Though he was greatly concerned for Catherine, Francis was rather relieved they were not leaving today. He was glad to be able to go back to his room and lie down without his doublet. Consuelo had done an amazing job on his burns, but the lacerations and the bruises made him so sore, it was difficult to lift his arms. And his head still ached.
Consuelo was a welcome sight when she brought him some tea to ease his pains. It made him sleep, and when he woke in the late afternoon, he felt considerably better. The soreness had not gone, but his head didn't hurt as much. He dressed and left his room, hoping to see Catherine.
Don Santoña found him as he was about to knock on her door. "Mister Barnard, are you feeling better?" asked the Spaniard.
"Yes. I am certain I will be able to travel tomorrow, but I am concerned about Catherine."
"I believe she is still resting. I was on my way to see if she wanted something to eat for supper."
"I will ask her." Francis wondered if he had grossly underestimated the toll that the appalling trial with her brother had taken on her. She had seemed so solicitous that morning, then suddenly she had left the table. He didn't know what had changed for her, but he hoped it was not something he had said or done. He had been struggling to get through breakfast, concentrating on eating because it helped take his mind off how he felt otherwise.
He knocked on the door softly after the other man had left. "Catherine?"
"Come in," he heard her say. He opened the door, not knowing what to expect from her. She was sitting in the small room's single chair, and she was wearing her red velvet robe over her nightgown. But it was her face he noticed the most, and he thought she looked wan and tired.
"Catherine, how are you? Do you feel well enough to talk or have supper?"
Her eyes, that lovely shade somewhere between purple and brown only flicked up to his face for a second. "I will be at supper. And if you wish to talk, I feel well enough now."
"Catherine. . . ." Francis suddenly didn't know what to say. "If I upset you this morning, please tell me and I will apologize—"
"No, Francis, you didn't upset me." Her eyes did hold his then. "I was ill. That is all. I suppose what happened yesterday was more upsetting than I realized."
Francis dropped to one knee in front of her, hiding a wince when the move jarred his bruised back. "Forgive me, Catherine. I failed you. I should have seen him. I should have stopped him." He reached for her hand and brought it to his lips, closing his eyes, feeling such remorse he could not look at her.
"Francis, no. You did not fail me. You shielded me, you turned so that the blows would fall on you, not me. I feel certain he would have flailed me with that rod had you not turned. You took that terrible punishment for me—" She choked suddenly, and he looked to see that she was crying.
"I'm sorry, my love. I did not mean to upset you." He pressed her small, soft hand to his face. "I love you."
Catherine turned her hand to put the palm against his cheek. "What an honorable man you are."
But Francis did not feel particularly honorable. He had failed to protect the woman he loved. She had a burn on her back to prove it. "I was weak. I forced you onto the hot iron."
"Oh, Francis, how can you say that? I know what the pain was like. No one could have withstood it without trying to move away. Do not blame yourself for that. It was nothing compared with what he had already done to you."
"I cannot feel any other way, Catherine. I can only try to make it up to you."
She shook her head slightly and turned her eyes away. He thought it was because it was such a terrible memory for her and, in her kindness, she wanted to prove to him that he bore no guilt.
"Forgive me, Francis. I did not even ask after your health. Are you better? You seem much restored."
"Yes. I will be ready to travel tomorrow. But we will wait until you are ready." He wondered if there was something else wrong. She seemed withdrawn.
"I will be ready tomorrow, too. I was thinking that I might like to ride one of my horses for a little while. It would be a welcome change from the carriage."
He frowned. "After you were so ill today?"
"It has passed. I just needed to rest. And the way to San Sebastian is not that far—a day's journey at most. If I tire quickly, I will return to the carriage in Santo Tomás."
Francis thought this was unlikely to be good for her. And it was strange as well. She'd had the entire journey from Barcelona to make such a request. But she was still weak, he told himself, when we set out. "It will be cold. I do not want you to grow seriously ill. And your horses have not been ridden since we left Barcelona."
"I will ride Ivan. He is very gentle."
"Then I will ride with you." If she was going to take such a chance, Francis was not about to let her do it alone.
"You mustn't! Francis, you were hurt too seriously—"
"I will not let you ride alone."
"You forget the soldiers. They will be riding with me."
Francis sighed. "They are not your betrothed. Why this now, Catherine?"
Her eyes would not hold his. "Because I have not ridden in months. And I do not know when I will have another chance. We will be on that ship for days, and afterward, I . . . I don't know what will happen."
Francis held her hand tenderly in his. Something was wrong, he was sure, but he could not fathom what it was. "My love, listen to me. When we reach San Sebastian, we will likely be there at least another week. I will take you riding into the country if you wish it during that time. Then when we come in from the ride, we can be warmed by the fire, and you will not receive a bad chill. And when we reach England, we will ride every day if you wish it."
