Catherine Medina lay in her comfortable, clean bed, her hand absently stroking her now clean hair. She had been scrubbed, her hair thoroughly washed with some sharp-smelling bitters to kill the lice, and given a small meal before being helped to bed and covered in thick quilts. She was physically more comfortable than she had been in almost two months, but her mind was churning restlessly.
She kept going over and over in her mind the memory of looking up to see tall, handsome Francis Barnard standing there, calling her. His face had been that of an angel in the torchlight. Only her dark-adjusted eyes had let her see his face clearly, and she had not quite believed it. And then, like a child, she had flung herself into his arms. How wonderful it had felt, like ascending to heaven. Yet she was embarrassed because she had been so forward, and because she was now unworthy of him. He had carried her in his arms like a child, and in the first second he had picked her up, she had felt a stab of fear at the physical power of him. His arm across her back had been painful because of the bruises, but she had scarcely noticed she was in such shock. And had it just been her filthy condition, she could have gotten over the embarrassment. But it went far beyond that. She was tainted, ruined for any respectable man. Francis would turn his back on her if he knew what she had become. He would return to England without another word to her. Oh, how she wanted to just die before he discovered the truth! The shame of it was unbearable. And after he had come all this way to save her. Was there a better man on earth? She didn't think so.
Whereas before she had been locked away, Catherine thought romantic and blissfully pleasant things about her next meeting with Francis, and she had looked forward to his letters as she had nothing else in her life, yet she was now afraid to let him see her. She feared he would see what she had become, and then he would reject her. Kindly, of course. He could be harsh—she had seen that at Castle Medina—but he would not be so with her. He will leave very soon, she thought, and I will remain here where no one will want me. I shall become a spinster, unloved and bitter. But at least I will be free, and I can thank Francis for that. He owes me nothing, I owe him my life. Perhaps we are even, now. He fulfilled his debt. Perhaps that was all he wanted to do?
Had she been clear of her troubled thoughts and emotions, Catherine would have smiled at the thought of him. She would have felt the warm, rosy glow about her, the sweet flutters of her heart, the bliss of imagining his arms around her. But now, even with those feelings buried inside her, she could think only how it would never be, of how he would turn from her in disgust and regret his journey here.
It's not my fault, she thought, I did nothing wrong. I was not mad, the others were. They all were mad—mad! She shuddered, opening her eyes to look toward the fire. Catherine should have been sleepy, warm and clean with a full belly, but her mind would not let go. She didn't want to fall asleep to wake and find it was all a dream anyway. Oh, Francis, she thought, our future together will never be. And I love you so. I pray God will keep you safe wherever you are. Thank you, thank you!
It wasn't easy, but she managed to shift her thoughts to her aunt and uncle. A thousand times she had wondered why they let her be locked away. Why had they thought she was mad? It was that terrible ordeal on the north coast. They hadn't believed it was real. But why not? They had but to go there and find out. And they had not. They had sent her away because they thought she was mad.
I was never mad, she thought, and why did you let me out? Was it Francis insisting? He had that way about him. He could have bullied them perhaps, but no, neither of them would be bullied into something. Had Francis told them what happened, and they then believed her story? That had to be it, but they were not ones change their minds about anything or anyone. Had he offered them something? Charmed them? Catherine found it impossible to believe they would be glad to have her back, not after the way they had sent her off, not after believing her mad. It was the Medina name, she thought, they cannot abide it after what happened to my mother. They wanted rid of me.
It was not a comforting thought, because it did not bode well for the future. They could have sent me to a convent, she thought. They could have done that without ever involving that doctor. But I'm no longer worthy of a convent, even if they chose to send me there now. They won't want me to stay here, she thought, they will send me away, and the only place I want to be is with Francis.
Not wanted here, or with him, or at a convent—where shall I go?
Anywhere but that wretched mental asylum. Anywhere but there.
When she thought then about how she must have seemed to him, she cringed, her heart pinching. He'd seen the bruises, her bare skin—could she be any more humiliated? And what had the doctor said? That other patients had beaten her? He was a lying dog. How could he not have known what his guards did? He was no doctor, certainly no healer. He should never have charge of people's lives—he's ruined mine!
It's all Elizabeth's fault, she thought. If she had not driven Nicholas mad with her evil ways, none of this would ever have happened. It felt good to be able to lay blame somewhere. It made her feel a shade less helpless. But still sleep did not come.
