Redemption of a Fallen Woman (Chapter Six)

It was a matter of some five miles to the nearest town, a journey undertaken at a pace that precluded any opportunity for speech. Once or twice Elena glanced Harry's way but he continued to look resolutely ahead of him, his expression like stone. Shocked beyond measure by her uncle's decision and appalled by the consequences of her actions, she found coherent thought almost impossible. All she could see just then was looming disaster. Once she had eagerly anticipated marriage and all that it entailed. Of course, back then, the agreement would have been entered into by mutual consent and in all honour; now she was soiled goods to be offloaded because it suited her uncle's purpose. One way or another he meant to be rid of her. Her wishes didn't enter into it, or those of her intended bridegroom.

As she thought about Harry her stomach churned. How disgusted and angry he must be at this moment. He hadn't wanted any part of her scheme but had been too gentlemanly to abandon her. By heaven, he must be wishing he had though. And when the knot was tied and she was completely in his power, what revenge might he take then? The memory of Badajoz returned with leering drunken faces and men obscenely unbuttoned, hands tearing her clothing, holding her down while they did their will…. She shuddered. Was it all about to happen again? From her limited experience of him, Harry did not seem to be the brutal type but, even so, as her husband he would expect his will to be met. Elena swallowed hard.

In an alarmingly short time the cavalcade arrived at the town and pulled up in the plaza in front of the church. Half a dozen men detained Jack and Concha; the remainder hustled Elena and Harry inside. Hearing the intrusion a startled priest paused by the altar.

'Mass is not for another hour.'

Don Manuel fixed him with a steely gaze. 'We are not here for the mass, but to see these two married.'

'That is not possible. Perhaps tomorrow…'

A fat leather purse landed on the floor at his feet, the jingle of coin seeming loud in the still air.

'Marry them,' said Don Manuel.

The priest hesitated and licked dry lips. Then he nodded. 'As you wish.'

Elena's heart thumped against her ribs and she closed her eyes, willing that she might wake up. White-faced, she glanced at the man beside her. This time he saw it and returned her gaze. His face was impassive but the expression in the grey eyes was unmistakable. Good heavens, he was furious. How he must despise her now. She shivered inwardly. Mingled with dread was a deep sadness that she had forfeited whatever small regard he might once have had for her. At that moment she would almost have preferred to be in a convent cell.

At the priest's command they knelt. Harry was scarcely aware of the droning voice, only of roiling emotion. Elena had correctly read the fury uppermost in his mind but she had entirely mistaken its direction. For a moment or two he indulged a savage fantasy involving a dull blade and Don Manuel's vital organs. Underlying that were very different feelings.

He threw a covert glance at the woman beside him. He hadn't missed the expression of abject terror in her eyes just now; by rights she should have fallen into a fit of hysterics. Most women would have done so long since. But then Elena wasn't most women. She'd had the courage to face her uncle's wrath and to take responsibility for her actions, to exonerate everyone else. But for that determined intervention he and Jack would almost certainly be swinging from a tree by now. She had been subjected to public insult and humiliation into the bargain, another bone he'd like to pick with her uncle. As for this present outrage…

'…do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?'

The priest's voice brought him back to reality with a jolt. Taking a deep breath Harry made his reply. A short time later he heard the corresponding affirmation from Elena.

'Do you have the ring?'

Harry looked blankly at the priest for a moment and then, as his brain caught up, realised he'd got nothing of the kind or indeed anything that would serve. In consequence it looked as though Elena's humiliation wasn't over yet. He took a deep breath.

'I regret…'

Don Manuel cut him off. 'It is here.'

From his jacket pocket he produced a fine gold band and placed it on the open bible. Harry stared at it in astonishment. Where the devil had the man got that from? Borrowed it from one of his entourage, perhaps? However, when he picked it up, it was immediately evident that so small a ring could never have belonged to any of the brawny thugs who had accompanied Don Manuel. It slid easily onto Elena's slender finger though, almost as if it had been intended for the purpose. Suspicion took root. He shot a swift glance at the don and saw the faint cold smile on his lips. Implication became certainty and Harry understood then that this had been the intention from the outset. If ever I need a favour I will know where to come. When he discovered Elena had fled, her uncle had taken a shrewd guess at her plan and laid his own accordingly. On discovering his guess to be correct, he'd baited the trap and drawn them in. They'd fallen for it hook, line and sinker! In that moment Harry didn't know what he wanted most: to shoot the old fox, to run him through or to strangle him with his bare hands.

