Redemption of a Fallen Woman (Chapter Fourteen)

Elena didn't return to the chamber she shared with Harry. The thought was intolerable just then. Feeling a great need for fresh air and open space she made her way instead to the garden behind the inn. It was walled and, thanks to a number of fruit trees between it and the buildings, relatively private. Elena paced about for a while, trying and failing to collect her thoughts amid roiling emotion. Eventually she gave it up and flung herself down on a bench beneath a tall walnut tree.

Concha found her there some time later. Having looked in all the usual places and failed to find her mistress, she guessed that Elena might have gone outside. She always preferred to be outdoors, especially on so fine a day. However, one look at her face was enough to reveal that she hadn't just come out here for the sunshine. Concha sat down beside her, regarding her in concern.

'What is it, Dona Elena? What has happened?'

Elena drew in a shuddering breath. 'I told him the truth.'

'The truth?'

'About Badajoz.'

For a moment Concha was silent. Then, with careful and deliberate calm, she said, 'Everything?'

'Yes, everything.'

'Dios mio.'

'You think I'm mad.'

'I think you must have had your reasons.'

Elena shrugged. 'My uncle had already given him the bones of the story. I just related my version.'

'And he did not take it well.'

'He took it as one might expect.'

'I see.'

'He may have suspected before that I was soiled goods, now I have confirmed it.'

Concha regarded her with alarm. 'He has not repudiated your marriage?'

'No, but he could not conceal his disgust.' Elena sighed. 'Matters had been going on so well between us and now I've ruined everything.'

'What could have induced you to rake up the past?'

'Harry was there. At Badajoz. He told me.'

'What!'

'He was an officer in the British army. He took part in the siege but he was not among those who ran riot. He said he tried to stop them.'

'It may be so,' replied Concha. 'Unfortunately nothing short of cannon could have stopped that mob.'

Elena nodded. 'I know. It's just that I was shocked to learn that he had been involved at all. He should have told me.'

'Yes, he should but perhaps he feared to.'

'These are fearful subjects but it doesn't mean we should run away from them. Running away solves nothing. It has taken me long enough to learn that.'

'I know, and you're right, of course.'

'I was angry with him.'

'That's hardly surprising.'

'As soon as he mentioned the place it all came back and suddenly I wanted him to hear my version of events.'

'Well, that is understandable.'

'I wanted to shock him and I succeeded. I saw it in his face.'

'I'll wager you did.'

Elena sighed. 'We were not the only ones to suffer, Concha. He lost his fiancee. She burned to death when the looters set fire to the house.'

'Madre de Dios. What evil deeds were done then! But if His Lordship knows all this he will surely sympathise with your situation. He cannot blame you for something that was not your fault.'

'He did not blame me,' said Elena. 'Nor could he conceal his distaste. Perhaps I should have let sleeping dogs lie.'

'Sooner or later it was going to come out. If not it would only have festered between you like an abscess.'

'But now the poison is uncontained.'

'At least it has a chance to drain.'

'I hope it may.'

Concha regarded her shrewdly. 'You care for him, don't you?'

'Yes, I care for him, but I have to be able to trust him.'

'He made a mistake in not telling you about Badajoz before, but that does not mean he is untrustworthy.'

'There is such a thing as lying by omission.'

'I cannot believe he intended it thus. It contradicts all the rest of his behaviour towards you.' Concha eyed her steadily. 'I truly believe he cares for you.'

'I thought he did but now…'

'Badajoz is emotional gunpowder and he did not handle it wisely.'

Elena sighed. 'Perhaps I am the one who did not handle it wisely.'

'A frank discussion does not destroy true affection,' said Concha. 'If he is the man I believe him to be he will not think less of you for it.'

'I hope you're right.'

Concha looked thoughtful. 'You realise there is another witness to the events at Badajoz?'

'Another?'

'Jack Hawkes was in your husband's regiment.'

As the ramifications of that statement sank in Elena was suddenly still. 'Of course.'

