Redemption of a Fallen Woman (Chapter Twenty-Two)

When the introductions had been performed, Jamie took her hand and raised it to his lips.

'This is an honour I did not think to have,' he said.

Elena smiled. 'Nor I, my lord.'

'I had no idea that my brother's taste was so exquisite.'

'You have no idea how jealous a husband he is either,' said Harry, 'so you'd best have a care.'

Jamie grinned. 'How on earth did you find anything so beautiful? There's no justice.'

'I have no complaints to make about my lot.'

'I should say you haven't.' Jamie leaned confidentially towards Elena. 'I really must relate some of his boyhood adventures. You'll find them most entertaining.'

Her eyes sparkled. 'I should like to hear them, my lord.'

'Such formality is inappropriate between brother and sister. Won't you just call me Jamie?'

'If you wish it.'

'I do wish it. I hope we shall be good friends, you and I.'

Harry uttered a theatrical groan. 'I'm lost.'

'I rather think you are, brother.'

'If you plan to dredge up all the misdemeanours of my youth, I give you fair warning that I shall retaliate in kind.'

Jamie's expression was indicative of mock dismay. 'Hmm. Perhaps we might call a truce there.'

Elena eyed them both speculatively. 'You will do no such thing, for I am determined to hear all these stories, and once I have made up my mind I am not to be dissuaded.'

'Now you've done it,' said Harry.

'Can't you talk her out of it?'

'Not a hope.'

She laughed. 'How right you are.'

* * *

When they all met for dinner that evening Elena thought she had never seen Harry look so happy. It positively radiated off him. From time to time she would intercept a glance which only reinforced the impression. While it pleased her to see his joy it also saddened her to know that only others could call it forth. That, it seemed, was beyond her power.

With a determined effort she pushed these gloomy reflections aside, reminding herself that there was much to be thankful for. This outcome was beyond her wildest dreams. Now it had happened she settled down to observe. The longer she spent in their company the more apparent it was that these two men were brothers. They had the same quiet good breeding, the same polished manners, the same charm. They even shared some of the same mannerisms. Harry had once told her he'd looked up to his brother and it was true.

Yet there were differences too. Notwithstanding his obvious physical injuries, there was something about the older man that suggested private sadness, as though the experiences of the past two years had scarred him in other ways. Like Harry he was good at controlling his facial expression but his eyes were more eloquent. There were things that he had not said, events he had not yet recounted. However, they were none of her business. If he chose to tell Harry that was their affair.

It was late when the party broke up. Jamie eventually left them, promising to return on the morrow.

'You'd better keep your word,' said Harry, 'or there'll be the devil to pay.'

'Trust me.'

'I do.'

Jamie turned to Elena. 'I cannot recall the last time I spent so agreeable an evening. I hope to have the pleasure often repeated.'

'And I,' she replied.

'Until tomorrow, then.'

They went with him to the door of the inn and watched him mount his horse. Then with a final wave he left them.

'I like your brother very much,' said Elena as she and Harry strolled back to their room.

'He likes you, that's certain.'

'I'm glad.' She looked up at him. 'What an incredible day this has been. I shall never forget it if I live to be a hundred.'

'Nor I.'

'I did not believe in miracles, but I have been proved wrong.'

'I think we were both wrong about that,' he replied.

'We have been given more than I ever dreamed possible.'

'I know what you mean.'

'If anyone had told me three months ago that things would work out so well I should have called him a liar.'

He drew her closer. 'You helped to make it happen.'

'I'm glad of it,' she replied, 'and I'm happy for you, Harry.'

'There's only one fly in the ointment now, my sweet.'

'What fly?'

He summarised the relevant part of his conversation with Jamie. Elena was incredulous.

'You mean to say that Alicia is not his wife?'

'That's exactly what I mean to say.'

'Then the child is not…'

'The rightful heir? No, he is not.'

'The woman must be a most accomplished liar to have deceived everyone so well.'

'Indeed she is, though I suspect she was put up to it.'

'By whom?'

'That's what we need to find out,' he replied.

'What a shock this will be for your family.'

'It's better that they know the truth as soon as possible. That's why we shall have to leave for England immediately.'

'I can see that.'

'Shall you mind, Elena?'

'No, of course not.' She held his gaze. 'It is the start of a whole new adventure for us.'

