Catherine had little choice in the matters being decided around her, and she told herself that she didn't care this time. She had never been completely independent, but she had been capable of it. Her aunt and uncle had encouraged her to make her own decisions in preparation for running her own household some day. Then, of course, disaster had struck, and it had all seemed to go away, her feeling of self-sufficiency, self-worth, even the desire to be out in society.
She could not, however, indulge in the self-pity and still be worthy of Francis. It required all her concentration to look ahead and not back, to keep that wall of stone between her and the memories. Thinking of his face and of his smile, which she thought completely robbed him of his English dignity in the most delightful way, gave her mixed feelings. She loved him, yes, she wanted to be close to him, definitely, but it was hard to be deceptive, to hide what she knew he would find unacceptable, what she found herself to be unacceptable. But it's not my fault, Catherine thought, and forced it back down again.
The next few days were full of ups and downs. When she was alone, in her room at night especially, she found it most difficult to keep the memories at bay. Her sleep was disrupted by nightmares, reliving the worst parts of her incarceration—being raped and beaten. She prayed often, keeping her rosary near for strength and comfort. Francis' family had been Roman Catholic before, he'd told her, but events in England had caused them to change to the Church of England. He had been a child at the time and the change had not affected him significantly. The question was what would happen when they were married. Would she be willing to give up her allegiance to the Pope? Catherine hadn't decided. She did not think she would give it up, even if it was just a secret she carried with her. What was one more? She hoped she would not be expected to denounce him or something like that.
Good meals, rest and fresh air did help her regain her strength, and seeing Francis every day was the best part of her life. Being around him, having his eyes on hers or her hand in his, made her heart flutter. It was only after she began to grow used to being around him that she was able to separate her shame from her awe of him. He was ever confident and sure of himself, and just his manner gave her strength and reassured her that she could keep her shame hidden. Maybe in time, she could even forget. If anyone could make that happen, it would be Francis Barnard.
They didn't talk about what had happened before, what Nicholas had done or what had become of him. Catherine thought that Francis probably wanted to forget it. Nor did he ask her about her stay in the mental asylum, and as grateful as she was for that, she thought he probably thought she wouldn't want to talk about it because he didn't want to talk about what happened to him. And from what she'd seen of men, they did not like talking about troubling things. But he was solicitous of her health and told her frequently that he would do everything he could to make her happy. His hands were always warm on hers, and when she looked at him, she felt her shame warring with her love for him and losing. He could make it go away if anyone could.
Francis had been coming to the Santoña estate for over a week when a courier brought news to her uncle that he'd been appointed the ambassadorship to the new English court. Catherine merely stood by then as preparations were made for the journey to England. Maids packed her clothing in large trunks, her jewelry in cases well-hidden inside them. Her aunt brought a furrier to the house to fit Catherine's new warm cloak for the journey. And since she was feeling stronger, she dressed warmly and went down to the stable to see her horses. They were to be coming with her after all because arrangements had been made for a ship to take the entire party to England. That ship had to first sail out of the Mediterranean, around Spain and to San Sebastian where she, Francis and her uncle would board and sail the remainder of the way to England. She had been told that rough winter waters would make the journey treacherous so she would not be making that part of the journey by sea. Francis was glad of it, she knew. She thought he must dread the sea voyage part.
Catherine was stroking the head of Noche, her black mare, when she heard the sound of a man clearing his throat softly. Her heart did a small skip when she turned to see Francis there. He bowed his head, smiling.
"Doña," he said, stepping closer.
Catherine held out her gloved hand and he took it in his for a brief kiss. "I was feeling stronger today. I wanted to see my horses."
She watched his face as he looked at the mare. "A fine animal. I found her headstrong." His eyes when they met hers were soft. "I look forward to seeing you ride her, Catherine."
"I have missed her. This is the first time I have been to the stable since . . . since before I was. . . ." She couldn't bear to think of it. Not with him so near.
Francis' took her hand again, pulling himself closer by drawing her hand and lower arm to him. She would have welcomed his arms around her.
"You must forget it all," he said, kissing her hand. "You will have a new life. I will protect you."
