Redemption of a Fallen Woman (Chapter Ten)

The fiesta would not start until the middle of the evening so there was plenty of time to enjoy a meal beforehand. Hot, home-cooked food was something they all relished. A hearty soup and a loaf of bread were followed by a plate full of chuletas de cordero with a side dish of alcachofas con judias verdes. Dessert was arroz con leche and a selection of fruits. They washed it all down with a jug of rich red Tempranillo.

For the first time since embarking on this adventure, Elena wished that it had been possible to change out of breeches and boots. Unfortunately all her gowns had been left behind in Madrid. The best she had been able to manage was to wash her face and hands and comb her hair. Harry had made no comment or revealed by so much as a raised eyebrow that he found her appearance lacking, and she was grateful for it. All the same the thought persisted that she would have liked to wear a more feminine costume this evening. She didn't examine the reasons beyond the fact that they were about to attend a party.

As dusk closed in and the first stars appeared, the local people came out in force. It seemed to Elena that all the generations were represented. Excited children ran about chattering and laughing while the adults talked and strolled beneath the trees in the plaza. Lanterns suspended from the branches lent the whole scene a fairy-tale atmosphere. There was music and wine, and the air was redolent of roasting meat and wood smoke. Later there would be dancing and fireworks.

Elena threw a sideways glance at the man beside her, wondering if he liked to dance. More and more she wished she were wearing something more suited to the occasion. Intercepting that look Harry smiled faintly.

'You have something on your mind?'

'Is it so obvious?'

'Your face often speaks before you do.'

'In that case I should make a wretched politician and a worse card player.'

'I fear you would.' He paused. 'However, you still haven't answered the question.'

Under that searching gaze she felt suddenly self-conscious. 'I was just thinking how long it has been since I last attended a celebration like this. I didn't realise that I had missed it.'

'The fiesta is an integral part of Spanish culture,' he replied. 'A very vibrant part too. How could you not miss it?'

'Do you enjoy such things?'

'In truth I did not get much chance to enjoy them. Duty kept getting in the way. Occasionally I was lucky though.'

'That's good. What is it that you say in your country about the consequences of always working and never taking time off?'

'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.'

'That's it.' She grinned. 'But I think you were never dull.'

'I hope not. Besides, it would be impossible to be dull in your company.'

She could not detect the least irony in his expression. On the contrary she saw something there that was remarkably like admiration.

'Would you like a cup of wine?' He gestured towards the tables that had been set up outside a small tavern.

'Why not?'

She turned to look at Concha. However, the maid shook her head. 'If you don't mind, Dona Elena, I want to look around a little more.'

'Just as you like.'

'I'll stay with her, my lady,' said Jack, 'an' see as all's well like.'

Concha gave him a haughty look. 'I am quite capable of looking after myself, Englishman.'

'Aye, I know that. It's t'other folk I'm worried about.'

She sighed. 'Very well, since you insist I suppose there's no help for it.'

'That's right, but I'll bear it as best I can.' He made an elaborate gesture with his arm. 'Shall we?'

Concha lifted her chin and muttered something under her breath as she walked past him. Jack grinned broadly and set off in her wake.

Elena laughed. 'You know, I suspect that she rather likes him.'

'You think so?' said Harry. 'I was rather under the impression that she did not.'

'She hasn't hit him or shot him. It's a positive sign.'

His lips twitched. 'You haven't hit or shot me. Am I to take that the same way?'

'You may take it as a sign of respect.'

'Respect – how very reassuring.' He poured wine into horn cups and, having handed her one, raised his own. 'Here's to continued respect.'

Elena sensed that more lay beneath those words but she drank anyway. The wine was deep red and deliciously mellow. She suspected it was also quite potent. When combined with the present company it was a heady and dangerous mix.

For a while they sat in companionable silence watching the people pass by. In spite of all that had happened she felt oddly content. Perhaps the secret was not to think too far ahead and just live in the moment.

'Do you not miss your home?' she asked.

'Sometimes. What concerns me more is to see justice done.'

'Towards the new claimant to the title?'

'If the boy really is my brother's child, then yes.'

'Do you find the claim credible?'

'The lady in question – Alicia – is pretty enough, and genteel. Her birth is respectable, if not noble. I could envisage Jamie falling in love with such a woman.'