'It is most likely that he knows what happened to his master at that time.'

'He may not wish to speak of it.'

'If you don't ask you'll never know, will you?'

Elena pondered the matter for some time. It was not quite as straightforward as Concha had suggested. For a start the emotion was too raw. Secondly, she didn't want to go behind Harry's back, and thirdly, if Jack had been told not to speak of the matter he would not break his master's confidence. In spite of Harry's admission she was sure there were other things he was not telling her. No doubt he had his reasons for that, but his reticence hurt. Possibly he had been too shocked by her revelations. Concha was right: he could have repudiated the marriage on such grounds. Most men would have. A wife was expected to be pure. What men did was one thing. Women's behaviour was quite another and society was swift to punish perceived transgressions. Her relatives were evidence enough of that. She had thought Harry different. Of course, she had believed he had known what she was before they married. Her uncle was much to blame in that. The truth was unpalatable but it had needed to come out. Until the whole business was out in the open they could not address it.

She knew that she did want a future with Harry, that she liked him more than any man she had ever met. With him she felt truly alive. She had thought that if any man could help her overcome the past it would be him, that perhaps in his bed all evil might be eradicated. However, even before this latest debacle he seemed to have no wish to pursue that side of their marriage. Once upon a time his restraint had been a source of relief. Now it was fast becoming a source of hurt. It also marked a fundamental shift in her thinking that had crept up unnoticed. This latest revelation turned everything on its head. She had no idea where they would go from here.

When they dined together that evening he made no reference to the earlier discussion. Conversation was restricted to neutral topics. His manners were polished and courteous in every way, but the ease they had shared before was missing. It hurt much more than downright coldness would have done. The only thing to do was to follow his lead so she took refuge in correctness. Her appetite had vanished, but for the sake of form she forced herself to eat a little. Eventually the strain became too great and, after a suitable interval, she pleaded fatigue and excused herself, saying she would retire early. He rose at once but made no comment other than to bid her a goodnight. Sick at heart Elena made her escape.

When she had gone Harry sank back into his chair and tossed back the remainder of his wine. As soon as she was gone he had wanted to call her back but had no idea what he might say if he did. His mind was still reeling. The magnitude of his error was colossal, but even worse was the knowledge of what Elena had suffered. Her pain and her vulnerability touched him more deeply than anything else could. It was his part to keep her from hurt, not add to it. Once again he was proving to be abysmal in the role of protector.

It was much later before he came to bed. Elena didn't stir. No doubt she had been asleep for hours, worn out by the vicissitudes of the day. He placed the candle down on the table across the room so that the light wouldn't fall directly onto the bed and possibly disturb her. Then he began to undress.

In fact, Elena was very far from sleep but, unwilling to reveal it, she remained still and kept her eyes closed. Even so her entire being was attuned to his presence. She heard him undress and felt the familiar movement of the mattress as he climbed in beside her. She held her breath, hoping that he might reach out for her, hold her, that there might be mutual forgiveness and things could go back to the way they were before. However, he made no move to touch her. She bit her lip, telling herself not to be stupid. Of course he wasn't going to touch her. Why would he? The thought must be anathema to him. She had handled everything so badly and now had no idea how to put it right. It crossed her mind to reach out and touch him, but she had never done such a thing before. Under ordinary circumstances it would have been a bold move, but after all that had passed between them might it not seem positively brazen? If he were to reject her she didn't think she could bear it. The very thought of such a humiliation made her cringe inside. Tears pricked her eyelids. She lacked the necessary courage; in fact, she was lacking as a wife in every respect. She wasn't a real woman. She would never be a real woman again.

* * *

As a consequence of the emotional upheaval the subject of the ball had been temporarily forgotten. It was resurrected the following afternoon when the gown was delivered. Elena eyed the box dispassionately.

'I wish to goodness there were some way of getting out of the engagement.'

Concha shook her head. 'I think you cannot, not without angering your husband further.'

'You're right. The only thing now is to put a brave face on the matter, but I never felt less like socialising in my life.'

