Redemption of a Fallen Woman (Chapter Eighteen)

Later they rose and dressed. Elena donned one of her muslin gowns. It was a little creased from the saddlebag but, having been on one of the pack horses, it was at least dry. Then she combed her hair and arranged it in a simple knot. Scanning her reflection in the mirror she thought the result was a vast improvement on the bedraggled creature she had been only a few hours ago.

Harry appeared over her shoulder. He slid his arms around her waist and dropped a kiss in the hollow of her neck. The touch set her skin tingling. She smiled and turned round, twining her arms around his neck. Then she kissed him back.

He looked into her face. 'Have you any idea what a bewitching creature you are?'

'If you want to tell me I'm prepared to listen.'

'I'd rather show you than tell you.' A more lingering kiss followed this. Then he drew back again. 'I wanted to do that the very first time I set eyes on you, but I didn't dare. Of course, I was thinking of you as a would-be nun at the time.'

'I hope you are over that misapprehension.'

'The extent of the error is now clear to me.'

'I'm glad of that.'

'I was happy to be corrected.' He glanced over her shoulder towards the window. 'It seems to have stopped raining at last. Would you care for a walk? We should be in time to join the evening paseo.'

'The paseo would be lovely.'

Just then he could have suggested that they clean all the muddy tack or muck out the stables. It wouldn't have mattered as long as they were together. After so many years of independence the extent of her neediness now took her unawares, like the deep-seated emotion she felt for this man. She didn't know when she had begun to love Harry, only that she did. It was no young girl's infatuation this time, but a lifelong passion. To lose him would be to lose a part of herself.

They strolled in companionable silence for a while, enjoying the relative novelty of a dry evening. The air was clear, scrubbed clean of haze and smelling pleasantly of wet earth and vegetation and wood smoke. The light was fading now and, when they reached the local plaza, lanterns had already been lit. As Harry had predicted the cessation of the rain had brought others out of doors for the customary evening stroll. Above them the sinking sun laced the clouds with streaks of red and gold. Harry eyed it with increasing optimism.

'I think this might well clear by morning.' He paused. 'Will you be strong enough to resume the journey by then?'

Elena smiled. 'I shall be quite able to do so.'

'Are you sure? It won't matter if you want to leave it a little longer.'

'What matters is to reach Cadiz and find Sanchez.'

'All the same,' he said, 'you've had a nasty experience.'

'Thanks to you it wasn't much worse.'

'I once failed two people who trusted me. I'll not let that happen again.'

Elena looked up quickly. 'What happened to Belen was not your fault, Harry.' She took a deep breath. 'Nor was Captain Radcliffe's death.'

It stopped him in his tracks and, drawing her aside, he fixed her with a piercing stare. 'What do you know of Radcliffe?'

Her heart began to thump. Had she ruined everything with yet another inappropriate remark? It was too late to retract it now. The only way was forwards. With a calm she was far from feeling, she met his eye.

'Jack told me what happened.'

'Did he indeed?'

'You must not be angry with him – it was I who solicited for answers.' She paused. 'After you told me about Badajoz I guessed there were still things that had been left unsaid.'

'With good reason.'

'I wanted to understand and Jack was the key.'

'Jack only knows part of the truth.'

Her gaze met and held his. 'He told me that you risked your own life to try and save your friend. There's nothing shameful in that.'

'It was not enough.'

'The odds were overwhelming and those men were crazy with drink and bloodlust.' She shuddered. 'Nothing would have stopped them. I was there, Harry, and I know this for truth. It was the stuff of nightmares.'

He paused. 'Do you still dream about it?'

'Sometimes.'

'I did not understand the meaning of nightmare until Badajoz.'

'It was a miracle that those men did not kill you too.'

'But for Jack they would have done. For a long time I wished they had.' He let out a ragged breath. 'John Radcliffe was a fine officer and one of the most decent men I ever met. I was privileged to know him and to be numbered among his friends.'

'If he was all you say, he would not wish you to carry a burden of blame for what happened.'

'Even so…'

'What if things had been the other way round? Would you have blamed him?'

'Of course not.'

'Well, then, why do you continue to blame yourself?'

'Radcliffe's death is the least of my guilt,' he replied.

'I don't understand.'

'I know you don't.'

