Redemption of a Fallen Woman (Chapter Nineteen)
Elena woke first, her entire body suffused with warmth and a sense of well-being. Turning her head she looked at the man beside her, drinking in every detail of his face, her heart full. He had taken her to places beyond imagination, initiating her further into the art of love. Far from being repelled or frightened she had enjoyed every moment. It seemed a paradox that submission to a man could make her feel whole again, but it undoubtedly had. She smiled and dropped a kiss on his breast.
Harry opened his eyes and smiled. 'Is that how you mean to wake me each morning?'
'If you wish.' She returned a sultry glance. 'Or if you prefer I could do this.' She shifted position a little and kissed him on the lips.
'Better and better.'
She repeated the gesture. 'I'm glad you approve.'
'I approve very much.'
Her gaze held his. 'I'd like to have more than your approval.' She hesitated. 'I love you, Harry.'
He stared at her dumbfounded, unable to believe he had heard aright. Their compatibility delighted him on many levels; that her heart was involved as well seemed more than he deserved. As the implications began to sink in, he experienced a variety of unwonted sensations which only added to surprise and compounded mental confusion. He was far from indifferent to Elena. It had happened so gradually that he'd hardly been aware of it. Somewhere along the way his feelings for Belen had been…not supplanted exactly, but they had subtly altered. Her memory would always be with him, but the attendant grief and loss had abated and been replaced by hope. A part of him still felt guilty that it should be so and it warred with the rest that wanted to move on, to find fulfilment and to love again. Having spent years concealing his emotions and almost never giving them expression, he was at a loss now to explain what he felt.
'Elena, I…' He broke off, searching for words. 'You must know that I also care for you very deeply.'
His hesitation and embarrassment didn't go unnoticed and her heart sank. She had taken a risk in declaring herself hoping that, by being open with him, he might then tell her what he truly felt. And indeed he had. Only it was not what she had been longing to hear. Care for was not the same as love. She had earlier surmised that Harry was the kind of man who would not give his heart easily; her intuition had proved correct.
She summoned a tremulous smile. 'I'm glad.'
'You should never doubt it, sweetheart.' He kissed her cheek. 'You are very important to me.'
Her throat tightened. At least he hadn't pretended, and he had let her down gently, although, at that moment, she almost wished he had lied to her.
'It's getting late. We should get up.'
He slid an arm about her waist. 'There's no immediate hurry, is there?'
Elena turned away. 'You have an appointment to keep, remember?'
He'd temporarily forgotten about that and now felt strangely torn. He knew that she had withdrawn from him, that there were things unspoken between them, but he was uncertain how to broach so sensitive a subject. With a feeling akin to disappointment he watched as she climbed out of bed and donned her shift. He sighed. Clearly the moment had passed. They would have to talk later.
* * *
It was perhaps an hour later when he set out from the inn on the last stage of his quest. He had been given directions by the patron of La Gata Negra. However, the enquiry had elicited a look of surprise and the intelligence that the address was not in the most salubrious part of town.
'If you go there it would be as well to go armed, senor. Although trouble is unlikely during the hours of daylight one cannot be too careful.'
Harry thanked him for the advice. The patron bowed and, after ascertaining there was nothing more his distinguished guest required, he left.
'If t'neighbourhood is as he describes, it'd be as well to go accompanied an' all,' said Jack, who had been present during the conversation. 'Happen you might need someone at your back.'
'I'd be glad of the company,' replied Harry.
Thus it was that the two of them made their way from the bustling main thoroughfare into smaller side streets. Here the buildings were closer together and humble in appearance. The cobbles were littered with rubbish and, in places, slick with dirty water; the air was thick with the smells of decay and stale food. Cur dogs picked through the detritus, oblivious to the passers-by. The latter regarded the newcomers with covert and curious glances but no one made any attempt to impede their progress.
Once or twice they paused to ask directions and, at length, came to the street in question and found the house. It was unremarkable and, like all the others, its lower windows were shuttered and barred. A stout wooden gate gave on to the roadway. When Harry knocked, the sound echoed behind it. At length an elderly woman appeared. She was clad all in black. The dress had seen better days but the wearer contrived to look neat all the same. When she asked the visitors their business her tone was polite.