Elena sensed the sudden increased tension in the man beside her. His anger was almost palpable now. She swallowed hard, not daring to look at him, too keenly aware of the enormity of what she had done. Instead she looked down at the ring on her hand. It felt like an alien presence but it bound them fast, like the promises they had just made. For one irrational moment she thought that, if they had been compelled to wed years ago, then their chance of happiness would surely have been as good as anyone else's on entering the married state. As it was…

'I now pronounce you husband and wife.' The priest's face assumed an unctuous smile. 'You may kiss the bride.'

Her heartbeat accelerated. She saw Harry turn towards her and then his gaze met hers, only now the grey eyes revealed nothing of the thoughts behind. His face came closer and she closed her eyes, felt his lips brush hers, a sudden intimacy that intensified the fluttering sensation in the pit of her stomach. It should have been repellent but it was not. Rather it revived something in her that she had thought long lost. Then it was over. When she opened her eyes again he had drawn back. She saw him rise and extend a hand to her. Trembling she took it. Strong warm fingers closed over hers and squeezed gently, a gesture that was both reassuring and unexpected.

Wordlessly she allowed herself to be led from the church. After the close confines of the building with the musty smells of dust and stale incense, fresh air was a blessed relief. She took several deep breaths to steady herself. Then she became aware of the rest of her uncle's entourage waiting a little way off, and with them Concha and Jack, both grim-faced. Harry paused and, retaining his hold on her hand, turned to face her uncle. For a moment they faced each other in silence. Then Don Manuel spoke.

'I bid you both farewell. We shall not meet again.'

'You are quite correct,' replied Harry. 'We shall not.'

The don strolled across to the horses and, retrieving his own, remounted. As the rest of his servants followed suit he glanced once more at the newly wed couple. Then he turned his horse's head and rode away with his men.

For a moment the quartet in front of the church watched them go. Then several more moments passed in awkward silence. Offering congratulations to the newly married couple didn't seem appropriate in the circumstances and yet, in the light of what had just happened, all other topics seemed irrelevant. It was Harry who eventually solved the dilemma.

'It's getting late. We'll find an inn and stay there tonight. Jack, why don't you and Concha go and seek out somewhere suitable?'

Clearly relieved at having something to do, Jack nodded. 'Right away, my lord.'

He and Concha exchanged glances and then hurried off. Elena watched them depart and then turned to Harry.

'I don't know how I can begin to apologise to you.'

He surveyed her steadily. 'It is not you who should apologise.'

'I dragged you into this business and, but for me, you would still be a free man.'

'But for you I might have been a dead man.'

'You are generous.'

'It's the truth,' he replied, though remembering the don's cold smile he knew that superintending this marriage had always been the man's intention.

'Your life has been turned upside down because of my folly.'

'You did what you felt you had to do at the time. Would you rather have gone to the convent?'

She shook her head. 'Never that.'

'Things could be much worse, then.'

'They are bad enough, I think.'

'You do yourself too much disservice.' His gaze held hers. 'I know that from now on I shall be the subject of much envy among my fellow men.'

She could detect no trace of irony in his tone or any note of disdain. It intensified her guilt. In many ways it would have been easier if he had given voice to his anger and berated her soundly. This quiet and gentlemanly conduct was unnerving. Was he waiting for a less public place in which to vent his wrath? After all, he could do anything he liked now. Officially she had become his property. As the ramifications of that loomed large her unease increased.

Fortunately Jack returned a few minutes later with the intelligence that suitable accommodation had been secured.

'It's not t'finest inn I've ever seen, my lord, but it's clean and seems to be well-run.'

