Redemption of a Fallen Woman (Chapter Five)
Now that his face had imposed itself on her mind she was in no hurry to dismiss it. He was unlike any man she had ever met and he aroused her curiosity. Although he had told her a little about his home and his family there was so much more she would have liked to know. Was he married? Was there a wife waiting for him in England? It seemed likely. Such a man could have his pick of all the noble ladies in the land, but he did not seem to be a womaniser. His heart would not be easily won, but the woman who succeeded in doing that would have it for ever. She sighed. Once she had dreamed of something similar but the dream was ashes now. Her former betrothed might have had one of the oldest and most respected names in Spain but he had turned out to have feet of clay as well. With hindsight she suspected he could never have made her happy no matter how prestigious their marriage. Happiness now was not concerned with such things, only with reaching England and finding some pleasant spot where she might live in peace.
* * *
Harry leaned against a tree, listening, but apart from the gentle chirring of cicadas and the occasional rustling sound that betrayed a small animal in the grass, he heard nothing to disturb him. Having relieved Jack of the watch some time ago he could have expected a lengthy period of tedium. As it was he had plenty to occupy his mind. When he had set out for Spain he had anticipated difficulties, but nothing of this magnitude. All his concerns were centred on the past; never in a thousand years would he have imagined the advent of Elena Ruiz or the thoughts her presence would evoke. Since Badajoz his contact with women had been restricted to polite social intercourse and that by choice. All thoughts of romance were gone along with Belen. War lent intensity to love; since the future was uncertain there was always a sense of wanting to make the most of the present. At the same time was the hope that there would be a future, a home, a family. They'd made so many plans…
A twig snapped behind him, jerking him out of thought. He swung round, pointing the rifle in the direction of the sound. Then a familiar figure stepped out of the darkness.
'Elena. What are you doing here?'
'I have come to relieve you of the watch, of course.'
'Oh.' For a second or two he was completely taken aback. Then, as the recollection of their earlier conversation returned, he felt a twinge of guilt. Temporary consternation had caused him to speak rather more harshly than he'd intended. Besides, leaving a woman alone in open country in the middle of the night went right against the grain. 'There's no need.'
'I think there is.'
'We can discuss it tomorrow. You must be tired. You've had a long ride today.'
'So have you,' she replied. 'Besides, we made an agreement, did we not?'
'Well, yes, but…'
'Then I think we should start as we mean to go on.'
For a moment he was silent, then reluctantly nodded. 'Very well.'
'Concha will take over from me later.'
In spite of himself he smiled. 'You seem to be well organised.'
'I have always found it helpful. Then everyone knows where they stand.'
'Yes, quite.' He paused. 'I'll leave you to it, then.'
'Goodnight, my lord.'
He turned to go, then checked mid-stride. 'Since we're going to be spending a lot of time together we can dispense with formalities. My name is Harry.'
With that he left her. For a moment Elena stood staring after him, then smiled to herself.
'Goodnight, Harry,' she murmured.
On his return to camp Harry rolled himself in his blanket and settled down to sleep. However, in spite of fatigue it proved elusive. The thought of Elena alone in the darkness didn't help, but it was clear she wasn't going to be dissuaded. She'd been part of a guerrilla group for two years so he knew he could trust her with the job. The ground rules had just been established: she and Concha were not expecting any preferential treatment. They were comrades-in-arms and nothing more. It was undoubtedly the right decision. If this new-formed partnership was to succeed there could be no suggestion of flirtation or anything untoward. It would be better for all concerned if he continued to think of Elena as a nun. Better and safer. He sighed. If only she'd looked the part it would be easier. As it was, the nun had beauty enough to waken the dead and was disarmingly easy to talk to. No matter how he looked at it, the future seemed beset with difficulty.
* * *
They broke camp early the next day to make the most of the cool morning hours. Harry eased his horse alongside Elena's, eyeing it critically.
'Is that beast from your uncle's stable by any chance?' he asked.
'No, it would have been too risky. Concha purchased them from a livery stable. She made the owner an offer he couldn't refuse.'
'I'll wager he was delighted.'
She laughed. 'They're not exactly bloodstock, are they? But then good looks aren't everything.'
'True enough.' The horse was no longer uppermost in his mind; rather it was the way that laughter lit her face. It suited her. He thought he'd like to see her laugh more often. He couldn't help noticing either that her current attire suited her very well too, confirming all his earlier notions about her figure. Nor did he miss the pistol in her belt.
'I assume that isn't for decoration.'
'You assume correctly.'
'Where did you learn to shoot?'
'My father taught me. He thought it an essential part of my education.' Elena gave him a sideways glance. 'How do you come to speak Spanish so well?'