'It's only for one night. Besides, it will provide a distraction.' Concha eyed the box on the table. 'Shall we have a look inside?'

'Why not?'

The maid removed the lid and then carefully pulled aside a layer of tissue paper. Then her eyes widened. 'Oh, my! This must have cost the earth.'

Almost reverently she lifted the dress from the box and unfolded it before holding it up for inspection. In spite of herself Elena could not refrain from uttering a gasp of delight.

'It's exquisite.'

Made of white silk jacquard it had puff sleeves and a low square neckline, with a fan of pleats below the bust. Below it the skirt fell away in smooth straight lines. Fine gold braid added the finishing touch to the bodice, caught in under the bosom and edging the neck and sleeves. It was a simple but elegant creation. Long gloves and a lace fan completed the ensemble along with a silken wrap.

'Try it on,' said Concha.

'All right.'

Elena took off her muslin dress and allowed Concha to help her into the ball gown. Then she crossed to the cheval glass, surveying her reflection critically. The woman who stared back was almost a stranger.

'I've had some pretty dresses in the past,' she said, 'but never anything as fine as this.'

'You look like a princess.'

'Thank you.' Elena turned, examining the gown from different angles. 'It does look well, doesn't it?'

'I think you will draw all eyes.'

There was only one pair of eyes that Elena wished to draw. Having made her a most generous gift, would Harry approve the result? There was only one way to find out. Her gaze met Concha's in the glass.

'I think I should start getting ready.'

The maid nodded. 'I've already requested hot water for your bath.'

When Elena had bathed she sat at the dressing table while her hair was arranged in a stylish knot. Soft curls framed her face. Two judiciously placed silver combs completed the effect. Then she applied a light touch of colour to her cheeks and lips before donning the gown. It fitted to perfection and, as she had envisaged, flattered the line of her figure and enhanced its curves. She turned this way and that before the mirror, studying the effect with a critical eye. Then she nodded.

'It looks well.'

Concha smiled. 'You look beautiful. You'll break a few hearts tonight, Dona Elena.'

Elena reflected sadly that there was only one heart that interested her now. Whether it was in her power to capture it was another matter. She slid her feet into white satin slippers and dabbed on some perfume before looping the fan over her wrist. Then she glanced at the clock.

'It's time to go.' She gave Concha's shoulder a gentle squeeze. 'I imagine we'll be late back so don't wait up.'

'Have a wonderful evening.'

'I'll do my best.'

With that Elena summoned up the remains of courage and went to the parlour to look for Harry.

Having a shrewd idea of the length and complexity of the female toilette on such occasions, Harry had tactfully organised a separate room in which to get ready for the ball. He had bathed and then shaved. In the meantime, Jack had performed wonders with creased clothing so that no wrinkle now marred the elegant costume. A critical look in the mirror confirmed that it would pass muster. Then, having readied himself, Harry retreated to the parlour to wait.

In a part of his mind he wondered whether he hadn't made a grave mistake in committing himself and Elena to this event. Yet, in spite of everything, he found himself looking forward to dancing with her. Whether she would feel the same was another matter. Since that fateful conversation they had been almost like strangers, behaving towards each other with cool civility. He didn't intend to let it become a habit.

Hearing the door open, he turned round, anticipating Elena's arrival. What he hadn't anticipated was the effect it might have. In spite of the weeks they had been together it was like seeing her for the first time. For a moment or two he could only stare, and his tongue seemed to have lost contact with his brain. With an effort he recovered himself.

'You look stunning.' Immediately he thought the words sounded lame. She was gorgeous and he knew that every other man present tonight was going to think so too. For an instant Villanueva's image impinged on his thoughts. He pushed it aside. Others could look their fill, but she belonged to him. The realisation made him feel both proud and protective.

There could be no doubting the sincerity of his initial response to her entrance. Feeling a little more encouraged, Elena turned slowly to let him see the new gown to full advantage.

'The seamstress has done a fine job, no?'

