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The air was cold and damp. Fog swirled above the ocean, engulfing the ship in its grip as the vessel maneuvered its way through the waters of the Bay of Biscay. Shadows moved through the murky mist as men aboard the ship went about their duties, bumping into one another from time to time, grumbling as they tried to see through the eerie vapor.
"Can't see our hands in front of our faces."
"How's a man supposed to go about his business when he can't even see past his nose?"
Staring out from the helm of his English ship, as if he could penetrate the thick mists with his piercing hazel eyes, Jonathan Leighton, captain of the White Griffin, also felt an uneasy sense of isolation and frustration. He could not even see the coast of Brittany, much less catch sight of the ship he had targeted as his prey. He uttered a curse beneath his breath.
"Bloody damn! Curse this fog."
His swearing was echoed by Edmund Falkhearst, his short, rotund, jovial first mate. "Aye. This ungodly mist is going to keep us from our quarry. Don't ye think so, Captain?"
Indeed, it was impossible to catch sight of the Spanish merchant ship both men knew was on its way through the shimmering blue water. Even so, Jonathan was stubborn.
"I haven't given up yet." He clenched his jaw. "Nor will I!"
"Then neither will I!" Falkhearst stared up at his captain. Tall, blond, and arrogantly handsome, Jonathan Leighton was a man who inspired loyalty. There was hardly a man among the crew of a hundred and ten who did not admire the captain. Falkhearst even suspected that they would have followed their leader to hell and back if Jonathanasked them to.
Jonathan closed his eyes for just a moment, imagining a ship overflowing with gold coins, so many coins that its sides bulged as it bobbed on the water. "I have heard that the San Pedro is richly cargoed. It would be the greatest misfortune if they sailed right by us, fog or no fog."
For all his life Jonathan had been surrounded by merchants and sailors, hearing tales of untold wealth on the Spanish Main, that sprawling dominion surrounding the Caribbean Basin and the ring of islands bordering it. Even when he was just a boy, those stories had invaded his dreams. Someday he too would sail the ocean, he had vowed, ignoring his father's stern rebuke at such youthful imaginings. The fulfillment of his dreams, however, was long in coming.
As eldest son of an impoverished baronet and a wealthy wine merchant's daughter, he had been confined to the land. First there had been the years he had helped his father, then the many months he had been confined to Oxford pursuing his education. All the while a toughness, shrewdness, and ambition developed within him which could not be quenched. Someday he would have his own ship. It was a desire that had driven him.
"By my faith, I say that ship will not elude us, Cap'n!" Falkhearst hit his open palm with his fist. "No ship has ever escaped ye."
Jonathan's tone was determined. "Nor will, if I have my way!"
"Ye will find a way. Ye always do!" The corners of Edmund's mouth tugged up in a grin, one that was promptly returned. "In truth, I think ye most surely are the devil ye are said to be." The Spaniards called Jonathan "Diablo Dorado," golden devil.
"Devil am I ... " Jonathan crossed his arms, feigning anger.
"Let's just say that I thank the fates that we be allies, not adversaries, Cap'n. I wouldn't want to fight ye. I doubt God's angels themselves would--"
The ship slammed into a wave, bringing a shower of water washing over the deck, nearly unbalancing Jonathan's wide-legged stance. Though Falkhearst tumbled to the deck, Jonathan quickly regained his footing. Reaching down, he helped Falkhearst up, issuing his orders in a deep, booming voice as he did so.
"Roll up the sails. Reduce speed. Caution is the word until the fog lifts." Despite his lust for treasure, Jonathan would never put his crew at risk of a collision.
"Aye, Captain." A tall, lanky sailor and his short, skinny companion hurried to obey. For the moment danger was averted.
Even though peril had been avoided, Jonathan Leighton would not allow himself the leisure of relaxing his tense muscles until he knew that everything was completely under control. Walking to the railing, he gripped the wet wood and continued his watch, looking out over the ocean as if he could will the fog to lift.
Dressed in a plain leather jerkin, coarse sailcloth trousers which hugged his muscular legs like a second skin, and a white linen shirt, the sleeves of which were rolled high above his elbows, he looked more like a sailor than the English lord that he was. He looked, in fact, like a privateer, and that was the way he wanted it. It felt good to be unencompassed by the walls or the often-strict discipline of Elizabeth's court. Standing upon the deck of his ship, he felt the alluring excitement that always beckoned him to adventure.
Queen Elizabeth chose men of untitled birth to surround her at court, raising them up in favor. Jonathan caught her eye for he was the epitome of the Elizabethan man--a gentleman, poet, and philosopher, whose longing for adventure shone with fervor in his eyes. That he was also blessed with the striking attractiveness of face and body that the middle-aged queen found fascinating was to his advantage. Within months Elizabeth had elevated him to the ranks of the young, handsome men who frequented her court. Jonathan Leighton had become a lord.