He was somewhat surprised to see her eyes shining with unshed tears. "You are so kind," she said.
"Catherine, what troubles you so?"
She shook her head and turned away, tears spilling down her cheeks.
"Does it mean so much to you to ride tomorrow?" he asked her.
"I suppose it does not. I would not do it if it meant you would have to."
"You need not worry about me."
"But of course I do, Francis." She blotted her face with her handkerchief. "Now you should go so that I may dress for dinner."
Francis stood up, felt the blood rushing back into his knee. He kissed her hand as she rose from the chair. "I will send Consuelo to you."
He left her a moment later, and his mind was full of turmoil. Something was wrong. Something that had happened at breakfast. Catherine was upset and trying not to show it. But of course she was upset. Her beloved brother had become a madman who not only didn't recognize her any more, but who sought to torture both her and the man to whom she was to marry. What woman wouldn't be affected by that? Francis certainly knew he was affected by it. His relief that it was all over had gone a long way to keeping his mind off what had happened, but every twinge was a reminder. He knew when he was settled back into his home that the memories would come to torment him, just as they had before. Only now he would be seeing more than the pendulum. It would be branding irons and whips, and Catherine's face as she looked up in fright at him. A brutal death it would have been for the two of them, brutal and violent, unlike the slow, inexorable descent of that sharp, curving blade. He didn't know which was more horrible.
Francis closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to put it away from him. Poor Catherine, he thought, she must have memories of that asylum to haunt her. I will have to be so gentle. She will know nothing else from me.
With an effort, he shook himself and went to find Consuelo.
Catherine was disappointed that she would not be able to ride. It could be risky, especially for a woman carrying a child. If she fell, she could lose the child. To take the risk was only giving God the opportunity to take the child, it was not taking the child's life herself. But now, she would not have that chance, and if a riding accident occurred in San Sebastian, she would likely have the assistance of a doctor. There had to be some other way.
And it shamed her to want to lose the child, as well, because Consuelo was right—a child was a gift from God. It was a gift she did not want now. It was a gift that would ruin her life. And it was not her fault!
But she could never expect Francis to put himself through such a strenuous activity as riding a horse in his condition. Tolerating the bumps and jarring ride of the carriage would be difficult enough for him. She did not want to cause him further pain. He was so good, so kind. It broke her heart to know she was deceiving him, to know how disappointed he would be if he found out the truth. Breaking his heart, betraying his trust—they were going to kill her.
At supper, she did not mention riding and neither did Francis. It was all she could do to pretend all was well. She ate a good portion so that no one would remark on it, and she said little, though she answered Francis' gentle questions. No one brought up Castle Medina or what had happened there. Catherine just wanted to go back to her room and cry because this beautiful dream was coming unraveled, and she could do nothing to stop it.
Instead of going to her room, however, she went out, unescorted, to the stable. It was at full capacity with all the soldiers' horses and the carriage team, not to mention her two and the one her uncle was giving to Francis. The paddock adjoining held those three, and she was pleased that hers came over to greet her, nickering softly. They eagerly took the handfuls of grain she provided, and it did not bother her for them to smear her gloves with saliva. They were her winter riding gloves anyway.
It was cold and clear out as the sun set, and Catherine found a little peace just looking at the horses' beautiful faces. Noche tossed her head, blowing out clouds of vapor, then shoved her nose at Catherine's chest. Ivan was more gentle, just sniffing her face and putting his nose under her hand like a dog would do.
"If only life were as simple as it is for you two," she said to them. "I am in an impossible situation. I do not know what to do. God heard my prayer once—He sent Francis to me. If only He'll hear me this time." She put her face against the wooly neck of Ivan and closed her eyes. His warmth rose up and the horsey smell of him enveloped her. She was back home, suddenly, a young woman with no troubles, only the anticipation of a good gallop through the hills and the pleasure of her horse's company filling her mind.
She leaned back when she heard Noche nickering again. Her hands stroked Ivan's face, from the small white blaze between his eyes down to his soft black nose with its full complement of whiskers. Catherine then heard the crunch of a boot on the ground nearby. She looked to see Francis standing there, wrapped in his cloak.
"I did not mean to disturb you," he said softly, not approaching any closer. "Does it mean so much to you to ride tomorrow?"
How can I lie to him? she thought. "No, but I haven't spent any time with these two since we arrived in Terrelavega. I did not want them to forget me."
He stepped closer and Noche extended her nose to him. His hands came up and stroked the animal's head. "They could not forget you, Catherine. You are unforgettable."
"She likes you," she said, letting his comment slide away. "I have not seen many people affect her that way."
