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Authors: Blair Bancroft

The Sometime Bride

BOOK: The Sometime Bride
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1

 

Prologue

 

The Pyrenees

Winter, 1813

The rock-walled room was icy cold. Winter had come to the barren, windswept slopes of the high Pyrenees while the dying days of summer still cast warm golden sunlight on the Spanish plains below.

The man bending over a small rude table occasionally put aside his quill pen to flex his stiffening fingers. His chiseled features, sculpted by a craftsman of imperfect skills, glowed amber in the flickering light of the one candle precariously perched beside an oversized piece of parchment whose edges flopped over the side of a rickety table. He swore, slapped the paper down as the insistent howling of the mountain wind rose in pitch, penetrating the stone sides of the shepherd’s hut to lift the corners of his precious drawing.

Devil it!
Blas anchored the paper with one large, skillful hand and shielded the nearly extinguished candle with the other. The gust blew itself out. The candle steadied and glowed into life. He tossed his overly long mane of black hair back off his face and frowned down at his work, his lips curling into a sneer at the ineptitude of his icy fingers. He’d been making maps for how long? Four years? Five? Six years since he had set out on a summer odyssey and traveled the length of enemy France from Calais to the Pyrenees. Then into Spain, and finally to the great port of Lisbon where he had planned to take ship for Greece.

A ship that sailed without him.


It is late,
querido
. Come to bed.” Strong feminine hands moved beneath the straight black hair that fell below his collar and began to knead his shoulders, providing exquisite relief to his tense muscles. Blas closed his eyes, laid down his pen. As he leaned into the sensual comfort of the woman behind him, she basked in the glow of his roughhewn features and wondered, as she often did, how she had been blessed with so powerful and generous a lover.

He was lithe, quick, and strong. A very fine lover. And, oh, so clever. How many times had she laughed behind her hands when the proud angles of his face softened into jelly and his brilliant amber eyes grew dim as he sat stolidly on his mule and pretended not to understand a word of a French soldier’s so very bad Spanish. Oh yes, Don Blas was a man of many faces and many names, though he always called himself—with wide-eyed cheerfulness—Blas the Bastard. A joke,
naturalamente
. They all knew he was the Son of a Somebody—no one ever doubted it. An
hidalgo
from Somewhere. Which was why they called him
Don
Blas. He had long ago given up trying to stop them.

Maria Josephina leaned forward and brushed her lips down his cheek, her long black hair mixing with his, falling across his sleeveless leather jacket into his lap. Definitely more provocation than even the most dedicated spy could stand. In a blur of movement Blas shoved the rickety table with the precious map to one side, caught the candle and the inkwell before they obliterated his past week’s work, and swept Maria into his lap. Cold forgotten, his mouth searched hers in a sudden furious attempt to blot out this miserable hovel in the midst of nowhere. “Damn it, woman!” he swore in frustration as his hand fought to find the bottom of her many layers of skirts.

A knock on the slatted wood door went unheard. A second knock. The knotty boards abruptly swung back. Marcio Cardoso’s brown eyes flashed their disapproval.


Marcio?
” It was not an attack of modesty—or even guilt—that froze Blas in his chair. There was only one reason for Marcio Cardoso to be here. His old friend had not made the hazardous five-hundred mile journey from Lisbon to the Pyrenees to bring him good news.

Blas closed his eyes, rubbed his long fingers across his forehead. When he spoke, his voice was little more than a whisper. In the name of God, tell me what’s happened.”

 

 

P A R T I

 

Chapter One

 

Lisbon, Portugal

September 1807

She had been naughty, and Dona Felipa—shriveled old prune that she was—had confined her to her room. At fourteen. When she was a lady grown!


For shame that you scatter your things about, making so much work for poor Juana,” the elderly
governanta
had scolded. “A lady does not make unnecessary work for her servants.”


Pooh!” Catarina retorted, “Juana does not mind. Is that not why Papa pays her?”

So here she was in her room expected to do the work of her maid! It was not at all fair. Particularly on a fine September day when the heat of the summer was beginning to wane, and there were many fine places to go and people to see. With a moue of disgust, Catarina grabbed a petticoat from the floor, crumpled it into a ball and shoved it into a drawer, which she slammed shut with a satisfying thump.

Hands on her hips, she surveyed her spacious room with a jaundiced eye. Not even the most sympathetic survey could find that the removal of one petticoat had made a noticeable improvement. She would be here forever! Certainly well beyond the time she had agreed to meet Marcio in the alley behind the Casa Audley. He was to take her to the harbor to see the vast array of ships assembling for the evacuation of the Portuguese royal court and all British citizens. Including herself.

But she would not go. Her Papa would not go, so neither would she.

The evacuation momentarily thrust aside, Catarina stood quite still in the middle of the beautifully carpeted floor, her lower lip extended into a stubborn and unbecoming pout. If she refused to clean her room, she would go to bed without supper, and the litter of shawls, gloves, bonnets, and slippers would still be there to be picked up—by Catarina Audley—on the morrow. For Dona Felipa, although quite, quite ancient, had the memory of an elephant. But if she worked very hard and very fast, she might yet escape into the beauty of late afternoon in Lisbon. Then again, her act of compliance would be as good as admitting she had been wrong!

Feeling the need to lash out at something—anything!—Catarina grabbed up the large feather duster Dona Felipa had pointedly placed on her dressing table and took a hearty, though useless, swing at a fly that had been buzzing its way around her room. Her hand froze as a sound penetrated her fit of petulance. Her head came up; long-lashed green eyes lit with interest. A fine tenor voice was bawling out a particularly bawdy ballad, and the sound was coming closer.

