Redemption of a Fallen Woman (Chapter Twenty-One)

Xavier Sanchez arrived punctually at eleven the following morning and was shown into the private chamber where Harry and Elena awaited him. If their visitor was surprised to see her there he recovered quickly and made his bow politely. When Harry had performed the necessary introductions and invited their guest to sit, he got straight down to business.

'Have you brought the document we discussed?'

'Of course.' Xavier reached into his coat and drew out a sheaf of folded papers. 'Everything that I related is set down here.'

Harry took the proffered papers and opened them, scanning the contents. Having done so, he nodded. 'This seems to be in order. All that remains now is to have them attested and signed under oath.'

'In good time, my lord.'

'What do you mean?'

'That there is rather more to this tale than I have told you.'

Harry frowned. 'Yesterday you affirmed that it was truth. Are you now saying that it is not?'

'By no means. It is true, as far as it goes.'

Elena darted a startled glance at Harry but he didn't see it: his attention was fixed on the man opposite, his expression steely. In that moment he reminded her of nothing so much as a hunting hawk, fierce and potentially dangerous.

'I think you had better explain that remark,' he said.

Xavier met his gaze steadily. 'There are aspects to the affair that I have no authority to divulge but, in view of the circumstances, it seemed to me that you ought to be told everything. Therefore, after you left yesterday, I went to consult my superiors.'

'Go on.'

'When I explained the situation they agreed with me.' Xavier paused. 'One of them offered to accompany me today. I think you should meet him.'

Harry's jaw tightened. 'This had better not be a trick, Sanchez.'

'No trick, my lord, only a regrettable need for caution.'

'Very well.'

'I'll bring him to you now.'

'Do that.'

As Xavier rose to leave the room, Elena looked anxiously at Harry. His anger, though controlled, was almost palpable. Underneath it all she saw the strain that he normally concealed so well, and her heart went out to him. With a sense of foreboding she wondered what more they were about to discover. Surely the prize could not be snatched away now? That would be too cruel to contemplate. She drew a deep breath and locked her hands together in her lap, forcing herself to adopt an expression of calm she was far from feeling.

In the corridor outside she heard footsteps, and then male voices, speaking low. A few moments later Xavier returned with another man, a stranger who walked with aid of a cane. He looked to be about thirty, or a little more. Taller than his companion, he was possessed of a lean, athletic build. His clothing, though serviceable, was of good quality and clearly spoke of the gentleman. The face was arresting. Undoubtedly handsome, it was at present pale and a little drawn, as though its owner had been ill and was but lately recovered, and a vivid scar marred the left cheek. Yet, with its chiselled lines and piercing grey eyes, it was eerily familiar.

For the space of several heartbeats each man took the measure of the other in silence. Then the stranger spoke.

'Hello, Harry.'

The words dropped into a well of stillness for Harry might have been turned to stone. He too was very pale, his gaze fixed on the other man's face. Then, with a visible effort, he gathered his wits and found his voice.

'Jamie?'

'Yes.'

Elena's heart seemed to miss several beats. Then, as her brain caught up with her eyes, she understood why the stranger had looked so familiar. Beside her Harry continued to stare. Gradually shock and incredulity gave way to realisation.

'Dear God! Jamie!'

He crossed the intervening space and clasped his brother by the shoulders. The warm and solid flesh beneath his hands was undoubtedly real, like the grey gaze that met his own. When he looked into his brother's eyes, the last shred of doubt vanished.

'It is you.'

That knowledge brought a surge of emotion so powerful it assumed the intensity of physical pain. Then wordlessly the two men embraced in a hearty hug. When eventually they drew back Harry looked from his brother to Sanchez.

'Why didn't you tell me before?'

'Xavier is not to blame,' said Jamie. 'He was just following orders.'

'Even so…'

'Once he learned why you were here he came to find me.'

'I should think he did.' Harry's throat felt suddenly tight. 'Why, Jamie? How could you do it?'

'It's a long story.'

Elena rose from her chair. 'You two will have much to say to each other. I'll leave you to talk.'

Harry gave her a grateful smile. She returned it and then headed for the door. Sanchez followed her.

'I'll be in the next room if you need me,' he said.

When the door closed behind them Harry turned to his brother. 'I was never happier to see anyone in my life, but, by heaven, you've got some explaining to do.'