Catherine felt her eyes welling up with tears at his tenderness. She could've broken down so easily, but she held onto her composure desperately. "I have been truly blessed."
"And I think it is I who has been blessed."
His eyes were so blue and so gentle. There was no frown, just a soft smile on his boyish face. "You are very kind."
"I love you." He stopped himself from leaning toward her—she could see him stiffen slightly as he straightened. "When we are back in England, we will take many rides through the countryside."
Catherine was mesmerized by his voice and the touch of his fingers as they rubbed her hand gently. It would have been better had they not both been wearing gloves, but it was more than pleasant even so.
"It is a beautiful dream."
"It is not a dream." He kissed her fingers. "It is our future."
"You are so strong, Francis."
He smiled. "And you are a delicate flower with a core of iron. It is one of the things I admired in you before. You never wavered, you were loyal and strong, and yet you appear a fragile blossom of the most beautiful flower. Indeed, I am the one who has been blessed."
He had not spoken quite so personally to her before, perhaps because they were not chaperoned for the first time since he'd come here. His words and his voice melted her heart, and her terrible secret was forgotten for a moment; it was buried beneath those stones in her mind.
Catherine didn't know what to say, she was nearly overcome with emotion. Her eyes spilled the tears in two hot rivulets down her cold cheeks. "I do love you, Francis," she said finally, her voice high.
She did not resist when he took her in his arms. She felt his warmth even through the heavy cloak he wore, and she never wanted to be anywhere else. His hands slipped across her back as she turned her face so that her cheek rested on his collarbone. Her arms she kept in front of her, and she let him pull her close.
Oh, Francis, she thought, if you only knew! You would not hold me, you would not want me at all! A bitter sob rose in her chest.
"My poor Catherine," she heard him say. And despite layers of cloth, his hand stroking her back felt soothing.
She struggled to hold the rest in, to keep from giving in to the terror and grief welling inside. If she told him, if she revealed the truth somehow, she would never have this again. He would thrust her aside and return immediately to England. There would be no place for her to go.
Fear of losing it all, gave her the strength to bury the pain again.
"Forgive me," she said, not moving, but thinking she should.
"Forgive you? My love, there is nothing to forgive. You can always find comfort in my arms. They are always open to you."
Reluctantly, she drew back a little, then a little more so that she could look up at him. "You are my savior."
"As you are mine." He slid his hands down her arms to her hands. "I want you to know, Catherine, that you may tell me anything. I want to be more than your husband. I want to be everything to you."
"You are." More than you could ever know.
"Come, let me take you inside. We will be leaving in a few days. I do not want you to suffer a chill before we start out."
Catherine nodded, taking his arm as he turned to go. She glanced back once to Noche and Ivan, her dun gelding. "Goodbye, my friends," she told them. For a moment, as she walked out of the stable on Francis' arm, she felt like a queen. That he wanted her seemed impossible. It was a dream, it had to be. Oh, but what a beautiful dream it was. And it was going to take her through. I am going to England, she thought. I am going to be the wife of Francis Barnard. I am going to prove I'm worthy. I will make him so happy, he will never question me. It is what I must do, and it is all I want.
Francis was impressed by Fernando Santoña's thoroughness. The ship— Buenavista—had already left port with most of Catherine's things, possessions that would have been heavy and unwieldy to take over land with them. She still had two trunks, and one for her maid Consuelo. Francis had told her that she need not bring her maid, that he would furnish her with a well-trained girl when they reached England, but she told him her aunt had insisted, even though Consuelo did not want to go. So a compromise was reached. Consuelo was accompanying them as far as San Sebastian. She would then be ferried back to Barcelona in Don Santoña's carriage. At least Catherine would have someone help her for part of the journey.
The route to San Sebastian was also different from the one Francis had taken to reach Barcelona. They would be taking a more southerly course, avoiding the higher elevation snows. It would take longer, of course, and the big carriage would also be slower. As anxious as he was to get Catherine away, Francis did not voice his frustration with the delays. They were taking numerous precautions—a full compliment of Spanish guards, extra horses, including Catherine's two and a fine-looking brood mare as a gift. Francis discovered also, that there would be more horses sent as gifts to the new king of England when the time came, but that did not concern him.
