Torbay, England 1588
The acrid scent of gunpowder mingled with that of sweat and vomit. It was no worse than on his own ship, the Swallow, but the bitter tang of defeat hung about the air. After a long and tiresome battle, men on both sides were weary, hungry and demoralised. However, Henry’s men were revived by the capture of the Rosario. The Spanish, not so much.
Their loss etched their faces into deep grooves. The English had taken the ship without firing a shot. Drake had levelled a canon at the floundering galleon and they’d surrendered. Henry couldn’t imagine conceding so easily. A fight to the death seemed preferable to him.
He motioned to Will. “Lieutenant, escort these men to the deck. We’ll begin unloading them. The Old Barn will be used to hold them whilst we make negotiations.”
Henry eyed the remaining Spanish men as they huddled in the gloom of the hull. The officers and the captain remained tall and proud but the rest were a sorry lot. Likely pushed to fight for a cause they didn’t understand, he concluded. Most would be illiterate, God-fearing people. He’d heard tell that the Spanish had believed their invasion of England and disposal of the heretic queen would be easy enough. He imagined many of these men lacked the ability to imagine anything other than victory.
And now he was in charge of their defeat.
While the other ships chased off the rest of the Spanish, Henry would see to it that these prisoners of war were kept secure until their return had been agreed.
He clasped his hands behind his back. He didn’t expect trouble from many of them and, if he kept them fed and warm, he doubted they’d even consider rising up against him, but he would not give them the chance to. He’d already proved himself in battle and this was his opportunity to regain his family’s honour for good. If he could bring in a decent sum for these men and conduct himself well, all thoughts of his uncle’s treachery would be forgotten.
Shuffling footsteps and the creak of wood accompanied the barked orders as the men were escorted up onto the deck. The commander, de Valdés, drew Henry’s attention as he tugged one of his lieutenants aside. He narrowed his gaze at the man and the young boy while they made a harried exchange in Spanish.
“No!” the boy exclaimed, wrenching himself away from the commander.
Henry strode over. “Is there a problem?” He tried to catch a glimpse of the boy but the shadows hid his features under a hat.
“No, Captain. But, por favour, you must show la clemencia to my—”
Turning his full attention to the boy, Henry shook his head. He reached out and snatched the hat from his head in one swift movement. A startled, feminine cry rang in his ears. A woman. She shied away, refusing to meet his gaze. When he thrust her hat back at her, she jerked and her father put a protective arm around her.
“I will not harm you,” Henry assured. “I will not harm her,” he repeated to de Valdés.
Henry skimmed his gaze over the woman and tried to ignore the pang of something uncomfortable jabbing him in the back of his mind. Something that said she was remarkably beautiful for a woman who had been living on a ship for so long and was wearing men’s clothing. Her shirt and breeches flattered a slender figure, but now that he was close, he didn’t know how he’d missed those breasts pressing against the linen under an open doublet. There was no way any other man would have mistaken her either so he had to assume the commander had brought his daughter on board willingly.
What sort of a man brought his daughter to war with him?
Her dark gaze finally connected with his. Framed by long lashes, the same inky black as her hair that was currently tied back by a strip of fabric, they seemed to reach down inside him and make his knees ready to buckle. He, who had faced down the invasion of England by the Spanish. He, who could not claim to have felt anything other than the thrill of impending victory as he stood on the deck of the Swallow. A mere woman threatened to bring him to his knees.
He cleared his throat. What to do with her? He couldn’t very well put her in with the other prisoners. Even with the protection of her father, he could not be sure she would be safe. Not to mention the thought of this wary-eyed woman in the dank confines of the barn surviving on whatever limited supplies they could give them made his stomach churn. Damnation.
“What is your name?”
Her eyes widened further. In the gloom, the whiteness around her dark pupils seemed pronounced. They created a vision of innocence against her dusky skin and raven hair. She gathered her hands together and he saw her body stiffen, as if she was readying herself to run. He felt a little as if he was trying to sneak up on a boar, and the instinct to pounce struck. However, he kept his hands clasped behind his back and tried to make himself appear small. Not really a possibility with his stature, but he could at least try.
“¿Qué es su nombre?” he tried again.
Her long throat worked. “Antonia,” she replied so quietly he had to lean in to hear her. “My name is Antonia.”
In spite of the volume, her husky voice washed over him. He made his decision there. He couldn’t let this woman rot in the old barn. He might regret this but... “Sir, I shall be taking your daughter into custody and putting her under house arrest,” he informed her father. “She shall be under my protection.”
The man nodded with satisfaction. Clearly he didn’t want her locked up with three hundred men either. However, Antonia gripped his arm. “Papa, no.”
“I trust you are a man of honour? You shall protect my daughter, no?”
Henry nodded solemnly. Honour? Honour was what made him rise every morning. He lived, breathed and ate it. Without honour, a man was nothing and he knew too well what it was like to lose it. His uncle’s heresy had ensured that he had spent too long without it.
“I swear it.”
De Valdés murmured some words to his daughter—words he couldn’t catch—and urged her forward with a push. Tears shimmered in her dark gaze before she lowered her lashes. Henry motioned for her to go ahead of him but she remained frozen. He went to place a hand to her back, and she flinched.
Damn, the woman was terrified. He shook his head. No wonder. She had no place in the middle of war.
“Antonia, you shall be safe,” he said softly.
She barely lifted her gaze to meet his before nodding and shuffling forward. He followed her up and tried not to watch her movements. How he hadn’t realised she was a woman sooner, he knew not. She moved with delicate grace, her hips swaying slightly as though used to wearing wide gowns. Though slender, there would be no mistaking her for a boy. He could only blame his preoccupation with ensuring the movement of their prisoners ran smoothly.
A breeze blew over him as they came up onto the deck. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and he paused to peer down the stairs. As he did so, a bang ricocheted through the air. His ears rang with the echo. He gripped the railing and a jolt seemed to ripple through the ship. Beneath him, the vessel rose up and then sagged. His prisoner stumbled and fell back into him. If he hadn’t been holding onto the ship, they both would have tumbled down the steps.
“Damnation.” He’d recognised the sound all too well. A gunpowder blast. And it sounded as though it had come from deep in the hull. Somehow, someone had lit some gunpowder. Perhaps they were trying to prevent the galleon from being captured.