Harry gave his name and asked for Sanchez. The old woman nodded.
'You had better come in.'
They followed her into a small courtyard and thence into the house where they were shown into a small parlour. Although sparsely furnished it was spotlessly clean and smelled of beeswax polish. The old lady excused herself and left them alone. Harry listened to the sound of her retreating footsteps and then low, urgent voices, hers and a male's.
A few minutes later the door opened again to admit a man of middle years. He was of average height and stocky frame, his lined face homely rather than handsome, and framed by greying brown hair. Dark eyes surveyed the visitors with wary interest. His gaze passed over Jack and came to rest on Harry, taking in every detail of his appearance. As he did so his eyes widened a little.
'You will forgive the lack of ceremony, my lord. I was not expecting so exalted a guest.'
'I am not here to stand on ceremony,' said Harry. 'I am come to seek Senor Sanchez.'
The older man frowned. 'I am he, but I fear you have the advantage of me.'
'Senor Xavier Sanchez?'
Understanding dawned in the man's face. 'Xavier is my nephew, but I regret to say that he is from home at present.'
Harry's heart sank. 'May I ask when he will return?'
'I do not know. I have not seen him for some time.'
'This is most unfortunate for my business is pressing and I have travelled a long way to find him.'
'May I ask the nature of your business?'
As Harry gave him the gist, the older man listened carefully, his expression indicative of concern.
'This is indeed a matter of importance.'
'It could not be more so to my family.' Harry paused. 'I wonder, might it be possible to get a message to your nephew?'
'As I said, I don't know his exact whereabouts.'
'But you do know those who might.'
For a moment his gaze locked with that of Sanchez. The latter nodded slowly.
'I'd be much obliged if you would make enquiries.'
'I'll see what I can do.'
'I know that my late brother was involved in matters of a sensitive nature, and that this might make your nephew cautious. He has no need to be. My enquiries relate only to the circumstances of my brother's death.'
Again, Sanchez nodded. 'If you will leave your direction I will send word when I know more.'
'I thank you.'
Harry suspected that the man already knew more than he was prepared to say at this stage, but could understand the reasons for reticence. In the Intelligence Service discretion was of paramount importance: careless talk could and did cost lives. At the same time it was frustrating to be so near his goal and yet still be denied the proof he sought. For now though, he accepted that there was nothing else to be done. It would be folly to alienate the uncle and jeopardise all chance of finding the nephew. Harry had always known something like this might happen but, all the same, the sense of anti-climax was strong. He saw the same emotion in Jack's face. For the first time the thought occurred that Xavier Sanchez might not wish to be found. Harry paused, framing his next words carefully.
'If…when…you get word to your nephew, tell him also that I am not come to apportion blame.'
The dark eyes never wavered but their gaze softened a little. 'I'll do that, my lord.'
'Then I hope to hear from you soon.'
Harry offered his right hand and, after a brief hesitation, the other man took it, his grip sure and strong. Then he smiled faintly.
'Vaya con Dios.'
Harry and Jack left the house a short time later and retraced their steps to the inn. For a little while neither one spoke. Then, eventually, Jack threw his master a sideways glance.
'He'll get word to his nephew, I'm thinking.'
'Yes. I imagine he won't find it too hard.'
'He knew a lot more than he was letting on. I'd like to have searched t'rest of t'house.'
'That thought was in my mind too, but it would have been most unwise to try.'
'Aye, true enough.' Jack sighed. 'What now, my lord?'
'We wait. There's nothing else we can do.'
'If Xavier Sanchez has any sense of honour he'll meet you.'
'So I hope,' replied Harry.
On their return to the inn, he went in search of Elena and found her with Concha in the garden at the rear of the premises. Seeing him approach the maid rose and left them. Harry took the seat she had vacated. Elena regarded him with mingled anxiety and embarrassment. However, he seemed unaware of it. It was as though that earlier scene had never happened. Forcing hurt aside she decided to take her cue from him.
'Was your visit successful?'
'Yes and no.'
She listened with quiet attention while he explained what had happened.