He was only too delighted to board the big carriage after helping both Catherine and her maid aboard. Maximilian came to bid them farewell, and Francis shook his hand as he would an equal's. The Spaniard was responsible for saving his life—it was the least he could do. He had earned the respect.
Though he thought she had regained her color and lost some of her thinness, Francis had still arranged for extra cushions, and they were currently affixed to the back, sides and bench upon which the women sat. There were quilts also for all. The carriage was roomy, and Francis discovered he could stretch his long legs out completely. There was room enough for two more passengers, so he and the other man were not cramped against each other. The benches were padded already, some soft leather upholstery stuffed with cotton batting. From his previous journey, Francis knew that it would remain soft only for a few hours before his body wearied of the position. But he would not weary of sitting across from Catherine and gazing upon her lovely face.
The rigors of travel were strenuous enough for a man, and Francis was concerned that they would prove too much for a woman. He discovered within two hours of Barcelona that the carriage had to be stopped so that the women could take care of physical necessities. It was so much easier for a man. He had only to halt the vehicle a moment, step into the trees and relieve himself. But the women took far longer and needed a discreet escort. Don Santoña would not allow Francis to be that escort because of his betrothal to Catherine. At least the women were wearing slightly more practical traveling clothes, less full skirts, thick boots and heavy cloaks.
It had been a vastly different journey when Francis had been on his way to Barcelona. He had been bored and impatient, not to mention cold and anxious. He was still cold and somewhat anxious, but not bored. His mind churned constantly. He talked of England and what it was like there, and listened as they told him of Spain. Consuelo, Francis noticed, did not look at Don Santoña when he was speaking, but she did look at Francis and Catherine. Once he realized this, he watched her surreptitiously and found she never looked at her master. Nor did she speak unless asked a direct question, which was not unusual since she was a servant. It was more difficult to ascertain what Fernando thought of her because he could not watch the other man without turning his head. It occurred to Francis sometime well into their first day of travel that the girl was afraid of drawing the other man's attention. It would not be surprising for him to expect her to attend him when they stopped for the night. Francis had never taken an unwilling servant girl to his bed, he hoped Don Santoña would not do such a thing either, but clearly Consuelo was concerned about it.
Francis enjoyed gazing at Catherine, and a few times when she turned her attention from the view out the window to him, she blushed when she realized he'd been watching her. But he caught her looking at him, too, and he only smiled, not the least embarrassed. He and Don Santoña were facing forward, the women had their backs to the front, and while the glass in the windows was reasonably clear, it tended to frost over in the cold. Francis noticed that they all looked out the windows quite a lot, having to wipe the condensation from the glass. It was better than being outside in the cold, though, and their stops, which seemed frequent to the Englishman, gave them all a chance to get their blood moving again. Francis thought a few times that he would like to ride a horse for a while. At least he'd be active.
He was somewhat surprised and annoyed when the carriage turned off the main road well before dusk. He looked at Fernando Santoña questioningly.
"My friend, Rodrigo Garza, will shelter us tonight," said Don Santoña. "His estate is not far off the road. He is lord of these lands." He waved a hand toward the window. "I think it will be our most comfortable accommodations on our journey. At least until we reach San Sebastian."
Francis nodded, wondering why he'd not been told this before. Perhaps he'd not asked enough questions. "It will be a good thing for Catherine, then. I'm sure this traveling has been hard on her." He smiled at her. "You seem fully recovered, Doña, but you must be tired."
She smiled at him and nodded. "Yes, but I am fine. You both have provided well for me." She ran her hand across the additional cushion.
"You will have everything I can give you."
"I am very blessed." She looked down then, as if she felt too much emotion.
It was not long before the carriage drew up in front of a large, sprawling castle. The ground was covered in patchy snow, the battlements were topped with a thin layer of it as well. Grateful to be out again, Francis opened the carriage door and hopped down. He offered his hand to Catherine and then Consuelo. Stopping early would be a good idea for the women, Catherine especially because of her recent trials. He thought she was still a little thin, but her color had come back completely, and she seemed fine. A good meal and a warm bed would go a long way to keeping them all healthy for the remainder of the journey.