Harry smiled faintly. 'Good. At least we can look forward to a decent meal and a comfortable bed, then.'

Elena's stomach lurched.

* * *

The inn was just as Jack had described it: unpretentious but clean and well-run. The food, though equally unpretentious, was good, home-cooked fare. At any other time Elena would have enjoyed it. As it was, she had no idea what she ate that evening. All she could think of was the man sitting opposite, the man who was now her husband. Apart from one brief interlude in the library at her uncle's house, this was the first time she had been alone with him. Once she would not have found that a displeasing prospect. Now it filled her with dread.

They were sharing a private dining room but, since the food required their attention, conversation was minimal. Elena's appetite had fled but she forced herself to eat, taking her time, trying not to think about what must inevitably come. Several times she shot a glance at her companion but his face gave nothing away. Nor did his appetite seem in any way diminished by recent events. She watched him put away a bowl of soup and a manchet of bread, a generous portion of pastel de puerros and then follow it up with patatas bravas and a bistec that must have come from the largest steer in all of Spain. Moreover, he ate it with ease. How could he be so calm when her stomach was in knots? She took another drink of wine to steady herself. She noticed that he drank sparingly, consuming only two glasses of wine over the entire meal. He intended to keep a clear head, then. That thought was no more reassuring than the rest. Unable to bear her own thoughts she grasped at distraction.

'I take it we shall resume our journey tomorrow.' She was surprised to discover how steady her voice sounded.

'Yes. I need to be in Seville as soon as may be.'

'Have you been there before?'

'No.'

'Nor I but I've heard it's a fine city.'

'So I believe. When my business is concluded we might explore it if you wish.'

'I'd like that.'

To her ears the conversation sounded stilted, but it was better than silence. Nor was he unwilling to follow her lead and thus the conversation remained safely on neutral ground until the meal was done.

She saw him lean back in his chair, stretching his legs in front of him, to all appearances quite relaxed. He poured a little more wine and sipped it slowly, surveying her steadily. Under that quiet scrutiny she felt more than ever aware of her appearance. In the years since Badajoz her masculine attire had been a useful defence in many ways. When she had dwelt among the guerrilla force she had carried herself with the same show of outward confidence she saw in the men around her, adopted the same faintly arrogant swagger in her stride and looked them straight in the eye when she spoke to them. Such stratagems had served her well, being as they were the antithesis of everything feminine. Now, a part of her regretted the gowns she had left behind in Madrid. To be found so lacking by this English lord was mortifying. How far removed she must be from his notions of ideal womanhood. Perhaps the closest she had come was during those brief hours in Madrid when she had at least looked like a woman. Once or twice she had thought there was admiration in his regard, but it was so fleeting she couldn't be sure. A Spaniard would have made it plain; Englishmen on the other hand concealed their feelings behind a barrier of cool reserve. Of course, if he thought her attractive that would be downright dangerous. It was like being caught in a cleft stick.

In fact, she would have been startled to know what was going through the mind of the English lord just then. It had not escaped him that Elena had barely eaten anything this evening or that her unease was almost tangible, and he thought he had a pretty shrewd idea as to the reason. She might put a brave face on things but underneath she was terrified. Her vulnerability had never been more evident. Nor had her beauty which was rendered all the more artless by her present attire.

For the first time full realisation began to sink in that this lovely and exotic creature was now his wife, that she belonged to him. It created a gamut of emotions, not least of which was guilt. He hadn't looked at another woman since Belen and nor had he wished to. The society beauties in London had no power to attract him: compared to her they had seemed cold and colourless, lacking the inner fire that she had possessed in such measure. The same fire he glimpsed in Elena. In her it was contained, he might even have said suppressed. It excited his imagination and aroused his curiosity, as that brief chaste kiss had aroused him earlier – an effect that had been quite unexpected. It put paid to all thought of the nun.

He tossed back the rest of his wine and, pushing the chair back, stood up. Then he held out his hand.

'Come, my lady. It's time to retire.'