'I know it.' His brother gestured to the chairs. 'Shall we sit down?'

In truth Harry was glad to obey. Now that the initial shock was wearing off he found himself trembling with reaction.

'Have you any idea of the heartache you've caused our family?' he demanded. 'Dear God, man! When he learned of your loss Father was beside himself. Then, when he discovered that Edward had been killed, the poor man almost lost his mind.'

Jamie's pallor intensified. 'I am truly sorry, on both counts. I didn't hear about Edward for some time after the event. Even now it's hard to believe he's gone.'

'I know. Almost every family of our acquaintance lost someone at Waterloo.'

'You were there, I collect.'

'Yes, and I hope to heaven that it's the last battle I ever see.'

'Battles take many different forms,' replied Jamie. 'Some are conducted far from the public gaze.'

'The business that engaged you, for instance?'

'Just so.'

'Well, you have a worthy ally in Sanchez,' said Harry. 'He gave a most creditable performance – each detail of your alleged death was utterly plausible.'

'It was intended to be.' Jamie glanced at the handwritten papers on the table nearby. 'However, if you look at his account again you'll find that the word death is never actually used. Nor was it when Xavier informed the authorities of my supposed accident. That is the interpretation of events that others put on them.'

Harry stared at him. However, when he thought back to the previous day's conversation it struck him that Sanchez hadn't used the word then either. He had spoken only of loss and disappearance. Harry's imagination had done the rest, as was the intention. Some of the other remarks were also ambiguous: I feel privileged to have met and worked with your brother, a man both trustworthy and likeable. At the time he'd heard only the past tense; his brain had missed the opening verb and the entire lack of one in the latter part of the statement. Admiration mingled with anger, the latter chiefly directed at himself for being gullible.

'A simple trick, but a clever one,' he said. 'Deucedly clever.'

'The simplest ideas are invariably the best.'

'I just hope it was worth it.'

Jamie continued to survey him steadily. 'You shall judge for yourself.'

'It'll make a change to hear the truth.'

'The mission to reconnoitre French troop movements was genuine, as far as it went. However, it was always intended that Xavier and I should part company at the Bidasoa River. He would go ahead and collect the necessary intelligence before returning to report the unfortunate accident, and I would be free to undertake a very different task.' Jamie paused. 'In order to succeed I had to disappear and adopt an entirely new identity.'

'You have been gone for two years. What the devil could have taken so long?'

'Initially my absence was supposed to be for a shorter time, but the matter became more and more protracted. I was following orders.'

'Are you going to tell me?'

'In outline, yes. There are some things I may not reveal.'

'Understood.'

'As you are doubtless aware, towards the end of the war the Spanish monarchists wanted to be rid of Joseph Bonaparte and see King Ferdinand restored to power.'

'Who could blame them? Bonaparte was an upstart and a usurper.'

'Quite so. However, the liberal elements wanted assurances that Ferdinand would govern in accordance with the Constitution.'

'He only ever seemed lukewarm on that score.'

'An understatement if ever there was one,' said Jamie. 'The man is a tyrant, pure and simple. Thus it was not surprising either that there should be an attempt to remove him in his turn. Intelligence got wind of it.'

'And they sent you to find out more.'

'It suited British interests to leave Ferdinand where he was,' replied Jamie. 'My task was to scotch the plan by infiltrating the group.'

'Dangerous work.'

'It almost did get me killed.'

'So I see.'

'By then though, I'd learned enough to halt their ambitions.'

'So you were successful.'

Jamie gave a mirthless smile. 'The plotters are either dead or in prison, but the most ironic aspect of the whole business is that now I wish their plan had succeeded.'

Harry frowned. 'Is Ferdinand so bad?'

'He's ruthless, vengeful and cruel, a man for whom I have come to feel nothing but contempt.'

'I see.'

'I swear to you if I'd known what he was I'd have refused the assignment.'

For a moment Harry was silent, trying to assimilate it all. 'You did what you thought was right at the time. It's all any of us can do.'

'I've given two years of my life to a cause I now detest.'

'It's easy to be wise after the event.'

Jamie sighed. 'That part of it is over at any event.'

'You mean there's more?'

'Some loose ends to tie up, let's say.'

'You're needed back in England, Jamie. Quite apart from all the emotional drama the family is in a parlous financial situation. Father made some disastrous investments a while ago and the repercussions have been considerable.'