She lay awake for hours, closing her eyes when a servant came in to put a log on the fire, but opening them again when she was alone. It was the touch of the sun that finally made her sleep. It crept through a crack in her window curtains, heavy though they were, and shown across the bed as dawn broke. It touched her hand with warmth, and Catherine truly believed, for the first time that she had been released. With that acceptance, the exhaustion claimed her and she succumbed to a dreamless slumber.
Francis arrived at the Santoña estate precisely at seven where a servant escorted him back to the stables. He was wondering about Catherine even as he greeted Fernando Santoña, but only asked once as to her condition. He was told she still slept.
After a bracing ride in the country with Don Santoña and a few of his horsemasters and dogs, they returned to the estate. The house seemed overly-warm to Francis after the exertion, but he felt invigorated for the first time since leaving England. The horse he'd ridden was a fine and responsive animal, agile and surefooted on slippery terrain. Only the saddle was not to his taste—too high in the front and back. Francis felt overly supported by it, less able to move when he wanted to. But it was a pleasant hour, despite the biting wind, and he was more than ready to see Catherine again. Not given to fantasy normally, he envisioned her smiling and glad to see him, ready at once to go into his arms. And then he would tell her his intentions, his desire to marry her, and all would be perfect.
But she was not at the breakfast table he shared with Olivia and Fernando Santoña. Her maid said that Catherine was still sleeping, that she had not really slept all night. This troubled Francis, but he accepted it and asked instead if his proposal had been accepted.
"Indeed, Mister Barnard," said Doña Olivia said. "We have discussed it, and we both think it would be good for her. You have shown that your are courageous, well-placed in English society and you care for her. It remains only for you to accept her dowry."
Francis nodded. "It may surprise you, Doña, but I am more concerned about Catherine than her dowry."
"Well, we will have papers drawn up. She has a considerable dowry. And her inheritance will not be made clear until the spring when we send someone to investigate the castle, but if all is as you said, then she will have all of the Medina holdings in her name. It is a considerable fortune."
Francis nodded. "I will be pleased to be linked to Spain in such a way."
"In addition," Fernando Santoña said, "Catherine has two of her own horses, and I wish to send one of my finer mares with you."
Francis was not totally surprised, but he was certainly pleased. "That is most generous of you, Don Santoña."
"Please, call me Fernando. We are to be related."
"As you wish. And please call me Francis." He smiled slightly. "If Catherine accepts my proposal." He could not imagine why she would not. "How do you feel about my taking her back with me before we are married? You may send a chaperone with us if you wish."
"I have another idea, Francis," the other man said. "It may take a few days to arrange, but I am certain to be appointed ambassador to your new court. Perhaps I may accompany you, even in this dreadful winter. Then I will be in place at the proper time."
"You are most welcome, sir," Francis said, thinking this was not a bad idea at all. It solved all propriety difficulties that arose with his traveling with Catherine alone. "You must accept the hospitality of Chipham Manor for your stay."
"Delighted to, my friend. Then it is settled. I will send word immediately to Madrid." He got to his feet. "If you will excuse me, I must write a missive."
Francis stood as well, wondering what he should do next. He very much wanted to see Catherine.
"Mister Barnard, please spend the day with us," said Doña Olivia. "I will give you a tour of the estate, and I'm sure my husband will want to continue discussing his horses with you."
"Thank you, Doña. I will be honored. And I would like to see Catherine if possible. I have yet to propose to her."
"Of course! I will tell Consuelo to let me know when she is ready." Her expression darkened slightly. "But it is possible she will not be up to visitors today. She was very weak."
"Yes, I understand." But he didn't have to like it.
The tour commenced shortly, and Francis found his mind constantly wondering about Catherine. The poor girl had been through a terrible ordeal. How would she react to being told she was going to move to England? Or even that he wanted to marry her?
Francis took lunch with his host after spending the last half of the morning discussing each and every horse in his stable. Curious, Francis asked about Catherine's horses and examined the two—a black mare and a dun gelding—with a critical eye. He found very little fault, and was given the opportunity to ride them. The gelding was gentle, but the mare had a head-strong temperament, doubtless she was a handful to ride for someone small like Catherine. Perhaps she was an accomplished horsewoman—Francis thought she must be to ride the mare, and his appreciation for her grew. And his thoughts of her continued.
Getting dressed had been almost difficult, but not quite. Bruises from the last beating were still sore, but she had lost so much weight that the bodices on her dresses fastened by buttons no longer fit tightly as they had been made to fit, so she did not suffer from the pressure. Consuelo was reluctant to lace her into one of the others, and Catherine was not about to insist since she had had enough of the pain already.
She was combing her hair out, noting dispassionately how much had come out in her brush, when Aunt Olivia came in.