'She certainly has.' He decided that every last penny of the cost had been worth it. 'Although I can't help feeling that you show off the gown to advantage rather than the other way around.'

'It's an improvement on breeches and boots, I think.'

'A vast improvement,' he agreed.

The admiration in his eyes created a glow of pleasure deep inside. Moreover, she was supremely conscious of how well formal evening dress became him, enhancing every line of that lithe and virile form. He looked every inch the nobleman he was. His attention was also deeply disconcerting.

To conceal her inner trepidation, Elena made to adjust her shawl. He stepped forward at once.

'Allow me.'

He draped the fabric carefully across her shoulders. As he did so his fingers brushed the bare skin at the back of her neck, a light and possibly unintended gesture that sent a frisson down her spine. Then he stepped back and offered her his arm.

'Shall we go?'

A hired carriage took them the short distance to the mansion of the Conde de Villanueva. Lights blazed in every window and the queue of vehicles outside proclaimed an event of some importance. Harry and Elena joined the line of guests waiting to greet their hosts. The conde greeted them warmly, his gaze lingering on Elena with undisguised admiration. He bestowed on her a dazzling smile.

'Welcome to my house. May I present my wife, the Condesa Maria?'

The condesa was a pretty, dark-haired lady with an elfin figure. She smiled at her guests and bade them welcome. Elena returned the smile.

'Thank you so much for the beautiful flowers. They were a delightful surprise.'

The condesa inclined her head graciously. 'You're most welcome.'

Harry registered this with wry amusement. Either his suspicions had been entirely without foundation or else Villanueva was a lot smarter than he'd given the man credit for.

The condesa introduced them to some of the other new arrivals. When the necessary courtesies had been observed, they made their way through the antechamber that adjoined the ballroom. Curious eyes followed their entrance.

'You seem to have created a stir, my sweet,' murmured Harry, 'but don't let it go to your head. The first two dances are mine.'

'If you say so, my lord.'

'I do say so. Furthermore, I'm prepared to back my claim against all comers.'

Elena raised an eyebrow. 'Well, I wouldn't wish to cause a scene.'

'Wars have been fought for less.'

The tone was light but the expression in his eyes implied rather more. The effect was to make her flesh tingle. She had no desire to dance with anyone else even though good manners would likely make that inescapable. As she looked around all the other men in the room seemed decidedly lacking in comparison. She had not missed the curious and covert looks that came their way. Already the women were whispering behind their fans. Of course, Harry was hard to miss, being a head taller than most of the Spaniards present. Only the conde came near to him in height and good looks. Unable to help herself, Elena found herself making comparisons. Villanueva knew he was attractive to women but, in spite of his polished manner, there was about him the innate arrogance and hauteur of the hidalgo class. Harry's birth was arguably better but he made no parade of it, nor did he trade on his good looks. He was also possessed of natural kindness and patience. Of the two men she knew with absolute certainty which one she preferred.

When the orchestra struck up, Harry claimed her hand for the first dance. It was a pavanne. The dance was slow and graceful, a measure from a bygone age, but then, she acknowledged, Spain was behindhand in such matters. She guessed it hadn't been danced in England for many years and it surprised her that Harry should know it. Yet clearly he did, and well too. So much surprised her about this man and continued to sharpen her curiosity too. As they moved through the steps his gaze never left her and, although it was impossible to read his thoughts, her entire being resonated with awareness of it. All else ceased to exist for her except for the man and the music. This was quite unlike the first time they danced together; it was more intimate and more disturbing. Did he feel the same? Did he feel anything for her at all, or was this the triumph of hope over experience?

When, at length, the pavanne ended it was replaced by a cotillion. The mood and tempo were different but it was still exhilarating to dance with him. She caught his eye and saw him smile, an unaffected and natural smile that sent a pulse of warmth through her body's core. She could see other women watching them and once or twice registered envy in their eyes. When she looked at the majority of men in the room it was easy to understand why.