Blithely dropping all thought of her dilemma, Catarina dashed onto the balcony overhanging the narrow cobbled street outside. A team of oxen with long curling horns was wending its way up the hill toward the Casa Audley, effectively blocking all other traffic. The ungreased wooden wheel joints sang a weird high-pitched descant above the rollicking rhythm of the carter’s song.

The sturdy cart was loaded with wooden casks of wine destined for the cellars of the Casa Audley. The young man on the rough bench seat guided the team with seeming nonchalance, evidently more interested in entertaining himself and passersby with his rollicking song. Some of the song’s words Catarina didn’t recognize, but she understood the gasps and giggles from his female listeners, the broad smirks lighting the faces of the men. The carter was bawling out a bawdy ditty on the cobbled streets of Lisbon in broad daylight. Catarina’s green eyes gleamed with delight.

He was a virile young man, the cart’s driver, his skin weathered to a warm amber by the summer sun. Unkempt black hair straggled onto his shoulders. His white shirt was confined by a roughly woven brown vest, leaving his full shirt sleeves free to billow in the breeze. The planes of his face were irregular but strong, his eyes set deep above a chiseled nose, his lips full and inviting. Heedless of her fourteen-year-old dignity, Catarina leaned over the balcony and stared in unashamed fascination.

The carter emphasized the end of a verse with a flick of his whip. As he urged his oxen up the hill toward the house marked by a wooden plaque displaying a colorful British coat of arms, his eye was caught by a flash of white on a balcony. An apparition surely. A childlike nymph with glorious red-gold hair that cascaded well below the intricate wrought iron railing edging the balcony. A very un-Portuguese vision swallowed up in an oversize white apron and monstrous white mobcap. Clutched in her hand was a feather duster.

In one swift movement the carter stood up and swept her a bow without missing a note of his song. Not a mean feat from the bed of an ox-cart bouncing over cobblestones on wooden wheels. They were almost on a level now, the young man still standing on the cart and the girl leaning so enticingly over the balcony railing. He blew her a kiss. She betrayed her youth and inexperience by blushing a fiery red. With a wave he passed on by, seeking the massive wooden doors that would allow him entrance to the inner courtyard of the Casa Audley.

Catarina gazed after him until he disappeared from sight. Then, sulks forgotten, she tackled her room like a whirlwind. An ox-cart driver he might be, but see him again she must. When the last item had been hastily tossed into her wardrobe, she threw off the hated apron and mobcap and dashed toward the door to the courtyard gallery and freedom.

She halted abruptly, one hand on the knob, took a deep breath and looked back at her room. A frown touched her lovely face, a hint of the pout returned. She marched across the room, picked up the apron and mobcap and tossed them onto the floor of the wardrobe with most of the other things she had picked up. Poor Juana! She would simply have to give her the yellow sprigged muslin Papa had ordered and which so ill became her . . .

Catarina paused in the shadow of the upper gallery that extended around three sides of the enclosed courtyard of the Casa Audley. Walkways of patterned ceramic tiles added to the riotous colors of the garden, not least of which were the masses of bougainvillea vines in shades of purple, fuschia and glowing orange that encircled the columns supporting the gallery. In the center of the courtyard was a spot of peace where a fountain’s graceful movement cooled a group of white marble benches.

Accustomed as she was to this small oasis of beauty, Catarina Audley saw only what she wanted to see. Yes, there he was. Unloading the casks into the yawning blackness of the cellar, aided by Marcio Cardoso and one of the brawny footmen who worked in the gaming rooms. The three young men handled the wine casks with seeming ease, keeping up a running banter in Portuguese and Spanish. Catarina thought them a very fine sight indeed, but the newcomer—the one speaking Spanish—provoked an attack of unaccustomed shyness . . . and other mysterious feelings for which she had no name. He was not handsome. But he was quite the most splendid sight she had ever seen.

Catarina had grown up in this sprawling house in Lisbon, surrounded by servants, never thinking to question her father’s way of life. Though she had no recollection of purse-pinching, she understood Thomas Audley had had to make his own way in the world and accepted her father for what he was. An expatriate Englishman who, six nights a week with elegance and discretion, opened the public rooms of his home to an international clientele of gamesters. At fourteen, Catarina was far more accustomed to conversing with a wide variety of people, mostly male, than English misses many years her senior.

But now she clung to the shadows, her back against the rough stucco wall, and could not move. Nervously, she finger-combed her hair, smoothed her skirt, bit her lip. The iron stairs leading down to the courtyard were only a few feet away, but descend them she could not. The carter’s elegant bow had been a mockery. He thought her a child. At best, a servant. And when he discovered she was the daughter of the house? Catarina muttered a few words she had learned while eavesdropping on the gaming rooms. It wasn’t fair. To be only fourteen when she wished to dazzle him with her sophistication and experience. No, it was not fair at all!

 

Thomas Audley sat at his broad mahogany desk, one elbow propped on a sheaf of papers, chin in his hand, studying a closely written document. As he read, he occasionally ran a hand through his sandy brown hair, which at thirty-eight years of age showed not a hint of gray. A well-favored and modestly wealthy man, he had surprised most of his acquaintances by showing no inclination to remarry in the four years since the untimely death of his wife in her third attempt to give him a son. Though all who knew him agreed he had never expressed a wish for a male heir, many thought him inclined to give his only child, a female, too much freedom by far. “Thinks she’s a boy, she does,” was so often heard on Dona Felipa’s lips that the words had become a household joke. Not that it wasn’t true. For all that, however, even at fourteen, Catarina Audley was one of the most beautiful women in Lisbon.

BOOK: The Sometime Bride
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