her arms down and her hands to her face. "Forgive me. It was presumptuous of me—"
"Nonsense, Doña." Francis did not let her go, though with his hands on her back, he could feel her resistence and tension. He could not stand to see her this way and wanted nothing more than to get her out of the filthy building as quickly as possible.
With a fast move, he picked her up, thinking nothing of formality and propriety, only of rescuing her. He thought she seemed to weigh almost nothing, just skin and bones in a lot of orange material. She flinched in his arms, grabbing his shoulder with a faint protest. Francis didn't let it stop him from taking her out. "We have a carriage waiting," he said, carrying her out.
She nodded, not looking at him, but trembling. In the hallway he noticed that she was missing a shoe, the white flesh of her tiny foot was startlingly bright in the torch light. He found himself wondering why she had been pleading with them. What did it mean? What had they been doing to her that she had to beg them to stay away? Just the thought of someone hurting her made his brows draw together and hot blood pump at his temples.
Though he hadn't quite expected Catherine to fling herself at her aunt, he did not expect their reaction upon seeing her. Even Francis had hid his distaste at her condition. Did they not love her at all? Was she only a pawn to them? Olivia Santoña's face clearly revealed her shock, and Francis did not want to waste time while she decided whether or not to show some kind of support for the girl.
Francis put her down gently, concerned about her bare foot on the cold stone. He told himself that it would not be for very long. She stood where she was, and he held onto her arm to steady her.
Catherine barely looked at either of the Santoñas. She appeared too weak to lift her head.
"My dear, let's get you home," Olivia said finally, breaking away from her husband to put her arm around Catherine's shoulders. Francis followed behind, ready to carry her again if need be, and happened to catch a glimpse of the pale flesh of Catherine's back. It was not all so pale. There were dark streaks across it in the window formed by her incompletely fastened dress, and Francis could see that it was not inattention that caused the opening, but missing buttons. He was so shocked, he turned abruptly around and fixed Doctor Zamora with a fierce glare.
"Wait!" he commanded. "What is the meaning of this?" He pointed to the girl's back, and the two women turned to see what he was talking about.
"The meaning of what, sir?" the doctor asked.
"Her back. It's bruised. Have you beaten her?" Francis saw the quickly hidden shock on the man's face.
"No, sir. Perhaps other patients. . . ."
Francis looked at Catherine who had buried her face in her dirty hands, and he suddenly didn't have the heart to put her through this. He looked at a chagrined Don Santoña, and clenched his jaw in frustration. "Let's just go." It was unthinkable that Catherine had been beaten, but finding and punishing the perpetrators would only prolong this and her time in Spain, and might cause her further shame.
No one said anything even after they were in the carriage, the two women sitting together across from the men. Catherine wouldn't look at anyone. She was draped with Francis' cloak and had it pulled around her tightly. Francis couldn't help but look at her and feel his emotions churning. Anger warred with sadness and a fierce protectiveness. He wanted to help her, but didn't know what to do. Just looking at her once beautiful hair, now lusterless with bits of straw still in it made him grind his teeth in frustration. How had she come to this? How could they have let her be locked away in such a dreadful place? Hadn't they known what it would be like?
As the furious questions tumbled through his mind, he forced himself not to show it. Alienating them now would not help Catherine. Perhaps they had not realized to what they were consigning her. But had they never once gone to see her? No, why would they? She was mad, everyone knew that it was best to lock such people away where they couldn't hurt anyone else. No doubt her time in the mental asylum had been devastating, and it would take her a while to recover. She could do that in England. He would set her up in a fine house and he would court her as a gentleman should, and as she deserved. I will make you happy, Catherine, he thought. This will be but one unpleasant memory.
As much as he didn't want to, he had to leave when they reached the Santoña estate. Catherine was whisked away upstairs, and she did not once turn to look at him.
"You have lodging, Mister Barnard?" Don Santoña asked him.
"Given that you have intentions to court Catherine, it might be best if you stayed there tonight. Though I would offer you a room if you needed it."
"Thank you. I understand. I will return tomorrow. I would like to take Catherine back to England as soon as possible. I want to provide her with a household of her own until such time as we are married should you accept my proposal to her."
"And should she accept it. I will not force her to marry against her will, which is why she is not already married."
"That is kind of you, Don Santoña. Do you accept my proposal?"
"I will tell you in the morning. Please come for breakfast tomorrow. We may take in a short ride beforehand, if you are willing."
Francis smiled. "I would like that. What time should I arrive?"
"Seven. I look forward to showing you my best stallion. He is a fine horse."
"Thank you, Don Santoña. I will see you then." Francis left him, found his carriage waiting for him, and got in. He glanced back at the house, wondering in which room Catherine was now. Surely they would provide her with a bath and tend to any wounds she had? Francis wished he had been in charge. He would not then have this terrible doubt that Catherine would still be there when he returned in the morning. But no, the Santoñas stood only to gain by treating Catherine properly. He would have to take the chance, and perhaps he could see her again at breakfast. Perhaps they would be leaving soon. It would be his focus. He could not get the image of her so wretched out of his mind, and never in his life had he wanted so much to take a woman in his arms and offer her comfort. How she had thrown herself into his arms! She was so devastated she'd lost all sense of propriety. What had she suffered? A beating, no doubt, perhaps more than one, and the way her clothing had been ruined, buttons torn off—had she been ravished? And if she had been, did it mean she was undesirable now? Francis did not think so. He felt nothing but tenderness for her, protectiveness, and when he remembered how beautiful she'd been previously, he felt desire. No matter if her virginity were lost, not if it was not her choosing. She had been a proper young woman, and in her heart she still would be, he thought. And in my heart, he thought. No matter what they've done to you, Catherine, he told himself as the carriage pulled away, I will not dishonor you by turning away. I love you, and I will take care of you.