Without her being aware of it Elena was attracting attention too, and when Harry led her from the floor they were greeted by their host and two or three others who wished for an introduction. Those were followed up by invitations for future dances. Harry resigned himself to the inevitable. Much as he would have liked to keep her to himself all evening, it would have been the height of bad manners. He watched in silent chagrin as she walked away with another man.

Villanueva read him accurately. 'That is the penalty of having a beautiful wife, my friend.'

'Well, you should know.'

The Spaniard grinned. 'I content myself with the knowledge that Maria will always be with me at the end of the evening.'

Harry reflected that he would be the one to take Elena home, a notion that sent his mind in distinctly pleasurable directions. With an effort he brought it back. It was too easy to daydream about his wife, fantasies that had no foundation in anything except wishful thinking. He summoned a casual smile.

'Won't you introduce me to some of your friends, Villanueva? It'll prevent me from harbouring jealous thoughts.'

His companion laughed. 'Gladly.'

The conde's guests admitted Harry very readily into their company. Quite apart from his imposing presence he aroused curiosity too, since English lords were not a common feature of polite society in Seville. His fluency in the language did him no disservice either, and he was soon engaged in conversation with a group of gentlemen at the far end of the room. From time to time he glanced towards the dancers. Judging from her smile Elena seemed to be enjoying herself. She had probably put him out of her mind. His jaw tightened and he turned away, trying to concentrate on what his companions were saying.

Elena curtsied to her last partner and left the floor. The room was hot now, the air heavy with the scent of beeswax and flowers and perfume. A cooling drink would be more than welcome. The vague memory of a punch bowl in the anteroom directed her steps that way. In fact, memory served her correctly and with a sense of relief she ladled some of the liquid into a cup and took a sip. It was delicious.

Opposite, an open door led onto a terrace. Elena glanced round but everyone else seemed engaged in conversation so taking advantage of the fact she slipped outside for a few moments. Although it was still offically spring, the evening air was pleasant. Seville had a different climate from Madrid and the northerly provinces. The sky was clear, a sickle moon hanging amid myriad stars. Pools of light from the ballroom windows illuminated the flower beds and part of the lawn below. The rest of the garden was in deep velvet shadow where the soft chirring of cicadas mingled with the sound of music drifting from the ballroom. She sipped her drink and relaxed a little, enjoying the fresh air.

'Out here all alone, my lady?'

Elena started and turned quickly. At first glance the tall figure in the doorway might have been mistaken for Harry, but the voice belonged to the Conde de Villanueva. She was conscious of a stab of disappointment but recovered her composure quickly.

'I needed a little air. It's very warm indoors.'

He smiled and strolled across to join her. 'I was afraid you were not enjoying the party.'

'Oh, yes. I am enjoying it very much.'

'I'm glad to hear it. I'd be sorry to think otherwise.'

'The occasion seems to be a great success.'

'Your presence has added immeasurably to that.'

Elena pretended to misunderstand. 'It was kind of you to invite us. My husband was delighted to renew his acquaintance with you.'

'It was a delight for me too.' He regarded her keenly. 'What do you think of our Sevilla?'

'It's a fine city. I'm impressed with what I have seen so far.'

'I wish I could show you more.'

Nothing could have been pleasanter than his expression but something in that smooth tone caused the first stirring of unease. The words were ambiguous too, capable of a perfectly innocent interpretation or a very different one. For no apparent reason the hothouse bouquet came to mind, and with it connotations she didn't care for.

'I regret that we will be leaving very soon. My husband's business here is concluded.'

'What a pity.'

'Yes, isn't it?'

'Do you return to Madrid?'

'No. We're moving on to Cadiz.'

'It's a long and tiring journey, my lady.'

'I'm well used to travelling.'

He reached out and traced one finger lightly down her arm. 'Your husband should leave you here while he takes care of business. It would be my pleasure to offer the hospitality of my house.'

There could be no mistake now about the intent behind the smooth, purring tone. He was also standing just a little too close and he was between her and the door. Elena quashed an urge to flee, knowing instinctively that he would prevent it. Then there would be a scene with possibly unpleasant consequences. Somehow she was going to have to bluff her way out of this. She forced a smile.

