A Stranger at Castonbury - By Amanda McCabe
It was her wedding day. And it was utterly unlike she had ever imagined it.
Catalina Perez Moreno studied her reflection in the small, cracked looking glass as she tried to pin her long, thick dark hair into an elegant twist. The canvas tent was cramped and warm with the dusty evening air outside, filled with a small cot and a trunk, a table littered with nursing supplies. Beyond the dingy white fabric walls she could hear the sounds of a military camp, the shouts and laughter of the men, the rattle of sabres and horses’ tack, boots on the hard, dusty earth, the women singing as they cooked supper over the campfires.
No, this was nothing like her first wedding day, when her mother and aunts had dressed her in lace and silk before her father had walked her down the aisle of the grand cathedral in Seville to meet her bridegroom. A groom twenty years older than herself who she had met only twice before that day. That wedding day had been grand, momentous—and terrifying, disappointing.
This day was different in every way. Her first husband was dead now, as were her parents and brother, and the home she had once known in Seville was long gone thanks to the French invasion of her homeland. She had been alone for many months, using her nursing skills to help the armies trying to drive out those hated French. Alone—until she had looked across the camp one day and seen James Montague, Lord Hatherton.
‘Jamie,’ Catalina whispered, and then laughed at herself for the warm glow just saying his name created. She had met so many men in her work, moving from camp to camp, hospital to hospital. Men who were handsome and flirtatious, who made her smile, who danced with her, who told her tales of faraway England. But no one had ever made her feel like Jamie did, from that first moment.
He was tall and lean and so very handsome, like a knight from some medieval poem who fought dragons and won the fair hands of beautiful infantas. He had seemed not quite real. His dark, glossy hair, carelessly brushed back from his face, had gleamed in the bright sunlight, and beneath the light growth of beard on his jaw he had a chiselled, aristocratically elegant face. His uniform tunic had been unfastened to reveal the thin linen of his shirt, clinging to his muscled chest. He had been so beautiful.
But more than that, he had seemed so full of a burning, vibrant life. He’d thrown back his head to laugh at something another man had said to him, and his whole face had seemed lit from within by some vital, sun-bright force. Catalina had been mesmerised, the pile of laundry she’d been carrying falling to the dust. The whole crowded camp had seemed to vanish in that moment, and all she’d been able to see was him. All she’d wanted to do was fall into his laughter, his life.
Then suddenly he had looked right at her, his piercing, pale grey eyes so vivid. His laughter had faded, and she’d felt like such a fool to be caught staring like that. She was a widow, a nurse who had seen so much of the ugly side of life, not a virginal schoolgirl to gape and blush at a handsome man. She had grabbed up the laundry and spun around to run away.
She hadn’t got far when she’d felt a hand on her arm, warm and hard through her thin sleeve, and even without turning around she had known it was him. And when he had spoken to her in Spanish, smiled at her, she had been utterly lost.
That was a month ago now. And tonight she would marry him.
Catalina pushed another pin into the heavy strands of her hair, as if that could drive away the imagined sound of her mother’s disapproving voice. Catalina Maria Isabella, what are you thinking to marry a man you know so little of! An Englishman too. It is a disgrace. His family will never accept you, just as we could never accept him....
And Catalina knew all too well how right her mother would be. Jamie was the Marquis of Hatherton, heir to the Duke of Rothermere, and she was a Spanish lady of an old family name but no money since the arrival of the French. No home at all either, since her brother had died defending his liberal politics against the king.