'It was a wartime romance, no?'

'Apparently so.'

'To lose her husband so soon after marriage must have been a terrible shock for the lady. To be left alone like that with a young child cannot have been easy.'

'I don't suppose it was.'

'No doubt she will be relieved when the matter is settled,' said Elena. 'I am sure that you will find the answers you seek when we reach Seville.'

'I hope so. It would be something to put an end to all the uncertainty.' Harry toyed with his cup. 'A talk with Garrido and Sanchez should do that. Then we can all move on.'

'How will your family respond when they find out that you are married?' she asked.

'With some surprise, I expect.'

'An understatement if ever I heard one.'

He smiled faintly. 'You need not be concerned. They will welcome you into the fold.'

'You seem very certain of that. I am a foreigner, after all.'

'Such considerations would not weigh with them. Besides, your birth and education are as good as theirs and your wit better than most.'

She returned the smile. 'I have often thought that I should like to see England. My sister has told me a lot about it.'

'I hope you won't be disappointed.'

'Does it really rain as much as she says?'

'Our climate is renowned. It's why England is known as a green and pleasant land.'

'Dolores says that your lower classes are more prosperous and better educated than their Spanish counterparts. That they play a game called cricket in which they mingle with noblemen.'

'True enough. Sport tends to dissolve class barriers – for a while anyway. The finest batsman I ever saw was a village blacksmith.'

'Such a blurring of social boundaries would not happen here.'

'I imagine not.'

What Elena might have said next was unknown because Jack and Concha returned just then, both in apparently good humour.

'The dancing is about to start,' said Concha.

Elena smiled wryly. 'Will they let us join in, do you think?'

'I wasn't going to ask for permission.'

Jack grinned. 'Aye, well, saves 'em t'embarrassment of a refusal, eh?'

'From that I infer you use the same stratagem.' Concha paused, her expression speculative. 'Do Englishmen know how to dance?'

'Some do, I reckon, but I regret to say that in my case it were never a strong suit.'

'Then it's time that you learned.'

'I were thinking more of watching from here like.'

'You learn best by doing, not watching. Come.' Concha extended her hand imperiously.

He threw a look of mute appeal towards his master. Harry shook his head.

'When a lady has made up her mind argument is fruitless.'

'I swear life were never this hard in t'army.' As he caught sight of Concha's expression Jack threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender. 'All right. No need for bloodshed. I'll come quietly.'

As he and Concha went off to join the dancers Harry looked at Elena.

'Shall we join them?'

She smiled. 'Why not?'

The music and the wine on their own would have been sufficient to make her smile, but when combined with the presence of a handsome and charismatic partner they took enjoyment to another level. In spite of being a tall man Harry was a graceful dancer. Moreover he seemed familiar with most of the steps. She wondered who had taught him. Belen, perhaps? Determinedly she pushed the thought away, unwilling to spoil the evening with another impertinent question. Instead she gave herself up to the music.

Harry smiled. 'You know I had a suspicion you'd dance well. I was right.'

'You don't do so badly yourself.'

'Thank you.'

'I just wish I were more suitably attired for the occasion.'

'Clothes don't make the dancer,' he replied. 'Besides, most of the women here would be prepared to kill for your figure.'

The warm colour deepened in her cheeks. 'I'm flattered you should think so.'

'It wasn't flattery.'

The expression in the grey eyes set her heart to beating a little faster. Did he find her attractive, then? He'd shown little sign of it and she could hardly ask. Yet the thought that he might was pleasing rather than not, like the touch of his hand when the dance brought them together. It filled her with sensations she had not experienced for years and had not thought to have again.

Eventually they retired to rest awhile and presently were joined by Jack and Concha. Then they talked and drank more wine. Conversation flowed just as smoothly amid joking and laughter. It seemed to Elena that this was what Harry had meant when he spoke about the dissolution of class barriers. Her uncle would never have countenanced this for a moment. Yet it seemed right and natural somehow. On the surface of it they were an ill-assorted group whom circumstances had thrown together, yet it worked. When she spoke to Harry of respect she had meant it. She was also fast coming to like Jack Hawkes too. When things got tough he too could be relied upon to do his part.