"Ah, Catherine, you're looking much better today," she said, taking a seat near where Catherine sat at her vanity table.
"Am I?" the young woman asked. "It is a wonder. My hair is falling out."
"You are undernourished. Good food will help you. There is a meal waiting for you downstairs."
Catherine didn't know what to say. She wanted to ask her aunt how she could have sent her away, how she could have believed her mad. Instead, she said nothing.
"You must eat, child. You need to regain your strength."
Catherine looked into the mirror, seeing her pinched and pale face, not wanting to look into her own eyes. "Why? So you can send me somewhere else?" She flicked her eyes over to the older woman through the mirror, catching her surprise.
"No. You have been wronged, Catherine. The doctor was a charlatan—"
"Who brought him to see me? Who didn't believe me?" Catherine turned and looked directly at her, letting her brush fall to her lap. "You had nothing to do with my release, did you? It was Francis."
She watched her aunt's face quickly compose itself, the quick blush to her cheeks fade. Catherine knew she had angered her, and she didn't care. "Mister Barnard came to help you. His story was as fantastic as yours, but he was ready to prove it. You had no proof, Catherine. Only a wild and frightening tale."
"But I have lived with you most of my life. Why would you not believe me?"
The woman's lips trembled briefly. "I was afraid you were mad. I was afraid you had taken on like your brother."
"If you believed the part about Nicholas going mad, why didn't you believe the rest?" She clenched her hands in frustration.
"Catherine, Nicholas. . . . Your brother was insane from the time he was a child. He was kind, intelligent, and he tried to fight it, but he was touched with the madness. It is why we let him go back to Castle Medina and kept you here. We were afraid of him."
Catherine hadn't known she could still feel shock, but she did. Yet a part of her knew it was the truth. Little things wormed their way up from the depths of her memory, the time she had come upon Nicholas with a wounded seagull. One of its wings had been plucked clean of feathers, and when she found him, he claimed to be helping it, but there were all those feathers there on the beach. And when she visited him at the castle, more than once she had heard that terrible mechanical sound and had known he was operating that evil device down there. It was easier to ignore it, to put it out of her mind, because he was ever kind to her and to others in her presence.
"But how could you think that of me?"
"We were afraid. That is it. Call us cowards if you wish."
"You could have sent me to a convent, not that awful place." Catherine turned away.
"We should have. I know that now. But Doctor Zamora—"
"He is a dog. A filthy dog." She spat the words out with uncharacteristic vehemence.
"Yes, I'm sure you're right."
"And he is a liar."
Olivia rose from her chair and came over, laying a hand on Catherine's shoulder. "I do not ask your forgiveness, little one." She knelt beside the chair looking up at the girl. "I know they hurt you. I can see it in your eyes."
Catherine turned them away, shame rising up inside her. "Yes, his guards beat me."
"And your dress was torn open. Does this mean what I think it means?"
Catherine was choking suddenly at the idea of letting her know. Her throat filled up and she couldn't speak. Instead she shook her head, trying to get a breath. "It means that my dress was finer than any others'," she managed, building the lie. "The other women tried to take it from me. There—there was a scuffle, and the guards . . . they came in and punished us for fighting."
"You poor child. But perhaps I have news that will lighten your spirit."
The young woman unclenched her hands and picked at the hair in her brush. "What news?"
"Your young Englishman wishes to marry you. Your uncle and I think it a fine idea. It is past time you wed."
Catherine didn't believe her at first. Then she realized that Francis didn't know much about her now. He would change his mind if he found out. And how could she possibly tell him? How could she also keep such a secret from him? Yet, turning him down would mean she stayed here, where anything could happen. Sometimes in the asylum she had felt as mad as the others—what if that awful urge to scream and scream came upon her here? They would send her away quickly. But if that happened when she was with Francis, what would he do? Be kinder, she thought, send me to a convent?
"He does not know me well," she said quietly, her heart pounding at the thought of him wanting to marry her.
"Not yet. You will have ample time to get to know one another on the journey to England. Fernando will likely accompany you both. I have decided I would rather not travel in winter. But when the wedding comes, I will go to England for it."
And did it matter anyway? Marriages were seldom decided by the couple being married. She was from a wealthy family—many such were not allowed the luxury of even meeting their intended much before the wedding. And I love Francis, she thought, hope suddenly blossoming inside her. He will not know, she decided, I will hide it. I will find a way to prevent his ever knowing. I will not disappoint him. Not the man who saved me, who came so far to save me.
She smiled softly at her aunt. "He has not asked me."