'So it is,' he replied. 'The most exciting one yet.'

She knew that any adventure would be acceptable as long as she was with him. If she had only been able to win his heart life would have been perfect.

* * *

In spite of having retired late, Elena woke the next morning with the light. A sideways glance revealed that Harry was still asleep. She watched him for a little while and then, carefully, so as not to disturb him she rose and dressed. Wrapping her shawl about her shoulders she slipped from the room and closed the door quietly behind her.

After that she went to find Concha. As she had hoped the maid was already up and, just then, sitting in the public dining room engaged in quiet conversation with Jack. The room was empty but for the two of them, and, although they were sitting on opposite sides of a table, there was something about their expressions that rendered the little scene strangely intimate. For a moment she felt like an intruder. Then they became aware of her presence. Both reddened a little and rose hurriedly. Concha was first to recover her wits, regarding her mistress with concern.

'Dona Elena. Is something amiss?'

'Nothing at all,' she replied. 'However, there is something I need to do. Will you come with me?'

Concha nodded. 'Of course. I will fetch my shawl at once.'

As she hastened away Elena turned to Jack. 'If my husband asks for me tell him I am gone out but will be back soon.'

'I will, my lady.' Jack paused. 'Am I to tell him where you've gone?'

'No, I'll do that myself when I return.'

'Very good, my lady.'

A few moments later Concha reappeared and the two women departed, leaving Jack staring after them in silent bemusement.

* * *

Harry stirred and stretched lazily in a pleasant waking doze. As memory returned he smiled to himself, enveloped in a sense of well-being and contentment. After the uncertainty of recent weeks all was well with the world at last. He turned and reached for Elena, wanting to share the moment. His arm found empty space and a cooling sheet. He came to at once. Propping himself on one elbow he scanned the room swiftly and, finding no sign of her, frowned. A more detailed inspection revealed that her clothing was gone too. Feeling oddly bereft and vaguely disquieted now he rose and dressed in his turn. Then he summoned Jack. An enquiry elicited the message that Elena had left for him. Harry looked at the other man in astonishment.

'Gone out? At this hour?'

'Aye, my lord.'

'And she didn't say where?'

'No, my lord. She said she'd explain on her return.'

Harry couldn't imagine where she might have gone but, feeling reassured to learn that she was attended by Concha, he forbore to question Jack any further. No doubt the mystery would be cleared up in due course. He ran a hand over the bristles on his chin. In the meantime he needed to shave.

* * *

For a little while the two women walked in companionable silence until Elena noticed the covert glances directed her way.

'What is it, Concha? Is there something on your mind?'

'Jack has asked me to marry him.'

Elena stared at her. 'Good gracious! Has he?' Then, recollecting herself, she hurried on. 'Not that it's to be wondered at. He always did seem like a sensible man.'

Concha reddened a little. 'I think so too.'

'What did you tell him?'

'That I would consider his proposal.'

'I see.' Elena surveyed her steadily. 'You like him though.'

'Yes. I didn't at first…well, not much anyway, but he has grown on me since then.'

'I had a strong suspicion he liked you.'

'He says he loves me.'

The words caused a pang of something very like envy. Elena forced it down. 'Then if you both feel the same why should you hesitate?'

'I said that I could not think of marrying him until you are safely settled in your new home.'

'Concha, you have devoted years of your life to my welfare. It's time to think of your own happiness.'

'Jack says he doesn't mind waiting. Besides, I think it will be a wrench for him to leave His Lordship's service.'

'Is he planning to do so?'

'He means to set up in business.'

Elena's eyes widened. 'What manner of business?'

'A coaching inn, he says.'

'How exciting.'

'He has the means to do it. Apparently the war was not a total disaster, financially at least.'

'Shall you like living in a coaching inn?'

'The idea is not without appeal. I have the necessary domestic knowledge, and Jack is a good organiser. He was an army sergeant before so he'll be able to deal with staff, and he knows a lot about horses too.'

'You'll make a perfect team.'

Concha nodded. 'I think we might.'

'If it's what you want you have my blessing.'

'Thank you.'

'Has Jack spoken to His Lordship yet?'

'He will not, until he has my answer.'

'Then I will say nothing either. It will be our secret for now.'

