In this extract from A Turning Wind, part two of The Chosen Man Trilogy, the wily merchant, secret agent and one-time corsair Ludo da Portovenere is in a mule cart escaping from the consequences of an accident he orchestrated during a religious festival involving the Spanish court in El Escorial, in the Sierra de Madrid. Ludo has been injured, opening up a knife wound he received earlier. With him are two young men, Marcos Alonso, and Kit Windebank, an English diplomat, and the feisty, ambitious Alina, also known as Maria de los Angeles, Baroness Metherall. Alina is the daughter of an impoverished Spanish grandee and married to an English nobleman. (Ludo sold her to him in Plymouth.) Ludo and Alina have a longstanding love-hate relationship – and a powerful mutual attraction.
They stopped twice on a journey that took them along a high ridge with a sheer drop. The first time to check Ludo’s shoulder wound, which was bleeding copiously; the second, for Alina to remove another length of petticoat to be used as a bandage. When they finally came to a halt at a smithy on the edge of a hamlet it was well into the afternoon and Ludo was close to fainting.
The farrier came out at their approach and exchanged words with Kit, then helped Ludo out of the cart while Marcos assisted Alina, who was also close to dropping. The mule was taken from its traces and led into a stall; the cart up-ended against a wall with Marcos and Kit’s help, to look as if it hadn’t been used. All four then followed the farrier up a set of outdoor steps to a cramped dwelling above the horse stalls. A rosy cheeked housewife raised her hands in surprise and rushed to greet Kit.
“Brought us more trouble, have you?” the farrier demanded, jabbing the air at Kit with a forefinger the size of a hammer head.
“Leave the boy alone,” the wife shouted. Turning back to Kit, she said, “Who’s this fine lady, dear, your mother?”
Alina’s jaw dropped. “Su madre!”
“Oh, beg pardon I’m sure,” the wife huffed. “You’re not English then?”
Before Alina could say another word, a heavy male foot trod none too gently on her summer slippers. “The lady is my wife, señora,” Ludo explained. “We have been in a carriage accident and this young man has very kindly saved us. I regret I’m bleeding rather a lot. Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Siéntese, siéntese,” the woman gushed, noticing the red stain spreading across Ludo’s farmer’s smock then turning to take a second look at Alina, who was far too well-dressed for a farmer’s wife, even for a fiesta. “I’ll get some water and cloth.” She said and disappeared into another room.
The farrier stood arms akimbo, staring from Kit to Marcos to Ludo, then at Alina. Addressing Ludo he said, “Carriage accident, was it? You’re not dressed like a gentleman as befits this lady. Had to borrow some clothes, did you?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, but – if anyone stops by to ask after my health, do you mind saying you haven’t seen us?”
“Thought as much,” the farrier replied drily.
“Would it be possible,” Marcos began hesitantly, “for Don Lorenzo and his wife to stay here until the evening?”
Alina’s hands and eyebrows shot up in unison. “Here, why?” she demanded.
Ignoring her, Kit said, “We think it would be better for Don Lorenzo to rest and give his wound a chance to heal before returning to El Escorial. I’ll ride back into town with my friend and return with a better conveyance for him this evening. If that is all right? I’m sure Don Lorenzo will reward you – handsomely.”
Alina turned to study the Englishman called Kit, wondering how a young man working with the British ambassador knew a country blacksmith, then stopped worrying. It was none of her business; she really didn’t care who anyone was as long as she could wash her face and get a drink of clean water, or wine, or small beer or anything at all, right this moment, because she was going to faint if not.
Sometime later, slightly refreshed from a wash in cool well-water, Alina returned to the kitchen from the farrier’s surprisingly clean outdoor wash-house, and paused at the door to listen. Marcos had evidently said something to irritate Ludo, who was saying, “I’ll be with her, you fool. I’ve got a cut in my shoulder and couple of broken ribs but I’m not dead yet. You and Kit drive back into town, like he suggests. Get me some decent clothes and return in my carriage. I need to get away tomorrow.”
“Do you think you will be arrested?” Marcos’s voice admitted the possibility. “Don’t come back in that case. Stay here, I’ll bring you all our goods and we can leave from here.”
“That is tempting,” Ludo tried to lean back in his chair in his accustomed manner but it was too painful. “Except what do we do about milady here? I can’t sneak off without making my farewell to people in high places, anyway. Not after the preference I have been shown.” As he said this Ludo looked directly at Alina.
She met his gaze and raised her eyebrows. “Are you trying to tell me something?” she asked.
“Yes, but we can discuss it later.”
“I look forward to it,” Alina countered, trying to still the flutter in her chest that Ludo had been offered a title, and what difference that would make – could make – to their relationship.
Lost in possibilities, Alina came back into the conversation as Ludo was saying, “. . . given the next stage of my journey or one of its possible outcomes,” and put a hand to her throat. Was he planning to take her away with him – again? Would she go this time?