"He will." The woman's smile answered hers more broadly. "He has had to restrain himself from asking a thousand questions about you. For and Englishman, he's actually a romantic, I think."
Catherine thought of his letters, and looked over at her dresser. "You did not remove my things, my clothes."
Olivia shook her head. "I couldn't bear to do it. I suppose I hoped that someday you'd be back."
"I'm glad you didn't."
"He is waiting to see you." She pushed herself up. "I hope that one day you will be able to forgive us."
Catherine looked up at her. "I think I have." She stood up as well, feeling a little weak still. "You allow me to marry Francis, if he wishes it. How can I not forgive you?" When she thought of Francis she did feel that she had forgiven them. But how deep her forgiveness actually went, she didn't know or care. Not when she had Francis to think about.
"We would never have kept you from the man you loved, as long as he was a gentleman. Your Mister Barnard is definitely that."
"Yes. He is a brave man, too." She thought back how he put himself through a considerable ordeal, yet he never wavered, never ran from his duty. And how well he took the treatment of his terrible wound. He was stoic, as well.
"Yes, and a determined one. I think he loves you."
Catherine felt her face relaxing in a smile, and she looked up at her aunt. "I do wish to see him. Would you help me with my headdress?"
"Of course, my dear. You will break the hearts of all your other suitors, you know."
Catherine did not care about them, though when she had been in the asylum, she had thought she should have married one of them—Juan Torres had been the one she liked best, but only as a friend. There had never been an attraction to him, and his intentions had made her uncomfortable enough that friendship was a little strained. Had she married him, she would never have gone to the asylum. Nor would she have met Francis.
Put it all aside, Catherine told herself. You have to forget it, you mustn't let him know, or he won't want you. And it doesn't matter. Nothing can change what happened. You can only honor him by being faithful and loyal, and you know you can do that. I will devote myself to you, Francis, and I will never make you regret marrying me.
With that thought, Catherine buried the pain lurking inside her, her devastation and horror. Like sealing it off with mortar and stones, she buried the past months where she would not have to remember them again.
Francis was back inside the house, having a drink of warm wine when Olivia Santoña came into the study where he sat with her husband. The two men stood up.
The woman smiled. "My niece is awake now, and will see you, Mister Barnard. If you will come with me, please."
Francis did not hesitate. He didn't know what to expect from the girl, but he wanted to assure her that he would take care of her. Would she want to marry him? He thought she would, and he had the blessings of the Santoñas. It would be a good alliance for other reasons as well. Her holdings were worth a fortune, and in time, they would reap the benefit of them all. Unless there were trouble between England and Spain. Such things were always possible, but he hoped it would not happen.
Catherine, he discovered, was wearing a black dress with gold trimmings. Her face was so thin, her chin and nose seemed almost sharp, her eyes flicked up to his only for a moment as he came in. He thought he was as unsure as she seemed to be.
"Catherine," he said, taking her small, delicate hand in his own and pressing his lips gently to it. Her skin was cold, much as it had been the first time he met her. Perhaps she had perpetually cold hands; his mother had been that way. "It is good to see you again."
Her eyes rose to meet his, and Francis felt his heart thumping. But color quickly came to her pale cheeks, and her dark eyes fell from his face. "Yes, Mister Barnard. I owe you my life."
"No, Doña," he said softly, oblivious to the fact that Doña Olivia was in the room, "I owe you mine." He released her hand slowly, and she did not pull it away, merely let it drop. "And please call me Francis."
She looked up at him again and smiled. Francis noticed that the expression did not include her eyes, and he wondered if she was ill or troubled. Of course she was.
"Yes, Francis. Perhaps we are even now?"
He only nodded. "Do you feel well? After what you have endured, I was terribly concerned."
"I am. . . . I. . . . I will be all right. It is over now."
Francis wanted to take her in his arms then, seeing that she was still hurting. The intensity of his protectiveness was surprising to him all over again. He put his arm across her back lightly and ushered her to a chair. "Yes, and I have something I hope you will be glad to hear. I hope it will make you happy."
He sat in a chair close to the one to which he had led her, and watched her face as he took her hand in his, holding it carefully between his. Her eyes flicked to his, but he thought her smile was forced. The poor girl, he thought, to go through this. . . .
"I have asked your aunt and uncle, and they have consented to a marriage between us. Will you, Catherine? Will you marry me?"
Her eyes grew large as she looked up at him, and he thought he saw joy there, or hope. Then quickly there was a flicker of something, pain or discomfort, as if she were getting a headache.
"You would want me, even after I have been in that place?" Her eyes were steady on his then.