'I spent many years in your country during the war.'
'In the diplomatic service?'
'In the army.'
She felt a sudden knot of tension in her stomach. 'I see.' Framing her next words carefully she went on, 'You must have been involved in a lot of actions.'
'Enough to last me a lifetime.'
'War leaves a bitter legacy, does it not?'
The words were an uncanny echo of a former conversation, one that Harry would have preferred to forget.
'It's something I choose not to dwell on,' he said.
She nodded. 'Probably most of those who lived through it feel the same. Yet life can never be as it was before.'
'We do the best we can.'
'My sister has been lucky – Dolores, I mean. She has a good man and, now, three children.'
'Her husband is English, I collect.'
'Yes. He was a soldier too, a gentleman of means but not of high birth. They met at the start of the war. There was opposition to the match – Dolores was intended for a wealthy Spanish nobleman – but she wore our father down eventually. Our aunts never forgave either of them, of course.'
'That doesn't entirely surprise me.'
'Are you married?'
'No. I once hoped to be, but my fiancee died in the war.'
It was out almost before he'd realised, but then her question had caught him unawares. The answer awakened a host of painful memories. His jaw tightened. Belen had died because he'd failed her. If he'd followed his instinct and married her at once he could have taken her away and she would have been safe. The consequences of that decision haunted him still.
Elena surveyed him with quiet sympathy. 'I'm so sorry.'
'So am I.'
She would have liked to know more but it was clearly dangerous ground and she had no wish to alienate him. He must have been very much in love. Indeed, it seemed he still grieved for the woman he had lost. She was aware of a sensation very like envy. Her betrothed had never cared like that, had not cared at all, in fact – only she hadn't discovered it until she needed him most. The memory was bitter and she pushed it away. Harry Montague's lady had been lucky in that respect at least.
'My father died in the war.'
'Your uncle mentioned the fact.' As soon as the words were out he cursed mentally. He hadn't meant to reveal any part of that private after-dinner conversation.
Elena kept her voice level. 'Did he relate the circumstances?'
Harry hesitated, but decided it was pointless to lie. 'Briefly, yes.'
'I see.' Although it was a difficult subject she was rather relieved that her uncle had been frank with him about her past. It would save further explanations. 'Well, after what happened I could not stay in Badajoz.'
His heart leapt towards his throat. 'Badajoz?'
'Yes. My family home was there. Did not my uncle tell you that?'
'No, he said only that it was soldiers who performed the outrage. I assumed they were French.'
'Atrocities were not confined to any one military group,' she replied. 'It was British soldiers who ran amok in Badajoz and it was they who… Well, you know what happened.'
Harry shut his eyes for a moment to regain his equilibrium. He knew what had happened all right. Murder had stalked the streets then.
'What occurred there is a matter of everlasting shame to my country,' he replied.
'I imagine you can understand why my family were so keen for me to enter a convent.'
'Their view is not one I share.'
'That is fortunate for me and I'm grateful.'
'I wasn't seeking your gratitude.'
'You have it all the same.' She shot him a sideways look. 'I must apologise for embroiling you in my problems but in truth I could think of no other way out.'
'I hope you won't come to regret your decision. The journey is going to be long and hard.'
'But the company is good.'
'I'm glad that you think so.' He could only hope she wouldn't be disillusioned. Fortunately she knew relatively little about him and he wasn't about to enlighten her further.
'You would not have come on such a journey without a servant whom you trusted.'
Harry nodded. 'You're quite right. Jack Hawkes and I know each other well.'
'He is a family retainer?'
'Not exactly. He was once a member of my company. We served together during the war.'
'And then you employed him afterwards.'
'Had he no family, then?'
'None that he knows of. The company was his family in the end.'
She nodded. 'I can understand that. War creates a bond between men.'
It was an echo of his own former thought and he regarded her in surprise. 'You speak knowledgeably.'
'I have spent some time among fighting men.'
Curiosity increased. 'The guerrilla force your uncle mentioned?'
'That's right. Does it shock you?'
'I own to surprise. It's not the role I would immediately have associated with you.'
'It was that or the convent.'
'But were you not engaged to be married?'
'My betrothed broke off our engagement.'
Harry was conscious of having strayed onto dangerous ground. He sensed the hurt beneath the level tone and felt awkward. Clearly these were personal matters which he had no right to probe.
'More fool him,' he replied.
The words carried no discernible trace of irony. Elena eyed him askance, momentarily taken aback. At the same time the memory she had tried to suppress resurfaced. It ought not to have hurt any more, and she was disconcerted to discover that it did. With an effort she kept her tone neutral.
'It would have shamed him to marry me.'
