Redemption of a Fallen Woman

By: Joanna Fulford

Chapter One

Elena Ruiz stared out of the window letting her gaze range across the rooftops of the city towards the open countryside and thence to the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, shimmering in a dusty haze. Out there, beyond the jumble of pantiled slopes and chimneys, lay freedom. It was an emotive word. Her fellow countrymen and women had spent eight long years freeing themselves from the French invaders. She had played her part in that, and gladly too. When the conflict ended she desired no more than to live a quiet country life, but such freedom was not permitted women of noble birth. For them the choice was simple: marriage or the cloister.

Betrothal had taken place in a past life when she had been a different person. Young, naive and hopeful she had never questioned her pre-ordained role. The war had seemed far off then. It had caught up with her eventually, of course. As a result marriage was out of the question. No man of good family would want her now. In any case the thought of intimacy filled her with dread. Men did not touch her and the only one foolish enough to try had found himself staring down the barrel of a pistol. Even then it took a bullet crease in his arm to convince him she wasn’t bluffing. The incident was sufficient to keep the rest at a respectful distance. Memories were another matter. By day, useful employment kept them at bay but at night the dreams still returned, less often now but no less violent for that. She would never be entirely free of those. Her hands clenched at her sides and she turned away from the window to resume her slow pacing of the floor.

Her companion surveyed her keenly. Although of a similar age to Elena, her dress revealed her to be of the household servant class. In spite of unfashionable olive skin, her face with its high cheekbones and pointed chin was not ill-looking, though the mouth was too large for conventional beauty. However, the dark eyes were shrewd and intelligent and, just now, expressive of concern.

‘What are we going to do?’

‘I don’t know, Concha, but somehow we have to get out of this house.’

‘Your uncle’s servants are vigilant.’

‘Vigilant, but not infallible. I’ll think of something.’

‘Better to think quickly, then. We have only a few days more.’

‘I will not spend the rest of my life shut away just to suit notions of family honour.’

‘If we don’t find a way out of here you may have no choice. Your uncle is powerful and, as we have already seen, he has the means to compel obedience.’

That was undeniable, Elena reflected. He had no qualms about bringing her to Madrid against her will, and he would have none about expediting the rest of his plan either. As the head of the family now it was his responsibility to guard its reputation, a duty he took most seriously, and she had become a liability.

‘I’ll think of something,’ she replied, as though repetition might make it true.

Since their arrival two days earlier she had racked her brains trying to think of a viable plan. The only person whom she knew would help her was Dolores, but her beloved older sister was married and settled in England now. She might as well have been on the moon. As for Luisa and Estefania...they were lost to her for good. Even after four years the memory was still painful and she pushed it aside, along with all the others pertaining to that time. The past was done with, and if she didn’t put her mind to the present problem the future would be irrevocably blighted too.

‘At least you are not without means,’ said Concha.

‘Money is not the problem. There’s enough and to spare, but it will be no use unless we can get out of Madrid.’

‘If...when...we do leave, your uncle is certain to mount a search.’

‘We’ll worry about that when the time comes,’ said Elena. ‘In the meantime we must not give any reason for suspicion. Being under house arrest is bad enough. I don’t want to be locked in my room as well.’

Concha nodded. ‘You are right. Let it be thought that you are becoming resigned to your uncle’s will.’

‘Exactly.’ Elena made a vague gesture with her hands. ‘I have no wish to be at odds with him, or any other member of my family, but as it is...there’s no choice now.’

The sound of iron-rimmed wheels and horses’ hooves distracted her momentarily and she glanced out of the window to the street below to see a carriage approaching. Instead of driving past as she expected it stopped outside the house. To judge by the heavily sweating horses and the dust on the bodywork the vehicle had travelled some way. All the same, under the grime, it was a handsome equipage and certainly the property of a nobleman.