"Yes." His hands tightened around hers and he brought it to his lips. "I want to make you happy. I will give you everything you need, anything you want." And I'll never lock you away somewhere. "It was not your fault, Catherine." He found his hand had left hers and moved to touch her face. "I want to be here for you."
The sound of Doña Olivia clearing her throat stopped him. He thought perhaps Spanish customs were more strict than those in England.
"You are so kind, Francis," said Catherine. Her voice was a little hoarse suddenly. "I hope I can be worthy of you."
Francis felt his heart constrict. "And I of you," he said, kissing her hand again. "I had wanted to take things more slowly, but circumstances forced my hand. When Maximilian wrote to me about you, I had to come. I knew then that what I had been feeling for you was love."
He noticed her eyes were shining a little, and her fair skin flushed with color. "Before you ever came, before everything happened, I knew I loved you. I could only hope you felt the same." She squeezed his hand.
"So you agree? You will be my wife?"
Francis wanted to kiss her, but he thought he would not be able to get away with it. Besides, she looked so uncertain. "There is something else. I wish to leave as soon as possible. I want to take you back to England. I will provide you with a nice house and everything you need until we are married. Then you will be with me at Chipham Manor. Is this acceptable to you?"
"Oh, Francis. It is more than that. It is more than I dared ever hope for. Thank you." Her voice was soft, even with the emphasis she placed on her gratitude.
"Then we will leave as soon as you are able, and when your uncle receives word of his appointment. He will be traveling with us." He pressed her hands in his. "I will honor you, Catherine. You have my word."
"I am— I hope I am worthy of you."
The poor girl, he thought. She is shaken by what they've done to her. No one will ever lay an unkind hand on you, my beloved. Oh, how he wanted to take her in his arms! She needed to be comforted, to be held—he could see that. There would be time. He would see to it.
"We will begin the journey soon. Have you traveled by ship?"
She shook her head. "Only by carriage."
Francis sighed. It might be a difficult voyage for her when she was already so frail. "I have found I am no sailor, but we could not get through the mountains this time of year into France. I hope you can tolerate rough seas better than I."
She smiled. "I will do it for you."
"I will try to make sure you are as comfortable as possible. And in the carriage, I will put as many cushions as I can find."
"Is that how you came?"
He nodded and told her of the rough journey through the mountainous Spanish terrain.
"With my uncle going with us, he will provide us with a larger carriage, I'm sure," Catherine said.
"He showed me your horses. I did not know you were an accomplished horsewoman." Francis gave her now very warm hand a slight squeeze.
Color came to her cheeks. "I do love to ride. Were you planning on bringing my horses?"
"Of course. But perhaps not this time. We will be at the mercy of finding a ship to take us north. I am sure you would not want to leave your horses in San Sebastian if we could not get them on a ship."
"Oh, yes, of course. I did not think."
"I have only just told you about the trip—I could hardly expect you to consider all the possibilities." He patted her hand and finally released it. Francis was afraid his sweating palm would be unpleasant. "And much will hinge on your uncle's plans."
"Do you think it will be many days?"
"I don't know."
"The journey, I mean."
He shrugged. "Perhaps no longer than it took me. But I am concerned about your health. It would be best if you had your strength back before we depart. If you are anything like me, the voyage on ship will be the most difficult."
"You were seasick?"
He didn't like admitting it in front of Doña Olivia, but he did. "It was a misery I would wish on no one. Especially you."
"You are kind, sir."
Francis looked steadily into her eyes, and she didn't turn away. She looked, in fact, very vulnerable, if trusting. "I love you, Catherine."
To his dismay a flicker of pain seemed to cross her face before she smiled. "And I love you."
He smiled, enjoying the sight of her lovely face. Kissing her never appealed to him more. "We will make plans. You need not trouble yourself now."
"You must have supper with us tonight." She glanced at Doña Olivia for confirmation, and the older woman nodded with a small smile.
"Thank you. I would spend the rest of the day with you, but I think you should rest." He took her hand again and kissed it. "Until this evening."
She didn't get up as he did, bidding his farewells to both women. He had a lot of work to do, arrangements to make, and he wanted to be prepared, though he would like to have spent more time with Catherine. Perhaps later, but she did need to rest. Good meals, fresh air and rest would restore her physical health, he was sure. Love and tenderness would be all he could offer emotionally, and he was sure she needed those as well.
Francis took his leave of them, and found his carriage waiting. He couldn't help a sense of nervousness about leaving Catherine. It made him anxious to be on the way home with her. Anything could happen between now and then. He would not be able to relax until he set foot on English soil again.