Somehow Elena got to her feet. Her heart was thumping so hard she felt sure he must hear it. Obediently she placed her hand in his, felt the pressure of his fingers on hers. Their touch seemed to burn now. He led her to the door and thence to the upper floor where their bedchamber was situated. He paused on the threshold to let her precede him, then closed the door behind them. The room was spacious though sparsely furnished, and dominated by the large bed opposite. Elena shivered, her gaze travelling thence to the man standing just feet away. He had always been physically impressive but now he seemed bigger than ever. Moreover, that lithe frame was powerfully muscled. Her strength would be no match at all for his; he could compel her to do whatever he liked. Her mouth dried. She had not even the right to refuse. As her husband his authority was absolute.

In stomach-churning silence she waited. He looked so calm and self-assured, but then how could he not when circumstances were so clearly stacked in his favour? He surveyed her steadily for a moment.

'It has been a long day and there's another one ahead of us tomorrow. Let's get some rest, shall we?'

She stared at him dumbfounded, torn between disbelief and hope.

'Besides,' he went on, 'I think we both need a little time to come to terms with what happened today.'

The tone was gentle, even kind, but suggestive of more beneath. For perhaps the tenth time that day she wished she could read him better. She watched him shrug off his coat and toss it over the back of a chair. Neck cloth and shirt followed to reveal a hard-muscled torso. She drew a sharp breath, her gaze drawn to the line of dark hair that led her eye to the narrow waist and lean flanks below it. He sat down to remove his boots. Having done so, he reached for the fastenings of his breeches. Confused and uncertain, Elena turned away and reluctantly began to remove her own jacket and boots. Behind her she heard a faint creaking sound as he climbed into bed.

Hoping her voice wouldn't shake, she said, 'I'll douse the candle.'

She suited the action to the words and the room was immediately plunged into darkness. Under its protective shade she hurriedly removed her breeches. Then, clad only in her shirt, she padded across to the bed and, groping for the edge, slid gingerly beneath the covers. She lay very still, hardly daring to breathe, every nerve stretched taut with awareness of the man beside her. The bed shifted under his weight as he turned towards her. Elena tensed, closing her eyes, feeling his warmth down the length of her body, waiting for the inevitable invasion of hands and limbs. It didn't come. Instead she felt the light pressure of his hand against her cheek. It lingered a moment in a light and gentle caress. Then she heard his voice.

'Goodnight. Sleep well, my lady.'

The hand withdrew and the bed shifted again and he turned away from her onto his side. Heart hammering she stammered out a response. He made no further reply. She listened intently, but after a few minutes heard only the soft sound of rhythmic breathing. Slowly she let herself relax a little, hardly able to credit that he really didn't intend to make any demands on her. The thought occurred then that he might not wish to; he had not chosen her any more than she had chosen him. Yet his boldness in undressing before her suggested a man quite at ease with women and with his own body. Tears prickled behind her eyelids and she swallowed hard, wondering if she would ever feel at ease with her own body again.

* * *

Harry stared into the darkness, trying not to think about the semi-naked beauty just inches away. Temptation whispered in his head that she was his wife now. All he had to do was claim what was already his. The thought sent a wave of heat to his loins. Determinedly he ignored it. Elena was his in name only and he could hardly suppose she would welcome intimacy with him. He had not missed her unease or her embarrassment just now. The use of force was out of the question. No man worthy of the name would use his strength in that way. Besides, there was the matter of Badajoz to take into account.

It still informed his nightmares on occasion. What would be her response on discovering that he had been one of that infamous army? He had not taken any part in the violence, but he had been a British soldier nonetheless. Would she make any distinction between him and the men who killed her father? And if she knew how he had failed Belen what would be her reaction then? Would she ever wish to give herself to such a man?

He took a deep breath. It was too early even to think of those things. To do so was to be disloyal as well as unreliable. Belen's image was still vivid, the ache of loss still present. It was wrong to think lustfully of another woman. He and Elena needed time to talk, to get to know each other better. At some point, when the time was right, he would tell her about Badajoz, and about Belen. Then they would decide where they wanted to go from there. In the interim he needed to focus on the reason for coming to Spain in the first place.