He prayed this might never stop.
This now, here in Spain with Alejandra in his arms. Severely wounded Captain Lucien Howard, Earl of Ross, had a boat waiting to take him home. If she remained in his company, the beautiful woman who had saved his life would be compromised. The harsh light of dawn would send each of them their different ways.
Lucien thought of his family and his ancient crumbling estate. He couldn't stay in war-torn Spain. Yet neither could he stop his arms from tightening about Alejandra as he breathed her in...
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Georgette Heyer novels formed Sophia James’s reading tastes as a teenager. But her writing life only started when she was given a pile of Mills & Boons to read after she had had her wisdom teeth extracted! Filled with strong painkillers she imagined that she could pen one, too. Many drafts later Sophia thinks she has the perfect job writing for Harlequin Historical as well as taking art tours to Europe with her husband, who is a painter.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The English declare they will no longer respect neutrals on the sea; I will no longer recognise them on land.
A Coruna, Spain—January 16th, 1809
Captain Lucien Howard, the Earl of Ross, thought his nose was broken. His neck, too, probably, because he couldn't move it at all. His horse lay upon him, her head bent sideways and liquid-brown eyes empty of life. A good mare she was, one that had brought him up the hard road from Lisboa through the snows of the Cantabrian Mountains and the slippery passways of mud and sleet. He swore silently and looked away.
It hurt to breathe, a worrying thought that, given the distance from any medical help. Another day and Napoleon and his generals would be all over the harbour. It was finished and the British had lost, the harsh winter eating into what was left of resistance and a mix-up with the ocean transports in from the southern port of Vigo.
God, if he wasn't so badly hurt, he might have laughed, but the movement would have most likely killed him. It was so damn cold, his breath fogging as he fought for what little air he could drag in, but a mist had come up from the sea to mingle with the smoke of battle hanging thick across the valley.
Lucien was not afraid of death. It was the dying that worried him, the length and the breadth of it and the helplessness.
Lying back, he looked up into the heavens, hoping that it would be quick. He couldn't pray; that sort of hope was long since past and had been for a while now. He could not even find the words to ask for forgiveness or penance. He had killed men, good and bad, in the name of king and country, but once one saw the whites of an enemy's eyes, the old troths and promises held less sway than they once had.
A man was a man whatever language he spoke and more often than not a family would be waiting at home for their return. As his was. That thought sent a shaft of pain through the greater ache, but, resolving not to die with tears in his eyes, Lucien willed it away.
It was late, that much he did know, the sun deep on the horizon and only a little left of the day. He could see the lights of resin torches further away along the lines of the olive trees and the aloe hedges, searching for those who still lived. He could not summon the strength to call out as he lay there, a rough stone wall to one side and an old garden of sorts on the other.
Lucien imagined he could smell orange blossoms and wild flowers, but that was surely wrong. He wondered about the warmth that he felt as the peace of a contrition he long since should have made came unexpectedly.
'Forgive me, Jesus, for I have sinned.' Not so hard now in the final moments of his life. He smiled. No, not so hard at all.
The English soldier was covered in the blood of his horse, the residual warmth left in the large animal's pelt saving him, allowing him life in the frigid cold dark dawn of a Galician January winter.
But not for long; his blond hair was pinked in a puddle of blood beneath his head and a wound at his neck wept more. The daybreak was sending its first light across the sky and as far as the eye could see there were bodies. English and French, she thought, entwined in death like friends. Only the generals could have imagined that such a sacrifice was worth it, the prime of each country gone before they had ever had the chance to live. She cursed out loud against the futility of war and removed the gold signet ring from the soldier's finger to give to her father.
When his eyes flicked open the pale in them was startling in the early-morning light, almost see-through.
'Not...dead...yet?' There was disappointment and resignation in the broken question phrased in Spanish.
He smiled. 'What...does...not?'
The wide planes of his cheeks were bruised and his lip was badly cut, but even with the marks of war drawn from one end of him to the other he was beautiful; too beautiful to just die here unheralded and forgotten. Anger fortified resolve and she slashed at the gorse to one side of him, using the cleared ground to stand upon.
With space she pried a broken stake from a fence under his mount's neck and managed to lift it up enough, twisting the carcass so that it fell away from him, swirls of mud staining the air.
He groaned, the noise one makes involuntarily when great pain breaks through a consciousness that cannot quite contain it.
'Scream away, Ingles, if you will,' she told him. 'I most certainly would. Your friends have been evacuated by way of the sea and the French are in charge of the township itself, so nobody at all should hear you.'
My God, how tired she was of iron wills and masculine stoicism. Death was a for ever thing and if men taking their last breaths in a land far from their own could not weep for the sacrifice, then who else should?
Not her. Not her father. Not the officers safe with their horses on the transports home across a wild and stormy Biscay Bay. Other steeds roamed the streets of A Coruna, looking for succour, their more numerous and unluckier counterparts dead beneath the cliffs overhanging the beach, throats cut in clumsy acts of kindness.
Better dead than at the mercy of the enemy. Once she might have even believed that truism. Now she failed to trust in anything or anyone. The fury within alarmed her at times, but mostly she did not think on it. Adan and Bartolomeu had joined her now, their canvas stretcher pulled in.
'You want us to take him back?'
She nodded. 'Careful how you lift him.'
As Tomeu crouched down he scratched at a muddied epaulette. 'He's a capitán' The tinged gold was undeniable and her heart sank. Her father had begun to be uncertain of a Spanish triumph and was distancing himself from the politics of the region. An officer would be less welcome than a simple soldier to Enrique. More complex. Harder to explain.