As she watched, a servant jumped down to open the door and let down the steps. A single passenger emerged, a gentleman, very elegantly dressed. He paused on the paved walkway and glanced up at the house. Elena caught her breath. Problems temporarily forgotten, she stared, arrested by a face in which strong lines accentuated the chiselled planes of cheek and nose and jaw. The hair visible below his hat was dark. He seemed to be tall too, certainly much taller than the servant with him, and carried himself with the air of one used to command.

Concha came to join her by the window and now stared in her turn. ‘Dios mio! Who is that?’

‘I don’t know. One of my uncle’s acquaintances from the embassy, perhaps?’

‘I imagined all his acquaintances must be old and ugly but I take it back now—unreservedly.’

They had no time for further observation because the unknown caller entered the house and was lost to view. Elena turned away from the window. She must be in more mental turmoil than she’d realised to be staring so at a complete stranger. Men were of no interest other than in a purely professional capacity. Besides, as things stood, she couldn’t afford to let herself become distracted, even briefly. All her thoughts had to focus on a means of escape.

* * *

Having presented his credentials, Harry Montague waited in the marbled hallway. It was cool and quiet in here, a welcome relief from the jolting rhythm and stifling heat of the carriage. He had almost forgotten the power of the Spanish sun. Forgetting had been deliberate and, mostly, successful, though he had been aided in that by work. Spain was a land of contrasts—a beautiful and blood-soaked land that was associated with some of the best and all of the worst days of his life. When the war had concluded he hadn’t expected that he would ever return, would never have chosen to—until circumstances made it imperative.

One swift glance around at the elegant furnishings was sufficient to suggest that the man he had come to see was both wealthy and possessed of impeccable taste. Whether he would be able to help as well remained to be seen. Coming here might be a fool’s errand but he had to try. He had promised his cousin Ross. Besides, the revelations of their last conversation were burned into his brain. Until then he’d had no idea how seriously compromised the family’s financial situation was. If he couldn’t obtain the proof he needed about Jamie’s death... He pulled himself up sharply. He would get the proof, one way or another.

Presently, the servant returned. ‘Don Manuel will receive you now, se?or.’

Harry was shown into a downstairs salón, also elegantly furnished, where his host was waiting. Don Manuel Urbieta was in his middle years, his thinning hair more grey than dark, like the neat goatee beard he wore. Though slightly above average height, he was still several inches shorter than his visitor. For all that he had the proud, upright bearing that proclaimed a grandee of the hidalgo class.

When the necessary courtesies had been observed the don invited Harry to sit and, having plied him with liquid refreshment, took the chair opposite.

‘Now, my lord, won’t you tell me how I can be of service?’

Harry nodded. ‘I have come to Spain on urgent family business. It concerns my elder brother, James. He served with the British army during the war, but he was lost during the push into France.’

‘I am sorry to hear it.’

‘He was apparently swept away while crossing a flooded river.’

‘Apparently?’

‘My brother’s body was never found. The news of his death was by report only. The only witness, a man called Xavier Sanchez, disappeared shortly afterwards.’

‘I see.’

‘I made enquiries at the time, but the situation was chaotic and all attention was on the push for Toulouse. No one at headquarters was able to tell me very much, giving only the briefest account of the accident. When I tried to find the witness he had vanished too. It was like being confronted by a stone wall.’

Don Manuel eyed him shrewdly. ‘I think you have some doubts about this matter, no?’

Harry nodded. ‘There are questions in my mind, although they may just be the result of wishful thinking.’ He paused. ‘In the first place, my brother was an excellent swimmer. In the second, he worked for the Intelligence Service.’

‘Interesting.’

‘As time went on and we had no word, the family lost hope and assumed the worst. However, not long ago we received a letter from a solicitor, acting on behalf of a lady who claims to be Jamie’s wife. This lady has a young child, a son....’

Understanding dawned on Don Manuel’s face. ‘And this son stands to inherit the title if his claim proves to be legitimate.’

‘Exactly so.’

‘Have you reason to doubt this lady’s story?’

‘She may be what she claims.’

‘But you have reservations.’