'I had no idea.'

'How should you?'

'Is it really so bad, Harry?'

'We're like to lose everything if you don't return soon.'

'Good God!'

'Then of course there's the matter of your wife and child.'

Jamie's eyes grew wide and he looked thunderstricken. 'What are you talking about?'

'I'm talking about Alicia and Crispin, who else?'

'Alicia?' He seemed even more surprised, if that was possible. 'Alicia who?'

'Did your injuries also include loss of memory?'

'My memory serves me perfectly well. I was never married to anyone called Alicia and, to the best of my knowledge, have never sired a son either.'

Harry was suddenly very still, his mind reeling with the implications. Jamie frowned.

'Why the devil should you think otherwise?'

'Because, some months ago, that same lady arrived at Castonbury claiming to be your wife,' replied Harry. 'She's the reason I came to Spain. Until your death could be proved the inheritance could not pass to the rightful heir.'

'This woman's son, I collect.'

'Correct.'

Jamie regarded him in disbelief. 'You believed her?'

'We believed you dead, and her story was plausible.'

'What story?'

'That the two of you married in Burgos just before the push for Toulouse. You had to leave shortly after the wedding, and she didn't know then that she was with child.'

'It's arrant nonsense! What proof could she offer?'

'A wedding certificate.'

'A forgery.'

'She had your signet ring, Jamie.'

His brother's jaw tightened. 'I lost the ring. It was stolen not long before the push for Toulouse.'

'I see.'

'She must have obtained it somehow.' Jamie ran a hand through his hair. 'It's incredible.'

'It's a carefully orchestrated fraud and, I suspect, by more than one person.'

'They must have had enough detail about me to think they could get away with it. That argues it involves people whom I knew.'

'My thought too.' Harry paused. 'The woman may be using an assumed name. Did you meet an Alicia while you were serving here in Spain?'

Jamie shook his head. 'No. None of the officers' wives anyway.' Then he paused, frowning. 'Wait. There was an Alicia, a lady's companion or some such thing, attached to the household of a chap named Chambers. We attended a few of the same dinner parties.'

'Can you describe her?'

'Lord, let me think. Smallish build, blonde hair, quite pretty if that's your taste. She was well-spoken and seemed to be educated, had a refined sort of manner.'

Harry smiled grimly. 'That's her, it has to be.'

'If it's the woman I'm thinking of I'll go bail she didn't dream up this plot herself.'

'I doubt that too. All the same, she plays the part well enough.'

'Surely the family must have looked into her story.'

'Of course. Giles and Ross have made a concerted effort to find out more. It was their thought to seek out the chaplain who performed the marriage and the witnesses to the ceremony, but enquiry revealed them to be dead.'

'How very convenient.'

'Indeed. When those lines of enquiry drew a blank, they asked me to come to Spain and see what I could discover here.'

'What beats me is how this woman got hold of my ring.'

'You said it was stolen.'

'Yes. I'd been socialising with some of my fellow officers and, to be frank, we were all rather foxed. I vaguely recall getting back to my lodgings, but nothing else until I woke up next morning. It was then I discovered the ring had gone.'

'But surely none of your fellow officers would have taken it.'

'I was reluctant to think so.'

'Could someone else have come in while you slept?'

'Maybe. I can't think who though. The house had been requisitioned for military personnel.'

Harry looked thoughtful. 'Then it would seem to be the work of someone connected with the army.'

'I fought side by side with those men, shared all manner of hardship with them. It creates a bond like no other. I cannot think that one of them would have done such a thing.'

'It is hard to believe,' admitted Harry. 'But I've a strong suspicion that if we discover who took the ring we'll eventually find out who perpetrated this plot as well.'

'You've been put to a great deal of trouble on my account, Harry. I can only apologise for it.'

'You're alive. That's what matters.'

'I feel so completely out of touch with everything and there's so much I want to know.'

'Dine with us tonight and I can tell you.'

Jamie smiled faintly. 'Us?'

'I'm married now.'

'Good Lord! Congratulations!'

Harry returned the smile. 'Thank you.'

'May I ask the lady's name?'

'Elena. You met her briefly.'

'Not that lovely creature I saw earlier?'

'The same. If my wits hadn't gone begging I'd have introduced you properly.'

'Well, you'd had quite a shock.' Jamie eyed him curiously. 'When did all this come about?'