'Why? You had been through a dreadful experience and you did what you thought you had to afterwards.'
'Yes, but I was dishonoured all the same. He was very polite but he made it quite clear that marriage was out of the question.' She lifted her chin. 'I realised then that he felt nothing for me at all.'
The scene was still horribly vivid, the details etched on her memory. The Barilla family estate was outside the city, but Jose had come to find Elena when news of the rioting troops reached him. His shock on seeing the destruction they had wreaked was plain, but it was as nothing when he understood what had happened to her father, and to the female members of the household. Elena had been so relieved to see him that she hadn't considered what might lie beneath his evident abhorrence. More than anything she wanted him to take her in his arms, to make her feel safe. However, on entering the vandalised salon where she waited, he left a yard of space between them and made no attempt to close the gap.
'I should have been here to protect you,' he said.
'They would have killed you, Jose.'
'Better that than such dishonour.'
'The dishonour is not yours,' she replied. 'It belongs to those who committed the deed.'
'Yet the taint can never be expunged.' He let out a long breath. 'I imagine that you intend to follow your sisters to the convent.'
Elena frowned. 'Why should you imagine that?'
He stared at her. 'But surely, after what has happened there can be no other choice.'
A cold lump settled deeper in her stomach. 'No other choice?'
'You must see that we cannot marry now. It is impossible.'
'Elena, there may be consequences to the events that took place here.'
'You mean I may have conceived a child.'
He winced. 'It is a possibility. You must know that.'
'I will know soon enough.' She paused. 'And if there is not a child?'
He shook his head. 'After such a violation I cannot consider… I have my family to think of. You must see that.'
'I do see. I think I'm truly seeing for the first time.'
He ignored the implication and stolidly maintained the calm, reasonable tone. 'The wisest course for you now is to enter a convent. You have become soiled goods. No man of good family can marry you after what has happened.'
Elena felt as though she had been turned to stone. It couldn't be happening. This stranger could not be Jose; he only looked like him. She wanted to shake him, to scream, to weep, to plead with him not to abandon her but she did none of those things, knowing that it would be useless. Gathering the shredded remains of pride she lifted her chin.
'You're right, of course. I was foolish to think anything else.'
He nodded. 'I wish it had been otherwise, Elena, from the bottom of my heart.'
'Your heart? If you possess one at all it was never mine.'
'Go, Jose. Just go.'
For a moment he looked as though he were about to answer but then thought better of it. Instead he had turned away and walked out of her life for good….
'He felt nothing for me,' she repeated.
Harry regarded her steadily. 'In that case you were well rid of him.'
'So I think, now.'
He hesitated, but the urge to know overcame reticence. 'Were you in love with him?'
'I thought I was. He was young, handsome, wealthy, educated, amusing – all the things a young woman could want in a suitor.' She smiled wryly. 'I see now that I was in love with the idea of him. Of course I was younger then and very naive. It never occurred to me to look beneath the superficial charm. I accepted it all at face value.'
'We've all done that at some point in our lives.'
'It is painful to discover that the idol has feet of clay.'
'There must have been other admirers since.'
Her expression grew cool. 'I have not sought them.'
Again he could have kicked himself. 'Forgive me. That was confoundedly tactless. It's just that a woman like you would always excite admiration.'
'My time was spent planning ambushes and fighting. Romance played no part in it.'
'I didn't mean to imply anything untoward.' He paused. 'You might have got yourself killed.'
'At the time I didn't care. But, as it turned out, I never suffered any serious injury. It was as though I bore a charmed life.'
'I'm glad of it.'
Again the tone was sincere. Moreover, he was not critical of her actions and nor was he judgemental. After the opprobrium she had suffered of late it was a pleasant and unexpected change. But then he was unexpected in so many ways. It occurred to her to wonder then what might have happened if she had met such a man when she was younger, before the war had changed her life for ever. For a brief instant she had a glimpse of something that was beyond all former dreams of romance. It was followed by a sensation of sadness and loss. Her throat tightened. Such happiness as that was afforded to few, and it certainly didn't include her.
They stopped at midday to rest their mounts and then, having eaten and taken a short siesta, resumed their journey. It was late afternoon when they heard other horses approaching, a large group riding fast. Elena's stomach lurched and she darted a look at Concha. The other woman's face revealed the same misgivings. Jack Hawkes looked at his master.
'Should we pull off t'road and let 'em pass, my lord?'
'Yes, and let's hope that passing is their intention.'
Jack glanced at the women. 'Do you think it might be…'
'I don't know but I expect we're about to find out.'