‘I’m trying to keep an open mind. In view of the circumstances though, it is essential that I discover the truth.’

‘That is quite understandable.’ Don Manuel set down his glass. ‘I have contacts in the Intelligence Service here. They may be able to help. I will see what I can find out.’

‘I would be most grateful.’

‘In the meantime let me offer you the hospitality of my house.’

‘You are most generous, but I couldn’t possibly impose on you in that way.’

‘Nonsense. It will be my pleasure. Mi casa es su casa.’

‘Then I accept.’

‘Good. That’s settled, then.’ The don rose. ‘A room will be readied on the instant. Then, after you have rested from your journey, we will dine.’

* * *

The chamber to which Harry was later conducted proved to be large and comfortable. It was a courtesy he had not expected and, he admitted, far better than anything he would have met with at an inn. After the rigours of travel it would be a luxury to sleep in a decent bed again. He shrugged off his coat and then sat down to remove his boots, glancing across the room to where his manservant was unpacking a trunk.

‘I’d like to bathe if that can be arranged, Jack.’

Jack Hawkes looked up and nodded. ‘I thought you might, so I took t’liberty of bespeaking a bath for you, my lord.’

‘Wonderful. I’m beginning to smell rank.’

‘I reckon we’ve both smelt far worse.’

Harry grinned. ‘True enough.’ He tugged off a boot and then set to work on the other. ‘All the same, we’re not on campaign now and I’m not sitting down to dine in polite company until I’ve washed off all the dust.’

‘Aye, t’roads haven’t improved much since we left, have they?’

‘Unfortunately not.’ The other boot came off and Harry began to loosen his neck cloth. ‘Still, we’re here now and if there is any evidence of what happened to my brother this is where it’ll be.’

‘Let’s hope summat comes to light soon, then, my lord.’

Relaxing in the tub soon afterwards, Harry wholeheartedly endorsed that sentiment. Coming here was a long shot but it had to be done. One way or another, the doubt must be resolved. He hadn’t realised until then just how far he had been keeping hope alive. If anyone could find the information he needed it would be Don Manuel and, indeed, the man had shown himself to be a model of courtesy thus far. With his help Harry would find the answers he sought.

On the practical side there was Jack Hawkes. Ordinarily no manservant would have dreamed of or been permitted to address his master with such easy familiarity. But then, Harry reflected, there was nothing remotely ordinary about him. War formed a bond between men and, as a former member of Harry’s company during the Peninsular War, Hawkes had proved his worth a hundred times over. When the war ended and the force was demobilised he’d stayed on in the capacity of personal valet. Harry was glad of it; there were few men who were as discreet and none he trusted more.

As he dried himself and dressed he wondered whether there would be other company at dinner that evening. He had assumed that Don Manuel was married but had no idea if the wife was still living, or whether there were other relatives in the household. On arrival earlier he thought he had detected someone at an upstairs window, but the angle of view and the reflection on the glass made it hard to be sure. It would be interesting to find out.

* * *

Concha finished fastening her mistress’s gown and then stepped back, eyeing it critically. ‘It looks well, but...is red the best choice, under the circumstances?’

‘Under the circumstances it’s the only choice.’

‘I thought you would say that.’ The maid smiled wryly. ‘Your aunts won’t like it.’

‘They disapprove of me anyway. Besides, virginal white would be inappropriate now.’ Elena glanced at the clock and sighed. ‘I wish I didn’t have to go down there. The thought of another meal in that company has no appeal whatever.’

‘I know. All the same, it will be better if you do.’

‘Lull them into a sense of false security, you mean?’

‘If you appear to be following domestic protocols they are less likely to suspect anything. Then, when you have conceived your plan, they will be taken by surprise.’

Elena thought she could probably manage the protocols part, but the plan was another matter. In spite of racking her brains for a solution she had still not come up with anything feasible.

‘I’d better go. Wish me luck.’

‘Always,’ said Concha.

Elena squeezed her arm gently and smiled. Then, taking a deep breath, she headed for the door.

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