'It sounds as if the uncle was exercising caution,' she said.
'My thought exactly.'
'It's understandable, in the circumstances.'
He smiled ruefully. 'Frustrating too, but there's not much to be done about that. While we wait, perhaps you'd care to explore the town.'
'I'd like that.'
'Well, then, I'm entirely at your disposal.'
The bustling harbour with its forest of ship masts was an enthralling sight, like the mysterious sacks and bales and barrels on the quayside. The smell of fish and spice mingled with rope and tar and seaweed, and the sunlit air resounded with male voices speaking in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and Arabic. It suggested a world apart from the one Elena had previously inhabited, a world that was strange and exotic and exciting. She was entranced.
Curious and admiring glances came her way but, being rapt in the wonder of it all, she failed to notice. Harry, on the other hand, did. It came as no surprise that other men should want to look at his wife and he was happy to let them look. He'd have been less than human if he hadn't enjoyed their envy. In contrast, Elena seemed quite oblivious to the attention and wanted to know about the ships and their cargoes instead. Harry, privately amused, did his best to answer.
Later they left the harbour and strolled thence to the Barrio de la Vina, an area of the old town with close proximity to the shoreline and the Playa de la Caleta, an impressive expanse of sand stretching between the fortresses of San Sebastian and Santa Catalina. Elena surveyed the view with shining eyes.
'Homer's wine-dark sea,' she murmured. 'It's more beautiful than I'd ever imagined.'
Her unfeigned enthusiasm recalled the first time he had ever set eyes on the sea. 'It's quite something, isn't it?'
'I can easily understand why men are drawn to explore it.'
'It has a siren voice but it is not without its perils.'
'So I have heard.'
'In England there is a growing fashion for sea bathing,' he said.
'Men are so fortunate.'
'Women enjoy it too, I believe.'
Her eyes widened. 'Women? Really?'
Harry grinned. 'Yes, really.'
'I should like to try that.'
'If you wish I will take you to Brighton and you can essay the waters there.'
'You wouldn't mind?'
'No, why should I?'
There were several things that she might have said in reply. Instead she tried to imagine what her former betrothed would have said if she had ever suggested such a thing. Visualising his probable expression, she could only smile to herself. Jose and Harry were as different as paste from diamond.
'Be warned though,' he continued. 'The water is likely to be much colder than here.'
'I'll brave it just for the experience.'
'Would you like to try now?' Without warning he swept her up and strode towards the water's edge.
Elena shrieked, protesting vigorously. 'Harry, no! Put me down!'
'You said you wanted to swim.'
'Yes, but not now!'
'No time like the present.'
As the next wave rolled in and he made to throw her into the water, she uttered a despairing wail, clinging to him for dear life. The wave broke sending lacy foam racing up the strand. Instead of dropping her, Harry retained his hold and, at the last moment, turned and fled from the advancing water, eventually setting her down safely above the waterline. Heart pounding she glared at him in disbelief.
'Bruto! I really thought you were going to throw me in.'
Far from expressing contrition the reply was a guffaw of laughter. It was infectious and she caught it.
'You're a wicked man, Harry Montague. You know that?'
'No, my sweet, a wicked man would have thrown you in. As it is, I'll settle for a lesser penalty.'
She eyed him with mock hauteur. 'And what is that?'
'Do you think I'm going to kiss you after that?'
The grey eyes gleamed. 'Do you really think you will not?'
'Kiss me if you can, my lord.'
He reached for her waist but Elena dodged out of the way, laughing. Harry lifted an eyebrow.
'Come here, Elena.'
His expression was suggestive of polite interest. Then he lunged towards her. She dodged again, feinting and weaving to elude him. Undaunted he pursued her, coming dangerously close to success several times. Realising her peril, Elena turned and fled. He caught her in half a dozen strides. An arm of steel slid around her waist and drew her round to face him, both of them breathless and laughing. For several heartbeats they remained thus before laughter faded and became something altogether more intense. She swayed towards him, surrendering to his kiss. His hold tightened, crushing her against him, and the kiss became passionate. She returned it hungrily, wishing only that it had been motivated by love.