“Besides,” Ludo continued, “I particularly need the Conde Duque de Olivares to know I wasn’t playing a double game and actually trying to kill him. After all I’ve gone through to gain his trust and get him to sign my blasted documents for Leonora in Goa –”
“Goa – where’s that?” Alina demanded.
Ludo sighed. “Can we discuss this later as well? Or better still, never. I need to rest so the bleeding stops.”
It wasn’t the first time Alina had taken her siesta in a hay loft (although she didn’t tell anyone that) so she remembered to ask for a blanket to go under her to prevent straw prickles. The farrier’s wife was horrified that a ‘proper lady’ should rest in straw but the husband had no reservations and showed them to the ladder above the smithy stalls with undisguised amusement.
Lying separately from her improvised and heavily bandaged husband Alina gazed at the sky through a crack in the rafters and said, “You were trying to kill the Olivares today without telling me.”
“Then why are we hiding in a hayloft?”
“Because I abducted him so no harm would come to him.”
“Riddles: why can you never be serious, never be straight?” Alina was getting angry.
“A riddle, but not of my making: the man in question knew – knows – his life is threatened; we used the event today to sink an evil-wisher. Many of the things we do – most even – can be interpreted as illogical by another. Take my foolish longing for you, milady. Could you not say but a few kind words to me now and again? Why so much hostility? What is past is past. Regrettably.”
“Is it?” Alina’s voice was a whisper. “I don’t think it will ever be over for me.”
“Do I hear Baroness Metherall, lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England speaking? I cannot believe it.”
Alina huffed and rolled onto her side. Ludo tried to shift into another position and grunted with pain.
“Does it hurt very much?” Alina asked, contrite.
“Yes. A straight answer.”
“Can I do anything to help?”
Ludo slowly lifted himself onto an elbow and looked at her. “Yes, you can,” he said. “Soften to me, Alina. Soften and forgive me. I should not have done what I did in Plymouth. I should not have returned expecting you to give up your new home and title for an uncertain life with me. I have thought on it greatly, and I see I was wrong from start to finish. But the truth is that I love you: have loved you since you bit my hand on a Santander quayside, although I would not accept it then. I have loved you since I found you asleep on a pile of unwashed fleeces in a stinking cargo hold; have loved you since I walked with you in the moonlight, in a country we neither belong –”
“I do,” Alina interrupted, tears in her voice.
There was a pause then Ludo whispered, “Love me or belong?”
“Both,” Alina sighed. “And that is also wrong. A woman may not love two men: she must choose.”
Ludo was silent. Eventually he said, “You chose to accept security.”
“I did not choose that, remember? But is it so wrong – security? You have met my father; have you any idea what it was like looking after him with no money and caring for five brothers in a house falling to bits? I used to make bread and feed the hens for heaven’s sake. You cannot imagine what it is like to live such an uncertain life and not yearn for comfort and security.”
“I can. But I chose uncertainty, I chose not to be named or tied down – for fear of . . .” Ludo swallowed whatever he was going to say next.
Alina waited then said, “Ludo, who are you?”
“I am, I believe, Ludovico Janszoon di Doria, son of Jan Janszoon and Gabriella Doria.”
“I’ve heard those names before.”
“No doubt. Jan Janszoon, a Dutchman by birth, also goes by the name of Murat Reis, infamous leader of Berber pirates. Gabriella Doria is of the Genoese Doria clan. My grandfather, Agostino, was Doge of Genoa. A doge and a pirate leader – powerful men – and my pretty Doria mother caught between them.”
“How is that possible?”
“Because my mother, as a young, unmarried woman, was captured by Berber corsairs, just as you nearly were, except when Janszoon discovered who she was he actually tried to protect her. While seeking a vast ransom payment, of course. The messages and payment took their time in arriving; and during this time . . .”
“He used her!”
“Oh, no, nothing like that.”
“You mean, they fell in love, and you were conceived: how romantic.” Alina’s voice was edged with a scorn she did not entirely feel. “Did you ever meet the Doge?”
“Agostino Doria?” Ludo moved too fast, “No! Aagh . . . He died two years after my mother brought shame on his name. The family acted against her as they believed he would have wanted, though.”
“Poor woman, I feel sorry for her.”
“Do you? I don’t know if that surprises me or not. I go back to Genoa now and again – to Portovenere. I love the place like a . . . I don’t know what I love it like. One day I will have a house there, a home.”
“But,” Alina paused and rephrased what she wanted to say: it was awkward and she wasn’t altogether sure about what she was asking herself. “But . . . how do you come to be who you are now?”
“Neither fish nor fowl? Because I am not welcome among the respectable Doria clan, and because I find no pleasure in the corsair life of Salé. I heartily dislike violence, carina, or have you never noticed?”
Alina rolled onto her back and stared up at the bright scars of sunlight through the gashes in the roof. “What a pair we are,” she said at last.
“What a pair we would make. Alina, stay with me now. I cannot bear to lose you again.”