His expression sent a chill through her, but having come so far she was not prepared to duck the issue any more. Too much depended on it. 'I want to, Harry.'

'I warn you now, it isn't pretty.'

Her gaze burned into his. 'The past isn't pretty? No one knows that better than I, but if you want us to have the future you spoke of, we have to face the truth no matter how ugly it is.'

For a long moment he was silent. Then he nodded slowly. 'All right.'

Elena waited, her eyes never wavering from his.

'The shock of Radcliffe's murder was profound, yet by the end of that night what I felt was not grief. It was bitter resentment. He was the reason I could not save Belen. If I had gone straight to the house I might have got her out, but as those brutes attacked him, he called out my name, you see.' He swallowed hard. 'So I stopped to help him.'

'You could not have done anything else. You could not leave your friend to die.'

'And yet afterwards I wished I had.' He paused. 'I would have sacrificed my best friend to save Belen.'

Elena paled, trying and failing to find the right words, as her mind wrestled with the implications of what she had just heard. Harry, seeing her expression, thought he understood it.

'Now you know what kind of man you have married.'

'You did the honourable thing and still lost two people whom you loved. It is hardly surprising that you should feel conflicting emotions about it.'

'Conflicting emotions? Say rather, perfidy.'

'You judge yourself too harshly.'

'And how do you judge me, Elena?'

'As a man trying to come to terms with a nightmare.'

The grey gaze locked with hers. 'Do you still want a future with him?'

For a moment she was dumbfounded. Then, with an effort, she recovered her wits. 'Yes, I still want that.'

'It's more than I deserve.'

'You deserve to be happy. I should like to make you so.'

'You do make me happy.'

He did not speak of love, but she was glad that he did not try and pretend. In any case, what would have been the point when he had just revealed where his deeper feelings lay? Harry cared for her, but it was Belen who held his heart. For her he would have sacrificed his friend, his fortune and his life. Elena had once dreamed of finding a love like that, had hoped it would be with Harry, but knew now it wasn't going to happen. She had heard it said that in any relationship one heart was always warmer than the other. Clearly she would have to be that one. She summoned a tremulous smile.

'I'm glad.'

They resumed their walk round the square and then, by tacit consent, began to retrace their steps to the inn. Neither one spoke but now the silence had a different texture. Pretence was at an end between them, as she had wanted it to be, but it had not brought a lightening of the spirit. Instead it had killed off her most cherished ambition. Now she could only hope that she had enough love for two.

* * *

As Harry had predicted, the following day dawned fair. Moreover, their wet garments had dried out and, since they were in town, they were able to restock their provisions before continuing with their journey. The roads were still sticky but the sun would dry them in a few hours.

'At least we'll be free of dust for a while,' said Concha.

Elena nodded. 'Yes, there is that.'

The end was almost in sight now and she was glad for Harry, knowing that what he sought was almost within his grasp. She allowed her imagination to move ahead, to England, when they could live properly as man and wife. How much she wished for that. She would do everything in her power to make it work. Even if she was not the love of his life it did not mean that they could not be happy together. Plenty of married couples were in the same situation but they managed well enough and perhaps, in time, he might develop deeper feelings for her.

After so many years of wandering and uncertainty the thought of having a proper home held a strong appeal. She wanted to visit his home too, wanted to meet his family, to be part of something once more. She even began to entertain the hope of children one day. It would be good to give Harry a son – several sons, perhaps. That inspired other, deeply pleasurable thoughts. She smiled ruefully. For the next few days they would have to camp in the open again which meant that they would no longer have the privacy they had enjoyed before. For that reason alone Cadiz could not come soon enough.

'You look thoughtful,' said Concha.

'I was thinking about England.'

'Ah, yes. It will be interesting to see, no?'

'I believe it will.'

'Do you think it really rains as much as Jack said?'

'I sincerely hope not,' said Elena.

'What about living in a foreign country? Does it not worry you?'

'Not unduly. I suppose it will be strange at first, but in time I imagine that will change.'

'Customs may be very different there.'

'Some of them, no doubt.'

'Well, at least we won't have a problem with the language,' said Concha. 'English is a barbarous tongue but I'm glad now that I learned it.'

'Yes, life would be very difficult else.' Elena paused. 'Do you want to go to England, Concha?'