'You are most kind.'

'I should like to be.'

Her skin prickled. 'My husband would not countenance such a separation and nor would I.'

'You are quite right, my dear,' said a voice behind them. 'I would not countenance it.'

Her heart leapt as she saw Harry in the doorway and relief washed over her with the force of a tidal bore.

He surveyed the little scene just a few seconds longer. His timing had been fortuitous. A few seconds later and Villanueva would undoubtedly have tried to kiss Elena. Harry's jaw tightened. Although he would very much have liked to floor the man he didn't want Elena subjected to the kind of scandal that would result. Instead he advanced to join them. Nothing could have been more relaxed than his outward manner, nothing more amiable than his smile. However, on this occasion it stopped well short of his eyes.

'My wife remains at my side,' he said.

As he turned round, Villanueva's urbane smile didn't alter either. 'Well, I cannot blame you for that, my lord. All the same the offer remains if you change your mind.'

'You are the flower of courtesy,' replied Harry. 'However, I shall not change my mind.'

The conde's eyes glinted briefly; then he bowed. 'Well, then, I can only wish you a safe journey. Now, if you will excuse me, I will return to my other guests.'

As he walked away Elena shivered a little. Harry regarded her with concern.

'Are you all right, my dear?'

'Yes. Quite all right, I thank you.'

'Are you sure? You look a little pale.'

In truth the conde's advances had left her feeling shaken. He was undoubtedly an experienced womaniser, and now she wondered uneasily if he had sensed something about her that had led him to try his luck. Such men tended to be intuitive. He could not possibly know about her past but the incident left an unpleasant taste. It annoyed her that she had laid herself open to such attentions; she was clearly out of practice when it came to social functions like this one.

'It's my fault,' she replied. 'I should not have come out here alone, only the room was so hot and I needed some air. I didn't think anyone would even notice.'

'You are entitled to take the air without being propositioned by a cur.'

She hugged herself defensively. 'Odious man.'

He frowned. 'He didn't try to…'

'Nothing like that, thank goodness.'

'As well for him that he did not.'

'What would you have done? Hit him?'

'No, killed him.'

Seeing his expression then she was left in no doubt that he meant it. The realisation sent a different kind of shiver down her spine.

Harry kept the lid on his ire. While the thought of any man making suggestive remarks to his wife was an affront, he was glad that he'd been able to nip the situation in the bud and so avoid a very public confrontation. Villanueva had evidently been of the same mind. Having been warned off he wouldn't try and renew his addresses to Elena.

'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I didn't mean to cause trouble.'

'You didn't create that situation. He did.' Harry put his arms around her. 'You have no need to apologise and no need to be afraid. He can't hurt you.'

The gentleness in his voice was like balm and she relaxed against him. 'It was his manner I found so disagreeable.'

He dropped a kiss on her hair. 'I won't let anyone hurt you again.'

She looked up quickly and her gaze met his. The intensity of that piercing look caused her pulse to quicken. Very slowly he bent closer until his lips brushed hers.

Harry checked a little then, suddenly afraid that, after all she had endured at the hands of men, such advances might not be welcome from him either.

She felt him hesitate and gently returned the kiss. Thus reassured, he drew her closer. Immediately, all thought of Villanueva was swept away by a flood of sensation in which chill was replaced by delicious, glowing warmth. The glow kindled to flame. Elena pressed closer, her body moulding itself to his, and the kiss became deeper. Now there was no fear, only increasing desire and she surrendered to it, giving herself up to the moment.

Harry restrained the urge to crush her in his arms and let his own desire have free rein. He had no wish to frighten or, worse, repel her. What mattered was that she should enjoy this and want more. Eventually he drew back, looking into her face.

'I think we should go back inside.' He smiled wryly. 'Otherwise I may lose what little self-control I have left.'

'That might cause a few raised eyebrows.'