'A few months ago.'

'And you dragged your new bride the length of Spain on my account? I'm mortified.'

'It's not as you might imagine.' Harry grinned. 'I didn't meet Elena until I arrived in this country.'

'A whirlwind romance?'

'In a manner of speaking. It's another long story too.'

'I can't wait to hear this.'

He sat in silent astonishment as Harry related the essential facts regarding his meeting with and marriage to Elena. He omitted the personal detail, those things he would not share with anyone save her. All the same it was a lively and entertaining account and by the end of it Jamie's eyes gleamed.

'You're a dark horse, Harry, and no mistake.'

'You're a fine one to talk.'

'I suppose I asked for that.' Jamie grinned. 'All the same I'm sincerely pleased for you. She sounds like a marvellous girl.'

'She is, in every way.'

'The uncle is a double-dyed villain though. I'd like to run him through.'

'I'm before you there,' said Harry. 'Or I would be if it were acceptable to slay one's relations.'

'He ought to be the exception that proves the rule.'

'Undoubtedly. As it is, he escapes unscathed. Fortunately we shan't meet again in all likelihood.'

'Good riddance.'

'Enough about him. We have more important things to talk about.'

'Agreed.' Jamie paused. 'I can't tell you how good it is to see you, Harry. I feel better than I have for a long time.'

'Do your injuries still pain you?'

'Most of it is superficial. The leg's a nuisance, but it'll heal eventually.'

Looking at his brother's relative pallor, Harry guessed there was a lot more that Jamie wasn't saying but he didn't probe. If Jamie wanted him to know he'd tell him. Just then it was enough to know his brother was alive. Now that the first shock was over, it had been replaced by delight and a rising sense of excitement. He tried to imagine the reaction at Castonbury when they heard the news. Their father would be beside himself with joy and the black cloud that had hung over the future would be lifted at last. Of course, there was the matter of fraud to be exposed too, but that would keep for now.

'I'd like you to meet Elena. May I fetch her?'

'The sooner the better,' replied Jamie. 'I cannot wait to make her acquaintance.'

Harry stepped out into the corridor where he found Jack and Concha, waiting at a discreet distance. They greeted him with wide smiles.

'Dona Elena has told us the glad news, my lord,' said Concha. 'I am truly most happy for you and for your family.'

Jack nodded. 'Concha speaks for us both, my lord.'

'Thank you,' replied Harry. 'Though I suspect I have the monopoly on that emotion at present.'

'If this don't beat all, eh?'

'Indeed.' Harry glanced at adjoining door. 'Is Sanchez still here?'

'He is that, my lord.'

'I need to speak to him. In the meantime, Concha, perhaps you'd inform Lady Elena that we shall have a guest to dinner this evening.'

As the two departed, Harry went into the adjoining room where Sanchez waited. For a moment the two men faced each other in silence.

'Under other circumstances I might be angry with you,' said Harry. 'As it is, I find that impossible since my brother has been restored to me safe and well.'

'I regret that the deception was necessary, my lord.'

'I think my brother could scarcely have chosen a more worthy colleague.'

'You are gracious.'

'Not in the least. You have played your part to perfection.' Harry paused. 'There's just one thing more I'd like to know. How came you and he to be in Cadiz together?'

'It was prearranged.'

'Am I right in thinking that the two of you have been in contact for some time?'

'We never lost contact,' said Sanchez.

Another piece of the puzzle slotted into place in Harry's mind. 'You were on the same mission, which is why you disappeared too, after you had reported the accident.'

'Just so, my lord.'

'Very neat.'

Sanchez made no reply, merely surveyed him with a level gaze.

'If I need to speak with you again will I find you the same way?' asked Harry.

'Of course.'

'Then I'll say farewell for the time being.'

Sanchez inclined his head in acquiescence. Then he headed for the door, pausing briefly on the threshold. 'Hasta entonces.' With that he was gone.

Harry was distracted by the sound of a light step and looked up to see Elena. She greeted him with a smile and a warm hug, her excitement barely contained.

'I'm so pleased for you, Harry. More than I can say.'

He lifted her off the ground and swung her round before bestowing on her a resounding kiss. 'It's bloody marvellous, isn't it?'

'Never in a million years would I have expected this.'

'None of us did.' He grinned and possessed himself of her hands. 'Come, let me introduce you to my brother.'