Her companion regarded her quizzically. 'Why do you ask this?'

'It's the first time I have asked. Up to now I've only made assumptions.'

'I will go where you go, as always.'

'No one could have had a more loyal companion and friend. We have been through a great deal together, you and I, but I will not ask you to live in a strange land if it is contrary to your wishes.'

'Then I will tell you directly that it is my wish to go there.' Concha glanced in Jack's direction. 'Even if some of the inhabitants are a bit odd.'

Elena grinned and lowered her voice. 'That is not so much concerned with Englishness as with being a male.'

Concha gave a snort of laughter. 'Asi? Well, you may be right. I'll be able to judge much better when we get there.'

For all her light-hearted words to Concha, male behaviour was very much on Elena's mind. After that last discussion about Badajoz and the revelations concerning Radcliffe, the matter had not been mentioned again. To all outward appearance, Harry was quite himself. He was courteous and considerate, but she sensed the underlying tension in him. Moreover, although he discussed neutral subjects readily enough, he never touched on the personal. Elena didn't make any attempt to do so either, guessing he still had much to come to terms with. That would only be achieved in his own time. All the same, it saddened her to be shut out of his confidence.

As the sun returned and dried the road they made good progress. The following afternoon Jack bagged a hare. Later, when they made camp, Concha went foraging for herbs. Those went into the pot as well, along with onions and potatoes from their supplies, and that night they dined off delicious hot stew.

'You cook well, lass,' said Jack appreciatively. 'I say that for you.'

Concha's lips twitched. 'Praise indeed.'

'Aye, well, credit where credit's due.'

'I'll try not to let it go my head.'

'I'm sure it won't. I never met anyone less conceited.'

To Elena's surprise, Concha's cheeks turned an attractive shade of pink and, for the first time since the start of the journey, she made no reply. Elena looked at Harry and intercepted a quiet smile.

'Where did you learn to cook, lass?' Jack continued.

'From my mother mostly,' Concha replied.

'She must have been good, then.'

'She was skilled at making nourishing meals out of very little.'

Jack nodded. 'It's a real art is that.'

'The poor learn it early.'

'That they do, lass. They learn about hunger an' all.'

'After we entered the service of Dona Elena's late, honoured father, hunger never troubled us again,' said Concha.

'He were a good man by all accounts.'

'The best of men,' she replied. 'But for him we would both have perished. When want drove my mother to steal fruit from his orchard, Don Pedro's steward apprehended her. If it had been up to him she would have hanged and I would have starved. However, Don Pedro listened to her story. Instead of hanging her he gave her employment in his house, and he permitted her to bring me too. We never gave him cause to repent it.'

Jack's expression was hard to read but his eyes said a great deal more. 'I'll wager you didn't. Such men are rare indeed.'

'Yes, they are. I was privileged to have known him.'

'Aye, you were. Would that I'd met such a man when I were a lad.'

Elena reflected that her father would probably have liked Jack Hawkes. While Don Pedro wouldn't stand any nonsense, he had ever been a man to recognise determination and courage. Unfortunately the point was academic now. Jack would never meet her father and neither would Harry. She would never see her parent again. She smiled sadly and then got to her feet.

'I'll take the first watch.'

Harry looked up quickly. 'Would you not rather rest awhile? It's not so long since your accident, after all. I'd be happy to take the first.'

'It is no matter, truly, though I thank you for the offer.'

She strolled away and, finding a suitable spot, settled down to wait. Although they had encountered no more brigands it didn't pay to be careless, especially as they were so close to their goal now. She glanced up. A clear starlit sky gave promise of more fine weather to come. That was a relief anyway. In the cooler winter season rain tended to arrive in short intense bursts which lasted a few days and then were followed by spells of unbroken sunshine.

Her thoughts went thence to England, by all accounts a much wetter land. She smiled to herself. Dolores had accustomed herself to it, so there was no reason why she should not too. She tried to visualise Castonbury Park. From what Harry had said it must be a grand house and, no doubt, a fine estate. Would his family welcome her? Would they be prepared to accept a foreigner in their midst?

Soft footfalls penetrated her consciousness. In seconds she was on her feet with a pistol in her hand.

'It's all right.' Harry hove into her line of vision. 'It's only me.'

Elena lowered the pistol and relaxed a little. 'You move so quietly.'