'I fear it would do a lot more than that.'

The implications brought a rosy blush to her cheeks. At the same time it caused a surge of hope that he really did want her, after all. If they'd been alone… Her blush deepened. She had no idea where so bold a thought had come from and was only glad he couldn't read her mind just then.

Harry surveyed her appreciatively. 'Do you know how very lovely you are when you blush like that?'

Her neck and face grew hotter. His smile did nothing for her composure at all. 'You are enjoying this, aren't you?'

'You have no idea.' The tone was both mischievous and provocative.

'It's no use, my lord. I shall not rise to this teasing.'

'What a shame. I shall have to try harder.'

With that he took her back to the ballroom. If she had imagined he'd relinquish her hand, then she was mistaken. He kept a firm hold of it until the next measure struck up. Then he led her onto the floor. As they moved through the steps every look and touch achieved heightened significance and there could be no mistaking the look in his eyes. Her pulse quickened in response. At that moment desire outweighed fear and she found herself anticipating the time when they would be alone together.

Eventually the company retired from the ballroom and sat down to supper. Elena made polite conversation with those around her but in reality only one person interested her. It seemed she was not alone. Several women vied for Harry's attention with smiling faces and inviting looks in their eyes but, although he was courteous, their blandishments seemed to make no impression on him. More than once Elena intercepted envious glances and experienced a little thrill of pride that he was her husband. She knew that most of these women had married at the behest of their families and it appeared that not all were entirely satisfied with their lot. If Harry had shown the least bit of interest she guessed it would have been followed up with alacrity. The thought sat ill with her and she realised then that she had no wish to share him.

It was late when they eventually took their leave. Their host bade them farewell with a charming smile. The previous incident might never have happened, save that he held Elena's hand a little longer than was strictly necessary. She ignored it. He didn't matter and after this evening the chances were they wouldn't meet again. She wasn't at all sorry to see the last of him.

Harry handed her into the carriage and then climbed in after her. As the vehicle pulled away he settled back in his seat, surveying her steadily. 'Did you enjoy yourself this evening?'

'With the exception of the five minutes I spent with the conde, very much.'

'Good. I'm afraid you'll have to live on it for a while. We leave tomorrow.'

'The sooner we leave, the sooner you will meet Sanchez,' she replied, 'and that is why you came here in the first place.'

'The thought of more days on the road doesn't daunt you, then?'

'Not unduly.'

'You are forbearing. Most women would have objected most strenuously by now.' He smiled faintly. 'But then you are not most women, are you?'

She was unsure how to respond to that and he saw it.

'I meant that as a compliment, my dear. Very much so.'

Her heart beat a little faster. This evening their relationship was almost back to the way it had been before that charged conversation about Badajoz. Nor did she want that to change.

The inn was quiet when they returned and they made their way to their chamber unnoticed, save for a watchman at the door. Elena laid down her fan and gloves and reached for the buttons at the back of her gown but, being new and stiff, they resisted her efforts.

'Allow me.' He stepped behind her and unfastened them. However, he made no attempt to do anything else. Instead he began to remove his own clothing.

Elena slid the gown off and laid it carefully over a chair. Then she finished undressing to her chemise and sat down to undo her hair. Freed of combs and pins the mass of dark curls tumbled over her shoulders and down her back. She reached for a brush. The glossy strands leapt beneath the strokes.

Harry removed the last of his clothes and slid into bed, watching her. 'You have lovely hair.'

'Thank you. It has a will of its own though.'

He grinned. 'Like its owner.'

'Hmm. I'm not sure how to take that.'

'You may take it as a definite compliment.'

Something about his tone brought warm colour to her face. 'It does not bother you then that a woman should have a will of her own?'

'Far from it. The opposite would be unbearably insipid.'

'I think most men would disagree, but then you are not most men.'

He laughed softly. 'I mean to take that as a compliment.'

'So you should.'

'I'm flattered.'

'No, I meant it.'

'Then I'm honoured.'