He soon fled the rigors of court life, however, and joined a gallant group of newly created noblemen who crossed to France to fight for the Huguenots. Later he turned his restless energy against Spain, volunteering to aid the Dutch against that aggressive country. By the age of twenty-three he had more than proven his bravery and skill upon the seas; by twenty-four he had taken command of his own ship. At the age of twenty-five he received a privateer's commission from Elizabeth and in return captured a Spanish convoy of silver bullion off the coast of Panama. Returning the treasure to Elizabeth, he had been richly rewarded by the queen's own hand, dining freely with her aboard his ship. If there was now a price upon his head, he didn't care. Jonathan Leighton scoffed at danger.
At the age of thirty-two, Jonathan had everything he'd ever wanted, the freedom of the sea when he wanted it and days at court when that was his desire. He had all the wealth he could ever want. His life was filled with adventure. He was content, or so he told himself over and over again. And yet ... there were times when he felt somehow unfulfilled.
"Cap'n ... " Falkhearst's voice jerked Jonathan from his thoughts "What are we going to do? About the fog, I mean."
"I don't know." Jonathan shook his head. "It's all that stands between me and Spanish gold!"
"Well, if you ask me, Cap'n, what we need is a wind to blow the fog away." Falkhearst was inexorably pleased with his idea. "Aye. Wind! If only..."
Jonathan put his hand on Falkhearst's shoulder as he looked deep into his eyes. His lips curved up in a grin. "They say I'm the devil. Shall I conjure up a rousing gale that will lift the fog? Shall I, Falkhearst?"
Falkhearst's eyes widened as he bobbed his head up and down in a silent yes.
Jonathan mumbled a mock incantation half in jest, half in seriousness. He was amazed when, as if by a miracle, his spoken wish was granted. Only moments after he had uttered the words, a wind began to blow, lifting the veil of mist and rending the fog into shreds.
For just a moment Edmund's eyes held a touch of superstitious fear. "God's teeth, ye are the devil! Ye are for sure."
"I am no devil. Just a very lucky man." Jonathan hoped such good fortune would last, for even before the curtain of fog dispersed, he sensed the Spanish ship, felt it was out there, knew that with every nerve in his body. At last it came into view.
"No merchant ship but a galleon!"
The towering, four masted vessel with stacked decks looked awesome, dwarfing the White Griffin. Jonathan's ship was a race ship; built close to the water to give her more speed and maneuverability, but she was outgunned and outmanned.
"'S death! Shall we make preparations to sail away from her, Captain?" The helmsman shouted.
"Nay, we'll go after her. Unfurl the sails. All hands to battle stations. Better to be the hunter than the hunted."
"Proceed as I have ordered, helmsman. I have not come this far to turn back empty-handed." In his heart Jonathan knew that intelligence won out over braun any day, and he had that in full measure. Give up? It was not in his blood to turn coward. He knew well that he could outsail any ship, be it merchant or galleon. "Prepare to ram them."
"Not only are ye a devil, but ye be bloody mad!" Edmund Falkhearst's jaw dropped open as he stared in awe at his captain.
"Of course I am mad, and proud of it. Daringly mad. And that is why I have been so successful." Before the other man could say a word, Jonathan strode away. They would fight and they would win, for the alternative was too dastardly to contemplate--death or a life of cruelty condemned to a Spanish galley as a slave.
From the deck of the Serpiente de Plata, Anne Blythe Morgan Navarro looked out to sea, thankful that the fog had lifted so that she could catch sight of the shoreline in the distance. Brittany. The sight of its shores meant she was closer to her homeland. Next would be Normandy. Then at last the ship would enter the English Channel, bringing her home.
"England..." she whispered. How precious that name sounded. She had never realized until now how eager she was to return. But she was! For a moment she almost forgot that she would be bringing a new husband with her.
Turning her head, Anne looked at her ring-bedecked and velvet-clothed spouse. There were many words that described Enrique. He was charming, intelligent, and attractive in an older man sort of way. His hair was dark brown, threaded with gray, his nose not bulbous or overlarge. His eyes were a pleasing shade of brown, his lips a bit thin but not unappealing. Tall and lithe, he had the physique of a much younger man, belying his forty-nine years. Most important of all, however, he was "manageable," for Anne had no intention of allowing any man to interfere in her life, husband or not!
Manageable! She smiled. Indeed, throughout the journey Enrique had constantly deferred to her whims and wishes, even in the matter of the marriage bed. Anne had insisted they wait before consummating their union, and Enrique had agreed, though the worshipful and heated looks he had cast her way informed her that he was as anxious to bed her as she was to reach England.