They had no sooner reined aside than the oncoming group swept around the bend. Harry counted a dozen riders; depressing odds if they were local brigands. His jaw tightened. The leading horsemen saw them and he heard a shout. There could be no doubt now that they were the target. The thunder of hooves came closer. His hand moved towards the Baker rifle in the saddle boot, then paused. Had he and Jack been alone he wouldn't have hesitated, but the women's presence made him reluctant to draw fire.
'What do you want to do, my lord?'
'Nothing, yet,' he replied.
Before they could say more, the oncoming riders were upon them. In moments the little group was surrounded and a dozen pistols trained in their direction. Judging from their stony expressions, the bearers would very much have liked to use the weapons and clearly wouldn't hesitate if given the order. Then, through the swirling dust, Harry recognised the man who led them. Don Manuel reined in a few yards away.
'Did you really think to get away with this, my lord?' He glowered at Elena. 'Or you either?'
Elena's stomach wallowed. This was rapidly assuming the proportions of a nightmare. She had miscalculated badly to assume that her uncle would wash his hands of her, and now innocent people were caught up in her botched plan. She directed an agonised glance at Harry but he failed to see it: his attention was focused squarely on her uncle.
'I can explain, senor.'
Don Manuel regarded him with cold contempt. 'I'm not interested in your explanation. I welcomed you in good faith and gave you all possible assistance. In return you have betrayed my hospitality in the basest way possible, and you have brought dishonour to my house.'
'I understand why you might think so, but the situation is not what it seems.'
'The situation is perfectly clear, my lord. I can only lament that a man of your rank and birth should have stooped to such subterfuge.'
Harry held on to his temper. 'There was no subterfuge here.'
'Do not compound your crime with falsehood.'
'I resent both those suggestions, senor.'
'You resent? It is I who am the injured party here and you who have violated my trust.'
Unable to remain silent any longer, Elena interjected. 'No. He was not to blame.'
Don Manuel glared at her. 'Lies won't save him. He will learn what it means to besmirch the noble name of Urbieta.'
'What do you mean to do?'
'He and his treacherous henchman will hang from yonder tree. When it is done you will be delivered directly to the convent and your name will never be mentioned in my house again.' Don Manuel turned to his servants. 'Bind these men.'
She stared at him in appalled disbelief. However, it became horribly clear that her uncle meant every word. Under his flinty gaze, four of his men dismounted and advanced on Harry and Jack. Despite strong resistance, they were dragged from their horses and manhandled across the intervening space to be brought before their judge. Sick with dread now Elena flung herself off her own mount and ran to stand with them.
'They are innocent. They had no knowledge of my intended escape. I used their departure to cover my own. It was only later when they were embarked upon their journey that Concha and I came up with them.'
The maid nodded. 'It is true, senor.'
Don Manual directed a quelling glance her way. 'Silence, wench! You are as complicit as the rest and you will be punished accordingly. Were you a man I'd have you hanged. As it is you may count yourself fortunate to be let off with a flogging.'
Concha paled but she did not lower her gaze.
'She was obeying my orders,' said Elena. 'No blame attaches to her either. If your anger must fall on someone, let it fall on me. Lord Henry did not wish to take us along with him but he would not abandon us either. He had no choice but to do what he did.'
'He should have brought you back at once.'
'I did not wish to return and he would not force me to do so.'
'I can well imagine he would not. No doubt he had other plans for a slut such as you.'
A muscle jumped in Harry's jaw. 'You are insulting, senor. I will not permit such imputations to be made.'
'Can you deny that it was part of your scheme?'
'I certainly do deny it. My intention was to escort the lady to England in accordance with her wishes, and that is all.'
Elena glanced at Harry and then met her uncle's gaze. 'He's telling the truth.'
'He is, senor,' said Concha, 'though you flog me for saying so.'
Don Manuel scowled at them but made no immediate reply. Elena's heart pounded in her breast.
'The fault is mine, Uncle. I swear this on my parents' graves.'
'Even if Lord Henry was not the instigator of the plan,' said Don Manuel, 'he has been instrumental in bringing dishonour to the family name.'
Harry's eyes glinted. 'If you seek satisfaction, senor, you may have it.'
'No,' said Elena. 'I would not have any bloodshed on my account.'
'Have no fear. I would not sully my blade in so sordid a matter,' replied her uncle. 'Yet this dishonour must be expunged.' He fixed Harry with a gimlet stare. 'If your intentions are honourable as you claim, my lord, then you will prove it.'
'How may I do so?'
'By taking my niece to wife. You shall marry her this very day. If not I shall have you and your servant hanged and she will go to the cloister.'
The pronouncement was met with dumbfounded silence. Elena's cheeks went paper-white.
'Uncle, this is not…'
'Enough! Which is it to be, my lord?'
Harry knew there was only one possible answer now and he gave it.