They lapsed into silence again, each rapt in thought. The conversation had given Elena much food for thought. While she was pleased for Concha the emotion was also tinged with sadness because with her went the last connection to Spain. Concha had been like her right arm for so long that it was hard to imagine being without her. Adversity had drawn them close so that in many ways she had been more like a sister than a servant. Losing her would be hard indeed.

Elena pulled herself up sharply. If anyone deserved happiness it was Concha. Jack was a good man. He had proved his worth many times over and he would no doubt make a fine husband. She had won his heart besides. Elena was tempted to ask how it was done. If there was a secret she didn't have it. Harry might care for her, but it was Belen he loved.

These thoughts occupied her until she reached her destination and stopped outside an imposing building. Concha regarded the church with undisguised astonishment.

'Is this the place, Dona Elena?'

'Yes, this is the place.'

Now that she was here Elena felt unexpectedly nervous and she hesitated. Concha eyed her quizzically.

'Are you all right? You look a little pale.'

'It's just that, having turned my back on the Tenant for so long, it feels like a real cheek to turn up at His house out of the blue like this.'

'Well, I suppose you could have sent a note beforehand,' said Concha, 'but since the Tenant is reputed to be omniscient that would seem to be unnecessary.'

Elena smiled wryly. 'A fair point.'

'Besides, if we're not wanted here I expect He'll make His displeasure known.'

'Lightning bolts?'

'Possibly.'

'I think I'll risk it,' said Elena. 'Seriously though, if you'd prefer to wait here I'll understand. You don't have to come in.'

'Actually I think I do.'

'Right, then.' Elena took a deep breath. 'Ready?'

'Ready.'

Elena pushed open the door and together they went inside.

* * *

Harry was beginning to feel concerned. The two women had been gone over an hour and there was still no sign of them. He was about to send Jack out to look when Elena entered the private parlour. Relief replaced anxiety.

'I was starting to worry,' he said. 'Are you all right?'

'Of course. Did you not receive my message?'

'I did, but that was a while ago.'

'I didn't mean to cause you anxiety.'

He hesitated, wanting to ask her where she'd been but fearing to sound like a domineering husband. Elena took off her shawl and bestowed a kiss on his cheek. He slid an arm about her waist.

'I missed you.'

'I missed you too,' she replied, 'but I had to go out. It was important.'

'What was important, sweetheart?'

'I went to church.'

For a moment or two his expression registered blank astonishment. He'd thought of half a dozen possible explanations for her absence but none had even come close.

'Church?'

'It was time.'

He recovered his wits. 'If you felt it to be so, then it undoubtedly was.'

'I have been angry about the past for long enough, Harry. The events of recent weeks have made me see that clearly. I wanted to let go of it once and for all, but in order to do that I needed to make my peace with God.'

'You don't have to explain yourself to me, my sweet.'

'I know, but I want to all the same. Apart from Concha you are the only person who can truly understand.'

'An unorthodox trinity if ever there was one, but I'm proud to be part of it.'

'I want to make you proud.'

'You already do, in every way.'

'We have so much to be thankful for and so much to look forward to. There's no place for negative emotion.'

'You're right, there isn't.' He sighed. 'It's like a bad habit and just as hard to break.'

'But it can be broken – if we want it enough.'

'You never had anything to reproach yourself for.'

'Neither do you, Harry, and I think it's time you realised it.' Her gaze locked with his. 'What happened in Badajoz wasn't your fault. It was a chain of extraordinary circumstances that led to tragedy.'

'That's part of it.'

'That's all of it. You mustn't let it blight your life for evermore.'

His hold slackened. 'You speak as though I were somehow permitting it.'

It might have been wiser to let it pass, but she knew she wasn't going to. This had to be addressed. Too much depended on it.

'Aren't you?'

'Even you cannot understand…'

'Who should understand better than I? Or do you think that somehow you have a monopoly on shame and grief?'

'I have never claimed to do so.'

'Then stop wallowing in it.'

His gaze grew steely. 'Is that what you think?'

'It's exactly what I think,' she retorted. Then, as he opened his mouth to reply, 'How would I know? Because I did the same so I recognise all the symptoms. You bury the hurt and never talk about it with anyone, hoping it'll go away. But it never does. Instead it embeds itself more firmly and then festers like an infected wound.'

'It was my way of dealing with it.'

'Yet guilt consumes you still, even though it has no basis in anything but distorted imagination.'