Elena laid down the brush and crossed to the bed. He drew the coverlet down and watched her slide in beside him. This time he did not turn away. Instead he leaned closer and kissed her softly on the mouth. It brought a rush of heat into the core of her being. She turned towards him and the kiss became more persuasive. Strong warm hands rested on her waist and stroked gently, then moved across her back. The touch sent a charge along her flesh. He slid the chemise off her shoulder and kissed her naked skin, gradually moving lower until his mouth closed over the peak of her breast, lightly teasing the nipple to tautness. Elena caught her breath. The caress was erotic and it aroused sensations she had never dreamed existed. His hand moved to the place between her thighs and gently stroked. She gasped, arching against him, pressing closer until every inch of their bodies touched, feeling his arousal hard against her thigh.

Harry rolled, pressing her back against the bed, pinning her with his weight while his mouth sought hers. Elena tensed. Out of nowhere an old memory stirred and woke. Unable to move and scarcely able to breathe, her heart began to thump and she felt the first flutter of fear. As the kiss grew more ardent fear quickly became panic. She tore her mouth away from his, panting.

'No…no…please.'

Harry drew back a little. 'What is it, sweetheart?'

'I can't.' Her hands pushed against his breast. 'I'm sorry. I…I thought I could but I can't.'

'I'm not going to hurt you, Elena.'

She struggled harder. 'Please…let me go.'

Desire ebbed and he rolled aside, frowning. 'It's all right, sweetheart. Don't be afraid. Nothing's going to happen that you don't want.'

Her eyes filled with tears of shame. 'I'm sorry,' she whispered. 'I'm so sorry.'

'There's nothing to be sorry for.'

The gentleness in his tone was the final straw. The tears spilled over and then became sobs. Harry was appalled but he had sense enough not to try and stem the flow, guessing that it was long overdue. In that he was right. It was as though the wall of a dam had given way and the gathered mass of emotion behind had broken loose. He knew it was a necessary part of the healing process but he was quite unprepared for how much it hurt to hear it and to know himself the catalyst.

When eventually the tears were exhausted he found a handkerchief and gave it to her. Elena took it and rather shakily dried her face and blew her nose. She felt wrung out, as though every last ounce of energy had been drained out of her. She was also mortified.

'Harry, I…'

He put a finger to her lips and stopped the words there. 'It's all right. You don't have to say anything. What you need now is some sleep.'

Elena closed her eyes, waiting for her breathing and her pounding heartbeat to quieten and wondering how she was ever going to sleep again. What must he think of her? Shame and embarrassment obliterated everything else. She'd really thought she could put the past behind her, had wanted to, only to behave like a frigid little fool at the last. She squirmed inwardly. Harry had never given her reason not to trust him so why hadn't she? No answer presented itself, then or later.

Beside her, Harry stared into the darkness. He could still see the fear in her eyes, hear it in her voice. It cut deeply. He'd really thought that tonight they might overcome the last barrier to their married relationship. He had wanted that so badly, had thought she'd shared his hope. At first she had seemed to. He hadn't imagined that spark of passion or the building fire inside her. She was beautiful and sensual and she'd wanted him, all right – until the shadow of Badajoz returned. It was clear that she equated his attempted possession with what had happened there. He would rather have cut off his right arm than hurt her but she didn't trust him. His lip curled in self-mockery. Why should she trust him? Others had and they were dead. He heard a woman call his name, a desperate plea for help that never came. In his mind's eye he saw the image of the burning house and, silhouetted against the flames, half a dozen sinister forms clubbing a man to death with rifle butts while he looked on helplessly and did nothing.

He rolled over and sat on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. The images continued to taunt him. Belen had offered him her love and discovered how poor a choice she had made. It seemed Elena was wiser. All hope of sleep had long since vanished so he rose quietly and dressed. Then, with a rueful backwards glance towards the figure on the bed, he left the room.

Elena heard him leave. Her throat tightened. She wanted to call him back, to beg him not to go, but what would be the point? There was no reason for him to stay.