Bride of the Sea Excerpt


Chapter 1

Celestina

Coward! She bit her tongue on the oath balancing at its tip.

Angry or not, Celestina still felt the blood drain from her face as she blanched at the news, her rage white-hot. El Teniente—her father’s devious lieutenant, a man without courtesy—had left it to the cabin boy to deliver the dreadful note, probably because she had rejected his advances.

Her breath seized in her throat, she squeezed her eyes closed against the hurt.

Clutching the note to her breast as if it could erase the pain—the fear, the heartfelt sobs begging for release—she gathered herself together and, blinking back tears, looked at her maid. ‘El Capitan, mi padre, he is dead,’ she told her, voice rough with grief yet well aware she had to be strong for Rosalina, for herself.

Rosalina’s moans began from low in her throat, rising higher as she sank to the floor on her knees, but then she was ever contrary. ‘Madre de Dios. We are destined to feed the fishes. Did I not always say so? Women are bad fortune aboard a ship. We are the reason for this storm. Everyone says so.’ Rosalina grasped Celestina’s skirts as if her weight added to her words would convince her mistress.

Of course by everyone she meant the crew. ‘Nonsense. That is but superstition. As if two small women could be responsible for the whole Armada being blown off course. The San Miguel is but a tiny portion of the ships with which we sailed out of Coruña.’

Celestina’s chest quivered on a sigh, a betrayal of her anxiety as she reached for the edge of the table to steady her balance. Quelling the urge to totter across the deck as it shifted beneath her feet, she hammered home her point. ‘Are we laden with cannon and soldiers as the galleons are? No. If God wished to punish Spain He would surely direct His displeasure toward those ships intent on destroying England. The San Miguel carries only supplies for those who could not bear to miss the comforts of home—of Spain.’

But now her father was dead, washed over the side by one of the towering waves—huge swells of water that still tossed the ship from wave to wave like flotsam. She too felt fearful—fears too many to list—but, unlike Rosalina, she could not let herself give into them. As his only heir, Celestina must stand in her father’s place.

Locking her fingers around Rosalina’s wrist, she attempted to drag her unwilling maid to her feet. ‘We must go up onto the deck now, Rosalina. If we stay down below we will surely drown.’ No matter what her maid thought, there was nowhere to hide from the storm, below decks or above; it would find them, but she refused to go down without a fight.

Celestina turned to the table and pulled her rosary into her hand, wrapping the red coral beads around her fist until the silver cross bit into her palm.

As she swung around, her skirts didn’t follow, so she kicked out, catching Rosalina with her toe as the maid sank to her knees again. It was all too much. A mixture of grief and rage rose inside Celestina, blinding her to the strict code of manners that had been instilled by her mother all through childhood. As Rosalina clung to her, she spat, ‘Don’t be stupid. I must climb up to the deck, with or without you. The choice is now yours.’

For Celestina to tread the deck without her father or Rosalina to give her consequence would have been frowned upon, but the circumstances left her no choice. In her mind’s eye she recalled el Tenientes face when she’d rejected his advances. He had thought her a fool who would believe his implausible lies, when in his eyes she could see the reflection of her father’s ship and wealth and an only daughter who, since her brother’s death, would inherit everything.

The three steps up from her cabin led to the master’s day cabin. Charts had slipped from the table to the floor. Her father must have been studying them, looking for a place of shelter on the wild Scottish coast—a vain attempt since it had not saved him or the ship. She walked across the cabin, stumbling from table to chair, her stomach complaining as the hill of grey water outside the window slipped away behind the San Miguel, until the sturdy craft breasted the crest of the wave. The noise of the storm, the sound of her indrawn sobs and Rosalina’s constant moans seemed to echo in a space that felt hollow without her father’s large presence.

The journey onto the deck took longer than she had experienced before, more a hand-over-hand struggle than the usual few steps. Of course she was anchored by Rosalina, her weight pulling at the tape drawing in the waist of Celestina’s skirt to fit snugly that now rested on the top of her hips, but there was no time for fussing. She opened the door, pushing it wide as the heavily beaded embroidery on her skirt scraped over the frame.

Salt water slopped across the wooden decking into the day cabin. She clung to the ornamental fretwork covering the narrow windows that had given her father a view of his crew at work. With the other hand she lifted her skirts to a level where they couldn’t trip her—an ineffectual effort that did not prevent the saturated silken hem slapping at her ankles. She stepped outside the door with Rosalina behind her, barely able to keep her footing in the wet, squealing and grabbing for Celestina’s skirts for a second time.