'Now that is hurtful. I was trying to make a noise.'

The plaintive tone raised a smile. 'Next time try harder lest you get a ball through your heart.'

'I'll bear it in mind.'

Elena regarded him quizzically but the darkness hid his expression. 'Did you wish to tell me something?'

'To ask if you're all right. I was afraid the conversation about your father might have upset you.'

'No, it didn't. I miss him but it doesn't pain me to speak of him.'

'I wish I might have known him.'

'You would have got on well, I think. The two of you would have found much common ground.'

'He's a man whose behaviour I should wish to emulate,' he replied.

In truth it was only part of the reason he was there. While he had wondered about her private reaction to the earlier conversation it also served as an excuse to be alone with her. He hadn't realised until then how much he wanted that. Fond as he was of their two companions Elena had become as necessary to him as breathing.

'We haven't spoken much since we left town,' he said. 'I didn't want you to think it was deliberate policy.'

'You've had other things on your mind.'

'Yes.'

Their earlier conversation about Captain Radcliffe had opened up a dark place to the light of day and it didn't make for pleasant viewing. At the same time he couldn't be sorry that he'd told her. Pretence was at an end and she knew now who he was. He just hoped that, in time, they could draw a line and move on.

'I hope to make up for it later,' he continued.

Her pulse quickened a little at the implications. 'I'll remember you said that.'

Harry grinned. 'I shall not need reminding.'

* * *

Four days later they got their first glimpse of the sea, a deep blue smudge against the paler horizon. As Harry pointed it out Elena stared in wide-eyed wonder.

'This is the first time I ever saw the sea,' she said.

'Or I,' said Concha.

He surveyed them in momentary shock, then, on reflection, realised it wasn't surprising. Spain was a big country and, probably, very many of its citizens never saw the sea.

'You'll soon be able to have a much closer look.'

Elena smiled. 'I can hardly wait.'

Her expression just then was indicative of almost childlike excitement and he was unexpectedly touched.

'We'll make time to look.'

'Will we see whales?'

'I don't know about whales, but there may be dolphins.'

'There was a picture of a dolphin in one of my father's books. I should very much like to see the real thing.'

'They tend to travel in groups,' he replied. 'It's quite something to behold.'

'Aye,' said Jack. 'It is that. They're playful creatures and can follow a ship for days wi'out tiring. They've even been known to help drowning sailors to safety.'

Concha regarded him askance. 'Is this another of your tall tales?'

'It's true, honest. First mate on t'troop ship told me and he swore on t'bible it were so. Cross me heart an' hope to die.'

'Well, it may be as you say.' She paused. 'What do these dolphins do the rest of the time?'

'They hunt fish, I suppose. No one knows for sure.'

'What is it like to travel on a ship?' asked Elena.

'Like being drunk, my lady, only wi'out getting merry – until you get your sea legs that is.'

'Sea legs?'

'When you grow accustomed t'movement o' t'ship.'

'Oh.' She looked at Harry. 'Does the voyage to England take long?'

'Three weeks, perhaps, a little less with fair weather and a following wind.'

'It will be an adventure.'

He eyed her with amusement. 'Have you not tired of adventures yet?'

'On the contrary, I think life would be dull without them.'

'I suppose it would. All the same, a little peace and quiet in between times would not go amiss.'

They rode on and soon the roofs of the town came into view. Situated on a peninsula, Cadiz was an important centre for shipping and trade. Its harbour was protected by a great fortress which, despite all their efforts, had never been taken by the French. A little further along the coast was Cape Trafalgar, off which the British had won their great naval victory eleven years earlier.

'It doesn't seem quite real to be here, does it?' she said.

'No. All the same, I'm glad we are.'

'Very soon now you will have the proof you need.'

He smiled. 'Let's hope so.'

Privately he was hopeful. They had come so far and endured so much. It couldn't all be for nothing.

'We'll find somewhere comfortable to lodge,' he went on. 'Then I'll make enquiries about Sanchez.'

Elena returned the smile, guessing at some of his thoughts just then. For the rest of them it was the end of a long and arduous journey; for him it was the culmination of an ambition. After that she supposed they would take ship for England. The thought filled her with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. The next few weeks were going to be filled with new experiences. After that, something infinitely more exciting beckoned. That thought turned her mind in another direction.

