Redemption of a Fallen Woman (Chapter Seven)

For a second or two after Elena woke the next morning she couldn't remember where she was. Then, gradually, the details came back. Turning her head she looked for the man who had lain beside her last night but the bed was empty. She pushed herself up on one elbow and looked around. Her gaze fell on the tall figure a few feet away by the washstand. He was dressed now in shirt, breeches and boots and was currently shaving. Glancing her way he smiled.

'Good morning. I trust you slept well.'

'I… Yes, thank you.' In fact, it had taken her a long time to fall asleep last night but she wasn't about to say so. 'What time is it?'

'A little before seven.'

Elena began to feel guilty. 'You should have woken me before. I know you wanted to be away early.'

'An hour or so will make little difference. Besides, you looked so peaceful I didn't like to disturb you.'

Had he been watching her, then? The thought brought warm colour to her face. The knowledge that she was going to have to get up and dress in front of him did nothing for her equilibrium. Although she was still wearing her shirt the fabric only reached the tops of her thighs revealing everything else. She bit her lip. Fortunately Harry turned away and resumed his task so Elena seized her chance. Sliding out of bed she hurried across the room to find her breeches. They were still in the middle of the floor where she'd left them last night. Hurriedly she grabbed them and began to pull them on. Once she darted a look towards Harry but he seemed oblivious. Breathing a sigh of relief she continued her task. Feeling slightly less vulnerable now she pulled on her boots and began to rummage in her saddlebag for a comb. Her hair must resemble a bird's nest by now. Sinking on to the chair nearby, she turned her attention to rectifying the matter. It took some time to tease out the small tangles so that the fine teeth slid through the glossy curls. When at last she was satisfied she tied her hair back with a ribbon and reached for her jacket.

By the washstand Harry finished shaving and dried his face with a towel. For the first time, Elena noticed the mirror on the wall above the washstand, and then, given her present position, belatedly grasped the implications. How much had he seen? However, he made no remark on the subject and nothing could have been more innocent than his expression. Perhaps she was being oversensitive. All the same, the thought that he might have seen her half-clothed made her feel suddenly warmer. To cover her embarrassment she busied herself repacking her saddlebags.

Harry laid the towel aside and finished dressing. Once he glanced at Elena but she seemed not to notice. Schooling his expression to neutrality, he tried not to think about the vision in the mirror; she really did have the most wonderful legs. Beautiful hair too, waist length, blue-black and glossy as a rook's ring. Hair that made a man long to touch it. He pulled himself up short knowing that he had no right to think along those lines. He could not offer her his heart and without that what remained was lust. To follow such an inclination would be contemptible. With a determined effort he turned his mind to other things.

'Are you ready for some breakfast, Elena?'

'That sounds good.' It surprised her to discover how good. Having eaten little the previous evening she was hungry now.

They went down together. The patr��n plied them with ham and eggs and fresh bread. It was delicious and Elena did full justice to the meal. Harry watched in quiet amusement, privately relieved to see her eat well. The nervousness he had seen last night was gone, and that pleased him too. The thought of any woman fearing him was distasteful, but in this case it was downright painful. He made no attempt to hurry her or reveal any impatience at the delay; as he had told her, an hour or two would make little difference.

Thus it was nearer to nine before they eventually set out again. The horses seemed to have benefitted from their unscheduled stop at the inn and stepped out eagerly. Seeing Harry engaged in quiet conversation with Jack, Concha eased her mount alongside Elena's horse, regarding her mistress with a critical eye.

'Are you all right? I was so worried I hardly slept last night.'

'I assure you I am quite well.'

'I'm glad to hear it.' Concha bit her lip. 'I never anticipated such a move by your uncle.'

'Nor I. He outmanoeuvred us all.'

'He knew you would not refuse.'

'I underestimated him and no mistake.'

Concha hesitated. 'The Englishman did not hurt you?'

'No, he did not.'

'Thanks be to God.'

'He didn't touch me.'

'What!' Recovering herself quickly, the maid lowered her voice again. 'You mean he didn't even try to…'

'That's right.'

'But that's…that's…'

'Unheard of?'

'Well, yes.' Concha paused. 'Have you ever heard of such a thing before?'

Elena shook her head. 'In truth I have never met a man quite like this one.'

'He's English. One must take that into consideration.'

'There is that, of course, but given the circumstances his reaction is not so surprising.'

'Isn't it?'

'He was compelled to this match as well.'

'He didn't resist very strenuously though, did he?'

'My uncle left no room for argument.'

'If you ask me, your husband was not as unwilling as you seem to think. I saw how he looked at you before.'

'He looked at me with respect.'

'There was a lot more than just respect in his eyes,' said Concha.

'You're mistaken. His manner was always correct to a fault.'

'More like a man keeping himself on a tight rein. Of course, he did think then that you were going to be a nun.'

'But for him I would have been.'

'Do you regret the decision?'

The question caught her unawares but it took less than a second for Elena to know the answer.

'No, I don't regret it. How could I?'

'So you are not entirely indifferent to him.'

'I think it would be hard to feel indifferent to him. He is a good man.' It was an evasion and Elena knew it, but she could not have explained her feelings just then since she hardly knew what they were herself.

Concha made no reply but smiled quietly.