Anne shrugged at the thought of the upcoming wedding night. The idea caused neither passion nor breathlessness to consume her. Perhaps it was because she had given up all thoughts of love long ago. Reason ruled her life now and not foolish dreams of romance. She had married Enrique Navarro only because her father had insisted that it was a most prestigious match. As newly appointed ambassador's aide-designate to England, Enrique was one of Spain's most eligible men.
That was not to say that she did not believe in love. Quite the contrary, she did. Most emphatically so. Her parents had been proof of that. Anne had waited for just such an idyllic love story to enfold for her, but after many years of waiting she had given up. She hadn't met anyone who made her heart skip a beat. Worse yet, she was of the opinion that all of the foppish lords who surrounded the queen, jumping and groveling at that aging harridan's every command, were simpletons. How could she give her heart to any of them? Thus, at twenty-seven she had still been unwed.
"The finicky spinster," her disappointed suitors had labeled her.
Anne didn't care what insults they cast her way, especially when the most important man in her life was on her side. Her father! In her eyes there was no man on earth who could equal Richard Morgan, foremost councilor and advisor to the queen. Even now, with his black hair touched with gray, he was a magnificent man--strong, handsome, with a special gentleness reserved for her. She was the apple of his eye, a truth which made her very proud. If only she could meet such a man!
But after allowing dreams to cloud her thoughts for so long, she finally had to cast aside childish visions of love. Love just did not exist for her. Thus, after many years of waiting, she had given in to her father's wishes that she aid an alliance between Spain and England by agreeing to marry the newly appointed official.
A gust of wind took her unaware, and Anne laughed as she brushed several strands of black hair out of her eyes. Salt spray splashed her face as she gazed out at the ocean, but she barely noticed. She had inherited more than just her father's looks; she also had his temperament. She was stubborn, strong, with a love of excitement and adventure. If she was willful as well, then so be it. A woman should know her own mind!
"I like to hear you laugh." Coming up behind her, Enrique put his arms around her waist, bringing her close against his chest in the first gesture of affection he had shown her since the start of the voyage.
"I will give in to my mirth more often once we reach England." As she spoke she leaned back against him, closing her eyes. Though Anne was of Spanish blood on her maternal grandfather's side, she had hated Spain. The court had been lavish with velvets and silks, more than a match for England's splendor, but there had been little laughter among the coldly aristocratic courtiers.
"And did you not like my country?" She thought she heard a slight annoyance in his tone.
"Yes. It ... was ... was very colorful." In truth, the court of Philip of Spain had been gloomy, but Anne was gracious enough to keep this opinion from escaping her lips. "It's just that I was homesick."
"And is England colorful?"
"Then I too am anxious to reach this England of yours. I have no great liking for the sea. Too turbulent."
His words were a reminder of last night's storm, a gale that had brought forth Enrique's fear. That he had shown panic had somewhat lessened Anne's opinion of him. Perhaps bravery was not one of the words that described her new husband.
Anne's father had braved much fiercer storms and had faced execution in the days of Mary Tudor's reign. If not for the grace of God, he would have been burned at the stake, with her mother at his side. Opening her eyes with a start, Anne realized she would never have been born had that happened. How foolish then to fret over a few riotous waves.
"The ocean does not frighten me," she said, pulling away so that she could appraise Enrique again. He was not unattractive; indeed, she had heard it declared by many that he was handsome. Why then did his touch leave her so cold? It was a question she had no time to answer as the shrill sound of a trumpet rent the air. It was a chilling sound, one that caused Anne to stiffen until she saw the reason for the blare. It was the sight of a ship that had caused the alarm.
"Por alli, por alla. Un barco ... otro barco. Siguiente detras." In his fright, her husband had lapsed into Spanish, babbling at the top of his voice, telling the others what was already known, that a ship was following them.
"It is just an English ship." Glancing out at the blue expanse of ocean, she saw clearly that the English flag flew from the mainmast. The words, however, died in her throat. It was indeed an English vessel, but as she looked on in dismay Anne could see that it was bearing down on the Serpiente de Plata at a murderous speed in an obvious intent to fight them. "God's nightgown!"
Puffs of smoke billowed from the English ship as it fired upon the galleon. The deck shuddered as wood splintered the railing. Anne sucked in her breath at the sudden impact. Men swarmed the deck, brandishing their weapons, preparing for battle. Cannons boomed as smoke billowed in the air. Grasping the railing, Anne uttered an oath of indignation at the approaching ship, damning them as fools. There was every possibility she might be killed by her own countrymen!