Since they had been on the road there had been no opportunity to share his bed. Nor had he attempted to create any others. He had told her his apparent neglect was not a matter of deliberate policy but, having waited days now for him to make a move, her patience was at an end. Clearly she was going to have to take the initiative. A few weeks ago the idea would have been unthinkable. It was still rather alarming, but now the thought excited her as well. She smiled to herself. If His English Lordship imagined that she had forgotten his promise he was much mistaken. It was he who needed reminding, after all.

They made their way through the bustling streets and at length found La Gata Negra, the hostelry that Don Manuel had recommended. In this at least his judgement had been unimpaired. Like all his other recommendations, the Black Cat was clean and orderly and employed well-trained staff. Harry bespoke accommodation and gave orders about the horses. Then they went in. A manservant showed them to their rooms.

Elena stepped over the threshold and looked around. The chamber was large and surprisingly well furnished with a bed, washstand, dresser, two chairs and a couch.

'Does it meet your requirements?' asked Harry.

'Indeed it does.' She glanced at the couch again. 'In fact, it exceeds expectation.'

He closed the door behind them. 'I hope it's the last time we'll have to do this for a while. Living out of saddlebags is all very well, but I confess I've had my fill of it.'

Elena shrugged off her jacket. 'I know what you mean.'

He dumped the saddlebags and removed his coat, tossing it onto the bed. 'Yes, but I promise you things are going to change.'

'That's good.' Elena sat down on a chair and tugged off her boots. Then, without haste, she unfastened her breeches and took those off too.

Harry watched with increasing interest. 'When I spoke of changing I didn't expect to be taken quite so literally.'

Elena untied the ribbon at the back of her neck and shook her hair loose. 'Is that a criticism?'

The accompanying sidelong look was distinctly seductive and his breathing quickened. 'By no means.'

Elena untied the laces at the neck of her shirt and let the fabric part. 'Well, I have a complaint to make.'

'Indeed? What complaint?'

'It may take some time to tell you.'

'I'm not in a hurry.'

She advanced until she stood before him. 'I'm glad to hear that, my lord, because I do require your complete attention.'

His hands came to rest on her waist. 'You have it.'

'Are you quite sure?' Her lips brushed his, lightly teasing. 'I should not like to think you were distracted.'

'Distraction would be impossible.' He nuzzled her neck. 'So tell me what displeases you.'

Her arms went around him. 'Do you know how long it is since last we made love? Six whole days!'

'Six days…seven hours…and thirty-five minutes,' he replied, punctuating each phrase with a kiss.

Elena caressed his back. 'Worse and worse.'

'I can see I'm going to have to make amends.'

'You know I have some ideas about that.'

'Really? What ideas?'

She edged closer still, moulding her body to his. Then, applying gentle pressure, she walked him slowly backwards. 'If you would like to sit down on that couch I'll explain. I think you might find it interesting.'

When he had complied Elena sat astride his lap. He raised one eyebrow.

'This does look interesting.'

'Indeed I hope so.'

Leaning forward a little she kissed him while her hands sought the fastenings of his breeches. His heartbeat quickened. He watched as, with slow deliberation, she unfastened the buttons and tugged aside the shirt beneath. Then her fingers closed round him and stroked.

'Still interested?' she asked.

Harry drew in a sharp breath. 'Oh, yes.'

The stroking continued and heat flared in his groin. In moments he was erect. Her fingers continued to tease, creating sensations so exquisite he thought he might die. She shifted position a little to accommodate him. With a groan he slid inside her. His hands cupped her buttocks, pulling her closer. Then her mouth was against his ear, nibbling the lobe softly and sending a delightful shiver the length of his body.

'Do you know I'm beginning to believe you?' she murmured.

He bent and kissed the tops of her breasts. 'I hope to convince you, but it may take some time.'

Elena grasped the hem of her shirt and casually pulled the garment off. Harry's heart performed an unwonted and exceedingly dangerous manoeuvre. Until then he'd thought he couldn't possibly be more aroused. She began to rock slowly. He gasped.

She regarded him speculatively. 'So we're going to be here for a while, then?'

He caressed her naked skin. 'Indeed we are.' His lips resumed what they had begun. 'A very…long…while.'