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Authors: Amanda McCabe

A Stranger at Castonbury

BOOK: A Stranger at Castonbury
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Survival of the fittest is fine, so long as you’re the one on top…but the family that has everything is about to lose it all…

The Montagues have found themselves at the centre of the
ton
’s rumour mill, with lords and ladies alike claiming the family is not what it used to be.

The mysterious death of the heir to the Dukedom, and the arrival of an unknown woman claiming he fathered her son, is only the tip of the iceberg in a family where scandal upstairs
and
downstairs threatens the very foundations of their once powerful and revered dynasty...

August 2012
THE WICKED LORD MONTAGUE
– Carole Mortimer

September 2012
THE HOUSEMAID’S SCANDALOUS SECRET
– Helen Dickson

October 2012
THE LADY WHO BROKE THE RULES
– Marguerite Kaye

November 2012
LADY OF SHAME
– Ann Lethbridge

December 2012
THE ILLEGITIMATE MONTAGUE
– Sarah Mallory

January 2013
UNBEFITTING A LADY
– Bronwyn Scott

February 2013
REDEMPTION OF A FALLEN WOMAN
– Joanna Fulford

March 2013
A STRANGER AT CASTONBURY
– Amanda McCabe

Duke of Rothermere
Castonbury Park

Jamie

After months of heartache and uncertainty, seeing you again still leaves a hole in my heart. It’s hard for me to admit, but you’re not the son I once knew and, whilst you bear a physical resemblance to Jamie Montague, I cannot be certain that you are really him. The pain and the darkness in your eyes is consuming you. I thought that learning what had happened would bring this family closure, but my biggest fear now is that your return to Castonbury Park will turn a contained scandal into one that’s rapidly getting out of control.

Father

Chapter One

Spain, 1814

I
t 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. 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, her hands roughened by her nursing work. But when Jamie said it, when he looked at her that way—she could almost believe it. She could almost believe she was worthy of him. Just for tonight.

‘No, Catalina,’ Jamie said. Suddenly he was beside her, taking her hands in his. His touch was warm and strong on her, turning her to face him. ‘I can see what you’re thinking. You
are
beautiful. The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I knew that from the first moment I saw you.’

‘Oh, Jamie.’ Catalina raised their joined hands and pressed a soft kiss to the back of his sun-browned fingers. Like hers, his hands were scraped and scarred from their lives in camp. There was a thin line of white encircling his smallest finger, the mark of his family’s gold signet ring, which he had lost. But his hands were long and elegant, as aristocratic as the rest of him.

‘I felt I knew you from that first moment as well,’ she said. ‘As if I had always known you. How can that be?’

‘Because we were meant to find each other,’ he answered. He twined his fingers with hers and held her hands against his chest. Beneath the fine red wool, she could feel the rhythm of his heart, steady and reassuring. Precious.

‘My family didn’t want me to come here,’ he said. ‘And they were quite right to say I have duties at home, that I shouldn’t go off searching for adventure. But something told me I
had
to go, that I couldn’t stay still. Not yet.’

Catalina laughed, for it was that very spirit, that energy and life, that drew her to him. ‘It is true, Jamie. You are a restless spirit. I never see you still for a moment.’

‘Only when I’m with you,’ he said. Catalina looked up into his eyes and saw how very serious he was in that instant. ‘When I’m with you, I feel peace like I’ve never known before. This is a terrible place we’re in, Catalina, full of death and treachery. But with you...I see none of it any more. I only see your goodness. I don’t want to wander or seek when I’m with you. I wish...’ His voice broke off and he shook his head, as if words vanished.

‘I know,’ Catalina said. Her throat ached as if she would cry, sob with all the happiness and fear that was trapped inside of her. ‘Oh, Jamie, I know. If we could only stay like this, have it always be like this moment...’

Jamie pressed a soft kiss to her wrist, just where her pulse beat. ‘But the chaplain waits for us.’

‘We don’t have to go, you know,’ Catalina said as she thought of his words about his family—they had not wanted him to come here, and quite rightly so. What would they say if he returned to them with her? ‘We don’t have to marry to be together as we are now.’

‘Don’t have to marry?’ Jamie’s eyes narrowed and his hands tightened on hers, as if he thought she might fly away from him. ‘Catalina, don’t you see? I’ve finally found you. I don’t want you just for a day or an hour. I want you always. I can’t let you go.’

‘Oh, Jamie.’ She felt the hot tears well up in her eyes and she couldn’t hold them back any longer. They fell onto her cheeks and she shook her head. ‘I want you for always too. I never thought such a thing was possible. But it...frightens me.’

His hands held her even closer. ‘I frighten you?’

‘No, never you. But the way I feel, it will surely explode inside me. I feel like I’ll burst with it when I look at you. Such things can’t last.’

‘Then we need to hold on to it when we find it.’ Jamie’s arms came around her and he pulled her against him. ‘This is life, Catalina, and it’s ours right now. Please don’t send me away. Please be my wife. Once this war is over and we can return to England, I vow I will spend the rest of my life making you happy.’

To be his wife—it was all she could want. But still she wanted to cry and she didn’t even know why. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held on tightly. She breathed deeply of his citrus-sharp cologne, of that smell that was only Jamie, and she knew she would always remember it. That it would always remind her of this one night when he was hers.

‘If you are sure,’ she whispered, ‘then I will marry you.’

He pressed a kiss to her brow, and she felt the curve of his lips against her as he smiled. ‘Then let’s go to the church.’

Catalina nodded, and Jamie took her hand to lead her from the tent. The sun had sunk low to the horizon and was just a thin line of glowing red-orange along the edge of the dusky purple sky. The camp was settling down for the night. Only a few people still moved about between the rows of tents, women stirring pots over the fires, men cleaning their weapons and talking together quietly.

Later, when the ale and wine had been flowing, more people would come out to laugh and play music, dance, tell ribald jokes or grow melancholy about faraway homes. But for now everything was calm, and there was no one to pay attention to Catalina and Jamie as they made their way along the roadway.

Catalina caught a glimpse of two people walking in the opposite direction, laughing and chattering. She recognised Mrs Chambers, wife of Colonel Chambers. As usual the lady was rather elaborately dressed for camp life, in a blue silk gown trimmed with blond lace and silk roses, her hair piled in curls atop her head. She was laughing with the red-haired man who walked beside her, Hugh Webster, a man Catalina did not much care for. His eyes were always too cold, too speculative, when he looked at her, and she avoided him whenever she could.

Behind them scurried Mrs Chambers’s companion, Alicia Walters. Unlike her employer, Alicia was simply dressed, her pale golden hair pinned up in a tight knot. She always seemed so quiet, so intent on fading into the shadows, but Catalina rather liked her on the rare occasions they’d met. Alicia was polite and refined, kind.

Alicia glanced at Catalina now and gave a quick nod before she looked away. Catalina noticed that Alicia’s gaze slid over Jamie and she blushed.

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