A Stranger at Castonbury - By Amanda McCabe Page 0,1

They were marrying in secret now so he would be able to prepare his family properly once they returned to England after the war. She knew little of Jamie beyond stolen kisses on walks along the river, whispered conversations beside campfires in the darkness.

But she knew things now her mother had never had to face. She had seen blood and death and destruction. She knew how quickly life, precious time, could flee. And she knew how Jamie made her feel. As if he had every beautiful thing of life in his strong hands. And that was why she had so eagerly said yes when he’d asked her to marry him on one of those sun-dappled walks. Because to her, Jamie Montague was life. He was...everything.

‘You are doing the right thing,’ she told herself. Her reflection stared back at her, her wide, uncertain brown eyes, the sun freckles splashed over her nose. As she pushed in the last pin, the sapphire ring on her finger caught the dying sunlight. Jamie’s mother’s ring, which he had slid onto her finger when he had asked her to marry him, sparkled. It was an oval sapphire, inscribed inside the gold band with the motto of the Montagues—Validus Superstes.

This was the right thing. She was seizing her happiness while she could.

Catalina stepped back and smoothed the skirt of her simple white muslin gown. She picked up the white lace mantilla from her trunk and swept it over her hair. She was marrying far from home, with none of her family, but she would go to Jamie looking as much like a proper Spanish bride as she could.

This was their time, and she would seize it with both hands. She would hold on to it for as long as she could.

She heard the sound of booted footsteps on the hard-packed dirt outside. ‘Catalina,’ Jamie called quietly. ‘Are you ready?’

Catalina’s heart leapt, and she felt that warm rush of excitement through her that always came when he was near. She caught up her prayer book and answered, ‘Sí, mi amor—I am ready.’

Jamie pushed back the flap of the tent and stepped inside. The sunset outside limned him in a fiery red-orange glow. For an instant, Catalina’s eyes were dazzled and she could barely see him. He seemed very far away, as if he stood poised on the edge of another world, one where she could not follow. As if he would fall back into some dark chasm and be lost to her even as she desperately reached out for him.

Don’t be so dramatic, she told herself sternly. She had once had a nursemaid who was full of old superstitions and would warn Catalina of all the things that could bring bad fortune at weddings—not crying before the nuptial kiss, forgetting to wear a lump of sugar in the bridal glove, all of which would cause a lifetime of misery. She had terrified Catalina so much that she had feared to make any move at all, until her mother had dismissed the nurse and scoffed at such warnings.

Catalina hadn’t thought of such things in years, but today felt so very strange with that blood-red sunset and her heart about to burst. She couldn’t help but fear that her feelings for Jamie were too much.

Jamie let the tent flap drop behind him. Without that fiery light surrounding him, Catalina saw that he was only a man, of real flesh and blood. Not a god or a spirit who would vanish when she touched him. But still she couldn’t quite breathe when she looked at him. She couldn’t even move. She could only gaze at him and marvel that he was here with her.

He wore his dress uniform, the buttons bright and shimmering against the fine red cloth, his boots polished to a high gloss. His hair, still damp from a washing, waved back from his face, revealing the sculpted angles of his features. She had seldom seen him looking so grand, not amid the rough and tumble of a camp constantly on the move. He looked every inch the fine English nobleman.

Except for his eyes. They were such a light, piercing blue-grey in the shadows and seemed to devour her as he looked at her.

‘Catalina,’ he said, and his usually velvet-smooth, deep voice was rough. ‘How beautiful you are.’

Catalina made herself laugh, even as those simple words made her want to cry. She knew she was not beautiful. She was tall and thin, her skin tanned by the sun,