And he was glad to find they received both very graciously. The room Francis had been awarded, though small, had a roaring fire in the hearth. After ascertaining that Catherine's accommodations were equally suitable, he was returning to his room when he witnessed part of a disturbing scene between Don Santoña and Consuelo. The man had her by the arm and was speaking in a cajoling voice as he ushered her into his room. Francis was uncertain what he should do. She may have been only a servant girl, but she clearly did not want to go with the man, and he found his opinion of Fernando Santoña had plummeted.
With a sudden burst of resolve, Francis walked down the short corridor and knocked on Don Santoña's door. It was a moment before the man answered, and he did so without opening the door fully. Francis was eerily reminded of Nicholas Medina the first time he had seen him. Medina had done the same thing, only he had been hiding a torture chamber, not an unwilling servant girl.
"I am sorry to disturb you, Fernando, but I have just come from saying goodnight to Catherine, and she wanted me to find Consuelo. I thought I saw her step into your room?" The part about Catherine's request was a lie, of course.
"I am here," the girl answered from behind the Spaniard.
Don Santoña gave Francis a measured look as he stepped back to let the girl through. Francis remained stone-faced, as if he had no reason to be affected.
"If you need more water, Don Santoña," said Consuelo, without looking at the man, "I will find a house servant to fetch it."
Francis only glanced at her, then looked at the other man again. "I wanted to ask you when we would be leaving tomorrow. Do you think we'll make good progress? You know the roads, I do not."
"We should make it to the village of San Miguel tomorrow, barring any difficulties. It will be a much longer travel day. I do want to get started by eight o'clock. But the house will be up well by then, you need not worry about over-sleeping."
"Thank you. That is good to know. Good night." Francis left him and returned to his own room. He was in his nightshirt, about to lie down, when there was a soft knock on his door. Francis' first thought was of Catherine, but he did not think she would come to his room. It turned out to be Consuelo. He let her in so that she would not be seen in the corridor by Don Santoña if he happened to be looking out for her.
"Oh, Mister Barnard, I came to thank you!" she said in a quiet but emotional voice. Her brown eyes were shining. "Doña Catherine told me she did not send for me, and I knew you had come to get me away from him."
Francis nodded. "I want you to stay with Catherine tonight. Tell her I said so. I do not believe it is right to for him to force you if you are not willing."
"Oh, thank you! I have tried to avoid him since I began working in the Santoña household. It is why I did not wish to come on this trip." She smiled, and he thought she was quite pretty when she did that. Her eyes drifted from his face. "I have a love. Someday he will marry me." She clasped her hands to her bosom. "He is the stable master's son, and he is such a fine horseman."
Francis was about to ask her if Don Santoña knew of this, but she suddenly looked at him, blushing. "Oh, forgive me, Mister Barnard. This could not be of interest to you. I am speaking out of turn—"
"Nonsense. Does Don Santoña know of your intended engagement?"
She shook her head. "Oh, no. Well, I don't know."
"Never mind, Consuelo. Go back to Catherine's room and stay there. I doubt she will mind. It will probably be best for you both if you stayed together at night on this journey."
"Yes, Mister Barnard," she nodded, then smiled demurely. "I would not have minded so much had it been you. You are so kind."
Francis would've been lying to himself if he'd denied that he hadn't found her attractive and considered the possibility. But that would have been unseemly since he was engaged to Catherine.
"Go. And quietly. Attend my beloved as a good maid should."
"Yes, I will. And thank you."
Francis opened the door and looked out, finding the corridor empty. He waved her out, and she hurried down to Catherine's room. He sighed as he shut the door. She would be in danger on the return trip to Barcelona, not from Don Santoña, but from the other men. Francis thought he would buy her a little security. She may have been just a servant girl, but he felt sympathetic to her. They had something in common—they were both in love. And Francis' feeling of protectiveness toward Catherine seemed to extend outward to include her maid. Catherine had suffered miserably, he didn't like the idea of any woman suffering now. Being in love had expanded his own heart, and he found it not at all troubling.