Sitting up, Alina smiled across at the man she’d loved from the moment he saved her from pirates on a Santander quay then inched across the itchy straw and snuggled into his side. Ludo tried to put his arm under her shoulders but gasped in pain. “Ssh,” she said. Placing a finger on his lips she began to untie the neck-laces of his peasant smock. “Let me see if your wound is closing.”
Her fingers traced the open scar, still sticky with half-dried blood. “They stitch up men like cushions in Flanders with wounds like this,” Ludo said.
“Stitch them? How? No, don’t tell me.” Alina bent over him and kissed around the puckered red skin, ran her fingers down his throat to the start of his chest hair. “Am I softening to you, do you think?”
“You are, you are,” Ludo said, kissing her head, “but beware, I’m not a total invalid and most definitely not softening.”
“Prove it,” Alina whispered in his ear.
It was an awkward yet gentle coming together. The slowness of their moves and their laughter at the discomfort told each of them this was a grown-up romance. There was no need for frantic scrambling; no desperate scratching or biting, just a long, joyous, calm acceptance that they belonged with each other, and this was the start of a new phase in their love and their lives.
Later, after they had dozed a while, Alina said, “What will your house in Portovenere be like?”
“A pretty house painted pink, coral perhaps, in keeping with the area. Overlooking the sea. There are terraces full of flowers and trellises. On one sits a beautiful Spanish woman combing her golden hair in the morning sun . . . Would you come? No, let me rephrase this: please, Alina, come live with me and be my lady in Liguria.”
Sitting up again, Alina spread her loosened hair over her shoulders and started picking out bits of straw. Then she laughed out loud with joy and snuggled back into their rustic bed to whisper. “When?” But Ludo had fallen asleep.
Waking much later, stiff and uncomfortable, Alina wondered how this afternoon would affect her position at the English court. Her thoughts drifted into a vague future of sunshine and eternal romantic love and she turned and met Ludo’s beady, sea-green gaze.
“You are the loveliest woman I have ever met,” he said.
“Do you still like my hair – straggly and full of straw?” Alina shook her mane of golden waves a second time and made another start on removing bits of straw. Outside a wooden bucket thudded to the dry ground. A dog howled – kicked for stealing milk perhaps. She turned back to Ludo, “Were you really not doing what Queen Henrietta Maria asked you to do - assassinate Olivares – in that accident?”
“No. I mean, she assumed I would do it and I let her think that because it was a way of seeing the old devil in a relative position of safety. Being on a mission from the British royal family would, I hoped, give me a degree of security to pursue my own interests. I was in a difficult situation.”
“I acquired a new galleon belonging to the Spanish armada by slightly devious means in Lisbon, and kept it. It is now fundamental to my new enterprise so I can’t risk having it re-possessed either loaded at sea or empty in dock. Especially not loaded at sea.”
Alina sighed. “So, you thought . . . what?”
“That this was a way of showing whose side I was on so Count Duke Olivares would endorse King Felipe’s investment in my new East Indies trade. I was doing what the mad Count Duke wanted in the hope he would confirm his involvement in my new enterprise, if you like.”
“But Henrietta Maria and Queen Isabel think you are here to kill him – the Count Duke – for them!”
“Yes, he knows that as well, which is why you need to get away. He’s been intercepting their letters. Alina, he has spies in every nook and cranny in Christendom, you really must be careful.”
Alina took a deep breath, “And what about these documents you mentioned – for Leonora in Goa.”
Ludo froze then very slowly kissed her forehead. “Nothing for you to worry about, I promise.
A doubt crept around Alina’s heart, her face flushed hot with her with fear and foolishness: had she misinterpreted Ludo’s words about their future together? Could she trust him? No! Ludo da Portovenere was never to be taken at his word. “What did you have to mention England for!” she snapped. Jumping to her feet she began brushing frantically at her skirt.
Ludo lay back in the straw with an exaggerated sigh. “You are still playing at life, aren’t you? Facts have to be faced; choices have to be made. I choose you and take the consequences of that choice, which will mean a very great change for me.”
“How? Why?” Alina’s tone was curt.
“Because, as I have just been trying to explain, I have been setting up a new business for a merchant fleet sailing to the East and returning with all manner of riches. If we go to Genoa, I will have to change all that, which I am very happy to do,” Ludo added hastily, “but if we go, we have to go very soon. I can’t risk getting caught up in the Count Duke’s machinations again. Not if I have to worry about you as well.”
“Oh, you will be making sacrifices. I see,” Alina said tartly, putting a foot on the first rung of the loft ladder. “Can you manage to get down on your own? Check your bandages when you get into the yard. I’m going to find something to drink.”
“What?” Ludo replied. “What have I done to upset you this time?”
Alina glared at him in the musty, dusty light then backed down the ladder and opened the heavy door into the yard. What had he done? Exactly what she hoped he would. Then spoiled it all with reality.
Confused and angry, she hoisted her skirts as she had done when she was younger and strode purposefully across the yard to drink directly from the water pump.
There was a smell of damp straw, the sweet, summer barley odour that comes to dry land before a downpour. “There’ll be a storm before we get back,” she said to the dog.
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