His jaw tightened. 'Elena, leave this.'

'Pretend it isn't happening?' She shook her head. 'It's too late for that.'

'What do you want me to do?'

'I want you to forgive yourself and move on. You're throwing away the future because you won't let go of the past.'

'That isn't so. I want us to have a future.'

Elena's dark gaze burned into his. 'No, Harry, the woman you want is dead. She's the one you cling to, and she's the one who has your heart.'

'What?'

'You have made your feelings abundantly clear. I suppose I should just be grateful that you care anything for me at all.'

She turned on her heel and left him staring in thunderstruck silence at the open doorway. For a moment or two his mind was completely blank. Then the details of a former conversation returned with appalling clarity.

'Elena, wait!'

He strode after her and caught up as she reached their chamber. She tried to evade him but he bundled her unceremoniously inside and shut the door behind them. Elena glared at him.

'Leave me alone, Harry.'

'Not until we sort this out.'

'Can you pretend you don't love Belen?'

'When I spoke of those events I was describing my emotions then, not now.'

'Emotions you still felt a few days ago.'

'Not so,' he replied. 'I told you what my feelings were.'

'Ah, yes. You care for me. You love her.'

'If I had thought that you would so misconstrue the matter I'd have set the record straight.'

'You had the chance to set the record straight, but you didn't take it.'

'Because I'm a damned fool. You were right when you said that I hide my feelings. It has become a habit with me and perhaps a defence too.'

'A defence against what?'

'Against the knowledge of what you made me feel.'

Elena regarded him in surprise but checked the urge to interrupt.

'I tried to deny it at first,' he went on, 'but your honesty and your courage made me examine my own behaviour. It didn't make for comfortable viewing.' He paused. 'When you declared your feelings so openly…well, I wasn't expecting it even if they were the words I'd most wanted you to say.'

She swallowed hard. 'Do you mean that?'

'Yes, I do mean that. I love you, Elena.'

It was so welcome and so unexpected that it was hard to take in at first. 'Then you don't still…you're not…'

'No, I'm not. That chapter of my life is over. I want to move on – with you. You are my love now.'

'I want to be, Harry.'

His heart gave a painful lurch. 'I don't deserve that you should but I'm glad all the same.'

Elena regarded him in heart-thumping silence for some seconds, then returned a quizzical look. 'How glad exactly?'

He took her in his arms and proceeded to show her with a lingering kiss that removed every last trace of doubt.

* * *

Later that morning Jamie arrived. They joined him in the private parlour. Elena thought his face had more colour now than it had erewhile, his eyes more sparkle. His whole manner seemed generally more animated. Perhaps the previous day's meeting had been good for him too. She hoped so. Her own happiness was such that she wanted everyone else to be happy.

'Would you like to talk alone?' she asked.

'No, please stay,' replied Jamie. 'Since what we must discuss now involves you as well.'

'As you wish.'

When Elena had sat down they followed suit.

'I'm glad you are come,' said Harry. 'Quite apart from the pleasure of seeing you, we need to discuss what happens next.'

Jamie smiled. 'Yes, we do.'

'Will you be returning to England with Elena and me?'

'I regret not, although I hope I shall not be far behind you.'

'The loose ends you mentioned yesterday?'

'Just so.'

'Very well.' Harry paused. 'I trust this won't involve you in further danger.'

'You need have no fears on that score.'

'That's a relief.'

'I plan to keep a whole skin, I promise you.' Jamie held his brother's gaze. 'The important thing now is to let the family know I'm alive and to expose the fraudulent claim to the title.'

'Trust me for that. We should be back within a month at the outside.'

'You should have no difficulty in getting a passage. Ships regularly ply their trade between here and England.'

'So I believe.'

'The sooner this scheming upstart is confronted the better. We need to know who masterminded the plan. He's the real villain of the piece.'

'We'll find out all right.'

'What will happen to the culprits?' asked Elena.

'They'll hang,' said Jamie.

She shivered inwardly. 'I wonder if this woman was aware of that when she agreed to the plan.'

'If not she's about to be made aware of it.' He eyed Harry. 'That may just be the leverage required to get the whole story.'

Harry nodded. 'Exactly what I was thinking.'

'I'll leave the matter in your capable hands for the time being.'

'Don't be too long.'

'I won't. In the meantime, we need to organise your passage home.'