The scene that filled their eyes might surely be described as Noah’s version of hell. Overhead, a sailor hung from the rigging by one ankle, swaying, his wide white canvas pants ballooning in the strong wind—yet no one climbed to his aid. No one dared.

The topsails had been furled, the main, mizzen and foresails reefed in, and sailors stood by the sheets ready to make adjustments at el Teniente’s command. Naught could disguise the dark menace the lieutenant’s eyes shot in her direction.

Celestina plastered her back against the wall below the quarterdeck, while Rosalina used her mistress’ skirts to climb to her feet, the jewels and pearls from the skirt bouncing on the deck around them. Soon she was clinging to Celestina’s arm as they edged into the corner of wall and steps—a shelter only a fool would choose, but fear was a hard taskmaster. The rosary cross clutched in Celestina’s palm left an imprint, cut into her skin—hurt—a necessary pain, one needed to help her, help both of them, survive.

If not for the storm, she was certain the crew would have turned to stone, statues that could not believe their eyes, transfixed as they watched, but it didn’t last. A midshipman stumbled down the steps from the deck above them.

‘Aieeee!’

Rosalina’s scream of fear almost deafened Celestina. Worse, she broke away from Celestina, the expression in the maid’s eyes desperate. To compound her mistake, the ship lurched to port at the same moment and Rosalina staggered toward the ship’s side, making a last frantic dive to grab Celestina’s skirts. She heard them rip, pearls scattering on the soaking deck under Rosalina’s feet, sending her slipping and sliding into the rail and over the side. Gone.

The last scream was Celestina’s—silent yet loud inside her head as she hurried after her maid and saw Rosalina’s head disappear beneath the waves. No one on deck rushed to Rosalina’s aid, some gawped, some grinned like idiots, as if watching a fool cavort for their entertainment. The midshipman sprawled across the deck at Celestina’s feet. It took a moment to realise he was gathering the pearls and amethysts that had once decorated her skirt.

The lieutenant watched, arms akimbo, legs astride, his narrowed eyes, glinting darkly with satisfaction. If her father still lived, he would have run him through with his sword for such insolence. If she had confessed to her father that el Teniente had made advances toward her, the blackguard would have been dismissed from his service.

Anger raced through Celestina’s blood. Every lesson in decorum that her mother had taught her went overboard with her poor innocent maid. Celestina’s scalp felt on fire, burning with rage. With a very unladylike growl, she snatched off her heavy beaded Spanish headdress and threw it at the midshipman’s head. Unfortunately it wasn’t hard enough. Her toe itched to kick him, but her eye caught sight of others of the crew watching with greedy eyes as her hair, loose now, blew about her head and into her eyes. While she brushed the tangle away, the sailors who had left their posts edged closer, holding their hands palms out, as if she were evil, something to be warded off. They all believed it was Celestina who had brought this disaster down upon the ship.

A solution that had been hiding at the back of her mind could no longer be ignored.

She would have to jump, and why not? From the salacious gleam in some eyes, she had nothing else to lose, but first …

Stripping the bracelets from her wrists, she threw them across the deck, causing a squabble amongst sailors who had never before laid hands on such riches.

Hurriedly stepping out of her skirt, she tossed the torn silk after the bracelets then grappled behind her to loosen the laces, her fingers trembling as at last the lieutenant began to move across the deck, eyes fixed on her struggles. Tremors of relief shook her as she wrenched the bodice over her head. The sight of Celestina in her silk shift halted the crew—even the lieutenant. They gawped at her slight body as if they had never seen a naked, or near naked woman before. Her annoyance at breasts that had barely begun to bud had become something to be thankful for since it meant she’d had no need to wear stays.

She glanced over her shoulder. The wild coast had begun to emerge from the grey haze of wind and rain. Ireland … Scotland … she had little notion which it might be. As long as it was not England, she did not care, now that her father was dead and the Armada defeated. She had but one thing in her favour: she could swim. That gave her an option more favourable than death or, worse, rape at the hands of those who blamed her for all their woes

Before they could get over the shock of seeing her undress, Celestina climbed over the side, closed her blue eyes, the image of her English mother’s, and jumped into a world of grey.

Copyright © Frances Housden