They stopped at midday to rest the horses and then broke out provisions for themselves. Elena, relaxing on a sun-warmed rock, thought that bread and cheese and sausage had never tasted so good. Perhaps it was something to do with the open space around her, or the blue vault overhead, or the scent of pine resin from the trees, or just knowing that at last she was free of pursuit, that her uncle no longer had any authority over her. That reposed in the hands of a very different kind of man. She glanced in Harry's direction. Currently munching on a hunk of bread, he looked relaxed and entirely untroubled. Did he share her anxieties about the future? That last was something yet to be discussed. The advent of their marriage was still too new and too strange to permit such things. Besides, he might have had plans of his own which had been entirely overset. When he had spoken of their needing time to adjust he had hit the nail on the head.

She finished eating and strolled towards the stream that ran among the rocks a few yards off. The water was cool and delicious, the sound restful. It was pleasant here and she felt more at ease than ever she had in the city. Here the noise and the bustle and the stench seemed a million miles away. She bent to scoop more water and then looked up quickly as a shadow fell across her. Harry stepped into her line of vision.

'The water looks good.'

'It is.'

'Then I shall follow your example.'

He came to join her, bending down to cup a drink in his hand. For so tall a man he moved with almost feline grace. She watched him covertly, taking in the chiselled profile of his face, the dark hair above the curve of his ear, the breadth of his shoulders beneath the fabric of his coat. His hands were large and strong yet unmistakably those of a gentleman. She knew their touch already, albeit briefly. The recollection created unwonted sensations, like his presence beside her now. To cover her awkwardness she took refuge in conversation.

'How long will it take us to reach Seville, do you think?'

'Without delays, between three and four weeks.' He smiled faintly. 'Of course, that is an optimistic reckoning.'

'You think we shall run into problems?'

'I hope not, but it's best to be prepared.'

'That is what Juan Montera used to say.'

'Juan Montera?'

'The leader of the guerrilla group that I rode with.'

'Ah.'

Mentally Elena cursed her tongue. She had not meant to allude to that time but it had come out anyway. She eyed him warily.

'Does it displease you that I should speak about such things?'

'No. Tell me if you wish to.' The tone was kind and quietly encouraging. Suiting action to words he sat down and waited, making no attempt to probe even though she knew there must be many questions in his head concerning her past.

'Montera was a farmer, until the French came and murdered his family, destroyed his crops and burned his village to the ground. They killed all who tried to resist. The survivors fled to the hills. Montera had some education and was intelligent besides. He took control, uniting the fugitives and shaping a fighting force to strike back against the enemy.'

Harry nodded. 'Such things happened across the whole country.'

'As the French depredations increased, the numbers of the guerrilla group increased too. There were several women among them. Montera had no prejudice in that respect. If a woman was prepared to fight the French he was prepared to let her.' She smiled faintly. 'I think he was a man ahead of his time there.'

'That's one way of looking at it, I suppose.'

'Do you disapprove?'

'I cannot like the idea of women standing fire, but in this instance I have no right to pronounce on the matter. Were the situation here to be repeated in England, I have no doubt that there would be women aplenty who would take up muskets and pistols to defend their own.'

'The French were foolish. They left people with nothing to lose, and men with nothing to lose are truly dangerous,' she replied. 'Montera understood this very well and used it to good effect.'

Harry paused, framing his next words carefully. 'It sounds as if you respected this man.'

'I did. He was a clever strategist. He also knew the area like the back of his hand so that his force could strike and retreat before the enemy even knew what had hit them. Montera always made sure of his escape routes too.'

'An able commander by all accounts.'

'And wise enough to listen to what others had to say before making a final decision. Even women had a voice in his camp.'

His curiosity was whetted now. 'He seems to have been a remarkable man.'

'In many ways he was, but then war brings out unsuspected qualities in people, does it not?'

'Indeed.'

'I could already shoot accurately, but with the guerrillas I learned how to fight as well, how to kill a man silently, how to plant booby traps or lay an ambush. It stood me in good stead.'

Harry regarded her askance. 'Remind me never to make you angry.'

She returned a wry smile. 'It is all very shocking, is it not? Yet it is part of who I am now.'

'It is part of who you were then,' he replied. 'What happens from now on is for you to decide.'

Her pulse quickened a little. 'The past is not so easy to let go of, however much we might wish to do so.'

Silently he acknowledged the truth of this. The words he had spoken to her held good for him too, and for the first time he caught sight of a different future from the insular, work-orientated one he had envisaged. It was a tantalising vision. At the same time he felt guilty for even entertaining it.

'No,' he said. 'It isn't easy.'

Elena eyed him curiously, sensing layers beneath those words. She wanted to know more, to understand exactly what he meant by them, but before she could say anything else he got to his feet.

'We should move on. I want to cover some more miles before we stop this evening.'

Clearly the conversation was over for now. Feeling slightly cheated, she nodded and made to rise, then checked to see the outstretched hand. For a brief moment she hesitated but then her own went to meet it. That strong clasp sent a shock along her skin. He drew her easily to her feet. Having done that he made no attempt to retain his hold and she was free. The sensation should have been relief but it felt oddly like disappointment. In confusion she averted her gaze. Together they rejoined the others.