A series of explosions drew her out of thought and she looked round quickly. A spray of coloured stars filled the sky. The fireworks had started. Realising that there wasn't the least danger, she settled back again to watch.

Her reaction had not gone unobserved and Harry smiled. This evening she had been more relaxed than he had ever seen her, more animated too, in conversation and in laughter. He had always thought her a beautiful girl but tonight it was as though some invisible restraint had been cast off. The atmosphere had touched a chord in her and, aided by the wine perhaps, had brought out the natural exuberance and sense of fun that she usually kept hidden. It was damnably alluring. She was damnably alluring, even dressed in men's clothing. Much as he'd tried to ignore the thought it refused to be banished. Just then he would have given a great deal to see her in the red gown she had worn on the evening when first they had met. For a moment he indulged the fantasy, and then mentally removed the gown altogether. The result was a coil of tension in the region of his groin. He suppressed it ruthlessly. By rights he ought not to be thinking in those terms. However, he was forced to acknowledge now that he did want it to happen. Just when that change had occurred he was unable to say; he only knew it had.

Eventually, as the hour grew late, they made their way back to the inn. Elena felt weary now but also exhilarated and pleasantly tipsy. When Harry offered her his arm she took it; somehow it seemed a natural thing to do now. They strolled in companionable silence; then he glanced her way.

'Did you enjoy yourself this evening?'

'More than I have for a long time. And you?'

'Equally,' he replied.

'I'm glad my horse cast that shoe.'

'I cannot say I'm sorry either. I did not think this journey would be so enjoyable.'

'You are kind.'

'No, just truthful.' He stopped and drew her round to face him. 'You must stop thinking of yourself as some kind of encumbrance.'

'I wish I could.'

'You have no reason to feel guilty and nor would I have you do so.'

Although his face was in shadow, she heard the sincerity in his voice. He was much closer now, his face only inches from hers, his hands resting lightly on her shoulders. Her breathing quickened. Could she trust him? She wanted to, but…

He bent his head and she felt his lips brush hers, a gentle touch that sent a charge the length of her body. Doubt receded. Involuntarily she swayed towards him, feeling his arms around her shoulders pressing her closer. The kiss, though gentle still, became a little deeper and now coaxing too, until her mouth yielded to his. The taste of wine on his tongue was headier by far than any she had drunk and it was dangerously arousing, like his warmth and the musky scent of his skin. Memory removed his clothing. Imagination pressed his nakedness to hers. Her whole body quivered in response to the thought.

Harry felt the tremor and recognised it at once. It was tempting to pursue this and give ardour free rein. Yet instinct counselled patience. Elena was apparently not repelled by his advances but she'd had quite a lot to drink this evening. Was it attraction she felt or was it the wine talking? He resolved then that when their marriage was consummated it would be when she was sober and knew exactly what she was doing. Besides, deferred gratification was always stronger. If she really did want him, then waiting would only intensify desire.

He drew back. 'Forgive me. I shouldn't have done that.'

'There's no need…I mean, it wasn't…' She broke off, floundering.

'It's all right. You don't have to explain.' He took her hand in his. 'Come. It's getting late and we have an early start.'

They walked the remaining distance in silence. Elena was glad of the darkness now that hid her embarrassment and confusion. What must he think of her? She had permitted that kiss, had wanted that kiss. What she hadn't expected was her own response. He had clearly misinterpreted it as fear. Yet just then she had no idea how to explain. And if she tried might he not take that as an invitation to further intimacies? For the first time she wondered what it might be like to give herself to him, a thought that titillated and terrified at the same time. At some point it was going to happen, that much was inevitable. He was her husband, after all, and his patience wouldn't last for ever.

Yet when they returned to their room at the inn he made no attempt to touch her, merely undressed and climbed into bed. Elena stripped off her jacket and boots, then blew out the candle before removing her breeches. In spite of his apparent absence of embarrassment she still lacked the confidence to undress in front of him. Hurriedly she slid into bed and drew the covers over her. Then she heard his voice in the darkness.

'Goodnight, sweetheart. Sleep well.'

The mattress moved as he turned away from her on to his side. Elena's throat tightened and for no apparent reason she wanted to weep.