Francis looked at the horse. "We have an understanding, do we not, Noche?" He patted the mare's neck and in the dim lighting of dusk, Catherine could not tell if his movement was hurting him.
"Uncle says you are a fine horseman. I do not doubt it."
He smiled. "Soon, we will ride together."
The notion to confess to him suddenly rose in her mind, and Catherine looked up at him as if he'd startled her. Even in the dim light he looked boyish and handsome, so trusting of her. To tell him would break his heart.
"I should like that," she said, pushing aside the insane idea of telling him the truth. "You know when I was a child, I used to refuse to ride side-saddle. My uncle did not approve of it at all."
"I do not know how you do it," Francis told her. "It seems impossible to stay on."
"It is quite comfortable actually."
He looked at her seriously. "If you wish to ride tomorrow, Catherine, I will not protest."
But he would, no doubt, insist upon riding, too, and she would not put him through that. "No, Francis. I have changed my mind. It is cold out. I would not last five minutes."
He reached forward and took her hand, stepping close. Ivan backed away with a snort, but Catherine hardly noticed. "I know you are troubled about something, Catherine." He brought her hands to his chest. "I know there are many things that have happened, so I will not ask you to tell me. But please do not keep it from me if it is something I have done!" His earnestness made her heart ache.
She felt her lips tremble and her eyes begin to fill. "You have done nothing but be kind to me and save me. I love you, Francis. I love you more than anything."
His eyes did not waver from hers even though her face had to be in shadow because her back was to what remained of the sunset. "And I love you, Catherine. I want to make you happy. I do not want you to suffer for any reason." His hands squeezed hers and suddenly he was leaning down a little, his head turning, his eyes flicking to her lips.
Catherine felt her heart suddenly thumping hard, a warmth rising through her entire body. It was unlike anything she had ever experienced, and she did not move away, instead lifted her chin and allowed it to happen. His lips were cool and soft, and when the pressed against hers, something inside her rolled over gently. She didn't even know she'd closed her eyes. Her whole world in that short kiss was focused on the touch of his lips to hers.
When, after that moment she would have chosen to go on forever, he lifted his face away and looked at her, his lips, so full and sensual, spread in a slight smile.
Catherine was enraptured. She wanted to be in his arms as well. She was not expecting to be shoved by the head of Noche. She had forgotten about the horses.
Francis steadied her, but at some cost to himself, she thought, for he stiffened and clenched his jaw as he drew her away.
"If I had any doubts, which I did not, they would be gone now," Francis said.
"Yes," she agreed. "I wish we were already married. Uncle would never have allowed that kiss. That wonderful kiss."
"Perhaps we will find time to steal another," he said, and his bare hand came up to touch her face, but he held back she thought because he knew his fingers would not be warm. "Are you cold?"
She shook her head. "No. I feel a furnace inside me right now."
He glanced around the stable yard, but there was no sign of Don Santoña, only one stableboy emptying muck from a stall. "I would put my arms around you, but I do not wish to press on your burn."
"It doesn't hurt." Yes, Francis, please take me in your arms!
He nodded and lowered his face again, releasing her hand so that he could put both his arms around her. Catherine had to lean her head back because he was considerably taller, but as he drew her close, touched his mouth to hers, she felt so safe and so loved she just knew she was going to cry. He kissed her longer this time, holding her against him gently, moving his lips against hers in a way she had never imagined. And his breath was a warm caress on her face, intimate and soft. Nothing had ever made her feel so alive. She had been warmed before, now she was blazing. She was beginning to feel a desire she had never thought she would feel after those terrible men in the asylum had raped her. Francis was good, profoundly good, and now, while he held her this way, she knew only that she loved him with all her heart, mind and soul.
"Perhaps," Francis said, ending the kiss, his chest rising and falling against hers in a deep way that suggested he was as affected as she, "we should return to the inn. It has grown quite cold, and I would not wish you to catch a chill."
"Nor I you." She wanted to thank him for making her feel so wonderful all over, but she couldn't find such words. "I love you. With everything I am, I love you, Francis."
His arms tightened about her briefly. "And I feel the same for you." He kissed her once again, this time quickly, his lips warm now. "We should go."
She nodded, feeling the cold emptiness against her chest when he was no longer holding her. But he guided her with an arm around her back, and he held one of her hands. She looked down at his hand, his beautiful, big hand, and covered it with her other one.
There was considerable noise inside the dining area of the inn. Locals were there, eating, travelers, too, and Catherine wanted no part of it. She wanted, instead, to be alone with Francis, somewhere quiet and warm. For the moment, her deception didn't matter. She was wrapped in the warmth of heavenly memory, and it cushioned her heart and mind.