'Then we need to make sure he recovers to fight again for our cause.'
For some reason the man before her was beginning to mean something. A portent to victory or a prophecy of failure? She could not tell. All she did know was that the damaged fingers of his left hand had curled into her own, seeking comfort, and that despite all intentions to do otherwise she held them close, trying to bring warmth to his freezing skin.
He groaned again when they rolled him on to the canvas and she got the first glimpse of the wounds on his upper back, the fabric of his shirt shredded into slivers and the flesh hanging off him between it.
More than one sword had been used, she thought, and there had been a good deal of hatred in the action. The blood loss was making him shake, so she shrugged off her woollen poncho and laid it across him, tucking it in beneath his chin.
Tomeu looked up with a frown. 'Why bother? He will die anyway.' The hard words of truth that she did not want, though there was anger in his tone, too. 'They come and they go. In the end it's all the same. Death eats them up.'
'Padre Nuestro que estás en los cielos...' She recited the Lord's Prayer beneath her breath and draped the ornate rosary across him in protection as they started for home.
The same lad on the fields was beside him again, sitting asleep on a chair, a hat pulled down over his face. Lucien shook his head against the chills that were consuming him and wondered where the hell he was. Not on the battlefields, not on the transports home, either, and this certainly was not hell given the crisp cotton sheets and warm woollen blanket.
Tipping his head, he tried to listen to the cadence of someone speaking far away outside. Spanish. He was certain of it. The heavy beams and whitewashed walls told him this house was also somewhere in the Iberian Peninsula and that whoever owned it was more than wealthy.
His eyes flicked back to the lad. Young. Thin. A working boy. Lucien could not quite understand what he would be doing here. Why was he not labouring somewhere or helping with one of the many things that would need attention on a large and busy hacienda? What master would allow him simply to sit in a sickroom whiling away the hours?
His glance caught the skin of an ankle above a weathered and scuffed boot, though at that very moment deep green eyes opened, a look of interest within them.
'You are awake?'
A dialect of León, but with an inflection that he didn't recognise.
'Where am I?' He answered in the same way and saw surprise on the lad's brow.
'Safe.' Uttered after a few seconds of thought.
'Three days. You were found on the battlefield above A Coruña the morning after the English had departed by way of the sea.'
'And the French?'
'Most assuredly are enjoying the spoils of war. Soult has come into the town with his army under Napoleon's orders, I suppose. There are many of them.'
At that the lad crossed himself, the small movement caught by the candlelight a direct result of his profanity.
'Who are you?' This question was almost whispered.
'Captain Howard of the Eighteenth Light Dragoons. Do you have any news of the English general Sir John Moore?'
'They buried him at night on the high ground close to the ramparts of the Citadel. It is told he died well with his officers around him. A cannon shot to the chest.'
Pain laced through Lucien. 'How do you know this?'
'This is our land, Capitán. The town is situated less than three miles from where we are and there is little that happens in the region that we are not aware of.'
The silence was telling.
'You are part of the guerrilla movement? One of El Vengador's minions? This is his area of jurisdiction, is it not?'
The boy ignored that and gave a question of his own. 'Where did you learn your Spanish?'
'Five months in Spain brings its rewards.'
'But not such fluency.' The inflection of disbelief was audible.
'I listen well.'
In the shadows of a slender throat Lucien saw the pulse quicken and a hand curl to a fist. A broken nail and the remains of a wound across the thumb. Old injuries. Fragile fingers. Delicate. Tentative. Left-handed. There was always so much to learn from the small movements.
She was scared of him.
The pronoun leapt into a life of its own. It was the ankles, he was to think later, and the utter thinness of her arms.
'Who are you, señorita?''
She stood at that, widening one palm across the skin on his neck and pressing down. 'If you say one word of these thoughts to anyone else, you will be dead, desconocido, before you have the chance to finish your sentence. Do you understand?'
He looked around. The door was closed and the walls were thick. 'You did not...save my life...to kill me. now.'
He hoped he was right, because there was no more breath left. When she let him go he hated the relief he felt as air filled his lungs. To care so much about living made him vulnerable.
'The others will not be so lenient of your conjectures were you to utter them carelessly and everybody here would protect me with their life.'
He nodded and looked away from the uneasy depths of green.
'I take it, then, that you are the daughter of this house.' He had changed his accent now into a courtly High Castilian and saw her stiffen, but she did not answer and was gone before he could say another word.
Who the hell was he, this stranger with the pale blue eyes that saw everything, his hair like spun gold silk and a body marked by war?
No simple soldier, that much was certain. The Light Dragoons had fought with Paget out of San Cristobel and yet he had been found east of Piedral-onga, a good two miles away under Hope's jurisdiction. She frowned in uncertainty.
Captain Howard had spoken in the León dialect and then in the Castilian, easily switching. A changeling who could be dangerous to them all and it was she who had brought him here. She should say something of the worrying contradictions to her father and the others. She should order him removed and left far from the hacienda to fend for himself. But instead.
Instead she walked to the windows of her room and looked out across the darkness to the sea beyond. There was something about this capitán that she recognised in herself. An interloper isolated from others and surrounded by danger. He did not show fear, either, for when she had taken the air from his windpipe with her hands he had not fought her. But waited. As if he had known she would let go.
Cursing, she pulled the shutters in closed against the night.
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