To her slight chagrin, her uncle beckoned them over to the table where he sat alone. Catherine found she felt like a fresh young girl with her first crush—embarrassed and excited.
"You were not in your room," Don Santoña said, "I was worried about you."
"I was saying hello to my horses." She blushed and glanced up at her betrothed as they sat down across from the older man. "Francis was kind enough to escort me back."
"I see," he said with a knowing smile. "You seem back in good health now. The visit must have served you well."
Catherine could not help blushing again. "Yes, I missed them. I always found they soothe whatever ails me. You know that, Uncle."
He nodded and smiled. "Yes, I do remember that. And I remember how difficult it was making a proper young lady out of you when it came to riding horses." He looked at Francis. "Do you know she rode like a boy? I had to threaten her with forbidding riding. She finally came around, as true young ladies will do."
"She is definitely a lady," Francis said, looking at her. "I find it impossible to see her as anything else."
Catherine did not want to be discussed this way. It was embarrassing and annoying, and it was robbing her of her euphoria. It was all too easy to remember why Francis would not think her such a lady for very much longer. The pain of that was like a slap in the face.
She looked down, tried to remember how wonderful it had been to be in Francis' arms, but instead she only saw how she thought his face would look when he discovered about the child. He would frown, no doubt, but he would be hurt, so hurt, and then angry. She remembered seeing anger on his face, hardness under that boyish look, those full lips pressed tight together and that brow of his scowling so deep that another line appeared beside the two between his brows.
Oh, the last thing I want is to cause him so much pain! she thought. What am I going to do?
"Catherine?" Francis said, taking her hand. "Are you all right?"
She looked down at his hand holding hers and nodded. Large, beautifully shaped hands, and how, when he held them out, it was with his fingers together, not spread apart like most men. Unique. And his eyes were unique, too, a light, vibrant blue, and the way he frowned most of the time like he was always worried or in deep thought, but she thought it was because he was just intense.
And suddenly she was crying and couldn't hide it. Catherine pulled her hand from Francis and left the table quickly, fleeing to her room.
It was too much to bear! First the rapes and the beatings, the terrible food and impossible living conditions, then Francis coming to her rescue, and now she was going to lose him. As if the rapes had not been terrible enough! Now she was never going to be able to forget them, because the resulting child was going to ruin everything. It was intolerable!
Catherine was marginally aware of Consuelo coming into the room, of the girl's gentle hands stroking her hair, making soft circles on her back. She didn't say anything, just let Catherine cry, which she did lying on her stomach on the bed.
"What am I to do?" Catherine said after a long time, her voice soft with despair. "I love him. I don't want to hurt him."
"You must consider telling him the truth, Doña. It is the only way. He will respect that you trusted him enough to tell him."
"I can't!" Catherine lifted her head and looked at her maid.
"You must not wait. Right now he loves you more than anything. If anything, he will feel protective of you now. He is like my Emeliano, kind and understanding."
Catherine wondered if it could be true that Francis would feel protective of her. If he could get past the betrayal. She could not imagine that he would want her if he knew she had been with other men, even unwillingly. He was expecting her to be pure. And if he did forgive her that, what about the child? There could be no long courtship. They would have to be married immediately.
She felt a bitter laugh inside rise at that thought. They would never be married, and she was lying to herself to even entertain such a thought.
"If you want, if it is too painful to you, I will tell him," Consuelo offered.
Catherine was horrified by the thought. "No! You must not! There is still a chance I could lose the baby without his finding out!"
"Doña, you are too overwrought to see the situation as I do. He will not abandon you. He will shelter you, he will help you however he can."
"You don't know what you're talking about!" Catherine snapped raggedly. "You're a servant girl, you haven't the responsibilities of a lady. You do not know what a real gentleman expects of a bride!"
Consuelo looked down, clearly humiliated by the inference. "You are right, Doña. I am only a servant. Forgive me for speaking out." She got up from the bed where she had been sitting. "Mister Barnard and your uncle want to know what is wrong. What shall I tell them?"
Catherine knew she had hurt the girl's feelings, and she was sorry for it, but she couldn't bear the thought of Francis knowing what had happened to her. "I do not know. Tell them I do not feel well."
Consuelo nodded. "Yes, Doña."
"Consuelo, I did not mean to speak so harshly to you." She looked up at the young woman who had been so kind to her. "Please understand that it is only my. . . ." Catherine put her hands over her face, crying again.
Consuelo came back to the bed and knelt beside it. "I do understand. I will tell them you are not well, again, but that you think sleep will help you, yes?"
Catherine nodded, grateful to the girl's support. "Thank you, Consuelo," she said, getting control. "You are a very kind and good person."
"I will be back soon."
Catherine sighed, bleakness blanketing her heart. No hope for us, Francis. No hope for me.